Sunday, 6 September 2015

Budapest Diary 31 August - 6 September (2)
Kecskemét days: Wine, women and song

We have another Hungarian theoretical mathematical friend, J, who works in the genetics department of the botanical institute at our local university. We were introduced to him by a mutual friend a couple of years ago and we have had a number of thorough discussions since. He is fascinated by poetry and language and is seeking to connect his mathematical research with his love of poetry. It is Hungarian poetry of course because that is what he has grown up with. He is also - for very similar reasons  - interested in translation.

He went to school in Kecskemét and is in regular touch with a group of his school mates there who have all gone on to conspicuous careers in various fields. Last year he invited us to a dinner at his Norwich house to meet them and their partners and we conducted a conversation - in Hungarian as best I could - about translation. It was a lovely friendly occasion, the light dying as we talked on.

Wherever else I am invited in the world I am invited as a poet. It is perhaps inevitable that when I come to Hungary that I should be treated first and foremost as a translator. Oh yes, he is a poet, people say, but the important thing is that he is translating us, what we love, what we feel. And should I win a prize or so in the field I become all the more interesting in that respect. It is an odd feeling. I resent it sometimes. An interviewer here (a very nice man) recently asked whether I wrote poems too. I dislike it because answering it or even responding to it makes me feel petty and prissy.  I feel a little petty and prissy just noting this.

On this occasion J and his wife, Z invited us to two days in Kecskemét entirely at their own expense. A night in a lovely pensione, meals, wine-tasting, friends, and a visit to a tanya or homestead, a smallholding which, for the small tenant farmer, is a lifeline; for the city-dweling professional a summer dacha. But also a continuation of the Norwich discussion with the same friends.

This was most kind, though as it turned out J was thinking in terms of something bigger than our Norwich conversation, more a public event (including the local friends) on the rough theme of Genes and Memes in language. There would be an interview for local television, who would also record the conversation. Being self-conscious of my limits in Hungarian I told him I was not quite prepared for a technical conversation on scientific concepts of language and translation, so he downsized the event a little shortly before we arrived.

We drove down on the morning of the 2 September and established ourselves at the pensione before setting of on a walk round town. Kecskemét is a country city about an hour or more away from Budapest, on the Great Hungarian Lowland. It is the eighth biggest city in the country (which makes it smaller than 'Hungarian' London) but it doesn't feel like a city at all, not at least in the centre. It is more like a comfortable, quiet, genteel town with a fine sprinkling of art nouveau architecture (see last link), big laid out squares, and streets with glazed ceramic cobbles. It is friendly, peaceful, amiable, leisurely, a less urban Bath or York - or even Norwich. We walked round the city hall, stopped for lunch, and rested before going down to the library where the conversation was to take place.

First the TV interview then the event. Some twenty five or so people. I managed all right in Hungarian though I am not sure that 'genes and memes' was fully descriptive of what we talked about. It was more about translation as an activity and some games translating sayings from one language to another. My own New Proverbs of Hell (from Notes on the Inner City) provided a few challenges. It was good humoured, gentle and, it seems, entertaining. Whether it went any way to established connections between mathematics, poetry and translation is uncertain.

Then the wine-tasting. One of the company, once a high tax official and government adviser until he got fed up of the politics, was a great wine expert and was full of splendid analogies as we worked our way through the six wines of his choice, while nibbling and chatting in the dark.  It was late by the time we walked back.

We did more walking around the next day and visited the Gallery of Naive Art and the Toy Museum, both on the same site, both officially open but needing a call to the caretaker lady to physically open the buildings. Both were fascinating but I will write a separate post on them.

In the evening we drove out to the tanya deep in the country. Our host had already downed a few pálinkas and was very welcoming. A skittle game somewhat like petanque was set up on the grass and four of us started playing, Clarissa and our host again J and I. Little by little the rest of the party arrived until there were ten of us. The pálinka kept flowing. The wine expert friend had promised to cook us the best non-vegetarian lecsó of our lives and did so outside on an open wood fire in a great cauldron. The women laid out the rest of the table, the game was declared a draw, and we sat down to eat.

Afterwards we lit a camp fire and the singing started. It was led by the men and consisted almost entirely of love songs romantic, lyrical, melancholy and bawdy, addressed by the man to the woman. Life in Hungary can be like that. It is unreconstructed. The wine analogies were mostly in terms of various beautiful women ("this one seems like a plain typist, very competent, very nice, but at a certain time of day the sunlight strikes her just so and she is suddenly transformed"). The singing goes on a long time. Everyone knows the songs: old gypsy airs, old poems set to tunes, cabaret pieces. Some are comic some are tragic: they have similar melodic and harmonic structures. One person strikes up, the rest join in.

The male-female communal relationship is not so clearly defined in intellectual circles but outside them it is. Men talk, women chip in. The men laugh, the women are demure. That's in mixed company. Then the sun goes down, the fire dies and the only light is in the cottage that constitutes the heart of the tanya. We have hardly been in there. We drive back down the country road and join the highway.

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