Rainy weather reading

pexels-photo

The rainy season is in full swing in California, and I have been taking advantage of the weather to snuggle up with some great books. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

  • Ces enfants de ma vie, by Gabrielle Roy – This French collection of related tales starts out slowly with some shorter stories, but keep with it! It builds into longer, more personal tales of life as a young teacher in remote areas of 1930’s Canada. We read this for our local book club, and those of us who finished it could not stop talking about the ending. The sweet descriptions of the Canadian landscape are a great touch to help you embrace the colder seasons, too.
  • Hocus Pocus, by Kurt Vonnegut – The story of a war veteran who teaches at a college for the disabled, then at the prison across the lake, and survives the takeover of the town when the inmates escape (among other things). It hits a bit close to home in the current American political climate, but Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. Perfect if you like witty, sometimes dark humor.
  • Pacsirta, by Dezső Kosztolányi – For those of you who read Hungarian, I loved this description of a family experiencing temporary empty-nesting when a couple’s daughter visits cousins out of town. Plenty of laughs, with enough substantive food for thought to keep you hooked. And there’s no sappy Disney ending.
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard – I am still working on this piece of non-fiction. Teddy Roosevelt was a total character with huge capacity for persistence. This book documents the trip he took after losing his bid for a third presidential term, down the Amazon with his son Kermit. They faced disease, death, and even murder. Fascinating!

What are you reading lately? Can you recommend any favorite authors? Share in the comments below!

Written art from Hungary

Happy St. Stephen’s Day! In celebration of this important Hungarian holiday, I’ve found a local entrepreneur to share a bit of Hungarian culture with you. Enjoy!

írásos pillows from ThreadWritten textilesHungary holds a rich tradition of textiles, including ornate and diverse embroidery work.  There are over 20 styles of Hungarian embroidery. Most include floral motifs in geometric patterns, and the majority of patterns are linear and symmetrical. Kalocsa, Matyó, and Kalotaszeg are some of the most well-known styles. I’d like to share some information about Hungarian Kalotaszeg írásos from Transylvania.

Írásos, “written” in Hungarian, received its name from the process of writing or drawing the pattern on the fabric before stitching. Similar to crewel work, the stitching creates a raised line, traditionally done on linen. Whereas British crewelwork uses wool thread, Hungarian írásos is made with cotton thread. The stitch itself resembles a double chain stitch.

blue Kalotaszeg írásos

Írásos are stitched in all one color, red, blue, white, or black. Red symbolizes youth and health, blue stands for adulthood, maturity, and wisdom, and black for mourning. Patterns were based on Renaissance and Baroque flowers and flourishes. The symmetry, full compositions that cover the space, and connecting vines and leaves were inspired by Persian Islamic art.

Women have sewn tapestries to commemorate births, graduations, and weddings in their families and for gifts to their church community, as well as pillowcases and tablecloths. Linens for the home were originally sewn as part of dowries. The written style was not traditionally made for clothing.

The style developed in the 1700s and became well-known internationally in the late 1800s and early 20th century, due to Kalotaszeg woman Gyarmathy Zsigáné, who promoted the embroidery in exhibitions in Brussels, Vienna, and St. Louis. Composer Béla Bartok collected textiles from the region in the early 1900s while recording folk music that influenced his work. Anthropologists and textile enthusiasts have since treasured Kalotaszeg írásos.

woman sewing in the Kalotaszeg style

Fewer and fewer women have been practicing the craft over the last 50 years. Today, apart from museums, one can find Kalotaszeg embroidery in the Hungarian Calvinist churches and the formal rooms in women’s homes. Some pieces are for sale at the market but they are often of lesser quality, stitched quickly to make money. The practice is disappearing due to the long, meticulous labor required and the pull of modern life.

Like many organizations around the world promoting ethnic textiles and traditions, ThreadWritten Textiles supports Kalotaszeg írásos and the women who still practice this beautiful craft. ThreadWritten makes modern bags and home décor that combine traditional embroidery with contemporary design using fair trade principles.

About the Author

Sarah Pedlow is the owner and designer at ThreadWritten Textiles, a Bay Area business that aims to support women artisans, their communities and cultures, by paying fair trade wages, preserving the integrity of traditional styles and techniques within contemporary designs, and educating consumers about lesser-known crafts that are disappearing. She currently focuses on the work of artists from Transylvania, meaning parts of Romania with a strong Hungarian cultural heritage.

She holds an MFA in Visual Arts from Rutgers University and a BA in Studio Art and French Studies from Scripps College. Her fine art work has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe. Visit www.threadwrittentextiles.com to learn more about the women and visit the shop.  New bag designs are now in production!

Election law in Hungary

Hungary’s election law has been a major headline in non-Hungarian publications this year, beginning with political commentary leading up to the April 6 election, and now with analysis of what may have contributed to the results.

The Economist offers a decent summary of the controversies and results here. You can read the Reuters article here.

Hungarian flag on Parliament building, Budapest

In brief, the incumbent (and now re-elected) PM Viktor Orbán, in cooperation with the Hungarian government, has introduced major changes to the Hungarian Constitution over the last four years, including changes to the electoral system and voter zoning. These last changes, which reduced the overall number of seats in Parliament and instituted a one-round election process (cut down from two rounds), have been called gerrymandering by a large opposition.

The opposition continues to fight the changes in the electoral system and the results of the April 6 election. Others are just happy that the far-right (racist) party Jobbik only managed to place third in terms of seats in Parliament, with the Socialist party sneaking past for second place.

Since I’m not a Hungarian citizen, nor am I Hungarian by birth or blood, it’s not my place to comment on these facts. I have Hungarian friends who are furious about the results, and I have Hungarian friends who are indifferent or satisfied with the results.

The important thing is to note the research that shows that Orbán likely wouldn’t have won the election using the previous arrangement of the election system—even though the new system is similar to one suggested by international bodies that felt the old system wasn’t sufficiently transparent. Monitors of the election considered it fairly conducted, but voiced reservations about the fairness in light of the legal changes that took place.

What legal/political events have occurred in your source-language country lately? How have changes in law affected it? Did you know about this major Hungarian event?

 

Little-big cultural differences

feet vs meters = culture clash

It’s always fun to hear of the tiny, non-serious quibbles one cultural group has about another. Particularly if you’re watching the clash unfold in person. The looks of confusion on both sets of faces is priceless! And they’re good reminders to never take yourself, or your habits and expectations, too seriously.

These are some of my recent favorites:

  • Hungarian women at the Folklife Festival were horrified by how pale the yolks were in the eggs they used for cooking demonstrations. And don’t even get me started on the potatoes… Inferior! (I had never thought about potatoes that way before… have you?)
  • When I interned at a small tech office near Paris, my coworkers considered it of monumental importance that everyone take a minimum one-hour lunch, preferably together. With cocktails. Have you ever tried the same experiment in the States? Heathen hedonist!
  • A non-American mother was incredibly confused about why her son should write anything during his American high school gym class. Writing’s not a sport… right?
  • Here in my own home, my DC-native husband has had a fun time adjusting to the California lifestyle. Driving à la DC is a particularly difficult habit to drop. Myself, I’m just getting used to the emphasis on meat-and-beer menus. Who would have expected that in Cali?!

What minor culture clashes have you experienced recently? Share your own examples in the comments!

Word of the day: Szilveszter

Happy new year!

Gellért Hotel New Year's banner 2013

Banner for a New Year (Szilveszter) celebration in Budapest.

Szilveszter: Hungarian word for Day 7 of the 12 days of Christmas, or December 31st. The feast of Saint Sylvester, an obscure but important 4th-century pope. He played a major role in the building of many now-famous Roman cathedrals and churches, and also in establishing a balance of power between the Church and the Emperor. December 31st marks the day of his burial.

In Scotland this day is known as Hogmanay. In Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, New Years Eve is still referred to as Silvester.

Startups in Europe, or Paris v. Budapest

LeWeb Paris 2013

This article about Xavier Niel and the current LeWeb conference recently caught my attention, because to me it signals a new fight between Paris and Budapest. Which capital city will also claim the title of startup capital of Europe?

Way back in June, I sat in on a talk with the Hungarian Minister of State for Economic Strategy, Mr. Zoltán Cséfalvay. (You can watch the hour-long discussion here.) He explained that the goal of current economic policy in Hungary is to entice companies to set up shop in Budapest and other major Hungarian cities. Incubators and helpful legislation make it a low-cost environment for young businesses—not to mention that Hungarians are some of the best educated people around.

This is incredibly important to Hungary for broader political reasons. IMF and EU pressure on the nation was only recently lifted, once the budget deficit dropped below the 3% threshold; Hungary only managed to make that happen through some tricky, one-time-use maneuvers and severe austerity measures. In order to stay under that 3% threshold, the nation will have to increase its income. Expenses have already been slashed to the bare necessities.

So, in one corner, we have a nation as a whole that has been vying for position as startup-company leader—and sees the status as an only-hope kind of deal. In the other corner, we have France, already “the fifth-largest economy in the world” (according to Niel, as quoted here), trying to stay that way through the efforts of a few companies and billionaires.

plant sprouting from coins

If I had any money to bet, I’d be backing Hungary. The Central European nation has a history of producing talented science and technology innovators, whereas in Western Europe they are scrambling to train people to fill current positions. It offers lower-cost options for location, production, and staff than a Euro-based nation can. And it’s more invested in the startups’ successes, because of the immediate benefits that could have for the nation as a whole.

What do you think? Have you heard much about the Hungarian startup scene? Or the French one? Will having a “startup capital” benefit new companies?

Hungarian humor

When I was first learning Hungarian, jokes were part of my daily information “diet.” The local paper ran a few in the lifestyle section every day beside its lone comic strip (Garfield). My host dad (“Apa”) listened every night while I read the jokes out loud, then worked through the punch lines with me. Sometimes they made me cringe. Sometimes they made me guffaw. It was always a ritual I enjoyed.

I’ve hesitated some in broaching this topic, because mainstream Hungarian humor is not what an American audience would typically find outside of a dingy comedy club. Hungarian jokes often poke fun at two major topics: money and sex. However non-PC, though, they do get used to great comic effect.

Apa recently sent me a new joke, since I was having trouble getting them through the online version of the paper. It’s great for a grown-up belly laugh. So, for your cultural edification and towards a happy Friday after this week’s more serious culture note, here it is in translation:

The Photographer

The Smith family had waited many years for a pregnancy, and with the “deadline” approaching, they made the difficult decision to find a surrogate father. On the big day, Mrs. Smith nervously awaited the candidate. Meanwhile, a door-to-door photographer knocked, hoping to find a bit of work. Mrs. Smith opened the door.
photographer clip art
“Good morning, ma’am, I came…”
“Oh, I know why you came. I’ve been waiting for you!” Mrs. Smith said.
“Really?” said the surprised photographer. “Great. Children are my specialty, you know.”
“My husband and I counted on that. Come in and take a seat!”

Mrs. Smith quickly broached the subject:

“So, where do we begin?”
“Leave it all to me! I think a couple in the bathtub, one on the couch, and maybe a few on the bed. But the living room could be fun, too.”
“The bathtub? The living room? No wonder it hasn’t worked for my husband so far.”
“Well, ma’am, no one knows how to produce quality products in every field. But if we try a few positions, from different angles, I’m sure you will be satisfied with the results.”
“Goodness, that’s a lot,” Mrs. Smith said, catching her breath.
“Ma’am, in my line of work, one has to devote a lot of time to the job. I could do it in under five minutes too, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be fully satisifed.”
“Hmm, I guess so…” Mrs. Smith mumbled.

The photographer picked up his bag and pulled out a set of his most successful photos. He showed her the first.

“Just look, I did this one in central London on the roof of a bus!”
“Goodness!” exclaimed Mrs. Smith, covering her mouth with her hand.

“And these twins came out pretty good, though their mother made it rather difficult for me.”
“Difficult?”
“Yes. In the end, we had to go out to Hyde Park, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. You can imagine how difficult it was there surrounded by so many people. So many came by, they were shoving each other around four or five rows deep.”
“Four or five rows?” Mrs. Smith asked, eyes wide open.
“Yes,” the photographer answered. “Their mother was very upset. She shrieked constantly for three straight hours. You can imagine how difficult it was for me to concentrate. Then it started to get dark, and so in the end I had to rush to get a shot off. When the squirrels started to nibble at my equipment, I packed up and went home.”

squirrel thinking of acorn
“Say, did they really nibble on your… umm… equipment?” Mrs. Smith asked, leaning in a bit.
“Yes, really. Well, ma’am, if you’re ready, I’ll pull out my tripod.”
“Tripod?”
“Of course. I need it—my equipment is too big for me to hold up too long. Ma’am? Ma’am? Whoa, did she faint?”

 

Ha! What good jokes have you come across recently? How does the humor translate, in your opinion?

Hungarian National Day

October 23rd marks the anniversary of the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary.

In their own words (my translation below):

Az 1956-os forradalom Magyarország népének a sztálinista diktatúra elleni forradalma és a szovjet meg­szállás ellen folytatott szabadságharca, amely a 20. századi magyar történelem egyik legmeghatározóbb eseménye volt. A budapesti diákok békés tün­te­té­sével kezdődött 1956. október 23-án, és a fegyveres felkelők ellenállásának felmorzsolásával feje­ződött be november 10-én.

Az október 23-i budapesti tömegtüntetés a kommunista pártvezetés ellenséges reakciója és a fegyvertelen tömegre leadott véres sortűz következtében még aznap éjjel fegyveres felkeléssé nőtt. Ez a kormány bukásához, a szovjet csapatok visszavonulásához, majd a többpártrendszer visszaállításához és az ország demokratikus átalakulásához vezetett. November első napjaiban az új kormány megkezdte a tárgyalásokat a Szovjetunióval a szovjet csapatok teljes kivonásáról, a Varsói Szerződésből való kilépésről és az ország semlegességéről. A szovjet politikai vezetés azonban a kezdeti hajlandóság után meggondolta magát, és miután a nyugati nagyhatalmak biztosították arról, hogy nem nyújtanak a magyar kormánynak segítséget, november 4-én a szovjet csapatok hadüzenet nélküli háborút indítottak Magyarország ellen. Az aránytalan túlerővel szemben egyedül maradt ország több napon át folytatott szabadságharca így végül elbukott.

The 1956 revolution was the Hungarian people’s revolt against the Stalinist dictatorship and their fight for freedom from Soviet occupation, one of the most defining moments of 20th-century Hungarian history. The peaceful demonstrations by Budapest students began on October 23, 1956, and ended with the disbanding of armed rebel resistance on November 10th.

The October 23rd mass demonstration in Budapest was held in reaction to Communist leadership. The bloody volley shot into the unarmed crowd resulted in the overnight growth of an armed uprising. This led to the fall of the government, the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and later the return to a multi-party system, as well as the nation’s transformation to a democracy. In the first days of November, the new government began negotiations with the Soviet Union for the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops, secession from the Warsaw Pact, and the country’s neutrality. However, after initial leanings towards this, Soviet political leadership changed its mind. Once the large Western powers confirmed they would not aid the Hungarian government, Soviet troops launched an undeclared war against Hungary. Left alone to face the disproportionately powerful opponent, the country struggled for freedom for several days only to fail.

Thus, I cannot wish you a happy Hungarian National Day, but I do wish you a reflective day to think about the courage shown by that generation of Hungarians. In a similar situation, would you have the strength to protest?

For further reading on this subject and other events in Hungarian history:

Hungarian Spectrum (blog)

Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (book)

Will to Survive: A History of Hungary (book)

The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat (book)

Children of Glory / Szabadság, szerelem (film)

Boldog Szent István napját!

Fireworks in BudapestHappy Saint Stephen’s Day! Today in the year 1000, Stephen I was crowned the first king of Hungary. He dedicated the crown, sent by Pope Silvester II with the consent of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, to the virgin Mary. This event marked the rise of Christianity in Hungary—and its independence from the Roman Empire.

Today is a national holiday in Hungary. Eat, drink, and be merry!

Photo credit: 450Davide / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Hungarian Heritage event at the Smithsonian

I’m very busy this week preparing for the Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The festivities officially begin tomorrow (though I have it on good word that if you stop by the National Mall today, you can watch rehearsals). The Hungarian section is located in front of the American History Museum. I’ll be there from 10am to 6pm Wednesday through Friday, and Sunday as well, helping guests and artists interact and discuss Hungarian culture.

If you’re in DC, do stop by! I’d love to see you in person.

The festival promises to be quite exciting for hungarophiles—dancing, singing, crafting, and cooking. When I lived in Hungary, many of my high-school-aged friends were heavily involved in folkdance groups. We also had several dances at the community center in my village. It’s a sight and sound I’ve missed. And it will certainly be a wonderful opportunity to nosh on paprikás and pálacsinta. Since I can’t make it back to Hungary this year, I’m thrilled to have it come to me instead.

Now, after so many long days outside in a big crowd, I will need a week-long vacation to reset. That’s just my nature. Please excuse the silence; I’ll be back mid-July with more to say!