We’re Open!

Monday, April 21st, 2014

We are now open and available for rent!

You can find us on Airbnb. Our ID number is 2764708.

The price should show your currency if all is working properly.

Our kitchen

Our kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have really enjoyed fixing this place up and we hope you like it to.

The White Room

The White Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come enjoy all Budapest & Hungary have to offer.

The Green Room

The Green Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We look forward to hearing from you!

The Living Room

The Living Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come see us already!

Wardrobe palimpsest

Sunday, April 6th, 2014
(*The author is a certified madm… medievalist)

A palimpsest is a manuscript page from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that it can be used again. Medievalists do like to stick stuff under UV to see if there are any traces that have been scraped off, because long-dead people may have had intentions to make things disappear for whatever reason, but we are nosy buggers and just don’t care.

Now the word palimpsest is, of course, used for everything in postmodern scientific discourse, so I feel emboldened to borrow it for the situation that arose when I applied woodworm treatment solution to our new-old wardrobe at Chez Street & River.

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Although the term ‘woodworm treatment’ may sound like woodworms were given a spa experience, my aim was quite the opposite. Whatever the motivation for and the outcome of the woodworm treatment was, the solution also brought special moments of joy to our historian heart. As the water-based wash was applied, old notes became visible on the inside of the wardrobe door. Even though they are just names and addresses, and most of them are illegible, we thought it was so cool that photos were taken for sharing. And the best thing is, I don’t even have to infer the possible date from the handwriting or find some clues, as one of the more legible scribblings clearly gives us a date: 28 July 1941!

We also know that at some point there were 18 preserve jars, 4 pickle jars and 30 (?) unknown types in or around the wardrobe. These things may not be important, but it’s perhaps worth a moment to stop and think of those long-gone days, fruit-ripening hot summers and old grandmothers thinking of preserve jars as the World War is tearing up Europe around them.

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Meanwhile, on 28 July 1941, Japanese troops began occupying southern French Indochina and Mittie Stephens Cobb was planting marigolds in Oklahoma.

I kind of want to scribble something on the inside of my bookshelves now, but I’m afraid they are really far from anything that anyone would want to refurbish 80 years from now. Plus what would I write?

What would you write?

Busy busy busy!

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Light at the end of the tunnel (hopefully it’s not an oncoming train). The builder dudes are now gone, and it’s our turn now to dress up the flat they built for us. The mysterious pictures below are just little snapshots from the accelerating project, as we are meticulously piecing together the best little pied-à-terre in town.

New year, new colour

New year, new colour

Waiting for your suitcase...

Waiting for your suitcase…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prepared for all eventualities

Prepared for all eventualities

Medieval torture devices at your service

Medieval torture devices at your service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are last-minute snags, such as our upstairs neighbour slowly moisturising our freshly painted bathroom ceiling with a neglected leak and other minor headaches. Naturally, it would be cool if these just decided to stop coming along on our fun-filled journey of property development. But I must say we were lucky to find the perfect flat and good peeps to work with so we really do not have much to complain about so far. Or maybe we are doing something right.
Amen.

In the meantime, the business side of things is picking up too, so no rest for the wicked. While we instruct joiners and hunt down the last bits of missing furniture for our own property, Street & River’s property consulting grew from passion into a solid job. We have developed our independent property consultancy service, which keeps us proper busy and very happy, as we like nothing more than snooping at other people’s homes.

Remember the post when I was going on about mops and ladders? Here’s a good one.

27 Bathroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joke aside, we basically offer to be the eyes, ears and mouth for foreigners and expats who don’t speak the language, feel daunted by the task of buying a flat in Budapest, or just simply can’t be here to do the legwork. It’s so much fun! Two of our clients are about to seal their deals, which is very exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Deák Bill in Review

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

After writing that last blog post about some strands of Hungarian music, I actually got out and about and caught Deák Bill and his band at the Old Man’s Music Pub near Blaha Lujza square.

As soon as I walked in, I spotted Bill sitting at a table with friends. He’s easy to find in a crowd with his tell-tale crutch sticking up above peoples’ heads. The pub itself is a decent size. It serves as a restaurant as well, with table service up until 23:00 hours. The food looked good and smelled nice. The only oddity about this was that the waiters offered bar to table service for drinks to dining customers, but the hungry folks had to slug it out English style in order to get to the bar. It was worth it considering a nice pint of Soproni was only 550 forints.

As for the show itself, I had a great time, and it was much louder than I expected (earplugs required in my opinion). Bill had a young band with him consisting of drums, guitar, bass and a pretty sweet sounding keyboard. I would say they fall more into rock than blues, but wherever that argument leads, Bill can sing and the people love him. His voice is a bit rough at times, but he’s got some serious force behind it, and again, the people love him.

One young man behind me shouted “Bill a király!” after every song. This was followed by a whoop-whoop of sorts. It wasn’t anything awful, but it was a bit close to my ear. After about 20 of these, I turned and looked at the young man. Just remember that he probably spoke no English, and my Hungarian is just a little bit broken. Also, we didn’t speak to each other, but when he smiled, the look on his face said something like ‘You know I’m right, right?’. It was a pretty funny moment in the evening’s festivities. All I could do was smile back at him and nod my head in agreement.

Besides more than a fair share of Hungarian songs, they played Hungarianized versions of Hey Joe & Johnny B. Goode. At one point, people were shouting out requests. Bill replied with ‘Nem szabad’. This means not allowed. My inside sources say this was probably in response to a request for the Transylvania national anthem or something else suitably controversial. That sort of request is a sticky situation politically. Bill certainly came across as the nice guy for laying that request to rest.

I was also presently surprised by all the different types of people that came out to see Bill and his band. There were working class folks, those a bit more monied, Hungarian hipster girls (dancing up front and singing along word for word), intellectual types and plenty of average Joe types, or average János types as would be the case over here. Whatever their background or social standing, they all sang along and raised their glasses to Bill.

I will certainly see the king of Kőbánya blues next time he performs on home turf in Budapest. It’s a good night out, and the gig at Old’s Man Music Pub was free, although I know many of performances are not without an entrance fee.

I’m telling you, the adoration of the crowds, the amazing sound of his keyboard player and Bill’s voice make it all worthwhile to miss just a bit of the brilliance that is Hungarian television.

Bill a király!

Travelling Time for Tiles: Mettlachi

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

We had a little adventure in the land of flooring last month and I’ll take this opportunity to broaden your horizons about 1950s flooring in the Eastern Block, just in case you’re contemplating going on Mastermind or shooting an atmospheric film about the cold war.

To cut to the chase, one of the major decisive factors that made us fall in love with the future Chez Street & River was the fact that it still had all the 1953 floor tiles in surprisingly good condition. These floor tiles used to be pretty much the only thing available for hard floors in the 1950s. Everyone in Hungary (and probably in the rest of the CEE gang) is familiar with the sight of 10x10cm burgundy-and-cream or black-and-mottled cream tiles adorning everything that needs a good wet mopping time to time, from prisons, schools and hospitals, to your grandmother’s kitchen, bathroom and pantry. They usually came in two-tone checks, or when jazzy creativity or necessity struck, in broken-up mosaic form. The ubiquity of the stuff obviously resulted in a whole generation growing up hating it, but younger people begin to look at it with increasing fondness.

The more evolved and poncey cousins of our humble checks, the much-coveted Spanish and Moroccan cement tiles are now in vogue and available in Hungary, and their trendy lack of sheen revived a nostalgic longing for the simpler, utilitarian style of the Eastern European fifties.  The internationally fashionable industrial decor, which normally doesn’t resonate well with average Hungarian tastes, also began to lead some adventurous spirits back into the arms of grandmother’s checkered floors. (Floors, arms, oh it’s late, innit. Sorry.) Although, they are now normally sold at the same vintage stores, the tiles in question are not to be confused with the prohibitively expensive, but stunning cement tiles, which have quickly become the most sought after option among shabby chic aficionados.

The likes of Iamart and  and the wonderful Moza are normally bigger, thicker tiles made of a cement-based material. They have beautiful patterns and a rather porous surface that allows graceful aging. Our modest little two-tone tiles, however, are made of a hard, compressed clay-based material, which is coloured, but never patterned or glazed, and then fired at a high temperature. It is called mettlachi, after the name of the German town of Mettlach (now best known as the proud home of Villeroy & Boch), probably where it was first produced for export in large quantities. As with most German loanwords, the Hungarian language didn’t treat the odd foreign name kindly in the past six decades, and mettlachi  is now affectionately known and spelled in a thousand different ways.  Our contractor, for example, calls it metlahit, but I’ve seen in spelled as metlaki, meklachi, etc., which makes it real hard to find people selling the stuff on the Internet.

But why, oh why would you look for it on the Internet if you have it all covered, you may ask. Well, life is just ne’er that simple. The flat used to have but a tiny tiled entrance hall, originally designed to have a couple of coat hooks on the wall and maybe a small cabinet near the door to put your bakelite phone and a Sokol radio on. This we decided to enlarge to make room for a small table and chairs, with the added bonus of turning a glazed door around to let more light into this windowless room. This decision, however, raised the problem of creating an extra two square meters of floor in the hallway, which we had no tiles for.

The flat, built in 1953 based entirely on a Russian standard building system, has mettlachi tiles throughout, except the two parqueted rooms. We were dead set on preserving the period tiles, so we decided to replace the original tiles in the bathroom and toilet and use the salvaged material for the extension in the hallway. Little did we know that the ghost of Soviet Russia is still out there having a hell of a time laughing at us, long after the cold war. How inconsiderate.

Designed in Soviet Russia, executed in Communist Hungary, one would expect the damn tiles to come off the cement base just by offering it a shot of vodka, but man, they built this flat for eternity and a day. You have to know that mettlachi is not just sitting on some wimpy New Age water-based glue and then asked politely to stay there, like them superlight trendy little ceramic tiles and bamboo boards. It is laid directly into what Hungarian builders call mischung, a thick mixture of cement and sand. Once that sets, it’s there for good. I was nervously looking at our builders trying to delicately peel the tiles off the old mischung, but it held on stronger than Putin’s fists, which are actually known to have killed all the Chuck Norris jokes by themselves, unarmed. The tiles just didn’t come up. Well, they did, but in pieces.

So there we stood with two square meters of untiled hallway, and now an untiled bathroom and toilet too. Awesome. Then we thought, we just won’t get knocked down this easy. After two days of frantic Internet searching and a visit to a place where they sell replica-mettlachi made of cement tiles for heroin prices (£45/sqm), we located 15 square meters of the good stuff in Öttevény.

Öttevény is situated about a lightyear from Budapest and Clayton’s driving licence had expired some time ago. Awesome again. Things were not looking good.

And then along came Lady Luck in the portly form of Attila, our contractor, who is luckily very much like Rabbit from Winnie The Pooh. He’s not very rabbit-like, but he has innumerable friends, relatives and business partners, which was fortunate, because he happened to know a dude who travels to Austria across Öttevény, peddling spectacle frames. What were the odds? One in a million. Anyway, he got it sorted, and all we had to worry about were the tiles being the right shade. What were the odds? One in a million again. As it happens, they were the right shade. The right size. And all. And the 15 square meters, brand new (well, about sixty years old, but never used) cost us less than £40. They were delivered on time in all kinds of fruit crates, margarine boxes and soggy cardboard – in mint condition.  Lucky!

Our tile guy said he was in the last class that was made to learn how to lay tiles directly into mischung. Had he been one year younger he would have been entirely unversed in this lost art. Against all odds, the tiled hallway is now ready and looks fab, and you really can’t tell it’s not the real thing, because it IS the real thing – with a little recent history.

We have now decided that this flat must love us, as everything is going so well; it hasn’t been the decoration hell we were dreading. Next up: the more visible and exciting part of rebuilding our little downtown pied-à-terre: decorating and laying the parquet! Big shout out to Viki Kiss, who supplied a generous helping of real old-fashioned hardwood parquet. Now, similar to our ‘new-old’ tiles, our rooms will be bedecked in oak, which is really old, but never been laid before. It seems what’s bad for humans is good for floors. With this terrible joke, I shall bid you goodnight, because it’s late and I have to force my jetlagging brain to go to sleep on time.

Lift-off! And rubble. Lots of rubble.

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The last moments of calm before the storm:

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And then this is what’s happening as we speak…

BANZAI!

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Scary but super exciting! The good thing is we know exactly what it’s going to look like in the end down to the last throw pillow. We can hardly wait for the end of February, when we can reveal more than dust speckles and plumbers’ butts.

Deák Bill and the Gang

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

On November 8 of last year, the Hungarian man known as Deák Bill Gyula turned 65 years of age. Bill has lived a long and hard life (had a leg amputed while young for starters) that has been documented on film, on record and hundreds if not thousands of stages from Budapest to Bucharest. His vocals were even praised by the one and only Chuck Berry. The praise was something about Bill having the blackest voice of any white man Berry had ever heard.

Besides Bill, there is lots of other good music in Hungary, and there are even spots of great Hungarian music outside of Hungary. My wife & I caught an amazing gig of live gypsy music (magyar nóta) in Leeds at the Howard Assembly Hall. My son quite enjoys the CD that I purchased from that show. Just to give you an idea, here is Tcha Limberger and the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra playing one of their typical songs.

Truth be told, I quite like magyar nóta/Gypsy music. I am also quite impressed by the cimbalom. It is a cross between an open piano and a xylophone from what I can tell, and it is amazing to watch the masters play it live. I should mention that I don’t really know the connection (or lack of) between magyar nóta and Gypsy music. I do know that Tcha is a Belgian Gypsy and the rest of his band are Hungarian Roma musicians. This is why I connect the two even if that bind isn’t really there.

Hungary may be a great place to see traditional Hungarian music, but it is also a great to see more modern Hungarian bands like Quimby. Especially so, because there is a small problem with quality foreign tours making it here. For example, I’m going to pass on Nickelback, and I’ll be out of the country for Red Fang (my super power is just barely missing gigs I really want to see by being out of the country). However, small bands don’t often make it here. Although there are a fair number of worthwhile bands that do make it to the Carpathian basin, they are more likely to visit Prague or Vienna. Speaking of Quimby, they are still around and playing gigs. My wife & I caught the members of Quimby playing Tom Waits covers with an English singer and Zsuzsi from Csókolom. Well, Zsuzsi actually sang a kind of post-modern version of Tutti Frutti. Here is Zsuzsi singing to a video of her walking around London.

Even though I enjoy most any and all music (besides discordant music), I have always been partial to the kind of music that belongs in beer houses. Hobo Blues Band & Bill meet that criteria here in Hungary. Bill sometimes sings with Hobo Blues Band, but he has his own thing going. Here is a clip from a movie called Kopaszkutya where Hobo Blues Band perform a Hungarianized version of the traditional blues song ‘You Got To Move’.

UPDATE: The clip referred to above (see below) is no longer watchable due to the rules of YouTube, and we only have a copy on antiquated Hungarian VHS. Just try to imagine it if you didn’t see it before it went dark.

As for Bill, here’s what Bill looks like these days.

DeakBill

He belts out the tunes, that’s for sure. Chuck Berry made a good call. Here is a song of his called ‘Üvöltsön a szél’ (Let the wind howl).

I’ve only seen a pinch of live music since I moved here permanently 4 and a half moths ago. I only have myself to blame. It’s time for me to see some music again. I’d certainly be up for more magyar nóta. Quimby proper would be nice as well, and I really want to see Bill before he isn’t with us anymore. I do know that he has already booked a New Year’s Eve gig at the Josefina Blues Bell Bar for the end of this year, but I hope I don’t have to wait that long. Let’s just hope the king of Kőbánya blues music sticks around for a number of years to come.

So if you are curious about Hungarian music, come on over already. There’s quite a thriving music scene here, and a lot of it is still very Hungarian (lacking outside influences). I can’t speak kindly of it all, but most of the music I mentioned here I quite like. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the thriving classical music scene here due to the likes of Franz Liszt & Béla Bartók. There was even quite a thriving music scene in the 1960’s with bands like Omega. In other words, there’s pretty much something for just about everybody out there.

So come enjoy something musically different in a venue that you haven’t been to before. I’ll write some more about Hungarian music in the future. This was just a taster. I hope you enjoyed it.

Kassák Museum in Óbuda: Avant-garde for Breakfast

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

So we had some time to kill and took the kid to Óbuda, because it was a foggy wintry morning and that’s exactly where you go on foggy wintry mornings, when you have some time to kill. We love the juxtaposition of the faded, crumbling glory of the disciplined grey housing estates from the seventies and the renovated freshness of nineteenth-century petite-bourgeois Óbuda, where the older looks newer and the newest looks the worst – although there isn’t anything really new there at all, which is just fine.

On one side of the renovated main square of the cobbled part (i.e. not housing estate), there is a building complex that is hardly noticeable, but our toddler is quite inquisitive so he just let himself in through the old wooden front gates, across the wooden cobbles and into the most inviting and spooky courtyard I’ve seen in a long time. We went around a couple of times, taking in the beauty of ruin, frost and mismatched functionalities until the boy decided that it’s art gallery time and we visited the Kassák Museum, also situated in one part of this weird and wonderful building, a small palace that used to belong to the Zichy family.

Kassák Lajos, whom I always think of as the frowny guy as there aren’t many photos of him smiling, was an internationally renown and active avant-garde poet and artist. His work truly deserves this museum.

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Current exhibition: DESIGN ACT – Socially Reforming Design in Lajos Kassák’s Work (until 9 February 2014)

Kassák Museum is a branch of Petőfi Literary Museum.

1033 Budapest, Fő tér 1. Zichy-kastély

Wednesday-Sunday 10am-5pm

Full price tickets: 600 HUF / Concession: 300 HUF

Useful tips for your trip to Budapest 2: How to get around in Pest?

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Budapest is a really big city with millions of people living in it. You can drive for an hour and not get from one end to another, but frankly, much of this expanse towards the edges is made up of the ‘burbs with giant 24-hour Tescos and industrial areas. If you spend a couple of days in town, however, chances are that you will be loitering in the more ‘happening’ places: around downtown Pest and the Buda castle, in which case you will be able to enjoy the truly extensive and reliable public transport system – or the freedom of getting from A to B on your own two feet.

Budapest is made up of the hilly and leafy Buda on the western banks of the Danube and the flat and urban Pest on the east, also known as the right hand side, should you be swimming against current in the Danube. The Danube is bang in the middle, obediently running in a straight line from north to south, like a knife in butter.

budapest-birds-eye1The purpose of this post is to explain the basic layout of the Pest side. First of all, because it’s so beautifully messy, and logical and mnemonic at the same time, that it is nothing short of sheer bloody poetry in the form on nineteenth-century urban planning. Secondly, because it’s kinda useful when you want to get back to your digs after a long day (or night) and need something to orient yourself by.

Although the city, as any city of medieval origins, is a far cry from the orderliness of a US-style grid oriented to cardinal directions, once you get a knack of the layout, you’re pretty much sorted. It is a wheel of three concentric half-circles (boulevard – körút) connected by spokes of straight roads (út), which are wonderfully overlaid by an efficient system of bus and underground lines, including night services on major roads. The three half circles more or less begin with one bridge on the Danube and end in another. Legend holds that the whole system was invented because the boulevards of Pest are basically necessary to keep Buda stapled to the rest of the meaningful universe. Have a look at the right side of the map below and observe the sweeping yellow curves:

Budapest downtown map

 

 

 

 

 

1. Kiskörút – ‘Small Boulevard’, the innermost half-circle (N to S)

In reality it begins at downtown Deák tér, the single biggest hub of Budapest public transport where all Metro (underground) lines meet. However, with a bit of help of József Attila utca, which connects it with the Danube, it actually begins with the lovely Chain Bridge, also known as Széchenyi Lánchíd. This is the picture perfect one with the stone lions. (You may have gathered that híd means ‘bridge’ by now.)

Turn your back to the lions (they don’t bite) and walk away from the Danube towards downtown on József Attila utca, across Erzsébet tér and the aforementioned Deák tér and you’ll get onto Kiskörút for real. Kiskörút is made up of segments called Károly körút, Múzeum körút and Vámház körút, and Tram 47 runs along it nicely, in case you want to save yourself some walking. If you did everything right, you’ll soon reach Szabadság híd (ta-da!), the green metal bridge connecting tourist attractions like the Great Covered Market on the Pest side and the Gellért Baths in Buda. But let’s get back to Pest now.

2. Nagykörút – ‘Grand Boulevard’, the middle half-circle (N to S)

If we start our journey at the Nagykörút’s northern end like in the case of its little brother above, it begins with Margit híd in the north and ends with Petőfi híd in the south. It’s consecutive segments are called Szent István, Teréz, Erzsébet, József, and Ferenc körút, and Trams 4 and 6 run along it 24 hours a day.  Very importantly, the future Street & River pad is located a couple of minutes away from the northern end, in close proximity of Margaret Island (Margitsziget) and the Parliament!

3. Róbert Károly /Hungária/Könyves Kálmán körút – the outer half-circle (N to S)

More adventurous (and less time-poor) visitors may be travelling as far as the longest and busiest boulevard stretching from Árpád híd in the north to Rákóczi híd in the south. Tram 1 runs along it, and then some.

This should be enough of curves, let’s see the straight lines now. I have mentioned that these half circles are connected by busy ‘spokes’ or straight arterial roads. The intersections where these roads meet the boulevards are typically bustling hubs with many places of interest and shopping venues nearby. The two most important are:

4. Andrássy út

Running from downtown Deák tér to must-see-tourist-sight Hősök tere this avenue, originally fashioned after Paris’s Champs Elysée  is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and home to luxury brands and stunning architecture. The pretty little Millenium underground (also known as Line 1 or yellow line) runs underneath the road, but it’s really worth the walk if you feel sporty. It meets Kiskörút at Deák tér, cuts across Nagykörút at the Octogon and if you sit on the underground beyond Hősök tere until you get kicked out two stops later, you can surface at the outermost boulevard, called Hungária.

5. Kossuth Lajos utca / Rákóczi út

Starting at the serenely elegant white Erzsébet híd, this long stretch of road connects all three half circles with the busiest underground line (Line 2, red line) and bus route (7, 5 and many others) including the frequent and safe night bus service (907). Moving away from the bridge, this road meets Kiskörút at Astoria, then cuts across Nagykörút at Blaha Lujza tér, reaching the outer half circle of Hungária körút at the exotically named Zugló Vasútállomás. Then it goes on and reaches infinity where parallels meet, solids turn into plasma and yellow wax peppers cost 150 forints for a pound.

Here is a map of the underground system:

Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/Budapest-metro-hun.png

Obviously between these major hubs there is a dense network of city streets with more trams, trolley buses and buses, but you can always make your life easier if your remember how these five major roads intersect and connect. It’s like a simple spiderweb that catches you when you feel entirely and irrevocably lost. You can’t really do that in downtown Pest. If getting lost is what rocks your boat, walk over a bridge and try Buda.

Christmas candy, angels and such

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

As promised, here is the lowdown on Christmas in Hungary. Just like everywhere in the world, it’s epic and awesome as is the nature of the festivity itself, but it is also very much Hungarian due to all the ceremonial quirks in the process. The following account is a brief summary of my friends’ and family’s experiences from the end of the previous century and the beginning of this one. Of course, everyone does it differently, but not much differently.

First of all, Christmas begins and kind of ends in a day. Although from October onwards all malls and supermarkets tend to pump out the same holly-bedecked Bing Crosby album as any self-respecting Walmart or Auchan around the world, family Christmas in Hungary strictly starts on 24 December, not one day earlier.

The average Christmas day starts by Dad skillfully shaving off his knuckles with an axe, trying to carve the tree into the stand. According to a venerable and ancient Chinese tradition, Christmas tree stands are compatible with only a handful of fir trees in the entire universe. Your Dad will not pick any of these sacred specimens. Your tree will be crooked, leaning at a weird angle and completely asymmetric. This is a wonderful opportunity for any grown sons to spend time with Dad in the garage/basement/condo balcony and fully embrace the richness, texture and darker tones of his vocabulary.  Smaller kids, such as ours, get the ‘appropriate for all audiences’ version, in that they are told that the Christmas angel brings the tree. For kids who still take naps, it magically appears all festooned and sparkly right as they rub the afternoon sleep out of their eyes. For non-napping kids, the tree makes itself apparent as they come home from their special Dad-walk. Due to the special Dad-walk situation, early afternoon is a social time out on the playground for toddlers and their half-frozen Dads waiting to receive the liberating text saying ‘tree done, beigli collapsed, ran out of sour cream and screaming in the effing kitchen due to exhaustion and stress, but you may now come home, my beloved’, or something similar.

Yes, the other specialty of Hungarian Christmas is the insistence on creating a really intricate traditional meal that no one really REALLY likes. Although modern wives tend to veer off this course to maintain their sanity and try to be with their families, the evening meal and accoutrements are a crucial part of the day, even if no one but Mum cares. Thus, there is fish soup and fried carp on the dinner table.  This is obviously the best choice for half-crazed infants who are already half dead due to 1. loud TV permitted all day, 2. Christmas candy consumed in industrial quantities, 3. the realisation that the time gap between now (n) and getting presents (p) always = (p-n) x 1000000000 hours. They are going to enjoy that meal immensely.

The fish is still purchased live in many, many households. They are kept in the bathtub until the time comes when Dad has to swing into action with the blunt end of the axe again. Though every year fewer people opt for the live carp massacre, I have to say supermarkets are fun around Christmas, because they have giant tanks full of carps, looking dazed and terrified like they’re awaiting a fish-rapture of some sort. Hungary is a landlocked country, and apart from folks in riverside towns and their truly glorious fish-eating heritage (e.g. Baja, Szeged, Paks), city folk don’t eat fish all year except for Christmas. It’s probably an unfair and sweeping generalisation, but fish is often considered to be a vegetable growing under water and Hungarians prefer pork products with pickles if given the choice.  So fish it is on the Christmas menu, mostly because it is, like it or not.

There is another thing that always happens and not many people really like it: the beigli. This pastry is a yeasty roll filled with walnut or poppy seed and then thinly sliced. It’s too dry and not sweet enough for children, who spent the day between St Nicholas’s day (6 December) and Christmas eating nothing but chocolate renderings of the saint. You also have to know that only shop- or patissery-bought beigli comes in neat swirly slices.

Your mum’s beigli will crack, the filling will come out, and then the whole thing is profusely watered by her angry tears and stuff you shouldn’t hear your saintly mother say EVER. Beigli is evil. Beigli, along with honey badgers and hangnails, was created by God to piss people off. (OK, I’ve known people who like beigli, but not many.)

So anyway, Mum normally toils over the hot stove and Dad does activities on the other end of the gender stereotype scale, mostly involving axes and lightbulbs. And then, after dinner is eaten and by the time the kids become truly aggressive and unbearable due to uncontainable and pent up excitement, the little bell finally rings signalling the arrival of the presents. The family walks over the other room, Dad lights the sparklers on the tree and everyone sings Pásztorok, pásztorok. It’s endless: watch the kids go all flushed and fidgety trying to stop themselves from ripping into wrapped presents. Then it all explodes into wrapping paper and ribbons flying, children screaming with joy and adults all welling up and taking pictures. It’s cathartic and really, really nice all around. Catholics often go to the midnight mass sans children after all’s gone quiet.

After ‘lighting the tree’ and playing till you drop, everyone goes to bed happy and exhausted and full of love and new gadgets and a million photos. The next couple of days will be spent by re-enacting the whole thing at Grandma’s and at friends’ and at Auntie Martha’s and all that, in endless variations of beigli, but no more fish, as the advent fast is over with Christmas eve.

Another difference is the myth surrounding the presents. Although Coca-Cola has brought the image of the enlightened Santa of the Free World to millions of grateful Hungarians, as was our wish when we were feverishly dismantling the Iron Curtain back in 1989, there is still a considerable confusion as to who brings the presents on Christmas Eve. Not Santa. Growing up in a secular household and going to a school dedicated to raising well-rounded atheist Socialists for the nation, I got my presents from Télapó, who is a Hungarianised version of the Russian Ded Maroz. The difference is that he’s not fat and wears a cool cloak instead of trousers. People adhering to more religious Christmas traditions get their presents from Baby Jesus or the Christmas Angel. My more extended family had all kinds of myths going around among different branches and cousins, and I never found it hard to negotiate all the various versions in my head. I guess Christmas candy helps to obfuscate annoying details and uncertainties regarding the materialisation of presents under the tree. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.

The last typical Hungarian thing is the aforementioned Christmas candy, known as szaloncukor. Although it looks mostly the same as in my childhood, the fact that there are major companies vying for the attention of consumers has transformed the originally rather lacklustre confectionery.

As opposed to my childhood’s jelly-filled (zselés, as in the photo above) and more expensive fondant-filled (konzum) varieties in two colourways, there is now an abundance of flavours, brands and colours to suit your Christmas theme.

A family normally buys a pound or two, clips them on little hooks, and on the tree they go along with all the baubles and lights. It looks rather grand on 24 December. By Epiphany, the candies somehow all turn into empty wrappers skillfully folded back to look like they still have candy inside. Any small breeze or draft can reveal the sad fact that a pound or two of extremely sugary marzipan and chocolate-based candy has somehow disappeared in the space of two short weeks.

I was delighted and very much touched to read in a book about European Texans emigrating in the nineteenth century, that Hungarians missed their beigli and szaloncukor so much that they recorded recipes to recreate these homey treats (see excerpt below post).

So this is all what makes Hungarian Christmas special. Needless to say, the real Chrismas miracle, as it is everywhere in the world around this time of the year, is the joy on the kids’ faces and the family coming together over good food and maybe a little wine.

And my new moleskin notebook of course.

Merry Christmas and may you have your stockings filled with goodies!

One aspect of the Hungarian Christian culture focused on the Christmas tree. According to custom, children did not take part in decorating the tree. they were told that the Christ child and the angels brought the tree and presents before Christmas Eve. At the appropriate time, a bell signalled to the children that the tree was ready for them to view.

Especially important in decorating the Christmas tree was to use szalon cukor, a special Hungarian Christmas candy that many of the 30,234 (2000) Texans of Hungarian descent still enjoy.

Szalon Cukor Candy

Measure 4 cups of sugar into an aluminum pot. Add 1 cup of cold water. Boil ingredients over medium heat about 20-25 minutes until mixture thickens. Do not stir mixture while it is heating. Test mixture for thickness by inserting a loop of thin wire into the pan. If it is possible to blow a sugary bubble with the mixture adhering to the wire loop, then the syrup is ready to be removed from the heat. If not,continue the heating process. While the candy syrup is still cooking, prepare two large platters (flat surfaces) onto which the mixture is poured. Rinse the platters with cold water, leaving surfaces damp. When the mixture is ready, remove candy from the stove. Divide it into two portions right away. To one portion add 1/3 cup of ground hazelnuts or pecans and one teaspoon of vanilla. Start stirring that portion right away with an electric mixer. To the second portion, meanwhile, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 teaspoon cocoa or moccha coffee powder. Stir with a wooden spoon until mixture hardens. Both portions should be stirred until the candy hardens, but with enough suppleness left that it can be poured out onto the platters. After the candy is poured, flatten it with dampened hands to a thickness of 1/2″. Cut the candy into pieces.

Recipe of Annie Nagy from San Antonio, TX, quoted in Allan O. Kownslar, The European Texans, Texas A&M University Press, College Stattion, TX, 2004, pp. 151-52.

Merry Christmas Y’all!

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