Last night I brought my Marantz PMD660 to what I thought was going to be a táncház packed with ecstatic young people but was instead a grim söröző somewhere in the twelfth district with half the lights burned out, full of balding men with chapped faces seething over half liters of pale, warm beer. The Hutsul band I’d gone to document had cancelled, or maybe never showed up. Fucking Hutsuls. It was possible that I’d gotten the address wrong. Communication with the natives was difficult. I ordered a drink: “Egy korsó, keret szepan, bácsi”—the barmaid looked at me like I was a grotesque sea-creature loosed from the depths. So I pointed at a bottle of alcohol until a drink was poured, and drank.
This morning, my head pulsed while Jens, the supercilious Belgian department head, walked into my office, took a pen from my desk, and flatly informed me that the research budget I’d applied for hadn’t been approved by the board. In light of this, he was going to reassign the funds to that assistant prof from somewhere in Africa where people cut off each other’s hands, who is writing a supposedly soon-to-be-bestselling monograph about Afrofunk and genocide that has the marketing department, i.e. the mousy woman who smells like stale hamburgers and wears purple nail polish, all aflutter. And my wife called my office phone from her computer in California to inform me that she’s having difficulty coding her rolfing website. Our children howled in the background. We talked about whether it made sense for me to stay in Hungary any longer. The answer to that was, if the money is there, maybe. But the money isn’t there.
After I hung up, I rubbed my temples and tried to ignore the histrionic students loitering just outside my office. They were discussing Hungary’s recent elections. You’d think they were negotiating START-3.
Just as I stood up to close the door, a tall, chubby man wandered into view, looking at a piece of paper with my office number written on it.
“You are the Professor Molnar?”
“Good afternoon, I am Mátyas, I am working in government. Forgive me, but we could not find your phone number in the CEU directory, and Parliament is close so I make a visit.”
“You guys must be pleased with the election results,” I said, and he smiled.
I didn’t have any coffee or water to offer him, and I was too shy to attempt speaking in Hungarian. Mátyas explained that his superiors had tasked him with arranging a large public concert that would both celebrate Hungary’s new direction and be a tribute to its ethnic Transylvanian population, who were effectively stranded over the border in Romania. (They would pay tribute to Székelys and Csangós as well, but really, Transylvania was going to be the focus.) It was my good fortune that all of the Hungarian folk music experts he’d tracked down proved to be politically problematic. So he’d been forced to ask me—a foreigner—to help him curate it.
I was flattered. This is my calling, and I was eager to show off my knowledge. All thoughts of research grants evaporated. This was real. This was happening.
Things moved fast. Mátyas sat across from me, doughy and earnest, his scalp gleaming under the florescent lights of my CEU office. In short order, we came up with a name for the show: “Hungarian Land, Hungarian Rule: The Transylvanian Buena Vista Social Club.” Naturally, it would consist of traditional songs and take place at the Művészetek Palotája, or “Palace of Art and Music” in Budapest. Like a lot of foreigners, I called it MuPa, because that is just far easier to say.
“We will film for live television, of course,” Mátyas said.
“Excellent. Before any contracts are signed, we need to discuss what my official title is going to be for this. Co-Producer? We’ll also need to discuss rights.”
“And I’ll send you my bio.”
“Your surname Molnar—your family is Hungarian?”
“Yes. My great grandparents came over and settled in California. Los Angeles.”
“Then you must understand how important this is for us. It is very important that it is a good show. It is important that there are many musicians, and must be from the Transylvania. The Transylvania is Hungary—it does not belong to Romania.” He emphasized this final statement by tapping on my desk, once, forcefully.
“Romania is a shit country. After Trianon, then Romania is having the Transylvania. This is not correct. They are still speaking Hungarian overall.”
“Mátyas, I should tell you that I’m fundamentally apolitical—I’m interested in culture, not so much elections and EU guidelines about farmland and all that. But I’d love to help. I know a lot of prominent musicologists, both here and abroad.” I pushed around some manila folders around on my desk.
“Anyone prominent may be an asset.”
We decided that, not only would the musicians be from Transylvania (with a few from deeper into Romania), none of them would ever leave the stage. We’d just keep adding bands so the music became increasingly triumphant. The repertoire we’d worked out consisted entirely of standard folks songs, eliminating the need for rehearsals (and, budget-wise, the need to rent a rehearsal space for several dozen people).
“Also, just to be clear, I may work this concert into the upcoming monograph I’m writing for Central European University Press,” I said.
“If you must, yes, OK. But you should consider, that this Central European University is run by individuals with loyalties to foreign countries; and it is funded by Soros, a globalist.” The students were still talking in the hall, so I got up and closed the door.
“I’m just a visiting adjunct from UCLA, I’m cool. You don’t have to worry about me. And I’m not getting any funding from CEU anyway.”
“It is also a matter of concern for us, your family background. Many patriotic Hungarians are living outside the Hungary, but there are also many connected to Kun Belá and Kádár.”
“My family came over early.”
“Before the war. None were government apparatchiks or anything like that . . . I’m the first person in my family to sit behind a desk. Before me, all of the Molnar men have been equestrians. My great-grandfather moved to California from Hungary and worked as a farrier on a ranch in the Bay Area. My grandfather followed in his footsteps, and became a breeder. My father is a veterinarian. I studied veterinary science initially, but when I got sick of reading up on equine nutrition I changed my major to ethnomusicology. My father acted like I was turning my back on being a Hussar or something. We’re estranged.”
“Yes, it is the same in my family,” Mátyas said. “My father did not want me to be involved in the politics, but I am.”
“That’s good. It’s better to do things you care about.”
“And now you are not becoming a Huszár, but you are writing a book?”
“Yes. I’m working on something with a broader appeal than my previous book, which was also about Hungary.” I handed him the copy of A Wandering Meal that I kept on my desk. Mátyas flipped through the book absently as we continued to talk.
Over the next hour, we finished pinning down logistics, exchanged email addresses, and finally, shook hands warmly.
“You could help us,” he said. Hungarian inflection is different than English, and all the accent is front-loaded in the sentence. For a moment I thought he was admonishing me, but then I just realized it was an invitation to collaborate.
Finding good collaborators can be difficult, but I had a positive feeling about this. It was obvious that Mátyas was a man with good intentions and (evidently) a large appetite, and we was the only person I’d met this year who was, like me, actually optimistic about Hungary’s future. I felt a kinship with him—when I was his age, I’d spent my days stuffing envelopes for nonprofits and writing grant applications; by night I passionately held forth on music in the living rooms and kitchens of my friends, all of us holding lime-green tallboys of Ballantines from the bodega down the street. The world was ours for the taking.
Something had gone terribly wrong in my life. I thought that getting away from my family would ignite my creativity, but I was just depressed. I was lecturing and doing fieldwork in a city that I didn’t fully understand. I’d missed both of my sons’ birthdays this year, and for what? I was exhausted, wrestling with a monograph that was taking shape too slowly. I wasn’t making enough connections with real Hungarians, like the one that just left my ersatz office. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that my office may recently have been a storage closet. There aren’t even any electrical outlets in here.
* * *
The Művészetek Palotája had been built through the efforts of the former opposition party. Unlike the dull prefab block housing built by the Communists, MuPa was a shining vision of pink and purple florescence. Its pulsating neon façade was constructed to look like the prow of a ship—an ark nosing into a reflecting pool strewn with Roman columns and assorted torches. Statues of curvaceous women stuck out from the front of the building, each holding a musical instrument, or pallet and brush, or sculpting tool. It was a ballsy, blindingly Neo-Classical edifice. I tipped the cab driver generously and made my way to soundcheck.
The stage manager, harried, wearing a red turtleneck and dangling earrings, stood in the doorway talking into a headset mic. Holding a clipboard, she gestured frantically at her watch and shrieked; she may have discerned that I’d had a half-dozen drinks to calm my nerves before coming over. I greeted her warmly, kissing each of her blushing cheeks. I felt loose.
Frank was waiting for me in the green room, ignoring the cheese plate in favor of a piece of oily fried dough slathered in sour cream. A flattened paper bag darkened with grease lay on the table next to him. I’d prepared myself for the moment; I knew it would come. Frank was grinning at me, oblivious.
Frank and I have a history. We’d met in Budapest back when Hungary was still a member of the Warsaw Pact. As American fiddle players interested in Transylvanian folk music, we hated each other instantly. We’ve only grown further apart over time. He is a depressed alcoholic living in Budapest’s eighth district. Although I knew he would be playing the show—he was too entrenched in this scene to effectively exclude—his presence was still unnerving.
I’ve been aware of Frank’s work as an archivist over the years, which more or less amounts to boxes of poorly labeled cassette tapes. My approach to ethnomusicology is different than his: I take myself seriously, but I’m not interested in keeping my findings locked away in indecipherable, print-on-demand tomes sprinkled in a handful of university bookstores; I want to make something fun and alive, something that people enjoy. I’m a Romantic above all, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always “on the money,” my mission is a noble one, I’d like to think. I show people culture. I show them human emotion. I show them the truth. Even when I was a child, I knew that I wouldn’t be a white-collar drone when I grew up—or a drunk, sitting hopelessly on a couch with a pile of half-read books in front of me. I am not a spectator; I am a participant.
Frank and I shook hands and exchanged some small talk. He asked after my wife and kids, and told a story about meeting some girl at a conference in Wrocław.
“It’s good to see you, Frank,” I said.
“I’m really goddamn excited about this show!” he hollered in my face.
“Yes, this will be something.”
“Oh hell yeah! If it weren’t for this, these guys would never be in the same room together. This is gonna be interesting. And it pays all right.”
“They’re used to playing smaller venues I guess,” I said.
“Sure, there’s that. But also, most of these guys despise each other. They’re from different regions, rival families . . . Before you got here, I was trying to get everyone to sound check together but they refused. Eight different bandleaders and each band plays in a totally different regional style. Hell, they play in different time signatures.”
“We’re trying to showcase different regional styles so that’s good.” My eyes scanned the room. No help there.
“Well, you’re going to have several dozen violins onstage, none of which are going to be tuned together. Everyone has lousy violins, too. These guys don’t have any money—you and I are probably the only people in the room who actually have bank accounts. So even if they were tuned . . . you know what I’m saying. It’s gonna be a mess. But fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, right?”
I didn’t like to concede the point, but the truth is that, in the lead-up to the show, two viola players got in a fight. A singer from Kolosvár vomited on the cheese table and passed out. (We pushed him to the corner of the green room and covered him with a spare tablecloth.) One of the few well-known musicians, Maestru Doru, showed up without an instrument—he’d sold his vioara cu goarnă to a German music student paying Euros.Then there was another fight—this time a knife was involved—and everyone was screaming. Someone threw a full bottle of Fanta. I was cornered by three thuggish violinists who, I’m told, were calling me a “foreign faggot.” They were drunk and I was shoved into the wall. Then security came in and split everyone up into different rooms.
A journalist was there from the local free weekly to interview us. Frank did most of the talking; at times they seemed to be arguing. I talked about my previous book, A Wandering Meal, which investigates secret Catholic prayer groups that may have existed under Communism and collects traditional Hungarian recipes.
I maintained a gracious demeanor, even though Frank kept interrupting me. My head began to pulse. I fished an aspirin out of my toiletries pouch. The pouch also contained a first aid kit, potable water tablets, compass, a Swiss army knife, razor, disposable cell phone, radiation dosimeter, tiny pencil and notebook, fishing hook and tackle, synthetic fish bait, red and orange marble that my grandfather gave me when I was small, iodine tablets, mosquito repellent, Chiclets, and finally, a small but very powerful flashlight that shines a bright blue beam.
* * *
It is hard to describe the sounds that were produced on that stage. I’d like to think they were honest. And anyway, at its root, all harmony is facile at best. Think back to the territory encompassed by Hungary during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—exactly how many cultures, with different languages and customs, lived together at that time? The point wasn’t that their coexistence was necessarily harmonious; it was that they all were all united.
The only thing that truly bothered me about the show was Frank’s refusal to take things seriously. He kept yelling jokes in the ear of the ancient Csango peasant standing next to him, sawing away at his violin, causing the man to laugh this weird barking laugh that I prayed the microphones didn’t pick up. The Csango’s wife thumped on this weird single-stringed cello-looking thing with a stick. The Csango was wearing a ratty fur hat with a brim. He and Frank openly drank nips of pálinka onstage. By contrast, the people in the crowd—largely consisting of members of the former opposition party—were soberly dressed in fine eveningwear, solemn and reserved as they beheld their newfound power, and their obligation to their country.
* * *
I sat in the green room after the show, watching Frank talk to the other musicians in Hungarian. I was furious with him, but if he noticed he said nothing. The old Csango shook hands with me before wandering off. He carried his violin in a Spar shopping bag.
I needed to reset my life. I was too isolated from everyone. The problem is that no matter where I go, there I am. My colleagues at CEU barely registered my arrival, never mind my impending departure. At night I went to bars in the seventh district with the explicit agenda of making new friends, but more often than not found myself shithoused at the end of the night, throwing forints on the bar and laughing at how badly I was failing at everything, then staggering back home, terrified of the prostitutes who swarmed at me from doorways and side streets, wondering what I was doing with myself. I was profoundly alone. I had an apartment full of books that I didn’t feel like reading. I drank to excess. I hungered to connect with people—if nothing else, the nature of my work insisted on this. I was nearing the end of my time in Hungary with little work to really show for it. What would become of my career?
None of the musicians were interested in talking to me, and my attempts to praise them for their work were accepted with curt nods. I stood with a small plastic cup full of seltzer and shifted from foot to foot.
My awkwardness was dispelled when Mátyas appeared, car keys in hand. He came right up to me and shook my hand, praising the work. It seemed that everyone in the audience had loved it. He graciously offered to take me out for a night with his friends, who were going visit someone they knew out in the country.
I put my violin in his trunk. Two of his friends, who had been drinking in the parking lot, piled into the car with us and cracked open fresh beers. I took one eagerly. It was warm. The game was afoot.
“Nice car,” I said.
“It is a Romanian piece of shit.”
There was a bumper sticker on his car showing an outline of Hungary’s former borders, with runic writing underneath. We shot out into the night, the wheels of the Dacia sedan squealing as Mátyas yanked it around corners. Unknown villages passed by in the darkness. Someone produced a repurposed plastic Fanta bottle filled with homemade pálinka. I drank each time it was passed to me, trying not to cough.
We eventually pulled up in front of a sprawling country house. The headlights shone on a large metal washtub in the front yard. It was full of blood. Mátyas informed me that it was the time of year when they slaughtered a pig and made it into sausages. The pig’s head and other parts were piled in a plastic bucket, which emitted a rich, coppery odor. A decrepit orange Lada was up on blocks in the front yard, and the grass underneath was dead.
It was dark inside the house, and what I believe were small children scampered about in the shadows, shrieking wordlessly at each other. Racks and racks of deer antlers hung from an overhead beam. Dry sausages were arranged in rows on the kitchen table; I suppose they were curing. A very old woman sat in front of an electric stove, holding a wooden spoon. She put an arm around Mátyas and the two of them had a rapid, hushed conversation. Mátyas’ friends stood on either side of me, sweating slightly in the warmth of the house. The one of my left had produced a small bag of Cheetos and was upending it into his mouth.
Mátyas led me through one room after another, and then we were in a dining room. A long table covered by a white tablecloth embroidered with a red pattern dominated the room. There were platters of sausages and loaves of bread. Maybe a dozen people were sitting there. I nodded to everyone and sat down. At my end of the table sat Mátyas and his two friends, who all shared a similar, puffy, close-cropped look. They were wearing black slacks, white shirts, and black vests. We sat near a hulking, bearded patriarch, a pretty blond woman with red nails, a man with an acne-ridden face, a man who squinted through glasses perched on a small nub of a nose below which hung a wispy white moustache, and the old woman, who sat at the place of honor at the center of the table. She spoke in a gravelly, commanding voice, directing those at the table to pass the food around. Soon my plate was loaded with meat and a glass of wine was pushed my way.
All conversation ceased for a moment. I remember that I paused for a second, and then took a sip of the wine. Once I did, everyone starting laughing and singing, and I realized that we were fantastically drunk. Mátyas produced a stereo from another room. At some point, we all linked hands and began whirling around the table. My feet dragged through the steps of the dance. The thick, sweaty hands of Mátyas’ friends clutched my own.
Over dinner, Mátyas explained that they couldn’t trust the former opposition party any more than the socialists—too many foreign allies. Instead, the answer lay in a new political group of concerned Hungarian citizens forming rural militias. These would extend beyond the borders of Hungary, to every place where ethnic Hungarians lived. They told me about global economic conspiracies that loomed over Hungary, pressing it downwards, occult manipulations of the world economy by malevolent foreigners; captivated by the rustic setting, I let my mind wander as they talked, trying to imagine what this land was like hundreds of years ago, when the villagers needed to band together against invaders poisoning their wells and stealing their children. When Hussars riding bareback would feign retreat and, as they galloped away, twist around to fire arrows backwards at their pursuers. When the land was ruled by a succession of kings, and the wealth of the nation was passed from father to son. I was emotional, furious at the terrible suffering Hungary had experienced throughout the ages, and how my work—as impassioned as it was—only barely touched on this. I tried to explain some of this, but I was drunk and it was coming out wrong.
Mátyas clapped me on the shoulder and told me that they wanted me to help them. Tears were in my eyes as I held my arms out to embrace them, one after another. “Does your grandmother, or whoever she is, have any recipes for me?” I asked.
Mátyas pulled me back into the car, and his friends piled in after. He was making calls on his ancient, brick-like cell phone. The radio was incomprehensible. We stopped to take a piss in a cemetery. We tumbled out of the car and ran howling amidst the graves. We took up the rocks that had been left on top of all the tombstones and began throwing them at each other, cackling. Two more carloads of young men arrived. They were all dressed identically, and I gave up on telling them apart. I was pointed out as I raced around the grounds, bucking and snorting, eventually capering around on all fours and squealing to comic effect. Wet leaves were sticking to me. We all began pushing over tombstones.
There was a large shopping bag full of loose cans of beer in the back of the car. I began trying to tell everyone about the relationship between early Transylvanian Csango music and Austrian court dances, but then one of the guys in the back seat leaned forward and handed me a pamphlet with helmeted men riding horses on the front. I pretended to read it, but I really could only make out the odd word. We drove further into the countryside. The car didn’t have a clock, and my cell phone didn’t work in Hungary, and I had no idea how late it was or how much time was passing. The beer began to run low. We threw the empty cans out of the window, one after another, and took stock of what was left: five beers. Perfect. Mátyas kept taking periodic phone calls, and was apparently coordinating something. Someone produced an empty jerrycan. It was old, metal, and black—flat, with an X indented in the side. The heat was on full-blast, and my hands still smelled like pork from all the sausage I’d eaten. We pulled over so one of Mátyas’ friends could siphon some gas out of a parked car, and then we drove onwards. The gas sloshed around in the jerrycan, which I somehow ended up holding. Its weight on my lap was comforting.
We entered a village, and drove with our lights out to a rundown neighborhood. All of the businesses were shuttered. Mátyas cut the engine, and the faint sound of hip hop coming from a nearby home was audible. The four of us got out of the car, and I nearly bumped into some women in headscarves and long skirts hurrying by. They cast a terrified glance at us and Mátyas shouted something at them. The world reeled as I stepped up on the sidewalk, and I grabbed onto light post to keep from falling over. The three cars in our caravan were parked haphazardly on the sidewalk. The night was clear with a light breeze, I smelled freshly-mown hay. Maybe animal shit. Mátyas’ friends gathered around me. There were about a dozen of us, all told. No one questioned my presence, and I smiled at the thought that, of course, I am an ethnic Hungarian and I belonged here. They had a quick pow-wow, and then the group split in two—one half stayed with us, the rest marched purposefully down the street, carrying axes and crowbars.
I was holding two open cans of beer, and I took a pull from the one in my dominant hand. Mátyas smiled at me, and punched me lightly on the arm. We laughed. He unscrewed the cap of the jerrycan and began sloshing gas on the exterior wall of a weathered house with horse tied up out front. The proper place for a horse is in a stable, where its coat is brushed and its hooves trimmed, and it has enough water and hay. I wrote “Horses need to be cared for” on the inside of my wrist in ballpoint pen.
“These people, they are criminals and murderers,” Mátyas said to me. I untied the horse and began petting its head, but it instinctively wandered away from the heat.
Since no one was talking to me, I got back into the car and made myself comfortable. Soon Mátyas came back, and we drove away. When I was young, my favorite thing to do was to fall asleep in the back seat while my father was drove us home from a party. I’d listen to my parents talk in low voices, peaceful and happy, and luxuriating under the warmth of the blanket they kept in the car to throw over me. I’d wake up in my bed at home to the sound of my father singing along to the radio on our kitchen counter, old songs that I didn’t know the words to, shimmering and reverbed.
* * *
When I woke up, I was lying in on a bench in a park in Budapest. My toiletries pouch was missing; I found it discarded in a trashcan at the end of the block, emptied of its contents. All of my credit cards and identification had been taken; my hangover was indescribable. I was completely unharmed. I was safe.
I walked all the way to the American embassy, and a number of phone calls (including one to Frank) established my identity for them. I cancelled my credit cards and filled out the paperwork for a new US passport.
My remaining time at CEU was uneventful. I worked quietly on my new monograph, which is still not quite finished. Mátyas promised to contact me soon for future projects, and I waited impatiently, eager to embark on a new life.
A few weeks after returning home I received a manila envelope in the mail from Frank. It contained a copy of the magazine that printed our interview and a note scribbled on the back of a takeout menu. The gist of the letter was that Frank was going to be on tour and might be coming through the US thanks to a grant from some Jewish organization. He was going to interview at some universities for a job, and he was going to give a talk at some cultural center: did I want to come see him or would I provide some sort of recommendation. It didn’t make any sense, of course. We were working at cross-purposes.
I paged though the magazine and read the interview, pleased. The magazine used a wonderful photograph of me to accompany the article: I am sweating and jubilant, violin in hand. Behind me, the musicians are out of focus, blurred, clustered in little groups. I am grinning, my head thrown back, my face florid, spellbound. My eyes are locked on at something just past the cameraman.
A former Budapest resident, Rick Stinson is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer and Bennington College graduate. His work has appeared in Esopus magazine.