Saturday, April 18, 2015

I Can Fly

The fleet-footed Morgan Shirley, April 18, 2008, somewhere on the Southern Oregon coast.

As many times as I spiral back down to the ground, I will stagger to my feet again and launch myself into possibility. I re-read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" a few weeks ago, though I'm not sure what brought it to mind, and while I didn't find it as inspirational (deep, man) as I did in junior high school, it was still a charming story, and a good reminder to relax and focus, not that those are easy to do simultaneously. I remember seeing the movie with my cousin Robin in South Bend one summer at the River Park Theater on Mishawaka Avenue (closed since 1986; I am so old), not far from where my grandparents used to live on 31st Street in a house I sometimes walk through in my dreams, where there's a screened-in front porch, a standing fan in the upstairs bathroom and an old-fashioned laundry mangle in the basement, a kitchen where I used to eat Quaker Instant Oatmeal as my special visiting-the-grandparents breakfast treat (maple syrup was my favorite) leading out to a big back yard with a sour cherry tree and a gooseberry bush and a garden stretching back to the endless dusty alley that ran between the rows of houses on either side. The last time I went by the house the alley had been closed off, and the front porch was full of old furniture and trash. I didn't want to know what had happened to the cherry tree.

But if you can't go back again, you can at least go forward. I woke up this morning feeling better, though yesterday afternoon was weird. After finishing my typing (type type type type type) I posted my everything-is-falling-apart-oh-how-I-suffer blog post and then went for a walk. It was getting pretty muggy with the approaching storm that has been crackling and grumbling overhead for several hours (please no power outages please), so I was only out for about an hour. But just as I was almost back at the hostel I started getting really flushed, and sweating more than usual after a brisk walk in muggy weather, and by the time I got upstairs my face was so red it was actually painful, and my heart was racing. I used a cool washcloth to wipe down my face and chest, and even put it on my head for a bit, which felt pretty good, but my face was sore even after the flush faded. I'm used to getting all red and sweaty when I exercise, but that was a bit extreme. I think I'll walk more slowly next time, and see what happens. I'd rather not explore the Serbian medical system as well, thank you very much.

On the bright side, my mood is better after a good night's sleep, it's raining so I'm not cranky about not going outside, my computer monitor is only doing its dim/bright/dim thing sometimes instead of all the time, I'm making progress on my writing projects, and I had more money in my PayPal account than I thought, so my financial situation is merely critical instead of dire. I've started doing the last bits of travel planning in Italy and France (touring a marble quarry, kayaking in a canyon) and on Monday I'll go buy the ticket for the overnight bus that will take me to Florence in a little over two weeks. Yikes! Time is slipping by. I really need to go see the historical monuments in Niš before I leave, and I'd still like to get a massage at the old Roman spa a few miles south of here as well. There is more to life than typing (type type type type type) but I also really, really need to get these articles done. I will fly away now and finish off another two or three articles before I stop for the day, and go to bed early so that I can put in another full day of work tomorrow while it's still raining.

I can do this. I can fly.

Friday, April 17, 2015

They Say It's Spring

It has been beautiful here this week, warm and sunny and full of spring breezes. Or so I hear. I've been inside, and while a few breezes have made their way through the skylight that I'm able to prop open a half inch or so, I haven't gotten much sun. Or much exercise. I keep meaning to take a break from work and go out for a walk, and then I find myself actually on a writing roll and I don't want to stop. This is a good thing, since I still have 21 articles to write just for this first part of the larger project, and I'm going to be really pushing myself just to get those done before the end of the month. But it's a bad thing, because I'm getting really cranky at being inside all the time, and no, I can't go outside because I can't work in the glare, and my computer shuts down within about 30 seconds if it's not plugged in.

Fortunately the days are getting longer, which means I can work for 8 or 9 hours and still have a little bit of light at the end of the day. And the weather forecast is for rain to be moving in over the weekend, so I'll be a little less cranky, maybe. I've been thinking about this process of writing, though, and thinking about whether this should be a full-time thing in the future. When I'm in the groove, when I'm enjoying myself, I don't mind spending all this time at the computer. But it's not so fun when I'm spinning my wheels doing research on a topic I'm not very interested in, and then trying to figure out how to turn a paragraph's worth of information into a 2,000-word article. At least not when I'm being paid so little for it.

But ... it gives me a certain amount of freedom, and it's usually not boring, and I get to do it here in Serbia. So there's that. And I suppose if I were sitting in an office in Portland and looking longingly out at the blossoming trees on the waterfront, I'd still be cranky, though at least I'd get a lunch break. I should take lunch breaks now, except every time I get hungry it's in the middle of one of those spurts of verbose creativity, and I just dash out to the grilled meat stand and run back and eat while I type. Type type type type type.

Now my computer has started to flicker and to take way too long to boot up and to do other things of the sort that make me think that perhaps it is not long for this world, and that would really put a crimp in my blogging style, not to mention all the rest of it. I do have the CD for the one non-downloadable program I rely on, and I back up all my files every day, but the French computer has a French keyboard and I type much more slowly on it - although the more I use it, the more my fingers are adapting, and find that when I come back to this QWERTY layout I stqrt ;qking odd typos. At least I have the backup computer. It's been a bit of a pain to drag all over the continent, but if I need it, it's there.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I am feeling a bit insecure right now, not sure if my money will last as long as I need it to, not sure if my computer and camera will last as long as I need them, not sure what's going to happen when I get back to Oregon and still need money and computer and camera and a job, oh god I need a job. And health insurance. And a place to live. I've been able to push that impending reality to the back of my mind for a long, long time, as I've bipped around Europe living on the fringes of what most people consider to be a normal life, but I've really liked my normal, most of the time, and I haven't wanted to think about going back to being normal normal, if you know what I mean, but if you know me, you're probably also saying, "yeah, that's not going to happen anyway, so chill out about it." And you're right. I need to take a deep breath, and shut off this poor overheating computer, and rest my poor overheating brain, and go out into the late-afternoon sunshine, and stop worrying.

So I will. Bisous, ciao.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Niš, Serbia

It hasn't taken me long to catch up with myself, this time; it's been less than three weeks since I left Hungary, and (other than the still-to-be-delayed post about cheesemaking at Gyúróikecske) I have written all of the Hungary posts. When I left France, it took me twice that long to finish up the travelogue-photoblog posts and write about the day I spent on the Charente-Maritime coast. Now it's time to write about Serbia, in the brief periods when I'm not writing about kombucha, the topic of my current massive project. More specifically, to write about Niš, Serbia - I don't have either the time or transportation to get anywhere else.

I'm not the first person who has used Niš as a resting place on the way from one place to another. The Morava River basin is one of the major north-south corridors connecting Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and the road and rail lines still go through here to Athens and to Constantinople. Constantine the Great was born here in 278 CE, in the region the Romans called Moesia Superior, when this city was named Naissus. Over the centuries many cultures have dominated the area: the Hungarian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire have all ruled here, and left their mark on local traditions and local food.

Fluffy bread from the west, tangy cheese from the south, pickled vegetables from the east, and peppers from the north (fresh, dried, or made into ajvar) all combine as accompaniments to what appears to be the Serbian national dish: grilled meat. OMG SERBIAN BARBECUE OMG, as my Facebook friends will recall me saying a few days ago. I have eaten it almost every day, and sometimes twice in one day. There are two barbecue stands not three minutes' walk away from the hostel. One is attached to a butcher shop where the owners sell the meat from their own pigs, as well as other products, and where I can get the small skinless sausages called ćevapi. The other one is nearer and slightly larger, and features skewers of chicken pieces wrapped in bacon and a larger range of salads to go with the meat. They know me there now, and when I show up they don't even wait for me to order before they start piling the chopped pickles and grated cabbage on a styrofoam takeaway plate. I generally get the grilled chicken thighs, but sometimes I'll get a small hajdučka pljeskavica (a patty made out of ground beef and smoked pork). If the servers are in a good mood, I can coax them into giving me extra salad, but sometimes I have to buy two pieces of meat to get twice as much salad. And then I eat the second piece of meat for breakfast the next day, giving me the fuel I need to type for hours on end.
The coffee here is strong and black, Turkish coffee that's boiled and served unfiltered, leaving a quarter inch of fine grounds at the bottom of the cup. There's a set of little aluminum pots that I use to make my coffee in the morning in the hostel's kitchen, and then I bring the pot and the cup up to my room and sip it while slowly waking up to the day, playing my Lexulous moves and catching up on the internet news, and peering up through the skylight to see if it's going to be an overcast rainy day or a blue-skied sunny one. In general I prefer the former, as it's hard to stay inside typing when the weather's gorgeous. I've been lucky in that it's been chilly and grey for over half my time here, so far. Though I'm not sure the permanent residents of Niš would agree.

I do eat things other than grilled meat, of course, though cooking here at the hostel has been a bit tricky because of the three temperatures on the hotplate: near-boiling, boiling, and boiling over. The owner Srdjan has been nice enough to provide me with a better pot, one that I can cook rice and lentils in fairly easily, and this week he brought back a small electrical oven that I think I'll be using more than the hotplate. I cooked rice and roasted mushrooms with green onions in it last night, and those turned out well. The hotplate's good for making coffee, and grilling bread, and doing quick stir-fried vegetables, and now that the oven is in the kitchen, I'm all set.

While Niš is full of extremely nice people, it's not exactly full of extremely scenic vistas. It's a working-class city and while this area has been inhabited for over two thousand years, not much of that history remains above ground. A few buildings date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, but most of the construction appears to have been done during the 1920s and 1930s in the architectural style called "Moderne" (think Art Deco, only with absolutely no ornamentation) or in the concrete-dominated years of financial turmoil and political turbulence between the end of World War II and 2006, when Serbia became an independent state. My impression from the graffiti (not that I can read it, of course) is that both turmoil and turbulence continue to some extent.

Belgrade definitely has more going for it from a cultural and scenic standpoint, but I'm very glad to be here in Niš, where I can walk everywhere, where there are three health food stores with gluten-free bread within a ten-block radius, and where I have this lovely hostel practically to myself. I have done some walking around and sightseeing. I found the post office, which is the only place I've found postcards. No, wait - I think I saw a few postcards in the branch of the tourist office that's nearest here, when I stopped in to get a street map. There are at least four branches in town that I've seen so far, and there's a big conference on tourism this month here. There's an international jazz festival here in the summers, and every August the "Burek Days" (Burekdžijada) festival attracts bakers from Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Turkey, and any other country where that cheese- and/or meat-filled filo pastry is made. There's a branch of the national university here, and the remains of the 18th-century Turkish fortress are a popular spot with locals and tourists alike.

So it's not as if there's nothing to do and nothing to see here in Niš, don't get me wrong. But I'm actually kind of glad that it's not a magical wonderland of exploration outside the hostel door, because then it would be much too hard to stay inside.

I told Srdjan the other day that I was feeling guilty because I haven't posted anything on the Booking.com website or any of the other places he's listed the hostel. "This is a great place and you should stay here," I want to say, "but please wait until I leave so I don't have any competition in the bathroom and can fill the refrigerator with fresh vegetables and leftover grilled meat." Since people need time to plan trips and make reservations, I'll have to start adding my glowing recommendations in the next week or so.

There was one guy who stayed here last week; he was in town for two days so that he could take a firefighter's exam, if I remember correctly. He didn't speak much English, and I speak even less Serbian, but we had a few brief chats, and when he learned how I've been spending the last nine months or so he said, "You have an interesting life." I do indeed. I saw him the morning that he was getting ready to leave, and he gave me a gift to show me that Serbians are nice people who don't bomb other people (or perhaps didn't deserve to get bombed; that particular statement was a bit unclear to me, though I agree with both interpretations) and to foster international relationships. "France! Scotland! Philadelphia! Serbia!" he said, pulling a t-shirt out of his travel bag. So now I have an authentic Serbian t-shirt to go with the completely inauthentic one I bought at one of the many used clothing stores in this neighborhood.

I wrote three more articles this morning, then lost my momentum and decided to write this post instead; my blog writing is just as important as the writing I do for my clients, I decided a few months ago, and while it's not bringing in any money it does give me a great deal of satisfaction. I'll publish this and then go out and get more grilled meat and cabbage salad, maybe read a little bit, and then listen to the news on the BBC before going to sleep, getting ready for another day of writing and walking and catching myself suddenly smiling because I am living in Serbia! I love my interesting life.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Hungarian By Love

On my last full day in Hungary, I played tourist, and went to Martonvásár, just down the road from Gyúró and a place I could have visited at any time in the seven weeks I was there, except that I wasn't in Hungary to be a tourist. I was there to be a teacher, a student, a cheesemaker, a freelance writer, a dish-washer and pálinka-drinker and unwilling-but-grateful participant in the Hungarian medical system. Still, it would have been remiss of me not to take the bus over to the main tourist destination in the region, Brunszvik Castle Park.

Regrettably, in doing so I was remiss in the area of cheese-related photoblogging, because I chose not to go with Noémi that morning to the market - in fact, I didn't make it to any of her markets, so there will be a distinct lack of official farmer's market marketing photos when I finally get around to writing up the post on my apprenticeship / stage / goat-filled interlude with the Baranyis. On the other hand, I didn't have to get up at 4am ...

And I did walk through the small market in the Martonvásár town center that sunny Saturday morning, where there were a few booths of trinkety gifts and toys, several vendors with homemade jam or fruit syrup or wine, a woman selling pickles out of the back of her car, and a handful of cheesemakers. Just to scope out the competition, I wandered by all of the cheese stands, taking pictures. One young man layers his mozzarella with pickles and bologna-style salami; an older couple makes thin braids out of their mozzarella before smoking it; and a man with a generous pálinka belly mixes his curd with everything from poppy seeds to roasted garlic before smoking and aging it in large cloth-shaped lumps. I bought a few samples for Noémi, for taste comparison and possible inspiration, and then walked across the street to the park grounds.

The Brunszviks were a noble family dating back to the late 16th century in Hungary, and by the 19th century, when they were granted the large estate in Martonvásár, they were active participants in the political sphere as well. They traveled to Vienna frequently, home to another prominent noble family, the Erdődys, noted supporters of the arts. Joszéf Erdődy was one of Haydn's patrons, and Beethoven wrote music for Anna-Marie, the wife of Péter Erdődy and an accomplished pianist. He dedicated several works to her over the years; some people speculate that she is the "Immortal Beloved" addressed in three of his letters. Beethoven met the Brunsviks through the Erdődys, and was convinced to give piano lessons to the older Brunsvik sisters Teréz and Jozefin when they were in Vienna. He later visited the family in Martonvásár several times between 1800-1810. Both sisters are also candidates for being the "Immortal Beloved" depending on which historian you believe, as is Giulietta Guicciardi, one of their cousins, also a piano student of Beethoven's and to whom he once proposed marriage. But according to a diary written by Teréz, her sister Jozefin was Beethoven's only true love, though he had to worship her from afar during her two unhappy marriages.

There's a "Beethoven Museum" built into one side of the castle (more of a large manor house, really) and I paid the entrance fee to spend a half an hour wandering around the three large rooms containing musical instruments, sheet music, painting and sketches of Beethoven and the Brunsvik family, and two pianos, one or both of which were likely played by Beethoven himself. There were plexiglass shields on top of the keyboards, alas, so I could not place my fingers over the traces of musical greatness.

The Brunszvik brother, Ferenc, was also a musician (a cellist). He married Szidónia Justh in 1823, a woman who, according to the museum's literature, "was an excellent pianist and one of the most outstanding female Beethoven interpreters of her age." The couple started a concert series in a tradition that continues today, highlighting the music of Beethoven, and hosted other prominent musicians like Vieuxtemps and Liszt.

The youngest Brunsvik daughter was named Charlotte, who doesn't seem to have been interested in music or Beethoven. In 1840 Charlotte's daughter Emma Teleki married Auguste de Gerando (in Hungarian "De Gerando Ágost"), a French author and historian who became an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. They were only married for nine years, and he died in Dresden, Germany at the age of 30. There's a memorial to him on the park grounds that reads "Magyar par Amour" ("Hungarian by Love").

Ferenc's son Géza was the last of the Brunszvik line, and shortly before his death in 1899 the castle and grounds were sold to Archduke Joseph Karl of Austria (József Károly Lajos), who appears to have been a sort of third cousin, or second cousin twice removed, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (at least if I am tracing my way through the Hapsburg-Lorraine family tree correctly) whose assassination in what was then part of Serbia intensified an already simmering conflict between that state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Relations had been fairly unpleasant for centuries due to the presence of the Ottoman Empire, under whose rule the former Hapsburgian Kingdom of Serbia became the property of the rulers in Constantinople. After the First and Second Serbian Uprisings at the beginning of the 19th century, Serbia was independent of both empires, but exactly how much territory belonged to the new country remained (remains) in dispute, especially the polyglot region north of Belgrade called Vojvodina, or Vajdaság if you speak Hungarian, which nearly a quarter of the population does today.

The Archduke only used the manor for four years, and sold it to Budapest's "King of Beer," Anton Dreher, whose father started brewing beer in Kőbánya (District X in southeastern Budapest) in 1854. The Dreher family (or the "Dreher family of industrial magnets" according to the park literature) owned Brunszvik Manor for nearly half a century, but during World War II it was used as a military hospital, taken over by the Hungarian state, and then largely abandoned for a decade. In the 1950s the Hungarian Academy of Sciences restored the building, and several research campuses are established in the 70 hectares of park grounds, which is maintained by the Hungarian Centre for Agricultural Research. The English-style garden includes a variety of imported trees (Japanese pagoda tree, Swamp cypress, English oak, Ginkgo, Giant sequoia) and they have lots of conferences there on topics like invasive species, wheat production, bat-borne viruses, and plant breeding.

On one side of the grounds the wild garlic (called "bear's garlic" in Hungarian, as it is in French) was coming up through the fallen leaves, and several women were crunching through the undergrowth, filling plastic bags. I walked around the lake, enjoying the sunshine and thinking about my time in Hungary, and how much I hope to be able to return. There are lots of places I never got to in Budapest, including the suburb of Isaszeg, where my great-grandmother was born. And the medieval town of Kapuvár, my great-grandfather's birthplace. And the entire Nagy Alföld, the Great Plain that is the setting for Kate Seredy's 1935 children's book "The Good Master", with its lyrical descriptions of late 19th century rural life in Hungary, filled with horses and hard work, the first of which I yearned for as a child, the second of which I am only now beginning to appreciate as an adult.

There's so much more to explore in Hungary: the musical history, the different wine regions, the language, and of course the cheese. I'll have to come back with a car next time so that I have more mobility and can easily get around, though the train system is pretty comprehensive and easy to use. Mom and I have a very tentative palacsinta-in-the-sky plan to perhaps, maybe, go to Hungary in 2019 to celebrate the 111th birthday of her mother, my grandmother Katharine Kish (or Katalin Kis, had she been born in Budapest like her sisters). I'll have to start saving my forint now.

I'm grateful for my time as a temporarily-adopted Hungarian, in any event, and for the generosity of the Baranyis. I am so glad that it was Noémi who answered my mass mailing to Hungarian cheesemakers offering to work for room and board, and I wish her all the success in the world with her cheese and her farm and her family. Someday, when I wake up fluent in Hungarian, I'll be back, une Magyar par amour.

Il est impossible de ne pas être frappé de la beauté de cette race. Les Magyars sont grands, élancés, musculeux: leurs yeux et leurs moustaches sont noirs; ils ont le nez aquilin, les traits réguliers, et cet air de dignité que est l'apanage des Orientaux ... Vous ne trouverez dans aucun pays de l'Europe un peuple qui ait conservé ce caractère belliqueux, qui du premier au dernier homme soit éminemment cavalier comme "a' vitéz magyar nemzet," la vaillante nation magyare, ainsi qu'on dit toujours. Il n'en est pas qui ait acquis une telle réputation de loyauté, d'héroïsme et de bravoure chevaleresque ... La langue hongroise est colorée, pleine d'images et de métaphores. Le paysan appelle sa femme csillagom, "mon étoile"; gyöngyöm, "ma perle."It is impossible to not be struck by the beauty of these people. The Hungarians are tall, slender, muscular; their eyes and their mustaches are black; they have aquiline noses, regular facial features, and that dignified air that is characteristic of the Orientals ... In no other European country will you find a people who have retained such a martial bearing, who from the first man to the last is so outstandingly brave, the valiant Magyar nation, as all call them. No other people have earned an equal reputation for loyalty, heroism, and chivalrous deeds ... The Hungarian language is colorful, rich in imagery and metaphor. The farmer calls his wife "my shining star," "my pearl."

- from "Essai historique sur l'origine des Hongrois" by Auguste de Gérand (1844)