I had to go to Budapest, for work. I wasn't looking forward to the trip. I had traveled to Budapest several other times for work, and with each visit I found it increasingly depressing. I had first gone there with my family in August of 1996, after finishing up a summer internship at the Saxon State Chancellery in Dresden, Germany, where I did nothing but drink tea and read governmental brochures all day. Budapest was sunny and hot during our visit, and I was impressed by the bizarre language and the attractive male inhabitants. That was back when I was young and still had an interest in that sort of subject, so I classified Budapest as a place I liked.
I went there again for work for about two months in the winter of 2001. I made a lot of friends early on, since that was when I still took an interest in things and tried to make an effort. I went out to a bar the first night I was there! I ended up having a lot of fun, although I got sick with a disgusting and persistent illness during the second half of my stay. Despite the initial good times, the city started to acquire an ominous atmosphere, and I was overwhelmed with relief when I left for a short vacation in cheerful Istanbul.
I then went back for two trips in 2008. Despite it being the summer, and despite the city looking much spiffier than 1996 or 2001, I found the place gloomier than ever. I couldn't quite determine what was bothering me. The Hungarian capital, despite still being pretty shabby in many parts, is undeniably beautiful. The legacy of Communism is still visible, however: there are plenty of ugly buildings in the outskirts and even plunked down in the center of the city, and the accumulated neglect of those 40 years gives Budapest (or Bratislava, or even theme-parky Prague -- anywhere in the former Communist world) a quality that distinguishes it from any city in Italy, Austria or western Germany. It's hard to describe it until you've experienced it firsthand, although this bleak, post-Communist quality should theoretically be diminishing every day as buildings are renovated or replaced and additional persons with no experience of Communism become adults -- unless of course the pathologies associated with Soviet totalitarianism are being passed from parent to child.
In any case, on this trip, I realized an additional source of my unease: the Hungarian language. I was so excited on my first trip to Hungary because of the language -- who wouldn't be excited to visit an outpost of non-Indo-European agglutination in the heart of Europe? I never learned more than a few words, but I always thought that it was cool and interesting. And it sounds wonderful: the slightly robotic rhythm of its distant cousin Finnish, gentle Swedish-sounding vowels, and plenty of the purring consonants made famous by the Gábor sisters.
Things start off amusingly enough. You can't guess what any word means.
You might assume that a beverage called tej would be tea. But it's milk.
Your sandwich might taste like sajt (ˈʃɒjt), if you order cheese.
You arrive at each door unsure weather to push or pull. Eventually I decided that húzni sounded like a noise you would make when pulling something.
When choosing between wine and beer, you have to remember that bor is wine, not beer.
Sör (ˈʃør) is beer, and a söröző is like the French brasserie, but much weirder.
A newspaper is hírlap. Of course.
Virág is flower, and honey is méz. Why not?
The cumulative effect of all of these strange words was unsettling and disorienting.
Looking for a restaurant? It's an étterem, or worse, a vendéglő.
Checking into your hotel? That's a szálloda.
Need the police? Call the rendőrség.
Of course I have been to many places where I couldn't speak the language. But Hungary looks so normal and familiar (western Hungary resembles Ohio), and Hungarians don't dress in odd foreign costumes or have exotic features, so continuous immersion in the Hungarian language makes one wonder if one might be in some strange dream where everything has suddenly become unintelligible and everyone has started speaking gibberish.
I started to feel like I was in the Ingmar Bergman film The Silence (Tystnaden).
The words surrounding me grew increasingly menacing.
Who knows what I'm eating or drinking? I thought.
Have I broken a law?
Am I in danger? I wondered.
I would run down the street to my hotel after work, locking myself in my room and watching German and French television with the volume turned up.
I wondered if I was schizophrenic. I was obsessed with schizophrenia when I was in college and used to read a scholarly schizophrenia journal in the library when I wanted to procrastinate. It always included first-hand testimonials from those suffering from the disorder, and I remember reading about a woman who reported that certain brands of breakfast cereal had come to seem evil, while others good.
Hungarian seemed evil. Or scary, at least.
I remembered that, when I was working in Budapest in 2001, I passed a store every day called Aranypók.
Because of the spiderweb logo, I had assumed that arany meant "spider", like the Castilian araña, Catalan aranya, or French araignée. Pók must mean "web", I reasoned. But when I asked my Hungarian colleagues to confirm my guess, they said that, no, I was wrong. Pók meant "spider". Arany meant "gold". I gave up on ever guessing any of these crazy Finno-Ugric words. Later, however, I somehow learned that the word pók was a Slavic one, and not brought by the Magyars out of the underground caves beneath the Urals from which they emerged. Out of curiosity, I looked up arany; I was shocked to learn that it came from the Latin aurum.
It turned out that many Hungarian words were borrowed from other languages, just not languages I had much familiarity with. They were also often modified beyond recognition. The word for "book", könyv, was also Slavic (the Magyars didn't have books in their Urheimat). They didn't have shops either, apparently, so they took the Italian word for "vault" (!?), volta, and changed it to bolt.
I calmed down after a few days there, embracing the surrealness of it all. I had never done psychedelic (ψυχή + δῆλος) drugs, but I just tried to relax to keep the trip from getting any worse, since I had read that that was important in those situations. Sadly, I was too busy to do my Ancient Greek homework, which would have been comforting (Ancient Greek is not evil, but good), and, as I was missing two sessions, it was likely that I would fall irrevocably behind and have to drop the class.
I focused on some less frightening things about Hungary.
Although I had read a few years back that some Hungarian paprika (Hungarian: paprika! -- clearly of Slavic origin) had been contaminated with dried red paint. And the Hungarians were having new problems with red things. I remembered learning that Hungarian was unique in having two basic words for the color we call "red": piros and vörös.
Paprika was piros, while the red sludge that destroyed the town of Ajka was vörös. We will never be able to understand why, I thought.