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Sólyom Visits Wellington

September 29th, 2009 No comments

The President of Hungary,  László Sólyom, visited Wellington on Sunday, 27th September as part of a four-day visit to New Zealand.  The last time the President of Hungary visited New Zealand was on 1999 when Árpád Göncz came to our shores.  I don’t want to write a lot about Sólyom’s visit or about what he said, or what he did.  Sólyom is a somewhat controversial figure in Hungary and especially so given the toxic political environment there and he carries a reputation for being somewhat austere and remote almost.  This is especially so in comparison to Göncz who was known affectionately in Hungarian as Árpi bácsi, which is the avuncular form of his name.   And my memory of him was exactly that: the delightful, charming uncle of the family. He took an immediate fondness to our children, Zsófi and Gábor, when he met them we have a charming photo of him sitting on a couch, the children sitting either side of him, his arms stretched around each of them.  Mind you, when Göncz had visited Melbourne, Australia, prior to coming here, one or two Hungarians had shouted “rat” at his speech to the strong local Hungarian community – a reference to his alleged informing on his fellow prisoners while in the Vác prison as a result of his anti-government activities in 1956. So as with anything Hungarian one must always be mindful of the shadows.

Paver To Commeorate Visit of Dr.  László Sólyom

Paver To Commemorate the visit of László Sólyom

But back to Sólyom and his visit to Wellington.  The highlight was a state luncheon in his honour, held in Parliament and hosted by the New Zealand government and the Magyar Millennium Park Trust, the organisation that manages the Hungarian Garden here. In a short ceremony at around noon, he laid a special paver in commemoration of his visit here and then proceeded, on foot, to Parliament Building, some 300 metres away, entourage in tow.  The lunch was a success.  There were speeches of course, but all were relevant, short and worth listening too, including that of course by His Excellency. There were also performances by various members of the local Hungarian community.  The President was especially taken with the performance of the local children’s dance group and at the end of their performance gladly posed for a group photo with them. He looked genuinely happy to do so.

Dr. László Sólyom, President of Hungary, and the Wellington Hungarian children's dance group. Parliament, 27 September 2009

László Sólyom, President of Hungary, and the Wellington Hungarian children's dance group. Parliament, 27 September 2009

His speech was warm and to the point.  Hungarians should preserve their culture and stick together as much as possible.  He spoke in Hungarian but he had an interpreter for the English-only amongst the audience.  ( I must say that the interpreter was  sublime.  He managed to convey the President’s words in perfect English with a warmth and sincerity that was appreciated by everyone.  I understand he has been the English interperter for several Hungarian Prime Ministers and it is easy to see why. He is the best.)  Sólyom was keen to hear of practical suggestions as to how Hungarians so far from their homeland can maintain their “Hungarianess” and offered to make himself available to those at the luncheon who wished to talk with him.  And this he did.  Many came up to him, spoke their piece, had their photograph taken with him, and moved on.

The President of Hungary, Dr.  László Sólyom, meets with local Hungarians, Wellington, New Zealand

The President of Hungary, Dr László Sólyom, meets with local Hungarians, Wellington, New Zealand

I was most impressed indeed at his openness and good manner in which he took it all.  I am sure he gave many who spoke with him a good listening to.  Anyone who knows Hungarians, will know that they are not shy about speaking their mind, not matter whom they are speaking with!  The point here was that he made himself accessible to any and all who wanted to have a few words with him.  Good on him, I say!  He may not seem that charismatic on television or other media, but in person he came across as a warm, caring man. Perhaps he is not quite Laci bácsi[1], but nonetheless he is clearly a good man.

I am glad to have been part of his visit, and glad that he visited our shores, the most distant of any from Hungary.

Footnotes

Back to post. 1 László is the same as Leslie in English. It is probably of Slavic origin because in Czech and Russian the equivalent is Vladislav. In Hungarian the diminutive, Laci or Les in English, is most commonly used for anyone called László.  Bácsi means Uncle so Laci bácsi literally means Uncle Les, but somehow in Hungarian, it sounds and means something much more affectionate and avuncular.

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In Decline: Still

September 6th, 2009 No comments

Hungary's Population 1970-1996

Hungary's Population 1970-1996

On of the tasks I do each edition of the Magyar Szó is to collect recent snippets of English-language news about Hungary in a regular column, called, not surprisngly, Recent News From Hungary. I have been doing this for many years now and one the common themes has been the decline in Hungary’s population. In the most recent pronouncement [pdf link] from the Central Statistical Office (Központi Statisztikai Hivatalt) Hungary’s population stands at a smidgen over 10 million at 10,020,000 as at 30 June. In the first six months of this year, there were 47,110 births and 66,590 deaths, a net loss of some 19,500. After taking itno account international migration, the Office calculates the number of people living in Hungary at the above level. So, assuming the same rate of decline in Hungary’s population continues into 2010, the number of Magyars living “within the borders” will be as close to 10 million as it is to measure.

Four years ago Hungary’s population was 10,084,000 but in 2001, according to last major census, the population was 10,198,315. So it appears that the psychological mark of 10 millions will be breached soon. There is of cousre a much more complex story going on too: for example, the Roma population has a much a higher birth rate and that clearly has major implications for Hungary in almost all areas of policy.

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Categories: Hungary, Musings Tags: , ,

Paul Erdős: Another Hungarian Genius

September 5th, 2009 No comments
Paul Erdős and his Mother

Paul Erdős and his Mother

I am currently writing an article for the Magyar Szó on Paul Erdős as part of the series, Famous Hungarians. Before I started researching for the article, I knew next-to-nothing about him, other than he was Hungarian and had something to do with mathematics. What a truly fascinating character in turned out to be! First of all he was born at the end of what I think was the most fertile, prosperous and extraordinary time in modern Hungarian history, perhaps matched by the glory of Mathias reign in the 15th Century. That time was of course the decades after the Compromise of 1867 and outbreak of World War I. These nearby forty years produced many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century such Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Leo Sziliard, Andre Kertesz, Frank Capa – the list goes on and on. Nearly of these individuals were born in Budapest and many were Jewish. For some reason the creativity and intelligence found fertile ground in Budapest at this time. Erdős was born into this great circle in 1913.

What is remarkable about his early life is how protected he was by his Mother – no doubt spurred by the loss of her two daughters to scarlet fever a few days before Erd&;#337;s was born and that her husband was a prisoner of war for nearly six years. She did everything for Paul apparently. He didn’t tie is own shoes till 14 and didn’t know how to butter toast at 21! Amazing. Throughout his life he never bothered with the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday tasks of like such as cooking, washing clothes, learning to drive, having a bank account, cooking a meal, mowing the lawns, getting a mortgage… you get the picture.

Erdős was always looked after by a wide circle of friends who found him stimulating to be around. Thus he always had people to take care of such things. But he was an extraordinary generous man. Once when a student sought to repay a $1000 that Erdős that given to him so that he could go to Harvard, Erdős refused to accept the repayment. But what should I do with the money, the student asked. “What I did with it”, came the reply.

I always try to finds the Hungarianness in such people, even after they invariably leave Hungary. Erdős, like many Hungarians loved language and word-plays. His use of English was consistently quirky as with many Hungarians. He was also concerned with becoming senile and he fretted constantly about old-age. he combined his love of language and his neurosis when he parodied some lines from Pétőfi’s famous poem, One Thought/Egy gondolat bánt engemet.. when he wrote, ‘One thought disturbs me, that I may decease/In slowing progressing Alzheimer’s disease.’ A particularly amusing example of his peculiar use of language was when he mother, who began to learn English at the age of 84, asked him, “Pálko, what is the English word for ‘szilva’ [plum]?”. “Plimm, mother, plimm.”, was his reply. Anyone who has heard a Hungarian speak English with that ‘quirkiness’ they seem to possess, will appreciate how funny that must have sounded.

I am not all qualified to judge is contribution to mathematics but his output was prolific – some 1500 papers – over his long life-time. Indeed it lead to the development of the concept known as “Erdős Number”. This is used by mathematicians, and other scientists too, to measure their ‘collaborative closeness to having worked on a paper with Erdős. For example, if you co-authored a paper with Erd?s you had an Erdős number of 1, if you co-authored a paper with someone who had an Erdős number of 1, then your Erdős Number was 2. And so on. Naturally his own Erdős number was 0! Mathematicians in particular treasure there Erdős number as a badge of honour. Those with a number of 3 or less are considered notable in their own right. Needless to say, a goodly number of these are Hungarians. But not only mathematicians are measured by their Erdős number. If you look at Nobel Prize winners in Physics, Chemistry or even Economics you see many with a Erdős Number of 2, 3 or 4. Albert Einstein as an Erdős number of 2 and even Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has an Erdős number of 4.

A wonderful man and another Hungarian genius! I’ll post the full article once it is published in the Magyar Szó.

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Bad Language: Slovaks Seek Inferior Versions Of Themselves Through New Language Law

September 4th, 2009 1 comment

This is currently a lot of tension between Hungary and Slovakia over the passage, on 30 June, of a Slovakian law that restricts, and in some cases punishes by fine, the use of the Hungarian language. For example, Section 9/a of the law prescribes that fines ranging from 100 to 5,000 EUR be issued for perceived shortcomings or violations of the law. This means that in many workplaces (transport services, post offices and fire stations, as well as the police, local governments or any company) fines may be imposed, if ethnic Hungarian employees providing services to ethnic Hungarians use Hungarian in their official capacity. Since, according to Slovak law, the employee is responsible for fines imposed upon his/her workplace, fines imposed on the workplace de facto amount to fines imposed upon ethnic Hungarians for using their native language. In addition, §11 and 11/a of the law de facto provide for retroactive penalties and mandate the replacement of existing monuments, memorial plaques, and gravestones (!) whose inscriptions are largely or entirely in Hungarian, and prescribes that the cost of the required modifications must be borne by the legal or natural persons who erected or commissioned them.

Not unnaturally Hungarians are united in their opposition to this new law. This is even more surprising given the fractious nature of Hungarian politics where the opposition FIDESZ and the Socialist Government are barely on speaking terms. But on this issue, all seem united. Which is a Good Thing. Of course the Slovaks feel misunderstand and claim that the new law does not discriminate against the use of Hungarian, but ‘merely’ promotes the use of the Slovakian. For example, a recent press release from the ‘News Agency of the Slovak Republic: Transparent News”, begins by saying, “Slovakia’s Culture Ministry won’t officially co-operate with the ethnic-Hungarian SMK party vis-a-vis the State Language Act until the party recants on the lies it has spread about the legislation, ministry spokesman Jozef Bednar told TASR on Thursday. [3 September 2009].” [1]

Another recent release claims..”“During discussions he [Premier Minister Robert Fico]is ready to discuss any topics proffered by the Hungarian side. But he reiterates that unilateral accusations against Slovakia consistently raised by Hungary lie behind the deterioration of Slovak-Hungarian relations,” according to the premier’s spokesperson Silvia Glendova. [2]

So, what is one to make of all of this? My sympathies are with the Hungarians on this. But I can not add anything new or original or insightful to the current argument. It has all been said before and one of the impulses with this blog is not to be part of the echo chamber that is so often the blogsphere. If at all possible, I would like to say something new or at least ‘echo’ one of the lesser heard voices. So here goes:

Damaged Palffy family grave in Bratislava

Damaged Palffy family Grave in Bratislava

In 2006 we travelled to Slovakia visiting, amongst other places, the capital, Bratislava, (Poszony, in Hungarian). We were particularly keen to St Martins Cathedral (Szent Márton-dóm or Koronázó templom in Hungarian). This cathedral has a special place in Hungarian history as many of the Hungarian kings, including the great Matthias, were crowned here. Two observations: none of the pamphlets or literature in the Cathedral were in the Hungarian language, only in Slovakian, English or German. A small slight you may say. You may even say that since Hungarians know their history so well, there is no need for information in their language. Whatever the official reason, the intent is clear: to reduce and marginalise the Hungarian heritage of this cathedral.

Secondly, on the outside the family grave of one of the great Hungarian Nobility, Count Palffey, had been damaged and had clearly remained unrepaired for some time. Both of these small signs were clearly felt as deliberate and calculated slights to the Hungarian heritage.

Lastly, I will echo the comment of the Hungarian poet and translator, George Szirtes, who neatly and accurately summed the Slovak impulse behind the new Language Law when he observed: “Stop them speaking to each other, is the solution. Watch them carefully. Make their lives as hard as you can. They should not be aiming to be a version of themselves, but an inferior version of us.[3]

We live in our language and anything that diminishes the use and free expression of our language, diminishes us.

Footnotes
  1. See Culture Ministry: SMK Must Retract Lies on State Language Act. Click here to Return to Post
  2. See Fico Surprised at Ignorance of Hungary about Slovak Language Act. Click here to Back to post
  3. This quote is taken from the following post on his excellent blog, http://georgeszirtes.blogspot.com/2009/09/language-crime-mountain-language.html Click here to Back to post
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Where Does It End? – The Paternoster

September 3rd, 2009 No comments

For some reason I was reminded tonight of the wonderful lift, known as a paternoster, I often used whenever I visited the Corvina bookshop in Vörösmarty tér [Square] in Budapest. According to Wikipedia [is there anything you can’t find out about on Wikipedia?] a paternoster is “a passenger elevator which consists of a chain of open compartments (each usually designed for two persons) that move slowly in a loop up and down inside a building without stopping. Passengers can step on or off at any floor they like.” Yes, but that doesn’t give the sense of excitement you feel when you literally jump into the lift as it slowly passes by. It doesn’t stop. You jump on. You need to have timing and courage. And getting off is the same. It doesn’t stop. You jump off. That requires timing and courage too. There are no doors, just “open compartments” in which you hope there is no-one. Because they may get in the way.

Typically, there are two paternosters: one goes up, one goes down. I was never brave enough to go “all the way” on a paternoster and see what would happen at the top, or at the bottom. How would it be at the limits? Would it magically change places with the other lift and change direction? Surely not. Perhaps it would simply stop, and reverse direction. As I say, I never found out. Perhaps it was a lack of courage: or a lack of knowledge of how to say in Hungarian, “Help, I am stuck in a paternoster and can’t get off.” Or maybe I never really wanted to. Some things are best left imagined.

The Corvina bookshop was, as I say located on Vórösmarty tér in downtown Budapest, at one end of Váci utca [Street]. Borders it was not. It did however have the one of the best, and cheapest, selections of English-language books in Budapest and therefore in all of Hungary. Well, at least that was my experience when I lived there, in another lifetime. Perhaps now it has changed and is no more. I hope not. Typically whenever I went there, I was the only one in the bookshop; well, large room, with tables full of books, is a better description, alone with the assistant, who behaved as if he or she had been banished to a form of purgatory that involved dealing with foreigners. Actually that is unfair. Most shop assistants in Hungary look like they are in purgatory, not just those in the Corvina bookshop.

Outside on the square below I could see the many tourists having their portraits done by the caricaturists that are a feature of the square – just like anywhere else really – or buying authentic Hungarian souvenirs that included tea-towels of the Chain Bridge. Of course, I felt smug as I literally looked down on them. The Corvina bookshop was the real Hungary, I thought, full of wonderful literature, surly shop assistants, looking in askance at outsiders, a secret place known only to those with a true love of this place, an island of sound, in the heart of Europe. Or known to those who braved the paternoster, but knew enough not to want to know how it all ends. Our Father, who art in heaven….

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Categories: Hungary Tags: , ,