Never Make A Hungarian Laugh


“Do you have anything by Beata Palya?”

The clerk had a plump red face that looked out with annular eyes. He turned to the man with a cane, perched upon a bar stool chair behind him. The pair conferred briefly in Magyar. Shoulders shrugged. I tried again, as if my pronunciation of the Hungarian language had improved in the last ten seconds. He miraculously understood.

“Oh, you mean Palya Bea!”

The record label must have rearranged her name for the American market. I, for one, am a consequence of such identity reorientation. Most people already mispronounce my last name, BEAR-es, with Burr-EZ and, oddly, Beers. When my grandfather landed in Carteret from a small Hungarian village, it had been bear-ESH, something with no chance in New Jersey.

The clerk’s slight smile faded, like a baby whose burp you think brings pleasure, instead of mere temporary satisfaction. “Yes, we have her.”

He opened a long drawer and pulled out three cases, two with the name I first mispronounced. I thumb Adieu les complexes, recognizing it as the one I had previously sampled online. The clerk eyed me suspiciously, figuring that was the one I would go for.

“This is her latest. Much more Hungarian.” He shoves Álom-Álom, Kitalálom into my hand. I shake my head with unemotional solidarity, the best game face to play in Budapest.

“I’ll take all three.”

He doesn’t smile as he runs my card through for 22,500 forints, $91. If I could read Magyar, I could have found the torrents in a minute. In my ancestral homeland for the first time, however, I was there to buy music. As well as my new mission: make a grumpy Hungarian record store clerk laugh.

Later that day I asked a newfound friend who had studied in America if paying $30 for an album was normal. “Completely,” he said, not missing a beat. “It’s terrible. That’s what music costs here. Things will change when we switch to the Euro.” This was October 2009. The Euro would be implemented in January, or so politicians thought. Ridiculously high deficits forced the conversion date to be moved to 2020. Maybe.

The next morning I stumbled into the basement of Kaláka Zenebolt after a night grappling with my new love, Pálinka. My clerk friend hadn’t moved, nor does he acknowledge me. I’m relieved—given the demise of the American record store, it’s reassuring to know that music snobbery is universal.

Still, I had a mission. I was on a quest for  Boban Markovic. The Serbian trumpet player is famous for winning giant brass festivals in Eastern Europe, as well as being infamous for how he wins. I recalled interviewing him  at New York’s Joe’s Pub in 2005, feeling as though I was sitting with a brazen mafia crew. Later I would find out I wasn’t far off the mark.

Boban was playing that night in Budapest. The Serb had won the hearts of the Hungarian populace after recording an album with local violinist Lajkó Félix. Having no clue what the name of the record was, I approach my buddy to plead my case. Hoping to wow him, I tragically spit out Maga sokkal jobban tud angolul, mint én magyarul, or “Your English is far better than my Hungarian.” Wordlessly, he pulls out Srce Cigansko. I pay the extortion fee and leave.

That night I was blown away as Boban and his young son—heir to the Balkan brass mafia throne, Marko—dominate the stage. At Joe’s Pub there had been maybe 80 people politely nodding along. Here thousands of Hungarians sang and clapped inside of the sparkling Béla Bartók music hall, nestled on the Danube in the recently constructed Muvészetek Palotája. The entire spectacle gave me a sense of pride in a people I really didn’t and would probably never know. I was lucky enough just to be there, given my incredible map skills on display as I tried to find the venue.

Serbian brass music is some of the most outlandish and upbeat in the world, the intriguing result of wartime marching songs rushing up and down the mountains of Eastern Europe to India and back again. “Gypsies never liked the military,” Markovic had told me in New York. I didn’t contest the fact.

But that didn’t change my dilemma. I had to try a new approach with my dour pal. I wouldn’t be militant; bold would be my adjective of choice. I would break down his sadness. He would chuckle.

The next morning I descend into the basement declaring that I needed an album of Béla Bartók’s peasant songs. I even bought what turned out to be a terribly written book on the composer’s life in the upstairs bookstore. The beautiful, subtle Mikrokkosmos came home with me, as did his 44 Duos and a collection of Hungarian dances for violin and piano by Brahms. My friend, who by now I’d secretly named Ferenc, didn’t blink.

My father’s name is Ferenc. He smiles and laughs. I was in no way paying homage to him. In America, you rarely hear the name. In Hungary, every other street or metro station involves it. It seemed a natural choice.

“The best writers of Hungary,” wrote the historian John Lukacs, “living in Budapest around 1900, had autumn in their hearts…The deepest, the truest sound of Magyar prose is not that of a canting and chanting violin; it is that of a cello.”

The 600-page history book I pick up later that day, The Hungarians by Paul Lendavi, is subtitled 1000 Years of Victory in Defeat. The country has spent 1,118 years acting as a ping-pong ball for competing European superpowers, continually subjected by the whims of larger, more potent nations. While it’s been over two decades since the fall of communism, the country is so wrapped up in foreign economies that it is today an unspoken domino in the European recession.

A proud people? Certainly. Happy? Such a loaded term.

Ferenc didn’t express joy on the last morning I visited. I had spent three nights at a sanitarium-turned-hotel hugging Lake Balaton, a popular national vacation destination. I was never informed that the building perched upon the giant lake was once a psychiatric hospital. After being charged $20 for a four-minute taxi ride from the train station, the long, gravel driveway reminded me of the Lost episodes in which Hugo lives in an asylum. A quick Google search proved me right. The bowling alley in the basement and cheap peach Pálinka kept me occupied, even if I could hear the jókedv haunting the rafters all night long.

Finally, I chose a different tactic: I would let Ferenc decide what I was buying. On this, my fourth and final visit, I played an even dumber version of myself. I told him I’m a few generations removed from this great land. I needed reconnection. I needed to re-root. He took pity and, at last, an honest smile! I even detected that hint of laughter I so desperately craved.

One hundred dollars later I walked out with a copy of Parno Grazt’s Ez A Világ Nekem Való (ironically, I already had the band’s excellent Ravagok a zongorara), Csík Zenekar’s Ez A Vonat, Ha Elindult, Hadd Menjen… and Olah Vince & Earth Wheel Sky Band From India to Ibiza, this gem with some prodding—I had loved the band’s Waltz Rromano.

Returning to Brooklyn with a sizable credit card bill, I soon discovered my error when reading an old Hungarian folk tale. “When A Magyar Gets Really Angry” tells the story of a peasant and his vineyard. A fox family keeps messing with his land, ripping up his vines and drinking his grapes. The tender yells and yells at the four-legged crew, to no avail. One day the fox mother comes home, expecting to hear how the peasant had yelled again. Her cubs tell a different story. The man had laughed hysterically.

“We’d better move from here at once,” the fox mother told her confused cubs. “When a Magyar gets really angry, he’ll just start laughing.”

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