Theatre of the Absurd

It was with great joy that I happened to notice the forthcoming performance of a play (Macskajáték) last month, by one of my favourite Hungarian writers, Őrkény, to be staged in the Thália theatre.

Having waited a long time to see my other favourite of his plays (Tóthék), and being familiar with the phenomenon of performances being sold out the very day tickets become available – even in the days before the internet – I rushed home to book tickets online. I was in luck – some still remained and my card payment went through without a hitch. However, when I opened my email account there was no confirmation of the purchase and no tickets waiting to be printed. It was a Saturday evening, and I decided to wait until Monday in the event that the procedure was only slow and not faulty. By Tuesday – the first day I had time to make a personal visit to the theatre – I had still to receive any form of communication regarding my tickets.

I approached the box office in the beautiful foyer of the theatre and waited my turn. I then explained I had paid for two tickets but had not received the promised email nor the e-tickets.
“Are you sure you’ve checked your emails carefully?”
And your Spam box?”
The woman then enlightened me that it was not the theatre itself which managed the internet ticket site, and therefore she could not help me. She suggested I go to my bank and ask for a print-out of a statement showing that payment had gone through, and then return to her with it. It was already past bank closing hours, and I had no intention of queuing for an hour after work on another day in order to acquire the document, and then return to queue again at the box office. I asked what the situation would be if I lived in another part of the country and could not come to the capital – after all, purchasing goods online is intended to facilitate matters, not involve hours of queuing and travelling. No answer.

In desperation, she pointed to a glass door opposite bearing the inscription Management, and told me to try there. The door was locked, though three young women were clearly visible on the other side, chatting. I knocked and was buzzed to enter. Here I explained the situation once again, and was again informed that it had nothing to do with the theatre. Their suggestion was that I contact the company managing online ticket sales, and they scribbled their telephone number on a scrap of paper.
“How about you ringing them now while I’m here?” I asked.
This brought a look of shock to their faces, but having no ready reason why they could not do so, the woman dialled without any acknowledgement of my request. She handed the receiver to me, whereupon I told the story for now the third time.

The new woman told me that the purchase could be seen – not only on her screen, but on the theatre’s network – whereupon I asked her to repeat this to her ‘colleague’ in the office where I stood. Szia Éva….persze, persze….(Hi Éva…of course, of course.)
“The email was sent to you,” she elucidated, unsmilingly, “But it has now been re-sent.” And with that she turned to one of the other women and resumed the conversation I had no doubt interrupted. Then, as I emerged from the glass doors, the woman in the box office called to me:
“Did you manage to get it sorted out?”
“Yes, thank you. They’re re-sending the email – but I never did get one.”
“Yes – several people have been in to complain about that…”

The evening itself provided a fitting postscript to the purchase of the tickets: swathes of elegantly dressed theatre-goers who had arrived in good time for the performance, were kept waiting in a tightly-packed crowd outside the theatre doors, unable to access the bar, toilets or their seats until three minutes before curtain up.
The play itself was wonderful – small wonder that such a master of the Absurd should have sprung from this country.


Ignorance is Bliss

Returning home from work on one of the warmer afternoons last week, I saw a woman sweating her way towards me on the otherwise deserted path. She was still some distance off, but I could make out that she was carrying several bulging bags as well as the jacket she had divested, as she trudged heavily in my direction. When she came within a few metres of me, I realised she belonged to that category of people impossible to age: their youth prematurely truncated by an excess of food, drink and Life in Hungary; now careworn, obese and unkempt. Looking towards her again, my attention was caught by the English words emblazoned on her tightly stretched t-shirt. They read: Go on, admit it – you’ve got the hots for me. Little could have been more incongruous, and I felt certain she could have not the slightest inkling of the message she was broadcasting, on a garment she had most likely found in one of the numerous second-hand clothes shops that have sprung up in recent years.

Before 1989, anything which could be identified as having originated from kint, (abroad, and not socialist) was a status symbol, whether it was a pair of Levi jeans or merely a carrier bag bearing the name of a foreign shop. This was true to the extent that a friend persuaded me to part with two old Indian skirts in exchange for a fridge, and it also resulted in daily requests for me to sell a PVC shopping bag with the Cinzano label printed on it, when I made my shopping trips to the market on Garay tēr where we lived. Unconvincing imitations of foreign goods were also manufactured inside the country’s borders – unidentifiable from the genuine article to all but a small handful of people with a smattering of a foreign language – a real rarity – or those who had managed to travel abroad. Thus it was that one of the alcoholics who was as permanent a feature of the market as the flower-sellers, owned a sweatshirt purportedly from ‘Oxsford University.’

Yet this phenomenon was perpetuated into the 90s. Our elderly neighbours at that time had a son who had defected to America, and who every now and then would send a parcel for his elderly parents. Maybe he considered it of no consequence in a country where few knew English (including his parents) but the sweatshirt he sent his 70-year-old mother, and which she proudly wore for our weekly shopping trip to the local market, bore the sizeable inscription: Fuck You! It was as uncomfortable as it was unavoidable that I impart to her the meaning of the words on her new garment.

Today, it is more ambiguous as to the intention with which such clothes are worn. The attractive young woman selling hot dogs at the Palatinus swimming pool on the Margaret Island, may well have known the meaning on her t-shirt: Can you maintain me? Though whether the white-haired porter working at a small hospital for the elderly where I go regularly, knew the meaning of his, I doubt. As he wandered the corridors, pushing octo- and nonagenarians in their wheelchairs, and politely greeting their visiting relatives (for the most part, also elderly), he appeared sublimely ignorant of the message on display on the front of his t-shirt: Born 2 FXXK.
Ignorance is bliss….


Cock and Ball Story

Living in distant – and not so distant – parts, is an education on a number of fronts. Certainly, living among the locals, shopping and cooking, brings one into direct contact with the culture in a way mere tourism, or even travelling, cannot.

In 1980, I was dispatched to the southern town of Baja (still a favourite) to undertake a few weeks’ teaching. The students were of lower intermediate level, and morning sessions frequently began with questions about the previous evening, and morning routines. On asking one of the weaker members of the group about that morning’s breakfast, I got the following response (in an accent as thick as any Hungarian stew): ‘I had some bread, some tea and some cold dog.’ I blinked; then I moved quickly on to the next student, silently telling myself different countries, different habits… However, having come full circle back to the first man, I asked him to repeat what he had said (in the vain hope that I had misheard). But no - he repeated it verbatim. Possibly some involuntary facial expression prompted him to elucidate, ‘Not hot dog – cold dog.’ Of course.

The apparent strangeness of other Hungarian delicacies proved not to be the result of linguistic misunderstanding. We failed dismally to meet the challenge of matching the enthusiasm of our friends for tripe, brains, bone marrow and jellied vegetables - never mind fighting over unidentifiable animal parts fished out of steaming tureens of soup – particularly chickens’ feet, claws and all.

Last weekend I had lunch at Gerbeaud’s Onyx restaurant – a firm favourite. Having been a not infrequent guest over the last year, the restaurant manager had come to notice that we were as comfortable to converse with him in Hungarian as English, and had apparently decided he would ask for some little assistance with the translation of the menu. He explained that although there had been no complaint as such, he had observed a degree of consternation on the faces of his guests, especially, he added, the Americans. He apologised for interrupting our meal but said he would much appreciate our help in finding a more appropriate description of the delicacy – a dish which took first prize at the national chefs’ Tradition and Evolution competition earlier this year. However, in view of the reactions he had observed on the faces of foreign diners, and their subsequent failure to order the dish, he was keen to amend its translation.
Bringing over the original Hungarian version of the menu, he pointed to the dish in question: Csirkemell és glazírozott comb hús, füstölt burgonya pürével, kakas herés rizottó ropogóssal és „uborkasalátával”. This had been perfectly accurately – if not entirely delicately – translated: Breast of chicken and glazed leg of the chicken with smoked potato purée, crispy risotto with ball of the cock* and cucumber salad.

I did not blink – far less blanch. This time I succeeded in maintaining the legendary British cucumber coolness combined with a very stiff upper lip. Lesson learnt.

(* in other words, Risotto with cockerel testicles)

( http://www.onyxrestaurant.hu/ )