Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Hungarian Museum of Ethnography does exactly what municipal museums do best: take a mack-off, extraordinary building in the centre of town and fill it with a wagon-load of assorted artefacts, objets, bequests and ephemera ordered chaotically but sensitively by a curator with a sense of humour.
We last visited here in 2006, and were rather taken with the Old House exhibition, specifically the Best Room, the area of a nineteenth-century Hungarian peasant's abode reserved for best - chock full o' their posh china, embroidered sheets, ceremonial jugs &c. Thereafter, we followed their example: the mould and damp-ridden cupboard that held the collective detritus of our Norwich flat became our very own Best Room.
Monday, November 24, 2008
So I had drafted an entry here bemoaning the rice cake n' sandwich n' crisp-based cardboard dinners I've suffered since arriving here. Not necessarily, I should add, because - as popularly held - the Magyars are raving carnivores (although in all honesty ahuh, they really dig meat and yup, they're a landlocked country), but mostly due to supermarket anxiety, language problems and timidity. I'm a vegetarian of 11 months standing (yup, I'm one of those squeamish, sentimental latecomers) and with a culinary blindspot and a total lack of cookery imagination and nous, hunter-gathering is a challenge even back in the UK.
However, all that's by the wayside now since, thanks to some detective work by Joe, we found a curry house just around the corner from our place. In fact, I'm pretty sure it must be phantasmic: it's a hole-in-the-wall Indian, with a wood panelled interior, neon sign, canteen tables, friendly owner. The menu is brief and no-nonsense (which, in a pretty shallow way, pings my authenticity meter) and food is cooked to order - we spent our fifteen minute wait eyeballing two girls lolling on the next table who split a pappadum and a mango lassi with two straws. The food was straightforward and big and good and, well, I think - at the very least - we can safely say that if Joe ever throws down his pans n' pinny and refuses to cook, at least I won't perish from dry mouth.
Bp just keeps on serving it up. Last night we went to see Frenchies Jack of Heart (bestockinged frontman, marvellous) and The Magnetix (knackered, falling over, wonderful) play on a boat on the Danube, tethered under the Erzsébet híd. The word on the street is - natch - all in Hungarian, so our gig intelligence was rather less sophisticated: a poster on the toilet door at Joe's favourite bar.
Joe's notes the innate suitability of the Frenchies and garage here, and I think he's dead on. Garage rock French-style replaces US-UK blokishness with a playful element of high camp. As a teenager, flummoxed by the ineffability of taste, I leant heavily on the descriptors masculine and feminine to explain why I like, say, Blur over Oasis and I think this kind of gendering, crude as it is, still stands.
The gig also QED'd the thoughts on music and cultural difference (a pretty grand title for thoughts liberally sprinkled over beer at Szimpla, but nonetheless) we've been having during our time here. The reason for the inexorability of the UK pop industry overseas is only partially Anglophone pop imperialism; it must also be something to do with how UK pop introjects British culture's self consciousness and fashions it into irony or longing or scathing, with examples too obvious to illustrate.
Oh, okay, like him here (any excuse):
Anyway, teenagers from Paris and Kiev and Florence and Johannesburg and Osaka &c &c &c are all sweet on UK pop exports because they're drawn to those elements, that worldview, that are being pubescently produced in them but aren't so readily available from pop at home in cultures that aren't eternally afflicted with the awkward dance. I think that's why Brits abroad find European pop (obvious shite - Sash!, The Finger Song - aside) such a shocker: it's done straight, there's something missing. And Brits simonising their own weirdness, well, that's not a British trait at all, is it?
Jack of Heart and The Magnetix are currently on what looks like a thoroughly gruelling European tour. You can catch them in Belgrade tonight or follow pictorally here. A bazillion props to organisers RNR 666 - my first gig in Budapest was utterly marvellous.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
However these matters are likely to be of more specific interest to me due to the neigh-on constant peril caused by Bambi legs, clumsiness and an utter lack of spatial awareness than to anyone else. So, my better judgement dictated Cake Reviews (which may well extend to pastries, scones and fried dough items too). After six days here, I admit there's a bit of a backlog, but here goes.
1. Eszrerházy Torta, Muvesz
Now this was no common-or-garden bakery fodder. This was cake in the service of my 25th birthday, a walnut sponge n' creme construction. Joe got Black Forest Gateau (how gauche!) and assumed that I was disappointed with mine. No, this torta was a refined lady with a linebacker's gait. Good.
2. Almas Pite, Jókai utca
Now this was breakfast the day we were very graciously shunted out of our apartment at 8am by a painter and decorator chap. Know us? Well, then you can fill in the fun we had at meet n' greet time: he spoke German and Hungarian and our linguistic arsenal amounts to a smattering of French, Italian and Spanish. Despite three years of German at secondary school (thanks, Mr. Tordoff) I could not avert a wagon train of misunderstanding and social farce. For those interested, we now have a "feature wall" in buttermilk yellow.
Anyway, back to the cake. We stumbled around doing pretty poor impersonations of hunter gatherers until we arrived at this bakery on Jókai utca. Hungarian bakeries, like their butcher's shops, don't make too much of a distinction between "eat here" and "takeaway", meaning we found ourselves pulling up a kid-sized stool around a micro table in the corner of the shop. The coffee came with a scoop of Dream Topping-esque fluff deposited on top and, more importantly, the cake was a wet-ish, savoury sandwich of not-too-sweet stewed apples and some kind of pastry - rough puff is what my pasty cheffing expertise is telling me. Word to baked good enthusiasts: bakeries in Hungarian are marvellous. Their cakes are the complex, day-glo, articulated lorry type you really only see in the UK on a cake stand as part of a £25 afternoon tea, and they also do biscuits and something a bit like a mini scone (pogy, haha!) by the kilo.
*Hmm, are these italicised intrusions getting annoying yet? It's not just me pulling some cosmopolitan show-off moves. Of course, it's partially that, but it's also providing around 97% of my non-transactionally/socially necessitated language practice. Linguaphone, up yours! Also, you don't seem to have a Magyar edition...
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
...as a very wise man once told me. This is the strudel at Muvesz, a marvellously fin-de-siecle kávéház on Andrássy út, the monster boulevard that stretches between Erzsébet ter and the Városliget (City Park). Joe thinks it's changed, become too bright, too slick, too breakbeat/acid jazz. For me its much the same: astonishing coffee n' cake and served with an enormous dollop of Properness that makes my Hyacinth Bucket-ish heart sing. Still the kind of place where watching a Man of Distinction freeing his coat from the hatstand and re-robing can make you audibly gasp with admiration.
For us non-Men of Distinction, us Cheaper Dates, there's lángos, a fried doughnut-come-pizza pie-come-pancake-come-churro, smothered in raw garlic and sour cream and available from metro stations, markets and street vendors.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
We did it. We're here! On the back end of a week of chronic social discomfort and headspin, I'm reclining in my Euro-tastic new apartment in the Erzsébetváros. Although I had planned to document the initial adaptation process, inside-outside anthropology-style, I (with a characteristically drippy excuse) simply couldn't find the appropriate notepad.
We now live off an ochre-ish courtyard in Budapest's VII district, in a studio apartment with a bath in the middle of the room. Now, armed with a 18HUF yellow exercise book, allow me to take you on a tour of our new neighbourhood. Roll your eyes heavenward as your host - very definitely the awe-struck provincial - marvels at the 24 hour supermarket (0-24 élelmiszer) at the end of her street, the utterly decent bar across the way and the mack-off (second biggest in the world) synagogue down the road.
This is Szimpla Kert, a gigantic romkert (ruined garden) and almighty jawdropper a stone's throw away from our pad. Entered through an unassuming set of industrial strip doors, it's an abandoned building transformed into a late bar and cinema, festooned with all manner of picturesque debris, de-tuned televisions, heeeeavy fag smoke, car parts pot plants, grafitto, flotsam, jetsam, &c, &c.
For future reference, you can view pictures of confectionary, buildings and fairground kitschery, as well as pseudo-exploitative photos of my boyfriend, Joe, (amongst other things) at my Flickr here.
* And the relevance of the picture at the top of this entry? Well, I like to sample my cultural difference at the supermarket - here the milk (tej) is sold, udder-style, in bags. You slide it into a jug, snip the top, then chill in the fridge.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Thanks to the BBC's cultural strand I think I've just found my ideal man. I'm suspicious, though, that he was concocted in a lab, so just so is he.
He's Jake Thackray and floats so many of my boats I am truly ashamed that the BBC had to point him out to me at this late stage. A chansonnier with a Yorkshire brogue, a vaudevillian with a polo neck, Jake does saucy Northern grotesques every night at the Gaiety Theatre where Benny Hill and Georges Bataille meet.
Here's him doing Georges Brassens' Brother Gorilla.
A number of edible products are available to us in the woods:
Muscle-burning pie, locomotives to cook our meals and a curious black ink sauce.
The ocean has historically been a giant pantry
with newly-converted woods of muscles
and locomotives of pie.
An enormous storage room.
Welding your food-crust to the sweetest experience.
Fastening your romantic attitudes
to a usually ephemeral experience
to unusually brief ends.