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Hungarian Passion

A Huntastic Heritage

by Z. Budapest

This is an excerpt from Pagan elder Zsuzsanna ("Z") Budapest's autobiography, to be posted on her website as an e:book in 2002. The book will account for her journey in the circle of rebirth, highlighting her Hungarian cultural background, her queenhood (youth) work with feminism and Witchcraft, and the unfolding of her new cronehood. —RQ

When you go out at night to eat in Budapest you will find that the musicians in the restaurants are often Gypsies, or "Romany." The Romany exist in every European country. The Hungarians merged culturally with their Gypsies — music can intermingle nations. We have been in a symbiotic soul relationship through many regimes, both feudal and modern, but the music held us together and picked up more flavors and healing notes.

During the so-called communist regime we sent our Gypsies to conservatories to study if they had the talent, so now our Gypsies play concerts. They are composers, and no longer live in mudhuts, telling fortunes for a living. They occupy many other diverse posts in life. By law, everybody had to have a job, Gypsies included. But our old musical relationship continued through thick and thin as usual.

Tonight, the musicians are dressed in paprika red traditional jackets, with golden embroidery of some sort running down both sides. It is a mixture of Hungarian and Romany styles. They wear fancy black pants and shiny tall black boots. The style of the outfits come from the earlier times when they played their music for aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now they play to us at night in places of food and wine.

I realize I am a willing sitting duck, ready to be overwhelmed by the ancestral music.

I am visiting Hungary with friends on Szentendre Island where artists have a large colony. We are appreciating the Gypsies' music — the music that more than anything else holds the moods, customs, and soul of the Hungarian people, the Magyars. Magyars cannot imagine eating without the Gypsy music playing. These tunes have carried our joys and sorrows down through the centuries. I feel sure the band is estimating my age, pegging me as an American emigrant, one of the thousands of 1956 refugees who fled the Communist brutality in Budapest, but now come back for a soul-healing visit. I realize I am a willing sitting duck, ready to be overwhelmed by the ancestral music.

I hear my grandmother Vilma's voice reminding me that Gypsy musicians were the depth psychologists of the old country, long before Drs. Freud, Jung, and Kerenyi. When a Hungarian felt sad, they would go with friends to a good restaurant, have dinner, and order a bottle of wine. About the time the bottle was half full the Gypsy "primas" would cue in, approaching the broken-hearted (and who isn't sometimes?) with an alto violin in hand, aimed directly into your ear, just inches away from your heart. He would start a tune that was popular in your youth. They know these things. The songs then and now are about parting from loved ones, love lost, country lost, mother lost, father lost, kids lost...

With a well-trained hand on the violin, backed by a deep cello, the music tweaked the heartstrings, transporting you back to times when you were happy and in love. Or the music mourned about wars, revolutions, and the many diasporas of our people that have left a wealth of music. Soon the Gypsy lead violinist would find the proper tune to open your personal floodgates. This is how it was then and how it is now — music bringing up the tears, everybody crying openly. Men crying like babies, snuffling into their wine glasses. Women sobbing and covering their faces with hankies, crying into their ruby-red Tokay wine.

In Hungary this is quite normal. The life of the restaurant goes on as if there were no tables filled with sobbing guests. In fact newly arrived guests look around approvingly. A good restaurant has many tables with people crying. But in the fullness of time, the crying ebbs like the tide. The band strikes up a new tune with the tempo speeding up, and soon the Gypsies are playing happy, dancing tunes. The sad guests slowly rise to the occasion, and begin to sing along. First just here and there, but soon defiantly, as if happiness was the best revenge. (It is.)

The sing-along escalates to a dance-along. They all get up and begin to dance. There is slapping of the shoes, the men stomping out the "csardas" on the wooden dance floor. In the old days this was the time when a bottle of the best wine was ordered for the band. I order it now, because the musicians are paid very little and I overheard them discussing their meager tips. Yet the restaurant would be dead without them. The country would be psychotic without them. Magyars would choke on their centuries-long pain. Besides the bottle, I put money in the violin, plus I buy their latest CD when it is offered to me.

I remember... Gypsy musicians in 1956 were playing a pop hit, a sad song in my ears when I was a young girl of 16. I was fleeing Hungary, crossing the border that changed my language, my music, my culture; hence giving me a hefty lifelong Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The song moaned, "Bolyongok a varos peremen… I am meandering the edges of the city where you and I used to walk together. No matter where I am walking nowadays, always know that you will never, ever be by my side again. Are you still thinking of me?"

It feels so good to be doctored by my Gypsy musical therapists. They see my pain as clearly as the wine bottle. What a great method it is, musical healing.

From one day, October 23, 1956 — to the next, October 24 — my life was irrevocably and forever changed. One day I was a schoolgirl, in some awful navy blue pleated skirt and red all-covering, unattractive apron uniform going to the Szent Erzsebet Gynasium, worrying about my French exam. The next, I became a political refugee living with a very kind Austrian family learning to speak German in Innsbruck. Today, the three ragtag, skinny Gypsies in the band take a long look at me, then move in for the kill. "Csak egy kislany van a vilagon…There is only one girl in the whole wide world. She is my own dearest love."

That does it. The memories flood my heart. This is my mother's favorite song! My tears flow so much that I have to borrow a peach-colored napkin from the yet-unoccupied neighboring table to blow my nose. It feels so good to be doctored by my Gypsy musical therapists. They see my pain as clearly as the wine bottle. What a great method it is, musical healing. This music kept us Magyars sane with the creative emotional release that cleanses old wounds.

Maximillian, my grandson, may believe that I devoted my youth of a lifetime to the cause of women. It's time to tell him of earlier times and people.

The color gray is all I can see from my past. In my old country gray is the dominant color of the skies for most of the year. It ranges from bright gray, to darkening gray, to totally-blackened gray. Living in California, the land of sunshine and rare rainy days, I sometimes long for the gray that comes with rainy days. I love thunderstorms here, with clouds speeding by overhead, changing their colors, rolling out five-minute-long thunder threats, bringing me back to that brooding mood we Magyars so thrive on. It's the melancholy in our folk music, the sorrow that shows up in our poetry, emanating from a distant past when our rich herds roamed from Asia across the plains, from China to the Black Sea.

The thunder reminds me of the passion of our people. The crack of the bullwhip incorporated into our folk dances. It is not an instrument of torture but a cracking sound like thunder that by itself was enough to redirect a large herd. Descendants of the Huns, Magyars are passionate about freedom. (We die for it.) About love. (We die for it.) And about death. (Well, we just die.) Lightning is a symbol of Attila for us. It is said that when lightning strikes the earth in Hungary, a thousand Hun warriors are sent down to reincarnate. I am sure quite a few hundred Hun women reincarnate amongst them as well.

Attila the Hun is one of our forefathers. (Don't judge.) He settled in Hungary first, with the related Magyars following a little later. He liked living by our numerous hot springs. Legend has it that he invented the bathtub, made from a huge cowhide stretched over a collapsible wooden stand. Historians have written frequently about Attila's dealings in international affairs. Without exception they point out how Attila was meticulously clean, a clean conqueror who took a daily bath no matter where he was. His people wore fresh white shirts daily, made from the finest hemp imported from the East. When I take a shower I cannot avoid thinking of Attila. His brother Buda founded Budapest. They lived in the age of Aries. Of the many conquerors, he is the only Hungarian the world still universally recalls, though he was active only ten years.

Hungarians were dispersed regularly from the old country. I have been living in exile since I was sixteen years old. I try to keep tabs on other scattered Hungarians. I am always amazed how many we are, and how significant. Even without checking my lists I recall Dr. Szentgyorgyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his development of Vitamin C in pill form from the famous Hungarian yellow paprika. He believed if you took C vitamins daily, you lived longer. One time I read in a book that Hungarians received 16 Nobel prices for various things.

I came from the same Budapest high school as Dr. Teller, who, along with fellow Hungarian Dr. Oppenheimer, invented the atomic bomb to help defeat fascism. Mr. Pulitzer, the famous newspaper owner, created the Pulitzer prize.

Among artists there are scores of Hungarians working in the West. Some changed their names, like Tony Curtis (Kertesz). Houdini the magician. There are athletes: Joe Namath, and strong man Mr. Universe, Hargitay. His daughter, Mariska Hargitay, is an actress on "Law and Order," one of my favorite TV shows. Hungarians are everywhere.

What is an exile?

What is an exile? In my case there was a spontaneous revolution in 1956 against the Russians. I had to escape or be killed by the police. Diaspora after diaspora. Hungary has had many waves of exiles. Both world wars ended in mass escapes. The persecution of the Jews created another mass exodus. Through history, whenever we lost a revolution or a war, people had to run away from executions. We are a small nation (ten million). Yet we have survived with our culture, language, music, artists, writers, embroidery, folk dances, folk customs, and politicians. I think of Mr. Lantos in Washington with that wonderful thick accent. Governor Pataki of New York, another Hungarian.

I have never forgotten my mother tongue. Often exiles totally disappear into a new culture, sucked in with a quick cultural change. I do understand that some exiles can only be successful if all their defenses are employed. Forgetting the past is often one of them. When they come back for a visit some exiles can barely speak Hungarian anymore. In their souls they really cut the cord. They had to, in order to survive.

Not I. I love my first tongue. Sweet Hungarian. The language is the last thread of a people. Lodged in the middle of my brain, my mother tongue is connected directly to every cell in my body. I crave to hear Hungarian spoken. Like Gypsy music, it's healing to me. When I am in my language watching Hungarian TV or listening to the people on the streets, I feel totally happy.

My inner self has changed because of the English language and the American character — both real and imagined from the movies. It has thrown chocolate on my Hungarian innocence.

I am now a full-blown American with a sense of entitlement I didn't have as a Hungarian. The English language is filled with "my house, my movies, my this, my that, eat your dinner, have your opinion, your this, your that." My inner self has changed because of the English language and the American character — both real and imagined from the movies. It has thrown chocolate on my Hungarian innocence. Abundance where there was only scarcity. It's "my" two countries now.

This American culture has made me fully realized (my sacred revolutionary work), because I brought to the collective table my special contribution, my Hungarian-ness. A Huntastic Goddess heritage. My central European heritage. My fairy traditions. My magic. My rich, proud womanhood. My will to reclaim all I know and can remember. This makes me a typical carrier of the magical cultural cauldron, a great melting pot of old wounds that heal only through the merging of opposites. I need my music, spirit, dance, and words. I need my magical fires. I have united two continents' full of magical practices. For me the healing came from giving birth to new ways of celebrating life and death and beauty and the past. The ancestors are alive through me and because of me. Granny Vilma, are you smiling? Blessed be.

Z Budapest, a sponsor of the Women's Spirituality Forum, is projecting two community-building events in 2002. Details for both are on her website, Z is finishing her new book, Your Age Has a Meaning, which will be published by Conari Press in 2002.