Photo: Fredrik Håkansson
First things first: I am not Hungarian.
I visited Hungary for the first time in 2005 with my Hungarian friend, Anita, and have returned to Magyarország 12 times since marrying her six years ago. We now run a business together and spend all day side by side. Therefore (and I think she will agree), I’m highly qualified as a Hungarian Piss-er Off-er. I’ve had practice.
Here’s how to do it.
Write an article about how to piss off a Hungarian.
No matter what I write below this line, a Hungarian living somewhere, maybe in Tuvalu, will be pissed off about it.
Refuse a shot of házi pálinka.
This “Magyar moonshine” is usually made from stone fruits and, while packing a punch, has a smooth fruity finish that warms your insides. Just about everyone makes it or knows someone who does, each distiller lauding the quality of his batch.
When visiting a household for the first time or at a house party, you will be offered a shot of homemade pálinka. Refuse and you’ll not only insult your host, but will be on the receiving end of stern looks and shaking heads. Say “Egészségedre,” put the glass to your lips, and throw your head back. Switch to beer after your third shot or you might end up floating down the Danube in a 55-gallon drum.
Assume life in Hungary is exceptionally better since the fall of Communism.
“Goulash Communism” may have had a cleaner human rights record than the hard-line Stalinist structures in Eastern Bloc nations, but Hungary was still more or less under Communist rule from the end of WWII until 1989.
When the Berlin Wall crumbled, some thrived, but many are still feeling the effects of having been hung out to dry by the collapse of the steady industrial work Communism provided. Ongoing corruption within the government and infectious pessimism don’t help either. My mother-in-law sums it up:
“It was better. Steady work and steady pay. But obviously it was unsustainable. Once Russia and the Eastern Bloc failed, there was no market for our products. Life was good back then.”
Overlook Hungarian food.
There are two things Hungarians are engulfed in an obsessive, passionate, and incendiary affair with: water sports (water polo, kayaking, swimming) and their food.
Hearty soups and stews, slow cooked in a cauldron over open fire, rode in with the nomadic tribes over 1,000 years ago. Two dishes stand out as quintessentially Magyar: gulyás, a robust soup made of beef or pork with potatoes, carrots, Hungarian peppers, and a base of onion, garlic, caraway, and paprika (of course). Imagine beef stew. Now imagine it smokier, richer, slightly piquant, and deeper in its seductive layers. And another classic, halászlé, a soup made from freshwater fish and copious amounts of onion and paprika. It incarcerates your senses while it bubbles with its brilliant red broth and spicy, soulful flavor.
Magyarország also serves up a delectable panoply of sausages, soups, entrees, and desserts. Sour cream, túró (similar to ricotta cheese), and numerous pickled delights are added to, or accompany, most dishes. Seriously, if you’ve never tasted Hungarian salami, then you have not lived, my friend.
Make a joke about “hungry Hungarians,” or say “I’m hungry, too!”
Yeah, not very clever. I’ve always preferred, “If you’re hungry, why don’t you go over to Turkey and then fry it in Greece?” At least that requires some thought.
And yes, Hungarians are pretty hungry because their aforementioned food is delicious, dammit.
Lump Hungarians in with all the other Slavic peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Magyars are said to have been a nomadic group of seven tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin around 895. Their origin is a topic of much debate, especially among Hungarians themselves.
Most evidence points to a culture that migrated from the West Siberian steppes to the southern Ural Mountains near the Black Sea. Here they mingled with Turkic Bulgars and Huns, thus adding to their skill set and customs. Eventually the Magyars settled in the area of present-day Hungary. Some Hungarians don’t buy into this theory and instead believe they are descendants of an alien race. I’m not kidding.
And then there is the Hungarian language. Said to be distantly related to Finnish, Hungarian has no connection to Romance, Germanic, or any other Indo-European language groups. It’s widely considered one of the hardest languages to learn as a foreigner. Suffixes are used to change the meaning and function of words and adhere to the rules of vowel harmony. It’s just f’ing hard to master.
Hungarians are intensely proud of their language and are quick to point out its versatility, richness, and poetic grace. The alphabet contains 44 letters and the longest word in Hungarian is: legeslegmegszentségteleníttethetetlenebbjeitekként (loosely translated as “like those of you that are the very least possible to get desecrated”).
So don’t call them Russian or Slavic or you might end up abducted and anally probed by people speaking a strange and beautiful language with frighteningly long words.
Be insensitive about the Treaty of Trianon.
Prior to WWI, Hungary, aligned with the Habsburgs of Austria, held control of a territory three times its current size. Being on the losing side of that war, Hungary was put on the chopping block by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon in Versailles, France. The borders of new nations were drawn up leaving Hungary a third of its original land and displacing millions of ethnic Hungarians as minorities in foreign countries. Along with the loss of property and population, certain natural resources and access to the Adriatic Sea were also relegated as a thing of the past.
Today, Hungary shares borders with seven nations: Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. Relationships with these neighbors are for the most part cordial. For many Hungarians, however, the wounds inflicted by Trianon’s butcher knife are still fresh. Occasional news stories of discrimination against their compatriots in bordering lands stir up emotions of injustice and resentment. The memory of past glory and present sorrow is kept in public view by bumper stickers in the shape of “big Hungary” that some display on their cars.
Let’s just say it’s complicated. History, language, politics, and even food. Being a crossroads between East and West will do that to a place.
But a few simple rules will keep you from being a seggfej: Drink like you mean it, eat like you mean it, bring up history/politics only if you know what the hell you’re talking about, and — bazd meg! — learn some Hungarian cuss words!