Thursday, July 30, 2009

Louisiana meets Hungary

Almost a year ago (can you believe that?...) I spent a week in New Orleans, visiting a dear friend of mine, Angela Davis, the Yarnspinner. She showed me the city, took me to lots of fun places (e.g. the Laura Plantation and an alligator farm), and of course she told me stories, stories and more stories.
This week, it was her turn to visit me in my home.
All the fun we had!
We told stories together in two summer camps - it was a blast! One camp was pretty much like all the other camps I've ever known: dozens of children running in around, doing whatever they felt like doing, under the supervision of a handful friendly but tired-beyond-measure people. There was music, and food, and a stray dog under the table; few children were actually in the barn when the storytelling started.
Hungarian kids are not used to storytelling, not to mention tales told in English, American style. First, there was surprise, and shyness, and then it just went BANG, and suddenly the barn was full of excited children, crowding around the stage. They were enchanted, mesmerized, and all kinds of long synonyms I can find in the English dictionary for "totally amazed". Angela told her stories, and I translated for her; it felt like riding a tornado, I had to keep up with her rhythm and speed, not to mention finding the right words to give back the shades and details of the original tale. After an hour of telling, I felt like I've been knocked over the head with a hammer. And it felt good :) The kids had a great time testing their English knowledge. As the performance continued, some of them actually started to translate words to the others, and guessing what happened in the tale before I had my chance to translate. It was great fun! When I told my story, they were already on the stage, and not willing to give up what they received from Angela, so I ended up with a whole bunch of cheerful kids around me, acting out everything I told in the story. It. Was. Fun.
The other camp (the one in my former high school) was a lot more organized, but not less fun. We earned a watermelon for an hour's telling :) After the show we were overrun by the kids, each one of them wanting autographs, and our webpages, and our favorite stories. Cuteness ensued.

Apart from telling stories, we also traveled a lot with Angela. First I had to show her around in my hometown, Győr; for that occasion I had to blow the dust off of my childhood's stories and the local legends. It's a very true cliché that you don't know anything about your home until you have guests from far away. I was a tourist in my own town.
We also took Angela to Pannonhalma, the archabbey that's more than a thousand years old, and can be seen from Győr, shining white on the top of a hill. The monks make excellent wine there. And lavender oil. It's a peaceful island of history; the Benedictines have only been there since 996 A.D., but they had finds dating back to the Roman age (which I didn't know, but really appreciated).
We spent one day in Slovakia, visiting castles (Trencsén and Beckó) and telling legends about kinghts and lords and damsels in distress. We tried our best to give Angela an impression of Hungarian history, Medieval life (as we know it...) and bits of history like the Turkish occupation. The story of Beckó has always been the "castle legend" for me (is that an existing phrase? It is in Hungarian. We have a whole bunch of them).
The next day we spent in Austria, where we went all the way up to the Ottohaus on the Rax. It was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Clear, bright, with wild flowers, butterflies, high mountains, pine woods, and (naturally) lots and lots of stories.

We (me and my family) did our best to show Angela a glimpse of real authentic Hungarian specialities like Túró Rudi (dark chocolate and sweet cottage cheese), Hungarian literature (high literature with hints of depression), the puli dog (Hungarian, not Rastafarian), and a bunch of other things I forgot. Hopefully she won't.

All in all, I had a great time.

Prague is the place to haunt!

Every city should have a book just like Václav Cibula's Legends and tales of Prague.
We spent 3 days in Prague on a family vacation, and let me tell you, I have been to several cities around the globe, but never one that was so filled with stories and legends. And because I'm a storyteller I also know that this is not so because Prague is a unique place for tales to be born. I mean, I have been visiting Rome regularly for years now, and even there I never felt like this. Like I am surrounded by an invisible web of tales, connecting places to other places and people; like the air itself is buzzing with words whispered long ago, like I can hear the footsteps of shadows, like every corner I turn leads to the world of another legend or fairy tale. It's all in the details. And the stories. It's all in an old used book I found in an antique shop years ago, and never thought about it until we were on our way to the Czech Republic.
Now go ahead and tell me stories don't shape the world we see.

The hotel we stayed in belonged to the Church of St. John on the Rock. It was a nice old building, with friendly people and cozy rooms; also it was in the New Town, right in the middle of everything. And by 'everything', of course I mean the stories. I mean, come on!
Right next door there was the Faust House; we didn't realize it when we arrived, and when I opened The Book to search for local tales, I almost fell over with surprise. I expected there would be a lot of stories about the Castle, the Charles Bridge etc., but never thought there would be tales all around, right next door to our hotel...
So, once I realized we had Dr. Faust for a neighbour (his house now converted into a hospital and pharmacy - the irony of it...), I started browsing through the book's New Town chapter. Soon I found out that in the monastery just across the street the Devil used to be the cook in the good old days (and when we went in, no one knew why I was giggling at the "Catering" sign); that one street over from us the ghost of a young girl dances people to death; that we were a 2-minute walk away from Prague's most haunted street; that one of the houses close to us used to be the headquarters of a secret brotherhood for people who left their bodies and traveled through paintings; and that one night long ago someone had a nun buried alive in one of the neighboring buildings.
Not to mention the Vysehrad towering over us in all its beauty.

We couldn't take a single step without bumping into stories. Most of them I only had time to read after we came home; tales about old gods, cruel water spirits and their babies, cursed artists, the blinded clock-maker and ghosts, ghosts, and more ghosts.
And, of course, the Golem.
I've always loved the story of the Golem; now I had the chance to walk around in the old Jewish quarters and re-tell it to myself. Of course, in the Jewish quarters mostly everything is about the Golem. Not that I mind, not at all.
One evening, we took a "ghost tour" there. It was just me, my father and the tour guide; she told us that very few tourists are interested in Jewish tales and the place itself, which surprised me. A lot. Ever since I've been a storyteller (and before that a story-reader) Prague was always one with the Golem and Rabbi Löw for me. Apparently, not for most people. I don't get it.
(Did you know there are policemen walking around at night, guarding the Old-New Synagogue from people who might want to sneak in and find the Golem? :D How cool is that?)
Unfortunately, the Charles Bridge (am I the only one who feels silly writing Charles Bridge instead of Karluv most?...) was being renovated, so the famous Bruncvik-and-lion statue was nowhere to be seen. Bummer. I liked that story, even though I didn't quite approve of the slaying of the bride. She had snakes for legs, then what?...
All in all, we wandered in Prague for three days, and it was wonderful, unreal, and filled with stories I won't forget anytime soon. So, my point is, one book made a HUGE difference in how I experienced Prague itself; I bet that if I went with a local storyteller, it would have been even better. That's why I believe that every single city should have a book just like that. Or a storyteller for a tour guide. Yep. Every one of them.
Or at least the ones I'd like to visit.