Sunday, October 24, 2010

Traveller, like me

Sometimes, unique chance meetings can happen between two people who live centuries apart.

This time, one of them is (obviously) yours truly. That one, I don't need to introduce.
The other one... now, that's a story.

His name is Ács Gedeon, although he complains yankees changed it to Ácsy, and then to Archer, since translating it to Carpenter would have been a pain. He was born in Hungary, in the year 1819, and he died there in 1887. He spent 58 years of his life as a pastor of the Reformed Church in a tiny village in what back then was Southern Hungary, and now belongs to Croatia. People loved him there; and he loved the people. He was born and raised among them; he knew all their stories, their customs, their lives.
Gedeon was 30 years old when the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1848-1849 swept across the kingdom. He joined the army; fought in the fighs; and when it was all over, like so many of his friends, he followed Kossuth into exile. First, he spent a few years in Turkey; then, he travelled to the New World, and ended up living in New York, Boston, Syracuse, Ithaca, and a few other cities in New England. After he couldn't make a living as the pastor of the Hungarian community, he neded up working as a railroad builder, factory worker, carpenter, and finally as a photographer.

Why is he special?
He was also a writer, although nothing he wrote ever got published until a hundred years after his death. He kept a journal, or rather, a notebook full of short stories, musings, anecdotes, and other scribblings. A little more than four thousand pages; barely one tenth of it has ever been published in print. This is the book I started reading last week, and got through the 400 pages as if I was eating candy, enjoying every word.
I love 19th century travel journals. I just disocevered this lately, and naturally it started with Mark Twain. Finding someone who wrote in the same era from a Hungarian point of view was truly fascinating.
Ács is a good writer. His notes are full of humor, wit, elegant style and cheerful curiosity. All the more fascinating since he was in exile,constantly hoping he would be allowed to go home to his family; he did not choose to travel, fate chose it for him. And sill, he travelled with an open mind and an open heart. Even in his darkest days of poverty, he always had a good word or two to say about his friends, the people surrounding him, the weather, or anything, really.
And he wrote about everything.

And I really mean everything. He wrote about Turkish marriage ceremonies; Hungarian smoking customs; American underwear; Lincoln's election; Boston's main street and the newsboys there; flowers in Turkey, Native Americans in Washington, gang fights in Baltimore, superstitions in his hometown, curious words and phrases, interesting people, newspaper articles he'd read, Greek gods, the Underground Railroad, snowstorms in New England, female fashion items, kissing customs of different nations, his childhood and the schools he went to... really. Everything. His notebook is a treasure chest of shiny bits and pieces; every time I turned the page, another interesting topic would pop up, and more than once I would giggle aloud at his anecdotes. He was a man with a full heart, bright eyes, a solid sense of justice, and a curious story for all it was worth.

"I did not want to become a pastor; I was following my father's footsteps. The first time I baptised, if I remember correctly, I baptised twins.
I was the pastor at my own sister's wedding, and she was barely 15 years old.
Once I married a young girl to a man she did not love; she loved the pastor instead.
Once, when I asked him if he loved his bride, the groom said no.
I only had one sermon about murder; I told it at Laskó [at home], and I was only halfway through it when someone ran into the church yelling someone had been murdered outside.
I did not want to become a pastor; I was following in my father's footsteps. But I have reason to belive that most of my listeners - in all three continents - loved me."

Amen to that.

(I really need to translate him into English. I don't think anybody ever did that.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Reporting from the National Folktale Conference

It was the 6th National Folktale Conference, and I have no clue how I missed the first 5. Really, no clue.
But. I have been to all kinds of story conferences, and this one was smaller, and shorter, and maybe less crowded - but it is ours, and it was awesome.

It took place in a small city on the Danube south from Budapest; the place is called Százhalombatta, and it was there even before the Romans came here. As a reminder of the town's rich and logn history there is a big open-air archaeological park and a museum worth visiting. They also have a brand new building for cultural events and conferences. They decorated it for the occasion with big puppets of fairy tale characters.

As for the conference itself, I give you only the highlights:

1. Hungary now has a unique Fairy Tale Therapy Centre, dreamed and designed by psychologist and story therapist Boldizsár Ildikó, specifically for children. Read the information on the homepage, it really is fascinating!

2. We heard about HUNRA's (Hungarian Reading Association) latest program; the name of the program would translate to 'Reading Partner', and it has dozens of volunteers who go out to families and children in need to read with them (and tell them stories!) and help them improve their literacy skills, and their enthusiasm for literature.

3. We heard tons of good lectures on folktales and folklore; this year's focus was the Croatian minority, so we got equal parts from the folklore of Hungarian minorities in Croatia, and the Coratian minority in Hungary. Lots of amazing stories! Lots of book titles I had to write down. I'm hitting the libraries tomorrow.

4. And then there was STORYTELLING. From master Berecz András, who is in my (and many other people's) opinion the greatest living storyteller in Hungary, to young girls from various parts of the country who recited folktales in wonderful regional dialects; from Kóka Rozália, traditional folktale teller to Kovács Marianna, a lady with delicate features and a rich, deep voice who told stories in Croatian and in Hungarian (she was my personal favorite). There was Agócs Gergely, the mentor of the only storytelling course available in Hungary (in a place called House of Traditions) and his current and former students, a lively and colorful group of story-loving people who took every opportunity during the two days to tell a good tale or two. It just felt like suddenly storytellers were springing up from the ground left and right. I was so happy!

5. And then, I told a story too. I told the Jewish story about the baby storyteller and Laila the angel, and it was a very precious moment. It's one of my favorite tales, and it is a perfect story for a huge goup of tellers and listeners. And people listened, so intently it felt like everything stood still. After the performance, some of them told me they had goosebumps, and some people said they cried. Lady Rozália shook my hand and told me she'd collected a story in Transylania that begins with the same words. Funny; they were my words. I translated the story from English.

6. There was a lot of storytelling, amazing folk music, some dancing, and many stories. More cute, amazing, cheerful and memorable moments than I could recall in one blog post.

I felt completely at home - after all, I was home.