Thursday, November 27, 2008

Starvation: A Food Review

The best way to put it is that I needed a secular kind of Lent; a purging of toxins as well as an atonement for overindulgence. And when you write for a food website, and don’t object to the occasional 5 a.m. nightcap, Budapest is an easy place to overindulge. So, based on approximately no one's good advice or any worthwhile guidelines, I decided to go on a fast, an exercise that blurs the line between self-discipline and self-torture.

Day 1

Fasting should be all about not eating, but once you are deprived of food, it becomes all about what you are not eating. Morning is difficult, not because I need a lot of food when waking, but because my morning habits are fairly well-ingrained: coffee, food, writing, shower, writing, and chasing money for the rest of the day. But the simple act of removing food from the equation throws the whole ritual off balance. There can be no writing while fasting, and morning becomes nothing more than the after-math of sleep.

Words, however, over the course of the day, take on sublimated meaning. Brioche becomes a one-word poem, evoking something at once forbidden and essential. Saying Hungarian food words is particularly tantalizing: füstölt gomolya, körte, zsemle: scalloping out each syllable as though they might materialize from my mouth, and sate my hunger.

The city is a carnival of food smells: hot yeasty air from the bakery on Tatra, Subway Sandwiches (which you can smell from halfway down the block); and the carnal olfactory incitement of gyros meat roasting on the spit. The soap in the window of Lush makes my mouth water. Every fruit is a precious artifact: an object of desire. On the street, I split people into two classes: those who are eating, and those who are not. One thing is for sure; the world is a very unfair and cruel place without food. I would forgive anybody a crime who experienced this feeling after being overtaken by the smell of roasting meat. Hunger turns you outlaw.

The evening is spent thinking about food. You never realize just how omnipresent it is until you are deprived of it. Distraction through entertainment should provide some relief, but while characters in Victor Pelevin’s novel Clay Machine Gun feast on Soba noodles, I silently urge them on, to eat more and more, hoping their gorging on food turns into a pivotal plot point (but this being Pelevin, plot points are illusory as the noodles I was imagining). Rented films are not much help either: in Finding Forrester, canned tomato soup had never looked so good; and, of course, Diner is on TCM. Though exhausted, sleep comes slowly.

Day 2

Dreams exclusively concern food. Oddly, it is lencse fözelék that recurs during the night. Only later does the significance of the lentil occur to me. I enjoy meal after meal of it before I wake, instantly knowing I will have none on this day.

With nothing to chew over but thoughts, I acknowledge there is a sort of masochistic pleasure at work here. With that in mind, I wander over to Westend City Center and sit myself down in the middle of the food court for lunch rush. The sensory overload of the vivid colors, smells and sights, create a kind of synaesthesia, whereby the colors are full of flavor: it isn’t the food that looks edible, it is the colors. Even the orange food trays appear tasty. Smells, too, are painfully sharp in my nose. What a preposterous amount and variety of food we consume. But while food has gained meaning for me, it seems to have lost it for everybody else. It is like porn: an instrument of selfishness. People eat and eat, discarding piles of what they cannot eat, and leave. I watch for a while, then suddenly, something clicks, and the whole scene revolts me: who are all these people, with all their meals? The thought of food is disgusting. Appetite is a weakness. Eating is gluttony. I cannot watch any longer, and home I go.

The night brings nothing but loneliness and depression. As somebody who spends a lot of time by myself, loneliness is actually a fairly rare state for me. Sure, I have plenty of friends I could call: but they are all eaters. Hunger makes you isolate – hunger makes you profoundly alone.

After a fitful sleep, where my muscles ache, where I dream lucidly of food, I wake, shower, and am the first in line at the nearest étkezdé. I order lencse fözelék, and from the first spoonful, savor it patiently, gratefully, then return to the society of the living.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy II: It Came From Within!

This is a continuation of post The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, which can be found below.

Of course I was just funnin’ ya with that Ramones video, because there has been no force more powerful in the appropriation and reselling of youth culture than MTV. Thanks to its far-reaching, Vans-shod tentacles, kids here can see exactly how their counter-parts in the West are dressing; and H & M, plus any number of fly-by-night mall boutiques, fall all over themselves to cater to those dictates. It is a nifty closed-circuit for sellers: MTV brands the look, the labels that sell the look advertise on MTV. It is win/win for all involved, and has globalized fashion trends (to wit: these people have a lot of Hungarian wiggers to answer for – I hope they sleep well at night). Couple the perpetually replenishing cool-factor of rock (and all its sub-genres) with the visual stimulus of MTV and, as that Vampire Weekend song goes, the kids don’t stand a chance. And countrymen, let’s not fool ourselves that post-bloc youth are aping our style because it is ‘American’, it is because MTV is American.

To call kids who comb the images on MTV for fashion cues ‘fashion victims’ would not be too far off target. But youth everywhere are a marketer’s dream. They come to the game with open minds, and deep identity insecurities. Basically, kids would buy the dirt from under their own fingernails if you could figure out a way to sell it to them. Which is why – in Hungary, at least – hallways and even classrooms of schools are prime advertising space for youth-oriented products, a nefarious little practice that has raised objections in about zero quarters. It is not just the usual suspects like Coke getting in on the action. Because ‘cool’ marketers know, when something takes here, it takes big: Green Day, for example, the only thing that both my second graders and high-schoolers could agree upon. (Green Day themselves were only too happy to benefit from their unlikely success in Eastern Europe – nice fifty dollars a pop ‘punk’ show, boys).

But the youth market sought by MTV and kids who have appropriated hipness are not the same thing. MTV is cool, or at least what passes for cool. Hipness is harder to nail down, and should be harder to market and, thus, to market to. Take Tisza trainers, for example. For those that don’t know, Tisza is the former state-owned brand of athletic training shoe that was sold under socialism. These days, under the guidance of a young entrepreneur, they are hundred-dollar a pair, high-design sneakers that are so omnipresent on the first generation of youth not to know socialism, that they are almost a cliché. They are not only a great product, Tiszas are cool – but they are not genuinely hip. Should kids start collecting vintage Tiszas, that would be hip. Hipness is all about indirect consumerism: building an identity from consumer artifacts of the past (whether it is your nostalgia you are indulging in, or somebody else’s does not seem relevant). For example: cowboy shirts (plenty of those here, these days), Star Wars figures, Members Only-style windbreakers, cartoon-character lunch boxes, or, say Def Leppard tee shirts. Star Wars figures are nobody’s idea of cool, but if presented in the correct ironic framing, they are very hip.

In the tipping point (an overused buzz word these days, but applicable here) of hip in Budapest, something interesting happened: Csendes Art Bar. Few locals and fewer expats know about Csendes, but it represents the first real home-grown expression of Hungarian hipsterism that I have encountered. What trips me up about Csendes is that it looks like no place in Williamsburg, Silver Lake, or Wicker Park, but you could set it down in any of those locales and it would not be out of place. It is only imitative in its aesthetic, not in its actual style. It is totally Hungarian, but hip to the gills. For starters, there is virtually nothing in Csendes that is new. It is a shrine to ironic comment on childhood. Virtually every decoration (or installation) uses a cartoon character, scavenged doll, or old movie poster, not to mention, a vintage Tisza trainer bag; plus they did something I have never seen a bar or café in Budapest do before – they kept the name and a portion of the old sign of the business preceded it – the Csendes Étterem – and incorporated it into the design. Needless to say, it is also pretty great place to have a beer on a Saturday night.

In the States, way back when, hipsterism began as an organic set of values (of the beat generation), then changed into a lifestyle, then finally evolved into a fashion pose that could be appropriated by media and corporate interests, and sold back to the youth market by the likes of Urban Outfitters, Capital Records, and eBay; whereas the Hungarian hipsterism has worked in the opposite direction, from a mediated style sold to the youth market over the airwaves, to something more organic, and authentic feeling, that is at least attempting to defy being sold to. They do tend to do things in reverse here. Optimistically, there will also be a set of values that will bind this community together other than coveting new/vintage KISS tee-shits, but perhaps that is hoping for too much.

This embrace of consumerism, without buying anything ‘new’ that is the hallmark of hipsterism, must be a conundrum for marketers who had it so easy with Hungarian youth ten, even five, years ago. But they didn’t clock all those credits in Ivy League psych-departments for nothing. One way to get their dollar, at least in Budapest, is to create new ‘vintage-looking’ clothing. There is plenty of that, in used clothing shops and department stores alike. Another way is to brand something as cool so persuasively that you can sell the mere logo, like they do with the Vespa bags. This all leaves me nowhere in terms of my own black bag. What the hell, I might as well chuck it all and buy that black Ramones official diaper-carrier bag – my own checkered soul was sold long ago: some hipster kid is probably cutting it up into Kockás Fülű Nyúl sock puppets by now.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pretty Ugly America

This is a little off message for Mókus, but I was recently accused of looking down on Hungarians and asked why, oh why, don't I just pack up and go home if I find so much to fault. Well, this is what is waiting for me there. Besides, unless you can't infer from the thought, time, and interest-level that goes into my blog: I love this city.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Teenage Lobotomy

Anybody who knows me knows I carry a black book bag, basically, at all times I’m clothed, and sometimes when I’m not. They tend to last a year or two before the strap or zippers break, or holes wear through the bottom. Budapest, it is no secret, is about the worst place to be if you need something both specific and basic, such as knee socks, contact lens fluid, or, perhaps, a black shoulder bag. No problem: I know the drill. Hit every Iguana, Alter-Ego, or alt-rock haberdashery until something turns up. Only this time, nothing is turning up. Sure, there are plenty of black bags, but the trend (and there is no bucking trends, not in this city) is for shoulder bags with Converse, Vespa, or Nightmare before Christmas logos. I am making due without until I am next in Vienna.

It must be a great time to be a marketer: getting the cool kids to act as walking billboards for your products, and having them pay for the privilege. Of course, there is more to this whole scenario than just bags and logos. And not all of it is bad. Budapest has experienced, in the past few years, an amping up of youth culture and its youth-culture cool-factor. In other words, Budapest got hip. I had always taken comfort (albeit small) in the existence of Prague and Berlin, both cities magnetically drawing all the American hipsters off course before they could reach our humble town. Budapest has no heat, no buzz, and even less cool. And that is fine with me, and just about everybody I know. But what I didn’t anticipate is that hipster culture would spread like a virus, ignoring all boundaries of border and nationality. Hungarian kids got hip all by themselves. Well, not exactly. There was a ton of help from those who profit from their consumer choices. Local youth are sitting ducks for this kind of ‘cool’ branding, and have swallowed it whole. Their lives simply haven’t been the media blitzkrieg of that of the average American teen. Thus, they either haven’t developed the necessary defenses or haven’t been taught to see through the manipulation. And they tend to move in larger herds, whereas American teens have far more sub-sets of counter-culture to chose from. Hungarian – and youth of all over the post-Soviet era – are far more susceptible to 'cool-branding' than their American counter-parts, if for no other reason than we invented it. Or maybe they just don’t care. For whatever reason, it seems that the entire sub-22-year-old population is hip.

It is no great revelation that marketers love nothing more than a solid counter-culture with its own organically grown aesthetic: the more authentic and rigid the better. It is a brilliant trick, appropriating a sub-culture’s aesthetic, and then selling it back to them. I should learn how to do that. Take, for instance, punk rock. Ever heard of the Vans Warped Tour? When I was a teenager, Vans would have fit exactly nowhere into the equation of punk-plus-tour. Then came the almost overnight uptake of punk by American youth via the (major label, lest we forget) likes of Nirvana and their ilk. Whether kids like me, who helped create this sub-culture (by buying indie-label records, going to shows, reading Maximum Rock and Roll) were buying was irrelevant. Nirvana created a ‘mass sub-culture’, and one that demanded to be out-fitted. Too obvious? Forget Nirvana, let’s look at the Ramones: perhaps the coolest band of all time, and one of the primary forces in actually inventing punk. But that was then, this is now. The Ramones are no longer a band – they have cashed in on all that cool-band cache and have become a brand: and not in the way KISS is a brand: they have become a clothing and accessories brand. Ramones tee? check. Ramones belt buckle? check. Ramones scented candle: smells just like teen spirit! ok, check! Only, ask a hipster Hungarian kid which their favorite Ramones song is, and you will see just how hollow a trend it is. "A Ramones album? You mean, they make music too?" Can I get an ‘I wanna be sedated’? At least the kids know Nirvana was a band, not a fashion label.

But let’s imagine you are totally out of it, or just too young to remember when grunge ruled the radio waves and runways. How about Disney? Yes, even they are going for the hipster's pocketbook with a darker, edgier branding. Now that the kids who have grown out of their Little Mermaid backpacks have grown up, it is time to comment on the passing of that childhood phase with, what else, but more Disney gear. What hipster wouldn’t want a hip-hop-inspired graffiti Mickey Mouse baseball cap? I am this close to wanting one myself.

Hey: bad news for idealistic former punks, great news for the average young Hungarian hipster. Buying quirky things, creating your identity around some ironic pastiches of childhood is fun! You get all these funky anime dolls to collect, you can pierce yourself anywhere you choose, look cool in the eyes of your friends, and more importantly, your parents just don’t get it. And, let’s face it: buying things is fun, period. It might not be authentic individualism, but at least they think it is, at least they are trying, and that is nice to see. It is far more appealing than the drab beige or brown uniform of the Hungarian male circa 2000. Plus, all this has fueled a boom in vintage clothing shops, which has made clothing shopping in Budapest much more affordable and interesting. From a purely selfish angle, this hipster marketing triumph is good for the likes of me, as it increases my own choice as a local consumer. I, too, wear Tisza trainers, and have a Def Leppard tee-shirt, without ever having owned a Def Leppard album. But American and Hungarian hipsterism is different, and in a vital way. How so? Return next week for Part II of The Hipster Conquest of Budapest, or: Hey! Ho! Let’s Go (shopping!).

But, for now, a Ramones video, which I highly recommend not skipping. It will do you a power of good, and, for the time being at least, it is free.

-Matt Ellis is a free-lance editor for Word Pill, a service for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Picking Up Something Spicy and Illicit at Rákóczi Tér (Csarnok)

The Gustave Eiffel-designed market halls, with their iron girder lattice-work, look like huge hangers for old-time zeppelins. But this being the Eight District, the flight is mostly chemically induced, and the only contraptions of bodily transport are the home-built half wheelchair/half bikes favored by a local stripe of paraplegic. With the gentrification and, now, total gutting of Rákóczi Tér, the neighborhood that is the former welcome mat of the red-light district, has almost become upstanding. But there are still oddities to be found in my favorite csarnok, if you just scratch the surface a little. Here are a few:

5. Tiny pickled melons. Looking like aborted watermelons, I have never seen their like outside of Hungary. At once sweet and sour, and occasionally fermented along with hot peppers, the tiny dinnye can be found at any of the row of pickle stands.

4. Zsaru, Krimi, and Pandúr magazines. Want to know what strip of Pest gigolos and rent boys cruise, how many break-ins there were in Borsod County, or just see some grizzly pictures of dead bodies? The newsstand has the best and bloodiest crime magazines, written in easy to read, low-brow Hungarian, and an excellent source of new and shocking vocabulary.

3. Horse sausage. I don’t know the history of eating horse in Hungary and Austria, but I suspect it coincided with a wartime famine. The spicy links look innocuous enough, and unless you know the word for horse in Hungarian (ló), could be easily mistaken for standard pork sausage. A decadent, nay, downright taboo-busting snack, especially when coupled with number one on our list.

2. Chinese porn. But I just bought it for the…characters. Along with soy-bean drinks, fermented eggs, dried greater-lizard fish barbeques sauce, and frozen crabs, the Chinese market at the Rákóczi Tér csarnok is one of the city’s best, and might just be the only local purveyor of Chinese pornographic magazines and soft-core movies.

1. Moonshine. Cheap házi pálinka is to the Eighth District what oil is to Texas. Only don’t light a match too close to the codgers and nénis whose tables run down the center of the building. The hootch is not on display with other only slightly more legal goods: home-made hot pepper sauce, odd-looking onions that could only be home-grown, and already-baked squash. Their fruit brandy is made in backyard stills, sold in mineral-water bottles kept hidden from view. Last I checked it was but a thousand forints for .25 liters. Drink up: now who says Rákóczi Tér is getting respectable?

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.