Saturday, February 28, 2009

Buddha's Belly

Lisa+Steele+BudapestSitting on a train from Vienna to Budapest with a colleague who also dabbles in food writing I arrived at a revelation: it is much more mentally healthy to approach restaurant criticism in Budapest with a generous, if not naïve, spirit. You are bound to enjoy yourself and your meal more. My colleague’s attitude towards even some of the most odious, philistine establishments in the city was one of a Zen-like acceptance and appreciation. He was even quick to praise a late-night establishment that has a policy of charging 2,000 forints should you happen to vomit at your table (I guess this happens enough there that they actually need a policy). As a result, he is rarely upset or disappointed.

Unfortunately, I know too much about how restaurants operate to keep his level of sangfroid. For instance, I know that restaurateurs can recoup a bundle before the place even opens by taking under the table cash – in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars – just to sign on to sell a particular line of beer or tobacco. I know the shysterism management directs against their staff to either siphon off their tips or wages. But, ultimately, the buck stops with you, and wait staff, in some cases, are forced to cheat you if they want to make a living at their job. The list of tricks employed is long and varied, from watering drinks to reselling leftovers, to adding a gratuity charge without specifying it as such.

Further adding to my cynicism about dining in Budapest is the sloppy, erratic service. The examples of bizarre service have almost nothing to do with the exclusivity of the restaurant. For example, at Klassz, one of Budapest’s best, the waiter arrived after about twenty minutes, took my date’s order, then walked away as though I wasn’t even there. At a worker’s lunch canteen, the counter help literally yelled at me because I ordered a beet salad with a vegetable stew, two items that are traditionally not coupled, according to local eating traditions. Wary of that, the next night at Ellátó, I asked the bar staff what side went well with the entree I had ordered, only to be chewed out again because they are not “a fancy French restaurant where things like that matter.” Other dining slights have included being shortchanged 10,000 forints at Pata Negra, being denied a glass of water during the longest heat wave in recent Hungarian history at Bamboo Sziget, and having the waiter pour himself a glass of wine from my bottle of Pinot Noir at BORlaBOR. More endearingly, at a now-closed eatery, a waiter offered to pick the pork from my bean soup when reminded him I had asked for a vegetarian dish.

I am not sure how my colleague would have handled these situations. I tend to complain, shoot dirty looks, up and leave, then write nasty things on chew. Hence, the list of restaurants that I actually frequent is surprisingly low. It has gotten to the point where I am afraid to revisit a restaurant I actually like because service and quality of food are so erratic in this city. So, next time, instead of a date, mabe I will bring along my pocket-sized Buddha, to remind me that cynicism breeds cynicism, and it is also OK to come to a meal with an open mouth and mind.

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

Friday, February 6, 2009

Guitar Heroes

There is a line in Szomjas György’s film Kopaszkutya where the singer of a struggling rock band, in their dilemma as to how to reinvent themselves, asks “OK, but who should we sound like?” This seems to be the first and foremost question in the minds of local pop musicians. Old school band Bikini answered that question for themselves in late-eighties video for their single “Legyek jó” (Be Good): everybody in spandex and a mullet. So what you get, in this delightfully cheesy take on life behind the Iron Curtain, is an admixture of Outfield, Mr. Mister, and Duran Duran.

It is easy to mock Bikini (trench-coats with the sleeves rolled up is never a good look), but in reality, "Legyek jó" was a fairly bold video. Instead of the subtle coding that many musicians under Socialism used to express their disdain for the authoritarian government, Bikini went for a balls-to-the-wall representation of dark government forces keeping down the little guy (who is clearly ready to rock). You could make the case that this is a far more daring protest song than anything Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Rage Against the Machine put out, considering the freedoms those artists enjoyed and the monetary gain that resulted from their rebellion. What could Bikini hoped to have gained? Pretty much the same thing that the band in Kopaszkutya wanted: a following big enough to support themselves, and, most importantly, a public venue to play in. Kopaszkutya’s venue was a rock club in Kőbánya, Bikini’s was their own country, without fear of censorship or arrest. And by using the language of Western consumer culture (videos, rock music, fashion) to express themselves, it was a double affront to the reigning regime. True, Solidarity was well along in catalyzing Poland’s defiant stance towards the Soviet Union, and Hungary was always the most permissive of the regimes, but still, nobody knew for sure that Gorbachev would back down, and the freedom of the media was far from tested (if anybody can enlighten me as to how this video was broadcast or distributed, please do).

On a more atomic level, there are some wonderful details in "Legyek jó". First is the representation of the police as mini-skirt wearing, anti-Bond-girl vixens, constantly sharpening their long red fingernails. Apparat-chicks, anybody? It is not just Bikini that has pulled back the Iron Curtain to reveal a burlesque show: look to Elton John’s “Nikita” (made in the same time period) to see the sexy side of Socialist repression (Elton John looking no less silly than Bikini, something like Truman Capote in his fat phase, if Truman Capote was a swishy Bedouin). Also, there is a wonderful truth is the real enemy in "Legyek jó": bureaucracy. The video begins with the singer about to knock (police?) files down like dominoes, and ultimately, the authority figure drowns in his own paperwork. It is not a very sexy target, but telling and real to anybody who has had to navigate the preposterous amount of bureaucracy needed to accomplish almost anything legally even in post-bloc Hungary.

Ultimately, it seems Bikini has been lost to the ages, which is a shame. I wonder if local bands, who are still asking “Who should we sound like?” shouldn’t also ask, “Who should we emulate?” It would nice to see the pop world make good on at least some the daring of Bikini during that tumultuous period.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Top 5 Expat Traps

5. Relationships. Hungary may seem like a bachelor’s paradise at first blush, but the reality is much more complicated. It is true that any number of long-term relationships and marriages spring up between expats and locals, but there also seems to be a disproportionate amount of break-ups, infidelity, and co-dependence. When so much around you is foreign, it is really easy to cling to somebody who can navigate that web. The real test of the relationship’s value seems to be in the dynamic change that occurs outside the context of this country.

4. Cadism. The sleazy cousin to the above. Despite the sad-sack expats lined up at the bar of certain local establishments, is relatively easy to carouse in Budapest, so much so that it becomes a viable pastime for those with any talent for it. But this ultimately turns into a hollow pursuit, even for the most lascivious of us.

3. Cynicism. With so much corruption and negativity around, it is easy to become infected by lowered standards and expectations. But dreams never get downsized, no matter where you escape to, and if you are not going to make it as a writer or artist in the West, it is equally unlikely that you will make it here. The result is a blaming of the crass commercial forces that dictate to whom the spoils are granted, rather than honest self-appraisal.

2. Alcoholism. “When the morning comes twice a day or not at all.” That Uncle Tupelo line rings harrowingly true if you have ever seen the sun rise from inside a kért for a few consecutive mornings. It is always easiest to look at the next guy and say he is worse off, because there is always somebody worse off hereabouts. Lots of factors conspire to make alcoholism particularly easy to fall into in Budapest. First, drinking is an acceptable part of the social culture of Hungarians. But equally dangerous is the lack of real diverse English-language entertainment. Film, theater options remain limited. Bars are just the most convenient, cheapest form of play-time activity.

1. Stasis. What day is today? If you can’t answer that question then you probably need to check yourself. Most boho expats fall prey to this condition at one point or another. Stasis enables all the above, which is why it is number one. I know people who are repeating word for word the same grandiose plans they had when they arrived to Budapest so many years ago, without having taken few, if any, steps to accomplish them. It is just simpler, and probably less psychically damaging, to talk. And because you can create a bubble around yourself here so easily, you can live in a state of suspended animation, without having much meaningful contact with your native community. Unfortunately, time does not stop, and when you come up for air, friends have started families, bought houses, made something of themselves. Then again, there are those who travel here precisely not to make anything of themselves. And in this success-driven, globalized culture, that goal is at least a little applaudable.

-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.