Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hello I Must be Going: Ten People in Hungary and the Likely-hood They Will Greet You

Ranked From Most to Least Likely to Acknowledge You

1) People in an elevator: In Hungary, very busy, business-minded people take the time to greet you in the elevator, whether you are a colleague or not. It can be confusing, especially as Hungarians say ‘hello’ when leaving.

2) People in the gym locker room: Again, it can be a bit jarring to be pantlessly greeted by a passing stranger. I think they do it for that reason.

3) Bartenders: As with the rest of the civilized world, Budapest has its share of bartenders who take pride in their work, and want you to feel welcome. Usually, though not always, these are the not bartenders who are forced to give their tips up to the management. If you go to a bar long enough, they will even greet you by name, though you will have to wait much longer, sometimes years, to get a buy-back.

4) Homeless: and sometimes they don’t even want money, though usually, they do.

5) Store cashiers: it’s about a 50/50 chance you will get a craggly dragon-lady whose hemorrhoid cream is not up to the task. The good news is that the other 50 percent actually don’t seem to mind that you are giving money to the business that keeps them in a job.

6) Bus drivers: I was brought up to thank a bus driver and say good-bye. I still do, if I exit at the front. Bus drivers are genuinely surprised when you say good-bye to them, and occasionally even wish you a good day.

7) The random Hungarian you met at a party: Ignoring acquaintances is blood sport in Budapest. There are people whom I have met multiple times, had hours of conversation with, who will look deliberately straight through me on the street. It baffles me every time. I have no idea why people behave this way; if you do, please let me know.

8) The random expat you met at a party: The longer they have been living in Budapest, the less likely they are to greet you, having from being iced-out time and time again themselves. Expats in Budapest are a particularly susceptible group and have assimilated the worst habits of their host country; indeed, sometimes they perfect them (sloth, pessimism, cynicism, cronyism).

10) Your neighbor: If this list teaches us one thing, it is that the closer you get to home, the less likely you are going to get on a cozy first name basis with those who cross your path. Older neighbors can be trained to greet you by shamelessly blurting out a ‘Jó napot’ in their faces, but after a while, you begin to see their point: that it is easier to silently pass them by, not acknowledging, unacknowledged.

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

BKV: the Triumph and the Tragedy

In Paris, fare-hoping has become a popular pastime, as well as a form of civil disobedience; so much so that there is actually a group that – for a small monthly fee – will insure you against the monetary penalty of getting caught. Leave it to the French, who treat sticking it to the man like a national sport (and doing it with such élan!). There is no doubt that such a scheme would fail in Budapest, where – like in my home country – somebody would certainly shout “socialist!”. Being caught red-handed, without a ticket, can be a disconcerting experience. Despite directives against such behavior, the controllers can be a grabby, peevish bunch indeed.

Like many Budapesters I know, I pay most of the time, but bliccel (fare-hop) when economics deem it necessary. I don’t do this with zero pangs of conscious, but the pangs are small and easily chased away: more like pings. From a passenger’s point of view, it makes sense. Three hundred and twenty forints for a few stops up the Grand Boulevard (as the BKV’s site call it) makes common taxi banditry look chivalrous.

But what about the oft-investigated, fund-hemorrhaging public transport company BKV? It turns out, they also have high expectations of their passengers. Which brings me to the real point of this meandering post: the BKV web site. It’s fabulous, for no other reason than they have constructed a little testament of denial, certainly created by people who never ride public transportation. In this case, context is everything. I ask you to pause for a moment, and go to the BKV English language main page. Have a listen to the sound bytes: if you live here, you know these as the jingle the tram makes before the doors close. It is actually kind of a sweet little tune as public transport signals go (is that a harpsichord?). But in real life, having sweated a bumpy ride, the tune sounds nothing but mocking. Real life on the BKV rarely lives up to the site. For instance, in the Terms and Conditions page, it states that it is forbidden “to behave in a way which is scandalous, antisocial or breaches law.” This is clearly a case of double-speak, as one can only benefit from being as anti-social as possible on public transport. Perhaps the porn crew that appropriated the back of an in-service tram for a shoot had researched the BKV and considered what they were doing quite social.

Asking their passengers to refrain from being anti-social and scandalous is optimistic, but further down the accepted-behavior list reveals the authors of the BKV constitution to be delusional. One is forbidden to “travel in filthy clothes or in a drunken state.” Instead of checking tickets, I would dearly love to see controllers sniffing underarms, socks. As for traveling in a drunken state: anyone who has taken it knows that the night bus is not much more than a poor man’s booze cruise.

But the BKV reserves its best for handicapped passengers. It is not enough to arrive at a metro station in a wheel chair to use the lifts: you have to pass both “theoretical and practical exams” to prove your disability. A more motivated writer would uncover just what the ‘theoretical’ aspects of paralysis one must master before being allowed to use Budapest’s public transportation, but – in terms of the practical portion – I am guessing that this is an exam that you pass by failing. You do, however, have the bonus of being allowed to humiliate yourself at either the Mexikói station, or the more luxurious venue of the Széchenyi baths, where the practical exams are administered.

Not long ago, according to pestiside, BKV ran a survey, attempting to analyze exactly why locals fair-hop. The answer seems obvious to me: with their thuggish controllers and silly by-laws, they have created an ‘us against them’ mentality. Instead of just punching your ticket at the metro, you punch, and then submit it for inspection. There is a whiff of subjugation in this act, and from that springs the urge to resist, to bliccel. And anytime there is a dynamic where an individual stands against some monolithic entity – public transport companies included – I have to side with the outlaw. Ride in good heath, fare-hoppers, no matter what your motives, or how antisocial and smelly you may be.

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

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Interview: Katherine Shonk

Every now and again, an expat makes something of their experiences abroad and publishes a book. In Katherine Shonk’s case, the collection of short stories The Red Passport stemmed from a post-collegiate patch living in Russia in the ‘90s. It has been a long time since she moved back to the US, but the book remains a closely observed, insightful testament to that unique period in history. Though I have yet to successfully negotiate a Shonk story for Pilvax, I was able to catch up with her over email, regarding her recently published novel Happy Now?.

Word Pill: How much did getting an MFA help you in your writing?

KS: My MFA (technically, it was an MA, from the University of Texas at Austin) was most valuable in terms of giving me a solid two years to focus primarily on my writing. I went at a good time, right after I got back from a year in Moscow and had lots of experiences to digest. I had some excellent, dedicated teachers and was with a great group of fellow students, but having the time to write was more important than anything else, and not having much of a social life helped too. For many years before my MA, I had studied fiction writing intensively in classes led by a great teacher in the Chicago area, Fred Shafer. That background has informed my writing practice—specifically, the importance of revision—more than anything else.

Word Pill: When living in Moscow, did you feel that residing outside the USA alienated you as a writer?

KS: I wouldn’t say that I had much of a self-identity, let alone a real identity, as a writer when I was living in Moscow. I was still learning to write stories, and in fact, I hardly did any writing while I was in Moscow. The awkwardness and lack of confidence I felt simply living day to day in Moscow probably translated into an overall lack of confidence in myself as a writer, which may have been why I didn’t write while there. I also felt as if I needed to get some distance on the place before I could absorb the experience of living there and write about it. Actually, it wasn’t until I returned home that I felt alienated from U.S. culture, which motivated me to start writing about Russia, a place that I suddenly missed very much.

Word Pill: Can you tell us a little about the experience of having your novel edited, once it was accepted by your publisher?

KS: I’m lucky to have a wonderfully sharp editor, Gena Hamshaw at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who felt passionately about my book. The editing process began with Gena writing me a long letter that suggested four fairly significant changes (as well as a list of smaller ones) to the book. Initially, I resisted each of Gena’s major suggestions, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized they were all spot-on. Most notably, she thought that I should have my main character, Claire, read her husband’s suicide note near the middle of the book rather than at the end, where I had originally placed it. Moving the note to the middle of the book ended up giving Claire more time to react to it and, I believe, deepens the mystery of her husband’s death.
After that first round of editing with Gena, we cleared up some loose ends, and then the book was copyedited and proofread a total of three or four times. It’s an exhaustive process that leaves you feeling pretty confident about not finding typos in the published version.

Word Pill: Are there aspects of autobiography in your novel Happy Now?

KS: I adapted a lot of incidents from my own life to Claire’s, such as dealing with a cat who eats a poisonous flower, driving on Lake Shore Drive in a blizzard, and Internet dating in my mid-thirties. Writing the novel was a little like building a nest, with some of the twigs taken from my own life and others imagined. Some of Claire’s personal struggles mirror my own, though I imagined her more traumatic experiences, such as her parents’ divorce and, obviously, the loss of her husband.

Word Pill: Any advice for beginning writers?

KS: Read a lot. Cultivate the practice of revision, and learn to enjoy it: Don’t be satisfied with your first draft or even your tenth. Find a community of writers who you trust to give honest, thoughtful feedback. Grow a thick skin, because you’ll probably deal with a lot of rejection. Find a day job that gives you time to write. Teaching isn’t always the best job for a writer because it can be so time consuming and exhausting, especially for introverts. Editing has worked much better for me.

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

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Adventures in Editing: Omara

In the third issue of Pilvax, I had a chance to work with one of Hungary’s most esteemed Gypsy painters, Mara Olah—known more commonly as Omara. Originally, Omara was supposed to supply the occasional line drawings that we use to break up the text of the stories and poetry. Due to a printer’s error, two of her drawings came out faded and blotchy. Because we deal with such a limited print run, I was able to convince Omara to hand-draw the original illustrations directly into the magazine, making a unique work of art out of each copy. So, on a summer day, with two plastic Spar bags filled with magazines, Pilvax co-founder Aaron and I set out for Omara’s small country house, a few hours outside of Budapest.

With no street name or address, the house would have been difficult to find but for the fact that she was well known around the village. Omara greeted us by the gate of a trailer-sized abode, a woman approaching old-age, with a few missing teeth, trailed by a flurry of black hair. She led us into the house, warning us to avoid the well-sized pit in the front room. Before we had time to get comfortable, Omara insisted that she needed a shower. That was fine with us, though it turned out that Omara’s shower was a cold-water pump in the open air, out back. Aaron and I waited, avoiding looking out the window. Omara returned, wearing a towel, hair loose, looking refreshed if not a bit wild. Now it is your turn, she insisted. Our turn? For what? For a shower. Not for the last time, I would pretend not to understand Hungarian.

Still in her towel, Omara gave us a tour of the small house that she was building herself, by hand. The pit in the center of the floor? That would be the swimming pool. With almost anybody else, you would think they were joking. But one thing was clear to us early on: if Omara wanted to dig herself a swimming pool that took up half a room in a two-room house, that is what she was going to do.

Before we discussed work, Omara proudly showed us her press clippings: pictures of her with visiting foreign dignitaries, Hungarian celebrities and politicians, an article in Népszabadság, that emphasized her great love of taxicabs (Omara only traveled in taxis, not by train, never by bus). Then she told us it was time to go to work: but not at home. Only in a restaurant. Not to worry, she had already called a taxi.

Before arriving the inn, Omara had the cab stop at a green-grocer’s to pick up a watermelon. She loved watermelon, and chose the largest one. Now, you would think that an old gypsy woman walking into a restaurant with her own watermelon in tow would be an unwelcome surprise to most Hungarian waiters. But, no, the unflappable country waiters dutifully brought out plates and sliced up Omara’s melon for her, free of charge. Being one Hungary’s most illustrious painters has its benefits.

So, with colored pencils, we began to illustrate our 200 Pilvax’s, each of us contributing to the final result. Not much conversation transpired during the work; Aaron and I sipped beer, Omara slurped watermelon.

In her dealings with the waiters, and with us, one thing became clear: Omara was very conscious of the fact that she was Roma—playing it up for her audience, and using it to excuse herself from the mundane constraints of decorum. It seemed to be as much a tool as a part of her identity. Or, perhaps it wasn’t her ethnicity, which somebody like me – white, foreign – is so prepared, even eager, to experience. Mabye Omara was just an authentic artist, living by inner, constantly changing dictates.

Either way, there was obviously a lot more to Omara than a cartoonish, eccentric Gypsy woman. Early on in our visit, Omara had given me a painting. It was a deep-blue portrait of a beach-side house, dedicated to her daughter. The child-like subjects appear to inhabit a ghost world, indistinct and elegiac. Like her illustrations, it is a bit disturbing, and full of sorrow. It hangs on my wall, but it is not pleasurable to look at. But still, like any good painting, it seems to convey some truth or feeling that cannot be articulated with words.

The illustration job took longer than we had anticipated, and after the sun had fallen Omara announced she was too tired to continue. We had only made it through half the magazines, but editorial concerns had been set aside early on. It was obvious that we were indebted to the sloppy printing job—I think Aaron and I both fell a little in love with Omara that day.

Aaron and I took a room in the inn, and somehow Omara would make her way home. She had already refused money (though it was clear she didn’t have any of her own) and we were miles from her house.

Omara, how will you get back? I asked.

However God wills it
, she said, gazing up at the sky. Then, after a deep breath, looking sage and oddly alluring, she intoned: call me a cab.

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