Shamed by You English?

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“Stankly Closing Daws!”

What, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You do if you’ve ridden the New York City subway much. It may not be pronounced correctly – not close – but even an immigrant right off the boat knows it’s the motorman’s warning to “stand clear of the closing doors.”

I hear it 12 times on most weekdays traveling between 175th Street and the Wall Street Journal on 47th on two different trains in each direction. And when I get back to Washington Heights in the evening I head straight for one of the semi-official jitneys (a.k.a. the Dominican Bus) across the “Jore Washing  Toe Brie” to “Four Lee.” There are two competing cash-only companies, each with their own conductor/pitchman/sales guy, and since both go across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, the choice comes down to which bus leaves first (they have to fill up).

“Lee bee now! Lee bee now!”

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That’s the great thing about America, and New York in particular. Not only don’t you have to understand much of the official language to get by but speaking it is optional. Why should a hard-working bus tout who inhales diesel fumes for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, waste time and energy learning how to pronounce “leaving now?”

As a child of immigrants who only learned English when he started school, I think about this a lot. My sister, cousins and I didn’t have the option of settling for pidgin English given our career choices, but our parents and their extended community of friends were way too old and busy to learn all of the finer points. The farther you got from New York the harder this made things.

My dad, a few years after coming to the U.S. as a refugee, even got arrested in Mobile, Alabama in 1961 for using the “colored” bathroom in the bus station. I’d like to pretend he was making a principled stand for civil rights, but he just didn’t understand what the sign meant or what the cop was telling him. The cop almost certainly didn’t understand his response.

To a limited extent this linguistic confusion rubbed off on the first generation, or me at least. My dad, on the frequent occasions he didn’t understand someone, would say “pah-rah-me?” I thought this was what you said when you didn’t understand something.

Sometimes it was hilarious. His brother, my Uncle George, would put on his striped “cocksucker suit,” though that may have been a joke from day one. My grandmother went to the supermarket and nearly served us tuna cat food. My wife’s grandmother went to the store looking for “shits” – you know, the ones that go on the bed. My mom, who learned her English early on from African American nurses, still amazes me with her hungaricized  ebonics.

Once, when I was just learning English, I had a bad cold and an American family friend said: “Oh, you have a stuffed duck nose.” Well, that’s what I heard, and since you sort of do sound like a stuffed duck when you’re congested, I said that for many years until the inevitable, embarrassing correction. I also thought until about age 11 that a bike had a “cake stand” so it wouldn’t fall down. It forms a triangle and is shaped like a piece of cake so …

In any case, the moral of this story is to be thankful for, rather than annoyed by, the fact that people can get away with only a crude approximation of English here in New York their entire lives and be just fine. If you happen to be visiting from, say, Iowa, and are confused, just listen a little more carefully. And if you’re back home and meet a little foreign-sounding lady without a cat buying a lot of cat food that’s on sale,  please stop her.

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The Haves and the Have Mores

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Make sure you’re sitting down when you read this. Ready? Here goes:

In certain unknown corners of the world there is a “money-based caste system” in operation. Crazy, right?

I read this in an interesting but somewhat tone-deaf front page New York Times article this weekend by Nelson Schwartz: “In an Age of Privilege, Not Everyone Is in the Same Boat.” Geddit? It’s a double-entendre because it’s about a special section offered by a cruise line that caters to the upper-middle-class, Norwegian. In a “ship within a ship” 275 guests have private entrances, pools, get the best seats in the house at shows, private transport to the ship, and so forth. It’s the first in a series of articles about “The Velvet Rope Economy… how growing disparities in wealth are leading to privileged treatment of the rich.”

In fairness to the writer, it’s a fascinating look at a world that I (and probably you) will never see and comes at a time when the ultra-rich really are getting richer. The proportion of wealth controlled by the top 0.1% has doubled in the past couple of decades. The odd thing is the slight tone of shock and disdain. After all, people who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an upgraded version of what merely well-to-do people pay a few thousand for acts like a subsidy for the latter. If I liked going on cruises (I don’t – I wrote about my one experience a couple of years ago) I would appreciate these people, not despise them. Not only would it be no skin off my back, but it would be saving me money.

What I really wondered was why any super-rich person in their right mind would pay for that when a private yacht would be so much nicer. But then you probably already knew that money can’t buy good taste (see McMansions, Cadillac Escalades, and Trump Tower).

And while society may more economically stratified, money has always bought perks. These are a lot less objectionable than, say, the state of affairs on the Titanic when those in steerage not only had much worse food and sleeping arrangements but died in greater numbers because they couldn’t reach the lifeboats.

There were a lot of predictable comments on the piece (2,086 at last count)  whining about executives, taxes, etc, that are such a feature of election season. But plenty of readers wondered about the same things that I did. Artie from Cincinnati wrote:

I find it very curious that someone with the means to drop $30,000 on a room (OK suite) for a week’s incarceration, with very little possibility of escape on one of these ocean-going hotels, would want to do so with 4200 other commoners in such close proximity. Perhaps for some, flaunting one’s wealth is a desirable way to get away from it all. I guess we’re all out of touch in one way or another.

And Lou from Rego Park:

I would venture that almost everyone reading this article, whether they realize it or not, are part of the pampered few when compared to the entire world population. Having a home, food and many of our conveniences is the equivalent of living in the Haven on this earthly ship.

Echoed by JHM from Taiwan:

My heart goes out to couples who can only afford an “ordinary” stateroom for $3,000 a week instead of a room in the Haven for $10,000. Life is tough. What’s that you say; according to the UN half the world’s population survives on less than $2 a day? Come on, don’t bother me with that stuff. Can’t you see? I’m on vacation.

Can you hear that faint sound? It’s the world’s smallest violin.

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Hot Chicken!

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I think I’m in love … with a bird.

Last week I traveled to Nashville with the cover story of accompanying my  oldest son on a tour of Vanderbilt and to visit my little sister. At the top of my agenda, though, was finally sampling some of the Music City’s hot chicken. That alone was worth the plane fare.

After consulting my sister about our options, it really came down to two choices: old school Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (no, they don’t have a website – it’s a shack) or relative newcomer Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. We went for the latter because she said it was more consistent and it also was closer to our meeting at Vandy.

Technically this wasn’t my first time having hot chicken, but that other time doesn’t count. You may have seen KFC advertising its “Nashville Hot Chicken.” We treated my son to some after his awesome college test scores several weeks ago and, well, I’ll let David Pemberton of UPROXX tell you:

KFC’s bastard child looks like Hot Chicken, it smells like Hot Chicken, and up until my first bite, I had hoped that it would actually taste like Hot Chicken. But we live in a world of lies. And Colonel Sanders is the antichrist.

Okay, so it was a little better, in my opinion, than their usual “11 secret herbs and spices” stuff but fell apart, had no kick, and was generally disappointing. On the other hand, the real deal, as described by Serious Eats, is heavenly:

The magic comes in the mingling of fat and heat. Take fried chicken’s fat-crisped crust and electrify it with a blistering spice blend, then place the meat in a spongy cradle of white bread. The bread soaks up the hot chicken’s juices, becoming just another delivery system for the heat, and the spicy grease lingers on your lips: the afterburn is an initiation to the habit that is hot chicken.

So we went to Hattie B’s and I thought we’d be disappointed. I mean it was something like 11:10 in the morning – a little early for a place for anything with an “afterburn” to even be open, especially in relatively sleepy Nashville. Much to my surprise, though, there already was a line out the door.

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Besides white or dark meat, the choices were Southern (“no heat”), Mild, Hot (“Feel the burn”), Damn Hot and Shut the Cluck Up!!! (“Burn Notice”). I considered going for at least Damn Hot, but a guy in line scared me. He said it would be too much to handle. I don’t know if that’s true, but read Pemberton’s description of the time he ordered the “extra spicy” at Prince’s:

There are no words to describe how hot Hot Chicken really is. It sits on the Scoville scale somewhere between “native Thai” and “molten lava.” I muscled my way through the meal with gritted teeth, spewing sweat and tears and breathless gasps until — finally — it was finished.

So I had the “hot” and it was just right. And by just right, I mean awesomely awesome. I would have had it again for dinner and breakfast the next morning if social and travel plans hadn’t intervened. The photo at the top of this post shows how it looked, along with the sides of pimento mac ‘n cheese and black eye pea salad, in the two nanoseconds before I inhaled it.

I’ll be back soon for more.

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Math Is Hard

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Store clerk: “If you open up a store card today you’ll get 55% off of whatever you buy.”

Me: “Awesome.”

And so that’s how I went from buying a single pair of shoes to a whole bunch of stuff. At 45 cents on the dollar it was silly not to at the store which, to protect the innocent, I’ll leave unidentified (rhymes with Bandana McPublic).

But, much to my surprise, when I showed up at the cash register with my new wardrobe, the nice young man first applied a 40% discount followed by a 15% discount. I started to point out that I was only getting a 49% discount, not the 55% he promised, but math didn’t seem to be his strong point and half off was still pretty good.

I doubt many people even bother thinking about it. You can bet the people back in Bandana McPublic’s HQ do, though. In fact, as this article from a colleague of mine explains, shops fool people by doing the same thing in reverse – so-called “stackable discounts.” An item will say “20% off” and then “take an additional 25% off.” People mistakenly assume they’re getting 45% off rather than the actual 40%.

But sometimes companies shoot themselves in the foot by underestimating their customers’ innumeracy. The most famous example is when a chain offered a “Third Pounder” for less money than a McDonald’s quarter pounder in the 1980s. Despite a big marketing campaign, consumers shunned the deal. The company couldn’t figure out why until they held focus groups and found that many people thought they were getting ripped off. Three is less than four, you see. D’oh!

Further underlining the saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, McDonald’s tried the same thing … twice! Here’s the latest iteration from last year.

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Usually, though, it’s consumers that get the short end of the stick. It turns out we aren’t very hard to fool according to a study in the Journal of Marketing. Students were offered two deals, 33% extra coffee or a 33% discount on a cup of coffee. They were indifferent between the two despite the fact you would need one-and-a-half times as much coffee to get the same discount.

So caveat emptor and please do the math.

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Ninjas, Soba, and Buddhism

So I’ve been remiss in updating this blog, especially considering the fact that the whole family spent two weeks in Japan over the summer. It practically provided me with years of material, but where to begin? We saw so much! We ate so much!

Friends and relatives, the vast majority of whom had never been to Japan, asked us what we liked best and what we ate there. Between Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, and our Nagomi Visit,  it was all amazing – 14 solid days of great experiences and meals. (Okay, maybe the freezing, rain-soaked night climb of Mt. Fuji could have been more pleasant).

The thing about Japan -something you’ve probably heard before – is that it’s a heady blend of the familiar and alien, the modern and traditional. That struck all of us, but the experience that resonated most with me was a one day detour we made to a place that felt traditional period. We took a bullet train to Nagano, a lovely, medium-sized city three-and-a-half hours northwest of Tokyo – and then a one hour bus ride into the misty, volcanic hills to Togakushi Village.

After dragging the kids to lots of temples, the local ninja school was going to be their reward. The famous local soba noodles were going to be the adults’ consolation prize. Before we got to the ninja school, though, we walked through the village with thatched roof houses and to the Togakushi Shrine. Actually consisting of three separate Buddhist shrines dating back to the first millennium AD, the whole place felt serene and, dare I say, holy.

An explanation of the mythology behind the shrines from Japan-guide.com:

The shrines are related to an important story in Japanese mythology in which the Sun Goddess hid herself in a cave in present dayTakachiho on Kyushu after her brother had misbehaved, thereby bringing darkness to the world. In order to get the sunlight back, the other deities tried to lure the Sun Goddess out of the cave by performing spectacular dance performances in front of it. As the Sun Goddess took a peek out, one of the deities grabbed the cave’s stone door and threw it away to prevent her from hiding again. The stone door flew all the way to Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, which is also how the area got its name: Togakushi literally means “hiding door”. Today, the upper shrine worships the deity who grabbed and threw away the stone door, while the middle shrine enshrines the deity who organized the dance performances in front of the cave.

The ninja school down the road felt kitschy by contrast, but the kids had fun shooting blow darts, throwing stars, and having a mock sword fight. There was even a nice, albeit small, collection of arms and armor.Toga7

On the way to the ninja school, though, we passed a restaurant next to ancient trees that I had seen in a blog post at bigontrips. I had little hope of finding it but, as we were walking by, recognized the proprietor from that post. Bigontrips said lunch was first-come, first-served, so we put our names on a waiting list and got a spot later that afternoon. We got back a little early and watched the owner hand-roll noodles through the ground floor window.

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The food was well worth the wait. I ordered the soba with mountain radish and a quail egg, washed won with some unfiltered sake.

 

The kids liked the food but didn’t appreciate it as much as the adults. Still, they were hungry enough from playing ninja to slurp down their noodles.

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Off the beaten path but simply amazing and well worth a detour if you ever find yourself in Japan.

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The Secret Hungarian Restaurant

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Map of Hungary

“We could always try the secret Hungarian restaurant.”

Wait, what?

Lamenting the disappearance of eateries serving central European soul food with my cousin Pete – our beloved Mocca, the last one standing, closed over a decade ago after 47 years in business – his comment while we were having lunch in Midtown a few weeks ago threw me for a loop. As the only member of my generation born in the old country, he had once again proven himself an expert on all things Hungarian-American.

I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. Though not exactly a restaurant, The First Hungarian Literary Society was, according to a few sources on the Internet, a place to experience some real magyar konyha. He hadn’t been either so we agreed to meet outside the East 79th Street club last night.

The establishment doesn’t exactly shout its existence from the rooftops. Aside from the mandatory health department inspection sticker (it got an “A”) that one might assume was for the actual, unrelated restaurant at ground level, you would never know there was an eatery upstairs. The only sign once you enter the vestibule was this:

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But then it became clear that this was no ordinary apartment building. There were various plaques and posters of their membership with faded old photos lining the hallway. Those people reading this who have traveled in Hungary or elsewhere in Mitteleuropa will recognize the style of photo from gimnázium and középiskola graduation posters. Here’s one from their 35th anniversary in 1924:

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And here’s Pete standing next to one from their 50th anniversary. The people in the photos look like younger versions of the patrons of Mocca and Tip Top who would pinch our cheeks as we spent hours and hours there during countless Sunday afternoons in the 1970s with our dads and mutual grandpa.

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Here’s me next to a 105th anniversary one with color photos. If you look closely you’ll notice that there are fewer members and that the average age is way up there – a sign that the club’s heyday is long past. There would be more signs when we actually reached the “club.”

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The woman at the reception as we entered appeared to be the only employee. To my immense relief, quoting Attila József or György Faludy wasn’t a requirement for being admitted. A few words in Hungarian got us in the door and quickly seated. For the night we went there at least reservations weren’t necessary as no one else was eating. There were a couple of lively card games going on:

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On to the food. The prix fixe $25 menu, four courses plus coffee, was a bit more than Mocca, even adjusted for inflation. It still won’t break the bank, though. For an appetizer I had körözött (you may know it as liptauer) and Pete had chopped liver. Both were authentic but not amazing. Here’s the körözött:

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Then came a perfectly tasty vegetable soup. For the main course I had borjúpörkölt (veal paprikash) with galuska (egg dumplings) and uborkasaláta (cucumber salad). It was excellent.

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Pete’s stuffed cabbage was good too.

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For dessert, we both had palacsinta (crepes) – mine with walnuts and jam and his with túró (curd or sweetened farmer’s cheese). I think they had to improvise with his filling but it was okay. Mine was yummy.

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Finally came coffee served in a glass and some pleasant, unrushed conversation. Just like in the Old World, it would be rude to bring the check without the customer asking. Grandpa used to occupy a table for hours back in the day on 2nd Avenue, reading Népszabadság and gossiping (granted, he often would have two meals). We finally found the waitress/cook/receptionist, paid, and left with slightly higher serum cholesterol than a couple of hours earlier.

All in all the food was authentic but not amazing. The location that oozed history and kitsch was the main attraction. Oh the agglutinative, multisyllabic stories those walls could tell! You needn’t have grown up speaking Hunglish to relish this little piece of history, but it probably helps. I can’t wait to go back with people who would appreciate this slice of a nearly vanished world. Business isn’t exactly booming and the clientele wasn’t lively. I hope they hang on and perhaps find some fresh blood so that there are many more anniversary posters to come.

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I ♥ Molvania

You know you’re doing something wrong (or very, very right) if the correction to your story gets thousands more page views than your actual article. So, in case you missed it, The New York Times had one for the ages back in January:

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the country whose army chased Tommy Caldwell’s kidnappers. As other references correctly noted, Caldwell was in Kyrgyzstan, not Kyrzbekistan, which does not exist.

But cut the writer John Branch some slack. For one the guy is a sports reporter and keeping track of Central Asian “stans” isn’t easy. Also, it’s a really nice piece and he’s done some other amazing stories, including one that won a Pulitzer. Plus he was a good sport about it.

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Heck, even our Secretary of State gets confused. John Kerry insulted not one but two countries by inventing the country of Kyrzakhstan. I mean it’s not like Kazakhstan is of vital geopolitical importance or is seven times the size of Germany or something. Oh, wait, it is? Confusion about the region is becoming de rigeur when running for president. Remember Herman Cain, the pizza guy who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012?

Brody: Are you ready for the gotcha questions that are coming from the media and others? Like who’s the president of Uzbekistan? It’s coming. All of this stuff and how are you dealing with that?

 

Cain: I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?’ And then I’m going to say, ‘how’s that going to create one job?’

 

Obviously – duh. Intentionally fictional fake countries from the region are almost as fun as ones made up by accident. Just to name a few, there’s: Adjikistan, Zekistan (both from video games), Berzerkistan (Doonesbury), Richistan (a very good book by my former colleague Robert Frank), Howduyudustan (Uncle Scrooge), Pokolistan (DC Comics), and, last but not least, Trashcanistan.

My very favorite fictional country is Syldavia, the setting for several of Tintin adventures. Readers of the series will have figured out that it, along with its neighbor and sworn enemy Borduria, are somewhere in the Balkans. What only obsessive fans might know is that the Syldavian language is based largely on a Germanic dialect spoken in part of Hergé’s native Brussels called Marols with some Slavic and Hungarian words mixed in and Cyrillic script.

Hergé also made up the South American banana republic of San Theodoros ruled alternately by Generals Tapioca and Alcazar (the former renamed the capital Tapiacopolis) and the Persian Gulf monarchy Khemed (fought over by Mohammed Ben Kalish and Sheikh Bab El Ehr).

And then there are those made up for purely comic effect. The great series of travel guides from Jetlag Travel that included “Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry” and Phaic Tăn: Sunstroke on a Shoestring” are worth reading if you can find a copy.

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Happy travels!

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Balaton Memories

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Growing up in the U.S., your idea of a beach vacation may have been sunny Florida or something more modest like The Jersey Shore. In communist Hungary, the only place to go was “Balaton.” It’s a lake, but no ordinary one as far as Hungarians, or the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who also vacationed there, were concerned. (it’s called “Plattensee” in German). Nearly 50 miles wide and eight or nine across, it was the equivalent of an ocean for a landlocked country where foreign travel rarely was possible.

I’ve been there a few times, but my most memorable visit by far was in August 1979, the summer between fourth and fifth grade. It was my first trip and I had been regaled with tales of how wonderful it was by my mom, who spent summers camping there as a “Young Pioneer.” By “memorable” I don’t mean pleasant, by the way, though that’s not her fault. The three of us (me, my mom, and my sister) went there with my mom’s best friend from medical school and her daughter, who is my age. The whole trip was weird to an American kid – you went there on a slow, packed, stuffy train filled with people smoking harsh cigarettes. Passengers brought lots of food with them – bread, salami, cheese and juicy Hungarian peppers and tomatoes – no McDonald’s. Never ones for modesty, most Hungarians on the train already were half naked and ready to jump in the water. By the time they got to the actual beach, most of the women were truly naked from the waist up – an eye-opener for an American kid (I didn’t mind that part).

Instead of a hotel, most people, including us, rented a room or an entire house in a village near the shore. The one we rented seemed incredibly rustic to me – we had to feed the owners’ chickens – but it made for pretty luxurious digs by local standards. Anyway, the trip started out fine. We were on the southern, shallow side of the lake and I went swimming on the first afternoon. I remember having a nasty fall on the rocks and being carried out, sobbing, by a very kind East German teenager. It turned out to be my last excursion into the lake as I started feeling ill the following morning. We found out later that lots of people developed similar symptoms. In a communist country, this sort of information trickles out slowly, if at all.

I got worse and worse and I developed a high fever. I should note here that, back in Budapest before our trip, I had watched a popular Hungarian children’s film based on a famous play called A Pál Utcai Fiúk (The Paul Street Boys) by Ferenc Molnár. In the end, the hero dies of a fever – typical, cheery Hungarian youth programming! Being nine years old and already a budding hypochondriac, I had visions of succumbing to my illness like the hero in the movie. At first my mom wanted to try a home remedy – chicken soup – but we couldn’t eat the live ones in the yard. She bought a duck instead and made some very greasy soup. It didn’t work and finally she found the lone local doctor.

Being the eastern bloc, this took a while and he had no medicine anyway. After scouring the area, my mom finally found some Bulgarian penicillin. I don’t want to sound bratty, but it was absolutely the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to ingest – a bottle of poop-brown liquid with an aroma to match. I kept vomiting it up and, after a while, developed a Pavlovian reaction to the bottle, barfing as soon as she unscrewed the cap.

It was also very hot in the peasant house and I just lay in bed most of the day drenched in sweat. There was no ice or, of course, air conditioning. The main diversion was playing with the stray cats who wandered into the house and lay down in my bed. One day I picked up what looked like a glass of water on the table. It was actually vodka that my mom’s friend, who was a bit of a lush, was drinking straight.

I finally got so sick that my mom had to take me back to Budapest and call in a favor to get me treated in a “special” hospital. What was so special about it? I’m not sure, but I shudder to think of what the run-of-the-mill ones were like. A nurse took me into a room and pulled out the most gigantic needle I’ve ever seen – 1940s medical technology – to draw blood. She stuck it in my arm, but blood started spurting out all over me because she had neglected to place a glass tube on the other end. After yelling at me for not being “a man,” she found the missing piece and I was free to go. They didn’t seem to have any normal penicillin either because I had to go back every day after that on a train, trolley, and bus while feeling awful to get a shot in my leg with a slightly smaller needle. After the shots my legs would stiffen and I had to limp back to the bus. They alternated sides each day. I was sick for the rest of our trip but a bit better than at the lake. When we got home, I went to a local clinic in Queens, got some medicine, and it took me about a day to improve. I nearly had a fit when they asked to draw blood but was relieved when it was just a virtually painless finger prick. They told me I had a bacterial infection.

They say that young children can’t appreciate being taken abroad. I’m not sure that’s quite true, though it may seem like that at the time. My sister and I didn’t really understand how different life was behind the Iron Curtain, even in Hungary, the “happiest barracks in the camp.” I thought lots of kids went on trips like that. I remember bringing back a “Pioneer” belt buckle with the inscription “Előre” (forward!) that I wore to school. They didn’t know what to make of it at P.S. 174.

Elore

On the other hand, this all made a strong impression on me and left some vivid memories – few more than getting so sick and thinking, with my childish logic, that I might die of a fever. For lots of poor people in the world, that’s a distinct possibility.

I don’t want to scare anyone away from Balaton, by the way. It’s actually very nice and, from what I hear, the water is perfectly clean now. It also has plenty of beautiful villas and some nicer hotels than back then, plus vineyards and spas. I went there twice when I lived in Hungary – once on a boozy weekend with some friends when we rented a cheap “Zimmer Frei,” Hungarian style, and once on a more high-end trip involving a sailboat with work colleagues. I had a pretty good time but, unlike probably 99.9% of people who went there as kids, my initial association with Balaton was unpleasant – feeling sick, scared, and uncomfortable. First impressions matter a lot.

These days even middle class Hungarians are as likely to jet off to places like Corfu on cheap package tours as to spend time on Balaton. The analogy I would draw is New Yorkers who used to flock to the Catskills in the 1950s but now travel to Florida with the advent of air conditioning and affordable airfares. It’s not a perfect comparison. Balaton is special and accessible in a way that no similar place is for all Americans. It’s culturally significant enough to show up in many brands.

balatonchocoloatebalatonpapir Going to Balaton may not quite rise to the level of a formative memory, but it’s a powerful one. I was inspired to write all this down after reading Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful memoir, Little Failure.  He grew up near my neighborhood in Queens around the same time as me after emigrating from the Soviet Union, but the portion that got me reminiscing about my trip to Balaton was his description of summer beach vacations in Crimea. He also detailed some pretty medieval medical treatment he got for his asthma because Soviet doctors didn’t have modern inhalers.

I got off very lightly by comparison. Now all I have to do is become a bestselling author! Oh, one more thing. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that the postcard at the top of this entry shows not only Balaton but, for some strange reason, an Amphicar in the lake (I wrote about those a while back).

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Meeting “Leon”

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Have you ever had the chance to meet someone in person whom you’ve watched dozens of times on the screen? Earlier this year I had the pleasure of doing just that – a benefit of being a journalist that sort of makes up for the poor pay and job security. The guy I met, Alan R. Solomon, isn’t exactly a household name but, in my house at least, he’s an icon. My kids and I refer to him by his character’s name in the 1980 Disney film Midnight Madness – Leon, the Game Master.

Haven’t seen it? That’s not surprising, but not because it’s bad. Starring Stephen Furst (of Animal House fame), David Naughton (American Werewolf in London, Dr. Pepper guy), Eddie Deezen (various nerdy characters, including Eugene in Grease) and featuring  a very young Michael J. Fox and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), it’s actually pretty good and very funny. A crazy ensemble movie in the mold of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World starring Spencer Tracy and Milton Berle, it was based on a real-life all-night puzzle hunt going on in L.A. at the time.

Great concept, superb cast, and a nice debut editorial performance by Michael Nankin and David Wechter. So what happened? It was only Disney’s second PG film and the sophomoric, slightly risqué humor (very mild by today’s standards) caused the studio to get cold feet. It was hardly promoted and released at an inauspicious time. But then it had a revival on HBO and seemed to be on constantly in the early 1980s. For me and many others, that’s when it became a cult classic. The twist is that people all over the country emulate the puzzle hunts by staging their own all-nighters – life imitating art imitating life, so to speak.

By last summer, my kids and I had watched the DVD 30 or 35 times. Seeing the movie for the third time in a week while on vacation in Cape Cod, they asked me what I thought “Leon” was doing now. I decided to humor them by looking it up and, after some research, found out that he went on to become a professional game show designer. In the movie he’s a nerdy genius obsessed with games who plans the all-night puzzle hunt pitting five teams (nice kids, mean kids, jocks, nerds, sorority girls) against one another. Life imitating art again.

I decided to pitch it as a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal. The editors took a bit of convincing, but it worked out well. It was almost surreal speaking with Alan over the phone because, despite being 63 now, he sounds just like young Leon. Not a professional actor, he was picked out of the crowd for his looks and mannerisms. Here he is with his lovely assistants, Candy and Sunshine:

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We were sporting “FAGABEEFE” t-shirts we made  for the occasion (it’s a classic line from the movie):

How did we meet him? After the article appeared, the organizers of an elaborate Midnight Madness game in New York City that I wrote about in the article invited Alan and his wife to attend, flying them from his home in California. We were invited to the start of the contest in lower Manhattan by the chief organizer Elisha Wiesel (who, believe it or not, is the son of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel). Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – Elisha has raised huge sums for charity Good Shepherd Services through the game.

Alan acted as a sort of surprise grand poobah of the event, staying up for 36 hours straight and losing his voice, but he took time to speak with me and my sons. He and his wife Sharon were really warm and friendly. He even gave us an autographed copy of an item from the movie – the handout from the cult members in the airport scene (a treasured keepsake along with an original movie poster that David Wechter sent me). He may not be a bona fide celebrity, but he is to my boys. They thought he was great and said meeting him was better than some other pretty cool stuff they did with me as part of my reporting – even riding in floating cars. That’s really saying something.

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The life aquatic

They say that sailing is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. Perhaps that’s true – I haven’t spent enough time on the water to get tired of it or, thankfully, to experience anything that scared me out of my wits. Based on my limited experience, I’d say it’s more like 30% relaxation, 30% inspiration, and 50% inebriation. Yes, I know, that adds up to 110%, but cut me some slack – my brain is still recovering from the sun and alcohol of a wonderful sailing trip last week in the British Virgin Islands week with my good friend István.

You may have guessed from the funny accent on the second vowel that he’s not from these parts. I met and befriended István when I moved to Hungary in 1993. Despite having been ruled for quite a while by an admiral, Hungary – a landlocked country – doesn’t have much of a nautical tradition. He learned the ropes in England after receiving sailing lessons for his 30th birthday, which was 16 years ago. Now he’s a day skipper and a darn good one too. I survived last week’s trip and another one a decade ago in Croatia. All I had to do was obey whatever nautical commands he shouted at me in a combination of Hungarian and English. “Bend the jib! Húzd meg jól! Hoist the mainsail! Man the poopdeck,” and so forth. Actually, he kept it much less technical since the extent of my seafaring knowledge is knowing fore, aft, port, starboard, and that water is wet.

Let me preface the description of our sailing trip by saying that our wives, Éva and Nicole, deserve to be joint spouses of the year for letting us go. Thank you! Even if the elements don’t cooperate, sailing is a great way to relax and to spend time with friends. For both our trips,  the weather was beautiful and the setting even more so. The only thing that would have made it better is bringing our families along and we’re working on that.

The natural beauty, good infrastructure, and warmth of the locals make the BVI a sailors’ paradise. I flew to St. Thomas, one of the U.S. islands, and took a short ferry ride over to Road Town in Tortola, the main town of the BVI. We set sail the next day and hit Norman Island, Cooper Island, Virgin Gorda, and Marina Cay in that order over the next five days, mooring each time.

I can describe the beautiful, clear water, inviting islands and tropical breezes to you ad nauseam, but words really don’t do them justice. The rest of this blog post will try to give you a sense through pictures:

This was our boat, a 41 foot Jeanneau named ADA:

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Our boat, the 41 foot ADA

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A rainbow over the water

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The Bitter End on Virgin Gorda

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Virgin Gorda

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The valiant captain

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Boats moored on Norman Island, the inspiration for Treasure Island

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A landlubber gets his sea legs

 

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