Monday, September 15, 2008

Finom ez a krumpli?

"Is your potato tasty?" That is the first sentence I learned in Hungarian, courtesy of Andy Wislen. He had spent time in Budapest learning the Magyar skills of breakfast drinking, preposition misplacement and border confusion.

I put it to good use in the Soviet Union, when the snack bar of Hostel No.3 In The Name of Pavlik Morozov at Voronezh State University In The Name of The Man Who Invented Beetroot was invaded one morning by 13 lascivious, chain-swearing Hungarian girls. Three of these deposited themselves and a selection of stale peppers at the table next to myself and my room-mate, "The Rev" David James.

We knew enough of their cut-and-shunt language to grasp that they were sizing up our respective merits as bed-fellows, and frankly neither of us was too pleased with the verdicts - accompanied as they were by wilting gestures and the Danube equivalent of retard noises.

We wrought our vengeance by casually leaning over on depature and muttering our two choice phrases - The Rev's being "Calvinista vagyok" (answers on a postcard of Esztergom Cathedral nave, please).

We ten Brits were the only West European men at the university, apart from a Portuguese Communist and a dipso French teacher called Adolphe. Chosing to be a Bolshevik was considered a sign of sick humour or soaring stupidity by beneficiaries of the Warsaw Pact, and M. le professeur's name won him no friends out there, so the Hungarian gals soon decided that we were the best they were going to get - whether we liked or not.

We did.

This equipped me with a skeletal grammar and x-rated vocabulary of the Hunnish tongue, plus a great respect for the stamina and sheer depravity of that moustache-wrangling nation.

My next encounter with a Hungarian came while working for a consultancy company in Oxford. János was our Budapest rep, and had the charm one associates with the man about Pest - with his German jacket, elegantly receding hair and chess-player's brow. As the say, he could enter a revolving door behind you and emerge ahead of you.

He also had a terrifying wife called Ildikó - a peroxide collision between Courtney Love and Sarah Palin in an overcrowded wonderbra, with an appetite for riding boots and carmine lipstick. I rather liked her.

János came over to a conference in Oxford one year. I introduced him to my young lady, who also happened to work with us. While I was bullshitting expertly about Bulgarian bonds to some Tarquin de Coke type from Daterape Merchant Bank, I noticed János take missy aside for a chat.

I later asked her what it was about, in the most casual manner possible.

"Quite funny, actually," she simpered. "János and his wife are going to dinner with Burlington Arcade III this evening, but Ildikó has left her tights in their hotel and won't have time to fetch them.

"She asked János to pick some up for her from the shops, as she's in meetings all morning. Being a typical man, he doesn't know the difference between tights and stockings and didn't want to get it wrong, so he asked me to explain.

"He still didn't get it, so in the end I just showed him my stockings. I think that did the trick."

What is a Hungarian? A Hungarian is a man who can get a young woman he has just met to show him her garters in a crowded office, a few feet from where her partner is sitting.

What I never had the heart to tell her was that János's wife hadn't come on the trip.


Ian Plenderleith said...

I like the story, but I especially like the concept of chain-swearing. Next time I'm upbraided for my consistently foul language, I'm just going to pass it off as an incurable addiction to profanity.

Gorilla Bananas said...

My theory is that Hungarian men turned to sex after the twin catastrophes of losing the World Cup Final to Germany in 1954 and getting invaded by the Soviets in 1956. If football and politics become off-limits, something has to fill the void.

M C Ward said...

Your blog is always a place of learning for me, and never more so than now. Should I come across a Hungarian I'll know how to strike up conversation, and if I meet some foul mouthed Hungarian ladies, I'll close my eyes and think of Wales.

Ψ said...

love your blog!

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, I've said enough about Hungarians and I don't want to to blot my multi-culturalist copybook any further, but I will concur that they have some very foxy ladies. The 1954 final was Hungary's greatest tragedy - the most exciting team in Europe and they still lost to the Germans.

Well-lighted Shadows said...

Really Hungarian males are ladies men? that must be the reason I got absolutley nowhere with the ladies on both my trips there. And the women are absolutely stunning.

Hungary gives the impression of being a great place to live and learn about - but learning the tongue wouldn't be for the faint hearted.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

This story radiates so much inner beauty. Besides, it teaches one neat trick I shall try to remember forever.

Yeah, and Buda, like Pest, never fail to produce an eruption of gastric juices in my innards. these too few days I spent there never to be forgotten.

Gyppo Byard said...

Hungary is on a long list of 'countries I have never - and most probably shall never - visit'. The only Hungarian I have come into contact with in recent years was an ex-colleague of startlingly entertaining battiness and good humour. Rumour had it he was typical of the nation...

No Good Boyo said...

True, Gyppo. Said Magyar once came up to me and a colleague and asked whether "gangbang" is hyphenated or not. We shared our editorial wisdom with him, and eagerly awaited the news item he was translating. It never appeared, so I assume he was writing a personal ad.

Snoop, the Hungarians never allowed Communism to spoil their cuisine. Even in the hardest times they could always find some gunpowder to stuff in their pots.

Special Brew, your name suggests you might have given Hungarian men a run for their money on their other national sport - morning drinking.

Speaking of money, they once had Europe's drollest currency - the pengő - and highest inflation. When the boring old forint was introduced in 1946, it was worth 400,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000000,000 pengők.

MC, Hungarians of both sexes are impressed by any attempt to speak their absurd tongue, and the ladies are delighted by skill in swearing.

GB, the turn to sex was a good move, as Hungarian women were going to waste. It beat the national sports of suicide and folk song, too.

Pop, a flick through the Good Soldier Svejk will reveal a cornucopia of curses. A Hungarian sergeant-major in one paragraph invites his troops to have congress with themselves, their mothers, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and, finally, the whole world.

Ψ, if that is your real name, your blog combines music and nude ladies, two of my favourite uses for the Internet. Welcome!

Anonymous said...

NGB, as far as I can recall the most renowned Hungarian in English language popular literature is Toby Esterhase. Janos is a straight arrow in comparison.

Anonymous said...

'[A] flick through the Good Soldier Svejk will reveal a cornucopia of curses. A Hungarian sergeant-major in one paragraph invites his troops to have congress with themselves, their mothers, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and, finally, the whole world.'

Anyone seeking to master the art of Central European swearing can do no worse than to start with Hasek's masterpiece (although make sure you get hold of the 1973 edition translated by Cecil Parrott (formerly HM Ambassador to Prague) - this one is not bowlderised).

The Bosnian curse 'jeben ti dusu' ('fuck your soul') is a personal favourite of mine.

Zenny K. Sadlon said...

"a flick through the Good Soldier Svejk will reveal a cornucopia of curses" - an excellent point. However, if you read Parrott's English translation it is not true. He could not do any better than translate most of the wonderful epiteths as "bastard" or "bloody bastard". :-(

". . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek's The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War are available for sale as paperbacks at

We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier ... after all these years."

More information on the Svejk phenomenon at

Also, Svejk is on FaceBook now: