This time last week, I was wandering the streets of Tiszafüred, Hungary, trying to find some small remnant of my life there as a twenty year old back in the early nineties. Perhaps I had expected too much, but even so, I was a little surprised at how little I recognised. And then I stumbled across The Western.
There it was, my old haunt, the place that, apart from the school where I taught, and the bungalow where I slept, was the place where I would find myself most regularly. The Western could loosely be described as a pub, but was perhaps more like a cross between a youth club and a shelter for the socially excluded with a counter that served cheap alcohol. It was a halfway house between utopia and dystopia, where dystopia had the upper hand.
I was expecting it to have been demolished or at least renovated, but as I walked in, not a single thing had changed. Not. One. Thing.
I stood around and gawped and the local drunks raised their heads and tried to communicate. There was a time when I could speak fluent Hungarian, and even passable Koscmárul, the language of the heavy drinker. But alas, no more, so I tried English. I should add here that in 1993, I was the first ever non-Hungarian English teacher to come to Tiszafüred and I’d like to say that my arrival inspired an interest in language learning, which spread through the town. However, saying that would be a lie and the reality of my legacy is that not one single person I met on this trip spoke even a single word of English.
Faced with a non-linguistic impasse, the locals let me wander round wistfully. To be honest, they probably thought I was some kind of alcohol induced apparition and that however weird I was, it was better than another bout of the delirium tremors.
I started outside, where we young 'uns used to sit, summer or winter. This was at the time of Nirvana and the grunge scene, the heyday of MTV and Ray Cokes, the difficult transition period between C90s and CDs. Everything was still here. The same battered sofas, the pool table and the chained up dog. Everywhere in Hungary has a chained up dog.
It was here that I rubbed shoulders with the cool kids of Tiszafüred's counter culture. I wish I could remember all their names.. There was Tünde and Mani and Csaba, then the older guys like Taca and Kálman. And Ösci who played the trombone and drank like a fish, both skills that he learnt during his military service.
The choice of drinks here were simple: Borsódi Világós, the local beer, if you were thirsty. Nagy Vadász, (The Great Hunter): 50% red wine, 50% Coca-Cola, if there was a party. Meggyes pálinka, ‘mixed fruit’ moonshine, to help the beer go down. Szílva Pálinka, plum moonshine, if you were trying to impress someone. And Zwack Unicum, a medicinal mix of herbs and, yep, you guessed it, strong alcohol, for weddings and funerals.
Today, nothing had changed. A couple came in, ordered two Nagy Vadász and a meggyes pálinka chaser each. It was 10.30 in the morning. I watched as the landlady took care of the drinks and she looked identical.The same tired look, pasty skin, bags under the eyes, prematurely old features on an exhausted thirty something face and body. There was no way on earth it could be the same lady, twenty-five years later. I asked if she was the old landlady’s daughter or even if she remembered the couple who used to run the place in the early nineties. She knew the name - Fattzí - But had no idea where they were now. My conclusion is that new owners don’t take over The Western, but The Western takes over new owners.
Back when I was here, when the evening would get too late and the sun was starting to rise, Fattzí’s wife would come out to the yard where we all sat. She would announce that she’d had enough and that Fattzí was snoring on a stool in the corner inside. She would tell us to help ourselves at the bar and remember to leave the money in the till. Lastly she’d pick someone randomly, hand them the key and tell them to lock up, without disturbing Fattzí.
I think my favourite memory from The Western was when they decided to have a fundraiser in support of the Zapatista Uprising in Mexico. Not sure why this was the only cause that ever roused the drunken masses enough to take action, but nonetheless, action would be taken. A Mexican themed concert was organised in the back yard of The Western. The stated aim was to show solidarity with the Zapatistas and also to raise funds for their rebellion.
As no one knew much about Mexico, or indeed the Zapatistas, 'solidarity' meant cobbling together Mexican fancy dress by cutting holes in blankets for ponchos, homemade sombreros and cut out moustaches made from cardboard painted black.
There was a band, with Ösci on the trombone. The only Mexican song they knew was 'Tequila', which they played back to back for the whole night, drinking a shot everytime they came to the chorus. There was Mexican food for sale. Toast, topped with tomatoes, peppers and sweetcorn. A delicacy for the Zapatistas, best washed down with a meggyes pálinka, we convinced ourselves,
All in all, with the entrance fee and the food sales, I think the night raised a few hundred Forint, the value of which was worth less than ten dollars. To this day, I have imagined this money being sent as cash to the Mexican jungle, where the Zapatista rebels would have counted out a pile of Hungarian banknotes and coins. I still picture them considering how best to spend this gift from The East from their poncho wearing comrades in The Western.
Hasta La Victoria, siempre!
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