Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Whither the Turks?

Lion in BudapestDuring the forty-six hours I spent in Budapest in the winter of ’96, I befriended another American at the hostel who was traveling the world researching the history of coffee for a book he was writing. We decided to visit the castle way up in the hills of Buda on our last (and my second) day there. After about an hour walking through the historical exhibitions we were struck that there had been no mention of the Turks or the Ottomans in any of the displays. Between the two of us, we pretty much covered all major Western language groups, so we decided to ask a docent whither the Turkish history of Hungary.

I think it would be significantly funnier if we had opened the floodgates of our polyglottery upon that poor, unsuspecting Hungarian girl who happened to be volunteering that sunny winter day twelve years ago. But instead I think we were much more restrained as we passed the linguistic torch back and forth between ourselves.

I asked first in English, to which she stared blankly before shaking her head. Then it was my companion’s turn; this time in German. They were after all one time deeply embedded within the Austro-Hungarian Empire! Nein on the German front. Aha! I thought: let me try out my Polish; the sheer number of Polish tourists and guest workers in Hungary surely made it a viable option. And that would be a nie. His turn now: French. Nope (said in a Cajun accent, no doubt). My high school Spanish? ¡No! One last-ditch effort: my Russian. Nyet such luck.

After the repeated failures of language—not on our part, mind you—we retired to the café for some of that Turkish devil liquid itself that passed through these lands so many generations ago for the first time, shortly after that poor Cossack soldier found a bag of coffee beans on a dying Ottoman fighter following some long forgotten Ukrainian battle.

I wonder if my compatriot/co-traveler ever finished his book on coffee. I wonder if the museum docent ever learned a useful language. I wonder if the Hungarians were ever able to tell their secret history that once converged with the Turks'. I wonder where I’d be now if I would’ve taken up the offer I had received the night before at the disco near the deserted army barracks by the train station. I especially wonder such things when I hear “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” on the radio, one of the many songs we sat around singing at the pub the night before, before heading to the club.

Just a few hours later I was on a frozen train to Krakow.

No comments:

Post a Comment