Károly, my Hungarian Writers Residency contact, had told me that staying in the Zsolnay Culture quarter in Pécs would be like staying in an art gallery - and it really was. There are statues and bird baths everywhere, beautiful gardens, pop-up art exhibitions, and gorgeous architecture embellished with Zsolnay ceramics and the ornamental, frost-resistant Zsolnay Pyrogranit roof tiles that sparkle in the sun. The still-operating Zsolnay factory sells a range of ceramics, including vases and ornamental animals glazed using the secret, iridescent glazing technique called Eosin, named after the Greek goddess Eos and developed in 1893. The Zsolnay gallery was just one delight along the 'street of shops' that also included a cafe and a chocolate shop.
Hungarian is known as a difficult language to learn, but my husband and I got a surprising long way with the two words we did manage to pick up - szia ("see ya") for hi/bye and kösz ("cursie") for thanks. My husband also said he had a good conversation with a man in a supermarket about apples, even though the man was speaking Hungarian and my husband was speaking English.
Though part of what attracted me to Hungary was the idea of sharing a landscape with animals that don't live in New Zealand, I didn't want to visit any zoos, and after a while I thought I wouldn't see any wildlife at all. But gradually, creatures revealed themselves. First the dogs, then the pigeons, then the skinks, then the cats... and then the birds. I was woken from a siesta one hot afternoon by a tap-tap-tap outside my bedroom window. The tapping creature was (I think) a tiny Eurasian Nuthatch. More mysterious was the alarm that starting going off on the hot nights. It would start once the sun had gone down and only stop before the sun came out, emitting a metronomic peep. After a couple of nights my husband said he thought the alarm was actually a bird. I googled 'bird that sounds like an alarm' and am pretty sure the 'alarm' was actually a Eurasian Scops Owl. The bugs were also interesting - the very pretty and very randy yellow and black moths, red beetles with black spots, and a bug I photographed at a cafe that I later identified as a probable stink bug. When a similar bug made an appearance in our apartment later, it was removed with extreme caution (stink bugs apparently give off a smell like burnt tyres). In the forest we also saw emerald-green beetles that looked as though they'd been glazed with the Zsolnay factory's eosin glaze. The landscape was different, too. Train rides revealed vast fields of beautiful sunflowers on Hungary's plains. Even the clouds were different from New Zealand clouds. And the weather was different, with several mid-summer thunderstorms.
I was in Hungary to write, but having come from the other side of the world, I wanted to soak up as much Hungarian culture as I could, too. While in Pécs I saw and experienced some of the delights the city has to offer - the ornate Basilica, the oldest university in Hungary (established in 1367), the Jakovali Hassan Mosque (a church with an interesting history) with its beautifully decorated dome, and the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs. The Necropolis featured a display of unearthed artefacts. For a time I worked to support the New Dunedin Hospital rebuild, and when the archaeologists excavated the site we were amazed by the 1800s bottles they unearthed. This bottles on display in the Necropolis dated back to around 500 AD!
Before visiting Hungary I had also heard about 'fruit soup', which I really wanted to try. I never did see sour cherry soup on a menu, but in Pécs I tried apple soup - and I also had a mixed berry and cherry soup several times from a diner near my apartment - a recipe that I think would make a perfect New Zealand Christmas dish. I'm vegetarian, so some traditional Hungarian foods were off the menu for me, but I really loved the foods I did try, which included cucumber salad, a beautiful hot pea dish from the diner, battered zucchini, a street food dinner of lángos (fried bread with sour cream and cheese). In general it was pretty easy being vegetarian in Hungary, though the food options were a little limited at the train stations. Fresh produce was abundant and we bought beautiful tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, fresh figs, apricot and mascarpone tarts, and flowers from an outdoor market nearby. The Hungarian cakes are also incredible. I think I will always regret not trying the strawberry soup we saw advertised outside a restaurant in Budapest - but I did have a slice of the most incredible strawberry cake at the Palace Hotel.
There was so much art to enjoy in Pécs - a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, the Vasarely Museum, and the Festival of Light, which provided free entertainment such as circus performers, live music, and incredible animated lightshows projected onto the Basilica. The day after we left, the city held a Roman festival, and through Károly's photos I saw the streets filled with people in authentic-looking costume.
I had an idea for an essay about wolves, so part of my time in Hungary was spent following the thread of that idea. For writing research I wanted to climb the hills behind Pécs, past the Zoo and up to the TV tower. On the way we spotted a Victor Vasarely artwork in the wild, walked through the 1930s stone Gates of Mecsek into the Mecsek Forest, and wondered about the animals we could hear rustling in the undergrowth. Apparently a creature called a dormouse lives in the forests - a small, mouse-like creature with big eyes and a bushy tail.
As part of my writing research I also headed north to beautiful Lillafüred - a place that everyone who's a romantic at heart would absolutely love. We crossed the country to reach the tourist resort, which is in the Bükk Mountains in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. I'd read a novel set in a similarly grand estate in the Zemplén mountains before coming to Hungary. When we arrived, I felt as if I'd stepped into a fairy tale. The town has inspired poetry and films, and between the waterfall, the swallows, the hanging garden and the forest train, I could see why. The Palace Hotel, where we were staying, has a long and intriguing history. The hotel became a military hospital for wounded Russian soldiers during WWII, and later became a resort for employees of the National Council of Trade Unions. It's been a hotel again since 1993, and it was the most beautiful hotel I've ever stayed at. We saw several couples getting their wedding photos taken in the beautiful surroundings. From Lillafüred we also made a day trip to the small town of Hidasnémeti, the site of a scene in my essay.
We met a lot of wonderful people. From our perspective at a day-to-day-level level we didn't find the cultural differences too marked, and people were very warm and friendly. A favourite moment was my encounter with a man who worked at the dairy across the road. One morning I wanted some canned fruit for breakfast, so I popped over to the dairy. We didn't have a can opener in our apartment and none of the fruit tins in the shop had pull tabs, so I mimed wanting to buy a can opener. The man mimed that I could probably stab the can open with a big knife, but eventually he opened the can himself with a can opener from out the back, and even indicated that he could give me a spoon and let me eat the fruit in his courtyard if I wanted to. It was a lovely start to the day.
My residency contact Károly was very warm and hospitable, and provided me with lots of useful information that I used in my writing. I also did an online interview with reporter Reka Mohay for the Pécs newspaper. I had the opportunity to meet her on my last morning in Pécs. I really enjoyed our coffee together, and Reka also gave me some really good writing and reading leads. When I left Károly gifted me a literary journal. Featuring international writers such as Roxanne Gay alongside Hungarian writers and writers commenting on aspects of Hungarian culture (I found the piece about 'Hungarian Indians' especially fascinating!), it's been a wonderful companion as I've made my slow way home through Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Auckland.
By the time I left Hungary I'd finished a first draft of my wolf essay. Moe importantly, I'd stored away a lifetime of memories that will help me with my writing for years to come. In the shorter term, I intend to use some of the details from the trip to colour the short stories for a collection I'm working on called Delight. In the longer term, my life has been enriched by this experience - and I know it will enrich my writing, too.
Thanks to the Hungarian Writers Residency and also to the Winston Churchill McNeish Fellowship.
Kathryn van Beek has a doctorate on the topic of 'writing for positive change', and an MA from Victoria University Wellington Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize, and she was the 2023 Robert Burns Fellow and Winston Churchill McNeish Fellow. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin.