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Observations and Notes from Transcarpathia

The following notes and observations are taken from e-mails sent to a number of friends of mine: the journalist, the historian, the poet and the anthropologist… you know who you are…

I have been stuck in a tiny Hungarian village with no Internet (or indoor toilet) for a couple weeks. The most common house style is a square one-story box with a semi-pyramidal roof, usually constructed of slightly irregular, locally-made bricks but also quite often of mud bricks (made in the yard in wooden forms from mud and straw), plastered over, much the same as is common in Latin America. Of course a lot of the newer houses are made of poured concrete or concrete block. The newer houses often are two to two 1/2 stories but the older ones are almost all single story.

On the side of every house is a grape arbor, both to provide shade and, of course, grapes–some of which are eaten but most of which, I am told, go into making wine. Isabella and Delaware and other Labrusca hybrids are quite common here. I would assume that they and other American-French hybrids were planted after the phyloxera epidemic that decimated the European vineyards in the 1800s and, unlike the rest of Europe, were not replanted with grafted vinifera vines later on. There are no French bureaucrats telling them they have to rip up the vines they’ve been growing for years. The hybrid varietal Noah is grown here and, as in France, it is said that drinking wine made of it will make a man go insane. In fact, I was told that making wine from it is illegal. A winemaker told me, however, that is doesn’t make you go mad it just gives you a headache.. There are other local varieties I tasted as well. One a sort of muscat and another that the old man who made the wine said was from a Carpathian (vinifera) variety. It was an unusual (good) taste.

While the houses in the villages are quite close together in neighborhoods they are, in many ways, traditional peasant extended-family compounds. Often the square house fronting the street (quite roomy inside) has additions extending back from it and usually a rather sizeable backyard which is, in fact, the family’s private mini-farm with a variety of (always grapes) but vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc.), fruit trees (apple, cherry, plum, apricot, peach, etc.) as well as often quite a few chickens, ducks, rabbits and perhaps a hog or two all quite efficiently packed in. The enormous flat fields stretching off into the Great Hungarian plain are mostly for normal field crops. There is a lot of wheat, rapeseed, sunflowers, potatoes and maize. Most of the machinery, combines and such, are of Soviet manufacture and at least 25 or more years old. A great amount of labor is still done with hand tools such as wooden rakes and scythes. Up in the Carpathian mountains it is even more old-fashioned with traditional old style hay-stacks with a sharp center pole forming cones all over the landscape. The architecture there uses more wood than that on the plains and you see both wood board houses, often with elaborate, almost Victorian tracery, but also lots cabins, some using large flat-hewn logs and others using round logs.

Here, unlike Hungary where almost everything of the kind was either destroyed or moved to a tourist park, Soviet monuments are quite common. There are, however, monuments now in all the churchyards listing the names of those killed under Stalin. There are also many stories about pre-Soviet monuments (such as WWI memorials) that were buried for 80 years to save them and then put back up rather recently.

The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps more than anywhere I have been, seem to exist rather nicely side by side. There isn’t much money, quite literally, but there is plenty of food and people grow a lot of what they eat. Arpad, the young minister, is always stopping briefly at some house and coming back with a bag of peppers or potatoes or cucumbers or such. There are a lot of cars, the most common of which is the Lada, many of them 20 years old or more. The Lada which comprises at least 50 percent of the car population, are that most common of Soviet things: a copy of something else. The classic Lada is, in fact, a Fiat copy–a boxy little economy car. There are lots of mopeds and small motorcycles and cycles with sidecars are fairly frequent. And there are new Mercedes and BMWs and such but the saying is, “If he has a good car he must not be a good man.” The East German Trabant, common in Budapest, is in little evidence here. Then there are the Volgas. These were the best cars, 4 door sedans that look like about a ’67 Plymouth–even those made in the 1990s. And there are other manner of weird Soviet vehicles: Kamaz heavy trucks, Neva jeepythings and others. There are also a large number of horse drawn carts. They are not buckboards in the American style but are narrow, no more than two feet at the bottom of the bed with angled board sides opening up to perhaps four feet max. They can put a shocking amount of hay on one, however. Two people who like each other’s company can sit side by side up front and they are pulled by either one or two horses (rather scrawny things). The wheels and axels, however, are scavenged from motor vehicles. You also see many personal-sized tractors. They are an engine mounted on two wheels with a pair of steering handles. They can be attached to a cart in place of a horse or hooked to a plow or, I am certain, used in any number of ingenious ways. Also a lot of bikes, old trusty one-speeds for the most part and modern one-speeds that look like expensive, hi-tech mountain bikes but which sell for a little under $100. The roads, very often asphalt overlaid on old, square-cut, laid stone, are terrible, the worst I have ever seen. As is the case in Wooster and other small old Midwest towns there are perfectly good old brick roads that with only a little maintenance would have lasted forever. At least in the US they tend to resurface them but the Ukraine is a good example of what happens when modern tarmac isn’t kept up. Huge potholes and crumbling edges, probably keeps the mortality rate down, however, because on a good stretch of road the locals tend to put the pedal down.

The sky is huge. But it is somehow different from the West, from Montana. It has something of an element of desolation and dread rather than freedom and awe but perhaps that is my imagination. Cloud formations seem positively Soviet in size. The morning light is usually clear and bright though sometimes the days are simply hot and humid much like Ohio though somewhat more bearable (but it isn’t August yet). Sunsets can be pretty spectacular but confined to the lower edge of the huge sky. At night you can tell how little developed it is because the sky is actually dark and black and there are stars. In the main, out in the country, it smells very clean and even the cities aren’t really all that bad. Perhaps there isn’t much heavy industry left. I don’t know, but there are no evident pollution controls on the cars and cycles and the air ought to be worse in town than it is. Perhaps it is blown out and absorbed by the vastness of the surrounding plains. The plains of Pest extend from Buda-Pest, Budapest, two different cities actually, or originally anyway, separated by the Danube, all the way to the foothills of the Carpathians which aren’t too far (20 miles or so) from where I am. This is the Great Hungarian Plain and geologically as well as to a large degree culturally, this really should be part of Hungary. Other than the odd hill popping up every now and then (a geologist could probably tell you why) the land until the mountains is flat flat flat. The Carpathians are old mountains and remind me a lot of parts of West Virginia. Not terribly high, but very rugged and very steep and very heavily wooded though mostly in evergreens (on the plains there are, in spots, a lot of oaks and other deciduous varieties). Many rivers and streams run through the mountains, wild and rocky and shallow and seemingly very clear until a bend eddies with the same vast and indestructible collection of plastic drink bottles that clog the beaches of Utila, Honduras and other spots that ought to be pristine.