The site of a celebrated (if temporary) victory over the Turks in 1552, the town of Eger lies between the Bűkk and Mátra mountains of northeast Hungary. On its edge is the Valley of Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy) ringed by vine-covered slopes. There’s a tale in a guidebook that the name may derive from a pre-Christian goddess, but the visitor quite soon encounters a statue of the current ruling deity, Bacchus. This particular theophany may be the version of the local Viticulture Chamber of Commerce -- there are two hundred separate growers each of whom makes wine, stores it in caves in the hillside, and offers it in rudimentary cafés consisting of a few tables and chairs in front of the vine-covered slope. Well before catching sight of the first of these establishments, the visitor can smell the grape in the air -- and the odor, too, of its transformation to wine. Open dumpsters with the fresh grapes or the refuse after crushing sit among hoses and barrels. The entire process, from growing the fruit to the customers’ consumption, takes place on these premises in public view. As it is October, the fresh juice (or must) is sold here and there, as is food, but wine rules, and among the wine, surely the most well-known is the Egri Bikavér, called in English Bull’s Blood. This wine, sometimes regarded as similar to Bordeaux and, in modern times, made from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is available here for 70 HUF a glass, less than 35 cents.
We had lunch and a taste of wine and strolled about. Musicians were playing the old melancholy “Gypsy” tunes, flirtatious bits of operetta, and folk songs of love longing. They seemed all to be non-professionals -- we never saw any asking for tips. In the park-like center areas each picnic table was provided with, not a barbeque grill, but a stand on which to hang the great kettle called a bogracs, a cookery tool associated both with the original Magyars who arrived over a millennium ago, and with the “cowboys” of the great plain (the puszta). In one a rich stew (pörkölt) was already started, and the people stirring the pot seemed to welcome our interest and offer every friendly gesture though we shared no language. Walking away, however, another member of the party approached and, in a working class British voice, asked if we spoke English.
John Cross was the son of a Hungarian mother and a British father who, after eleven years in the submarine service of the Royal Navy (including a term in the brig for cannabis smuggling) and work, he said, on security details protecting the prime minister, decided at the age of fifty to move to Hungary where he opened a pub and worked in a supermarket. He disdained all religions, all politics, considered simple pleasures and sociability the proper end of life. He had lost most the proceeds from selling his London flat to some broker’s speculative manipulation, but said, “As long as I have the coins to buy a packet of cigs, a sandwich, and a drink, I’m happy.” He rejected the very concept of career. “A man can always work. Just ask one place after another and someone’ll take you to do something.”
So our lunch hour stretched out toward evening, our table filled with convivial Hungarians. John’s friend (whose name was something like Choppy) whom we had seen cutting the potatoes for the stew, and Choppy’s girlfriend (called something not distant from Auggy), the peeler, sat across from us as we drank Bull’s Blood and the shadows lengthened. We had got on to carafés (just under than a dollar).
Musicians from the party with which John had come sang and played an accordion, a saxophone, tambourines. Everyone was singing along with the familiar songs. A round-faced, dark-haired man with the pain of centuries in his face and a suit so surpassingly dark it seemed, like a black hole, to threaten to pull everything into itself, made his violin weep and dance complaints. When the stew was ready, it was distributed to all in the neighborhood, along with dishes of pickles and hot peppers and vinegared slaw. There seemed no longer to be any distinction between John’s party and others in the café and those in the café next door and whoever happened by. Everyone ate and drank and sang and talked and drank again. More wine. More song. Talk and wine. We felt as though we were in a Bruegel peasant wedding, a dinner-party with Alkibiades, Li Po downing a few with Wang Wei. (And such semi-intoxicated revels on the face of this dark earth will surely be re-enacted as long as people feel pain and love and sorrow and joy.) As night settled, spirits rose and sentiment and the jollity was in full swing, but we were weary by nine and offered regrets and set out toward town and the Dobo guesthouse in the shadow of the castle. John seemed genuinely pained, but only for a moment.
Had we met a hidden Buddha?