At Play in the Fields of Paprika

I must say that I am a bit ashamed of my threadbare article that I wrote last year about Cluj’s “Hungarian Days” festival, particularly this paragraph:

I can’t say that I ever participate much in the Hungarian days festival, mostly because I don’t speak the language or eat Hungarian foods. I’ve certainly heard the concerts going every night from the central square and it’s kind of unusual and fun to walk down the street and not understand a gosh darn word people are saying.

I still don’t “speak” Hungarian beyond a handful of memorized phrases and slang words that I’ve picked up from the (bilingual) homeless people that I know. But this year I spent a lot more time at the Hungarian Days festival and it was amazing. Plus I deciphered and learned a ton of new Hungarian words just by paying attention.

Without getting sidetracked into a lengthy lesson on history, the Hungarian name for Unicorn City is “Koloszvar”. The Romanian name was always just “Cluj” until the Stejar de Scornicesti (Ceausescu) added the “Napoca” bit in the 1970s as a way to make it seem more Roman.

But what’s cool is that any Hungarian Days festival (they have them all over the world, including the United States) is “Magyar Napok” in Hungarian. So it’s kinda cool (for me, anyway) to see that Ceausescu and later Gheorghe “Hatey McClown” Funar go around using the word “Napoca” for the town’s name to alienate Hungarians when it just sounds like an ordinary Hungarian word to them. Too funny.

I’ve been living in this city for so many years that I forget when certain things began (like TIFF) so it surprised me to learn that this year was only the fourth edition of the Magyar Napok. Meanwhile the Romanian “Cluj Days” festival, which does include a Hungarian themed day, is only three years old so I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that the Hungarian Festival “inspired” the geniuses who run this city to create their own festival.

The Romanians who run things in this town are so hapless that it has rained nearly continuously during every “Cluj Days” festival as it is held in May, which is a rainy month in these parts. Thanks to the fact that Saint Stephen’s birthday is on August 20, the Hungarian festival has always had better luck with the weather. It only rained once during the Magyar Napok this year, and was just a brief shower on the final day. Otherwise it was perfect weather to be out and about, strolling through the fair.

Linguistically, for me, it was fabulous. I saw lots of posters with the word varos, which is the Hungarian word that is most used in every day Romanian speech, being transliterated as “oras”, in both cases meaning “city”. For some reason the Latin word “municip” never really took hold in Romania and everyone just uses the borrowed Hungarian word most of the time.

Meanwhile you can see clear evidence of the Hungarian language borrowing a few words for itself. Some of them are pretty predictable, such as “telefon” for the communication devices we all are dependent upon, but other borrowings are more subtle.

I walked past some vendors selling corn on the cob (Ro: porumb fiert) and was a little shocked to see the word kukorica, which is nearly identical to Russian (кукуруза) and Polish (kukurydza) and just about every other Slavic language.

This reminded me that the corn (maize) plant came to Europe as part of the Columbian Exchange, which means that it arrived in the various countries at virtually the same time and so there isn’t as much linguistic variety for the names of these plants.

For example “maize” or a variant thereof is used in English, Italian, German, Dutch, Finnish, French, etc while “kukorica” is used in Hungarian, Russian, Czech, Serbian, Polish, etc so that in the European Union there are essentially only two variants of how to say this plant. Cool, eh? Likewise, other recent imports like coffee are pronounced quite similarly in the various languages (“kafe” in Hungarian).

Along the way I struck up a conversation with a nice young man who was working in a booth sponsored by the Government of Hungary and he gave me a free T-shirt! Wow. When is the last time I got a free T-shirt in Romania? The answer is never. It’s almost impossible to even buy a T-shirt in this country with Romanian writing on it but I am now the proud owner of a shirt that says Irto Jok Vagyunk!, effectively meaning “We (Hungarians) are the coolest!”

God I love how hilarious and ironic that is on so many levels.

I also learned about the evils of ragweed, the plant that the Hungarians call parlagfu, which is apparently a major problem in Hungary. Besides posters and leaflets talking about the problem, they also had a 25-piece jigsaw puzzle of the ragweed plant for kids to put together so they could recognize (and then eradicate) this plant.

If you’re American, you know what ragweed is because the plant that’s taking over Hungary came from America (the guy in the booth said it had something to do with WW1) but I cannot find the name of this plant in Romanian. If it exists here, it’s pretty rare and it’s certainly not a major problem. I thought that was odd because Romania and Hungary share a fairly large land border and any pervasive plants could easily cross over if they wanted to, so why don’t they?

Just a theory but I think it’s because Romania is far more fertile. Ragweed tends to thrive in crappier and drier soils. It’s been a while since I had a good look at the soil in a Hungarian village (that’s a separate story which I will tell another time) but I do know that a lot of it is natural grassland, a perfect habitat for ragweed, while most of Romania’s natural tendency is to be a coniferous forest, a totally different environment.

What else? Well tucked away in a “secret” corner was what I self-translated as the “Mongolian Corner” part of the festival. I’m really not Hungarian enough to sort out the subtleties to all of this but you have to remember that the Hungarian people were originally a nomadic, horse-riding people from the steppes of Asia (possibly yes even as far east as Mongolia).

Around the year 1000 A.D. they were pushed out of Asia and so they made their way into Europe where their king Saint Stephen converted them into farming peasants instead of horse-mounted warriors and also forced them to become Catholic Christians instead of pagan sky god worshipers. So some Hungarians, not all, but some of them look back on those East Asian horse riding times as the “good ole days” and so the Mongolian Corner of the festival was dedicated to all of that stuff.

We saw lots of different arrows and arrow points. We saw different bows, including the Tatar/Mongol style compound bow. They even had some targets set up and little kids were practicing shooting arrows at the festival. We also saw a yurt, theoretically supposed to be like a “good old days” Hungarian nomad’s dwelling but in reality it was clearly machine-made and machine sewn with artificial fiber carpets stapled to the outside.

There was a big poster advertising what was clearly a horse riding facility near here where they apparently also would teach you (or more specifically, your child) to actually do that Mongol-style horse-mounted archery stuff, which is extremely difficult. Shooting an arrow and hitting a moving target is hard enough under regular circumstances but hitting a moving target while you yourself are mounted on a horse is like threading a needle while while standing on the bridge of a ship in the middle of a hurricane.


They did have a real, live pony though, which the SMG got to pet. He was cute and furry but he wouldn’t be much use in a horse archery battle unless you were a midget. The people in the Mongolian Corner also let us try on some of their traditional clothes and mug for the camera, which was nice.

Later in a different area we got to hear some good music, which had a catchy beat and featured some real musical instruments, including a piano during some numbers. I don’t know what to call that style of music since I can’t understand a word of it but it sounded like a mix between 1920’s show tunes (I even saw one guy on stage using by-god jazz hands) and “opera” type singing. Whatever it was, it was catchy and upbeat and the crowd clearly knew the songs because they were enthusiastically singing along.

I got a bunch of free stuff from other booths (I love the generosity!) including one big sign that said Vigyazz!, essentially “watch out” or ai grija in Romania. I was having fun holding it up whenever a Hungarian would start talking to me, tapping on it and then saying nem beszelek magyarul (I don’t speak Hungarian). Too much fun!

Again, I don’t speak a word of Hungarian but there was a (Hungarian) TV station from Targu-Mures with a mobile broadcast set and they were interviewing people and asking them where they came from and putting little pins in a map to represent this. Besides a huge showing from Unicorn City (no surprise there) it looked like most of the out of town folks were from Szekely Land, which matched up with all the (county) Mures license plates I’ve been seeing around.

I don’t have the time or desire to get into a lengthy explanation of who and what the Szekelers are, so I’ll leave it up to Wikipedia to explain it, but it was quite clear that there were two different subsets of the Magyar Napok festival. One of them was just a general Hungarian themed festival with typical Hungarian food and booths selling homemade Hungarian clothes and handicrafts, etc.

The other part of the festival had a strong pro-Szekeler element to it and there were a couple of Jobbik type motherfuckers running around, including one asshole I know personally because I got into an argument with him a couple of years ago when trying to film at the Magyar Napok in 2011. There were also some tasteful and polite posters and educational material (some of it in Romanian) about autonomy and the other issues that the Szekelers are quite passionate about.

Probably the creepiest thing though was the Legendarium Szekelifold game, which means “The Legend of Szekely Land”. It’s similar to “Twister” in that it’s a large plastic mat that you put on the ground or floor and then it’s designed for kids to walk on as they play the game. The layout is essentially a Candyland clone where you roll the dice and more forward the corresponding number of steps, etc.

The artwork looks like faux Disney, with over-size eyes and wavy, dramatic hair on the characters but what was shocking was just how much gore and violence there was depicted on this game. We saw body parts lying around on the ground, we saw no fewer than two separate devils laughing, we saw prisoners on their hands and knees about to have their heads cut off with a sword, we saw a woman bound and kidnapped and several other graphic displays of violence for a game targeted at kids. Freaking bizarre.

Again I can’t speak Hungarian but clearly the “legend” of Szekely Land is one of non-stop violence and blood. The stations on the game all wound their way through the various cities and towns of Szekelyland, written in their Hungarian names (as with the Romans, the city of Cluj/Kolsozvar was a minor monastery town during most of its history and Turda, 30km away, was much more important) but using my eagle eyes I also spotted that underneath each city was written the name in those Hungarian runes. Woah!

I’ll bet you not one person in 1,000 can understand or read those runes but the makers of “Legendarium” (itself a Latin word, aha!) put them there just to show how cool and authentically Szekeler they are. In case you know some ultra-nationalistic Hungarians/Szekelers and want to buy the most patriotic and violent game on the planet for their kids, you can order it here. The cartoon devil on the site’s homepage bids you welcome, good sirs!

Speaking of kids, it was abundantly clear that the Szekelers, and possibly also the “regular” Hungarian population of Romania, are quite busy deploying the Poor Man’s Nuclear Bomb. The idea is that if you cannot defeat your opponent using standard military or economic means, you simply outbreed them. A classic case of this is in modern day Lebanon, where the Shi’ite population exploded starting in the early 1980’s until now they effectively run the entire government.

There were little kids absolutely everywhere at the Magyar Napok, almost all of them aged 10 or younger. I go to a lot of festivals and city events here in this town and I’m used to the “normal” ratio of little kids to adults and I’ve never seen anything like it. I went to the Magyar Napok at various times over a period of days and each and every time it was packed full of little kids and strollers. Whatever ends up happening now in the political arena, Szekelers are going to have a lot stronger case for autonomy in about 10-15 years when all those little kids reach adulthood.

All in all, I had a wonderful time at the Hungarian Days festival and the food was absolutely delicious. I heard almost nobody speaking Romanian, which is a shame because the Romanians in this town were missing out on a pretty cool festival, but I did see some obvious foreigners (including what looked like a group of about 10 Malaysians, the women covered in head shawls) and everyone was definitely having a good time.

I mean where else can you pet a pony, shoot a compound bow, learn about ragweed, see a grown man do jazz hands on stage, get a free shirt, see a thousand year old runic language and eat some yummy langosi with the proper amount of garlic? Only at the Magyar Napok, fool!

I award this festival three and three quarter paprikas.

11 thoughts on “At Play in the Fields of Paprika

  1. I found reading an “outsiders” view on this festival extremely entertaining. Being a hungarian in these parts, I often forget just how meaningless seems to a foreigner some of our cherished symbols (like the runic writing, our legends etc).
    I remember a joke I read sometimes ago about a Hungarian kid going to kindergarten in the US and shocking the teacher with his extreme violent songs and stories. Turns out, a lot of child games, songs and stories are indeed violent if we think about it. It’s obvious when you come from a different culture, but not so obvious if you were born in it. How can a “csiga-biga gyere ki, eg a hazad ide ki” (little snail come out, your house is on fire) be anything other than a hungarian kids first encounter with rhymes?


  2. “We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” He held up his arms. “Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race; that we were proud; that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back? Is it strange that when Arpad and his legions swept through the Hungarian fatherland he found us here when he reached the frontier; that the Honfoglalas was completed there? And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkey-land; ay, and more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard, for, as the Turks say, ‘water sleeps, and enemy is sleepless.’ Who more gladly than we throughout the Four Nations received the ‘bloody sword,’ or at its warlike call flocked quicker to the standard of the King? When was redeemed that great shame of my nation, the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the Crescent? Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed! Woe was it that his own unworthy brother, when he had fallen, sold his people to the Turk and brought the shame of slavery on them! Was it not this Dracula, indeed, who inspired that other of his race who in a later age again and again brought his forces over the great river into Turkey-land; who, when he was beaten back, came again, and again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered, since he knew that he alone could ultimately triumph! They said that he thought only of himself. Bah! what good are peasants without a leader? Where ends the war without a brain and heart to conduct it? Again, when, after the battle of Mohács, we threw off the Hungarian yoke, we of the Dracula blood were amongst their leaders, for our spirit would not brook that we were not free. Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.”

    (from DRACULA by Bram Stoker)


  3. Plus the Hungarians were not pushed out of Asia in 1000 AD. This is the date of the foundation of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary by St. Stephen (born as Vajk). The Hungarian settlement of the Carpathian basin took place between 895-900 AD and already before, the tribes were in Etelkoz (modern Moldova on both sides), Levedia (southern Ukraine) and Magna Hungaria (the ancient homeland) was somewhere between the Volga and the Ural Mountains. The irony is, that the former enemies (Pechenegs and Cumans) who drove us into the Carpathian Basin were later on resettled in the HUngarian KIngdom. Up till this day the Kunsag region (Cuman region) in Hungary bears this heritage.


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