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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reports From The Front: HUNGARY


Street Theatre in Szeged, Hungary

October 17, 2010

On October 18 we depart at an ungodly hour – the crack of dawn or 4am to be exact for a 6:30AM flight to Prague and then onto Budapest. We finally arrive very groggy and exhausted in Budapest at 11:30AM and are met by Edit, a colleague of Zsazsa, our host from the University of Szeged. She puts us in her comfy Peugeot 620 and we drive for 2 hours to Szeged. I sit up front and talk with Edit while Maya and Julia crash in the back. We arrive at our hotel, the “academy” – a very old building opposite a huge cathedral. Our rooms have 20 food ceilings and window have shutters instead of blinds. Most importantly it has internet access.

Maya and Julia crawl back into bed and sleep. We agree to meet again at 7PM because that’s when Zsazsa, our hostess, will come by to meet us. She knocks on my door at 6:30pm - a lovely and warm woman who seems genuinely happy that we have arrived greets me. She walks us to the heart of Szeged and to a restaurant with the same name as the city. On the way we are given pointers as to where to have coffee, how to get to the open market, etc. We have a yummy dinner full of Hungarian paprika and get to know our host. It seems there are not a lot of feminists in Szeged and Zsazsa is grateful to have us in town for 5 days. She explains the difficult political climate – the hatred of the gypsies; the bureaucracy of the university and the government. To her, it seems that the world is going backwards…more hatred, less tolerance. Yes, we can relate.

We crash…it’s hard for me to sleep the first night anywhere.

Up early the next morning for breakfast but I should not have been so excited. There is bread, cheese, ham, butter and a cup of tea with lemon, not even any milk.

I eat fast and decide to find the local open air food market. Zsazsa has told us that there would be lots to see their…..fruits, paprika, mushrooms, grapes, all from small local farmers. There will also be butchers displaying the best fried chicken skins and bacon bits. After that breakfast I am anxious to have some yummy food.

The market is great…tons of veggies and all sold by smiling women in huge overcoats…it’s about 50 degrees and drizzling. As I walk around I take many photos of the food and the people. There are old women drinking shots (at 10am) and lots of women, women everywhere, in groups talking or searching for the best chickens to buy. Very few men here…mostly behind the butcher counters.

Aphra buys Paprika

I go to buy an apple but the stout and smiling women will not sell it to me, she insists I take it. I guess no one buys one apply in Szeged. This would never happen at the Union Square Market in NYC! I am embarrassed and humbled by her generosity. I then go to the old synagogue. There is a sign posted that says because it’s so cold I have to go to the rabbi’s office and ask for the synagogue to be opened. A women opens up and turns on the lights to a gorgeous and huge synagogue, more like a cathedral. I spend about 25 minutes looking over everything from the photos of it from WWII (when it was used for storage by the Nazi’s) to the names of the 2000 victims from Szeged annihilated by the holocaust. I walk home in the rain to get ready for our street theatre workshop.

The students from the University of Szeged all huddle in silence and respect in the corner of the room on campus where our workshop is to take place. As usual, everyone arrives late and we get started 30 minutes behind schedule. There are about 20 shy and anxious students gathered around as Julia leads everyone in a group warm up – the name game.

One student, Alice, tells us that our masks intimidate her and she wants us to take them off. We explain the reason for masking and being anonymous and hope that she will feel more comfortable as the workshop goes on. It takes these students a bit more time to become comfortable with looking each other in the eye and remembering everyone’s name and movement. I am reminded that they are not artists but gender studies and English students and that they are not used to doing work like this. Because of this our warm up goes on for a bit. They need time to get used to group work. But this first part of our workshop is key for everyone to be able to successfully create a collaborative work.

After the warm up we gather as a group and go over issues they may want to address in creating street theatre. Again, hesitation on the part of most of the students. Julia gently guides then into expressing what is on their minds. Many issues begin to pop up. Themes begin to emerge. Violence against women, bullying in the schools, the stereotyping of female roles. We break into three smaller groups and begin the hard part of the workshop….collaboration.

After a free write on paper that lasts about 5 minutes we see that some of the groups are better than others at getting down to ideas and sharing those ideas. One group in particular is very jazzed and animated (the stereotyping of women group). Another (school bullying ) has a harder time. Julia and I float around the groups and try to assist them in focusing while Maya streams the workshop live.

Just as the clock winds down and the students must run off to another class we finish the workshop with three clear pieces of street theatre to perform. Julia, Maya and I discuss adding a fourth piece that we will create entitled “Feminism/sexism is everywhere.” We lay out a bunch of white t-shirts on the floor and markers write out the words “sexism is everywhere/Feminism is everywhere” in Hungarian.

We head back to the hotel and decide to go out for a traditional Hungarian meal of fish soup and goulash. The restaurant is not far from the academy and when we enter we discover a trio playing traditional Hungarian music. After ordering wine and soup…..I get the fish soup and Julia and Maya order the goulash – the violinist from the trip approaches our table and asks for a request. Before I can even think I blurt out “Can you play the Godfather Theme?” and before you know the theme from the Oscar winning movie floods the restaurant. Maya whips our her flip video camera and captures the moment forever. The food arrives and we chow down, departing for our hotel sated and satisfied in our adopted Hungarian city, falling asleep and dreaming of paprika.

The next morning I take Maya to the open air food market. We get lots of photos of the great food on display and the fantastic women and men who sell their fresh vegetables and meats. I even put on my gorilla mask and dance among the apples and carrots. It is still raining. Our street theatre performances are not scheduled until 4-6PM that afternoon so I hope the weather clears. Maya goes off on her own and I take the guide book and begin a walking tour of Szeged - exploring old buildings, and architecture. I stop by Acapella, a coffee and pastry shop for a much needed full fat cappuccino.

We assemble at 4PM for our performances and go over the order of the 4 pieces of street theatre – Julia and I first, then the “stereotyped female role” performance, the “bullying” performance and ending with the “violence against women” performance. We are in a public square in front of a large shopping mall. It is a good location with many people milling about. The first round is like a dress rehearsal. The groups end their performances too soon and are a bit tentative. We regroup and discuss what we can change and what we can make better. Everyone is excited and a bit animated by the experience of performing in public. Just as we begin to do all of the performances for a second time it begins to rain. We don’t have a plan B for the rain; street theatre is come rain or shine. So we plod on, Maya capturing it all on video camera with my umbrella strapped to her tripod. In the end the second round is much more focused, clear, and effective although the crowds are smaller because a steady rain is coming down now. After an hour and a half of this we are all soaked and head off to the pub for a much needed shot of plink – traditional Hungarian liquor or is it aperitif?

About 8 of the students join us as well as Zsazsa and we sit around discussing the afternoon. All of these students are in Zsazsa’s masters program and are just choosing their concentrations in gender studies. They are all very pleased with the performances although relieved they are over. We talk about the reactions and the power of public performance.

That evening Julia, Maya and I hit the John Bull Pub for a meal. Wine and cheese, heavy pastas are the norm in both Hungary and Slovenia. Then off to bed as tomorrow we leave for Budapest for our one day off.

OCT 21, 2010

At 8:30AM we are picked up by Johnborg who is Edit’s boyfriend who will drive us to Budapest. It takes at least 2 hours by car but he’s driving Edits Peugeot 620 with leather seats so again we will travel in style. Since he does not speak English very well we can all have a bit of a snooze on the way in. We arrive at Le Meridian – a 5 star hotel where we will get two free rooms courtesy of the GGOT American Express Starwood’s card. Our rooms are not ready so we go around the corner to Coffee Heaven for a quick full fat cappuccino. This is much different from Szeged….and a lot like Starbucks in look and price. This is the first place we’ve been that serves coffee in “to-go” containers. After our caffeine fix we head back to our rooms which are ready, gorgeous, comfy and a bit of heaven in the middle of a long tour with lots of travel and lots of 2 star hotels.

Julia and Maya

Julia wants to go to the museum while Maya and I want to check out the Doheny synagogue, which was occupied by the Nazis and used as a headquarters during the war. We take the hour long tour (excellent) and then check out the museums and the displays they have around the synagogue. Maya and Julia then go off to the Turkish baths while I go back to the hotel to soak in the huge tub. I buy a bath bomb at Lush, have an hour bath, then a nap and I’m ready to our Budapest foodapest meal . We have researched and chosen a “top chef” like place to eat a celebratory mid tour meal at - Dio. It’s a bright red décor hip place where we share some soufflés and then some very interesting main dishes…I have the pork tenderloin, which is yummy, and we split two very creamy desserts. Then it’s off to bed because tomorrow we fly to Greece.

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