The schwarzgelb baize

Conversation with Robert Makłowicz about his new book Café Museum (Európa 2012, translated by Noémi Kertész)

Eight travels. To Pápa, Győr and the foot of the St. George Hill in Hungary, where the author is willing to cast anchor. To Vienna, where the Polish traveler finds a small Czechoslovakia in an Austrian night club. To a wine tasting tour from the Neusidler See to Upper Austria. To the Saxon land in Transylvania, in search of fortified churches and good pálinka. From Bulgaria to Debrecen through a deeply impressive hotel in Urziceni, in Southern Romania. To the spa in Gyula, to measure one’s strength with local melon sellers. Somewhere to Hungary for a mangalica pig killing. Through Sarajevo and Bosnia to Montenegro. And finally to the Dalmatian island of Molat, where the author will stay. Eight travels without leaving the only country, of which the author considers himself citizen: the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

“I’m just going wherever I see, I’m just rolling like a billiard ball on the schwarzgelb baize called Central Europe. I had lots of such travels, sometimes proceeding along an unpredictable route, like the ball after the push of a beginner, and sometimes finding the end on a straight way, as if a champion played with me. This book is about some such travels.”

The eight travels, as it is customary with travels, is then further enriched with dozens of stories. With stories taking place along the road. With earlier or later stories. With insert stories, which come to the storyteller’s mind in the course of the narration. With short historical descriptions, since the author is also a historian; and gastronomic interplays, for he is a gourmet as well, and the presenter of the culinary show of the biggest Polish TV. And with small images, outlined with a few strokes, casually dropped precise and memorable metaphors.

“The Sarajevo train station still stands, unchanged, if somewhat neglected. It survived the first and the second world wars, survived Yugoslavia and the civil war, it stands there, defying time, just like the train stations of Czernowitz, Przemyśl, Split or Stanisławów, a negation of all that subsequently occurred.”

The string of stories meanders with the unpredictability of the memory, the eight travels become eighty, extending all over the space and time of the Monarchy, about whose many coexisting peoples and cultures the author, himself the heir of Polish, Armenian, Rusyn and Hungarian grandparents in Lwów, writes with great pleasure, humor and love.

“Although Polish is my mother tongue, I rather like listening to other languages around me. I am happy when the churches of several denominations stand in one place, and even happier when I find them all open. Crossing borders has been my favorite pastime since childhood, while the mere existence of borders make me feel like swearing. When I was old enough to decide where to be, and the borders, by the will of destiny, became permeable, from time to time I undertook a travel which had no other purpose but to hear other languages, try other soups, taste other drinks, watch other landscapes. To see my face in another mirror. This is absolutely necessary, because mirrors can also lie, and if you watch yourself all your life along in one single mirror, you will eventually not know how you really look.”

The abundance of the absurd stories, so characteristic of the former Monarchy, are again and again counterpointed and summarized in an appetizing way by the meals and drinks consumed, described in a Baroque richness. The author is careful of the balance between the two, lest the book tilts over into the fashionable genre of the gastronomic travel, although the reader – especially when reading about the easily controllable meals of his own homeland – sometimes finds suspicious the magic of the accumulation of food names.

“I was heading to the nearby Tapolca, to take a plate of excellently prepared rooster’s testicles stew in short sauce, and I felt that the onion of Makó was sautéed, in defiance of the new times, not in sunflower oil, but in mangalica pig’s fat, and so they added the paprika to it. This is how it gets the tastiest, even if not the healthiest. I was silently savoring it, my soul leaping for joy, because the Hungarian food made me very satisfied, while I was already happy of what was expecting for me the next day. That’s it, I gave myself to the rooster’s testicles, but in my head already made nest for itself the ajdova, that is buckwheat, the pehtranova potica, the sweet tarragon loaf, the Istrian ham, the idrijski žlikrofi, that is Idrian potato ravioli, and even the ajdova kaša z jurčki, that is, the buckwheat with porcini. In fact, I cannot rest content for a long time with what one nation invented.”

Robert Makłowicz at the presentation of the book in the Central Café of Budapest. To the
right, his interlocutor Balázs Lévai, to the left his interpreter, and to the extreme
left, actor Krisztián Kolovratnik. – The photo was sent to Poemas
del Río Wang by Péter Vinnay – thank you very much!

The book, as we wrote in our announcement in the last week, was presented, in harmony with its Central European topics, in the Central Café of Budapest by the author, who on the same morning, at the intercession of the Polish Institute of Budapest, gave an exclusive interview to our blog. Having learned from his book his affection for home-made wines, I prepared for the interview with a great bottle of red wine, the one by Misi Paulovits, which from year to year regularly wins the first prize at the wine competition of the local farmers in my village Csömör. Robert Makłowicz was very pleased with the new discovery, which at once gave an Auftakt to the interview:

• What is your favorite drink in the former Monarchy?

A poser. In an earlier interview I was asked what I would ate for the last supper if I knew I should die tomorrow. Well, such a question cannot be answered. Nevertheless, were I put in front of the cruel choice that from now on I can drink only one kind of white wine in all my life, it would be certainly the wine of Somló, in Hungary. Even now, always there has to be at home both Grüner Veltliner and Somlói Juhfark. Sure, there is St. George Hill, and Badacsony, with phenomenal wines, but the taste of Somló Hill is unique and unmistakable. You can feel in it the minerals, the taste of the earth. If I tasted it blindfold anywhere in the world, I would surely recognize it. And all the hill is so small, that it cannot be ruined with large wineries. I am sure that within a dozen years or so it will be as famous as, say, the Burgundy wine.

• I remember that in the late eighties, when I often translated for Italians in Budapest, they always wanted to send back the Juhfark in the restaurant, saying that it was mouldy, and the waiter had to explain that it was the special mineral taste of the wine. Is it possible that the boundaries of the Monarchy are marked by where this sophisticated taste is still appreciated?

You see, I did not think about it, although there is really some truth in it. It is likely that if the Italians came from Trentino or Trieste, they would have evaluated the Juhfark differently! (laughs)

• Once you mention the St. George Hill: don’t you regret that on your estate there, described in such an inspired manner in your book, you were prevented by the too expensive plans from building a house?

I do, of course. But nothing is lost. The estate is still there, with a beautiful view on the St. George Hill. Still everything is before me.

• If one travels so much, and in such a wide region, is a fixed estate, a house no burden, where you must always return and provide for?

On the contrary. The ship also casts anchor at times to rest. Anyone who travels a lot must from time to time cast anchor somewhere. I have already casted anchor in Krakow, where I will stay forever. But it is very good to have another anchor, a headquarters in Dalmatia, too, and a third one in the very middle of the former Monarchy, on the shore of Lake Balaton. In addition, in Dalmatia I have learned enough Croatian, now it’s time to learn Hungarian as well.

• Can you name any common traits linking with each other the former regions of the Monarchy and separating them from other former countries?

Well, to set an example from culinary arts. When I first went to Warsaw, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old, I was already big enough to walk around the city alone. My parents gave me some money, and I was still too young to spend it on alcohol, so I went to the pastry shop. I was looking for something I had always wanted to buy in the Krakow pastries, and which I had also seen in Vienna and Budapest, where I was earlier than in Warsaw. I asked whether they had Pischinger cake. They did not even know what it was! Then Sacher? Or Dobos? They did not have. Then I realized for the first time, what a huge difference there was between us, the former Galicia and the former Russian Poland, that these things were unknown to them. It is enough to go fifteen miles north of Krakow, and the repertoire of the pastry shops completely changes. And in general, pastry shops are much less important there than in the Monarchy, where every city was full of them, and of cafés. In Łódz, for example, you have no cafés at all, only pubs.

Or there are two small towns, both only thirty kilometers from Krakow, but one to the north, and one to the south: Skała and Myślenice. It is worth to visit both in a row, the distance between them is only an hour. The main square of Myślenice is beautiful, with three to four storey houses and a town hall, like anywhere else in Hungary, Bohemia or Dubrovnik. Skała is a nightmare, and not as if it were neglected, for Poland is developing and blooming, but because its urban fabric emerged still in the Russian era. This is the best comparison to see the difference between the mentalities of the two empires. If a Pole from another region of the country tells me that I am praising the former Austrian invaders, I simply take him first here, then there, to judge it for himself. And then I do not hear this charge from him any more.

• In the story of Urziceni you describe this eroded southern Romanian landscape like “it has remained flat, but settlements appeared in it, and a lot of rust-eaten remains, pipes running into the nothing, crooked, mourning for their deceased parents, the Communism and the Autarky, elevator-phantoms, factory chimneys orphaned among socialist housing block in the middle of nothing, in a word everything which Andrzej Stasiuk likes so much.” [from whose book On the way to Babadag we have already quoted a couple of times.] But Stasiuk describes not only Urziceni like this, but everything else, the same places and pubs which you present quite differently, in a cheerful and human way. Which one is then the truth?

Both of them. (laughs) The question is what you look for, and you will find what you are looking for. Stasiuk is looking for the people cast away, pushed to the sidelines, the eroded landscapes, the locations which remained after the madness of Ceaușescu. In addition, Stasiuk is absolutely not interested in the cities, only in the villages, the abandoned and industrial landscape. But the fundamental question is what you are looking for. Also in Budapest you can find terrible places and wonderful places, and you can present the city by focusing on one or on the other.

• In the description of food you play with a kind of name magic, with long lists of names, the saliva runs into the mouth of the reader, he immediately wants to eat something. However, little is told about the flavors of the food.

And deliberately so. As I am known as a person writing and speaking about cuisine, in this book I wanted to break this stereotype. I did not want to write a culinary guidebook. The food is mentioned as a way to describe the culture. Of course I could not completely break it, since it is difficult to write about Central Europe by omitting the flavors.

• Do you have a favorite place in the former Monarchy? Which places do you find the closest to you?

I like most the places which, even if now located in a nation-state, continue to be multi-ethnic, because in my view this is one of the most creative forces. Paradoxically, one of the best Hungarian cuisine I found in the Croatian Baranya, cooked in open-fire kettle even in a heat of forty degrees, a real Hungarian cuisine, but with a Croatian twist. Or the Slavonian kulen is nothing else but the Hungarian salami, developed further in a very creative way.

For me, the greatest value of the Monarchy was that there were no borders, that you could set out to see the other, the neighbor who spoke in another language, cooked differently, but went to the same shop. Culture is like crop: if you sow the field with the same seed, it will become a monoculture, an exhausted, fallow land. If the nation-states do not know that we are the components of a larger common culture, they will also wither and become poor. This is why I move so happily up and down on this chessboard, which once was the Monarchy, because I do not want the culture in my head become a fallow land.

“I live both here, in Dalmatia, and in Krakow, there are a thousand and three hundred kilometers between my two homes, and there is Budapest, Vienna and Olomouc, Cieszyn and Zagreb in between. I live in Poland and in Croatia, and I am at home in both places. I equally appreciate the fishes of the Adria and the edible seafood, and the large and happy family of stews, the related noble nation of goulashes, and the giddy army of the various dumplings. I like the roasted turkey with mlinca in Zagreb, the duck of Krakow with porcini, and I cherish the lozova rakija, that is, the marc just as well as the continental sligovica. After all, what can it hurt?”