Dragon invasion

Several readers have inquired after the previous post about the identity of this crocodile swimming in such an absurd and nevertheless such a self-evidently natural way above the cobblestones of Brno and the field of sight of its passers-by like the monsters living in the other dimension in the Prague of Michal Ajvaz. This is the brněnský drak, the dragon of Brünn/Brno.

The dragon had come swimming on the river Svratka and terrorized the city by taking as prey the livestock and people coming down to the river. The city council offered a huge price for him who would kill it, but all who had attempted it perished. Finally a traveling journeyman won it by hiding a sack of unslaked lime in the body of a disembowelled ox and placing it on the river bank. The dragon devoured it, hide and hair, but when it retired to the river to digest, the lime began to boil in the water, and it was exploded in a thousand parts. The story of how it was pieced together by local artisans so that it could be hung up in the passage under the town hall’s clock tower as a warning to any further dragons passing by, must belong to the golden pages of the chronicle of Brno’s handicraft industry.

The talents of local artisans are also attested by the wheel on the wall of the same passage, which is not only a rustic decoration, but an important historical monument, and even a personality: it is the brněnské kolo, the wheel of Brno. It had been made in Lednice, some forty kilometers to Brno by wheelwright Jiří Birk for a bet in only twelve hours from the moment of chopping the tree to wheeling it in through the gate of Brno. He won the bet, but lost his clients, as from that time on he was considered to have made a pact with the devil. He died poverty-stricken.

This is the one version. Another is that the crocodile came to the town already stuffed in 1608. It was a gift of the Sultan to the Margrave of Brünn, who was none else than the younger brother of the alchymist emperor Rudolf, the later emperor Matthias. This is how the memorial table placed on the wall of the clock tower by the town council in 1749 announces it.

However, the council did not know enough the documents in their own archives. For these prove that the crocodile had been restored and cleansed of worms back in 1578-79. So it had to come to the city much earlier than that.

There is every indication that from the beginning of the 1500’s an unparalleled invasion of crocodiles showered upon Europe. As far as the sporadic sources permit to see, a terrible struggle unrolled between the natives and the intruders, and finally the latter were overcome. However, the trophies of some of them have been preserved in memory of the victory.

The most famous among them is undoubtedly the lagarto de la Malena, “the lizard of Malena” whose legend (!) was proposed by Spain just in the last year on the list of the “immaterial heritage of the world”. This dragon lived in a well in the Magdalena or Malena quarter of the southern Andalucian city of Jaén, taking as prey the people and sheep coming for water until a traveling journeyman did away with it. It is still debated how it was exactly killed. Some say that with the lime-stuffed bait prepared according to the Brno receipt, while the other party says that the winner completely covered himself with mirrors, thus blinding and then easily killing the beast. Its stuffed skin was preserved for a long time in the Church of San Ildefonso, but today it is only remembered by its statue set up at the well of Malena.

If the lime strategy came from Brünn, then the mirror tactics from Valencia. There a traveling Jew (!) killed in the same way the beast living in the river (which has dried up by today) and terrorizing the city. Its skin has been preserved on the wall of the atrium of the Collegio del Patriarca from which it has been called el dragón del Patriarca. What is more, its portrait was given a distinguished place in the decoration of the yearly Corpus Christi processions.

The skin of the lagarto de Calzadilla, the “lizard of Calzadilla” near to Cáceres has survived in the church of the Ermita del Cristo in very bad conditions. Its statue on the main square attests that it had devastated the flock until a shepherd did away with it. Unfortunately I could not clear how he did it, but the strange weapon in his hand refers to some new and cunning method.

The first crocodile in Europe we know about is so old that even its skin has already perished and now only a wooden portrait is hanging on its place. Its living original was sent by the Sultan of Egypt in 1260, after the Spanish conquest of Andalusia to King Alfons X as a first attempt to establish diplomatic contacts, together with an elephant tusk, a living giraffe and other exotic treasures. It was hung in front of the gate of the Cathedral of Seville to which it gave the name of Puerta del Lagarto, “the Gate of the Lizard”.

To Mallorca everything gets later. The crocodile invasion slapped the island only with its tail at the end of the 18th century. This beast lived in the alleys of Palma and took its prey in the night, mainly children from their cradles, at least according to the legend. Finally it was killed in 1776 by the Captain of Alcúdia, Bartomeu Coc who in that night was giving a serenade to his lady and immediately offered the crocodile to her as a token of his love. This gesture absolutely swept the lady off her feet, and she gave her hand without hesitation to the brave captain. This is how the deceased monster got the name of drac de na Coca, “the dragon of Mrs. Coc”. The trophy was preserved for long by her descendants, the Roselló family who exhibited it on ever 31 December. At the beginning of the 20th century they donated it to the Museu Diocesà where it is now on display. Its picture was published by one of our favorite daily readings, the excellent Mallorca Daily Photo Blog.

The heroic deed of Captain Coc also inspired a popular ballad, sung in the record below by the queen of the island’s folk music Maria del Mar Bonet.

Maria del Mar Bonet: El drac de na Coca (The dragon of Mrs. Coc). From the album Bon viatge faci la cadernera (1990).

Pel carrer de Sa Portella,
quan la nit cau,
diuen que hi surt una bèstia;
valga’ns Déu, val!

S’engoleix les criatures
valga’ns Déu, val!
Les mares de Sa Portella
ploren d’espant.

Han dit que la nau
d'un vell mercader
que anava i venia
de Mallorca a Alger,
va dur d’un viatge
un ou venturer.
I va néixer el drac:
feroç carnisser.

Pel carrer de Sa Portella
valga’ns Déu, val!,
les nits fan olor de por,
d’algues i sal.

Bartomeu Coc, cavaller,
jove i galant,
diuen que arriba d’Alcúdia
quan la nit cau.

De nit ve d’Alcúdia,
–galant cavaller–,
per veure la dama:
rosa de febrer.
I allà ha de combatre
enmig del carrer
fins que en queda tros
del drac carnisser.

Pel carrer de Sa Portella,
quan l’alba penja,
la pluja esborra la sang
color de menta.
In the alley of Sa Portella
when the night falls
they say, a dragon rises:
Lord, have mercy on us!

It devours the children:
Lord, have mercy on us!
The mothers in Sa Portella
are crying in terror.

They say that the ship
of an old merchant
that went here and there
between Mallorca and Algiers
brought on an occasion
a strange egg:
and a dragon was born of it,
a bloody killer.

In the alley of Sa Portella
– Lord, have mercy on us! –
the nights smell of alga
and of salt and of terror.

Bartomeu Coc, a young
and brave knight,
they say, came from Alcúdia
when the night fell.

He came from Alcúdia in the night
that brave knigh,
to see the lady of his heart
the rose of February.
And they went into battle there
in the middle of the alley
until at the end the bloody
dragon was cut in pieces.

In the alley of Sa Portella
when the dawn rises
the rain washes away
the mint-colored blood

Archive photo of the drac de na Coca from the collection of the legends of Mallorca.

But some crocodiles also appeared in countries where in lack of a sea they could have not come by themselves: for example in Switzerland or, indeed, in Bohemia. As their presence could not be explained away with natural reasons, thus their true story has survived more in detail, and it perhaps helps to understand that of the other crocodile trophies as well. In fact, these crocodiles had been taken home by pilgrims from the Holy Land and Egypt in the 15th and 16th century. Like for example the crocodile of Sankt-Gallen being restored on the picture below, which was brought by Ulrich Kromm from his pilgrimage in Egypt, and donated in 1623 to the library of the town.

Or the other Czech crocodile, the “dragon of Budyně”, brought alive from the Holy Land in 1522 by IV. Jan Zajíc z Hazmburka, that is John Rabbit of Rabbitburgh the Fourth.

The crocodile lived in the moat of the renaissance Budyňe castle of the von Rabbitburgh family until he died, and Jan IV loved to show up with it on festive occasions in the posture of a dragon-killer. This is how he had his portrait painted in the banquet hall of the castle.

The crocodile, as we have already mentioned when speaking about the 15th-century pilgrim guides, became an emblematic animal of the Holy Land, and an almost indispensable souvenir for better-off pilgrims. No wonder that every contemporary crocodile trophy with a known origin came to Europe in this way.

The wonders of the Holy Land from the 1486 Mainz edition of Breidenbach: These animals were
faithfully painted just as we saw them in the Holy Land.
From top to bottom:
Giraffe. Crocodile. Indian goat. Unicorn. Camel. Salamander.
The name of this one is not known.

This situation gradually changed in the 17th century. The stuffed crocodiles remained favorite pieces of the cabinets de curiosités, but their emphasis shifted from their connections with the Holy Land to the a growing interest in natural history.

Later, with the establishment of special collections and scientific museums the hanging crocodiles were ousted from these sanctuaries of science, and gradually became the hallmark of old-fashioned antique shops and obscure scholars. As the text and illustration of Sir Terry Pratchett’s popular fantasy series Discworld presents it in an emblematic way:

Like all wizard’s workshops, the place looked as though a taxidermist had dropped his stock in a foundry and then had a fight with a maddened glassblower, braining a passing crocodile in the process (it hung from the rafters and smelt strongly of camphor).

Fortunately the dragon of Brno fell not on this sad, lonely and eccentric old age. It still stands in the center of the city’s life, lending its name to the beer, football club and radio station of the city, its image to the stamp of the tourist information center of Brno, and its “copies” decorate the town hall of Brno’s Husice district and the alternative theatre Husa na provázku, Goose on a string. What is more, even the emblem of this latter shows a crocodile performing as a lion, while in the reality it is only a little sea-horse.

It even inspired a jewel, displayed by janina on flickr with the comment: There are some stories about Brno, and many of them are shown on this dragon. “Where, where? lemme see!” says zmetok in excitement. Homework! replies janina. As you see, we are working on it.

Three sisters

I have bought the book Yiddish for fun in Brno, in the Academia bookshop, gallery and café where between two books you are served cakes, and from six in the evening the writers entertain their readers by words of mouth. Its author, Leo Rosten who had been born back in the Łódź of the czars, became popular in America – and, God knows why, also in Bohemia – with his books written on the encounters between the English and Yiddish language. The Hyman Kaplan series is the chronicle of the struggles of a Russian Jewish immigrant and his companions with the English language in the night school, while The Joys of Yinglish (1998) comments on the Yiddish words naturalized in English.

This book, in the original edition The Joys of Yiddish (1968) – whose enlarged edition, The New Joys of Yiddish was published in 2001 and also translated to Ceczh as Jidiš pro ještě větší radost, „Yiddish for even more fun” – is the explanatory dictionary of hundred and one Yiddish terms which illustrates their use not only with sample sentences but also with Jewish jokes. A genial feature of the dictionary is that it does not only interpret the most frequent Yiddish words – tsadik, mazel tov, rebe –, but it also lists with a special delight the various (up to fifteen or eighteen) shades of meaning of Yiddish interjections – aha! oyoyoy! feh! hoo-ha! nu! – which express a lot even with their changing emphasis: *

A term of several meanings, which formerly was frequently used in the Jewish conversation. Some of its meanings:
1. Understanding. “So you do not substract but add it?
2. Realization. “
AhA! That’s why he declined the invitation to dinner!”
3. Surprise. “So the doctor was wrong?
4. Instruction. “Go and ask her, then you will see how things are.
5. Joy. “Ah – A! So I have won the bet!”
6. Triumph. “AhA!” (Unsaid: So you confess that you were wrong!)
Don’t confuse “Aha” with the important interjection “Hoo-ha!” of which we will speak later.
Mr. Sokoloff has had dinner for twenty years in the same restaurant on the Second Avenue. This evening, as always, he orders bouillon. The waiter brings it, and wants to go back, but Mr. Sokoloff addresses him: “Waiter!” – “Yes, please?” – “Be so kind to taste this soup.” – “But Mr. Sokoloff, you have come here for twenty years and you have never complained.” – “Please”, repeats Mr. Sokoloff obstinately, “taste this soup.” – “But what is the matter, Mr. Sokoloff?” – “Please taste it.” – “All right”, the waiter says. “But… a moment. Where is the spoon?” – “Aha!”, says Mr. Sokoloff.

I thought about translating the book into Hungarian, of course from the English original. But as soon as I began to check, I discovered that it already had a Hungarian clone: the 100+1 jiddis szó: zsidóságismeret új megközelítésben (100+1 Yiddish words: Jewish studies in a new approach, Budapest: Makkabi 1999) by Chief Rabbi of Budapest Tamás Raj.

At the first glance this book looks like an adaptation of The Joys of Yiddish. For both of them interpret 101 Yiddish terms, and a great part of them are also identical in the two books. And they also have the same structure. Each term is provided with a short definition and then illustrated with a number of Jewish jokes and anecdotes. Of course it would be a shame if the wise author did not know the book which has been the basic literature of this topic for more than thirty years. However, the 100+1 jiddis szó fails to refer to any antecedents. The name of Rosten or the title of The Joys of Yiddish does not occur a single time in it. On the contrary, Tamás Raj traces back the birth of his book to a personal inspiration:

The idea of this book was provided to me by a saying of Rabbi Lau. He has insisted that every Jew of Israel, even if perfectly speaking Hebrew, should learn a hundred words in Yiddish, the language of the European diaspora. Through these one hundred words everyone could recognize and feel the way of thinking of their ancestors as well as the peculiar atmosphere of the old ghettos and synagogues.

This multitude of random coincidences seems quite unlikely, but don’t forget that the Septuagint was also translated from Hebrew to Greek by seventy wise rabbis working independently of each other, and nevertheless their results, when compared at the end, were identical to the letter.

But apart from the similarities in the basic idea and structure, the book of Tamás Raj is a quite original work. In contrast to his predecessor he is less interested in the shades of meaning of the terms and more in the rich historical tradition standing behind them, from which he quotes with delight one story after the other. Most of his stories does not come from the international stock of Jewish anecdotes, but from his own personal experiences, from the Hungarian Jewish lore, or from the fresh events of recent decades, like this example of the article Sheker-bilbul (confuse lie):

In the times of Soviet power an American journalist visited Moscow. The above mentioned Comrade Brezhnev gave him a display of the brilliant economic situation of the Soviet Union, telling him that for one ruble one can buy a suit and for two rubles a complete calf. The journalist listened to him doubtfully.
– If you do not believe me, I will call in someone whom you will certainly believe –, Brezhnev said. And they agreed that the Chief Rabbi of Moscow would decide the question.
– Well, Mr. Rabbi – the party leader asked in an awkward tone – the truth is that one can buy a calf for two rubles at us, isn’t it?
The rabbi felt utterly embarrassed. If he tells the truth, he will be taken to the Gulag, and if he does not, he will lose his reputation all over the world. After a short consideration he answered to the journalist:
– But why do you insist on that calf? Do you know what? Add a hundred rubles to it, and then you can even buy a chicken.

The anecdotes, etymologies, historical analyses follow each other in an exuberant storytelling, and unexpected relationships are illuminated to the great delight of the reader. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Like the following story about the Chinese Sassoon sisters in the article S’hoyre (wares).

And if we are here, we also have to tell about the Chinese Jews who settled there and used to live there in a large number because of the above mentioned Silk Road, to ensure the transport of the s’hoyre, especially around Kaifeng and in Shanghai. In the latter city there lived a rich Jewish businessman of Baghdadi origin from the famous Sassoon family, whose name was pronounced Sun by the Chinese. He had two daughters. The elder married a talented young Chinese whose education was financed by the businessman. The young man, in a sign of gratitude, adopted the family name Sun, and later he became the leader of the Chinese revolution: Sun Yat-sen. The other daughter also married a Chinese officer who later became famous as the leader of Taiwan: Chiang Kai-shek. The two daughters lived for almost a hundred years, and it happened so that the great widows of the “two Chinas” competing with each other were sisters, and of course Jews…

This beautiful story recalls the well known joke about the Martian visiting the Earth who on the question “And does everyone carry a little cap like this over there?” replies: “No, only the Jews.” One almost feels it painful to add some philological commentaries:

• The s’hoyre of the Silk Road used to be traditionally not in the hand of the Jews but of the Muslim Hui merchants playing a similar role in China.
• Although the history of the Jews of Shanghai is extremely interesting – I also want to write more about it later –, and Sir Victor Sassoon, the great developer of the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 30’s in fact played an outstanding role in it, nevertheless this history only started in the late 19th century with the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants.
• It would not be easy to establish the pre-war local Chinese pronounciation of Victor Sassoon’s name, but today the Chinese Wikipedia transcribes it like 沙逊
Shā Xùn.
• On the other hand, the name of Sun Yat-sen was 孫
Sūn. And he inherited it from his ancestors, like any other Chinese.
• The education of Sun Yat-sen was not financed by Sassoon, but by his rich merchant brother Sun Mei living in Honolulu.
• And indeed, why should have Sassoon financed it? For they had absolutely no relationship. In fact, Sun Yat-sen did not marry the daughter of Sassoon,
• among other things also because Sassoon had no daughter: he died without children,
• but Soong Ching-ling, daughter of another rich Chinese of Shanghai. His father-in-law, who is better known as Charlie Soong because of his American education, came from a Hakka family just like Sun Yat-sen. But his Chinese family name was 宋
Sòng, which has nothing to do either with Xùn or with Sūn.
• Charlie Soong, being a Hakka, was obviously no Jew. But he was no Taoist or Buddhist either as one would expect it from a Chinese. But a Methodist Christian. Just like Sun Yat-sen. What is more, the two men met for the first time on a Sunday service. And what is even more, Charlie Soong himself was a Methodist missionary and preacher, who established his wealth with his Bible press.
• Logically enough, Soong’s other daughter Soong May-ling was no Jew either, but another Methodist Christian. Her husband Chiang Kai-shek was baptized as a precondition of their marriage, and later he became a convinced Christian.
• And those two daughters were in fact three. They also had an elder sister, Soong Ai-ling. She married the richest man of contemporary China, H. H. Kung, a 75th generation descendant of Confucius, who was also Premier of China for a short time, and a Christian himself.
• All this said, the essence of Tamás Raj’s story is basically true, although with some minor modifications. The wives of three – rather than two – of the main figures of the confronting post-war “two Chinas” were sisters indeed (and what is more, the widow of Sun Yat-sen was also Premier of the Communist China for a time). And they in fact were followers of the same religion. The only slight difference is that this religion was not the Israelite one.

A proverb widely known in China says about the three sisters: 一個愛錢、一個愛權、一個愛國, one loved money, the other loved power, the third loved China. The contraposition of “power” and “China” where the latter is identified with Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic, while the former with Chiang Kai-shek who had “torn off” Taiwan, refers to the saying’s being coined after the Maoist takeover. And indeed: this is the motto of the film The Soong Sisters (1997), the most primitive Communist propaganda film I have ever seen, although life has provided me with no small experience in this genre.

But why should we demand historical fidelity here, if we had not pried into the truth of the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and Brezhnev’s encounter? Indeed, the essence of this book is not this, but the convivial storytelling, the multitude of anecdotes, the evocation of once existing worlds. Read it with pleasure, although cum grano salis. And do not forget about The Joys of Yiddish either.


Bucureştiul interbelic este locul unde s-a întâmplat totul, pre-war Bucharest was the place where everything happened, announces the phrase by Ioana Pârvulescu that has became a proverb from her Întoarcere în Bucureştiul interbelic, “Return to pre-war Bucharest” (2002), a pioneering work of the recent Bucharest revival.

Pre-war Bucharest was micul Paris, a small Paris, the capital of a suddenly rounded out country promising unlimited chances, with an elit educated in France and with palaces built on French model, with clean streets and tramways, cafés and places of entertainment where the greatest stars, Jean Moscopol, Cristian Vasile, Titi Botez, Dorel Livianu, Maria Tanase, Zavaidoc, Petre Alexandru sang the most fashionable and most characteristic genre of contemporary Central Europe, the one expressing both the desperate will to live and the tragic atmosphere of the age: the tango.

The Oteleseanu House, once the place of the most celebrated balls and receptions. Its café was the center of the bohemian life of Bucharest. Now its place is occupied by the central post office.

After the war all that came to an end. As Budapest was cleared of its cafés by the new regime, so was Bucharest cleared of its places of entertainment. Jean Moscopol became a concierge in New York, Cristian Vasile died in indigence in Brăila. Bucharest sank into poverty and was denuded, so that its modern inhabitants look with incredulity at the old photos. And then the megalomaniac building activity of Ceauşescu wiped off a great part of the old city forever. The extent of this destruction is well demonstrated in the recent post of Dumneazu (it looks like in this month we keep writing about the same topics). When walking about in the Bucharest of the ’80s, we watched in bewilderment the destroyed city while our local friend enumerated with melancholy the splendid buildings once standing here and there. The majority of great tango singers still were alive in the early ’80s, but in contrast to the Buena Vista Social Club nobody discovered them. There remained only some vinyl disks left behind by them as well as some old people who still remembered their songs.

The palace of Regal Cinema, Café Corso and Columbia Records was built by Leonida Negrescu in 1900. It was demolished during the enlargement of Calea Victoriei.

It was these two sources that the Romanian singer of Berlin Oana Cătălina Chiţu drew on when at a distance of sixty years she revived this forgotten world on her CD Bucharest Tango published in the last year. She has complemented the songs heard from her father with the old 78 rpm records of their Bucharest relatives to create in 2007 together with Romanian and German musicians the show “Bukarester Tango”. This CD displays the most popular tangos and chansons of pre-war Bucharest. Right the second one is the most famous Romanian song of all times: the Zaraza.

Când apari seniorita în parc pe-nserat
Curg în juru-ţi petale de crin
Ai în ochi patimi dulci şi luciri de păcat
Şi ai trupul de şarpe felin

Gura ta e-un poem de nebune dorinţi
Sânii tăi un tezaur sublim
Eşti un demon din vis care tulburi şi minţi
Dar ai zâmbetul de heruvim

Vreau să-mi spui frumoasă Zaraza
Cine te-a iubit
Câţi au plâns nebuni pentru tine
Şi câţi au murit
Vreau să-mi dai gura-ţi dulce Zaraza
Să mă-mbete mereu
De a ta sărutare Zaraza
vreau sa mor şi eu.
When you appear in the park at sunset,
señorita, lily petals are falling around you,
sweet desire and sinful lights burn in your eyes
and your body is a curling serpent.

Your mouth is an ode to mad desires,
your breast a sublime treasure.
You’re a demon of dreams that stir up and lie
but your smile is that of a cherub.

Tell me, beautiful Zaraza:
who has already loved you?
How many have crazily cried
and how many have died for you?
Give me your sweet lips, Zaraza,
poison me continuously!
From your kiss, Zaraza
I want to die, too.

Zaraza was the most famous song of Cristian Vasile called “the last troubadour”, and Vasile was the most famous performer of this song. Their names have become inseparable in the memory of the golden years of Bucharest, so much that the writer Stelian Tănase could call with reason the pre-war city “the Bucharest of Zaraza”.

Cristian Vasile: Zaraza

The song has created its myth. Mircea Cărtărescu, the apocryphal chronicler of the Bucharest revival first published the story of Cristian Vasile and his lover, the beautiful Gypsy girl Zaraza in his volume of short stories De ce iubim femeile (Why we love women) of 2004, the most successful book of post-1990 Romania. Of the two great singers Cristian Vasile and Zavaidoc, competing in the early ’40s for the favors of the dancer of the bar “Vulpea Roşie”/Red Fox, the former won, but the latter revenged himself. Zaraza died, and Vasile disappeared from the theatre of Bucharest. Only the song continued to be sung

“all over the city: Zaraza became the Lili Marlene of Bucharest. It was sung in the bars, in the air raid shelters, in the trenches. The enchanting Gypsy girl became just as renowned as her famous lover.”

Although this touching story, as the author confesses it in a footnote, is entirely the product of his imagination, nevertheless the public has received it with pleasure, and today it is already spreading over the web as a true story. A popular audio book version has just been published, and in 2008 even a Hollywood-style film was released of it. One of the most memorable scenes of this latter is exactly the one where Vasile sings Zaraza to the public of the Red Fox bar.

Although the name of the beautiful Gypsy girl sounds strange to Romanian ears, nevertheless Cărtărescu has his explanation at hand, further developed by the review of his book in an almost philological thoroughness: “Zaraza, or more exactly Zarada is a traditional Gypsy name, whose original Spanish meaning is «beautiful» or «shining».”

Although the Spanish language knows no such word, nevertheless the reference to the Spanish origin is quite revealing. In fact, this most Romanian tango is simply an adoption of a South American tango. The original song was written by the Argentine Benjamín Tagle Lara (1892-1932) likewise with the title Zaraza, and in 1929 it won the second price of the authoritative Concurso del Disco Nacional of Montevideo, organized by Max Glücksmann. In the same year it was recorded with three great singers: José Razzano, Ignacio Corsini and Charlo with the Canaro Francisco band. However, in the original song Zaraza is the name not of a beautiful Gypsy woman, but of another attractive being with a similarly black, deep and melancholic look. Of an ox.

Blanca huella que, todos los dias,
clavado en el yugo, me ves picanear;
compañera del largo camino
las horas enteras te veo blanquear.
Mientras que, bajo el peso del trigo,
los ejes cansados los siento quejar,
yo, anudando mi pena a esa queja,
con cantos y silbos te sé acompañar.

¡A la huella, huella, zaraza,
huella, huella, guay!
Volverá la ingrata a su casa
andará por ahí…
Que si yo la viera, zaraza,
la hablaré, velay…
¡A la huella, huella, zaraza,
huella, huella, guay!

Buey zaraza, tus ojos tristones
mirando la huella parecen buscar
el milagro de aquellos pasitos
que al irse la ingrata no supo dejar.
Compañero que, unido conmigo
a un mismo destino, tenemos que andar,
seguiremos rastreando la huella,
la misma que siempre la vemos blanquear.
White path that see me every day
at the yoke, while pricking the ox:
my companion in the long walk,
I watch your white color for long hours.
And while I see the tired eyes complaining
under the weight of the wheat,
I join my pain to their complaint and
accompany you with singing and whistling.

Go ahead, go, zaraza,
go ahead, go, hey!
Will the ungrateful one come home
or is she rather wandering far away…
If I will see her, zaraza,
I will speak to her for sure…
Go ahead, go, zaraza,
go ahead, go, hey!

Zaraza ox, your sorrowful eyes
watching the path seem to look for
those wonderful small footsteps
that the ungrateful one has failed to leave.
My companion, in union with me
and sharing the same fate, we have to go,
always following the path, always
the same that lays white ahead of us.

This song was made popular in Paris by the greatest tango singer Carlos Gardel, the already mentioned “Creole Thrush”. Glücksmann tried to convince him to record this song too, but Gardel declined this honor by saying that he found it dishonest to compete with the record by Razzano. He recorded instead El carretero, “The coachman”, which is an earlier version of the same song. One had to wait eleven years to the energetic record by Rodolfo Biagi which was probably the one to get to Bucharest.

Rodolfo Biagi: Zaraza (1940). From the album Campo Afuera y su Orquesta Típica 1939-1942.

Others say that this song was made popular in Europe by the film Rive gauche (1931) of the British producer of Hungarian origin Sir Alexander Korda, in which it was sung by Sofía Bozán who had performed in Paris together with Gardel. This film also inspired the Polish version of the song, performed by Wiera Gran and Albert Harris with the title Gdy gitara gra piosenkę, “When the guitar is playing a song” (1939). The change of the title was motivated by the fact that in Polish zaraza means – pestilence.

Anyway, in Bucharest the song became popular in the performance of Cristian Vasile and with the text of Nicolae Kiriţescu which preserved the call word zaraza! of the Spanish refrain, endowing it with a new meaning.

The exact meaning of this word in the original Spanish text which apparently uses it as the name of the ox but writes it in minuscule, is not that easy to clarify. According to the dictionary it means “calico” or “printed textile”, but this does not seem to have any sense here. In the opinion of Río Wang’s fellow Argentine author Julia nowadays it is used in the sense of “mumbo jumbo” (written sometimes “sarasa” and pronounced in the same way). Her mother even recalls that it might have been used for oxen of a certain color, and even as an ox name, as Gardel uses it in the above quoted El carretero.

Finally Julia has come across Malena’s tango blog, whose Argentine author had faced the same problem in Zaraza, and her investigations had led to Isidra Solati’s article Un lenguaje de púrpuras y zarazas. According to this essay, the zarazas were the occasional village feasts organized at the arrival of a wandering musician, where the only decoration was a hastily stretched out piece of textile: a zaraza. This word full of desires and festive atmosphere has later become the refrain of coachmen singing and urging their ox, and finally also a name for the ox.

View from the Kretzulescu Inn. Since then both the inn and the street has been demolished.

In spite of this meandering story, my favorite song on Oana Cătălina Chiţu’s album is not Zaraza, but the once successful romance by Titi Botez: Sub balcon eu ţi-am cântat o serenadă, “I have serenaded under your balcon”.

Titi Botez: Sub balcon eu ţi-am cântat o serenadă, original recording.

Its melody and especially its refrain suggests of having been also adopted from a foreign original, but the identity of this original is still a mystery even to our Argentine sources. The investigation is in process. As soon as we’ll have some result, we will get in touch again.

The Athénée Palace. The source of the images of old Bucharest is Tudor Octavian: Bucureştiul interbelic: Calea Victoriei, Bucharest 2009.


Venice is one of those cities whose name – Venetia, and later Venezia, that is the land of the Veneti – was adjusted by most people to their own languages: Venice, Venecia, Veneza, Venecija, Wenecja, Venetië, ونیز Venīz, Venedig, Venedik, Benetke, Benátky, البندقية Al-Bunduqiyya, or in Hungarian Velence. Most versions are simply more or less approximative local transcriptions of the original pronounciation. However, several speakers prefer to reveal some kind of local etymology behind their own version, just as we saw in the case of demijohn. The Arabic version is thus often derived from bunduqiyya, rifle, while the Slovenian/Czech Benetke/Benátky from an alleged benátky meaning “swampy” and referring to the situation of Venice, similarly to the name Venezuola, little Venice, which was given by Amerigo Vespucci to the shores of later Venezuela because of their Indian pile-dwellings built on the water.

Whether the name of the Hungarian fishing (and lately resort) village of Velence, some thirty kilometers to SW from Budapest is in any connection with its Italian namesake, is debatable even in Hungary. According to King Matthias’ court historian Antonio Bonfini (†1503) it was founded by Italian colonists coming from “Venetia”, and thus it got its name after Venice just like Northern Czech Benátky nad Jizerou. But he does not say when it all happened, and Bonfini, who had all the antiquity at his fingertips, may well have intended here the Veneti of the antiquity, just as he considered the Romanians to be direct offsprings of the inhabitants of Rome and King Matthias himself a member of the ancient Roman Corvinus family. The Hungarian Dictionary of Etymology derives the name from the wind vane of local fishermen called velence, which perhaps can be reduced to an original Slavic velenice, the diminutive form of velenie, direction, guide. Finally, renowned Medieval historians György Györffy and György Székely date the foundation of the village to the great Northern Italian wave of immigration to Hungary between 1000 and 1300, similarly to a number of other (since then extinct, that is, destroyed by the Turks) Medieval villages called Venece, Venence, Velence etc., and an even larger number of still existing villages having the Medieval Hungarian term for “Italian” olasz in their names: Olaszliszka, Bodrogolaszi and the rest. One thing is sure that in 1516 it was mentioned as “Welencze aka Venecia”, and in the first map of Hungary of 1522/28 it figures as Veneze.

Whatever the etymological connection between the two place names is, the ice cream parlour on the lake-shore has created a kinship between the two Venices with a generous gesture. The two prospettive and the bilingual sign-board bridge distances and cultures, and the role of the gondola is performed by the canoe transformed into flower-stand. And immediately beyond the garden there opens a live panorama of the lagoons of Velence.