rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

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