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Going Hungary: Meditations on a Last Meal

Last week, I ate George Lang’s last meal. Or rather, I had the meal Lang said would be his last, four years prior to his death seven years ago — which, as it turns out, wasn’t in fact his last meal at all. On the other hand, that one of New York’s greatest restaurateurs reached his hand out from the other side, to move a 24-year-old chef from south Florida to re-create his last meal, in all its arcane Hungarian glory, might actually mean Lang, posthumously, succeeded. It was his last meal at long last.

It was warm that night, and the sky over the East Village was the color of Meggykeszöce. Of course, I realized that only after the sun had vanished completely, and after the Eddy’s chef, Jeremy Salamon, had emerged from the kitchen bearing two glass Weck jars of the deep purple Meggykeszöce, a Hungarian sour cherry soup. The soup is of a soft periwinkle hue, viscous enough to support a scattering of chamomile flowers but not a quenelle of buttermilk crème fraîche. The chilled soup on a warm evening at the end of the hot day: gentle in color, gentle in flavor, a lullaby for the palate, going gently into the night.

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Normally, the menu at the Eddy is a synthesis of New American cuisine — more artfully wrought than much of what one finds in the East Village but not fundamentally different — with a few Hungarian touches, courtesy of Salamon, whose grandparents emigrated from Hungary and who, before he took over the kitchen, ran a Hungarian pop-up called Fond. He’d long been a Lang freak, coming across his 1971 cookbook, George Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary, in the Strand after he moved to New York from Florida. The book, and its recipes, reminded him of his own grandparents. Tonight at the Eddy, the menu was dedicated to Salamon’s hero, the man behind Café Des Artistes, a Hungarian émigré (and Magyar kitchen evangelist), a bon vivant, and — as he describes himself on the cover of his memoir, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen “restaurateur-raconteur extraordinaire.” In 2007, four years before he died at age 86, Lang gave an interview to the Voices Nina Lalli on what his last meal would be. The menu, he told her, would include “fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.”

George Lang, age 4

That article was mentioned in Lang’s obituary in the New York Times, where Salamon saw it, and the kicker was good enough to be his final word: “ ‘And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,’ he said.” Salamon made some modifications. “Goose neck is difficult to find,” he said, so instead he stuffed a poussin with a sweet chunky mixture of pork, apricots, and almonds. Lang’s rustic fisherman stew (Halászlé) was transmuted into a plank of brook trout, dotted with bottarga atop, with a burnt siena broth that was gently silky. The stuffed peppers, in Lang’s book made with traditional green peppers, were here poblanos, though the creamed wild arugula and lushly nutty walnut sauce were very much traditional. I’ve eaten stuffed cabbage for years at Veselka and Little Poland and the Stage around the corner. There they arrive on the plate like a pile of Amazon boxes the UPS guy left out in the rain, same color, same texture. They’re delicious; delicate, they aren’t. Salamon’s version, however, are tidy green care packages made of Savoy cabbage leaves, stuffed with pork rillett and paprikash wrapped neatly like some Japanese parcel left at the foot of your bed at a ryokan. Salamon’s langos were a revelation, fried discuses of dough like the best elephant ears I’d ever had, especially with the powdered sugar replaced with pecorino shavings and drizzled with wildflower honey.

Lang, at the Four-Seasons, 1964

Man, if this was Lang’s last meal, that guy nailed it. The Eddy is a small space, and a large part of it, that night, was occupied by a party of nine made up of Lang’s friends and family. Among them was Jenifer Lang, George’s widow. I was curious whether the meal her husband described a few years before his death was in fact his last meal, but didn’t want to interrupt with so morbid a question. So I called her up a few days later. “No,” she replied when I asked, “I don’t remember what his last meal was, but it wasn’t this.”

But reading through Lang’s memoir, it’s clear that the man had eaten his final meal many times over. As a Hungarian Jew, his family was destroyed by the Holocaust — both his parents were murdered at Auschwitz. After escaping a labor camp, Lang faced execution when he was revealed to be a Jew by members of the Arrow Cross militia. Saved by the invasion of the Russian Army, he soon faced persecution by the Russians, who accused him of being a fascist. Lang had been beaten and tortured and starved. He had escaped to Austria from Hungary literally hiding inside a coffin in a hearse. So before he even arrived in the United States in 1946 — on a boat, as a refugee from the Russians — he’d been born and died scores of times. This, Jenifer Lang muses, was at the heart of his insatiable appetite for this world. “After that,” she said, “he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Despite its ur–Dad joke title and the fact that it isn’t available on Google Books, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen proves that not only could Lang sling a sentence but that he could survive. He was a hustler, a world-hugger, a life-clinger, who had been so close to death so often at such a young age that he carried it with him always. And the funny thing is, it didn’t make him heavier. It made him lighter. That lightness of touch, the diamantine joy, manifest not only in his skill at the violin but as the visionary behind the Four Seasons restaurant and later Café Des Artistes, I think could only exist in the shadow of death.

Lang poses at Cafe des Artistes, 2002.

The last meal, as a resonant idea, seems to rest on an awareness of impending death. It’s different than just your favorite food. It’s what’s your favorite food…and then you die. It’s most famously asked of the condemned, a last twitch of humanity before the executioner sings. In those cases, a last meal is made more enjoyable, meaningful, because finality looms at the end of it. But outside of planned executions, I would wager it’s rare that we actually know what meal will be our last. My grandfather was a man of strange but deep appetites. He lived for omelettes with jelly and slices of strawberry shortcake at Shapiro’s Delicatessen in downtown Indianapolis. My grandmother sucked chicken bones, a habit she picked up when she was poor during the Depression, and grated her own knuckles into the latkes. (At least, that’s what Papa Frank told me as a kid.) Both died, paper-skinned, wafer-thinned, and intubated.

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That dinner at the Eddy was on Tuesday, June 5, the day Kate Spade died — just a few days before Anthony Bourdain, on Friday, June 8. And David Buckel died April 14 and Jeremy Safran died on May 7 and Josh Ozersky died on May 4, 2015, and Papa Frank died on June 22, 2014. I still think about all these people all the time, some more than others. What were their last meals? What will be mine?  

Tony talked to David Remnick about this on the New Yorker podcast a year ago. “My last day on Earth, if I had to choose one meal, it would be sushi. I’d be at Jiro or Masa,” he said. “Around the time they serve the omelette, the tamago, I’m ready to go then.” But, since he died in Kaysersberg, a small town in the Alsace region of France, I’m pretty sure Bourdain’s last meal was sausage and sauerkraut at Le Chambard, the small hotel at which he was staying with his friend Eric Ripert. Frankly it’s too heartbreaking to consider whether he knew that lunch was his last. I hope not. I hope his last meal was shared with his friend and that he enjoyed it tremendously. As for me, I don’t know what my last meal will be, or if I’ve already had it. If I go out on the leftover chicken kebab my kids didn’t eat from Greek Xpress, so be it. At least I fully enjoyed those dried-out cubes of charred bird for what they were.

It seems impossible to treat every meal as your last one; it seems as if that would lead to paralysis, and it might. But nodding to Lang — and Atisha, millennia before him — the thing is to enjoy the meal and let it go. Lang suffered greatly for this realization, but all this death that surrounds us might at least teach us that. The meal begins. The meal ends. Life goes on. And then it doesn’t.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel Is Wes Anderson’s Most Mature and Visually Witty Effort

Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a film about World War II without mentioning Germany. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, a wundercabinet set in the fictitious Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka circa 1932, Anderson captures the collapse of a kingdom and rise of a reich without so much as an SS on a lapel. Here, it’s a ZZ — short for the Zig Zag Division — a logo that looks so adorable engraved on martini shakers and ping-pong tables that you could almost, but not quite, forget that its adherents are going to destroy the world.

See more images from The Grand Budapest Hotel

We’ve never seen a threat like the Zig Zags in Anderson’s films, which tend to be fastidiously wallpapered wombs where menchildren wrest with their delayed coming of age. At Anderson’s worst, the films are as narcissistic as The Darjeeling Limited, which was literally about rich white twerps making India’s working class deal with their baggage. Initially, Grand Budapest, too, appears to be one of his twee fantasies, opening with an animated funicular huffing up a mountain backdrop to arrive at the titular hotel. But with a blink, the image jumps from 1932 to 1968, and the building devolves from pink to drab. We realize that, for once, Anderson will let his airless snow globe be shaken and dropped, and in this case crudely glued back together by Communism, coyly referred to as the time of “common property.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel has the scope of a century. At the start, a modern punk visits the memorial of a great unnamed novelist. Quickly, we jump to 1985 and that author, played by Tom Wilkinson, reminiscing back two decades further still, to when he was young enough to be played by Jude Law, our handsomest character actor. Law plays the aspiring writer as a watchful insect, the Graspacious socialclimbereum of the weather-beaten hotel during its post-glory years. When Law sits down for supper with the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the film once more leaps into the past to arrive at our main narrative: the story of how young Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori) ascended from the Grand Budapest’s Junior Lobby Boy-in-training under supreme concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) to owning the whole thing outright.

If you’re counting, Anderson is wrestling with four layers of fiction. It’s fitting: His characters have never sounded like real people, and now he has an excuse for paragraph-length monologues delivered without a blink. At these, Fiennes is brilliant. He understands that Anderson has a hard time distinguishing people from props, and plays Gustave as a bit of both, a self-created legend who strides around the hotel like the Fred Astaire of housekeeping.

Gustave is a fabulous contradiction, a sincere hustler who’s both fastidious and profane. Of his lovers, all dowagers getting their groove back at the Grand Budapest, he’s clearly shagging them for the cash. Still, he feeds their needs while proclaiming that their sagging flesh is “more flavorful.” Even here, in the past of the past of the past of the present, he’s a relic, an honorable man who so values protocol that he greets death squads with “How do you do?” (That said, occasionally, while in the middle of yet another speech on the value of civilization, he snaps and moans, “Aw, fuck it.”)

The thrust of the plot is Gustave’s efforts to prove he didn’t kill one of his heiresses (Tilda Swinton), a murder charge levied by her three tittering daughters and money-hungry son Adrien Brody, who, in his heavy black overcoat and crooked nose, stalks the film like Poe’s raven. But the emotional drama is Gustave’s struggle to keep order while chaos — personal and geopolitical — encroaches on his manicured fiefdom. Meanwhile, we’re all too aware that it’s futile: Soon, the whole thing will be blown to bits, and the generation after will have no use for gilded manners.

Anderson was inspired by the works of Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, even dismissing his own script as “more or less plagiarism.” He’s selling himself short. Zweig died in 1942, a suicide who’d pulled up anchor in Vienna and fled to London then New York and, fatally, to Brazil after Hitler ascended to power. You won’t hear the word “Jewish” here, and Zweig was understandably more fatalistic. “Europe is finished, our world destroyed,” he lamented. But instead of offing himself with barbiturates, Anderson wants to celebrate the world that was, which is also, we suspect, the world he and his characters have always wished they lived in.

Grand Budapest is Anderson’s most mature film, and his most visually witty, too. It’s playful without being self-congratulatory, and somehow lush without being cloying in spite of its obsession with a bakery that cranks out only one pastry: a snowman-shaped confection with layers of pink, green, and cream. It’s dotted with absurd jokes I didn’t catch until a second viewing; say, a platter of duck that looks like roast pterodactyl. And both times I wanted to applaud the way cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman sneaks people like the villainous Willem Dafoe — a ghoul with skull-encrusted brass knuckles — into the shadows and then suddenly snaps them into focus.

For once, I’ll allow Anderson his fripperies. With Gustave, he’s made us sympathizers in his own fight for beautiful trifles, as though he sees his films as the frontline in the battle against crass, cash-in blockbusters. Like his doomed dandy, Anderson wants to resurrect the high-toned Hollywood filmmaking that perhaps never even existed. As Moustafa smiles of Gustave, at worst, people can say that these two nostalgists “sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

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Andre’s Cafe Has a Hungary Heart

The Hungarians could teach us a thing or two about comfort food. Take turoscusza tepertovel, even if you can’t pronounce it: a towering platter of glistening egg noodles, shards of bacon, and random gobs of sour cream and farmer’s cheese. The noodles slip and slide inside your mouth, the dairy products melt and further lubricate, while the bacon explodes in the bland, buttery mass with all the power and smoke of a land mine. You’ll stumble from the table overdosed on carbs and enormously blissed-out, and live to feed another day.

Andre’s Café is an informal refectory that hides behind a Hungarian bakery on the Upper East Side, a place where all manner of luscious strudels, babkas, beiglis (poppy-seed rolls), and flodnis (layers of nuts, apples, and poppy seeds between two sheets of pastry) cavort in the front window. There’s no hint that a first-rate eatery lurks within. To make matters more confusing, while the baked goods are kosher, the rest of the vittles—containing pork products and meat-dairy combos—are emphatically not. Skip the baked goods for now, and traipse past yards of display cases to find a narrow dining room. The ceiling is bronze stamped metal, and the left wall is hung with antique kitchen implements and strings of red peppers—from which Hungary’s signature spice, paprika, is ground. The right features modern and historic views of identical scenes in Budapest. It’s like visiting the Hungarian capital today, then hopping into a time machine. Don’t forget to come back for dinner.

While the décor feels like a folk museum, the service and food is resolutely diner-style, with humongous portions of familiar foods (to Hungarians, at least), bare-bones presentations, and waitresses with spunky attitudes. One evening, our server stood tapping her foot in apparent exasperation as we fumbled with the menu, dropped it on the floor, and changed our order a couple of times. Who could blame her? As you might expect, by the end of the meal her heart of gold had been revealed. She spent extra time describing the desserts, many of which have wacky names. Apart from a couple of wraps and paninis as lunch items (which, with a Caesar salad, form the café’s sole link to modernity), the menu provides a greatest hits of starchy and fortifying Magyar cooking.

Arriving on a snow bank of fried potatoes, the wienerschnitzel ($15.95) is a magnificent piece of pounded veal, the cutlet flopping over the sides of the plate like a football player trying to fit onto a child’s sled. As you’ll discover with other entrées, too, bales of parsley lurk in the kitchen, because nearly everything comes heaped with it. Another pig-out is the stuffed cabbage—two huge leaves bursting with a mixture that’s almost all ground veal, surmounted by a heap of the café’s orange, un-sour kraut. Yes, you can make an entire meal out of cabbage here, especially if you finish up with Andre’s notorious sweet cabbage strudel ($8).

The chicken paprikash ($14.50) proved a disappointment. “This should be drowning in paprika,” my date exclaimed one evening, “but the sauce is barely pink.” The bird also had a reheated quality that found the flesh falling off the bone, but a bit dry. Other choices run to veal goulash, chicken cutlets done several ways, and peppers stuffed with the same meaty mixture as the cabbage. Also available is solent, a bean stew associated with Eastern European Jews, more often styled “cholent.” From the lean list of appetizers (which you don’t really need), most commendable are the savory crepes called palacsinta, especially the one stuffed with potatoes and smoked ham. Arrive when the bakery opens at 10 a.m., and you can call it breakfast.

For the sweet tooth, all of the foregoing has been prelude to the pastry cabinets. Wrapped in flaky sheets, the strudels are most prominent, including my favorite, plain poppy seed. But most strudels are made with canned fruit, which is something of a disappointment in our eat-fresh-or-die age. Corresponding to the savory palacsinta mentioned above are a line of sweet featherweight crepes featuring jam or nuts; these taste freshly made and are utterly delectable. Also available: pies, butter cookies, and Hungarian takes on Viennese pastries. But the most remarkable of meal endings is gesztenye pure ($7.50). A bowl of thick chestnut pudding that has been extruded into wiggly beige worms comes crowned with a cumulonimbus of whipped cream. This very strange dish is an acquired taste, but once you’ve tried it, you’ll never think of New York’s most prominent street nut the same way again.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

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Hungarian Rhapsody

Songwriter Chico Buarque spoke to the Voice after an appearance at the recent PEN festival. In his beautiful 2004 novel Budapest (Grove), a Brazilian ghostwriter recreates himself in the titular city, through the alien buzz of the Hungarian language.

Foreign affairs: [A Hungarian interviewer] said, “If you don’t know Budapest, if you don’t know Hungarian, why didn’t you invent another country?” And I said, “I dreamt of you, I dreamt of Budapest. This is an idyllic Budapest, an oneiric Budapest—I don’t mean to pretend that I know the country. I could have consulted a map to check the street names; instead I named them after Hungarian football players.” When I read books about Brazil by foreign writers, there’s a false intimacy that disturbs me. And that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do with Budapest. It was useless to go there and stay for one month researching things, or six months, two years. So I stayed in my house in Rio with a map of Budapest and some dictionaries.

Turkish doorbell: I was in Paris, I’d just started writing the book. I went to the big bookstore (CNAC) . . . I couldn’t find a Hungarian dictionary, but I saw a Turkish one and by chance I opened it and saw on the last page, “zil: doorbell.” I thought, “Damn, that’s good.” Zil sounds exactly like what it means. So I put it in the book. When these happy accidents occur, I say, “The gods are with me.”

Why Hungarian: For a Brazilian, it is maybe the strangest language one can try to learn.

On exile: I think when you speak a different language or live in a new country and really try to live in that culture, as my character tried to do —he changes his language, he’s got a new personality, he tries to be another—I don’t know that someone can really do that. When I started the book I thought about this kind of exile. But I perfectly understand his desire to be anonymous, the attraction to that. And the vanity of being an anonymous writer, I understand that very well, I’ve felt it.

[During the darkest period of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Buarque explored anonymity as one tactic for getting his songs, vibrant in their opposition, past the censors.]

On strategy: I don’t think the experience of writing under censorship is in itself better than without censorship, I would never say that, I think that’s very dangerous. But for the development of the language, it surely is energizing. Under censorship one has to work with words to find other meanings and work between the lines to say things you can’t express otherwise. That was really a very good exercise for me. . . also, finding tricks to mislead the censors. One thing I tried was inventing a heteronym to take credit for songs to get them past the censors.

Meeting the censors: Once I met one who was a former player for the national team of Brazil—the team that lost the National Cup to Uruguay. I said “How dare you censor my work when you lost to Uruguay?” Mostly, they were people doing their job.

Two careers: I wouldn’t be the writer I am without all the music I wrote. I think there is something of a musician in my writing. And I don’t mean the lyrics of the songs, I think of music itself. Unconsciously, I’m not satisfied until each phrase has the right rhythm. It’s something of a musical logic.

Learning and forgetting: I’m trying to write songs now. It’s difficult to resume with music after a book—or to write a book after writing music. It’s difficult and that’s why it’s good. I feel fresh. If I write songs now, it’s not a continuation of what I wrote six years ago. Something new is happening. And I hope I’ll have enough songs this year to make a record. I can’t do both things at once. I really have to forget one or the other. Because if I start to write songs with literature in mind, I don’t think the songs would be good—I think they can sound pretentious or in some way fake. I have to forget literature. So each time I return, I have to relearn it, and I think that’s really good. The only problem is that each time I take more time to write, more time to pass from one thing to another, and have less time to live! So I have to write these songs, record this record, perform, and then forget how to write music, come back to literature. I will begin the next book in 10 years. Then it will take me five years to write it. Fortunately, I enjoy the process.

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Budapest Journal Continued

As I intimated in last week’s Voice (Here and Over There), contemporary dance in Hungary is subtly different from its cousin in the U.S.—more involved with the body and how emotions affect it, and generally darker in tone. Rarely are the feet busy; they simply carry a person to another spot onstage through walks or crawls (often true on our postmodern scene too). So much of what writer-coordinator Kate Mattingly, a bunch of critics from Eastern Europe, and I saw during the festival coinciding with our workshop was largely arm and torso art, except when a whole body fell. All week, the people I talked to easily condemned some pieces as not being truly contemporary or innovative, and I wasn’t always sure I understood what stringent personal credos determined the meaning of “conventional,” although we often agreed on what we found most wonderful or most truly bad. Ballet, by the way, is something contemporary dance supporters and practitioners rarely mention or see&mdsh;perhaps because it was privileged under Communism at the expense of experimental dance.

We did see unusual, sometimes kinky movement. Réka Szabó, in a solo she performed for us in L1’s handsome white studio in a former thread factory, began immobilized on an exercise board, talking in a high fluttery voice about how busy she was all the time (doing nothing, it turned out), and eventually plunking herself down on the floor, legs splayed. It was gratifying that, when she arose, she continued to move with the awkwardness her predicament warranted—limbs at odds.

Awkwardness also played a key role in What Sort of Tenderness . . ., a duet that Márta Ladjánski and Réka Szabó of L1 showed on one of the showcase programs. In the especially charming beginning, the two, looking like gawky kids, stood side by side trying to converse—or maybe to compete—in very squeaky off-key singing. Their dancing wasn’t quite as screwy as their vocalizing, but it had something of the same sweet gaucheness and hesitancy. I especially liked the way they studiously beat their fists on the air and then sat down with a jolt.

Often, choreographers seemed weak on structure. Batarita’s one name Yours began with a compelling sight: Two women (the choreographer and Kitty Feyes) edged onto the stage, backs to us, stepping sideways and snaking their torsos sideways as well. Their costumes—long red skirts and bare upper bodies, blond helmet-wigs—emphasized a curious blend of sensuality and anonymity, the sense that these women were members of an unfamiliar tribe. We learned more about them through watching their turns with bodies seriously caved in, their wafting arms, and the way they slipped into slow unison or canon. I was disappointed when they finally touched in a way that seemed at odds with what they had established: One manipulated the other while the music all too obviously changed gears to taped violin and piano emitting a mushily sweet, repetitive melody.

There were some curious images on view. Our European colleagues were not pleased by dancing that I found quite satisfying in Yvette Bozsik’s muddled Dance Therapy, and most of us, unlike the audience, were taken aback by what seemed the gratuitous use of a contortionist and a cerebral palsy patient being manipulated by his therapist. The European critics saw no racial comment in Ferenc Fehér’s Medusa Piercing (a collaboration with video artist O. Caruso), while it was something of a shock to Mattingly and me to watch a white man painted a shiny black—his pink mouth, occasional grin, and pronounced eye whites evoking minstrelsy as he rolled and undulated jerkily, posed smugly, and crawled like a panther to gut-busting electronic music (we heard a lot of that). Tuning into primal and sensual qualities among the patterns projected on the floor (which sometimes oozed blood-red light), Fehér also, in a sudden white glare, relaxed his taut body and strolled to a new spot on stage, flashing us a grin.

Some Budapest theatergoers were reportedly shocked when John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom played Trafó’s black box and two naked men performed, in a very neutral manner, tender and intimate moves. Maybe it’s the homosexual implications they found unsettling, because Gyula Berger and Márta Ladjánszki’s Almost Three apparently passed muster. We saw this duet in a special, very effective showing at L1’s studios. Berger, Ladjánszki, and an accompanying violinist turned a small white space into a joyless erotic playground. For the two—exiting and re-entering a couple of times as if to delineate the passage of days—humping a person humping a wall or using a foot to massage a partner’s genitals were no more interesting than sipping a cup of coffee (which Ladjánszki also did). Their transactions became marginally more ingenious or elaborate, but their erotically obsessed partnership never really changed.

Gender questions were raised obliquely in E. Sch. Eroto by Krisztián Eroto, who began crude and raw in a pool of light, jerkily channeling Egon Schiele’s twisted visions into a self-portrait, and ended by turning away from us to reveal a Javanese mask on the back of his head. The old back-to-front trick—in service to delicate features smiling enigmatically at us, a drape around the dancer’s hips, and rippling arms—symbolized the complexities of gender all right; yet in the slightly rambling choreography, the image’s curious magic actually undermined the seriousness of the idea.

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Pál Frenák, one of the week’s main attractions, also tackled gender. Frenák, who works most of the time in France, has, I was told, slightly disappointed his home-country fans with his last few works, but they welcomed this new one with cheers. Part of a projected triptych, Fiuk (The Hidden Men) features the males in his company (the second part will be for the women, and the sexes will meet in the third). The most theatrically vivid and resonant part of the dance involved Miguel Ortega, Attila Gergely, Rolando Rocha, André Mandarino, and three fat ropes that hung from the ceiling of Trafó (in Pest). The ropes generated glimpses of idiosyncratic behavior or demonstrations of personality. It mattered that one man tended to clamber up and down, another to twist himself in his rope as if it were the coils of a snake, another to run and swing. Once three of them collaborated to twine the ropes in a deranged maypole, and the fourth writhed above its twisted center. Sexuality could be as simple as humping ropes in unison and lying on the floor in the dark, grunting in orgasm; or as stridently ambiguous as crawling naked on hands and knees, while electronic baa-ing popped into Fabrice Planquette and Attila Gergely’s score, and then invitingly turning their butts, the cracks x-ed out with tape, toward us.

The muscle man poses; the locker-room yells and waving of arms by men framed in a lit doorway as a straggler headed toward them; the stream of brutal language spat out at the end by a guy who’d been curled in a big white saucer—all these expressed male aggressiveness in clichés that seemed more agreeably self-mocking than the scenes in which Frenák gingerly investigated men’s more feminine side. Here was the messy application of lipstick that recalled Pina Bausch; the man who temporarily donned a tutu with only one shoulder strap in place and looked at a loss; the man in a long, tight, white dress and boots who sidestepped, staring fixedly at us. As is sometimes true in a collage structure, the pieces—some of them fascinating—stuck together but didn’t always strike sparks off one another.

I have a feeling that some of the young spectators who adored Frenák’s work wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about Gerzson Péter Kovács’s Pictographs, although the audience in Buda’s intimate Mu Theatre was vociferous in its applause. What Kovács created was a dance about—guess what?—dancing. It was also about a human soul. On a dimly lit stage, almost in silhouette, a middle-aged man in black with an impressive mustache watched, while four musicians (two violinists—one the composer, Ferenc Kovács—a violist, and a bass player) began to spool out slow, slightly eerie, gypsyish music (unnecessarily miked, alas). As if trying to recall a vanishing tradition, G. Kovács began to move—more or less in place—drawing himself up, taking a step (were his eyes shut?). As the music grew in volume and intensity, he began to swivel his feet, to whip one leg around the other, to summon up small heel clicks. The tension was palpable—as if some imprisoned memory of Magyar folk dance were trying to break out through his body. Authentic steps emerged only fitfully, sometimes wild or distorted: a sudden squat, a slap of the leg, a hitch kick, the proud lift of a torso. This dance was also about the musicians. They marched around him, closed in on him, jammed with him quite jazzily, egged him on. Pictographs had the aura of an ordeal, a mission to dredge ancient dance steps out of the shadows and onto a modern body. It was the only time all week that I walked out into the night with a spring in my step.


I should mention that the second edition of the Criticism Initiative: Improving the Quality of Dance Criticism in East/Central Europe was held at Trafó in Budapest (the first edition took place in New York City in 2001). The program—with sessions led by Kate Mattingly from New York, Nina Vangeli from Prague, Tamás Halász from Budapest, and me—was organized by the Workshop Foundation in Hungary (Gergely Talló, director, and Gabor Pinter, his assistant) and supported by both the Foundation and Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund).

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Tales of the Kefir Furnaceman

On a frigid February morning in 1985, Michael Burawoy’s dream came true. He passed under gate number one of the Lenin Steel Works, ground zero of Hungary’s industrial heartland, and found himself belly-to-brimstone with the flame-belching maw of an 80-ton furnace. This was no velvet-rope tour for the Berkeley sociologist, however. Over the course of three separate stints totaling a year, it would be Burawoy’s job—along with seven comrades in the work team called the October Revolution Socialist Brigade—to tend this ungodly vessel, in which molten pig iron and scrap steel are melded in a roiling bath and pierced with high-pressure oxygen, kicking temperatures upwards of 1600 degrees. “A departing Boeing,” he later wrote of the works at full gale, “couldn’t make more noise.”

It may as well have been music to Burawoy’s ears. “The dream of my life was to get a job in a steel mill in a socialist country,” he recently told a conference of graduate sociology students at New York University. He added bemusedly, “I think I’m the only person in the world who’s had that dream.”

It’s the rare academic who can add the title “furnaceman” to his CV. But for the past 20-odd years Burawoy, 53, has been sociology’s underground man, scribbling field notes from the factory floor and beaming back dispatches against the global grain. He’s worked 10 months as a “miscellaneous machine operator” in a South Chicago engine shop, toiled at a champagne factory in Hungary, and spent over a year as a personnel officer in the Zambian copper mines. His take-home message? Don’t believe the free-market hype until you’ve lived it from the bottom up.

And hitting the bottom of the slag pit at the two-century-old Lenin Steel Works was for Burawoy a career-defining coup. “It was my pièce de résistance,” he says in an interview. “I had finally gotten to the heart of the socialist working class.”

You might call him the Walter Benjamin of the ravaged post-Soviet landscape. A professor at UC Berkeley since 1976, the self-described itinerant worker-academic takes one semester out of four and most summers to scour small-parts departments and scrap yards, seizing on the picked-over details of ordinary lives—say, the stamp on the wobbly radial drill he plied in a Hungarian auto shop that reads Csepel Machine Factory, 1959—just as Benjamin wrote of the arcades of Paris, where the debris of mass culture imparted utopian jolts to strolling passersby. But Burawoy is no factory flaneur. Whether at a Moscow rubber factory or, more recently, tracking a furniture plant in the Arctic Circle burg of Syktyvkar, he immerses himself in what he calls “the politics of production.” Then it’s back to the tie-dyes of Telegraph Avenue and the relative luxury of Barrows Hall, where he now chairs the sociology department, to ponder his encounters with the world’s industrial working class. “I’ve got almost two different personalities,” he explains simply, “and I like to think the one complements the other.”

Bipolarity has served him well. By some accounts, Burawoy has turned industrial sociology upside down, using the extended case method—mounding up data through sustained participant-observation—to shovel grit into the works of so much armchair sociology. His 1979 report from the Chicago machine shop, Manufacturing Consent, has become a canonical text; The Radiant Past, a book on Hungary he co-authored with János Lukács in 1992, reads at times like the witty screenplay for a lost Elia Kazan film. And last year he published Global Ethnography, a collaboration with nine graduate students that probes the slippery concept of globalization as lived by its agents and victims—welfare clients, homeless recyclers, breast cancer activists, software engineers.

Burawoy isn’t one to boast. “To make claims about what’s happening in the globe as a whole is a very audacious and perhaps foolhardy thing to do,” he says. “My main focus has been in seeking to make little contributions to shifting sociology in a critical direction. As a Marxist I try to bring visions from the shop floor to academia, to recover visions from below that might inform alternatives in the future. I think that’s what has been lost.”

Dredging for those visions has fallen to the grad students who beat a path to the professor’s office, backpacks bulging with volumes of Gramsci and Foucault. “Particularly at Berkeley, there’s a resurgence of interest in American labor,” Burawoy says, “even though the story continues to get bleaker and bleaker.” While students are increasingly mounting hardcore fieldwork, however, his research remains harder core than most: “Not many people actually go and get a job. It’s often not that easy.”

That’s an understatement. Getting the gig at the Lenin Steel Works entailed feats of diplomacy from fellow sociologist Lukács, who prevailed only through the favors of a relative in the ruling party’s Central Committee. “They were not very enthusiastic about American sociologists doing this sort of work,” Burawoy recalls. “It’s sacredly off-limits to foreigners.” There was also the distinct possibility of having a dead American professor on their hands. During Burawoy’s tenure at the plant, one worker was burned alive; a brigade-mate had his leg chopped in two after being pinned under a steel pipe. “That was a really dangerous place,” he says. “If you get a drop of molten steel on you, you’re dead.”

The constant threat of danger had the slightly comic effect of endearing him to his comrades—at least in Hungary. “I am not a competent worker,” he admits. “One of the most interesting things is how skilled workers respond to somebody as incompetent as myself. In Chicago they were disgusted. In Hungary they thought it was rather charming and they would come round and help me. In Russia they were also disgusted.”

Fortunately, the October Revolution brigade took a shine to him. When he couldn’t stomach the lumps of pork fat his mates carved up for meals, subsisting instead on cartons of diluted yogurt, they christened him their “kefir furnaceman.” (They also dubbed him Jackson, after the globally iconic Michael Jackson.) The camaraderie was sealed before a visit by a state dignitary, when the workers were ordered to paint their slag drawer bright yellow. Burawoy could only scrounge a black brush and proceeded to paint the group’s shovels black. When a supervisor demanded an explanation, he replied haltingly that he was, well, helping to build socialism. A comrade shot back with gallows humor: “You are not building socialism, you are painting socialism, and black at that.”

The metaphor became a potent one. Workers in the plant, Burawoy found, were forced to paint over waste and favoritism spurred by meddling managers. When Burawoy and Lukács, who studied management while Burawoy tended the furnace, reported this to the plant’s officers, they took it icily. “We argued that in a socialist economy there’s a lot of uncertainty, with shortages and the like,” Burawoy says. “The only way to handle that is to have flexibility on the shop floor. We accused management of continually undermining the workers’ autonomy.” Management was outraged. “They said do the study again. We gladly did it again.”

Lenin Steel Works jettisoned most of its employees and was bought by a Slovakian company in 1997, one of many factories in eastern Hungary sputtering as the global market sucked capital from the region. “There I was with my nose to the machine, while the whole fabric of state socialism was crumbling,” Burawoy says. So he set the controls for the last great socialist destination on the map: “I got on the next plane out of Budapest and I went to Moscow.”

Foiled again. “I went there in June 1991, and by August the place disintegrated,” he says. “Everywhere I went, everything collapsed after me. Now my friends won’t let me go anywhere. China? Cuba? They say no. You’re staying in the Arctic Circle.” There’s work to be done, anyway, and the living is cheap. Though Burawoy has received grants from the MacArthur and National Science foundations, he often covers the bills himself. “I just go there,” he says. “It doesn’t cost much to live in Eastern Europe. It’s my summer holiday. It’s like going to Club Med.”

Alas, those slag-strewn beaches of Burawoy’s dreams have almost all been privatized or sacked, which in Russia’s Komi Republic amounts to the same thing. This turn of events happens to comport well with his career: “It’s a big problem working on the shop floor when one is 53.” For the last decade he’s been returning to Syktyvkar, a heavily forested outpost that was thick with labor camps until the 1950s. “In this part of Russia, they’ve never seen a foreigner, let alone an American, let alone an American professor who wants to work on a shop floor,” he recalls of his first visit to the Polar Furniture Enterprise. “This was all too much.”

Burawoy proved the least of their worries. As the Soviet Union imploded and a seedy merchant capitalism sprang up, workers’ wages toppled, then vanished. Some of them got paid in butter, others in wood. Burawoy returned in 1995 to find most of the factory in darkness; the plant was soon liquidated. He has now been tracking the fate of Polar’s employees, focusing on the household and gender. “Men become increasingly marginalized as their industrial jobs disappear,” Burawoy explains. “Their life expectancy dropped to 59 during the first years of the post-Soviet period. Russian society as a whole has been re-peasantized.”

This summer means more work in Syktyvkar with colleagues Pavel Krotov and Tatyana Lytkina. His tireless ethnography might lead one to believe that Michael Burawoy is simply in love with labor. But no, he says. Though it may be madness, there is methodology in it: “I don’t love working on the shop floor. I’d be much happier just sitting in my office. But there is very little research of an ethnographic kind on Russia. Most of what’s written doesn’t really touch people’s day-to-day existence, I’m afraid to say.”

Besides, a little humility helps in the machine shop of the modern university. “It’s good to be humiliated from time to time,” he says, recalling his chagrin on the factory floor. “It’s quite healthy. I think all of academia should have to do this sort of work.”

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Dangerous Liaison

I’m back in the closet and loving it, in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality, with a lover who doesn’t consider himself gay.

Here in Bucharest, where I’ve opted to spend several months with my Romanian partner, Romulus, I am, it occurs to me, a willful sexual exile. With my American passport, which can get me into any of the alleged sexual utopias—Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Prague—I’ve chosen to make love and live life in a country where you can still be punished for any kind of sex act thought to cause a “public scandal.”

Since Article 200, the Romanian sex crimes law prohibiting public scandal, has been used in the past to imprison gay people who merely ask a friend of the same sex to sleep with them, neither Romulus nor I can predict how it might be used against us. During those shaky, regretful moments when I begin to feel anguished about our risky romantic experiment, his way of comforting me is to say, “Sex gets better when it’s dangerous.”


In many ways my flight from the United States is an unsettled nose-snubbing at that smug cultural moment we have reached, in which gay liberation is turning into just another assimilation story and Manhattan is becoming a shopping, residential, and entertainment complex for singles of a single class. As a gay male who began honing his cruising skills several years before Stonewall in movie theaters, parks, public toilets, and Mafia bars, I always took for granted that my sexual preference meant I’d be rubbing shoulders with other marginals—those drag-queen hookers, rent boys, alcoholics, speed freaks, and petty thieves who once shared inner-city gay bars across America with us “inverts.” Even until the mid ’90s, Times Square hustler bars still hosted a wild mix of classes, races, and predilections. When these bars closed, gay life in New York more or less ended for me.

Now Manhattan and its gay world have become “restricted neighborhoods,” from which the various “vices” of being gay have been banished. But I still see homosexuality as a narrative of urban adventure, a chance to cross not only sex barriers but class and age barriers, while breaking a few laws in the process—and all for the sake of pleasure. If not, I might as well be straight.

My Romanian partner and I met on an unlit strip by the Danube last year, after an online sex journal (nerve.com) sent me to Budapest to investigate male brothels. Because he is Romanian, Romulus was living the day-to-day survival trip that immigrants without work permits are forced to endure. Having left Romania, where the average salary is $80 a month, he’d made it to a series of Western European countries without a visa by dodging bullets at border crossings, hiding in container ships, or riding freight rails; then he got thrown out of Italy for a car heist.

Now he was marking time in Budapest and had fallen into a depression. His bisexual identity was, and is, complicated by the Latin macho codes of Romania, as well as by economic deprivations, which have sometimes decided for him whom he’s had to fuck. By the time we met in Budapest, he was tired of living by his wits and selling his body. I, of course, didn’t get it. All I saw was a handsome, hollow-cheeked bed partner whose hardcore masculinity excited me. What he saw in me at first was somebody old enough to be his father whom he might be able to trust, a financial way out of the mess he was in, and, incidentally, a very good cocksucker.

From the very beginning, our relationship has had an “old-fashioned” dynamic. Remember, if you will, the “rough trade” involvements of pre-politicized gay life. It’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” aesthetic in which the growing feeling between us is forbidden to be put into words. Since my friend isn’t gay, it’s understood that he will sometimes be sleeping with women. When he’s with me, the sex is hot, though the roles are rigidly enforced. In bed, I do the work that would define one as “gay.” He sits back, enjoys it, and maintains that the role he plays assures his manhood.

My friend’s responses to me are, of course, shaped by his underclass perspective. He considers his body his strongest asset and uses it, sometimes cynically, as a power tool. Despite this, our friendship is a treasure chest of unexpected pleasures; our pairing is a dizzy, sometimes hilarious clash of cultures and classes, far different from that comfortable matching of equals that Mom, and now much of the contemporary gay establishment, subscribe to.

All the frills of the out gay life leave my partner in a kind of frozen revulsion. As much as he enjoys the wit, warmth, and attentions of gay males, he has no desire for, and no conception of, a community in which groups of men who happen to sleep with other men eat together in restaurants, stay in gay-owned hotels, or dance in clubs devoid of women.

When Romulus and I decided to go to the steam baths of Budapest, the avid looks of the many middle-aged men in loincloths filled him with resentment and panic. He reacted to their indiscreet desire the way most attractive women do when they have to walk past a construction site. Neither did he enjoy their presumption, or hope, that he was homosexual.

This lack of interest in a community of people with similar pleasure goals may have something to do with the fact that Romulus grew up in Communist Romania, where the concept of communities, rather than the unified social body, did not exist. And perverse as I may seem, I find life with him outside of any gay group culture strangely refreshing, as if I and my desire have been placed back inside the whole world.


Leading a life of clandestine homosexuality with a lover who doesn’t consider himself “gay” has its difficulties. It ain’t easy being foreign and queer in Bucharest. There are wild dogs in the street that could have rabies. Merchants quadruple their prices as soon as they lay eyes on me. I keep wondering if the neighbors can hear us moaning. But in the end, these risks are less painful than the steady erosion of my sex life in the safety of New York.

As the gay community of New York became more politically established, its support for me began to feel more like the dictation of a script by which I must act out my desire. I’ve chosen, instead, to write my own script, which is a mixture of old values and experimental approaches. It’s a risky, shadowy thriller that won’t ever make a pilot for prime-time television. It’s also a wild flight toward pleasure. I may never go home to the norm.

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The Last Days

Though it’s full of the conventions of Holocaust documentaries — survivors who burst into tears in midstory, indelible footage of the walking dead— The Last Days is a bracingly unsentimental, moving retelling, focusing on Hungary, to which the Holocaust spread only in the last year of World War II. Director James Moll devotes the first half of the film to familiar-sounding testimony from five survivors; the second half shows them passing down history by returning to their hometowns and to the camps with their descendants. But instead of closure, says survivor Renee Firestone, there are only “new questions and new doubts.” Firestone, whose sister Klara underwent medical experiments before she died in Auschwitz, confronts the evasive Dr. Hans Munch, whose successful defense against war crimes charges was that, as long as he kept performing “harmless” trials on such subjects as Klara, he kept them from the gas chamber. Unanswered and unanswerable questions abound, not just why the genocide happened but also how those spared were to live with the memories. Says survivor Alice Lok Cahana, “For us, liberation wasn’t the last day.”