Books ... in Hungarian

Traveling through Books – to My Homeland

I don’t always need to get on a plane or drive to travel the world. I can easily travel virtually through the books I read. And it is such an enjoyable way to travel! Books can transport me to faraway lands, past or present, real or imaginary. I can’t think of a better way to wander through space and time, meet different characters of all cultures, shapes and sizes.

Sometimes it pays to be a book hoarder, especially in times when you can’t leave the house, and libraries are closed. I would prefer to call myself a book collector, but the truth is, I’m not always that particular about the books I buy, so book hoarder is probably a better description of me.

Still, I have a few collections, like the Hungarian books I kept bringing over the ocean from my old home.

books in Hungarian
A few of my books written in Hungarian…

I even have a few that qualify as collectors’s items. The oldest – and most beautiful – book I own was written in Hungarian, and published in Budapest, in 1907.

Revisiting An Old Bookstore in Cluj

I pull out this special book, and I am transported back in time to the small, dark bookstore I bought it from, the place I used to spend so much time in during my college years.

Book set
The oldest book set I own, printed in 1907 in Budapest

Sitting in the very center of Cluj, the antiquarium felt like a relic, forgotten by time, accidentally left untouched by the communist regime. Looking back now, I find it hard to believe that it escaped the demolition, or transformation of the era. There, I found books in Hungarian, published at a time when Cluj and Transylvania were part of another country.

I still remember the floor-to-ceiling rows filled with old books, the musty scent, the surrounding cigarette-smoke, and the little old man behind the counter. I loved being around those books, inhaling their old scent, guessing their origin stories, and the stories of their past owners.

The bookstore was also my hiding place from society, from the outside world; it was the place I went to when I wanted to be alone when I wanted to escape reality. It was a place I could feel alone, even though I never was; you could always count on a few people wandering in. More often than not, they were Hungarian writers or professors I knew of. Though I could never muster the courage to talk to any of them, it was a great feeling to share the space with someone I admired.

I’ve often seen old, beautiful, collector’s items in the store, but I usually had no money for them. Once, I found a set I liked more than others. I thought they were some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, true works of art. The cover, the intricate design, the tick paper, the font were all perfect; remainders of an era when books were few and special, when so much care and love went in making them. And it was a book I wanted to read anyway. I felt the luckiest girl in the world when I realized I had enough money to buy the set.

Looking at it behind glass now, I pull them out. I haven’t looked at them in a while; I might have to re-read the story, the life story of one of my favorite Hungarian novelists from the 1800s.

Traveling Back in Space and Time to Transylvania

Moving on to another bookshelf, I pulled out one of the best travel books ever written about my homeland. Written in the 1860s by Orbán Balázs, Description of Szeklerland from a Historical, Archaeological, Natural History and Ethnographic Point of View takes me back to my homeland, in the same time period as the book above.

Orbán liked to include everything he knew about the paces he visited, like ancient castles and their legends. He did it with places like the citadels of Rasnov, Rupea, and Sighisoara, among many others.

Orbán's book, The Description of Seklerlland
A Székelyföld leírása – The Description of Seklerland by Orbán Balázs

A different edition, this book also reminds me of one of my own adventures with an old friend. As Hungarian teachers from across the border, we were invited to Hungary at some point for a literature/history training-conference. We spent a week there and got the book as a present for our school.

Orbán’s book was banned in Romania at the time (he described Transylvania from before it was part of Romania), so we had to think of a creative way to smuggle it across the border. Being the younger and more daring one, I offered to do it. I packed it in my suitcase under my dirty clothes, leaving my underwear scattered on top. I even scattered around some sanitary pads for good measure.

My friend was laughing but thought it was a good idea, too. Sure enough, the border patrol guys (I counted on them being men) asked me to open my suitcase. Naturally. I had a Hungarian name. Just as I predicted, when they saw dirty underwear and feminine pads scattered on top, they didn’t touch it. Instead, asked me to dig through. Of course, I knew how to dig without exposing the rather large book.

“We Are In This World To Be At Home In It Somewhere” – Traveling with Tamási’s Ábel

One of my favorite novels, written by a Székely-Hungarian author from Transylvania follows Ábel, an imaginary character through his travel in his home country and eventually in the USA. During his travels, Ábel meets all kinds of colorful characters with different backgrounds. His experiences in the US are similar to what mine were in my early days in this country; even though I traveled through half a century later. Some things, people, and situations are universal.

His quest during his travels is to find out the meaning of life. The question he asks everyone he comes in contact with is the same: why are we in this world? No two answers are the same. But in the end, one of the answers resonates with him, and that seems to be the one he was looking for. “We are in this world to be at home in it somewhere.” As soon as he hears it, while he’s traveling through America, he buys his return ticket and goes back home, to his village in Székely-land, Transylvania.

Even when I read the book as a kid, I felt a kinship with Ábel. And, without trying, by pure luck, I ended up traveling the same path. Except, in the end, my answer was different. I found a different purpose, far away from my old home. For me, I created a new home, though I still love and miss my old.

Following Kőrösi Csoma Sándor from Transylvania to Tibet

The book about the world-traveler, linguist, the first Orientalist from Europe, author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary follows one of my national heroes, Csoma Sándor from Kőrös on his life journey, including his voyage – on foot – from his home town in Transylvania to Tibet.

Kőrösi book

He didn’t set out to be a world traveler; a linguist and historian, he was also a dreamer. After studying our people’s origins, he decided to find our ancient land, the origins of Hungarians, thought to be somewhere in Asia. He spent most of his early life getting ready for this trip. As a poor boy from a poor village in the heart of Transylvania, he had no money to travel, but from an early age he was used to walk long distances. He attended boarding school about 300 miles from his home town, and most often he walked the distance, unless someone offered him a ride on a horse-drawn cart.

His longest, epic travel took him through Asia and ultimately to Tibet, where he lived for years, learning the language no one else from Europe knew much about at the time. During his trip he met an Englishman who got him a commission to author the first-ever Tibetan-English dictionary.

Though he didn’t find the ancient land of our people, he accomplished so much more. The ultimate world traveler, he wrote about his observations. Through his writings, he gave Europeans a glimpse into the world of Tibet and its surroundings, he gave us all a sense of belonging to a larger world than our own little countries.

He showed us that boundaries and artificial borders don’t matter, that people are the same, no matter where they live, no matter what they believe in, no matter what language they speak.

A Traditional Travel Book Written in 1934 – Travels Through North America

And then I notice a battered old book. I don’t remember why I have it with me here. It belonged to my parents, I see both their names in it, with the date they bought it, a few weeks before I was born. The book has seen better days, but I remember the story of why it’s so water-damaged.

I was three at the time so I should remember the biggest flood we lived through, but I don’t. Our house stood very close to a stream, a tributary of the river that flooded our town. Naturally, our house was fully submerged in water.

Apparently I was standing up on the second-floor balcony, singing “Ludas is swimming”, while my mom and I waited for my dad to return with a boat to get us to higher grounds. Yes, from the sound of it we traveled by boat for a few days in my town.

After the flood, we returned to our house that ended up soaked by mud, all the way to the top. I don’t know what else my parents were trying to save, but I know that they pulled every single book they owned out of the mud and water. My dad washed them off. He pulled the pages apart, washed off the mud, and dried them page by page. They are still readable, even water-damaged. This particular book was one of them. It was one of the luckier ones. After its washing and drying sessions it was still in one piece and readable.

Flood-damaged book Travels through North America (in 1834)

Interesting that it is a travel book about the author’s travels from Transylvania to North America, in 1834. Filled with facts and descriptions, it is an interesting read.

Revisiting My Childhood

A few of the books my dad saved from the flood sat for years in need of repair. Their pages fell out, so even though they were still readable, it was hard to keep them together.

Eventually, by the time I was in middle school, my dad started a book-binding club. They bought a press to keep at the school, but we improvised all the other material. Naturally, I joined. I thought myself old enough.

We kept it going for a few years, and during this time we ended up re-biding our old damaged books, saved from the flood. I remember painting the covers and rewriting title pages if they were lost or too damaged to be readable. I had pretty handwriting (don’t know what happened), so this ended up being part of my job. But I also worked through every step, from stitching to gluing the cloth and decorative cover. We always made hard-cover books (even if they were originally soft-cover) because it made the books last longer – and I suspect it was easier to do.

One of these flood-damaged and re-bound books ended up at my house in Phoenix. A few years ago when I visited my old childhood home, I happened to see it and remembered as one I worked on. Naturally, my parents told me to take it.

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I Traveled Through My Old Homeland, through Space and Time, and Didn’t Have to Leave the House

Books are great. Not only when you read them. We have an ongoing argument in our house about the value of books. My husband loves to read but doesn’t believe in keeping so many books. His argument is, “once you read it, you are done with it, let it go, give it to someone else who might enjoy it, donate it to a library. Unless it’s a reference book you might need to come back to.” I get his point. I feel guilty holding on to all the books when I look at it from his perspective. And our house is literally overrun by books at this point. But I can’t let go of them.

For me, a book is much more than the story written in it. It also carries its own story, the story of its origins, the story of its owners, of the history it has seen. That’s why I loved spending time in the old antiquarian bookstore in Cluj. All those books had an extra layer of history, besides the words written in them.

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