Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who are the Székely? (2)

Some time ago (by which it seems I mean 7 years.  7 bloody years!) I wrote a post entitled "Who are the Szekely?", which was an attempt to fill in a bit of the back story of the Székely people who inhabit this area.

Anyway, I'm not about to update that one, but I thought that now, having lived here for a while now, I could add a little, which is to say to give you a bit more on the less historical, more opinionated front. It's also going to be packed full of generalisations, so hopefully you, the reader, can take this with something of a pinch of salt as a matter of course rather than me having to suggest you do so at every paragraph break

Here are three reasons why you may have heard of the Székely:

  1. In Dracula, the eponymous anti-hero is a Székely. Albeit a dead one. An undead one, I guess.
  2. New king of comedy in the English speaking world, Mexican American stand-up Louis CK, is actually named Louis Székely   He chose to go by CK as an approximation to the pronunciation of Székely. It's a pretty loose approximation. But closer than Zek-kelly or whatever i imagine he got called a lot.
  3. They have a flag and it's suddenly got everybody upset and zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
4 Yorkshiremen Szekely bacsi
That's about it.  But actually they are an interesting bunch. They're kind of hardcore Hungarians who see themselves as somehow more than just Hungarian, and better than just Hungarian and purer and more down to earth than just Hungarians.  And on some level other Hungarians see them in this way as well.  They are, in short, the Yorkshiremen of the Hungarian speaking world.  (I realise not everyone will get that analogy, but trust me it's spot on). Go through the following list and tell me its not a great analogy. 


Food and drink: They enjoy their food. And their drink. And food in this case is pig. There are other foods, but essentially if it's not pig it's not really food.  Pig and potatoes. The attitude towards food can be summed in the common name for Hungarians from Hungary - Tápos Magyarok. Google translate doesn't work on this - I've just checked.  Essentially it means "Hungarians who eat processed food" (or even more specifically, "Hungarians who eat those pellets you feed to chickens")

The drink that goes with this food is mostly palinka.  Double distilled, "tiszta" (clean) hard spirits. Harghita county in particular is awash with mineral water, but it's sort of a side issue.  People do drink beer a fair amount too, but again, beer is not really a drink.  One popular Székely saying goes:
"Egy sör nem sör, két sör fél sör, három sör egy sör"
or, translated: A beer is not a beer, two beers is half a beer, three beers is a beer. Which obviously makes no sense, but basically, as I'm sure you've gathered, it basically means drinking one beer is a waste of everyone's time.  You need to drink at least three.

Another popular saying which goes even further is the following:
A sör nem ital, az asszony nem ember, a medve nem játék
Which translates as "Beer is not a drink, a woman is not a man, and a bear is not a toy".  The second bit could also be translated as "a woman is not a person".  Whichever it is it brings us on nicely to our next sub heading:

A bicska, yesterday
Sexism:  The Székely culture is, let's say, a pretty macho one.  Like all macho cultures women basically run everything, just by doing all the actual work while their menfolk talk about how hard as nails they are. Basically speaking though it's a fairly old-school sexism, whereby the man of the house is the man of the house, and the whole system is very patrilineal and patriarchal.  Rather than an aggressive woman-hating sexism. All real Székely men carry the famous "bicska" a pocket knife, which is used for absolutely everything.

Also, on the plus side,  as the previous saying will point out it's quite a place for...

Self-deprecation: The whole "a bear is not a toy" line is quite knowing in its own way.  "We're real men.  But you know, don't try and take on a bear".  Hungarians in general tell jokes about the Székely as the people with the different logic (in the way that Brits joke about the Irish, the French about the Belgians, etc etc).  But no-one tells more Székely jokes than the Székely themselves.  About 50% of all jokes told here (and trust me there a lot of jokes told here) begin with the words "Székely bacsi..." ("The old Székely man...").  They are proud of this alternative view of the world.

Strong accent: They have a really thick accent, especially in villages. The other day I saw an item on Romanian TV about which places in the country were cheapest for certain things.  Harghita County was named as the place where (surprisingly) potatoes and pig meat of all kinds was the cheapest.  They interviewed some bloke in the market here as part of the show, and he spoke Romanian in one of the thickest Székely accents I've heard.  It was superb. (I hear Hungarian spoken in a Székely accent all the time, but hearing Romanian in the same accent was brilliant. )

Careful with money: There is a certain amount of caution when it comes to matters financial round these parts. Lidl is seen a luxury outlet here and people don;t shop in it because it's too expensive. While there is a strong sense of self-hood, of "national" identity, to the point where people (especially now this whole flag farrago has blown up) are talking the talk about buying locally and supporting Székely businesses and producers and not buying stuff from beyond - but when it comes down to it, they will end up getting whatever's cheaper.  (Though that doesn't mean just the cheapest, they are sticklers for good value, so it is more like some kind of mental calculation of an equation which takes in longest lasting as well as price. A calculation which seemingly comes naturally.)

Conservative: New stuff is treated with suspicion. Occasionally I will find to my excitement that there is something new in the shops, something exotic like basil, for example, or tofu. I know that it will be there for a short time only before the shop stop bothering to sell it as nobody buys it. If it's not from here and part of the deep rooted culture it is regarded with deep suspicion, and eventually, if sampled it may -in certain cases- be pronounced "good, but not as good as (something from here)". Politically they're dead conservative too. All the various Hungarian parties that come and go have as a common feature an inherent conservatism (with variation coming in the level of Hungarian nationalism)

"Pure Hungarians": They tend to see themselves as both slightly separate from Hungarians and also as a sort of pure Hungarian, somehow carrying the ancient traditions of the Magyar tribes and retaining them. Some can still write and read in runic script, others will tell you that they represent the heart of Hungarianness (that Tápos Magyarok thing is not just about food, it has a deeper symbolic meaning). To some degree, this view is shared by Hungarians who sort of revere the Székely (while at the same time looking down on them as peasants).  It's a curious thing.

The only big differences I can see between the Székely and Yorkshirefolk is that while Yorkshire is in England and is therefore central or peripheral (depending on whether you come from Yorkshire or not) to the whole concept of England, Székelyföld is not in Hungary, and is therefore not quite as integral to Hungary. Also, because the Székely have this strong sense of nationhood, which is possibly even greater than the sense of Yorkshirehood, they not only have the flag (which, contrary to current Romanian news reports, they have had for donkey's years) but they also have a national anthem.  Yorkshire does not (unless you count On Ilkley Moor Bar T'at). God knows what's going to happen when the Bucharest media get hold of the fact that there is this anthem, but I guess we'll see.

Now, just one more time, before you reach angrily for the comment button, I know this is a horrendous set of generalisations.  Obviously not all ... blah blah etc etc and so on and so forth.  If you are a Székely, I'm not being critical.  If you are from Yorkshire, the same. My own parents are from Yorkshire (though my dad also has some suspicious Derbyshire connections that we don't like to talk about), and my own children are from Székelyföld. I like you and your ornery, curmudgeonly, tight-fisted, conservative, self-important, self-deprecating, "real salt of the earth" ways.


nayv said...

I've had a székely english teacher. Imagine the english with the székely accent...

ernobius said...

I loved that characterisation :)) it's very accurate, and it shows how you weren't spared a thing

Laszlo said...


My sister lives in the same village as you (I grew up around there as well) and I have two Yorkshiremen co-workers these days. We thoroughly enjoyed it:-)

Zoli said...

Hey Andy,
unfortunately donno much about Yorkshire, but after reading Angela's Ashes by Franc McCourt I've got the feeling that Irishmen resemble the most the Székelys.

Maggie said...

Thanks for your insight. My father was born in a village near Csíkszereda and I've been curious to find out about the area. My father was Szekely but I never took the time to really ask him about his hometown before he passed. I have some cousins that I'm in touch with on facebook but the language barrier is hard to cross. Some of their posts are surprising to my northeast US sensibilities. So thank you for a perspective that I can relate to. (Although the whole Yorkshire thing is lost on me. :) ) I really want to travel there as an adult sometime.

Zoltan Gothard said...

This is by far the best english description of "Szekely" I have ever read. Trust me, I am something of an authority on this, being a tosgyokeres, csiki bicskas szekely ficko who escaped communism 25+years ago and now lives in Kansas who speaks english better than most people in north america, and whose accent/thinking/logic still gets made fun of by the non-szekely, or semi-szekely (ie. Vasarhelyi) hungarians of north america (mostly my friends in Toronto)

I don't know much about Yorkshiremen, but based on your description I feel instant kinship.

As for the anthem, there is often big bruhaha over that--exceeding the flag fiasco, mostly at hockey games, in Bucuresti ;)