MY LIFE AS AN ANTHROPOLOGIST
By then I had been in the field for three years, first in various locales in Hungary, and, at the time of the picture of puzzlement so clearly kept in my memory, in Switzerland.
The image of puzzlement is as follows: I sit at a huge dark long wooden table. My legs are dangling from a dizzyingly tall bench. The room is huge, it’s really a hall, arrayed with several of those long tables. I am all alone. There are rays of sun filtering through the slats of the wooden shutters on the tall narrow windows. Yes, I'm all alone. I am looking at a circle of greenish white on the table in front of me. In the middle a filled round of green. The ensemble is at once translucid and opaque, there are mysterious ripples and shadows inside the white circle. I don’t have a clue as to the nature of the artifact or the purpose of my contemplation. Was my puzzlement due to an abrupt change of language, the classical failure of communication encountered in the field? Yet I can’t remember any inner dialogue in any language. I can only remember wordlessness....
It was only after earning my doctorate in anthropology that I was able to resolve that puzzle. I was starring at an egg, fried sunny side up. I deduce that I must have been left in the dining hall to make me eat it, though I also deduce that the thought, or image, of eating it never crossed my wordless mind...
Perhaps I should have put that in quotes because I’m probably no longer the same person as I was eight years ago. Actually, my sense of self is a bit fuzzy right now but my self always had pretty permeable boundaries anyway... Identity is still one hell of a mystery to me, the more I try to elucidate it the more mysterious it gets (cf. my post on strange loops: “Oh it’s you, no it’s me”).
So let me explain this fried egg memory: My mother made it to Switzerland in 1945 after waiting for weeks (six, I think) at the Austrian border –it seems we were pretty hungry and also got infected by lice. My head had to be shaved and that’s why I have very short hair in my early photographs in Switzerland.
My mother was going to import Hungarian stuff in partnership with her brother Zoltan. They had some money and the conditions of entry in Switzerland were that my mother put my brother and me in an expensive boarding school and she stays in an expensive hotel. The conditions changed one year later (or was it a year and an half?) after she met a civil servant in the visa department in the train going to visit her kids and she started to cry when telling the story of the enforced separation –and a few days later, oh miracle, it all changed and she was allowed to rent an apartment and bring her children to Zurich with her.
The boarding school was in Gstaad. It was called Tante Flora’s, and was frequented by the children of very wealthy people, as for instance the Shah of Iran...
I remember my brother crying his heart out when my mother first left us there. I didn’t cry, I don’t remember any feelings, but I remember my glasses falling off my nose –perhaps they were new? (At some point they thought I was autistic, but I’ve made up for it since! Though I obviously had been traumatized by our previous adventures. When we were underground, we had to move every few weeks and even spent some time in a Catholic boarding school where my mother thought my brother and I would be safe, but she found out otherwise as the nuns were getting suspicious, so she had to take us out... Lest this be misinterpreted against all nuns, there was a religious order whose members risked their lives saving Jews. When my mother worked with Raoul Wallenberg that nunnery was a place of refuge and hiding where she brought Jewish families in the middle of the night...).
I remember an egg hunt, and the eggs bore their recipients'names and a kid who was very clever couldn’t find his and eventually it turned out hidden underneath lose tiles in the empty swimming pool.
I remember having to take my afternoon nap in my bed and watching the patterns the sun made through the blinds. Once (or twice?) I got to take my nap with the bigger kids outside on the chaises longues in the veranda....
Tante Flora’s followed the latest hygienic strictures of the time. You couldn’t get another glass of water unless you ate a whole other plate of food –gasp! You also had to produce a turd in the toilet every morning. For some reason the ski instructor slept nearby and it was up to her to inspect the toilet and note (in writing!) that the subject indeed had pooped..
Now I was terrified of this ski instructor. She was very tall (from my three year old height ) and wore her hair in a bun and had a large red headband and I thought she was a man. I was also terrified of flushing, but less than I was of her. So I remember a couple of mornings when I wasn’t able to produce anything I flushed and then ran like hell before the toilet could swallow me. I told her I mistakenly flushed my poop before she could examine it and I remember her yelling at me... (Is this why I’m always attempting to write? You know, produce something?)
What else? One image that's still in my mind is hanging for dear life on the back of a sleigh with my brother up front and going very fast and winning something. My brother in that year learned to ski as well as he walked... and we both learned French, but in Zurich we had to learn the German dialect spoken in Switzerland.
(Of Hungary, only one image remains. My brother and I were on a farm with Etel Neni. Auntie Etel –the subject of yet another even more amazing story. She was not a real aunt but Hungarian kids called adults their families were close to “aunt” and “uncle.” There was a wooden platform and huge pigs below (well huge compared to my tiny size). I was on the ground having left the safety of the platform and the pigs suddenly came in my direction. I started to howl, and Etel Neni picked me up and brought me to safety.... that’s all.)
Well here's a real trip through memory lane, from one ear to the other in this case....It's funny, at least in parts, so give it a chance...
Tinnitus in A sharp
There’s a racket in my ear
a ruckus a fracas
a grind a growl a gasp
knocking and knocking and knocking
the rattle of small bones
says the ear
it’s just your ear
a canal a passage
through the middle
an orchestra forever
tuning its violins
then through the drum’s misbeats
to the inner vertigo where
to a forest darkness
muted flashes softly zap
and zip peregrinating
along knotted ramifications
twisty grey branches
Welcome to Memory’s Mist Road
says the ear
First in water I dwell
hands seeing blue softness
the Danube where my mother swam
while I swam in her
But noise pushes me out
crawling eyes opened
into fear’s archives
The war is still here
hidden at a farm from the hunters
killers (I must have done something?)
I so small
on uncertain legs
myopic crossed eyes
farm beasts chasing me –I think
till auntie picks me up
And next I find –what!
Shame --but I got rid of it so long ago?
Why is it still lurking
its strangling permeating
as they’re cut
weed killer doused
common sense smothered
In fear’s archives
waking dreams of nameless
eight legged gigantic
rustle and scrunch
on terror road
But I escape again
right next door
to the fornication sector
zzzips and zzzaps speed up
into viscous electronics of body parts
toes elbows cunts pricks
almost despair? --till black ink floods my brain
into silence into forgetting
Midpoint is the earth
spinning sparkling on the dark road
a blue and green marble
I played as a child
here a corn multitude dances
back and forth with indefinite grace
to the blue trees’ wind music
here fountains slurp
and inside out swirling rainbows
I too spin my dervish dance
Train train of memory
across my brain tonight I gather
all the faces and bodies to keep safe
--I must have entered love’s archives--
life itself? –till words fail me
Sui sibi se se sui sibi se se sui sibi se se
the Latin I flunked
three times in the tenth grade
pursues the train
in my tired counting
one and other
egy kettő három vier fünf sechs sept huit neuf –Ten!
sui subi se se sui subi se se sui subi se se
one two three four cinq six sept eight nine
I wake to the train whistling
through the multitude
in concert for the earth
fields of hands dancing back and forth
with indefinite grace
to the planet’s silent music
till the volume turns up
the sound of a single piccolo
arabesquing in between
pings of a silver triangle
says the other ear
It was just your ear
Poem copyright 2008 by Catherine Tihanyi
Photo: Kati 1945