Monthly Archives: March 2010

Ödön Lechner

Who’s Ödön Lechner? Why he’s the Hungarian architect who designed the roof you’re staring at right now! It’s the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. According to  Wikipedia, his nickname is the “Hungarian Gaudi.” (Not a bad nickname to have.) I developed a slight obsession with Lechner while in Budapest last week. Nobody had warned me that Budapest is as close to an art nouveau playground as cities get.

I’d been wanting to see Budapest for years. I’m not sure when the fascination set in, but I have to admit, I’m partial to the Hungarian language. First of all, it’s a non-Indo-European language (for a person who only knows Indo-European languages, this is pretty cool). Second, Hungarian boasts multiple umlauts (just like German) and also has a LONG umlaut (by the way, that’s the not technical linguistic name for it, I think it might be called a double acute). So you can have the vowel u, ü, and ű. I couldn’t tell you why, but I found that magical.

After all this anticipation, I was terrified that Budapest wouldn’t live up to my hopes and dreams. Well, just imagine seeing numerous such extravagant roofs by Ödön Lechner, feasting on the best pastries you’ve ever eaten, swimming in natural hot springs turned into spas such as the Szechenyi Baths:

We spent two evenings soaking in the 38 degree water and jumping in and out of the 18 (!!) indoor pools. (If there’s one extraordinary thing the centuries of Ottoman invasions brought to Hungary, I would say it is the hot springs/ bathing culture.) I couldn’t have asked for a better vacation: architecture, baths, pastries. I even got to practise (what’s left of) my Hungarian! And let me tell you, my double umlauts were a hit.


Owls come up casually in conversation. I used to refer to myself as a “night owl” (in my younger years, when I used to be able to stay awake past midnight!). And then, on Saturday, I saw an Eastern Screech Owl up close:

Imagine this owl nestled in a tree, with only its tiny head visible. And then imagine me pointing my (not so stellar) binoculars right at its little head, yelping with joy and complementing the owl on its (his? her? I forgot to ask my group leader) remarkable physique. And, if you want, imagine me getting side tracked by a squirrel and becoming dizzy from following the squirrel up and down a couple trees. I didn’t think pointing binoculars at a bird would be challenging, but it is. In fact, sometimes, when I’m trying to find the particular bird everybody’s raving about it feels like I’m playing “find Waldo.” Anyhow, once I managed to locate the decrepit looking tree everyone was talking about and once I managed to keep my binoculars steady and travel 2/3 of the way up the trunk, and once I managed to distinguish the owl feathers from identical looking tree leaves, I was in good shape.

I find it funny how casual expressions come alive when you can visualize every word. (I suppose this is estrangement or defamiliarization in action; I should have considered that years ago, when reading Victor Shklovsky.) So now, I can’t really refer to people as night owls casually, because I see the something like this in front of me. Not exactly the image you want in your mind’s eye when trying to have a conversation with somebody.

(Great Horned Owl. I saw one in early September in Whitby, ON. My one and only time in Whitby so far.)

Hungarian Crows?

Unfortunately, when I see birds, I never really know what I’m looking at. I’m not exactly at the stage of being able to identify anything (unless, of course, it happens to be a red winged blackbird — see post below). I was recently in Hungary and saw something strange. It looked and sounded like a crow. The bird was crow-like, to the best of my knowledge (which isn’t much). But it had the strangest coloring — it was half white! Up until that point, I had been positive that crows were entirely black. And there, in the midst of Europe’s only non-Indo-European speaking nation, among the Fino-Ugric speaking peoples in the land of paprika, incredible spas and hot springs, art nouveau masterpieces, I saw a black and white crow.

You’ll be glad to know I left it at that. My first sighting of a Hungarian Crow.

Since returning home, I’ve started wondering. Maybe everything I had taken to be a crow up until that point was actually a raven? Maybe these Hungarian Crows are actually the real thing?

These are the things I wonder about sometimes. After that, I usually eat a piece of chocolate (or two) and get on with my day.

Of Birds and Words

I never thought — not in a million years — that I’d develop an interest in birds. Actually, it snuck up on me. Well, not quire. I suppose I was looking for a hobby. And then, I happened to read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in the Discomfort Zone on the topic of birds, and I wanted to see what they actually looked like up close. The essay, called “My Bird Problem,” captivated me immediately, and I found myself desperately wanting to develop a “bird problem” of my own. And I figured that if Franzen could render the experience so literary, then surely it was something I had to try first hand.

I’ve had many reservations about becoming (not that I’m there yet, not even close) a birder. First, the binoculars. No matter how you wear them, they’re dorky. And heavy. Second, the early starts. I must admit that I’m not so coherent before 8 am, and birding forces you out of bed much earlier than that. Especially during migration season (which I’m about to experience). Third, the idea of being a birder. The sound of the word felt geriatric to me.

And then, I saw this:

My first red winged blackbird. Before I went out birding, I proceeded to buy at least ten books about birds — from picture books to memoirs to personal narratives about the process of birding. The one thing everybody agreed on seemed to be that you never forget your first bird. I thought that was ridiculous because I’d already seen hundreds of birds in my life, including all those hideous pigeons that my sister and I used to run after near Queens Park years ago.

And then it happened. Last April, on a cold morning (long before 8 am), on the shores of Lake Ontario right near Humber College, I looked through my binoculars and came face to face with the red winged blackbird. I had found a birding group near Toronto, and they graciously took me along on their trips. (The Red Winged blackbird remains the only bird I can identify on my own, but the sight of the bird excites me every single time.) I wasn’t expecting to find myself entranced by this bird — by the bright red and yellow on its epaulets — but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Even now, almost a year later, whenever I see the bird, it feels like recognizing an old friend. I’ll admit, I get a little over excited every time I’m with friends or family and we happen to run into a red-winged blackbird. Just last week, I jumped up and down at the sight of one and (gasp!) regretted not having my binoculars nearby.

Maybe that’s what appeals to me about meeting new birds. It feels like you’re developing a friendship of some sort. I’m going to use this blog to try to figure it out. There’s no way I’ll bore you with technical details, because I myself am incapable of remembering them! Instead, I’ll tell you what it is I’m learning how to see. Because that’s just it: birding is a new form of seeing.

So…I’m the proud owner of binoculars (gift from a dear friend), 12 books about birds, and I’ve now been out three times. And yes, like all my hobbies, birding is on the geriatric end of the spectrum, and it’s just as well. Today, we ended up in Grimsby — searching for hawks — and after admiring a few from a far, I focused my binoculars on a group of birders staring at hawks and saw the most fabulous moustache I’ve seen in a while: thick, coiffed, gleaming white, almost crispy. How often do you get to stare at people shamelessly through binoculars and examine moustache follicles up close?