In present times the nation state is supreme. People are identified by nationality as much or more than ethnicity. The nation in which they live is the most important arbiter of their economic, political and especially cultural way of life. It is hard to imagine not that long ago nations barely existed. During bygone eras, kingdoms, principalities, city-states and empires both large and small ruled over people from many different ethnic backgrounds speaking a multiplicity of languages. The nation that is today the republic of Hungary looks back to those bygone centuries when it was a kingdom as an age of glory. Local cultures and traditions flourished, folk customs added a vivid richness to life. That has now all changed. Some would say it has all been for the better, others say it has been for the worse.
The Empire of the New – All Conquering & All Consuming
Sure there are immense benefits to being a Hungarian national (universal education and health care) and also a citizen of the European Union (a common market, greater employment opportunities). Conversely, this has led to homogenization, mainly for economic expediency (English as the international language of business, chain stores offering the same products in many different countries). It is almost unfathomable to grasp the astonishing rapidity with which this has occurred. Globalization continues to expedite the process. The world may well come to be conquered by materialism. It is doubtful if the world population will ever come close to speaking the same language but everyone may well share a single, common trait, consumerism.
For the modern traveler to countries such as Hungary this creates a quandary. They are confronted with unique cultural attributes which exist side by side with the same symbols of capitalism they find back home. Hungary is known for paprika and goulash, Buda and Pest, but it also has stores such as Zara and New Yorker, Aldi and Tesco. Sometimes these have even taken over trendy, historic areas. This trend is pervasive across all of Europe. The empire of the new, of consumerism conquerors or at the very least incorporates all. The juxtaposition of old and new can be surreal. For instance, a visitor disembarks at the iron and glass Nyugati (western) train station in Budapest. They step inside and are awestruck by the gigantic glass covered space filled with trains and passengers. This striking example of late 19th century architecture was conceived by none other than the famed Eiffel Company. They created something unique and timeless, a structure that speaks across the generations.
Traveling Back In Time – From Nyugati to Mezokovesd
In this same station the visitor finds that touchstone of modern capitalism, a McDonald’s restaurant. It is conveniently housed in the station’s original dining hall. Here we have the world’s most ubiquitous fast food establishment occupying a magnificent space. Looking at the walls, the ceiling, the decorative elements, it feels as though a belle époque ball is about to break out at any moment. Then again, it might also be time to order a Big Mac. Long lines extend outward from each cash register as patrons stare longingly at a menu hocking burgers, fries and McNuggets. This most likely distracts the customer from the incredible chandelier hanging above the hall. Is this the golden arches or golden age? It gets confusing. And this is one of many bizarre moments where old Europe meets modern Europe.
This can leave the visitor searching for authentic culture, something pure, something real, something traditional and unique. Fortunately, the real thing is just a rail ride away. In just a little over two hours the rail lines from Nyugati can transport visitors to a fantastical place filled with vibrant folk culture, a place called Mezokovesd. This small little city of 18,000 inhabitants seems unprepossessing at first. It has a nice baroque church, neatly swept streets, a fine town hall, like so many other Hungarian settlements of a similar size. Then the visitors arrives at the district of Hadas and everything changes. It is filled with white washed, thatch roofed 19th century peasant homes. A deeper look inside reveals the houses are alive with age old traditions. Doll and furniture making, weaving and embroidering all take place inside.
The Matyo People – What Legends Are Made Of
This is the legacy of the Matyo people, who in the 19th century soared to prominence with their colorful, ornamented peasant costumes in a Hungarian kingdom full of peasants. Legend has it that their skillful embroidery started during the times of the Turkish menace. When a young Matyo man was kidnapped by the Turks, it was said that a girl who was in love with him pleaded for his release. The sultan demanded that she pay a seemingly impossible ransom. She was to go out in the dead of winter, gather all the flowers she could find in the snow covered meadows and frozen forests. The girl being quite resourceful embroidered her apron with all the flowers of spring and summer. The astounded Sultan set her free. A wonderful story made a bit more believable by the elaborate handiwork of Matyo embroidery.
The Matyo Museum is the place to see the stuff that legends are made of. The Matyo have woven dreams into reality. Clothes and linens display a fabulous array of colorful patterns. Take for instance, the aprons which have a black or dark blue background. They are covered with floral designs done with flat stitched embroidery. The hand drawn patterns emphasize floral designs such as tulips and roses. Rich colors embellish the linens in a mesmerizing complexity. And this is no static folk art. It is constantly being reimagined, building on foundations from the past to create new and dynamic ensembles.
The Essence of Beauty
Is it any wonder that the most in demand embroidery of Central Europe comes from the Matyo people? In this area of northeastern Hungary between the Bukk Hills and Tisza River a rich culture flourishes. In the lavish embroidery we see the essence of Matyo creativity, beauty distilled to its purest form. We also see the triumph of tradition over modernity.