Karen Villeda tracks her journey through Eastern Europe in microessays that blend poetry and prose.
is the diminutive for something very small
a prefix derived from the Greek μ (mikró), meaning
as in microelectronics, microscope, microcast,
micrococcus, the “millionth” of a unit,
microsecond, the computer abbreviation microprocessor, or, when referring to a concentrated sound, the microphone.
Micro is a compositive element used to describe units of
measurement that designate the
corresponding submultiple. Its symbol is μ. There are
other multiples and submultiples we will not address
a way to refer to a bus in certain Latin American countries such
as Argentina (in some regions, coaches are called micros) and
Mexico . . .
noun Work in prose of variable length in which the author
reflects on a certain topic.
verb to make a tentative or experimental effort to perform.
The following can usually be found in the dictionary:
From the Late Latin exagium, “the act of weighing.”
1. Text in prose in which the author develops ideas on a particular subject, with personal style and character.
2. Literary genre to which the essay belongs.
Definition. Combination of the words “micro” and “essay” into a
neologism to describe brief essays, in particular those in
this book about
- Vyshorod, a suburb of Kiev, Ukraine.
- Vishegrad, in the province of Kardzhali (in other words, a town in Bulgaria).
- Vishegrad, the highest peak of Sakar. Where is this mountain located? In the borderlands between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. The surrounding towns lack proper irrigation systems, which is of concern to the European Union (to a lesser degree; aridity isn’t as dangerous as a porous border).
- Višegraf, a medieval fortress in southern Kosovo. Located in Prizren, the capital of the Serbian empire, now inhabited by Albanians.
- Višegrad, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through which the Drina flows. Also known as Vichegrad, the setting of the novel that cemented the reputation of Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country." The Bridge on the Drina chronicles the period of time from the sixteenth up to the early twentieth century. What is the significant event described by the 1961 Nobel Laureate? The building of a bridge, as the title indicates, that joins two worlds—the Christian and the Muslim.
Comings and goings, friendship and conflict.
This last Višegrad was described by the then Yugoslav writer as a “particularly painful spot in that hilly and poverty-stricken district, in which misfortune was open and evident, that man was halted by powers stronger than he and, ashamed of his powerlessness, was forced to recognize more clearly his own misery and that of others, his own backwardness and that of others.” In other words, a genuine hotbed of hatred and mistrust.
I learn my first word in Magyar by intuition. It’s written in white sans serif letters on a Bengal-red sign on line 2 of the metro, which runs from the West of Buda to the East in Pest.
“It finds me.”
This lesson, which at first is a primitive psychological effect of the color, becomes a debt I owe Hungary.
After six hundred and eleven kilometers of sleeplessness, kijárat is my welcome.
“Leave, leave now.”
Exit, is, not.
When I travel, this concept of time is defined by language. I am obsessed with the sound of Hungarian vowels. The short ones have a dieresis (ö), and the long ones, a double accent (˝). The archaeology of this language is governed by an agglutination of inextricable digraphs like sz and ty, which cause the tongue to stick to the palate.
Words like megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, whose closest meaning is “that which you cannot profane,” take the shape of a four-eyed reptile: fierce with ear-soothing brevity and generous with accented vowels. Its diereses and double acute accents are long, sharp claws.
Between Deák Ferenc tér and Örs vezér tere there are five stations. My body, once befuddled by the speed of the metropolis, registers each of the forty-five minutes the journey lasts. The only stop I recognize when it’s announced is Astoria, since it’s a foreign name. Three more stations to Örs vezér tere and victory will be mine. The station is commonly known as Örs, which means “hero.”
Name days in Hungary
are not as heavily Catholic
as traditional Mexican saint’s days,
which occasion street closures,
the use (and abuse) of fireworks,
and folk dances until dawn.
Hungarians celebrate névnap, which is a kind of saint’s day. Here, in the country whose flag is three (horizontal) stripes—red, white, and green, just like ours in Mexico—women are given tulips and orchids on their name days, while men are given bottles of alcohol. Flower prices rise according to (sexist) demand. An example: the tulip is the national flower and is more expensive on March 27, the day of Hajnalkas, than it is on the day before, since March 26 marks the celebration of people named Emánuel.
On my second trip to Budapest, I struck up a friendship with a Hajnalka, who gave me a tour of the university founded by George Soros. In times of predatory multimillionaires such as Donald Trump or Carlos Slim, who in a country mired in poverty aggressively defends his place on the Forbes list, Soros is an example worth following. The investor (or excessive speculator to his critics, who know him as “the man who bankrupted the Bank of England”) donated an enormous sum to found the Central European University (CEU) in Hungary’s capital.
Hajni, as her friends call her, isn’t a big Facebook user. Her wall shows a low level of activity, except for on March 27, when photos of roses and greetings appear (Boldog nevnapot! or “Happy name day!”; Sok puszi—“Lots of kisses”). If your name is “universal,” it’s easy to find on the névnap calendar. A Spanish speaker can see how their name is hungarianized through the indiscriminate use of accents (especially the grave accent), and letters like k and z.
(Gusztáv = Gustavo,
Kármen is Carmen,
Róbert = Roberto,
Zsófia is Sofía).
Some have more letters in their Spanish versions, like Margrit, which is Margarita, or Kata, Catalina.
“Institutions matter in this country,” Hajni tells me in perfect English.
What can I tell her about Mexico? “We’re the opposite.” I don’t say it aloud, though that’s what I’m thinking. I notice the decor in the corridors at Nádor 9, and a few lines penned in charcoal conjure me: “A minority that says that ‘this should not happen again,’ and a majority that says, “This should never happen to us again.” This work was imagined for and because of the Holocaust.
Then I’m a murmur of shame.
“We’re the opposite.”
But she doesn’t hear me.
The Hungarian Poet Who Spoke Chinese
Jeno Dsida was a translator of Taoist Chinese poetry about maple trees and snowstorms.
If we reimagine this vegetable kingdom in another context, we find ourselves in a scene worthy of a Hungarian winter.
On the eve of the feast of Pentecost, a woman considered the most beautiful by all the other women in a village in northeastern Hungary is given a crown of bell-shaped flowers that sprout even beneath the snow.
Spring takes a long time to come here, and the cold is a death sentence.
“My body was broken and my soul hardened, I felt like someone who, in secret,
sets out in the dark,
beckoned by the stars,
defiant in a fatal land, facing destiny even then;
and whose nerves are so tense that they can feel
their enemies, in the distance, lying in wait.”
My body broken, my soul hardened.
Bornemisza Anna Szakácskönyve 1680-Ból
Anna Bornemisza, princess consort of Transylvania, wrote a cookbook. Some experts have shown that her book is no more than a translation of a German cookbook. But most accuse them of ignorance. The cookbook’s origin is unclear.
What we can be certain of is that Anna Bornemisza, being the wife of Michael I Apafi of Apanagyfalva, knew a thing or two about matters of state. The unofficial version is that she was the one who resolved them: the Kingdom of Hungary began to recover due to her vision. The couple’s success didn’t last long. Anna Bornemisza had fourteen children and only one survived. Her husband had to cede power to Leopold I. Power (in itself, as an entity) is never lost, just transferred.
In lieu of more information on Hungary’s rivalry with the Ottoman Empire and the siege of Vienna in 1683, what we have is a recipe for beetroot salad: “If they are boiled, chop them. Dress them with oil, vinegar, and salt.”
At the Örs vezér tere stop, some teenage girls are selling cucumbers. They place them on the ground, over threadbare cloths. A few of them improvise signs out of old newspapers. Their sales strategy relies on the hurried charity of passersby. From time to time they imitate the sorrowful expressions of elderly beggars.
“They’re practically children.”
Their smooth skin is forced to wrinkle for a few coins, replicating indigence.
They make me uncomfortable. I fear for them. I’m afraid the masks they wear will also condemn them to that fate.
The police lurk nearby.
The homeless are considered criminals here, though Hungary has a comprehensive social security program that comes with a magazine titled Fedél Nélkül, whose literal translation is “Without a Roof.”
The Danube turns somber.
The Chain Bridge
and the wind is always
helping it escape.
The Danube brings a feeling of sorrow, as if one of the skeletons resting in its depths were mine.
And me, I think of her.
I am on Nádor Street, only a hundred arm’s lengths (ingenious calculation) from the river that will wash over me with those bones sunk in the sixteenth century. And those of an old woman who clings to my back.
“I know I carry the weight of a dead woman.”
And me, I think of her.
I think of my grandmother Lourdes. Her embroidered nightgown with thin straps, her scent of newspaper in the morning and jasmine all day long. Hundreds of jasmine flowers blossom in my brain. But there were other flowers, too.
For example: I remember the scent of ylang-ylang that flooded the room when she spoke of the trip we’d take to India, as she placed her thin, unblemished index finger on an old globe. On that worn-out, three-dimensional scale model, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics still existed.
I heard the word Danube for the first time when my grandmother told me about Strauss’s waltz.
And with my Danube, she comes back to life.
Accounts of Polish women’s relation to literature are offered by men like Szymon Wysocki, a priest who stated that “there wasn’t a single book she hadn’t read from cover to cover.” Who was she? A certain Barbara Lang of Kraków. There is no record of her existence beyond this remark by a sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian.
Official Patriarchal history asserts that the first woman writer in Poland was Gertrude of Poland, daughter of King Mieszko II, who modified the Archbishop of Trier’s Egbert Psalter by adding her own book of prayers. There, she pleads six times for her son, Yaropolk, unicus filius meus (“my only son,” God’s eternal favor).
Women were confined to reading prayer books and religious hymns. And they wrote in the margins. Centuries went by. Those marginalia are, in fact, the books I need to read.
From Kraków to Oświęcim.
I pay close attention to the gardens that bore vegetables in spring.
Rows of balding trees line the road.
The clouds are tinted with violet all the way to Oświęcim.
The name is an act of rebellion for my tongue; it feels brutal to put an accent over a consonant, when, last century, Oświęcim was a semantics of death.
I try to distract myself by looking for houses painted blue, announcing that the owner’s daughters are of marrying age.
Where my gaze falls, there is an ashen veil.
I miss Kraków, and we’re not even that far away.
I have a dream on my way to Kraków.
I’m slowly crossing a stream with smooth snakes at my feet.
I’m at a reading given by Wisława Szymborska. “Serpents appeared on my path, / spiders, field mice, baby vultures. / They were neither good nor evil now—every living thing / was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.”
I wake up exactly forty-five minutes later. The same old woman who accompanied me to Oświęcim is coming back with me. While we don’t know one another, at the same time, we are close.
This is the third face I meet in Poland. The stiffness of her body is a tragic and moving poem. She is kilometers away from herself.
Animality is the only pure thing about humans. What remains of us is elevated by circumstance and context.
This that is Poland
I learned of Poland through the words of others.
Poland was the bestsellers I read in my childhood.
In some episode of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki tells a terrible truth: “But such is the force of the impressions we receive in childhood that this unreasonable hope obsessed me for a long time, and I have never been wholly cured of it.” And Czesław Miłosz wrote in “The Poor Poet,” “Still others find peace in the idolatry of country, / Which can last for a long time, / Although little longer than the nineteenth century lasts.”
My earliest knowledge of Poland came from my worship of the pulp novels my grandfather Guillermo collected. I read them with gusto. The country took shape in my mind as I skimmed through the books of Karl von Vereiter, pseudonym of the Spanish writer Enrique Sánchez Pascual. They had extremely attention-grabbing titles, like I Went to the Devil’s Doctor, Hitler’s She-Devils, The Ravensbruck Hyenas, They Called Her Lili Marlen, The Virgins of Kiev, Salon Kitty, SS Brothel, Requiem for an SS Officer, Kingdom of the Beast, and The Vestals of the Third Reich, among other absurdities that Von Vereiter, or rather Sánchez Pascual, churned out without overly racking his brains.
In my mind, Poland: The Blitzkrieg was the definitive novel. So sad and so true. I got to know Poland at the height of another postwar period: the Spanish one. By then it was the seventies, and mass despair fed upon stories that reminded people they were better off after Franco. The frugal Petronio publishing house, which indiscriminately published Von Vereiter alongside Victor Hugo and Eugène Sue, offered few, albeit memorable, choices: the Second World War or aliens.
The profitability of military themes meant that imported copies of Holocaust by Gerald Green and Mila 18 by Leon Uris fell into my hands. Later, my taste became more refined, and I engraved in my memory the black-and-white photos in the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II.
I admit that this editorial shortsightedness gave shape in my mind to Poland.
It’s possible to write (and live) with no sense of reality. But you can’t travel in the Poland inside my head.
I reach the New Town and Prague sobs quietly.
I’m scarcely aware of its discreet tears.
I make an anthology of the sobs I find most meaningful.
Twice now, Prague has burst into tears with the subtlety of the second movement of Antonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony.
What will I do without my sorrow?
TLK 407 Chopin / 444 2.
From Warsaw to Prague, I have seen endless train stations pass before my eyes, their hair spilled over the rusty tracks. Some are touching up their makeup for the 2012 EuroCup. I’m hypnotized by the interminable succession of benches, tracks, and concrete platforms.
The early hours pass by as the train rattles like the keys of the citizens of Prague who gathered in solidarity in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, when Václav Havel declared freedom in the New Town.
I reach Prague with military punctuality: it’s dawn on Sunday, December 18, 2011. The sleepless city welcomes me with a cold embrace.
I leave Praha hlavni nadrazi, the main train station, walking with thick, velvety anticipation. The sun is barely rising and I long for its glassy rays, summertime’s vanity. Death’s indifferent face, which wears the same gaze everywhere, distracts me from the turning in my excited stomach, which recovers its usual morning hunger. Prague, with its pronounced dark circles, breaks the silence to bear some terrible news: Zem el Havel. Václav Havel has died of severe respiratory problems, the newspapers proclaim gravely in red and black. The artist, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, has lost the battle against pulmonary cancer in his right lung.
When I first read Václav Havel, I had a glassy feeling. I watched the acacias through the window. They were disconsolate, remembering the haughty green petticoats that covered the crinolines of spring, when leaves trembled on their stalks in a gust of breeze, and floral ruffles swayed at the height of their youth. I memorized what I had read: “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality, while making it easier for them to part with them.”
When I finished reading, the whole month paled. But the first decade of the twenty-first century was still agleam. It had seven digits left to show, and the possibility of a respectable degree certificate was as far from me as Mexico City from Václav Havel’s Prague. Now I know that the word meaning “left” in Czech is spelled levý. “Perhaps it’s a weightless word?” I wonder. And me, I still dwell in the past.
Visegrád, a city, or rather, a small castle, in Hungary.
Wyszogród, a place in Poland.
Vyšehrad, a castle in Prague, in the Czech Republic.
Vyšehrad (Prague metro), the metro station serving the aforementioned castle.
Visegrád. This. That which was mine. That is. That will be my Visegrád.
© Karen Villeda. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.