“My Once-in-a-Lifetime Life” is a series of occasional blogs written by Joy Zomer who spent several years in Europe as a Christian missionary. Now a single mom of three children, Joy is the director of a high school alternative education program. She often writes about her unique experiences in Europe. This post celebrates the friendship of two unlikely friends, a young American missionary and a Hungarian carver.
Getting to Bela’s workshop wasn’t the easiest or quickest of trips. Our family’s apartment was over 50 minutes on metro, tram, and bus to get into Pest where Bela worked. Only 5 years after Communist rule ended in Hungary, many systems continued to run as they had then. From the street, we entered the university at a metal gate complete with a small tin guard house where our identity was confirmed by showing a residence card to the guard. After crossing the inner courtyard on our way to the Technical College of Eötvös, we were asked for a second “code” from the building guard. This signaled that we knew where we were going once we got inside. A two-level descent brought us to Bela’s workshop. Con- crete walls and steps with years of scuff marks and stains skirted the well-trodden route, dank with dirt-encrusted windows letting in a light that wasn’t quite full; it seemed as if we were descending into a forgotten place.
Bela’s workshop was no different. At least fifteen different types of metal and steel machines were crammed into a 8′ x 8′ box with a tiny window struggling to breathe at the uppermost edge of the room. The machinery was something from another era, an era I had never witnessed. Big, unmovable, formidable and all-encompassing, the machines were sentries to efficiency and strength, not artistry and grace. Years of debris, oil, papers and Playboy calendars lifted the floors and walls to a level of human neglect echoing futility and unmet dreams. Bela shared the workshop with a second employee; in over 3 years visiting the workshop, I never met this compatriot.
The Lingering Effects of Communism
You see, communism did more than just address the type of government Hungarians lived under. The state of Bela’s workshop and the anonymity of his colleague had much to do with the depth and breadth of what Communism did to a person. Being just like everyone else was protection; see no one, hear no information was the daily calling card. Living in the disorder and chaos of the masses was a cover which made it safe for you to exist. The best way to keep your family from suspicion was to not expect or demand anything from anyone. You also didn’t want to seem to care about anything much, because those who did were either spies or noticed by neighbors who were spies. Suspicion, tension, and distrust were common daily emotions.
Although my visits to Bela in his workshop occurred more than 7 years after Communism had officially fallen in Russia and the Berlin wall was down, the people of Budapest knew no other way and had recently re-elected an ex-Communist leader as their Prime Minister. The system was still in place. Bela’s energies remained focused on maintaining the status quo.
Memories of Bela’s physical appearance are ethereal in the least. My clearest image of Bela is of a medium-sized, fairly slim man with brown hair and a brown beard. Over 40, Bela lived happily with a small paunch that rolled over his waistband. He was a man whom one might easily walk right by and note as “nothing special.” He was an acquaintance of a teacher friend’s friend and reputed to know something about metals and handiwork. I was a young American mother living in Budapest, Hungary seeking a skilled craftsman who could imagine and design a Jesse Tree for my young children to connect with during the Christmas season. I had money. So, we met at his workshop.
At our first meeting, Bela shared that he had been taught as a child by his grandfather to work with word inlay as well as ivory and metals. He hadn’t done this kind of work in over 30 years and wasn’t sure he could still do work that I would like. His eyes were kind; I told him I trusted that he could try. With a down payment in place, he agreed to work on my Jesse Tree. And with this, our friendship and my trips to his workshop began.
Like so many stories of Hungarians living through the Communist Era, Bela’s existence was intertwined with the frustration and personal hardship that was always present. I learned early on that his wife was sick, very sick and rarely left the apartment. I never quite understood what it was, but it was something that needed regular medicine which was quite costly and not so easy to pay for.
Bela struggled to keep above water and it seems he did it on his own; his son had gone his own way. He had worked at the job he had been given by the regime for over 30 years. I never learned how he got the work as handyman for the University, but I know that his individual talent was not something that was encouraged in the work. He talked about the lack of need for this fine detail.
The Jesse Tree
Hungarians call what Bela does as “faberakás” and “fafaragás” or translated into English inlay and wood carving. Our first Jesse tree was a fafaragás event; Bela spent over 8 months working on it, little by little. The second tree was done with black/silver metal inlay in little under 6 months. The inlay was something that Bela loved doing and I marveled at. Not only did he meticulously and fastidiously carve the necessary symbol into a small 2” circle, but he then placed minuscule strips of silver/black metal into the crevice made by the carving itself. After smoothing out the surface and connecting each area of metal to another, the handiwork was completed. After experimenting again with metal, Bela tried his hand at ivory inlay. Again, he was successful and a third Jesse tree completed. Work time: two months.
As you can imagine, we became friends. When I visited his workshop, our conversation often lit upon his wife and my children. I heard his pain and in my halting Hungarian, offered encouragement. He marveled as my children grew and offered their own version of Hungarian as conversation. Often, he would bring in a little item he was doodling with. A necklace made from wood and ivory,, a small box with fine carvings on the top and four miniature hand-carved legs. Each time I marveled out loud at their beauty and skill. In time, he began sharing these small items, offering them to area shops to sell to the tourists. He talked of attending a Hungarian Folk Art competition held on Szent István-napi (Saint Stephen’s Day) up at the Castle in Buda. I encouraged him.
We left Budapest on short notice, my family and I. As was so much of my life overseas, it was not a time of clear and defined endings. I never said goodbye to Bela, who by that time had become fairly well-known among Hungarian Folklore artists for his ability to inlay, carve, and recreate the Hungarian motifs of the last 19th century. I don’t really know if our visits, and/or interest in his work lit a spark that encouraged him to create more, to spend more time in faberakás. What I do know is that he became more involved in the folklore movement that was sweeping Hungary in the last 1990’s, in part due to withdrawal of the Russian control.
I also know that my friendship with Bella was a glimpse into the living spirit of another fellow human, broken by the weights of his world. His friendship gifted me with the pain of another human being from another world, one whose life had been filled with heartache and unfulfilled dreams. His was a life that reminded me of one’s gifts and loves, blossomed and begun afresh. And how the offering of human touch renews hope again.