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Jack Smith

To err is human but to misspell the Hungarian forint or the Yugoslavian tamburitza is unforgivable

November 13, 1985|Jack Smith

I had no illusion that I could write of our two-week tour of five European countries, from Bulgaria to Germany, without making an error or two.

Our tour guides were not always right, and, also, those little booklets that one buys at historical villages and sites such as churches and palaces are translated badly into English and sometimes err.

But I am guilty of making some incorrect assumptions.

Of our flight from Frankfurt to Rousse, Bulgaria, on a Balkan Air Lines plane, I wrote that the "Fasten Seat Belts" light, which I assumed was in Bulgarian, read as follows:

3ACTErHYTb PEMHN (that last N to be reversed).

Ronald E. Peterson, professor of Russian language, literature and culture at Occidental College, was one of two readers who wrote to point out that "quite naturally" I thought the words were Bulgarian, but they were Russian.

"You were flying on a Soviet airliner," he explained, "and the signs are from the country where the plane was built."

Ognian Peytchev wrote to tell me not only that Rousse is his native town, but that he defected from Bulgaria on the MS Sofia, the same boat on which we motored up the Danube River from Rousse to Passau, Germany.

Since both Russian and Bulgarian are in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is incomprehensible to English-speaking people, I forgive myself for this misapprehension.

Peytchev added: "I can teach you read Bulgarian just for half an hour, assuming average learning abilities of yours."

Well, that's kind, but I doubt that I'll have any further use for Bulgarian. Unless there is a war, and we lose it, I don't expect ever to be on another Soviet airplane.

Judith J. Szarka wrote to correct me for writing that my wife and I, with the help of a few friends, celebrated her birthday on the Sofia by drinking a bottle of Bulgarian champagne and a bottle of Russian champagne.

" 'Real champagne' is, in fact," she says, "only correctly applied to sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region of France. . . . "

Well, I knew that, having at least half a dozen authoritative books on wine, but sometimes the French annoy me with their protective paranoia. The labels on both bottles, by the way, were in Cyrillic, so I have no idea whether they called themselves champagne or not; but they were called champagne on the bar menu, and to tell the truth, they tasted just as real as some of our authentic California champagnes.

Elinor Lynch wrote to note that I erred in identifying an instrument played by a young woman in a Yugoslavian restaurant.

"The Yugoslavian instrument you describe is not a tambourine," she says, "but a tamburitza . Like so many things Yugoslavian, there is no direct translation into English, but a tambourine it's not! Speaking as one with Slavic roots, there's no sound quite as charming and listenable as tamburitza ."

Well, maybe I thought it was a tambourine because I'd had so much Yugoslavian champagne.

It was in Hungary that I got into real trouble. Several Hungarians in Southern California have written me to point out that the Hungarian monetary unit is a forint , not a florin .

I had written about changing $50 into florins and then trying to spend it before we had to go back to the boat. (My wife managed to get it done.)

A typical complaint came from Judith Nikazy: "Having been born and raised in Hungary, I looked forward to reading your travel log, including the possible praise of Budapest, which indeed is a beautiful city. It is very unfortunate that you spent only a few hours there, because there are many more cultural things to do in Budapest besides drinking beer. For this you can be forgiven. However, misspelling the Hungarian currency is sheer negligence, especially for someone in your profession. I wouldn't be surprised if my fellow 40,000 Hungarians in Southern California would bury you with their mail."

True, the coins I brought back are stamped forint ; but when we got home I looked forint up in Webster's Third International Dictionary and found it defined as "Hungarian for florin."

Is it my fault that the Hungarians don't know how to spell florin ?

About drinking beer, I'm afraid my reports gave the impression that I was always drinking beer. Actually, I drank only two or three beers a day, and in Budapest only two. However, the moments when I was drinking a beer were the only moments I had for rest and reflection, and consequently most of my memories are associated with and arise from them.

Anyway, to any Hungarians who were offended, I apologize.

My main error, it seems, was in quoting our tour guide as explaining that the onion domes on the churches in the Black Forest and Bavaria were remnants of the "Ottoman occupation."

Both Guenter Steuer of Huntington Beach and Robert B. Johnson of San Pedro wrote to tell me that the Turks never occupied those regions, being stopped at Vienna.

Wrote Johnson: "The onion domes may have been influenced by the Turkish mosques of the conquered Balkans (as were those of Russia and the Ukraine), but Bavaria was never conquered by the Turks."

Steuer was a little ruder: "The Turks, you turk, never made it to the Black Forest."

He observed that onion domes were an "architectural expression in the Islamic and Russian world, later used in the South-German baroque."

So, isn't that a result of the Ottoman occupation, though it stopped at Vienna?

I did spell Wiesbaden wrong.

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