A circular shoreline: the Hungarian sea*

Zsuzsanna Ardó


“In summer, Balatonfüred is delightful. The first time that I went there I arrived early on a July morning, thinking to go on to Budapest before noon. Actually I did not continue my journey till ten days later, by which time I had fallen completely in love with the place.”

--Charles Cunningham What I saw in Hungary (1931)


Waves comb, in slow motion, the hair-forest. They entangle the branches on my head as the ripples slurp the shoreline, and disentangle it all on their way back, back towards the horizon. Skinny but muscular arms, the arms of a swimmer, clasped around the wide, safe, hairy back. Air bubbles shoot up, bouncing on the fountain gushing from the two mouths as the whale immerses underwater.

A double-decker whale: my father and me. We travel underwater, along the sandy bottom of Balaton. Shades of green. Forms of life I’ve never seen, never touched before. Slow motion, still but sizzling with life. Seaweed tickles my toes. My fingers reach out and pick up a shell as we float by. Rays of light crisscross our path. I don’t want the moment to end. Ever.

The green turns gold, and we resurface into the sun.

I must have been about 4 years old at the time but age really doesn’t come into my sea experience. Every summer Friday I remember waiting for my father to appear on the shore, float with me on his back, then sink into the green-brown underworld of Balaton. To me, as perhaps to other Hungarian children at the time, moments like this were the primeval sea experience: the ultimate happiness. Some of the most vivid moments of my childhood summers are about Magyar tenger, the “Hungarian sea”. How could I do without it?

Yes, I do realise that calling Balaton a “sea” when the etymology of the name actually means “lake” and a “muddy” one at that, is, well... a bit of an oxymoron. Perhaps. And yes, I know that most foreigners think that Hungary is a landlocked country. My personal summer memories tell me otherwise.

But when there’s a deep psychological need, creativity comes ashore. Hungarians have reinvented their three former seas in the form of a glorious lake. Lake Balaton qualifies beautifully as a sea: after all, it is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe, and the third largest in the whole of Europe – as many Hungarians would point out with modest pride.

On a grander scale, for a culture so obsessed with retroactive navel-gazing, the Hungarians could hardly do without, of all things, a sea. After all, no fewer than three – the Baltic, the Black, and the Adriatic – washed Hungary’s shores as recently as the 14th century, during the reign of King Louis the Great.

Hungarians’ lasting love for shorelines is revealed in the fact that Miklós Horthy, leader of the country’s autocratic regime of the 1930s, was an admiral at a time when Hungary no longer possessed even one of these seas. This minor incongruity didn’t prevent him dressing up in his admiral’s uniform and parading around on a white horse (incidentally, deeply symbolic for Hungarians) as a substitute battleship.

Balaton’s pedigree is also impressively European. The Romans dotted the sunny northern shore of the lake (“Lacus Pelso”) with villas and vineyards; later Slav settlers built villages all around it. The Magyars arrived in the region in the 10th century, and indeed the oldest surviving evidence of the Hungarian language is from precisely this area: the Tihanyi Alapító Levél, the royal deed by King András of the Árpád Dynasty which founded the Benedictine abbey of Tihany on its northern shore.

Balaton, then, has a potent place within Hungarian historic, linguistic and cultural consciousness. Some inscriptions there contain elements typical of Magyarul inside a clearly Latin-based text: one example is Feheruuaru rea meneh hodu utu rea, or roughly “up the military road to Fehérvár”. The bonding power of history is also evident in the castles erected in the wake of the devastating Mongol invasion, which were useful too against the Turks, the next wave of unwelcome visitors to Hungary. For many years, the lake acted as the “shoreline” between the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires; it was not until several centuries later that Balaton launched its new career as a medicinal spa and seaside resort.

As a child, I firmly believed that Lake Balaton possessed superb advantages in being “only” a lake. No exciting, life-threatening danger from sharks, but this was more than compensated by the thrilling business of angling for bream and perch at dusk and dawn. Getting up early was never difficult by the shore, even if the catch was hardly ever much more than a few mosquito bites.

If this strenuous sport is not exhilarating enough, you can always count on the famously hazardous Balaton storms. This superficially soporific shoreline will test your physical stamina and mental reserve to the limits. The 19th century French scientist, Francois Sulpice Beadant, testifies to this in his Voyage minéralogique et géologique en Hongrie pendant l’annee (1818); he described Lake Balaton as a “rough, real little sea”, and crossing it as a veritable sea voyage experience, complete with silent, pale passengers staggering sick on the boat rolling, tossed around by the violent waves.

The reference to Lake Balaton as the Hungarian sea can be dismissed as a nostalgic gesture, trying to recreate a lost reality by the sheer power of naming: a figment of the Hungarian imagination. But wait until you’ve experienced at first hand Balaton’s temperamental nature, the power of its will! Once you’ve ridden ashore, if you’re lucky, the menacing black waves, you’ll be more inclined to agree with National Geographic’s scientific-poetic evaluation that Lake Balaton has “the atmosphere and mood of a sea – the loneliness, the colours, the whims, the untamed self-will of the ocean.”

In other parts of the world, alert swimmers and windsurfers can enjoy huge waves at their own risk, even during a hurricane. I remember my utter disbelief when I witnessed the Atlantic Ocean beaches come alive just when the hurricane was about to reach the shores – and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. Not so along the shores of the Hungarian sea. When a storm is about to hit the deceptively calm waters of Lake Balaton, rockets are fired and red baskets hoisted along the shore warn water enthusiasts to wade ashore. We pick up our books, blankets, all the beach paraphernalia, and run for the house. The fierce battle for the shutters begins, in the hope that we can close them safely before the wind jerks them off their hinges.

The immense build-up of waves is a signal to the adventurous, those with a death-wish or authority problem, to head for the lake. To resist the chance to ride the waves, with or without a surfboard, is not always easy. I have sometimes given in to temptation and ridden the skyscraper waves. A deep, long, and now white scar reminds me of the day that I jumped up and down in the raging waves, amidst horizontal rain, and a shell cut deep into my right thigh when I landed on top of its sharp edge. I turned blue, the water red, and my mother white with anger and worry.

Many who play the same game of attempting to outsmart nature gone wild are less fortunate. Every year hundreds of bodies are dragged, and some washed, ashore. Their stories washed over me as more or less meaningless statistics until, after one particularly ruthless storm, the body of a stranger floated into our favourite bay. The “sea” and its dangers suddenly felt alarmingly real.

At such times, Balaton belies its gentle image. Its shallow, southern parts have warm water that is safe and seductive for children to cavort and splash. Once my brother and I were in, we stayed in. Luring us out of this liquid velvet was an unrealistic notion. When the sun sank its teeth in the water, we tumbled out onto the fine sand of our own accord. Burnt, drained and drunk from the joys of the day. Our handcrafted sandcastles were almost always completely washed away by morning, but we started rebuilding their elaborate system of gables and bridges with undiminished enthusiasm.

Later, as a fast swimmer, I used to head for the northern shores. Here a swim with a difference was on offer – one combined with hiking. We set out early afternoon, with the sun still high, wading in the shallow water, discussing films, philosophy, recipes for dinner. With children engaged in boisterous horseplay, teenagers throwing balls and frisbees, and windsurfers and boats crisscrossing our path, these “walks” were no opportunity for meditating and communing with nature. But once in deeper water, our outing became perfectly peaceful; not many were prepared to come so far just for a swim. By the time we floated ashore again, the sun was sinking.

Swimming at night is another Balaton pleasure. Floating to the rhythmic motion of the waves was so relaxing that I sometimes forgot to hang on to my swimsuit. At times it simply peeled off, and to retrieve it from underwater was not altogether easy; after some time, it seemed much simpler to leave the swimsuit on the shore to start with. In the moonlight we could never really tell if we’d find it on our return, but this seemed to enhance somehow the pleasure of midnight skinny-dipping.

I always looked forward to the August treat, nature’s gift: a shoreline dotted with watermelons heaped upon watermelons, a precarious balancing-act. Hungarians take the business of buying watermelons seriously – especially at the water’s edge. After selecting their choice with due care, this is one of the very few occasions when they are actually prepared to queue and wait their turn to pay, while gazing upon the water.

More permanent fixtures of Balaton’s shoreline make their entrance at dawn and dusk: anglers. Motionless, hunched polka-dots perched on tiny wooden rafts, hooked to the circular shoreline. More active and upscale characters inhabit deeper waters: yachters. They are keen to test their sailing skills without having to compete with motor engines, which are, I’m happy to say, forbidden on the Hungarian sea. But winds are unreliable: sometimes too light, sometimes too strong, often nonexistent. Hundreds of sailing boats becalmed in the middle of the lake for hours make a quaint picture for onlookers, but not so inspiring for the sailors themselves.

But novice windsurfers can ask for no better training-ground: the caress of the fresh water bounces you back onto the board. Expert surfers, hooked on the waves, speed along the shore by the evening wind. In practical terms, this means that I had the privilege to windsurf with my baby son. He sat on the tip of the windsurf, fearlessly, while I was gliding along with him in the shallow, calm water. We drifted along gently and safely. And when the wind picked up later, he watched me from the shore while I continued by myself in the speedy sunset breeze.

Muscular, glittering silhouettes against the sunset, complete with golden-red reflections across the calm surface. No picture postcard of this shoreline can be such perfect kitsch as reality itself.

Balaton, the Hungarian sea, Magyar tenger: circular seashore of memory.

©Zsuzsanna Ardó

* Published by openDemocracy 8 September 2004