‘He woke up in hospital this morning with tubes in his arms! But another few beers and he’ll be okay.’
Ivan swung open the van doors to reveal his almost comatose apprentice, recovering from alcohol poisoning on a pile of wooden yurt poles.
In August this year I found myself in a hippie commune in the hills of Tuscany, a permaculture kind of affair with chickens, single mothers and even a pig tied up to a tree for some reason. Anyone was welcome to float through and there were a couple of young Hungarians who were making their way through Italy, selling tie-die t-shirts on the street. They had been robbed at a campsite when they arrived in Italy when someone put some sleeping pills in their drinks. They lost 500 Euros, a fortune for a Hungarian but boldly resolved to continue their travels despite a fragile grasp even of English.
When I departed I left some cash in an envelope for them and didn’t think too much more about it. An email from Reka a month later though thanked me and advised me that there was a great traditional yurt maker in Hungary if I cared to pass by that way. I had already spent the summer living in one of the nomadic tents and needed a few more to set up an artistic retreat I have planned for 2009 in Tuscany.
She met me at Budapest and after a couple of days of shivering in the snowy streets, we headed out to the countryside to some unpronounceable town where Reka would serve as my translator in the business dealings. Ivan came to pick us up in his white van with his apprentice in the back and I managed to slam my passenger door on the finger of anotherof his helpers – he yelled out in pain but then just shrugged off an injury that would have had me demanding a hospital. Hungary, land of real men.
Yurts are very much in fashion right now, their elegant form and zero-impact on the environment making them popular lifestyle options for neo-hippies. But whereas those in fashion are made from thick canvas, Ivan believed in the old ways.
“Each yurt cover needs at least 20 horse skins.” Reka translated, cutting down the 5 minute spiel Ivan had given her to a single sentence. I played the role of skeptical observer and the more Ivan and his men tried to provide a bit of cheer, the more I became detached and technical, scrutinising the chimney arrangements and inquiring as to just how the wood had been treated against wasps and termites.
Before long, though, I was satisfied that I was in the company of true artisans, however, even if they did tend to put themselves in hospital with more plum brandy in their blood than… well, blood, I relaxed and proposed a beer.
I was soon to regret my enthusiasm though as I found that drinking was about all anyone did around here when they weren’t working. To the tune of Hungarian heavy metal on the juke box, we spent the next couple of evenings in the pub while Ivan and the others tried to teach me how to swear in Hungarian.
“Tommy, thirsty?” Ivan said each morning, his store of English exhausted but the bottles of alcohol far from it.
Even these guys only drank coffee during the day, however, as they applied themselves to the tasks of making horse-skin drums, yurt frames and curing sheep skins. They worked hard, ignoring the vicious Hungarian cold and a pride in their craft was evident, linking them to generations past of Greater Hungary when the coastline of Croatia was theirs. After a couple of beers, Ivan would drag out an old map and declare himself ready to fight to restore the former glory.
His apprentices were no less wild. The boy who had landed himself in hospital the day before, slug back his tenth glass of wine of the night and said:
“I feel alright and no one can argue with that!” and so saying, stuck his knife into the table and caused the rest of the wine to spill over the new drums.
Although Ivan insisted that I should stay with them all winter and learn to make yurts, it was time to go. The cold, the forced drinking and the fried Hungarian cuisine was taking its toll on my body and soul and I guessed I had better leave the real men to it. I had a good deal on 4 yurts and Ivan pledged to deliver them to Italy himself the next March.
Which just leaves me to send a deposit, prepare the land and get 100 bottles of wine in.