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Swapping the Utca for the Spanish Strand

I’m back on the Balearic Island of Mallorca, far from my more usual haunts of Budapest. Swapping the street for the beach has offered me a splendid opportunity to ponder the differences between the Hungarian and Spanish national character.

Dance show “Evening Banquet” performed by Hungaryʼs ExperiDance troupe in Chengdu, China, on October 25, 2008. David Holzer says he has detected flamenco rhythms in Hungarian Roma music.

Having said that, I would point out that many of this proud island race would regard themselves as Mallorquin first, Catalan second, and Spanish last. Still, to the outside eye, and for our purposes, they’re Spanish.  

Although there aren’t so many things the Hungarians and Spanish obviously have in common, there are surprising similarities once you start really looking.

The most obvious one to me is in the cuisines of the two countries. It’s not so much the food itself. There’s a world of difference between the calorie-loaded, salt and cream rich Hungarian diet and that of the traditional Mediterranean.

I say traditional because, apparently, Spanish kids are now among the fattest in Europe.

But what is common to the two cuisines is their simplicity. When I dine out in either Hungary or Mallorca, I’m not looking to try a bewildering diversity of dishes. I’m trying to find the best version of something I already love.

In Hungary, this is fish soup. When I’m in Mallorca, it’s Frito Mallorquin. This is made from potatoes, onions, artichokes, red pepper and either liver, meat or – my favorite – squid or cuttlefish.

I know where to go for amazing Frito Mallorquin. If you’re ever in Palma, there’s a bar in Santa Catalina called Joan Frau which does the best I’ve yet to taste. Of course, I’m still looking.

No Tomb-like Quiet

Joan Frau represents the apogee of Mallorquin food and culture for me. You eat standing up and share your food with your companions. It’s also spectacularly noisy, unlike the tomb-like quiet of most Hungarian cafés and restaurants.

Having been away from Mallorca for several months, I’d forgotten how much I love noise.

Incidentally, I have a rule of thumb with paella. If someone recommends a place as doing “the best paella I’ve ever tasted”, don’t go there. It’s bound to be the worst paella you’ve ever tasted. Go on your own quest for spicy, ricey heaven.

Something else Mallorquin and Hungarian cuisine have in common is the use of spices. This is down to the influence of the Moors, who were in Mallorca for several hundred years, and the Turks, in Hungary for around 150.

This simple cuisine is, I guess, down to the innate conservatism of both Hungary and Mallorca. Outside Budapest, Hungary can hardly be said to be international. Despite the tourists and foreigners who’ve settled in Mallorca, the island people themselves remain stoically Mallorquin and wary of foreigners.

Apart from food, the other main similarity I’ve noticed is when it comes to music. Like Hungary and its Roma, Spain has a substantial gypsy (or Gitano) minority. Also, like Hungary, I suspect far more Spanish people are gypsy than would be prepared to admit.

Not so long ago, I was watching a gypsy band perform on a Hungarian TV talent show and I realized that the rhythms they were using were the same as flamenco. Hungarian gypsy music isn’t as Arabic as flamenco, but it certainly has the same passionate, tragic feel.

One last profound observation on the subject of similarities: the Spanish and Hungarian words for jellyfish and car are the same. Medusa and coche. I wonder why.

Now for the differences.

Manaña, manaña

Whatever else they may be, I find Hungarians to be efficient. Handymen, for instance, have always arrived when they said they were going to. Touch wood, they’ve always done a great job.

In Mallorca, I have to say that the opposite tends to be the rule. So much so that I’m pleasantly surprised when someone turns up to fix something, even if it’s the next day.

The problem is that I’m usually so grateful I tend not to notice the quality of the work until later.

In defense of the Spanish, I would like to share something I’ve been told about the whole “manaña, manaña” thing. It seems that when the ultra-efficient Germans and Brits, who like to think they’re the same, turned up in Spain they had no idea of the realities of getting things fixed.

Even though it has come to mean “tomorrow”, “manaña” actually means in the indefinite future.

Leaving that aside, it’s interesting to watch the two Hungarians I know on Mallorca at work. They’re hardworking, of course, but you could put that down to economic necessity alone, and they’re politeness personified.

I have to make another aside here. Hungarians are obsessed with tipping. Spanish people never tip for things like coffee or drinks. They’ll only tip a decent amount if food has been exceptional. I’ve been told the reason is that Spanish waiters and waitresses are paid a decent salary while Hungarians have to survive on tips to supplement their wages.

But it’s not just a question of being hardworking. The two Hungarians, one a waitress and the other a café owner, are whip smart.

I wrote an article on the new café the owner had opened that appeared on a blog about the island. The first time I visited, the owner, who to the best of my knowledge I’d never been introduced to, greeted me by name and made a point of thanking me.

A Spanish bar owner probably wouldn’t do that.