sounds: tangle and waltz and tango

We hear so often about unconditional love and so rarely receive it – I did, I now realise, every time [my grandparents] watched our magnificent gym displays on the living-room rug with straight faces; stood behind me for 30, 40 minutes in WH Smith while I agonised over the Beano versus Whizzer and Chips; sent me jars of apple puree at university. I know that, even at my most unadorable, they adored me.

How could I repay them? By amusing them, of course. I evolved a specialty, a sort of tribute act; I would pretend to order a meal, using as much of my ridiculous [40-word Hungarian] vocabulary as possible. “Good day,” I would say to the imaginary waiter, “how are you? Dressing-gown potatoes! Hot tomatoes! No! Thank you very much!”, until tears of (I think) laughter ran down their cheeks.

Charlotte Mendelson, speaking of her Czech-Hungarian grandparents


I love language in all its complexity and subtlety and simplicity.  I love the way an infant giggles hysterically when its parent faux sneezes (the language of joy); or when a dog enthusiastically chows down when fed (the language of trust); or when two people shake hands to conclude an activity or initiate a relationship (the language of hope).

While doing research on the Hungarian language, I came across an article written in 1997 that had been updated within the past few years.  It delved into the Hungarian population’s struggles with depression, alcohol, and suicide; it sought reasons as to why Hungary’s suicide rate ranks so high (according to the World Health Organization the nation’s suicide rate is 15th highest out of 172 countries).  Men are four times more likely to die than women (in 1955 before the revolution the ratio was 2:1).  An article by Krisztina Fenyo (titled Gloomy Sunday) said:

Hungarians have long had a reputation as being the gloomiest nation in Europe. They are renowned for their pessimism, depression is a nationwide problem, and until recently they had the highest suicide rate in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. Recent surveys also show that they die earlier than most European peoples.

In the map below, the darker the color, the higher the suicide rate per 100,000 population.


World Health Organization (modified)

Notice how, in many of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas the rate is quite low (regions with low rates are circled).  Many Arab and Muslim nations have extremely low rates. By contrast, many of the world’s wealthiest economies have high rates.  Almost all countries of the former Soviet bloc have quite high rates as does India.  It’s interesting that countries with high and low rates exist side-by-side (for example, Guyana [highest rate] next to one of the world’s lowest [#155] Venezuela ).  Mexico ranks 137th and the United States 47th (with a rate very similar to that of the Czech Republic, France, Slovenia, Serbia, Bolivia and Chile).


Fenyo went on to write that suicide in Hungary is viewed as a legitimate solution to one’s problems.  She quotes psychiatrist Dr. Bela Buda

In the unconscious popular mind suicide is a positive pattern of problem solution, it’s a formula which is actualised in times of crisis because everybody has experiences with other persons who committed suicide and who were regarded not as failures but as brave people daring to restore their self-esteem and dignity by this desperate and heroic act.

Thirty years ago The New York Times quoted Dr. Buda:

‘He was right, he was a brave man,’ many people will say. ‘He didn’t want to face more suffering, so he accepted death heroically.’

At the time of the Times article Hungary’s suicide rate was 48 per 100,000, so since the fall of the Soviet Union the rate has more than halved. In 2008, according to a study by Sándor Kalmár, the rate was 24.7/100,000.

by age

The first significant decrease in the suicide rate occurred from 1984 to 1998 and reasons attributed to the decrease were:

a new system of psychiatric care in which the number of outpatient psychiatric departments increased between 1982 and 1998, the number of psychiatrists increased between 1986 to 1998, and the number of emergency telephone services increased during the same period.

smile club 2

Het Leven, 1937

In the aftermath of World War I and with the onset of the depression of the 1930s, Budapest had developed a reputation as The City of Suicides (Sunday Times Perth [17 October 1937]).  Perhaps in reaction to release of the song Gloomy Sunday in 1933 – which came to be known as “The Suicide Song” – (later recorded in the U.S. by Billie Holiday), “smile clubs” were formed in Budapest and one could go to a doctor’s office and learn to smile, a public health strategy to counter the growing suicide trend.


La Valse d’Amélie


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