There is a highway that runs between Budapest and the city of Pecs, weaving through the Hungarian countryside. This road was built recently, and will, one day, continue down into Croatia.
Many years ago –back when cars looked like carriages and double-lane highways didn’t exist, there was a tiny village named Baranvárga in this Hungarian countryside. The village was a place of farming, because of course that’s what you do in the countryside, but it was also the birthplace of a talented musical family.
They were the Szezards, headed by Szezard Tomas. Tomas had fourteen children (almost all boys), thirteen of whom moved to the newly merged city of Budapest to play in the orchestra. The remaining child was a girl named Zsuzsanna, who married the local Baranvárga butcher, Edes Ivan.
Tomas’ sons were renowned throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire for being masters of the classical composition. While they were never quite good enough to become a Brahms or a Liszt, Tomas himself certainly might have become one of the greats if only he had left the village and moved to Budapest.
But he loved his village life, almost as much as he loved his music.
In the morning he’d wake with the violin tucked beneath his chin. He’d eat his boiled egg with one hand with plucking strings with the other. He’d sit amoungst the chickens in the yard tuning his instrument, waiting for his daughter to bring lunch. And in the evening, he would rest on the edge of the small Baranvárga fountain in the centre of the village, and play his heart out to the moonlight (and to the barking dogs, who were always mysteriously quiet during the best parts of his songs).
Tomas’ sons encouraged their father to move to Budapest, but the old man refused. This was his home (and the burial ground of his wife. While he didn’t mention this reason aloud, Tomas was very sentimental).
“Give me the morning light and fields of grapes,” he would say between the breaks in his playing as he reached for more pálinka and a slice of goose fat toast. “This is where I play and this is where I stay.”
They offered him an apartment overlooking the Danube. They offered him an audience of thousands at the Hungarian State Opera House. They even offered him indoor plumbing.
“Here I play, and here I stay,” he replied.
And so Tomas played his ingenious compositions to those who passed by the village, and his music, even if not witnessed by crowds of thousands in the concert halls of Budapest, trickled its way into Hungarian folk culture.
“This is my home. This is where I play, and this is where I’ll stay,” he would whisper, over and over as the years went by.
Then one day Tomas died right there in the centre of the town with his fingers still clasped around the violin neck. They buried him next to the fountain. And time went on. The Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed. The world had two wars. Hungary was sliced into pieces. The Russians arrived. Revolutions happened. The Russians left. Democracy took over. A highway was built.
There was some controversy in the building of this highway, and if you drive from Budapest to Pecs, it’s quite clear why. There in the very shallow hills not far from the wine region of Pecs are three absolutely unnecessary tunnels. Instead of blasting away these tiny lumps in the landscape, someone made a lot of money with construction. (These tunnels are shallow, by the way, that they had to make one of the hills larger before they could dig through.)
What no one remembers, because it hardly seems important now, is that the middle tunnel is built right over the original village of Baranvárga, just below the grave of Tomas Szeszard (now completely untraceable since the village was destroyed during the first world war).
There he rests between the rubble and the tunnel.
“This is where I stay,” he had said. And that’s where he plays even today.
Floating through the tunnel is the ghost of Tomas Szeszard himself, playing with the strings of his violin. (Occasionlly accompanied by Zsuszi’s high pitched singing voice. She wasn’t buried too far away either. It was a very small village.)
You can listen to him if you like. All you need to do is drive through the tunnel with your radio on. Zsolt and I are generally blasting Katy Perry on the national pop station. But there are no rules, just be sure to have your radio on. He’ll float into your music with his glimpses of his bouncing violin, and he’ll float out again just as you drive back into the daylight.
And that is the entirely made-up reason for why the tunnels in Hungary are haunted with folk music. It’s Tomas, head of the Szeszard family. He’s still playing, even in his grave.