Somewhere beyond Budapest, in caves, woods and forests in far corners of Hungary, bears, bats and hedgehogs are sleeping soundly for the winter. ‘Hibernation’ in Hungarian is téli álom, ‘winter sleep’, which a bear, bat or hedgehog sleeps, alszik. The term is also used for a person who can’t get out of bed – while bears make a welcome appearance in other well-known phrases.
‘Mit csinál?’ ‘Téli álmot alszik’. ‘What’s he up to?’ ‘He’s hibernating.’ The ability for someone, perhaps a lazy teenager, to sleep away the entire morning elicits comparisons in Hungarian to the seasonal lifestyle of certain animals.
Bears often spring up in the Hungarian vernacular – sometimes spring up in Hungarian towns, in fact, the major city of Miskolc a particularly happy hunting ground for random YouTubers and local news broadcasters.
These make for ideal end-of-report items ('And finally..'), invariably accompanied by the heading ‘Lássuk a medvét!’, ‘Let’s see the bear!’ This phrase carries more meaning than just an excuse for local drunks to earn their 15 seconds of fame by pressing ‘record’ on their smartphones and chasing some poor frightened bear along the street. Lássuk a medvét! expresses impatience at not seeing what everyone has been waiting for. ‘OK, let’s be having it! Out with it!’
In terms of its origins, the phrase would be a perfect fit for
hibernation, the bear emerging from its cave as a harbinger of spring, a kind
of Miskolc Groundhog Day, but it has different roots entirely.
When theatre shows came to town in provincial Hungary way back when, the local populace, poorly educated toilers of the soil, would soon become bored with the discourse on stage and exclaim from the cheap seats, ‘Lássuk a medvét!’. They knew that a bear would be making a star appearance at some point and merely wanted to hurry things along. ‘Cut to the chase’, if you want to be less rustic about it.
The humble bear is unwittingly evoked in another much-used Hungarian
phrase, Előre iszik a medve bőrére. This warning of
premature celebration, ‘To drink the bear’s skin too soon’, or something
similar, was once used in English but today chickens are the victims of these untimely
Many European cultures have a version similar to Hungary’s bear warning as it harks back to a medieval fable of two hunters drinking away their would-be profits for the skin of a bear only for it to escape while they’re doing so.
Maybe that was what was happening one winter’s day in Miskolc not so long ago.