June 2009

It’s the last day in Budapest.

At 4:30 a.m., I will be on my way to Ferihegy. At 7 a.m., I will start the first of three flights. At 11 p.m., I will be in Pittsburgh International Airport.


It is too soon, too close, too crazy inside me right now to fully accept that this beautiful, beautiful experience is ending. I can’t believe a year went by so fast. I can’t believe Budapest won’t be my city anymore.

The only thing I keep thinking is Hungarian formal version of goodbye — “viszontlátásra” — literally translates to something like “I’ll be seeing you.” And I will. This particular experience — the Fulbright year — might be over. But I know, for many reasons, I will never be able to get over Budapest.


The first event I can remember actually following on the news was the war over the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early to mid-90s. I think, for many Americans of my age, the name of “Bosnia” or “Croatia” conjures up images of bleakness, of war and death and pain.

Visiting these countries with my fellow Fulbright friend, Sarah, today, however, shows a place teeming with life. Yes, there are still remnants of the destruction that raged there. But as I walked down a Sarajevo street around 11 p.m., the idea of “siege” and “sniper” and all those other fearful words which I associate with that city’s names faded as I wove through the packed, cobblestone streets. Like the Italians, the Bosnians like an evening passagiata, a walk simply to see and be seen. Whole familys wandered the main squares, calling out to friends. Music spilled out of bars. People downed Sarajevo Pivo. In the span of one block, lights threw a Catholic church, a mosque, an Orthodox church and a synagogue into beautiful illumination. Far from just being a “war survivor”, the city, to me, seemed to thrive.



Of course, I was a one-day visitor there (and elsewhere in my travels in the region), and I know my little taste of such places cannot begin to show all the pain of healing that such places must go through. I know, equally, that the great “cheap” prices an American traveler encounters there means the real residents are struggling economically. But I also want to change the minds that still see the Balkans as a land of crisis only. Part of me wants to tell everyone know to go there, right away. The other (selfish) part of me wants to keep it a secret, to keep everything as perfect as it was for our trip.

And again, coming back from a ten-day onslaught of un-understandable Croatian and Bosnian, arriving back in Ferihegy, where I knew what jo estet meant from passport control, where I knew exactly how to get back from the airport (a route I know better, I must admit, than the road to the airport back in D.C.) Ahh, good to be home, I thought, before the sinking realization that this “home” is only mine until 7 a.m. Tuesday morning.

So for now, I’m off to enjoy one bit more of this home — and I’ll just leave you with the images I know think about when I hear “Balkans”.

Dubrovnik by night

Dubrovnik by night


I am really, really wishing I could freeze time right now.  It is jumping by in great big gobs — far too fast to hold onto.

I was talking to my fellow Fulbrighter, Sarah, tonight, as we finished planning our Great Balkan Adventure (10 days through Bosnia and Croatia, for which we depart Tuesday morning!) and, as we hung up, she noted: “I can’t believe it’s all ending.” But it is —  she won’t return to Hungary after said G.B.A.; I will but just for about four days. Last Sunday night, over another around in Szimpla, Natalie noted it was our last night as “official” Fulbrighters, as the grant technically ends May 31. We were both shocked into a sad, nostalgic daze by this (which we dealt with the only way we could figure out: lots and lots of pálinka.)

Right now, I feel oddly similar to how I did last August, nervous and jumpy, not able to sleep and constantly feeling that nagging “did-I-forget-something?” feeling” The emotion made sense then: I was off to the most unknown of the unknown, a country and a language and a people I knew nothing about. Now, I’m off to what is very well known: I’ll be back to D.C. (more home than the parental home now), and, even more familiar, I’ll be back to the exact same apartment, with a good, old friend … even the old neighbors have promised a welcome-back beer. So, why do I seem so scared now?

Ring Road at dawn

Ring Road at dawn

Maybe it’s because I am leaving a lot, a dreamworld of sorts. The girl who spent her teen years drooling over National Geographic magazine and wishing for a passport will have been in ten countries and at least twice as many cities this year. Or maybe because I am still leaving a home, albeit one held for a short time.

Just last night, one of my favorite clubs, Gödör Klub, was having its regular Balkan Beats night. This is an awesome, awesome dance party, where bands from both Hungary and around Europe play a crazy, amped-up version of folk music. In short, it’s dance-tastic. (should you ever land here, you must check and see if its on) This month’s lineup was particularly good, with Hungarian band Romano Drom and the German DJ who founded this party. The floor was packed, the huge steps which lead into the club (in the site of an old bus station, so it’s sort of underground) were teeming with Budapestians and backpackers. After a sweaty dance session to Romano Drom’s set, we headed outside for some much-needed fresh air. As we sat in the grass nearby, I looked at the group we made: Natalie and I, the Americans; Patrick, our German friend; Nat’s Icelandic boyfriend, Baldur; and an assortment of two Swedes, a Dane, a Scot, a Brit and two Hungarians. We tipped back Dreher and fröccs, looking at the illuminated dome of Szent István cathedral. Tired, Natalie and I lay down and looked up at the few stars that we could see through the city lights. We watched the light go out on Szent István around 2 a.m. It seemed somehow fitting: a goodnight, a goodbye.

But then Patrick and Baldur pulled us back up to continue dancing. It also seemed somehow fitting: a reminder that there is no such thing as an end to an experience this lovely.

We danced until we were dripping. We walked home through a still-buzzing Király utca at nearly 4 a.m. We called it a beautiful night. We called Budapest in the early summer beautiful. We called life beautiful.

I have just returned from my second trip to the “ocean” of Hungary, Lake Balaton. While I had already visited this lake once, with the whole Fulbright group, this trip had an extra-special element: I got to stay in the hand-built family weekend house of my dearest Hungarian friend, Veronika.

The House Dad Schandl Built!

The House Dad Schandl Built!

I am not exaggerating when I say hand-built either: Veronika’s dad literally did just this, starting the plans back in 1969. First, as a “boat shed” (this was during Communism, and they could not get a permit for a house, but could get one for a boat shed. Party inspectors even came to check that the structure met acceptable boat-shed-ness, Veronika explained,) and then later added on to make a bigger house, it is quite impressive — a cute, snug whitewashed structure that seems to emit a feeling of summery relaxation.

The house is located in a smaller town on the lake, called Balatonmáriafürdő, one that is not super-heavy on the German pensioners that so love Lake Balaton. Veronika and I also were lucky to have a fabulous chauffeur and chef, in the forms of the Dávids (no, they’re not some Hungarian band or something — just two great guys, both named Dávid). The Hungarians, I soon discovered, would get along very well with my mom and dad, for they both take the same approach to spending a weekend at the lake: pack enough food for at least three weeks. (Seriously, Veronika had a whole duffel. And the feast one Dávid cooked us for lunch Saturday was similar in size to the meals of My Crazy Great Aunts, little Italian ladies famed for feeding). (more…)