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).

Keszthely Castle

Keszthely Castle

It was just a short, overnight jaunt, but it was a perfect escape from the city bustle (and yes, by “bustle,” I do mean my self-induced fatigue from too many late nights out. Hey, school’s out. Even the teacher needs a break). Although it was too cool for swimming, we took walks around the beautiful, blue lake, ate lots of ice cream, went to the nearby town of Keszthely to check out a great baroque palace (I cannot even describe the wonders of the library in there! Big, intricately carved wooden selves, twisty spiral steps, rows of fancy gold-leaf embossed books and even a hidden door in the bookshelves. I could live there. Happily) and played a monster-long game of badminton (is it shameful that I actually had a sore arm from badminton? Pathetic? Yes.) I even learned some new things, like how to play rummy (badly) and what a “siesta” meant back in the old days of the U.S.S.R. — not a “nap” in Spanish, but a Yugoslavian-made space heater, which comes with the warning to only be left on for 4 hours at a time, as it does its warming by sucking the oxygen out of the room (leading one Dávid to quip that it is called a siesta because it “…gives you a very long nap!”)

Veronika and David with the house diaries

Veronika and David with the house diaries

But one of the most interesting things, for me, was looking through the house diaries Veronika’s family has kept up over the years. Her parents began keeping these notebooks, writing a paragraph or two at a time when planning the house, and everyone has added to them over the years. If you page through, you can see the progressions of family time common anywhere (babies to toddlers to awkward preteens to too-cool-for-you-teenagers to adults) and the wonders of 1980s fashion (oh, that was the decade! Long live neon colors!), but also a few things that remind you distinctly of the history that house weathered, like the first tickets from a family trip abroad near “the changes”, as the family could not get passports earlier.

Upon our arrival, Veronika asked me write a few sentences in the current book, the fifth one (so now some English mars the Hungarian tomes!). It might seem insignificant if you haven’t looked at the diaries or know Veronika and the stories she has of her family, but I felt really honored to do this. This is their family, their history — and Vera invited me to be a part of that. That’s big, to me. That’s what is important about living somewhere so new: the people you take with you, not the skills or C.V. building-lines of fractured phrases in a new language.

David, Veronika, David #2 & Lake Balaton

David, Veronika, David #2 & Lake Balaton

Plus, as my time here winds down, I begin thinking about how small a year really is. It is a blink, a moment, and I sometimes worry it will feel like it never happened, what with the way time moves faster the older you get. Indeed, life is already plodding ahead for me in America: arrangements are being made for moving back to Arlington, people are planning birthdays and concerts in D.C. this summer, my course schedule is set and my new books all ordered. It feels, sometimes, like I’ll just slip back into the U.S. and this wonderful, crazy, beautiful year here will feel like its being erased as I become bogged down in the minutiae of life back in my old city. But writing in the house diary, I felt like I was marking myself down more permanently, assuring that, whatever comes up next, I’ve made a set place for myself here in a city that feels so strangely like “home.”

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