Budapest


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.

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As my time here winds closer and closer to and end (Friday is our going away boat party! And marks exactly ONE month until my own, real going away. Eeek!), I find myself going into premature nostalgia overload. “I need one more of this…and this.. and this… ”  runs through my head about 20 times a day — everything from the sight of the Chain Bridge to the cute little dinging sound the M1/Yellow Line metro makes when arriving at a station is enough to send me into peals of sentiment.

This is not uncommon for me and my many-times-moved self: I did the same thing at the close of college, before I left D.C. to come here, and even before leaving my stint at The Beaver County Times (and trust me, if you can find yourself getting nostalgic and saying “oh, gee, my last Ambridge Council meeting!  Better enjoy the near-fistfight between Mayor Buzzy and whomever comes in to complain about hookers on Merchant Street while I can!” you can count yourself certifiably over-emotional)

But Budapest is so truly wonderful a place to live — and this year has been such a crazily cool experience — that even chores can spark some nostalgia. Yup, today while doing that task known as “running errands” , I realized how much I will miss going grocery shopping in Budapest. Now, I have to say, while I occasionally missed things (or, more often, people) from the States, I never sat back and reminisced about all the great times I had at the Wilson Blvd. Safeway or fighting off G.W. undergrads for a sale on 2-buck Chuck win at the local Trader Joe’s. But grocery shopping, for me, means going to the Central Market.

My Family Loves the Central Market!

My Family Loves the Central Market!

The Central Market is always well-marked in tour books for Budapest — and now that it is tourist time, they are all there, taking pictures of those of us “regular” shoppers who just need our produce. But it attracts the visitors for good reason: it is big, gorgeous building, with high, vauled ceilings that cover row upon row of delicious fresh produce, meat, cheese and, on the second floor, every type of Hungarian kitsch your could ask for (who needs a peasant woman-shaped wine opener? There are plenty There is even both a langos stand and a retes stand — fried dough + pastries under one roof? What else can a girl need for true happiness?

The market also offers a chance to feel like you really get to care about what you put into your body. In America, we tend to be really bad at that — home of fast-food, home of pre-prepared. But when you get to walk from stall to stall, looking for whose asparagus looks the freshest, or feel like you have a relationship with the butcher (or, in my personal case, the all-women manned butcher stall to which I always return) who sells you one fresh chicken breast at a time (not a giant bag os salt-injected, pre-frozen stuff), that feels like a different variety of good food. And, it generally also tastes great.  You see a bunch of just-in-season veggies — right now, it is asparagus — that looks great, and even if it would not make your normal shopping list while at one of the mega-stores, you buy it.

Sure, one can find this experience in the states — certainly, in hip-to-be-healthy big cities like the Washington area. But you can only afford to do that, in most cases, if you’re of the more moneyed type (there is a reason, after all, we all call Whole Foods by its alternate name, Whole Paycheck). Today, at the market, I walked out with a giant bag of fresh veggies, some cheese, this awesome whole-grain bread from one of my newest favorite vendors and some fresh chicken — and I spent maybe the equivalent of $10. Plus, the Central Market is one of the few places in Budapest’s center city where everyone humors my bad Hungarian. I think this might have a great deal to do with the fact that most vendors don’t speak much English.

And, unfortunately, even if I could drop money weekly for the Whole Foods or fancy-pants Arlington farmers’ markets back home, I don’t think those vendors will let me practice my budding magyarul skills.

So, if you’re coming this way, definitely go — and understand why running errands will be one of the things I miss most from my beautiful Budapest year.

To top off a year spent hosting visitors of every type, I recently finished hosting the most important group: the family (családom, if my Hungarian is correct…which it likely isn’t, considering a spent the better part of their visit introducing my younger sister as my older brother. Jaj! Hungarian defeats me again!)

I won’t claim it was perfect — my family is as dysfunctional as the next, and I highly recommend against ever trying to share a bathroom with my older sister — but it was certainly special. Namely, what made me excited was getting to see my mother enjoy her first trip abroad.

My mom is, in a word, awesome. It sounds Hallmark-card cheesy, but she is my best friend: caring, loving and 100°% supportive of me, even in situations where many parents might put pressure on one (such as one’s Georgetown freshman child, who is currently sinking the family and herself into debt, calling to say she is dropping out of the business school to pursue the ever-financially unwise field of English literature. Most ‘rents would at least flinch. My mom? I want you to be happy. Simple as that).

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

The Best Mom Ever at the Prettiest Bridge Ever

But my mom and I are also extremely different in many ways, not the least of which is how we have approached our lives as women. Mom, despite coming of age in the hip-to-be-feminist 1960s, could be textbook Traditional Wife and Mother: married high school sweetheart, stayed at home for 12 years raising 3 kids, takes care of house and constantly self-sacrifices, and lives in the same zip code where she grew up.  Whereas Mom was all settled down with Dad by the age of 15, my life has been a bit more…well, un-settled (I suppose that is what you call more than 15 moves in less than ten years). As such, while for me, my greatest ambition in high school was to get a passport and stamps in it, mom’s was the white wedding she got as soon as she graduated college.  So, international jet-setting was sort of out of the question for her. At 57, then, this was her first trip outside the U.S., Niagra Falls notwithstanding.

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

Baby Sis (not Big Brother) and the famous Trabi

And for me, being able to show her Europe for the first time was wonderful. Seeing the sights I have already become accustomed to — St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Chain Bridge at night, Castle Hill and the Central market — through her eyes made me love them all the more.  her excitement made mine increase tenfold. It also felt like I was able to “explain” myself to my family better. They know, and I know, that I am the black sheep. I always have been, from my decision to spend a high school summer taking extra school for fun to the fact that I am the only one who has not (and will not) settle in Pittsburgh, I stick out; I remain the geeky-bookish-city type in a family of suburban non-nerds.  By taking them through Budapest, showing off the new home in my ever-unstable existence, I feel like I was able to let them in, a little, on what makes me tick.

And, if they left with nothing else, I at least can say with certainty that they, too, are lovers of langós and pálinka.  What else would do for my “cultural ambassador” mission?

… of Spring Break Reminiscence to bring you breaking news of a rare sighting in Budapest:

Today, at approximately 5:49 p.m., while on my way to catch the train home from a day at Pázmány, I spotted the POPPED COLLAR POLO SHIRT on a Hungarian.

The popped collar, or the collar of one’s polo worn flipped up, was a sad scourge upon my Georgetown education. Yes, despite an excellent education, a kickingly cool faculty (Madeline Albright, anyone?), great alumni network (our best native son, Yes-He-Was-Slutty-But-Still-a-Damn-Good-President-Hey-Remember-That-STRONG-Economy Bill Clinton?), Georgetown, as a wildly expensive school in a wildly expensive city still attracted its fair share of students known, for lack of a more diplomatic term, Over-privileged Tools.  Now, on one level, I appreciate the O.T.’s existence at such schools — hey, you pay full fare so I don’t have to — but somewhere around my sophomore year, the collars started to turn up.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I don't actually know these guys. But I very well might have "accidentally" poured a beer on them during college.

I thought it was a joke, an bit of irony in a throwback to Zach Morris-style preppiness. But no. These kids were serious as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan is about his Terrible Towel: they meant it.

The collar-popping began to creep around, sucking more and more people into its vicious cycle. You’d be talking to a guy in class one day, he’d seem intelligent and interesting — then, come Saturday night, under the influence of Miller Lite and the glisten of the Potomac River viewed from a rooftop party, poof, you’d seem him: collar popped, and your hopes dashed, for he was one of Them. Despite heckling from some pretty harsh critics, the popped collar endemic seems lasting at my beloved alma mater. I once, as a graduate student, even saw one on a student working at my old student-run coffee shop, a place where we once had your respectable, crunch-alt-anti-establishment employees who would have seen a popped collar O.T. and refused him a caffeine fix. (I shed a single tear)

But I though Pázmány was better. European students are so much more sophisticated, on the whole, that us coddled Americans — and, even in a globalized world, I expected them to still have the market cornered on fashion.

So I say this to you, young Hungarians: one popped collar might not seem like a big deal. But it takes just one bad seed to start a cascade of tool-ish dressing. Soon, your hip bars, your grungy-proud Szimplas and unassuming Potkulcs could be filled, not with people dressed in the requisite crumpled black of Euro cool, but in the over-J.Crew-ified world of well-pressed polo shirts.

And need I even warn you about the evil which is soon to follow the popped collar? Yes, even to you, the Critter Pants could emerge.

Let’s not take any chances, shall we? Should you find my rogue collar popper, kindly turn it down for him. Then slap him upside the head.  I — and your country — shall thank you for it.

Maybe the New York Times is reading my posts about being too down on Hungary, because the front page, around 11 a.m. Hungarian time, today, had this upbeat story “Hungary’s Spirits Are Back Up, on a Horse,”

The writer here tries to draw a parallel between America’s Seabiscuit and a Hungarian winner called Overdose.  It is too simple a comparison, to be sure, but it is an interesting story.

And it even brings up Trianon and the loss of Greater Hungary. Of course. Because I haven’t heard about that enough in my 7+ months here …

1)  Budapest has burst into spring — the cafe tables are out, it has been in the low 70s (whatever that is in Celsius … I never did get very good at metric conversions), it’s been lovely enough out that I can go running on Margit Island again, I can finally hang up my winter coat (which smells, permanently I fear, of the millions of secondhand cigarettes faced in a winter’s worth of Hungarian bars),

2) I enjoyed one of said cafe tables with one of my students from my fall class on Women Writers. She is not enrolled at Pazmany this term — she has a job in Switzerland. But she asked for the reading list for the spring class. For fun.

Yes. She asked for a syllabus for fun. My teacher heart exploded a bit.  Or a lot.

3) I ran into a Hungarian I know on the street. OK, that doesn’t sound that happy — but I remember how, before I left D.C., I thought that one of the things I will miss the most is all the spontaneous friend-spotting and chatting which occurs when a city has been “yours” for 8 years. Today, when I ran into a sweet Hungarian boy I met back in November and we had a little talk, I felt how strongly Budapest has become “my” city.

Which could quickly turn into a sad thought, if I think of that return ticket I just booked, and how quickly that date approaches. So I won’t.

More happiness to follow soon, when I get a chance to chronicle the awesome spring break I had, which included, among other things, a near detainment at a border crossing, tromping through the valley of the roses, and a restaurant that mixed Bulgarian nationalism with Bulgarian kitsch to delightful effect. (For now, I have to get back to my “wild” Friday night: singing Mamma Mia! tunes with my favorite 14-year-old, Lily the daughter-of-a-fellow-Fulbrighter).

The great Toni Morrison, in the dedication to her novel Sula, wrote: “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

With just about three months left (three?!? where did it all go?) in my Hungarian/European adventures  — being due back in the U.S. by late June for my “second job” … professional bridesmaid — I am feeling that way, only about a city, not a person. I am nostaglic for Budapest before I have even left it.

Last night, I met an old friend of mine, Marynia, a Polish-Canadian-American girl I met some ten years ago while at Governor’s School. Three years ago, Marynia took leave of her New York life to begin working as a correspondent for Reuters in Warsaw, and was coming through Budapest with her boyfriend, a Dutch radio correspondent covering Eastern Europe. As we sat in Szimpla, rhapsodizing on our love of Eastern Europe,  how much fun we were having and how happy we were not to be lawyers (a path taken by so many of our friends, it seems), Marynia asked me if I was ready to go back to the States.

No, I emphatically said. She asked why I didn’t think of staying more, and I explained how I do have a dream job awaiting at home and how as much as I love teaching here, I know that the terribly low salaries a Hungarian English teacher makes mean I couldn’t really feasibly make this move permanent.

But I’m still feeling a premature ache of missing Budapest. How is it that nearly seven months have passed since I landed? How has the 4/6 villamos become as familar as the Orange Line metro? And how is it that I have somehow felt more like myself here, where I barely understand a word, where I have no ties of culture or heiritage, than I have in many years? As Marynia and I discussed over száraz vörös bor last night, there is something immensely beneficial in moving out of the norm you have established for yourself.  We talked about the “crossroads”  feeling you face in your 20s — not sure where to go, and worrying about wrong turns. I certainly felt that before I left last August … and I worried I had somehow turned the “wrong” way a lot.  Now, I’m remembering there are a lot of ways to be happy, a lot of shapes for a life.

I caught a glimpse of the Chain Bridge last night on my way home from Hungarian class, and, all lit up over the Duna, it almost made me cry. I’ll miss you, I thought, staring at it. I’ll miss this, I thought the day before, wandering the Central Market stalls.  It’s hard to grapple with.

But if Morrison is right, that is the true beauty and blessing: to have been somewhere so wonderful, lived something so lovely that it already hurts me to think of leaving makes me quite lucky indeed.

Nagyon szép

Nagyon szép

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