Friends


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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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…)

… but you should go to İstanbul, at your earliest availability.

(Why yes, I do recognize the shamelessly cheesy They Might Be Giants reference.  But you know you think the same thing when you hear İstanbul. Don’t hide it!).

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

To end the Spring Break touring, Carolyn and I hopped an overnight bus to İstanbul. And it was amazing from the first second. I mean that quite literally: we stepped off of the bus, stiff legged and sleepy, at 5:30 a.m., to be surrounded by the call to prayer — beautiful, echoing strains of Arabic —  coming from mosques all around us.

Good morning, İstanbul!

[NOTE:  Bulgaria is not yet on the Euro. Turkey is not even in the EU. However, should you be an American, on a bus to Turkey from Bulgaria, have 15 Euro with you. Why? Because you have to buy a visa, and pay in Euro. Why? I have no clue. Yet, I assure you, it is better than nearly being stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border whilst your friend finagles a border guard into selling you some Euro for some Bulgaria leva. Trust me. You don’t want to be stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border]

From the towering minarets to the men selling little round loaves of bread from tall stacks on their heads to the sparkly, turquoise Bosphorus to the huge billboards advertising fashionable versions of the traditional Muslim head scarves, İstanbul made me feel like I wished I had more eyes, as if my own two were insufficient to take in all the beauty around me.

Inside the Harem

Inside the Harem

We walked into mosques, such as the famous Blue Mosque, which were covered with the most intricate tilework, shining with deep, rich colors and swirls of Arabic lettering in gold. We stared in awe at the cavernous Hagia Sophia, where the sun streaming through the windows onto the ancient tile was enough to make you forget what year it was. We took boats across the Bosphorus, watching the blue water stream by the steep shores where sun-bleached houses seemed to sprout out of one another. We ate fresh fish, flash-grilled along the shoreline. We pondered whether it really would have been that bad to be a courtesan when we saw the harem at the Topkapı Palace. We smoked too much nargileh, or flavored tobacco in a water pipe,  for two girls who do not smoke at all.  We emptied our pockets on the wide array of glittery goodness at the Grand Bazaar, even managing a hand at bargaining while sipping apple tea, and bought our weight in Turkish Delight (that stuff they sell in most US stores and call Turkish Delight? Not even close!) at the Spice Bazaar.  We drank numerous cups of the dark, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.

Beyoğlu at Sunset

Beyoğlu at Sunset

But I think the aspect I loved about  İstanbul most was not a view or a dish or a museum, but an attitude, how it seemed to literally teem with life. Like walking into Times Square on a warm spring evening, going to the neighborhood called Beyoğlu (a steeper-than-steeply hilly ‘hood, directly across the Bosphorus from all the “big” tourist sites) meant walking into a crowd.  Sometimes, I hate crowds — like August in Washington, when the number of belt-pack-wearing Midwestern tourists (who always refuse to stand on the right side of the Metro escalator, so those of us D.C.-ians in a rush can pass on the left!) is enough to make me want to strangle them with their recently purchased “You Don’t Know Me: FBI Witness Protection Program” (why, oh why, do those keep selling?!?) or “God Bless America” T-shirts.  But at other times, when you find a city just hitting its evening, work’s-done-fun-get-together time stride, the crowd can be electric and energizing. It pulses; it makes you want to get out and join it. It makes you want to be part of the action. İstanbul’s got that kind of vibe. The streets are so crowded around 7 p.m. that you almost feel pushed by the swell of people behind you — and yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of push you want, to start your own fun night.  (more…)

The Hotel de Russo — also known as my 32 sq. m. studio — has been very busy lately, hence a long interruption in updates. But before spring totally fades, I want to add in my last bits of reminiscence about a spring break now far gone.

After tackling the joys of Sofia, my dear friend and guide to all things Bulgarian — the incomparable Carolyn — agreed to one of my main requests for the journey, which was to see some “real” Bulgaria. And by “real” Bulgaria, I mean all those things the average American, Lonley-Planet-clutching/Rick-Steve’s-Reading folk can’t find.

And Carolyn didn’t disappoint: we headed for an overnight in Kazanlak, (in Bulgarian- Казанлък, thank YOU Wikipedia!), a small town in the central region of Bulgaria.  The town lies in the famous “Valley of the Roses” — that’s where all those pieces of tourist kitsch, the wooden dolls filled with Rose Perfume, hail from this region.

Carolyn LOVES history!

Carolyn LOVES history!

But the big draw here is the Thracian Tomb, which was built in the 4th century BC, near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis. The tomb — which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 — is best summed up by Carolyn’s comment: I can’t believe we are standing somewhere so ancient, and just looking at it. Indeed. I can’t post pictures because you cannot take them inside, obviously, as it would destroy the fine paintings, but it is amazing. The tomb itself is small — Carolyn and I filled the space pretty well together — but the paintings preserved inside are amazing, depicting an ancient wedding feast. To stand there, my international cell phone in my pocket, in my mass-produced jeans and T-shirt did certainly invoke that feeling of insignificance — but in a good way. We are but blips on the radar; our time here is small compared to the great spector of history.

And, it is just freakin’ cool, period. Even without the philosophical blather.

And, crazier still: the tomb was found accidentally, by soldiers during the second World War. Could you imagine? Whoops, what is that hard surface? Egads, it happens to be a FREAKING FOURTH CENTURY TOMB! No, I have to say, of all the interesting things I have dug up helping my dad with his garden, 4th century tombs, unfortunately, do not make the list.

Overlooking Shipka

Overlooking Shipka

We followed the trip into the ancient world with a stopover in nearby Shipka, a tiny town about a 20 minute bus ride aways you can see from the picture, Shipka, as viewed from the hills around it, is postcard-perfect: small, red-roofed houses, teeny-tiny twisting lanes, even donkey carts roaming the streets.

We then scaled the hill to what was my favorite sight in Bulgaria: the Shipka Monastery. This Monastery sits high above the town, so that as you approach it, the huge, gold onion-shaped domes leap out at you from the moutainside. It is impressive from a distance, but even more so close up, where you can see the gorgeous colors and rich, warm gold accents. (more…)

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

I ….

  • Was told by a Hungarian that he could tell I was from “Pittsburgh or somewhere like it” by my accent.

Now, it is actually true that I have a somewhat Pittsburgh-y accent. Certainly, I don’t use the full dialect, and I don’t use “yinz” unless I am joking, but when I arrived at Georgetown, I learned for the first time that I do carry some of the Midwest or mid-Atlantic or Rust Belt or whatever region you call places that aren’t on the coast but aren’t smack-dab in the middle when new roommates and friends pointed out my pronunciation on certain words (like my sort of “a” sound instead of a true “i” in the word “milk.”) But I was very impressed by a student in the new GRE workshop I have organized for the Fulbright Center who was able to pick it out. It made more sense when I learned he has a long-term girlfriend in North Carolina, and hence has been exposed to the many variants of that Southern accent, so he’s interested in

Perhaps somewhat ironically, later this weekend, a fellow Fulbrighter who hails from Kentucky told me I speak far too East Coast (re: FAST!)  — to the point where he feels his “English-as-a-second-language” speed which he uses all day with colleagues can barely pick it up. I blame 8 years of Washington, where if you don’t smoosh your words between someone else’s, you’ll never get them out at all.

  • Went African dancing with three Hungarian girls

My colleague at the Fulbright Center, Krisztina, is really into dancing and, as I have reported before, has been kind enough to take me Csángó (folk) dancing. This Friday, however, she brought me along to her newest hobby, West African dance classes.  Firstly, this dancing would be tons of fun in any language — lots of spinning, arm-throwing, stomping and no real worries about messing up the steps (as the teacher said, it is all about “dancing with the heart”) But what made it even more interesting was a room full of Hungarian girls, some Francophone African drummers and a she-would-have-done-well-at-Woodstock-looking multi-lingual teacher. Talk about a cultural mashup.

  • Got on the “director’s list” at a cool play’s performance

One of the nicest things about helping students at the Fulbright Center is how kind and thankful they are when you help them. Much of my work — helping to edit C.V.s or cover letters, explaining how to write application essays — is the type of thing I do for friends and family all the time in the US. What I can figure out in 10 or 20 minutes, however, seems to make the Hungarian students I work with very grateful. And I’m grateful too: I love to feel useful, and, to be honest, being really good at English writing doesn’t always make you feel all that effective in the States. But I thought one student I had helped was especially sweet in his thanks:  he invited me play he was directing as a thank-you.

I love, love, love live theater, but have to admit I don’t get to see nearly enough of it since graduating. I think the reason I originally loved journalism so much was that I started at my college paper as a theater reviewer, and continued as the entertainment section editor, which meant free plays every week. My student’s show, held at Siraly (an awesome alternative arts space/bar) was great. The play, called Wise of of the World, was based on a Gypsy folktale, a story that jumped all over the place in a sort of magical-realism-y whimsy.  The actors were amazing (particularly their ability to change characters so well by throwing their voices/changing their voices), and my student’s direction was really awesome: he used the space well, planting actors in the audience, staging it so they wandered through the crowd, and the simple set and costumes were creative and engaging. Even though we had to read the projected subtitles,which might normally disrupt that whole suspension of belief thing, I was completely pulled in.

But the evening was fun from the beginning, when I discovered I was on the “director’s list” of guests. I felt a little like a celebrity … or at least, less like the “random stranger in a strange place” that life abroad often is.

  • Got a potential fiancé

As more friends’ weddings come and go, I get older and my skills at actually dating get worse, my plan of a marriage of convenience seems all the more attractive — particularly one that would give me dual EU citizenship (because I really want to buy a nice apartment on Kiraly utca or somewhere nearby, and I know this would be easier with said citizenship … as would my new plan to teach at NoVA all school year, and summer in Europe). Well, my new friend Christian — a lovely young German boy who Natalie and Sarah met during an intensive Hungarian class in Pécs — could also use some U.S. citizenship (for the ease of getting into PhD programs and for his desire to live for awhile in a big American city like New York). Now, most people go for white dresses and romance and all that … but this arrangement seems a bit more logical for me.

(note to concerned Mother/US Immigration authorities: I’m just kidding.)

Kind of.

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