The Long Way Home


Homesick for Budapest
I’m homesick for Budapest. I never lived there, but spent a month roaming the city, jobless and homeless. I arrived there in November a few years ago, with one suitcase and a bad case of laryngitis. I rented a third floor room from Catarina, a woman in her 70s who rented spaces to unsuspecting American tourists. The building was near Parliament on the Pest side of the Danube. I entered the dark hallway. There was no heat. The walls were painted an antique hospital green, which were peeling from the window panes. Mailboxes were clearly marked, but barely hanging by the hinges. Catarina called down to me from somewhere above. You Lisa? She said. Yes, I said in a hoarse voice. Where are you? You go up lift, she said. She dropped a pair of keys from the third floor. They landed on top of my suitcase.
She explained that I needed the keys to work the pulley elevator in the middle of the building. She explained, as she showed me the room, that she was lucky to have a working elevator, since a lot of the apartment buildings in Budapest no longer had ones that worked at all. My room was tiny with a bed and a rabbit-eared TV. The small bathroom was the Eastern European kind, with a shower attachment. You usually ended up squatting in the stall because the water pressure was never enough as we’re used to in the States. She quoted me 45 Euros, instead of the 25 that the guide had promised. I would need to move to a hostel after a few days because I was worried about cash. I worried about a lot of things that first week. I worried because I quit my job of seven years. I didn’t have more cash until Christmas, so I had to stretch that last bit for almost two months. And then there was the obvious: What the hell had I just done, leaving home without thinking about why I left in the first place?
detail of catarina's courtyard

detail of catarina's courtyard

 I was so sick the first few days in Budapest that I spent most of them in the room, bundled in a quilt, watching Euro MTV because I couldn’t understand Hungarian. I watched Dancer in the Dark, thankful that I never saw it in English because what I could follow just didn’t make any damn sense in any language. When the antibiotics kicked in and I could talk again, I braved the snow and the language barrier enough to walk the streets. I learned to read maps. Each morning, I highlighted places I really wanted to see, then figured out how the hell to get there. I think of Budapest in flashes – the sun on the Danube, my vision blinded by snow. Standing outside my room, listening to all the apartments grouped in the courtyard around me – the clatter of forks; a cough fit, or a child crying; the click of clothing in the laundry room next to my door. Being accosted by a Dutch Hare Krishna who told every foreign woman that she was beautiful. Walking through the Jewish quarter, trying to imagine the ghetto during World War II. Most of the buildings were pockmarked and scarred, bright yellows and blues against skies that darkened much earlier than home. I ate Chinese food from a place near my little nest, a Magyar version of chow mein smothered over roasted potatoes sprinkled with paprika. I relished those moments alone. 

Buda overlooking the danube

Buda overlooking the danube

In a few weeks time, I had conquered my fears of being completely in a different place, and started to see how people could live in one place forever,  allowing the language to fill them – in street signs and television and the tram clatter or at a train stop. Most of my English was spent writing to people at home, long handwritten letters that I knew would go unanswered because people didn’t write letters anymore. I didn’t care. I knew that the letters were love letters from my temporary home – they were meant more for me than anyone else.

a view through fisherman's bastion

I met so many people in the last few weeks I was there, people I still have contact with after all these years. It’s strange, to think of knowing someone for only a few days, yet feeling close to them in ways you may have known someone much longer. Maybe the brevity of time makes intimacy all that more immediate.

view from a room near Nyugati Station

view from a room near Nyugati Station

I was flipping through a National Geographic article recently about train travel. There was a photo of a morning in a train station right out of an old film. It was Keleti station, and I became excited, because I had suspected it was Keleti station and I had been there. I knew what it looked like in early morning. I had traveled in and out of that station many times, watching the schedule roll numbers on a giant destination board hanging from the ceiling. I remember watching for the times, sitting on top of my giant suitcase, thinking that it felt weird to be on the road because it didn’t feel strange. It felt like that was what I was meant to be doing in my life.

Home felt strange to me and unreal. Now I’m home and Budapest feels as if it didn’t happen. It’s taking a lot for me now to crawl back in memory and write this, trying to recall what the air smelled like on those cold Danube mornings, as I wondered why I ever left home. I have joined the ranks of routine again, and I’m lost because I want to gain back that peace I felt when I was on the road. I miss Budapest because it was the gateway to the rest of my stay in Eastern Europe for the next six months. I learned the gifts of patience, solitude and the importance of accepting who I am.

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