The Long Way Home

Great Lake
November 25, 2012, 8:49 AM
Filed under: New York | Tags: , , , , ,

dunkirk lighthouse

Sunday morning and I sit here typing with the sniffles. It’s snowing now; I spent most of  yesterday wrapped in blankets, watching old monster movies. There’s something comforting about black and white films: the static in old prints, the grand music. It reminds me of Sunday afternoons as a kid, how isolating they felt if you left the television realm. While organizing my photo files, I remembered the ones taken at Dunkirk Lighthouse from last month’s western New York trip. Dunkirk is a resort town that hasn’t changed much since the early pictures I saw hanging in the lighthouse museum. A map on the wall showed tiny ships crowding the lake’s surface, marking shipwrecks. There are over 300 souls lost in Lake Erie. We searched the lighthouse lawn looking for clues that something once lived there.

lake erie

westfield diner

interstate 80


Lost in Belgrade
March 22, 2009, 8:18 PM
Filed under: Serbia and Montenegro | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

On the bus to Belgrade. Stopped now in Vukovar. What a frustrating morning.

My roommate Ari and I got up early again to go to Pecs. We ended up on the wrong train going to Bizovac instead of Beli Manastir. So we jumped off the train somewhere close to Osijek city limits, took the bus to the station and decided why not go to Belgrade? When I went to get cash, the ATM said I had insufficient funds, so fucking A — I have $49.90 in my account, $262.00 which is unaccounted for. All I can say is, it had better be traced — what the hell happened to that money? The only thing I can think is that Dan mailed all my bills back home. Which sucks because that means I have no money to live here until my tax refund. Ari was cool enough to pay for this Belgrade trip. I’ll have to write home soon. I’m worried about the money, but part of me also feels like well, what can I do? Maybe I’m in deep denial, but years of growing up a poor kid has shown me things just work themselves out. In any case, I’m on my way to Belgrade, a completely unexpected trip.


12:00 pm: Crossed the border into Serbia. Surreal images of travel:

A black dog walking across the flat, snow-covered fields of an unknown village in Serbia.

Two girls getting off the Beli-Manastir-Osijek bus and walking down a road, disappearing into dark-blue nothing.

Six women dressed like hearts for Valentine’s Day walking single-file down Zupinjiska.

Even with all the ups and downs (and sidetracking) of this whole Osijek experience, I would pack up my life and disappear all over again. But with more money. And much more time. 


8:00 pm: In a Belgrade hotel room, the Hotel Astoria. 

Because Ari pissed around looking for postcards (“Oh, we don’t have to hurry, we have time!”), we missed the Osijek bus by 10 minutes. Already freezing and pissed because we had been walking around in the bitter cold for, like,  3 hours looking for said-postcards, I was thinking, I can’t believe this — two missed transports in one day. It’s like Osijek is this black hole that sucks you in and if by some act of God you do get out, it makes it near impossible for you to return. 

Hotel Astoria is nice enough. Nice 1970s decor chic – red velour chairs in the lobby, wood paneling, shag carpet, an unhappy desk clerk pulled right from a modernist film. The room is no frills with starchy white sheets and a pilled brown blanket to keep warm. The wallpaper is nicked and peeling but hell – it’s clean, I have my own bathroom. For Ari’s $34.00 USD I can’t go wrong.

And I’m in Belgrade! The city has so much energy. There were times I felt as if I were in New York – the loud honking of traffic, beautiful smog sky at dusk. With Ari’s knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and my scant Croatian vocabulary, we could decipher street signs and get around fairly well. People here are much friendlier than in Croatian cities, more helpful and willing to talk. The histories between the two countries are so complicated, relations so tense (it was difficult, for example, to exchange kuna for dinar here) — I couldn’t even begin to understand it as an outsider. 

The architecture here is a majestic mix of communist-Hapsburg in all its grime-covered glory. There’s a park at the edge of the city overlooking the Danube, a bridge in the distance. The tableau reminded me of Pittsburgh. Even the winters are as cold as the ones at home. I would love to be here in summer when it’s full of life.

Hotel Astoria lobby

Hotel Astoria lobby


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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