This morning, I woke up in Budapest.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’ve been waking up in Budapest for almost a week now, since I arrived on a Swiss Air/Helvetica flight from Zurich. My luggage, probably tempted by the thought of snow-capped mountains and chocolate, decided to stay in Zurich for an extra day. It arrived the next morning, looking a bit tired. But then, I was looking a bit tired as well. December was not an easy month. I had final papers and portfolios to grade, then preparations for Christmas, all while fighting a sinus infection. (The sinus infection won, at least for the month of December. It finally moved on at the end of the year. I’m sure it had other parties to attend.)
It was dark when I woke up. Upstairs from me lives a woman who knew my grandmother. She does not leave her apartment much anymore, and I think she is a little deaf, because her television is rather loud. I can hear it through the ceiling. She turns it on when she wakes up at 4 a.m., so I often wake up then as well. I can hear the news, the morning shows. On Sundays, I can hear the music of the Mass. Several times, I’ve met her on the stairs and helped her carry up her groceries, but last summer I did not see her at all. I know she remembers me — I’m Dóra, who used to live here so long ago, as a child. Kata’s daughter, Ilona’s granddaughter.
There is something strange about coming back to the apartment where I lived when I was five years old. I remember just a little of what it looked like then. Much the same, actually, because this place desperately needs to be renovated. The heating system is new, the bathtub is new, the stove is still the one my grandmother cooked on. I’m pretty sure my grandfather was the last person who painted these walls. But this apartment feels like home as well — in fact, it’s the only place that feels like home, because my life has been spend in a succession of houses and apartments, every one of which was temporary. The apartment I live in now, in Boston, is temporary — I’m not even sure how much longer I can afford it.
So this is the closest I get to home — here, in this apartment, looking out the windows at the Nemzeti Múzeum, which has a lovely new playground. I would have loved it, as a child. When I was a little girl, it was not so well taken care of — the trees and bushes were overgrown, the gravel used as a parking lot. I saw my very last Trabant parked there, several years ago. But that’s been renovated too — it’s trim and pretty now, with new trees and flowers that will bloom this summer. Even in January, when nothing is blooming, I love to look out the window at the winding gravel paths, the park benches, the nineteenth-century-style lamps. The light is so beautiful here, shining on the beige stone of the museum. The sky is so blue. I think that light gives me a sort of mental clarity that I don’t have in Boston.
There is no real point to this post, nothing that I’m trying to say — it’s just a love letter, really. To this apartment, to Budapest, to the light.
It was so early, but I did not think I could get back to sleep, and anyway, the news of the day was coming through my ceiling. So I got up and made myself breakfast — muesli, orange juice, tea. I sat in the living room and ate it at the table where my grandmother used to sew or sketch, where she put rétes or pogácsa when she had guests, on white doilies she had crocheted herself. This is the only place in the world I feel that connection with my ancestry, even though my family did not come from here. My grandparents moved here during World War II, when they could no longer stay in Battonya, which is a town in southeastern Hungary, currently population about 6000. I wonder what it felt like coming to Budapest, whose population even then must have been well over a million.
When I’m here, it’s as though my head clears. It’s the only place I can really get away from the worries and obligations of my ordinary life. It’s as though the perpetual clouds of Boston cloud my mind as well — low gray clouds always filled with rain, so that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. I may not live here, but this is nevertheless my city, the one I can rest in, think in, hopefully write in.
It’s a new year. It’s time to begin some new stories . . .