The Apartment in Budapest

There were so many problems with the apartment in Budapest.

The electrical wiring dated from the 1970s. It had half the amperes of a modern apartment, if that’s the right way to say it — renovating the apartment was my first introduction to amperes. The outlets were in illogical places, the sockets were fifty years old. No one had actually lived in the apartment since my grandmother, after my grandfather’s death, had gone to live with her daughters in America. It had stood mostly empty.

The floors had probably not been refinished since they were first installed, in the early 1950s, when my grandparents moved in. They were hardwood parquet, built over a layer of slats and sand. My mother tells the story that when they first moved in, the parquet was not yet completed. My grandmother simply put a rug over the slats, and my mother used to pull up a corner, play with the sand underneath. There were spots where the varnish had worn off long ago, spots where the floor sagged because of damage to the underlying slats. There were bare spots where the old kályhák had stood (singular kályha, the ceramic stove that heats a room). One had stood in the bedroom — that one had been electrified. The one in the living room had still burned coal. They had been taken out ten years before, leaving spots in the floor that were partly bare, showing the slats and sand beneath, partly damaged wood.

The walls had not been painted since my grandfather painted them, perhaps thirty years before. The old yellow paint was chipping and peeling off the plaster. He and my grandmother had lived there since shortly after the Second World War. Like most people at that time, they had been quite poor. They had done everything themselves. The gas stove in the kitchen was still the one my grandmother had cooked on. I had to light the burners with a match. I was not brave enough to try the oven.

The kitchen and bath had been partly renovated after both of my grandparents died, enough to make them functional. But now that renovation had itself become a problem — the toilet leaked, the sinks were too small, the hot and cold taps in the kitchen had somehow been installed backwards. The washing machine was a hulking presence in the bathroom, the only room where it could be installed. The tile on the walls, while functional, was a swirling green that made one feel like the Little Mermaid, longing for land. It had been installed generously, in places that needed tile and places that . . . did not.

The biggest problem was the windows. They were at least a hundred years old, damaged by water and time. The window in the bedroom did not close properly, so the new radiators — the one new element in the apartment that did work, beautifully — struggled to do their job. The furniture was still my grandmother’s, a mixture of magnificent old pieces and cheap but convenient additions she had picked up where she could. There were three single beds with uncomfortable mattresses, one with a headboard that was broken and needed to be propped against the wall. One of them served as a sofa.

That was the status quo ante when I started renovating the apartment. I did not, exactly, take into account a global pandemic that would keep me from traveling to Budapest while all the work was being done. I would not be able to see it — the work — except in photographs sent to me by the designer. I would have to pick out lamps, paint colors, bathroom and kitchen tiles from websites. I would have to trust that the people doing the work knew what they were doing — which they did, of course, far better than I would have. After all, I’m not sure what an ampere is, or how many of them you need in Europe. Is a European ampere different than an American one? Do we count amperes differently here, like our insanity about length and weight and temperature? (I have recently learned to appreciate centimeters, kilograms, and celsius. They make life so much easier.)

By the time I am in Budapest again, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, vaccines willing, the apartment will be renovated. There are already new insulated windows. The floor has been refinished, the walls repainted. The bathroom has beautiful beige tiles, a shower and tub, a proper sink and cabinet. It looks reassuringly normal. The kitchen is still waiting for cabinets, the lamps are on their way, the curtain rods are coming. There are still things to do, and thank goodness for IKEA, the one-stop-shopping source for all things kitchen and bath. When I arrive, it will be to a mostly empty apartment, with only the magnificent old furniture left. That will have to be refinished and repaired at some point, once I write another book and earn more money, since this renovation was funded by the girl monsters in my first trilogy. (Thank you, Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine. There was a reason I made that building Dracula’s house in Budapest!)

Right now I’m just grateful that I could do this. I’m grateful for the designer, architect, electrician, plumber . . . the company that manufactured the windows, whoever builds things for IKEA, everyone who bought my books so I could pay the bills. Anyone involved in any way, large or small, with this renovation. During a time when it feels as though nothing is happening — it is February, I am teaching, it has always been February, I have always been teaching, February will last until the end of time — at least I know that something has been happening, even if it’s across the Atlantic ocean, in a fabled country I have not seen for months and months. But I hear it has excellent cake.

(This was the apartment the last time I saw it. The beautiful old furniture is still there. The Communist-era lamp will be replaced.)

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10 Responses to The Apartment in Budapest

  1. Nancy says:

    It looks beautiful, Theodora! I’m not sure I’d toss the Communist-era lamp, though; it’s a conversation piece and a remnant of history. Maybe put it in a workroom…;)

  2. Heather Lewis says:

    Cannot wait to see photos of it when it’s done. I knew almost nothing about Budapest until I read your books and I began looking into it more. It sounds wonderful, especially the cakes and treats….

  3. Margo McIntire says:

    Hoping for more about the monstrous gentlewomen! Looking forward to before and after pictures.

  4. cathypearl says:

    I’m sure it will be beautiful, and a wonderful sanctuary to enjoy!

  5. Please, share the finished look! It looks fabulous already.

  6. Lovely place, and I’m sure they are happy to have the work. I had my house built during a slump in the market, and the carpenter and painter thanked me for helping them keep working. ❤

  7. Melinda Jane Harrison says:

    It’s very beautiful. I am wishing good things for you so that you can make more money and do everything you want to do to this place. But it looks so lovely. And knowing it was your grandparents makes it more personal. A legacy.

  8. Sara Logan says:

    The light is so amazing coming through those windows. I know that with the new windows, it will be even clearer. I feel that you will write beautiful things there.

  9. Hello Theodora’

    I always look with interest for communication from yourself. Today you have talked about your apartment in Budapest. It looks very much like apartments I have seen in Europe, What a comfort it will be when you next visit it…………. I do help by buying your books. I suppose you are speaking Hungarian quite well now. With my ancestor studies I began my German again, and I saw that there were some Hungarian in my family tree as in Russia, Ukraines and Poland. I shall start the Hungarian in two months as I would like to reopen that connection. Anyway, I wish you well and thank you for the lovely photo – it is a different energy isn’t it. I can understand that.

    Carole Lane (Frohling)

  10. Margaret Dolan says:

    I just purchased your Monstrous Gentlewomen books for my kindle. When I love them as I know I shall I will also put them on my shelves. I so love the convenience of my kindle but I need the paper and ink and weight of a book also. It is lovely that doing something you love to do and having people love your work has given you the way to make a special place for yourself. Budapest sounds like every fairy tale I have ever read. Happy to have seen this post on Goodreads today. Hopefully you will be able to travel soon and normalcy will return for all of us.

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