Living and Dreaming in Budapest

I woke up this morning with a sense of how incredibly lucky I am.

This semester, I’m living and working in Budapest, teaching at two Hungarian universities with a Fulbright grant. I arrived a little more than a week ago, and I’ve spent the time since I arrived adjusting to an alternate reality — because that’s what happens when we travel, I think. At least when we travel to a place that is quite different from what we were used to.

I remember living in Boston, although at this point, after a week here, Boston is already fading from my mind. I remember that I used to shop at Whole Foods, and I used to walk to the park, and I used to ride what Bostonians call the T. I used American money and credit cards, thinking about what I spent in dollars. I checked the temperature in Fahrenheit. I measured in inches and feet. I left in winter, which in Boston is cold and snowy.

I flew on an airplane, a luxurious plane ride during which my cabin was almost empty — I was able to lie down across five seats and sleep most of the night, after watching Arsenic and Old Lace on the small airplane screen, during a supper of really quite bad tortellini (the exact same supper I was served the last time I flew on Swiss, so I should probably have chosen the chicken, but I was afraid that would be even worse). Airplanes and airports are interstitial spaces, betwixt and between. They transport us from one reality to another. I arrived in Zurich and started the transition, walking the twenty minutes from one end of the airport to another — one end is specifically for flights outside the European Union, the other is where small planes leave for central Europe. Halfway through, at passport control, I switched to my European passport.

And then, two hours later, I was in Budapest. Now I shop at Spar, and I walk by the Danube (called the Duna here, and she used to be a goddess), and I ride the metro. I use Hungarian money and a Hungarian bank card, shopping in forints. I check the temperature in Celsius, and measure in centimeters and meters. Yesterday I bought nine meters of fabric to recover the armchairs in the living room. It’s still winter, which in Budapest is cold and windy. There is almost no snow. I know that back in Boston there is plenty of snow right now, because my daughter is in the middle of a snowstorm, and on the small screen of her phone when I spoke to her last night, I could see that two feet had already fallen.

What a strange world we live in, where I can fly for ten hours and be in a completely different place, on a different continent. And then I can call and see her on a small screen, a magical screen that I keep in my purse.

I’m not sure human beings are ready for such a world. Our brains are still so primitive, our perception of reality so primitive. We perceive reality so contextually. When I arrived here, Budapest seemed unreal. I was sick from the airplane trip, as I usually am for the first few days, so I only saw it outside my windows. It was as though I was in a simulation. But then, in a sense we are always in a simulation: our brains construct reality based on the sensory impressions that come to it from outside. We are already in the metaverse. It just happens to be a metaverse with consequences, in which we bleed and die. (Fortunately, I did not do either. All I had to endure was bad tortellini.)

But human beings are also adaptable monkeys. Our adaptability is our greatest evolutionary advantage. Like weeds, we thrive in almost any environment. In a week, I have already adapted to Budapest — not perfectly, because I still speak bad, halting Hungarian, but I’m already used to walking around the city, riding the metro, shopping for groceries. I’m learning how to use the online systems I will need to teach here in Hungary. They are not so different — online educational systems are similar everywhere, it seems. I am used to hearing different languages everywhere I go. Mostly Hungarian of course, but also German, Russian, and even a little English.

Of course, I’m not here as a tourist. It helps that I’ve been to Budapest many times as an adult, and I’ve had time to build a set of habits here. I know where to buy sour cherry soup, I know which brand of tea I like. Little by little, visit by visit, I’ve built a life in this reality. It takes a little while, but I can transition back to being Theodora-in-Budpapest, and Theodora-in-Boston begins to seem like a dream I vaguely remember. The first time I spent more than a month in Budapest, I flew back to the United States and tried to buy a chocolate bar at the airport in Boston. I remember staring at the American money in my hand. I could not remember how it worked.

What I’m trying to say here, really, is that our brains are such strange things. Every night, I sleep and dream, and when I wake up, I am startled to find myself in Budapest — not because I’m no longer in Boston, but because I’m no longer in that dream land, which seemed so real while I was asleep. My dreams are always vivid, certainly as vivid as reality. But then, reality is also constructed in my mind based on sensory impression. As far as I know, the same parts of my mind that make dreams also construct my living world. I know this is the living world because it has a consistency that my dreams don’t. This is the world that looks the same when I wake up every morning, the world in which I move through time, growing older . . . At least, I think so, but the same squishy pink organ that constructs dreams also creates my sense of time.

So here I am, living in Budapest, feeling incredibly lucky to wake up to a view of the Nemzeti Múzeum outside my window. The hardest part of this semester will be being away from my daughter, who is finishing her senior year of high school. I was there for her college applications, and celebrated with her when she was admitted to her Early Decision university, but I worry about missing her final semester. And of course I miss her . . . At least we can talk every night on the small screen of my cell phone. However, I’m grateful that I can be here for so long this time, that I can live and work in this beautiful (although right now cold and windy) city. The difference between this experience and the metaverse is that in the metaverse, human beings build reality, while here, the reality of Budapest builds itself in me. I cannot alter the reality of the wind, or the value of the currency, or the fact that my boiler needs to be inspected. (It shut off for a while on Friday morning, and I got it going again, but I’m very glad that the gáz szerelő comes on Monday.)

It’s as though life is a dream with consequences. It is the consequences that keep life from being entirely a dream. I suppose this is why misfortune — death and illness — keep reality real for us. Without them, we might as well be living in a simulation.

Cold weather and boiler problems in Budapest — I’ll take them. Meanwhile, excuse me — I have a life to create in this beautiful old metropolis.

(This is winter in Budapest. Next time, I’ll try to write about building a nest here, since as you can see, my apartment is perched among the tops of the trees . . .)

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5 Responses to Living and Dreaming in Budapest

  1. Hi Theodore,

    You know you will feel at home once you arrive in Budapest, the travelling there in the plane is just a short hop and step.Enjoy

    C Lane

  2. Connie Lazenby says:

    What an amazing opportunity for you.
    I’m so happy for you.

  3. Patrick Murphy says:

    You are extremely lucky to have this opportunity to sink further into another culture. I am sure a semester’s careful research on Hungarian pastries can only enhance your writing:-) Seriously, with all the things you mentioned that have let you navigate your life, and now have to be readjusted, it’s a little like sliding into another, alternate life. Would Air France offer better cuisine? Your description of Swiss Air food could inspire better offerings.

    All the best, and have an amazing time,



  4. Steven Howell says:

    Beautiful post. Greetings from North Carolina.

  5. emily says:

    Wow! What a new adventure! Congrats! Enjoy!

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