Living with Ghosts

When I returned to Budapest after eight months during which I was unable to travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, I thought that my apartment had acquired a ghost. In my absence, the apartment had been renovated. The originally plan had been for me to return periodically, to see the renovations in progress. But the pandemic put a stop to that. So I returned to an apartment transformed. The electrical system had been completely replaced. The walls themselves had been resurfaced and then painted. The floors had been sanded and revarnished. There were new lamps, new furniture. And there was an entirely new kitchen, to replace the Soviet-era kitchen where my grandmother had cooked on an old gas stove. Now there was a new gas stovetop from IKEA, with an electrical oven. The old apartment was still there underneath — I had not changed anything essential. The old walls and doors remained, although the windows had been replaced and updated, since the old ones, more than a hundred years old, were too damaged to save.

The new kitchen had lights under the counters — a particularly fancy touch that I thought was unnecessary, since the overhead lights were perfectly adequate. I’d never had lights under the counters before, and could not imagine how I would use them. The first night I spent in the new apartment, I turned them on to see how they worked — and they started to flicker on and off. Then they turned off. Then they turned back on.

Of course I understood what was happening. The kitchen had a pantry, a small room where my grandmother had stored her preserves. It had been transformed into my laundry room. But once upon time, that room had not been a pantry — it had been the room where a kitchen maid would have slept. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, every middle-class family had a kitchen maid, both in Europe and the United States. Even in a not very large apartment, there would have been a room for the kitchen maid. She would have been a young woman, probably from the countryside, coming to make money and experience the world in Budapest. She would have been poor and overworked. It was completely clear to me: that kitchen maid had come back to haunt my kitchen, perhaps to protest the changes I had made to what had once been her domain.

I named her Szána, after the company that renovated my kitchen. I had a much better experience with Szána the ghost than the company. When I asked Szána Bútor to fix the lights, which they had installed, before I made the final payment on the kitchen renovations, they threatened me, first with accruing interest if I did not make the final payment immediately, and then with I’m not sure what — that they would “report me” if I dared to say anything negative about Szána Bútor or the renovations in public. I’m not sure to whom? But if the police come for me because I complained about a kitchen renovation company, you will know why. Anyway, there I was, stuck with Szána, my kitchen ghost. We got friendly, after a while. I would talk to her, and she would flicker on and off in a companionable fashion.

She is not the only ghost who haunts this apartment. There is the ghost of my grandmother. She is here in the old furniture, in some clothes of hers that are still hanging in one of the wardrobes, and most of all in her paintings. Right now they are wrapped in brown paper. I will need to unwrap them, take them out of the old frames she put them in, and get them reframed. Of course she could not afford to frame her own paintings properly. She found frames wherever she could, drove in the nails to secure the canvases herself. They are old and crumbling. When her paintings cover the walls, will she become more solid? Will she speak to me in Hungarian? I could use the practice . . . She is here in her embroideries, stacked in one of the wardrobes, and in the pillows she made. And of course in my memories of her.

There are even ghosts outside — I can see them from the windows. On the cobbled street below, I can sometimes glimpse the ghosts of Soviet tanks. Throughout my childhood, I heard stories from my mother about when she was a child and leaned out those windows, watching Soviet tanks rolling down the street in 1956. She was haunted by that memory, so I am haunted by the story. Particularly now, watching the war in Ukraine on the small screen of my cell phone. When I see the buildings of Ukrainian cities destroyed, I imagine what it would be like if it happened here, if this building was bombed in the same way. I don’t want to overstate this — it’s not that I agonize over it or believe it will happen. There is enough to agonize about in the situation in Ukraine. I would rather spend my agony on the people trapped in a nation that has been invaded, the refugees who are fleeing. But every once in a while, I imagine what it would be like if it happened here, as it has happened before. I have the nonsensical thought, what if this apartment was bombed and all those renovations went to waste? I know, it’s a silly thought — in that case, there would be much, much worse things to worry about than my renovations. But that’s how brains work. I’m following the Twitter feed of a woman who is currently in Ukraine, and her first post in the morning is always about coffee, then the bombings. I completely understand.

Budapest is a city haunted by the past. All European capitals are. There is so much more to write about that, but this post is already long enough, and here I wanted to write about my own particular ghosts. It’s strange to me that in this neighborhood, around Kálvin tér, I never get lost. The streets are narrow and twisting, but I always know which direction to go. I think it’s because these are the streets I walked as a child, with my mother or grandmother. Somewhere among them is the ghost of my childhood. I have seen her a few times, little Dóra, running or swinging in one of the local parks. She does not look the way I did when I was a child — no, she looks like one of the local children, at the park with their parents. She is the ghost of my childhood nevertheless.

Perhaps that is why I like living here so much. None of my ghosts are in America. They are all here, and it’s nice to have their company. Except the tanks. I could do without those. Let them remain memories, the ghosts of a terrible time. Let them always be evanescent, without effect, powerless. And little Szána is gone. After my rancorous exchange with Szána Bútor, I paid for an electrician to replace the transformer that Szána Bútor had installed. I rarely use the lights under the counter — the overhead lights, as I originally conjectured, are perfectly adequate. But when I do, they no longer flicker. My ghostly kitchen maid has flown off into the ether whence she came.

But it seems to me, thinking about my ghosts, that to be a home, a house needs to be a little haunted. There is something comfortable about living with spirits and memories — as long as some of them stay just that, vestiges of the past that do not invade our present.

(I took this photo several weeks ago, when I had just come to Budapest, from the Castle Hill.)

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5 Responses to Living with Ghosts

  1. star1ady says:

    Your words are so magical. They draw me to another time and place. Love the image in my mind of you as a child navigating the twisty streets.
    I’m curious about the Twitter feed you mentioned — can you share the link?
    Have you ever been interested in showing the world your carefully curated spaces through contests? I’m thinking about things like Apartment Therapy’s Small/Cool Contest.
    Thank you for sharing slices of your amazing life.

  2. Nancy says:

    Beautiful..and, yes, there are ghosts all around us. As we will be one day. I hope to linger…

  3. Ms. Goss, you touched mini resonant cords in me with your blog. However the one I wish to comment on this morning is about the lights under your cabinets. If you have some diminution of your eyesight you will be very grateful for that extra lighting. My personal status requires it and I hope yours never does but you are prepared. Keep writing your blogs. I don’t get to see them often and because my eyes are so screwed up I can’t read the much I read about half of this one and enjoyed it immensely. Good work. Thank you

  4. MPE says:

    It is not a silly thought. And I have under-cupboard lights too, here in the UK, as my (now deceased) family had in Stockholm, years ago, when I was a child. Sometimes I switch them on. It’s good to have friendly ghosts at home.

  5. “Spirits and Memories” sounds like the perfect title for a book about just the same.

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