Addicted to Books

I think I have two addictions: chocolate and books. The book addiction is definitely stronger. I can live without chocolate. I’m not sure I could live without books.

When do I buy books? When I’ve accomplished something, to reward myself. When I’m sad, to make myself free better. When I’m anxious, again to make myself feel better. When I actually need a particular book. When I think I might need a particular book. When a particularly book sounds interesting. When I need to go on a walk, and it’s raining, so it makes more sense to go to the bookstore than to the park.

Recently, I was waiting for my flight from Budapest to Zurich to Boston. I had two books in my carry-on bag. One would not be enough, because what if I did not want to read that book? So I packed two. Then, in the airport, I went into the bookstore and bought another book, because what if I did not want to read either of those books? The thought made me anxious, so of course I bought a third book, just in case — at the ridiculously inflated airport bookstore price. During the flight, I ended up doing what I always do, which is watch movies — the sillier the better. This is how I have watched The Lost City and John Carter of Mars, on small Swiss Air seatback monitors. But those books did come in handy during the Budapest to Zurich flight, which had no seatback monitors, and while we were taxiing in Zurich and there was no movie to watch, and during the metro ride home from the Boston airport. So I made the right decision. Right?

I recently realized that, as some people have emotional support animals, I have emotional support books.

Even the act of walking through a good bookstore is soothing. So many books! So many stories! So many possibilities — not just to read, but to be for a while, because when I am reading a book, I am being in that book. I am getting to live a different life. Recently, I traveled to the Himalayas with Jamaica Kinkaid and met Miss Jean Brodie in her prime with Muriel Spark. In between, I solved a case with Hercules Poirot, but I’ve done that many times before. (Agatha Christie may be my ultimate emotional support author. Or is that Jane Austen? Or C.S. Lewis?) I have been to islands off the coast of Finland with Tove Janssen. I have gone both back and forward in time. (Maybe it’s Ursula Le Guin?) I have learned about writing, gardening, Zen, art in nineteenth-century Vienna, renovating a villa in Tuscany.

It may seem as though I’m making light of serious addictions by calling this my addiction, but it accomplishes the same thing: buying a book is a sort of “hit.” It makes me feel better, it soothes anxiety, it creates the same sense of pleasure and possibility. Within the covers of each book are dreams in which I can participate, alternate realities, even alternate personas that I can inhabit. Books are safe hallucinations. (Well, sometimes safe. Sometimes not safe at all when those hallucinations cross over into our real world, when we begin to believe in fantasies — I’m thinking here of politics.) Words are powerful, as powerful as drugs.

I don’t have any sort of deep message here, except perhaps one of solidarity with those of you who are also inveterate readers. Who also wander around bookstores in a sort of daze, wishing you could buy so many of the books on the shelves — the way you might wander around an animal shelter, wanting to take home all the puppies. Or around the garden center, planning to buy plants as though you had a hundred acres and a landscaping crew. For whom libraries are sanctuaries and sacred precincts, but who also want your own books, on your own shelves (there are never enough shelves), even if you don’t have enough time to read them, because each book is a different life you can live, a different possibility you can experience. That’s the closest we can get to immortality.

Excuse me, this evening I’m due to depart for Italy with Elena Ferrante, and I must start packing . . .

(The image is The Reading Girl by A.C.W. Duncan.)

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Morning in the Garden

When I’m in Boston, the first thing I do every morning is go out into the garden. Well, almost every morning — unless it’s raining the way it does it Boston, in sheets of water coming down from the sky, or the garden is deep in snow.

This morning it was not yet raining, although the forecast says rain today and tomorrow, all day, 100%. That’s good — my garden needs it, although I’ve been watering it since I got back from Budapest last week. I was gone for most of the summer, first in Budapest, then teaching in London, and then in Budapest again, so the garden had to fend for itself. It mostly did — I’ve gotten smarter about what I plant, and the hostas and heucheras are doing fine. The azaleas survived, as did most of the rhododendrons, except one in a dark, rather dry part of the garden. I’ve dug it up and I’m going to see if there’s any way of saving it, any life left in it. Because you never know. One of the roses survived, one didn’t. Everything was fine until the heatwave — that was what did it for some of the plants. The heat was too much for them.

I remember wilting myself, during the heat wave in London. Those hot, humid days traveling around the city, trying to get to the classes I was teaching in Kensington on the tube, while London broke down around me. Tube lines closing down, roads melting in the heat. At the time, I was living in a first floor apartment, an AirBnb rental not much different from my apartment here in Boston. It had a beautiful garden maintained by the upstairs neighbor — the sort of small garden you find around London row houses, really a narrow strip of soil around the front and back. A good gardener can create magic in that narrow strip, and my upstairs neighbor was a very good gardener. At the back of the apartment was a patio surrounded by that garden. I did not spend much time there, because I had so much work to do — I was teaching a full semester, twelve weeks of material in six weeks, so I was always either planning or grading. But I liked having the garden there. In the morning, I could look out the glass door at the end of the kitchen and see trees, flowers. It made the whole day better. It gave me a sense that the entire world did not exist on a computer screen or in a classroom — or on the tube, or even in one of the public parks, which are so manicured in London, and so filled with people. It gave me a small sense of wildness.

When I am here in Boston, with my own little garden, a narrow strip by the side of my apartment house (once a house, now divided into three flats) that widens a bit in back, next to the back porch, I go out every morning and breathe. I am surrounded by tall trees, mostly linden but also oak and maple. Then I go through the garden, bit by bit. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a strip of woodland garden by the asphalt path at the side of the house. There I planted hostas and heucheras, azaleas and astilbe. That part of the garden is doing well. The heart-shaped leaves of the violets sway, a foot tall. I brush the leaves with my hand and look underneath. Today I plucked out three oak seedlings — the oaks feel that the garden is in their territory, and want to take it back. They like the moist, woody soil. The second part of the garden is a very narrow strip by a second path, a continuation of the asphalt path, but this time concrete stepping stones with grass growing between them. This path goes around the basement bulkhead. Here there are also some hostas, but mostly wild plants like helleborine. At first I tried to take the helleborine out, because I read that it was a weed, but then I decided that I liked its strange green and maroon flowers. It’s actually an orchid, and would be more valued were it not considered invasive. In my garden, I let it invade — at least it survives the poor soil and uncertain weather! This part of the garden is always fine — it looks wild, it is wild, but it’s attractive. And then there is the back, where I have my raised boxes. This is the difficult part of the garden because both sunlight and moisture vary wildly between the two halves of it, although it must be no more than ten feet across. Let’s just say that this part is a work in progress. Some things are thriving (a rhododendron, a hydrangea), some things are not doing so well. And it’s harder now, when I’m away so much — the garden must more or less fend for itself.

I go out into the garden every morning because it makes me feel grounded, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. It makes me feel as though I have a connection to the earth itself, as though I am not floating up in the air somewhere. As though I will not float away. This is particularly important now, because over this summer I have in fact been floating quite a lot. I’ve been in a lot of airplanes, been to a lot of places where I was not connected — stayed in homes that are not mine, countries where I do not live. In Budapest I feel connected in another way — to my family, my history. But there my apartment is on the European second floor, meaning two flights up from the ground. There, I feel as though I’m living in a nest in one of the trees that surround the Nemzeti Múzeum. I love it — it is the apartment I would live in if I could — but I don’t feel grounded.

I think we need to maintain a connection with the ground. When we came down from the trees, in some evolutionary past, we created a relationship with the ground — we walk on it, gather our food from it. It is our nurturing mother. When we lose that relationship, I propose, we lose some part of ourselves. We do that by living too far from it (up in the air, in skyscrapers), by covering too much of it (with roads, sidewalks). If we live far away from it, we need at least to get back to it sometimes — we need parks, places where plants can grow. We need a connection to soil.

My dream, and I’m sure I’ve written this before, is to have a house with a large garden. How I will afford that — well, I don’t know yet. I certainly won’t be able to do it on a teacher’s salary. Maybe if I write books and people buy them . . . maybe then.

(The image is My Garden (The Bench) by Édouard Manet.)

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The Covid Years

What did the Covid years do to us?

I ask this question knowing very well that Covid is not over, and that the Covid years will last as long as Covid lasts, which as far as we know will be all of our lifetimes. But I mean more specifically, what did the last two years do to us?

I can only write as one person, one witness on this earth. And here, in 2022, in the middle of what is probably one of the most spectacular years of my life, I find myself trying to figure out what I’m doing and what it all means anyway. I find myself floating, untethered, like the balloon in a famous painting by the Hungarian artist Pál Szinyei Merse. I saw an exhibition of his paintings at the Hungarian National Gallery earlier this year, because I was in Hungary teaching on a Fulbright fellowship. That’s what I mean by one of the most spectacular years of my life, and of course as a teacher I mean the academic year. In the fall I had a professional development leave of absence to research creativity in writing pedagogy, in the spring I had a Fulbright to teach at two Hungarian universities. I spent the spring living in Budapest, the longest I have been in Budapest since I was a child. Then I returned to the United States to pick up my daughter, and we are in Budapest now. That’s pretty spectacular, right? But wait, there’s more, because in a few weeks I will be going to London, to teach in a summer program for my university.

Sounds impressive, right? And yet I feel like Pál Szinyei Merse’s balloon, floating up in the sky, not sure where I’m going or why I’m going there.

I think in the last two years we have all lost our way a little. I remember how restricted we were, the limited mobility, the way all of our worlds suddenly shrank down. Some people did not mind it, but I minded it a great deal, just as I minded masking a great deal — I found that when my mouth was covered I automatically did not speak, and so I stayed silent. Even as I write this, I realize the trauma of it, which I did my best not to think about at the time. I tried to focus on making sure I had food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer. I tried to do my job, teaching first online and then in an impossible hybrid format. At least once a week, I took a Covid test, as required by my university. Sitting here in Budapest, after months of being able to move around the world freely, express myself freely, I don’t want to remember it. I write about it only because of the balloon — because of what it did to me, and probably to us.

I don’t have an answer, exactly, to the question I posed above. I don’t know exactly what the Covid years did to me, except that I can feel their aftereffect. I can feel there is something wrong, that I’m not the same person I was before them. For one thing, I’m having trouble writing. Somehow, the silence of the Covid years began to fall over my life, like a feather blanket. I stopped saying what I thought. In some ways, I stopped thinking.

Joan Didion once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” That’s true for me as well — for me, writing is a form of thinking. Without writing, I lose part of myself, perhaps the most important part, the part that remembers. The part that forms the world in my head, so that it holds together and means something.

It wasn’t just Covid. Something else happened just as the Covid years were ending, as the restrictions were being lifted in Budapest. I can’t tell you exactly why the invasion of Ukraine had such an effect on me, but “Russian invasion” had been part of my mental furniture since I was a child and my mother told me about watching tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956. Just as I felt that things were getting better, with Covid restrictions lifting, here they were getting worse again. (It feels almost trivial to talk about the psychological effects of the war in Ukraine when so many people are directly and personally affected — like the refugees I worked with this semester. But I know I’m not the only one feeling those psychological effects. Many people are feeling them, farther from Ukraine than I am.)

So here we are, here I am, like an untethered balloon, and I’m trying to find my way, figure out my direction. A friend sent me a quotation recently that has helped me:

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” — Ray Bradbury

It’s the last part of the quotation that seems so important to me — something to live for. Writing something you love can be a thing to live for, it can provide that tether, tying you to the world, tying you to purpose and meaning. The key word for Bradbury in this quotation was love, but for me, right now, the key word is writing. You have to get up in the morning and write. It seems to me that if you do that, the love will come. It may not be there at the beginning, but it will develop through the writing process, through the pen on paper or fingers on keyboard.

This reminded me of something I had written some time ago, but I don’t remember where: “When you’re a writer, the cure for whatever ails you is always writing.” I know I said this, because it’s on Goodreads. It seems to me a rather smart thing to say, and quite true. Evidently, my younger self was wiser than I am now. I have lost her sense of certainly, and some of her perspective. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve gained in the Covid years. I suppose time will tell. But she was quite right that for a writer, the cure is writing.

Sometimes I find myself asking, why write? What makes my perspective so important that it needs to be presented? My younger self would not have asked that — she was more confident than I am. But anyway, I think it’s the wrong question. It’s not my business to decide whether my perspective is important or not. It’s only my business to write down what I think, how I feel, what it was like to be alive, as me, at this particular moment in time. (Strange, that’s what it was like. It was very strange. I still hoard toilet paper.)

There are two things I have learned about writing: First, I’m never entirely sure what I’m going to write when I start. I may end up someplace completely different than I expected. I learn what I think by writing it down. Without writing it down, I can’t even articulate it. That’s how my brain works; that’s how, I suspect, most writers’ brains work. Second, I always feel better after I have written.

In the city park, called the Városliget, there is a copy of Pál Szinyei Merse’s balloon. It’s tethered securely to the ground, and you can pay for a ride up into the air, then down again. It goes quite high. It’s not free, like ordinary balloons — it does not travel over unanticipated territory. It’s not at the mercy of the winds. But from it you can see the entire city. I’m sure this is a metaphor, although I’m not yet sure for what . . .

(The image is The Balloon by Pál Szinyei Merse.)

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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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Building a Nest

Little by little, I am building a nest.

Imagine a little brown bird flying around gathering twigs and bits of string — that’s me. Last summer, my daughter and I walked through the park near my apartment in Boston and saw two robins, male and female, flying back and forth, back and forth to their nest up in a tree. They were bringing things to it, and as we stood and watched, waiting, we saw that each time one of the parent birds would fly to the nest, little heads would pop up, little beaks would stretch out. Those things they were carrying — worms? insects? — went pop into the waiting, cheeping beaks.

My nestling is not here right now — she is back in Boston finishing her final year of high school. Nevertheless, I am building a nest, flying back and forth to Ikea and Jysk and Pirex and other home goods stores. Well, Pirex is not exactly a home goods store — it’s a stationery story, which to a writer is much the same thing. My home decor includes books and paper and pens and staplers and hole punches and index cards. Yesterday I realized that I did not have a staple remover, so I had to go out and find one in Budapest. There are all sorts of things I can’t do without, if I am to do my work — like a printer. Those things are also my home decor.

I think we don’t live in houses and apartments, exactly — those are just boxes around us. What we live in are the nests we create for ourselves, which are both physical and psychological. My physical nest includes soft rugs to walk on, pillows and warm blankets, places to sit and think. It includes boxes to store things in. (I find that I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about storage, certainly as much as I spend on decoration. Everything needs to have its proper place.) My nest includes the clothes in my closets, the cleaning supplies in the pantry, and after the early days of this pandemic, a nice big stack of toilet paper! It includes the oatmeal and raisins and almonds and brown sugar that I keep in the kitchen cupboard — and all my tea bags, enough for probably another month. My physical nest is made up of the colors and textures I have chosen, on walls and carpets and in furniture. It’s my version of twigs and string. And also, I suppose, worms.

My psychological nest is made up of the habits I develop as I live here, so that I don’t have to think too much about how I use this space. Some habits: I keep a notepad on the kitchen counter — that is my shopping list. If I run out of anything, I list it on the notepad so I can get whatever it is, whether apples or soap, the next time I go shopping. I keep a bowl of apples on the kitchen counter as well, so I can have at least one piece of fruit every day. Umbrellas are in a basket close to the front door, and shopping bags are on a hook on the front door, for quick grabbing. (In Europe, you always need to bring a shopping bag.) My psychological nest includes the time I go to sleep (often too late, I know, I’m working on it . . .) and the time I wake up. They include oatmeal for breakfast, yoga in the morning, reading before bedtime. Or the delicate dance of the dryer here in Europe, which includes putting clothes in the dryer, picking the right setting, waiting for the clothes to dry (which can take from anywhere between one and two hours), cleaning the lint trap, and emptying the water container — since water goes into a container rather than disappearing in a cloud of steam, as in the United States. I feel as though my clothes dryer and I are dancing a sort of waltz. The clothes dryer is definitely leading.

There is still quite a lot I need to do, to build a nest here. For example, after a year, my grandmother’s paintings are still wrapped in brown paper. I will need to take them out, but it will be a delicate operation because when I wrapped them, they were in old, sometimes crumbling frames that my grandmother had salvaged from wherever she could find them. Often, they are behind glass and held in with nails she drove into the frame herself. I will need to delicately get them out of their frames, put them into a portfolio, and dispose of the glass. They will need to be reframed, eventually. I still have a curtain to shorten, some minor repair work to the apartment. Shortly after I got here, there was a problem with the boiler, and a friend had to help me call a company to service the boiler (since my Hungarian is not up to phone calls with gas boiler repair companies, at least not yet). The boiler repair people came out, made sure the boiler was working properly, and put a sticker with the company’s telephone number on its side. That’s an important string in my nest.

I’m still very much working on this nest of mine. I think this is how we create homes, one piece of string at a time, one pillow or call to the boiler company at a time. Slowly we bring things into them, and then we add feathers from our own breasts, as birds do — you know that many birds line their nests with down they pull from their own bodies. We pull from our minds and hearts and sensibilities to feather our nests. Our feathers are the books we select, the art we love, the music we listen to — they make our nests soft and comfortable.

I’m not quite at soft and comfortable yet! Supply shortages have made it difficult to get some things. I have two desks to work on (one for writing, one for teaching), and one of them still needs a chair. I need a guest bed that has been out of stock at Ikea for months, a way to hang coats in the coat closet. I have an extra rug that I need to figure out how to return to Diego (not a person, a rug and flooring company), since I made a rug-related mistake, the sort of mistake one often makes in decorating. There’s something wrong with the billing for the electricity, and I have to figure out what — everything is more difficult in a foreign language. There are still so many little things to work on, but twig by string by feather, I’m getting there . . .

(The image is Primroses and Bird’s Nest by William Henry Hunt.)

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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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The Process of Moulting

“What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed.” — Vincent Van Gogh

I don’t know what Van Gogh was going through when he wrote this. He was a man who went through a lot in his life — problems of all sorts, mental and financial. What would he make of the fact that his painting are now on shoes, umbrellas, shower curtains? I can’t imagine. But when I saw this quotation, it struck me because it seemed so very apt for our moment. We are in a period of adversity or misfortune — we are in hard times that seem to be getting better, then get more tentative and precarious again. We are moulting.

What is moulting, anyway? That fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, says, “In biology, moulting (British English), or molting (American English), also known as sloughing, shedding, or in many invertebrates, ecdysis, is the manner in which an animal routinely casts off a part of its body (often, but not always, an outer layer or covering), either at specific times of the year, or at specific points in its life cycle. Moulting can involve shedding the epidermis (skin), pelage (hair, feathers, fur, wool), or other external layer. In some groups, other body parts may be shed, for example, the entire exoskeleton in arthropods, including the wings in some insects.”

First, let me say that I really like the word “ecdysis.” When I am feeling particularly moulty and don’t want to socialize or see other people, I will say, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m going through ecdysis.” And everyone will look at me strangely, as though I have some unusual disease. But moulting is a natural process — which doesn’t mean it’s a particularly pleasant one. Animals that are moulting always look rather awful. If you’ve ever seen birds moulting, you’ll remember that they are scraggly, gangly things, with feathers sticking out everywhere.

Some birds moult slowly, a few feathers at a time, so they can still fly. Others, like ducks and geese, moult all at once. Their flight feathers fall off, and for about a month they can’t fly. They are earthbound and vulnerable. If you feel yourself moulting, one question to ask is, are you moulting gradually, or all at once? If it’s all at once, you’d better hide for a while, until your flight feathers come in.

Of course this is a metaphor. Even mammals moult, and you’ve probably see it — there are seasons when cats and dogs seem to shed all their hair. That’s moulting. Snakes shedding their skin is moulting, hermit crabs shedding their exoskeletons is moulting. Actually, hermit crabs eat their exoskeletons after they moult — probably for some important nutritional reason. Frogs also shed their skins and eat them. There are different reasons animals moult. It can be to let them grow larger. It can be to enable metamorphosis. Birds moult because wings get damaged over time. Where old, damaged wings are shed, new wings can grow. Moulting maintains the bird’s health and agility.

So moulting is a natural process, part of a cycle of growth and repair. And yet, metaphorical moulting — the kind we human beings go through — can be deeply painful. Imagine what it means: you lose part of yourself, a protective part, a part that used to define you, like your skin or shell, or that used to enable you, like your feathers. A part that used to keep you warm, like fur. A part of your identity, a sort of home. Van Gogh says adversity does that for us, although it’s not just hard times — it’s also the inevitable process of growing, which is also a process of loss.

My daughter will be going to college next year. She is moulting. I can tell she feels it — both the exciting possibility of something different, something new, a new identity or way of being, and the frightening certainly of change.

In a sense, we have all gone through a period of moulting in these last two years. It has been an enforced moulting, when we have not been able to fly. Chickens in commercial hatcheries are sometimes put through forced moulting. They are put on a strict diet, or their food is taken away altogether, for a period of days. This forces them to moult — they lose about 25% of their body weight and also their feathers. Afterward, they lay more eggs. This sounds like what we’ve all been through, doesn’t it? We had to survive on less then we were used to — not necessarily less food, but less of the nourishment we need as human beings. Less interaction, less human contact, less art and joy. We missed museums and schools and going to a café with friends. We missed the old confidence and freedom.

I guess the question is, what will we come out of it with? The hens that are forced to moult just lay more eggs for the farmers — that’s not a very encouraging metaphor. Wild ducks that moult are ready to fly hundreds of miles. I suppose how a metaphor applies to us always depends on ourselves. Van Gogh says we can come out of it renewed, and I certainly hope that’s the case.

As for me, I don’t know who I am yet, coming out of this experience. What does my new skin or shell look like? Do I have flight feathers? A new fur coat? I have no idea. All I know is that in life, we don’t have the option to stop changing and growing. Life, in its strangeness, its unpredictability, won’t let us.

(The image is Four Swifts with Landscape Sketches by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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