Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and jump into the abyss bolstered by a belief in luck or fate or karma. And so it was when my employer asked me, and by extension my husband, to move to Bratislava, Slovakia nearly three years ago. Although neither of us had ever visited Slovakia – let’s face it, we had barely heard of Bratislava – we agreed sight unseen. With our daughter starting her sophomore year in college; our two sons grown and living on the east coast; and our rambling house way too large for us to maintain; downsizing was inevitable. Months later, work permit in hand, cars and most possessions sold, dog assigned to a new master, house listed for sale; we left with some amount of fanfare ultimately fading to no more than a white streak across a Colorado blue ski as we jetted off to parts unknown. Eighteen months later, the process repeated itself – destination Budapest, Hungary. We settled into our 800 square foot apartment overlooking the Danube in March of 2013. We were a long way from Evergreen, Colorado.
After procrastinating this blog post on life in Budapest for weeks, I began to write in fits and starts. Distilling this city, our new life, and all of the changes of the last three years is an impossible feat. Frustrated, I grabbed a pen and scrap of paper and pushed away from my computer. Without thinking, I scribbled the first ten words I associate with Budapest: “cheap, proud, opulent, dirty, music, baths, rebuilding, Paris, empire, communism” For a moment, I was tempted to say, “There, I’m done.”. Because honestly, this may be the best summary I can provide of a city we now sum up in a single word: home.
Hungarian history is rich and deep and complicated, molded by the most powerful empires of the last two thousand years, fashioned after Haussmann’s Paris, then torn apart and remolded by two world wars and an uninvited occupation. All of these influences are found within Budapest today: Roman ruins, Turkish baths, Habsburg opulence, bullet riddled buildings; boarded up synagogues and plaster facades paying tribute to the working class. These influences are important to understand, as all of them went into creating this multifarious city and shaping its enigmatic people. When I’m stymied or frustrated by a negative word or lack of help, an abundance of seemingly meaningless paperwork; I remind myself of this past, take a deep breathe and calibrate my reactions. Hungarian life has not been easy. For Hungarians, it still isn’t.
Yet our life is simple now. Our apartment is perfectly sized, warm and comfortable; aged parquet floors, high ceilings with inlay and molding, French doors which open to a Danube facing balcony off our bedroom. Dotted throughout the city are small fruits and vegetable stands with vendors selling a selection of locally grown, tree ripened and seasonal produce at surprisingly low prices. Nearly every day, given our teeny refrigerator and limited storage space, I shop. With my basket dangling from my arm I stop at the produce vendor. I then meander through our neighborhood buying cheese from the cheese man, wine at a wine shop, humus at a middle eastern deli. We never push a cart through a grocery store stockpiling food for a week or more. And of course I never buy more than I can tote home using my two hands and two feet.