Budapest, Hungary

My memories  of Hungary come back in flashes. Now and then, I see something that reminds me of Budapest. Fond memories and bittersweet nostalgia rush through my head in waves.

For example:

It is dark. I am walking across the street towards Costa Verde. I look to my right at the bright lights of the cars heading towards me. They slow to a stop. It is cold.

Normal, right? There is nothing particularly unique or interesting or memorable about this moment. But for me? There are times when this, for me, reminds me of Hungary. It reminds me of crossing the street at Oktagon Ter, of the nights I would walk home because it was too late and the trams had stopped running and the buses were full. I would look to my right and look into the lights that lined that street leading to Heroes square. What was it again? Andrassy utca?

It has been too long. I can barely remember the names of streets I used to see all the time. I have forgotten the words to Hungarian songs I used to sing and I have lost all sense of what it was like to feel real cold. I used to walk through cold air so cold that it physically hurt. Now I get chilly and whiny at night when my jacket isn’t thick enough.

It does not happen as often, this surge of old memories. Right when I came back, it happened all the time. Half of me was still in Hungary, reliving its paths and remembering the people I loved there. But now that they are all back, now that I am back (and have been back), I am beginning to forget.

All I have are these flashes, few and far between. And I welcome them fondly each time they come.

It’s not like I’m not happy with things here. It’s not like I want to go and live in Hungary. It’s more like I’m looking back and remembering another life. It’s happy and sad, memorable and forgettable, all at once. It’s been so long, I’m starting to wonder if it was even real. And in spite of everything, I love remembering Budapest and everything that happened there.

It wasn’t always like this, though. To put it all in perspective, this is what I felt when I was there. I figured I had to post something, just because I haven’t in a while. It was the beginning of the program and, in my literature class, we had to write something about our Hungarian experience. This was mine.

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WINTER OF AN EASTERN WIND

October 14, 2008

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My toes were first to feel the deep chill of the night, even strapped tightly between the cushioned leather panels of my boots. I waited for the evening tram to arrive. The cold Budapest air pierced through the layered fabric of my jacket, slipping between the loose spaces of the scarf to wrap around the tender skin of my neck. It was the brutal descent of fall. Streetlights bathed the road in an orange glow, dulling the corners and colors that appeared so clearly during the day. The stop was lifeless and empty, caught in the strange hour between the crowded evening rush and the unexpected movement of the early morning. The wind blew westward and the swirls of gray that rose out of the slowly burning cigarette tip were swept away by the chill. The cigarette balanced between the woman’s fingers, glowing from the steady heat eating away at the paper lining. She raised it carelessly to her lips—inhale, exhale. Minutes later, the tram arrived. It hummed and glided over the metal rails. The doors opened smoothly and passengers poured out of the opening.

A man rushed past, tugging violently at the collar of the thinning winter coat. In his haste, shoulder collided with shoulder. The heavy weight of his body pushed me back slightly. I stuttered a broken apology of crudely butchered phrases that tasted foreign as they left my mouth. He stopped. His eyes narrowed, darkening in thin light. The severe angles of his face formed deep shadows and the force of his stare sent an unwelcome chill through my toes. Spit flew from the cracked corners of his snarling mouth. A harsh flurry of Hungarian worked its way through my system, rubbing strangely against the soft walls of my ear and echoing roughly inside my head. Even as he walked away, the smell of liquor on his breath stained the air and lingered in the small curve of my nostrils.

The doors of the tram let out an alarming beep and slowly began to close. The wind bit at bare skin and blew through my body as I ducked into the fluorescent lighting. With the brightness of the tram suddenly illuminating faces and figures, I could see in full detail the interactions of a couple leaning desperately into each other—passion rising, tension mounting. Flushed faces inches apart, fumbling hands over winter layers, playful glances, secret whispers, teasing and twisting and turning. Trading in loving murmurs and sweet nothings, they turned to secretive whispers and hushed comments. She glanced at me repeatedly; I glanced at the floor. He shifted his head to look; I shifted uncomfortably. She spoke softly in his ear, and his body shook with laughter. They looked at me again, eyeing minor details and subtle flaws. I withdrew deeper into the corner of the tram, though the bright light and open space between us left me brutally exposed. The pair exited at Blaha Lujza tèr, fingers intertwined and faces parted long enough to cross the busy street.

The stop was quick and mechanical. An old woman slowly made her way into the nearest seat, her limbs shaking slightly and her wrinkled arms reaching frantically for the sturdy, green rail. She was wrapped in a thick, knitted shawl, and the length of her heavy winter dress hung past her knees. Without question or discretion, she stared at me from the cushioned blue seat across the tram. Her cheeks drooped down heavily, and the thin skin of her neck possessed a weathered fragility that did not fit her firm expression. Her face was trancelike, eyes unblinking behind swollen lids and mouth bent into a course, thin line. I fixed my posture. Head back. Shoulders straight. Chin parallel to the ground. In an act of desperate retaliation, I stared back at the old woman. Our eyes met, and yet she was unyielding. I could not bear the tension of her wintry gaze for long. It was severe and steadfast and brutal. I turned away. She left the tram at Wesselènyi utca.

The doors closed, cutting off the flow of cold wind that blew through the open passageway. The tram jerked back to life, running past the stretch of closed street shops and darkened alley pubs. The faces of the passengers around me fit the cold, empty night. Tightly pursed lips and distant, glassy eyes. Motionless stares and silent, subtle shifts. And I was in the middle of it, the unusual, foreign element that somehow demanded attention and begged for critique. I could feel the occasional glances from the towering giant next to me. The gangly boy in the far right corner watched my labored movements through his black, rimmed glasses, stopping only to adjust the music blaring in his ears. From the far end of the tram, a heavy set woman gawked noticeably in my direction, smacking together the thick fat of her painted lips as she spoke and tossing her feathered mane of hair with each laugh. I felt their eyes following my slight movements, the occasional scratch of the head or shuffle of the foot. Lacking the conviction to stare back, I fixed my gaze to the ground and listened intently to the drone of the tram across the tracks.

Silently, I endured the pressure of their stares. It was only boredom, only curiosity. It was casual observation. It was only a reflex, only a stare. It was nothing, it was nothing. And at the same time, I was sure that it was me—the slightly altered display of style, the rough American accent, the fussy nervousness, the cautious movements. When I entered the tram, my eyes lingered too long on the transportation diagram. To occupy time at the last stop, I pulled out a map of Budapest elaborately labeled with all the tourist sites. I was wearing the wrong shoes or the wrong coat or the wrong expression. They must have seen; they must have known. I was suddenly painfully aware of myself. On that bright yellow tram, under the unwavering gaze of complete strangers, I was stripped raw. The surface of my skin ripped and peeled into a scathing mess of exposed insecurities and unresolved fears. Bright pink and tender to the touch of cold, I would have happily broken out into the freezing Hungarian weather. The night was cold, but the suffocating, silent critique packed a sting far greater than the threat of winter.

I stepped firmly out onto the pavement, met by a particularly chilling gust of wind. I shoved my pale hands into my lined pockets and tightened the scarf around my bare neck. My breath froze as it touched the cold. It was the end of fall. The chill had reached beyond my feet, paralyzed half my leg, and cut off the blood flow to my hands. It spread itself over my lungs and into my chest. My body was numbed by the early peak of winter. I pulled the jacket tighter and shook off the cold. With a ragged, shallow gasp, I blew hot air from the center of my lungs and watched it vanish into the dull light of the city. My breath diffused swiftly into the eastern wind.

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About Booki
"Somewhere man must know that self-perception is the most frightening of all human observations. He must know that when a man faces himself, he is looking into an abyss."

One Response to Budapest, Hungary

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