Returning To My Beloved Budapest To Reclaim Myself

Do not try to forget the past; it is impossible to forget the past without forgetting oneself at the same time. – Moshe Feldenkrais (The Potent Self)


In the heat of a Las Vegas summer, I am wearing a shiny pink bridesmaid’s outfit, altered to be modest, and matching dyed satin pumps for my older brother’s Orthodox Jewish wedding. I feel like a puppet, clothed by another, playing a part I didn’t think I could refuse. My parents are freshly divorced, but in the pictures I smile. The bright dress conceals my distress. My brother’s newfound religiosity leaves me feeling bewildered and abandoned. I don’t applaud the divorce, whose reasons are unclear. I have just returned from a year of working in Budapest. America seems like a foreign country, Las Vegas like another planet. I’m not sure which is more bizarre: the blinking and buzzing casino where I win a few dollars at a nickel slot machine or the ritual breaking of a plate before the ceremony. I have not seen either before.

The announcement of the wedding, I believe, is what precipitates my departure from my job as a writer and translator at The Hungarian Observer, a monthly magazine. It doesn’t occur to me to return to Hungary after the ceremony and resume my life. I think I need a compelling reason to stay abroad, and only a serious boyfriend can provide such a justification. I have a boyfriend, but not that kind.

Had I left Budapest just as I had begun to inhabit my own orbit?

I fall into the cracks left by the seismic shifts in the family. I stay with my father, a physics professor, in the house I grew up in outside of Boston. I try to get him to open up about the divorce, as if a rational explanation will patch my broken heart. While he can comfortably complete The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, he can’t find the words to answer my questions. From behind his newspaper he reveals little.

I don’t know what to do with my Budapest self. I ask my father if he ever considered joining a local Hungarian community.

“No,” he says. A Holocaust survivor, he had fled with false papers in 1949, not like most Hungarians who left in 1956 during the revolution. It’s unlikely they shared common ground.

I don’t seek out Hungarians on my own. When I am around my father, I feel more Jewish, although, aside from avoiding pork and celebrating the High Holidays and Passover, I don’t attend synagogue or practice the religion. He and I mostly speak English, unless he tells a raunchy joke in his native language because, finally, he has a child who will understand. I groan at his off-color humor even though I want to cry. I hope Hungarian will bring us closer and he’ll share memories of his sisters and parents in his native tongue. My hopes are not realized.

I am depressed and I see a psychiatrist. As winter approaches, I tell her I want to go to Budapest but I don’t have a good reason.

“Why do you need a reason?” she asks. “Can’t you go because you want to?”

Her question ricochets off my armored world view. I believe everything I do must serve a goal, especially if money is involved. I can’t admit that I simply want to be with my second Hungarian boyfriend, J., who unlike the first one, L., is neither Jewish nor conventionally well-educated, therefore not “marriage material” and, therefore, I feel ashamed of my attraction for him. I met him in a self-defense class and, after eyeing each other for months, we began spending time together.

Still, I am aware of the possibility of my own folly. I write in my journal that I am afraid that after I return from Budapest I will again give it significance or specialness it doesn’t deserve. If I don’t go, I’ll linger in longing.

In January 1991, I apply to graduate programs in international relations because I am not sure what else to do with myself. I hope another degree will help me figure that out. As I complete applications, I make plans to visit Hungary. I tack on informational interviews to give the trip a career veneer, even though all I crave is sex and the chance to be in the city that pervades my dreams. The city has cast a spell and I can’t shake it.

*   *   *

I first visited Hungary in 1984 during high school. My father took me, my two brothers and our mother to Budapest and Kisvarda, a town near the eastern border where he spent part of his childhood. In 1944, the Nazis deported him and his family to Auschwitz. Only he survived.

In the city, we stayed at the Gellért Hotel, a stately art nouveau landmark on the Buda side of the Freedom Bridge. Compared to American motels, it might as well have been Buckingham Palace. Its fluffy white bathrobes and breakfasts of bread, jam, juice and coffee delivered on gleaming trays to our room offered my first tastes of luxury. Had my father wanted us to associate Hungary with sweetness, too?

I must have become intrigued by the city during that trip. Three years later, I learned of a chance to spend a college semester in Budapest. Rarely had I, a nerdy and not terribly excited math major, felt so enthusiastic. It’s as if I’d found something designed for me in a world that seemed to have been built by others, for others.

*    *    *


My father visits me in the spring of my junior year. It’s one of the happiest times of my life and one of his more unsettling. He’s on sabbatical in England while separated from my mother. I meet him at his hotel and bring him to my host family. Five of us live in a compact ground floor unit near the top of a tree covered hill in Buda. We manage to share one bathroom, even though at home three toilets and showers never seemed adequate.

“It’s heaven here,” I say as we walk from the bus stop to the apartment for lunch. I gesture at the leafy view, but the whole city is a paradise. The varied architecture, beautiful bridges and graceful boulevards entrance me. Reliable public transit offers freedom of movement. At the tail end of socialism, culture and connection rule instead of commerce. That everyone easily pronounces my name makes me feel as if I belong. In addition to my math classes, I study Hungarian with a private tutor. I drink it in like an elixir. The young man, L., who’ll become my first boyfriend, woos me with ,postcards bearing every possible conjugation of “to love.”

“Hungary is a hell,” my father says. His words puncture my buoyant heart.

In a photograph of us around the dining room table, my dad occupies the center. My host father and I sit on either side. The wide gaps between us seem to accommodate my father’s traumatic history, always the elephant in the room. Our expressions are flat. Perhaps I don’t smile because minutes before he stomped on my happiness or I sense he’s uncomfortable. Maybe my father feels the pain of his collapsing marriage.

That summer, after my American classmates return home, I enroll in an intensive language program. In the sweltering heat of a narrow dormitory room, I pore over thick blue dictionaries and, noun by noun, verb by verb, and sentence by sentence, continue to inscribe Hungarian into my brain and body. The sounds and syntax enliven a part of my being I didn’t know existed.

*  *   *

Academics barely held my interest when I returned to the United States. I dutifully finished my degree and interviewed with campus recruiters. I received some offers, but refused them out of fear of being homogenized by corporate culture. I returned to Budapest to be with L., study Hungarian, and find work. My mother later told me she thought I was running away, as if leaving had been an act of cowardice. But I returned to a place where I’d felt happy. Budapest, despite its smog, choking cigarette smoke, provincialism and even anti-Semitism, offered the possibility of adventure.

My father came to see me after I began working at the magazine. One day we had lunch with a Jewish friend of mine at his mother’s doily-filled apartment.

“Why don’t they leave?” my father asked afterward.

His tone, laced with incredulity and judgment, cut into me. Didn’t he understand that not everyone could pick up and go? Maybe they had strong ties or feared the unknown. Still, my brilliant, complicated father loomed larger than life. I hung onto his every word as if they mattered more than my own. His comment created a split in my mind: those who leave Hungary are better or braver than those who stay. Without being completely aware of it, I began to subtly devalue the people who lived in Hungary, even though I was there, too. Perhaps prejudice helped dull the pain of leaving a city I loved, a place whose pulse matched my inner rhythm.

*   *  *


A summer job in Budapest fell into my lap so I flew there in June, before beginning graduate school. My decision to spend more time there did not elicit the hosannas that I imagine accompany a young Jew’s decision to repeatedly visit Israel. If, in the American Jewish imagination, America was the Promised Land and Israel the Holy Land, then Hungary lacked promise and holiness. Many saw it as an anti-semitic backwater with few redeeming qualities, a place to visit if one’s blood relations were “stuck” there. Otherwise, why go?

When I told my mother I planned to return to Budapest, she said in a tone that betrayed her displeasure that maybe I’d “get interested in another part of the world.” Had my father been fond of Israel, or taken us there as a family, perhaps I would have been more inclined towards it. Except he didn’t love it. After the war he’d been recruited by a Zionist group to attend a camp at Lake Balaton, about 80 miles southwest of Budapest. He went to the gathering, but refused to join the movement.

“I didn’t want to be told what to think,” he said.

I understood. When I spent six weeks in Israel on a seminar in high school, following my older brother’s footsteps, the leaders bombarded us with an Aliyah sales pitch, as if the voluble country couldn’t speak for itself.

I spent the summer of 1992 in Budapest, working at a law firm before finishing my degree. After graduation, I traveled to Ecuador to learn Spanish. A job in Manhattan followed. Later, I worked in Mexico for a year as a trade consultant. But Quito and Mexico City did not appear in my dreams. They did not tug at my heart. They did not call to my soul.

*  *  *


Hungary might have been a political and economic hell, but my father found the food heavenly. He traveled to Budapest to improve his confectionary skills. He rented a room and shadowed a baker to learn how to make the perfect kifli, crescent-shaped pastries filled with ground walnuts or poppy seeds, which he hoped to commercialize. He believed with a televangelist’s fervor that Americans, upon tasting these delights, would have a culinary “come to Jesus” moment and renounce their donuts and Hostess cakes. While others dismissed his entrepreneurial plans as pie in the sky, I quietly cheered him on his quixotic quest. That he stepped outside the box of professor gave me permission to, at some point, follow my own passion. His diligent bakemanship led to delicious output, but he was more of a dreamer than a businessman. His bakery never got off the ground.

I went to see him during his adventure as apprentice. Time alone with my father felt precious, so I didn’t contact my host parents. That visit had been more fraught than fun. The city had been shrouded in a thick grey mist, casting a pall over my mood. That a growing number of American chain restaurants dotted the landscape made me feel that the shabby, socialist Budapest I loved had already begun to disappear. Several of the people I once knew had emigrated. When I returned to the United States, I slowly stopped responding to letters from those who still lived there. Weaning myself seemed like a practical decision.

Perhaps six years later, my father asked me if I wanted to accompany him, and some of his survivor friends, to a rededication of the Jewish cemetery in Kisvarda. His grandfather, a beloved rabbi, had been buried there, his tall grave inscribed from top to bottom in Hebrew. I’d seen it before. I wished my father had a spouse or partner to join him so he wouldn’t have needed to ask me, and I would not have had to wrestle with the request. I believed not going would help me leave behind the heaviness of Jewish history. Maintaining any connection to Hungary felt like having an extra appendage or an ill fitting prosthetic, awkward to carry in America. Wouldn’t I be better off if I could put it down? I declined.

* * *


My father dies unexpectedly. That he has vanished into eternity plunges me into a void. Without him, I don’t know who I am. Without him, I’m not sure I want to live to find out. Medication keeps me in the game. My brothers and I follow Jewish custom and erect a headstone a year after we bury him. Given the cemetery rules, we can’t install a large grave marker, like that of our great-grandfather. With a fraction of the surface area, every letter counts. I care the most about restoring his name to its original spelling. The accent over the “a” in Zoltán appeared on his Brooklyn College diploma and his doctorate in physics from Brandeis University. Later, it disappeared from his correspondence. His university employer turned the “a” into an “o”, an error that lasted decades until his death.

I visit the monument maker before the unveiling to make sure they’ve included the accent. They have barely scratched the surface. I tell them to carve it deeper. I insist on this detail because how else to represent my father’s origins and the European sensibility he didn’t leave behind? It’s as if that chiseled sliver encapsulates his entire existence. Except I’m still too discombobulated by grief to realize that the accent is about me. I’m not willing or ready to let go of what remains of my Hungarian identity even though, without my father, I have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

* * *


I start another chapter. I move to Colorado for the sunshine and mountains. By then I’d discovered I’m a creative soul who feels suffocated in a pigeonholed identity. I rent a studio in Denver in an artist building. I become a diligent student of Zen Buddhism with a daily meditation practice. Not long after, I stop eating red meat. A few years into my new life, my Hungarian host father contacts me through my website. Seeing his name in my inbox feels like being gently tapped on the shoulder, as if reminding me who I had been. That he remains undeterred by many unreturned letters touches me. We exchange a few e-mails but I keep mine brief. I fear sinking into the quicksand of nostalgia for a time that has passed and a place that has changed.

Perhaps that would have been the end of it, except a strange thing happens. On one of my periodic visits to a synagogue in Boulder, an exhibit about its members’ origins fills the foyer. The display includes photographs, Judaica, travel documents and citizenship papers of ancestors, plus a map of the world showing where they lived. Looking at the pins stuck into Hungary, an otherworldly sensation comes over me. I don’t feel that I descended from there, in the distant past, but that part of me is still there, even though I have not visited in nearly two decades, and even though my body is 5,500 miles away.

I am not sure what to do with that highly inconvenient information. If my intellect and my will had severed ties with the past, the rest of me had not. I ignore this disconnect until someone shares an article about “must eat” Hungarian foods. I react like a sullen caged lion whose normally stingy keeper has unexpectedly approached it with a fresh, whole carcass.

“I want!”  roars my body, eager to board the next flight to Budapest. My heart pounds as I check flights. Except I also check the news. My urge to visit coincides with articles about Hungary’s resurgent nationalism, anti-semitism and the rolling back of democracy under Prime Minister Victor Orbán. When I lived there, he’d been the fresh face of Fidesz, a democratic party whose vigor and verve had blown like a brisk breeze through socialism’s musty mausoleum. I recoil at the headlines, although they are mere pixels on a screen. I tell myself I don’t want to go to a country that has turned the clock back on progress. I tell myself I won’t enjoy visiting because I had weaned myself from sugar. My memory of Budapest had become a caricature, as gauzy as cotton-candy, of riding the yellow trolley cars and hopping from one pastry shop to another. Why torture myself with temptation?

This is not the first time the urge to visit Budapest had fluttered into my consciousness when dreaming and awake. I usher it out of my mind as if it’s a bewildered bird that has flown indoors.

“Go away,” I say. I don’t recognize it as the beating wings of my heart.

I sit on my meditation bench every morning, intending to surf the waves of longing and return to the present. Am I not a spiritual person, determined to “be here now”? Except what is present is a gnawing sense that maybe, contrary to platitudes that “you’re always exactly where you need to be”, I am in the wrong place. Still, I can’t conceive of visiting Budapest, like millions of people do every year. My mind, like a stickler judge, has imposed a statute of limitations: more time has elapsed than can be reasonably explained and therefore I can’t go back. I fall for that reasoning because it’s simpler to stay away than confront the complexity of returning, akin to seeing an old flame. I could be warmed, lit up with joy, or burned.

* * *


That spring, I conduct a funeral of sorts for the past. I ship some Hungarian books to friends. I leave several sets of heavy, worn and musty Magyar dictionaries at Goodwill because I cannot bring myself to put them in the trash. I keep a few Budapest mementos that make me smile. In doing so, I believe I have again consigned my time there to distant memory.

Aren’t there other places to go?

During the holidays that year one of my nieces visits Budapest with friends. The city, dark and moody when I lived there, glows with festive lights in her photos. My excitement for her is tainted by a surprising shot of anger: how come she is enjoying the place and I am not? That such a thought arises makes me wonder who or what had withdrawn permission. Had others’ negativity seeped into me like a toxic intravenous drip? Had I crumpled that chapter of my life into a ball because it didn’t fit into a linear life narrative, as if having a seamless story is the point of existence?

That my niece likes being there opens a door for me to return. I don’t jump on a plane. Not yet.

* * *


A cooper’s hawk lands beneath my window. After a few minutes, it turns and stares up at me with bright gold eyes. The gaze of this unexpected visitor punctures my procrastination. America has taken a distressingly dark political turn; why keep Hungary at arm’s length? I remember the long-ago therapist who asked why I needed a reason to go.

I book a flight. I arrange lodging. On Facebook, I look up my former boss and a colleague from the magazine, unsure they are alive and, if they are, will remember me. Within hours, I receive delighted replies. I e-mail my host parents and their eldest daughter. They offer help with my arrival. I reach out to a few Hungarians I’ve met online. I contact an Aikido dojo so I can continue practicing. If my 22 year absence had been a barren field, it suddenly sprouts with possibility. The possibility of what, I am not sure. As I pack my martial arts uniform, I remind myself to bring a Zen mind .

* * *

An impeccably dressed driver in a sparkling yellow taxi ferries me from Budapest’s airport to my rental apartment in the seventh district. The Italian-born property manager greets me at the entrance of a building with a scruffy facade. I follow him as he opens the heavy wood front door with an electronic key, carries my bag up a flight of worn steps, and unlocks a metal gate to a narrow interior balcony and wheels my bag to the corner unit. Once we’re inside, he asks why I’ve come. I tell him I lived here long ago.

“Oh, a nostalgia trip,” he says as he shows me around the renovated flat, filled with cheery IKEA furnishings. Wobbling with fatigue, I let the phrase hang in the air, even though it seems simplistic.

I manage to visit a grocery store before dark. Through the haze of jet lag, I spot pale yellow peppers called TV paprika. I nearly cry, as if they are friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I put two of the waxy vegetables in my basket. I wander in dream-like astonishment among the bright displays and stocked shelves, a quantum leap from the spartan stores I recall. My eyes feast on the contemporary packaging, prepared foods, and Western products. Paprika flavored rice cakes? I take some. I see cans of mystifying meat creams. Even though I still won’t eat them, I feel affection for these concoctions for having survived the forces of globalization.

I don’t recognize my behavior the next few days as I let my animal self run wild. I instinctively make a huge pot of chicken paprikás, one of my father’s dishes, and eat some each evening as if it is soul medicine. I binge on long-forgotten foods, such as Liptauer cheese, a tangy spread. I feed myself spoonfuls of krémtúró, a sweet cheese custard, sugar be damned. My boss from The Hungarian Observer treats me to dinner at a traditional, formerly state-owned restaurant. Without self-consciousness or any pretense of mindfulness, I devour most of a heaping plate of catfish paprikás with potato dumplings and sheep cheese, a dish whose existence seems to deride every diet craze that has swept across America. As I eat, it dawns on me that my trip is less about nostalgia than about nurturing an identity I’d neglected, if not slowly starved via spinach smoothies, out of a misguided attempt to be “spiritual”.

This awareness hits me like a punch to the third chakra. How much had I deprived myself by staying away? I try not to wallow in self-reproach for the trips to Budapest not taken, the foods not savored, the adventures not had. I try not to wonder what it would have been like to have been periodically embraced by this beguiling city. To soothe my sorrow, I tell myself I waited long enough for gluten-free and paleo bakeries to open, allowing me to enjoy Hungary’s proud pastry culture. I try as many poppyseed delights as I can. That I discover the best kifli serendipitously, tucked in the corner of a display in a tiny shop near my old neighborhood, reminds me that following my curiosity and my sixth sense is what delights me, even if my habits confound the planners and checklist makers.

On my first Sunday in the city, when many shops and sights are closed, I wander to see what I’ll find. Without planning, I stumble upon the rear entrance of the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe. I lift my gaze and see these words near the roofline: “Mah norah ha makom hazeh”.

            How holy is this place.

It’s a phrase I did not notice, nor did I know the meaning of, when I lived there in my twenties. I only learned it when I staggered back into Judaism following my father’s death. That I see it now seems fitting. This place, all of Budapest, feels holy to me. I don’t enter the synagogue. I’d been inside before. I don’t wish to wait in line, to pass through security, to be haunted by its emptiness or to contemplate the Holocaust memorial in the rear courtyard. I am here to celebrate, not grieve.

I keep walking that day, and almost every day. As I walk, I open my senses to restore Budapest to my cells. I listen to the symphony of the city, to the hum and click of the red electric streetcars, to the bup-bup-bup of tires on cobblestones, to the rumble and squeak of the yellow trolleys as they travel along curves. I walk with wide eyes to take in the familiar, such as the pharmacies’ blinking green crosses which serve as friendly beacons after nightfall, and to catch glimpses of the murals that now adorn faded buildings. I notice, but don’t recoil from the sharp cigarette smoke that floats over the sidewalks. It mixes with the exhaust and the sweet exhalations of bakeries and pastry shops to create a perfume unique to the city.

I don’t pound the pavement, but caress it with my feet. I stroll back and forth across the Freedom Bridge, pausing to soak up views of the city. I revisit a handful of places to catch them in the pastel glow of sunset. I trace and retrace my steps, as if my legs are reciting a long dormant prayer. I walk to reclaim the city from the people, the tribal influences and my own fears that had twisted what I had once unabashedly loved into a taboo. I walk to remember that the Hungarian I had painstakingly learned had been, and still is, a source of pleasure; it allowed me to incubate a different persona, even if it hadn’t created intimacy with my father. I walk to remind myself that I’m able to find beauty in places others reject or where they refuse to look. With each gentle footfall on the city’s sidewalks, I honor the unorthodox choices I made which others couldn’t comprehend or celebrate and which I did not know how to defend. I walk and I walk, and I walk some more, until I fall in love with my younger self.

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