June 21. I awoke excited that I would join my new friends in Zebegeny for an evening solstice trip to the island. This was organized by Maruska and Endre, who seemed to be the unofficial event coordinators for the region. Luis and I had a bit of an altercation about a new pot he had purchased which had mysteriously developed a series of chips in the enamel on the handle of the lid. I must have done something when cooking the soup, but I didn’t remember it falling. I felt accused and defensive, and reacted accordingly, getting up quickly and offering to pay for it. I had half a mind to leave for the day, but decided it was better to sit and try to work it out. I know I made him uncomfortable with my reaction, but I had grown up being blamed incessantly, and still was sensitive. We talked about it and I explained my reaction, and offered to look for a replacement. After I felt that it was resolved, I headed to the library in Kismaros and wrote for 3 hours. What a nice space! It is a lovely room full of books, very neat, lots of spaces for kids, and very inviting. And they have 3 computers. I was very happy there, despite the devastating heat. It was already 95 degrees by noon, and at one point the car temperature was 106. Yikes! At 3pm, I headed to Zebegeny, stopping in Nagymaros to walk up the steep steps to the calvary church and around the neighborhoods on the hill. I saw kids playing in the crazy heat, a younger sister taunting her brother of 10 or so who was carrying buckets of water, a woman in her 60s or 70s spitting in the face of her son or husband and screaming at him. I quickly distanced myself from the latter scene. It’s uncomfortable to be around yelling.
I headed to Zebegeny and parked by the river, and wasted no time taking a plunge. I spent 40 minutes or so immersed, playing in the current and swimming against it to stay in one place, then got out and read more Thoreaux before joining Endre, Szeuszen, and Peter at the canoe rental hut. It turns out Peter’s grandparents emigrated from Bulgaria 100 years ago just after liberation from the Ottomans after 478 years of rule. I thought 150 years of dissolution of Poland was bad. Peter explained how thoroughly the Ottomans tried to obliterate Bulgarian culture, including the drafting of child soldiers as they did in Greece. But somehow Bulgaria held onto its ancient customs and traditions. Apparently the folk music retains its Asian roots, and uses the pentatonic scale as does Hungarian folk music because of shared roots.
Peter has spent many summers visiting historical places in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and recommended a caudry of small villages and monasteries. Szeuszen knows transylvania well and recommended many areas of natural beauty, including lakes and mountains. He talked about the Albanians and the way that they changed religions after being orthodox for centuries, first to catholicism under Italian rule, then to Islam. Neighboring countries do not approve of changing one’s religious affiliations as easily as changing clothes, and many distrust and dislike the Albanian people. Katalin was telling me how Albanians had apparently been robbing and killing Tuscan families since coming to Italy, and that much of the delinquency in Italy is now due to the Albanians. I heard the same thing in Greece. Apparently the Macedonians feel that the Albanians living in western Macedonia are acceptable. They are “their” Albanians. To be distinguished from those living within the borders of Albania. When I was on Kefalonia I met a very hard-working and kind Albanian working at a bakery. Made me wonder how much of the stories about Albanians were true. Was it similar to the demonization of the gypsies? I have heard many horror stories about the latter as well, from many people who were formerly tolerant and have since been hardened. It’s difficult to know what to think and how to solve such great social problems. Shades of the refugee crisis.
I loved the island and the sunset. I met Peter, an older man from Holland who has lived in Zebegeny during the summers since 1985. What a great cadre of people! I’d be tempted to move there, if I ever decided to live in Hungary. We came back in the dark, and I bid farewell to Peter and Szeuszen, who live in Vac in Peter’s parents home, who died 10 years ago. They take the train to Budapest, a 25 minute ride, and feel lucky to have a house and yard in the relative countryside. Peter used to work as an event organizer for big music concerts, and said he appreciates the quiet and tranquility of life in Vac. If he wants, he can go to a pub in Budapest and come back on the midnight train. For him, being able to drink alcohol on the train is a real plus. Actually, he says this is important for Hungarians in general. I’ve noticed that. On the island, everyone drank white wine mixed with soda water. Apparently making soda water is a cottage industry that still thrives in Hungary. Making soda via carbonization was apparently invented by the Hungarians (according to Marushka), and there is a small factory in Nagymaros operated by a couple in their 70s who still do the heavy lifting.
After saying goodbye to my new friends, I walked to Marushka’s home. One of her dogs, Arnold, had disappeared. Her phone rang and she said that’s probably someone with Arnold now. And sure enough it was. He had gone the Squirrel pub in town, where Vanina was having a drink. While Endre went to fetch Arnold, Maruhka and I talked of life in Russia, and the way that as a big country it was easy for them to roll over smaller countries and treat people as collateral damage, whether Hungarians or their own people. She shares my concern for the independence of the Baltic states, and says that there are secret militia groups of young men practicing how to use arms in the forests of Estonia. She said she would take up arms if Putin invaded. She spoke of her love of Prague, and how she felt completely at home the first time she arrived, experiencing a deja vu of having been a Jew in another life there.
I had a similar experience when I was in Prague, having been attracted unknowingly to the dark unlit street near the great synagogue. She had lived in Kiev for a few months just after the Chernobyl disaster had occurred. Apparently, the press in Russia had kept it a total secret, and it was only a year after the melt down that they admitted it. In the meantime, she and others had been exposed to the radiation. Some of her colleagues have since died, presumably from the exposure. She is circumspect, but feels strongly about environmental protection. Apparently during communist rule, the Danube was extremely polluted. Now you can swim in it, and aside from a few tires, I think it’s pretty clean. I could talk to Maruska for hours but again my eyes were closing. It was past midnight when I bid them farewell. Her parting words were “don’t lose us”. A direct translation from the literal Hungarian, probably meaning don’t forget us. I wouldn’t.
June 22. I stayed up late the night before with Luis because it was a sweltering night. The next morning proved even hotter. We talked as usual and then I headed down to Kismaros to write, and then headed to Vac. On the way I jumped into the Danube in Veroce, as it was already 102 in the shade. I left my wet suit on as a way to cool off and headed to Vac, where I tried a very special Hungarian dessert. It was a kind of sponge cake with cream and alcohol. I liked it, and decided to get a cappuccino the next day on my way to Slovakia. I headed into Budapest for the last dreaded appointment. I didn’t think the dentist could extract my back most upper right molar because of the surgery he’d performed a few days before, but somehow he managed. It was so painful that tears streamed from my eyes, but I tried not to make any noise. It was difficult. I feel like a torture victim. I didn’t think he’d be able to reach to place an implant, and I was right. Same as the other side. My mouth was too tight to allow access. I was already scheming about how not to come back next year. He said he could possibly place another implant next year, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back.
I wandered around Budapest in the heat but it was oppressive. Everyone was smoking to boot, and after surgery I didn’t feel like walking in 100 degree smoggy air filled with cigarette smoke. No wonder I was dreaming of southern France. I came upon an interesting university library nearby that had received a Carnegie grant in 1923, a peace grant, to beautify and restore the reading room. It reminded me of the Boston Public Library, and the Green Library at Stanford. Very stately, like the castle of a nobility. I found an old cinema, the Pushkin, which had just celebrated its 100th birthday. I was tempted to see a movie but it was too hot and I knew there wouldn’t be any air conditioning. There were photos of the state of the cinema starting in the 1920s, and I eagerly peered at the photos, looking at the changes to the interior and exterior over the decades. Then I found my car and briefly stopped in the park near Hero’s Square before heading to Kismaros. I stopped at Katalin’s house and we had a nice conversation. She fed me sour cream and cottage cheese with onion on bread, and I ate it gratefully. I had wanted to eat after the surgery but hadn’t been able to. Finally at 11:30 I headed home and collapsed. I was dog tired.
June 23. I awoke early and began packing for my trip. As I did so I found a small grasshopper on my bed, one of whose legs was lame. I tried to put him on a leaf outside but he would have none of it, preferring to stay on my arm. I felt very sad for him, and wondered whether his injury was my fault. It brought to mind the small bird that I’d seen alive and standing on the freeway as I exited from Budapest last night. I had done my best to drive over it such that it was squarely in the middle of the car, and possibly able to survive. Then I saw a frog leaping along the dirt road near Luis’s cottage and stopped instantly for a minute, hoping I’d give him a chance to escape. The previous night as I’d driven back from Zebegeny, a lynx had done a mad dash across Highway 12. Luckily I’d been able to avoid him just in time. I wondered whether all these animals were sending a message to me. Perhaps of loss and the fragility of life. I thought that the grasshopper would be better off in the tall grass and tried to put him there for a second time. And wondered about my arrogance at thinking I knew what was best for an insect whose life I’d never lived or experienced.
I cleaned the kitchen and stove so that I left it in better condition than I’d found it, and swept my cabin thoroughly. Eventually Luis awoke and we chatted, then I finally bid him farewell and headed to Katalin for a last visit. We had a nice chat and I told her about Esther Gokhale’s book 8 Steps to A Pain-Free Back because she had questions about how to sit without pain. I didn’t want to leave but needed to hit the road so said farewell and headed to the library for a quick blog update, then on to wash the car and get on the road. I was excited to be going to a new place!