The Year in Broken Hungarian

When people asked me why I had come to Budapest, I told them it made sense at the time. 

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.

The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős once said of his obsessive relationship with number theory, “If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is.” Of the several books I read this year by or about Hungarians, it was Paul Hoffman’s biography of Erdős, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, that I absorbed the most quickly.

I’d like to think of myself as a romantic, but really I’m a pragmatist who just happens to read too much poetry. I tried to convince myself that my decision to move to Hungary for a month was a whim, but really the numbers behind my decision were airtight. Budapest is 7,120 km away from Toronto, a distance that seemed just far enough. I found an apartment in the city centre that would cost $112 less than my rent here. I had the time, having worked as a freelance writer for over a year, and few commitments keeping me tied home. I had the money, with a few well paying gigs that came at the beginning of the year and a frugal lifestyle that would cushion the cost of airfare. “Why are you going to Budapest?” friends would ask, and I would shrug and say the math was right.

*

I had never lived alone before. The Hungarian apartment was spacious and old, with the toilet in a closet-sized room down the hall from the sink and bathtub (there was no shower). I was grateful for the solitude, if only because I knew I would never be able to close the bathroom door without having a claustrophobia-induced panic attack. Peeing with the door open would quickly become one of the highlights of living alone.

The morning of September 1st, after my redeye landed, I dropped off my suitcase and went to explore the neighbourhood. I was high from the jet lag, my mind foggy. There were posters plastered all over, similar in format to the billboards I had seen on the train ride from the airport. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Of all the Hungarian I had been teaching myself for months, through CDs borrowed from the library or apps downloaded online, the one word I remembered was “köszönöm,” or thank you. “Köszönöm!” I said, after ordering a coffee from one of the many cafes on my street. “Köszönöm!” I said when my neighbour wished me a good morning. “Köszönöm!” I said when the cashier told me what my indecipherable total would be at the grocery store. “Köszönöm!” I said after bumping into a man on the sidewalk.

I was able to get by that first week with hand gestures. I felt liberated and lonely; beholden to no one, with no one to talk to. I found myself speaking out loud to myself in my apartment in both English and French, to prove to no one in particular that I could still say the words I no longer had any need for.

*

“Are you American too?” the older man, mid sixties, seated next to me at the Indian restaurant asked. I had ordered water in English, after my hand gestures and Hungarian mispronunciations got me nowhere with the waiter.

“Canadian,” I replied.

The man—Hugh—introduced himself. He was here for the month as well. He had come for a medical procedure that he no longer needed and now had nothing but time to kill. He was a widower with two adult children my age. He asked what I do for a living, and I said I was a writer, and he told me about the book he was working on. Every man I meet has a novel he’s working on.

He asked if we could be friends while he was here. I said that would be nice. We exchanged e-mail addresses.

I fell asleep at 9 p.m. that night and woke up at 5 a.m. I never let myself get used to the jet lag while I was there. I read a book while I waited for the sun to rise—the thirteenth book I had finished in the eight days I had been there, another novella about a woman trying to get her shit together—then grabbed my tote bag and left the apartment as soon as it was light outside.

I started every morning by wandering the city for a few hours, picking a different neighbourhood to explore. My friends back home were just going to sleep, and the city here was just waking up, and I existed somewhere in between. That morning, I ended up at the underground labyrinths, beneath the Buda castle. You had to pay a cover to get in, but once I was through the entrance, I was all alone. There were a few dim lights guiding the way, but one section was completely pitch black. The sign warned that you entered at your own risk.

Earlier this year, I had given up drinking for good. I had given up most of my other chemical vices the year before that. I still drink a lot of coffee. Learning to be alone in my own head was one of the hardest consequences of sobriety, but that morning, I decided I could handle it if I spent an hour each morning alone in a pitch-black labyrinth. Shut off from the world, literally, I walked slowly with my arms outstretched like a zombie. Left foot, right foot, I thought, shuffling along the dark damp floor. Left foot, right foot. That’s all you need to do. No, Wait. Left foot, right foot, inhale. Left foot, right foot, exhale. That’s all you need to do.

*

That evening I came home to several e-mails from Hugh. The first few were ideas of activities we could do together, the rest were all asking me why I hadn’t replied to his first e-mail. I agreed to meet him at a museum that weekend. We talked about our lives back home. He worked as a criminal lawyer. Mostly on boring fraud cases, he said. No murder cases, I asked? Well, one, he said. He had collaborated closely with a police officer over the years, you know, on investigations, until one day the police officer himself was arrested for pushing his wife off a cliff. Hugh was the prosecutor on the case, and ended up having to send his friend to prison. Goddamn, I thought. He really should write a book.

Hugh was kind to me, and was clearly feeling lonely; a different kind of loneliness than the one I was experiencing. He wanted to talk to me about my life back home. He wanted to ask me about what I was doing with my life. He wanted to fill the silences with small talk. After every sentence he spoke, he turned to look at my face, as if waiting for a reaction. I quickly felt like I was performing a more polite version of myself around him, conscious of everything I said and did. So I panicked. When he started listing other museums we should go to together, I told him I came here to work on my book, and that I really needed to be alone right now. He sounded hurt, but understood.

I spent the next two days back in a comfortable silence, writing and wandering. I spent the third day in bed with blankets over my head. I pulled out my phone, and opened the Duolingo app, where I had been learning Hungarian vocabulary. I had been stuck on this one lesson on verb tenses. I gave it another go. A half hour went by, and I still hadn’t finished the lesson. I sighed, closed Duolingo, and opened Tinder.

*

That Saturday night, I went to a club by myself. The venue was a large building attached to a hostel. Inside were multiple rooms, each with its own DJ and foosball table. People were dancing. I thought about joining them, but dancing was one of those things I had inadvertently given up when I stopped drinking. I found a room in the basement that was almost empty save for a few people doing karaoke. A man was singing a slow, mournful rendition of “Hallelujah” in a thick Hungarian accent. I leaned against the wall and watched his performance.

When he finished, a group of British tourists went in on their take of “Poker Face.” The man saw me leaning, and came up to talk to me.

“That was really lovely,” I said. “Do you do karaoke often?”

“It became an interest of mine when I was going through my divorce,” he said. “I needed to get away from my wife and three kids, so I started to do karaoke.”

“Oh,” I said. “When did that happen?”

“Last Tuesday.”

As if on cue, my phone buzzed. I excused myself from the conversation. I had a new Tinder notification. A message from a man named Kristóf, asking, in English, how my weekend was going. I had no more patience for small talk.

“Look,” I replied to the message. “You seem nice. How soon do you want to meet up?”

“Really?” said Kristóf. “What about tomorrow night?”

*

Kristóf and I met at a cafe in my neighbourhood the following evening. He asked me why I was in Budapest. I shrugged and told him it had just made sense at the time to go. He nodded.

“It’s a weird time to be in Hungary,” he said. “The government is trying to get people to vote on a referendum about accepting refugees.”

“Is that what all the posters are for?” I asked. “I couldn’t understand what they said.”

Kristóf’s face darkened. He nodded grimly. “Half of them are from the government, against accepting immigrants. They are so hateful. It makes me sad. The other half are from the people. They are making fun of the original. In the same way. Like—”

“Parodies?” I offer.

“Parodies,” he said. I felt a pang of guilt, thinking about how easy it was for me to come here, to a place whose borders were closed off to the people who needed it. Then I felt guilt at my guilt, sitting there uselessly at the pit of my stomach. “That’s kind of the history of Hungary,” continued Kristóf. “There is a lot of ugliness and hatred here, and there is a lot of people trying to fight that hatred in their own way.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked. Fifteen minutes later, we were making out by the Danube. Twenty minutes later, we were at my Airbnb.

*

Like me, Kristóf was a writer. He was a couple of years older than I was, but was putting himself through journalism school while working at a news publication that focused on education rights.

“Oh, so you’re like a real writer,” I said to him the next day.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you not write real things?”

“I make a lot of my money from copywriting gigs, but the rest is all just jokes about wanting to kill myself,” I said. “Oh, and sometimes I review children’s books.”

He asked if he could see something I wrote, and I said no. He asked again, and I said I would send him a link that he could read when I wasn’t around. Later, he sent me a text.

“I read your work,” he said. “It’s like a soursugar.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“I don’t know how to translate,” he said. “A sour candy, or something. It’s a good thing.”

“Do you mean bittersweet?” I asked.

“Don’t laugh at me!” he said, but I assured him I wasn’t. Soursugar was perfect, I said. I want everything I do to be soursugar.

*

It only took one more night with Kristóf before I felt the oncoming of a UTI. Like clockwork. I texted him on a Thursday morning.

“Oh no,” he said. “I just got to work, but I can come by later and take you to a clinic?”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I can go by myself. Come over after work though? Bring cranberry juice.”

Armed with my rusty Hungarian, I went out into the world. I knew enough to make out the words “medical” and “walk-in” and was able to put two and two together with the sign in front of the building at the end of my street. It was a pleasant little place, with paintings of animals all over the walls. It seemed like every other person there had a service animal with them, mostly dogs, but—nope, I’m at a vet, I realized. I went to a vet’s office for my UTI.

I left and found a real clinic. I handed the receptionist one slip of paper where I had written the Hungarian translation for UTI, another slip with my information on it.

“Your name is Mass Insurance Brokers?” asked the woman at the desk.

“Köszönöm,” I replied, embarrassed.

I told Kristóf this story when he came over that night with my cranberry juice, excited that I got to tell someone about my day for the first time in weeks. He laughed and leaned down to kiss my temple, and said I was cute.

“Um,” I said. “You know this means we can’t have sex for a while, right?”

“I didn’t come over here just to have sex with you,” he said. “I like you, you know. You are clever.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I asked if he wanted to watch TV with me. We curled up in my bed, which was really just a couple of cushions in the living room of my Airbnb. Though I thought it was too small every night I had spent there alone, that night it felt a million feet too wide.

*

“You know I leave in a couple of days,” I told Kristóf the following evening, while we sat at his kitchen table eating the dinner he had cooked. I looked out the window. You could see the Buda castle from his apartment, the one that sat on top of the labyrinths I had gotten lost in a few weeks prior.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

“Soursugar,” I smiled sheepishly.

“Don’t make fun of me!” he said, and I promised him I never would.

“Do you think you would ever come to North America?” I said. “Not to see me,” I added quickly. “Just to visit?”

“Why not to see you?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We only know each other a little bit. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, right?”

“I always wanted to go to California,” he said. “There’s a scholarship for Hungarian students to go there. A writing scholarship.”

“I love California,” I said. “I go to LA a lot. For work-related reasons, usually.”

“Maybe someday we will both be in California at the same time,” he said. “Maybe that would make sense.”

*

I went to the airport early the morning of my trip home. My flight was delayed, and I had several hours to kill. Airports are a weird kind of purgatory. I had said my goodbyes, made my peace with leaving the country, and here I was, still immersed in the foreign language. I opened my laptop and started checking e-mails that needed answers, but I had already taking an anti-nausea pill and was feeling too drowsy to focus. I let my eyes glaze over, the words on the screen becoming a blur like the words being spoken around me. I sat, alone in silence, until it was time for my flight to board.

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