Transitory Traditions


Every year, when I saw that sign, I couldn’t help but laugh. Four Christmases in Budapest, and I could never get over seeing that culinary tradition at the Christmas Market. Until I moved to Budapest, I hadn’t known that roosters had testicles. The discovery was a little unsettling. I didn’t grow up on a farm or consider myself an expert on fowl anatomy, but it seemed like something I should have known. Basic zoology. I peered into the large cauldron. There they floated – thumb-sized, gelatinous masses. Disproportionately large. It seemed like the only people who ate them were tourists looking to bolster their bravado.


How long does it take for behavior to be considered tradition? The Christmas market in Budapest always began the third week of November, but my husband and I refused to go before December. If you get into the spirit too soon, you end up being sick of it by the time the holiday rolls around. It was tempting to go sooner – it was the best market we’d ever seen. Unlike Vienna, where every ornament and pair of slippers was stamped “Made in China”, the Budapest market was one-hundred percent Made in Hungary. Authentic, handmade, high quality. My husband and I would wander the alleys, a mug of mulled wine in our hands, and pick out gifts for everyone, and even ourselves.


The picnic tables were always full – friends and family gathered together. As the evening wore on, the laughter would grow louder, nearly drowning out the festive music. We didn’t linger. Those were winters of intense cold and snow. And besides, it was not very pleasant being alone together amongst groups of people. We didn’t manage to have acquaintances, those four years. The synchronicity of interaction was askew, with locals and other expats alike. The true test of a relationship is when you are confronted with no one but each other for long periods of time. We didn’t realize how alone we were until we mingled with others.


And then, in the last days before the holiday, the boulevards would be one continuous stream of headlights inching out of the city. Soon the streets would empty and the neighboring windows would darken. Our landlord would stop by with the same gift every year – Porto wine. Hotels offered holiday dinner, but we prefered to order food from a French import company and prepare it ourselves. Expat holiday dinners always need to be adapted, because of lack of some ingredient or other. No sweet potatoes for me, no BΓ»che de NoΓ«l for Le Husband. People in transit have no choice but to be flexible. And all traditions become transitory.


Over dinner, there was no catching up chatter, no yearly tally of achievements and events. No relentless cheer, which is not necessarily fake, but overbearing just the same. Instead, we basked in the easy silence of another year passed on the road.

One Christmas, snow had drifted on the balcony, so we let our rabbit outside to play in it. We were almost too full of food and wine to move, but after she hopped back inside, so pleased with herself, we bundled ourselves up and ventured out to the deserted streets. The only sign illuminated was that of the nonstop dentist. The neon buzzed in the stillness. We laughed. Only in Budapest. The small Christmas market in front of the basilica was open and surprisingly full. Voices spoke in Italian and French and anything but Hungarian. Midnight was still an hour away. Would I finally be motivated to go to Mass, like I’d been wanting to since we’d been in Europe? Prayers and rituals were long forgotten. It was more of a cultural curiosity, a desire to be around faith and light. As I envisioned myself in the crowd of worshippers, a profound weariness seeped into me. I smiled up at my husband, all of this unsaid. We joined hands and headed home.


38 thoughts on “Transitory Traditions

  1. what a beautiful atmosphere!but you’re right, November is too soon also for me to start being ready for Christmas. Love the description of your relationship. Being abroad without friends is really like a “test” for a couple.

    • Hi Cris – It seems like Christmas markets, like decorations in the shops, happen earlier every year. I just ignore it until December. If we don’t participate, maybe they’ll go back to being more reasonable.
      As for our relationship – I think we’ve passed the test brilliantly. πŸ˜€

  2. That’s definitely one dish I’ve never heard of … and might have to be coerced into tasting and only with the name of it not translated. How refreshing to see that the market goods were local! Thanks for this look into Christmas in Budapest and I’m sending you my warmest wishes for a happy Christmas to you and yours, wherever you are celebrating. Do you still have your rabbit?

    • Hi Patricia – It looks like they have a similar texture to oysters, something that expands when you chew it. So, even if you didn’t know what they were, it might be a challenge. The market goods are truly fabulous. It takes a lot for “art fair” stuff to impress me, so the fact that I bought a lot there – for others and myself- says a lot. Our bunny is indeed still with us. Getting old, but still beautiful. A happy Christmas to you and yours, too! πŸŽ…

  3. Pity the Little red Rooster πŸ™‚ That dentist is superb – the beloved has something of a phobia about her teeth so this would be a welcome sight on a foreign street. It looks like third generation Painless Potter to me πŸ™‚

    • I had to look up Painless Potter. You may be right. Budapest is known for dental tourism, so those places thrive. I splurged (by Budapest standards) on a nice clinic for a checkup and cleaning, but I never went to one of those neon places. My husband went to one for teeth bleaching. None of his teeth fell out. At least not at that time. 😱

  4. Existential loneliness surrounds us all. Although the physical separation you feel in Europe, must be terribly alienating, here, in Tennessee, my wife and I are an island. Your essay reminds me of something Vonnegut mentioned in MOTHER NIGHT: his concept of a “nation of two”. You and Monsieur Vagabonde are blessed to have one another. Thank you, as always, for entertaining and educating me, today.

    • Most of the time I don’t even notice the alienation anymore. Only when we’re around a lot of people. It’s actually much more tolerable over here, because I don’t feel obligated to interact. I have a legitimate excuse not to. I am blessed indeed to have such a wonderful Monsieur who understands and tolerates me. I imagine that you and Patti are an island paradise together.

  5. I might pass on the rooster testicles…

    How wonderful does that market look. That is one thing many european cities lack is good, authentic markets!!

    • Hi Chris – I’ve been to a few over here, and it is definitely the best one so far (in my opinion). Bratislava has a nice one, but it’s very small and most of the stalls are for food/drink and not gifts.

  6. “How long does it take for behavior to be considered tradition?” This is one of the best questions that I have heard this Christmas season. I always thought that Santa Claus was the jolly man in the red suit and white beard until I read that the Coca-Cola company was somehow involved. Looking back, there have been traditions in my family that have added depth to my holiday experience: Listening to several version of “A Christmas Carol,” sending out letters, baking Vinatarta (an Icelandic Christmas cake). This last one still puzzles me – we don’t have any connection to Iceland.

    Wherever you are, I wish you the very best of the holiday season. Thank you for a wonderful year of conversation – I look forward to the adventure ahead.

    β€œI will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

    • You’re right about Santa – so much of mainstream Christmas “tradition” is the result of aggressive marketing. Icelandic cake. Now that’s an interesting tradition to adopt. My mother makes Swedish tea log every year and we’ve got no connection to Sweden. There must be something about Scandinavian Christmas baked goods…
      I almost bought some oplatky (Slovak Christmas wafer) from the market in Bratislava. When I was growing up, we used to break it at dinner. Somehow my grandmother always managed to get her hands on some in Michigan.

      I wish you a warm and wonderful holiday, Rebecca. Thank you for always being such a positive presence.

  7. “Until I moved to Budapest, I hadn’t known that roosters had testicles. The discovery was a little unsettling.” hahahaha. I do not recall seeing that stew over the past three years. Maybe I will go hunting for it this afternoon.

  8. If only all the shops and retailers would dial down the holiday frenzy and, like you, wait until the month of December to celebrate! What a beautiful reminder you gave of taking the time to spend the season in the company of those we love. What is the name of the cathedral you photographed?

    • I think the only way retailers will do that is if they lose money by continuing to push the Christmas season sooner. The church is St. Stephen’s Basilica. Happy Holidays! πŸŽ…

  9. I always say I would try any dish once…I think I would at least try it and be one of those tourists.

    Hate that feeling of being alone in a crowd.

    But love handmade markets! There’s a small one in Austria that I used to go to, where relatives live, the artists are selling their wares inside a converted monastery, smells waft from gluwein and sausages cooking in the courtyard and everybody huddles around little fires.

    • Hi Naomi – Unlike most tourists, your motivation for trying it is genuine curiosity rather than looking for something to brag about. I could just see it showing up in a recipe on your blog. πŸ˜€

      Where is that market in Austria? That sounds awesome. It’s the kind of thing that I would go out of my way to visit.

        • Uh, nope, that’s something I couldn’t be around. I’d be upset for days. I’m sure they’re humane and everything, but I’m way too sensitive.
          I’ll check out your post on Gaming. Thanks!!

  10. I love the ending, you did the right thing!
    The traditions of other cultures have taught me so much more about my own in that I have been able to step aside from the anxiety of planning etc and enjoy the moment in our own time and space, wherever we are. Without ever having to bother about trying chicken balls, happy to leave that to the locals! Oh, and have to admit, you have educated me about their existence as well . . .

    • Okay, I’m glad that I’m not the only one who was unaware of their existence. They’re just not animals that seem like they’d have any.
      Have a fabulous holiday, Patti. Wherever you may be.

  11. Dear Julie, I thank you very much for having given me the oportunity to read this marvellous post about traditions in general and of how you felt in a surrounding that did not belong to your tradition. I sometimes think that we should also have the courage to end a tradition, if we feel that the time is over, the feeling is gone, at least for us. For example, I have been writing Christmas cards to people for many years, despite the fact that I didn’t have any connection with these people anymore, but because of tradition…….
    I wish you to be able to do what you want and to be with whom you feel like on the oncoming Christmas.
    Very best regards:)

    • Hi Martina – So, did you stop sending out cards to those people? I’ve let go of lots of traditions since I’ve left the US. No more trying to simulate Halloween/July 4th/Thanksgiving. I don’t really miss them. As you said, the feeling is long gone. I’ve adopted new ones and feel richer for it. Warmest wishes to you for a peaceful holiday!

  12. I didn’t know they had testicles either lol Are they inside the body? I had parakeets and everything was hidden from view, in general they were very discreet about their private affairs lol Except one of them who use to openly hump a rope toy we made, the other parakeets were absolutely horrified by his behavior and would not go near that toy, they actual shrank from it in disgust πŸ˜›

    • That’s what I wondered, too. Maybe they’re inside or hidden under the feathers somehow. That’s so funny about your parakeets. Even birds have their limits for decency, eh?

  13. Great photos of the market, Julie, and it sounds a lovely place to shop. And the “nonstop dentistry” immediately caught my eye–there’s something rather intimidating about the term! I think traveling together as a couple forges a relationship in a way that no other lifestyle does. For my husband and I, it creates an intimacy, a secret world far from the grasp of “normal.” I think you’re safely in that realm. Happy New Year Julie. I look forward to continuing the journey with you in 2015.

    • Hi Viv – oh yes, we’ve definitely got our secret realm away from the normal. It’s comforting but sometimes scary how much our world is made up only of each other. I wish you a fantastic 2015, too. Thank you for following me around the planet for so long. I hope you’ll be back to posting soon. I miss reading about your desert sojourns.

  14. I have been for too long without acquaintances here in this land I am living right now. πŸ˜€ I have a few neighbors who I say “HI” to only but I always don’t want to stay for a while for small chit-chats. I’ve always told my hubs that if I wanted to make real good friends, I’d rather they be positive ones and really good. So, it’s mostly me and him and the young lady and this has proved/tested our relationship and just being content with myself and ourselves.

    In another note, I am so wanting to visit that market so bad, I love to support stores that really sell all goods made by locals and not the “M.I.C.” ones.


    • That’s the same thing I told my husband. We tried to force ourselves to have “friends” in Budapest, but the people we met were really not positive. Never again. It’s better to be alone.

  15. A wonderful read. Roosters have testicles, just like milk comes from cows. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ I’ve never heard of roosters being neutered – are you sure they weren’t just dough-balls in the soup?

    That sounds like a very decent market to visit. Since everything is made locally, you can’t deny the locals a chance to earn some extra money compared to if the market was only open for a week or three before Christmas.

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