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 Bûche de Noël 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.