Notices have been given. The unnecessary has been donated or tossed. The essential has been separated for efficient packing. Airline reservations have been made. Most goodbyes have been said. All that’s left to do is wait. I know this departure lounge of the mind so very well. The floor is worn into grooves by my endless ambulation. I pass the time in atonement for the sins of my transient soul. Turning back now would involve a hassle, and, anyway, I don’t want to. Once a decision is made, I just want to get on with it.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have transited through this purgatory. All the little moves around America and Central/Eastern Europe. Then the major moves. The amputations: leaving America for New Caledonia in 1999. Fleeing New Caledonia for Eastern Europe exactly ten years ago. The road ahead is even more obscured than it was a decade ago. I have the same concerns, but even more intense. Ten years ago, I knew where I wanted to go. This time I have no idea, and I will be going it alone. However, my mind is much more serene this time around. Despite the turbulence, the journey has always managed to smooth out.
As I reflect back on my time in this part of Europe, a wistful gratitude arises. In spite of the inherent frustrations of such a lifestyle, I have woken up every day so very happy to have had the opportunity to experience, in depth, so many different cultures. Because – even though Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic are in the same part of Europe – they each have distinct cultural quirks. They have become treasures in the vault of my memory.
Ten years ago, in June 2007, I arrived in Poznan, Poland. Alone. Stomach twisted with worry. Could I pull this off? Was the school that hired me to teach at English summer camps legit? Would my husband leave his home, a tropical island paradise, for a gray and grouchy country? I had no choice but to leave that island, which was killing me physically and mentally. The denial was gone. I had accepted the consequences. There was no turning back.
Poznan. It was there that I regained my confidence. An English teacher’s salary is pathetic, but for the first time in many years, I was able to support myself. My apartment was on the sixteenth floor of a Soviet block building. A tiny little hole with dubious renovation and toxic mold in the ceiling. I got in touch with my cousins in the south of Poland. I adopted a rabbit from a shelter to keep me company at home. It was a hard, cold, grim place. Lots of lessons learned. Lots of laughs. Lots of vodka. Wolfing down zapiekanka in the Stary Rynek at three a.m. after a night in the pubs. Jumping up and down to keep warm. My husband joined me almost a year later. He adapted to the culture shock remarkably well. I knew so many people there. Most of their faces and names have faded. I think that, probably, they have forgotten me, too.
Budapest. Ruin pubs and thermal baths. Long walks through the canyons of neglected buildings. Ghost signs and bullet holes. Both of our apartments were huge, beautifully decorated palaces. The highest ceilings I’ve ever seen. This is why we stayed in Budapest longer than any other city. My stint as an English teacher came to an end. Hungarians are the least respectful students I’ve ever encountered. The pay was abysmal. I am not a masochist. I went back to helping my husband with his work. The few expats that we met were parasitic. We retreated into our own little world, socializing only with the friends and family who came to visit.
It is during this reclusive time that I began my blog. It was my connection to the outside world, especially during those long winter months when my husband was in New Caledonia and it was just me and Flower the rabbit. I can now state that I am able to withstand long periods with no social contact. One winter was so frigid that I went weeks without saying more than jó napot/viszlát to the cashiers who worked in the supermarket on the ground floor of our building. When I did finally venture out, other humans became weird entities. The sounds that came out of my mouth sounded unintelligible. They scared me. This warped view of the outside world stayed with me until we left a few months later.
Bratislava. But more than that: Slovakia. Those mountains. The unsettling gauze of reclusion dissipated. My students were a delight. I found a hiking buddy. Nearly every weekend, from late February to early December, we went out. We explored just about every trail in the Little Carpathians, sometimes even crossing over the narrow range in a single day. We ventured further out, to the Vel’ka Fatra and High Tatras. Eerie castle ruins and glacial lakes. I was in heaven.
Our apartments, however. Rabbits are considered livestock in Slovakia. The few places that would rent to us were barely a step above hovels. Toxic water, battered furniture. Hot water unavailable from midnight until eight in the morning. After Budapest, it was a difficult adjustment. Despite my love for the mountains and my Slovak friends, we moved on after two years. We recently returned, for a brief visit, to lay our Flower to rest on a hill overlooking a river.
Prague. I have finally learned that the places I have an initial aversion to often end up being fabulous. My visit as a tourist a few years prior had turned me off. Too many tourists. But the other options – Bulgaria and Croatia – entailed a lot more effort. It didn’t hurt to try Prague. If it was horrible, we could easily move on. As we had so many times before. The move and integration was so easy. The petty daily struggles that we had endured over the previous years were nonexistent. Decent and friendly customer service! Good quality products and so much variety! All of it is relative, of course. It’s amazing what you can get used to, if you tolerate it long enough.
It didn’t take long to be seduced by the shadow side of Prague. My one regret is that I didn’t see as much of the Czech countryside as I would have liked. For two years, I have explored this magical city, falling more in love with it each time. So many hidden corners continue to reveal themselves. It is here, in this enchanted realm, that I will while away the remaining days until I am transported into the next phase of this astonishing journey.