Departure Lounge of the Restless Mind

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.

Popradske Pleso – Tatra National Park

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.

In Ruins

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We live in a world of manufactured trends. Manipulated desires: must sees, must dos, must haves. Does anyone know what they really want anymore? Who gave these people permission to designate our desires? Uniformity permeates even the cutting edge. The mainstream weird is carefully molded to give the illusion of individuality, but it is also the product of a cultural assembly line. A truly spontaneous outburst of creative ingenuity is rare these days, but when it happens, it blazes.

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In the summer of 2010, I stumbled upon my first Budapest ruin pub. During exploratory walks around my new neighborhood, I noticed a sign that hung over a derelict building: Szimpla Kert. The interior was a wonderland of havoc. Furniture and decor was salvaged from dumpsters and sidewalks. Benches were made from bathtubs and even a gutted Mini car. Religious and antique pastoral paintings, along with art pieces made out of random materials, hung on the gouged and peeling walls. Sharp edges and exposed wires. I always ran my hand over surfaces before sitting down. A tetanus shot in a Hungarian hospital was a terrifying thought. The room in the photo below could be the result of art therapy at an insane asylum. I was never able to hang out in this one.

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I began to venture deeper into the slummy streets of the Seventh District, peering into doorways and windows. Somehow I knew that there were others. In any other city, such scenery would equal danger. But in Budapest, it was simply neglect. The next discovery was Ellátó Kert. It was tiny and minimalist. A few battered tables scattered around an empty lot. Then came Kuplung, housed in a former car repair garage.

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I found Instant on a lively street in the Sixth District. One look at the rabbit tree and I knew I’d found my realm. It was even bigger than Szimpla Kert, though the decor was more minimalist. Different music buzzed in different corners of the hive. The dank, dark cellar smelled of mold and throbbed with erratic noise. Every Friday at around two in the morning, the spectacle would begin. My husband and I, and any guest who was visiting us, would stand back and marvel. At the elderly gentleman tearing up the floor to dubstep, waving his gnawed straw like a crazed orchestra conductor. Or the tall, blonde, angular twins sporting khaki Bermuda shorts, white polo shirts, and argyle sweaters tied around their necks. They busted into synchronized dance moves like some Aryan Nation Milli Vanilli. Every week it was some new impromptu tantrum. This was the place to let it all out with abandon. Everyone was welcome and everyone understood.

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Over the next three years, in the warmer months, my husband and I would begin our weekly jaunts in the earliest Friday morning hours. We usually began at Szimpla Kert, but from there the itinerary fluctuated. Instant was always included, but the others in between were always different. Sometimes we’d end up at the rooftop bar at Corvintető, or if the weather was bad, at the club inside.

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This was the most intimidating place to enter. Burly bouncers did security checks before entry. At least one bouncer stood at the edge of the tensest dance floor I’ve ever experienced. I danced on the perimeter or watched from afar. The only way out was a freight elevator, which was operated by a smiling young man offering a farewell shot of liquor. Our friend Alexandra, in the photo below, thought it was the coolest thing ever.

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We would head home just before sunrise, more energized than tired. This is what it’s like to witness a phenomenon. The spark of uncontrived eccentricity. You need to savor it while it lasts. And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

It’s a familiar cycle: artists move into cheap, desolate areas. They breathe color and vibrancy into the decay. Rich developers see investment potential. They buy up the property, sanitize it and repackage it for the trendies and hipsters who then co-opt the sensation. The artists are then banished to new territory.

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The first casualty was Ellátó Kert. The new murals were tasteful. The colors matched. Ibiza style chillout music had replaced the jarring electronica. Across the street, a trendy ruin pub opened. It was a huge success. Then another one opened a few streets away. And yet, it wasn’t enough that they had their own places created especially for them. The invasion was stealthy, at first. A stag party here, a meticulously manicured beard there. One night, Instant was suddenly populated by stiletto heels, solarium tans, and plastic surgery. My husband and I sought shelter in the cellar. These girls would sometimes descend, by accident, to the depths. Their unease amused me. The flustered glances at one another. Is this cool or not? Someone please tell them what they should think. After a polite amount of time, they’d ascend back into the light with sighs of relief.

I realize that I could be considered just as pretentious as the targets of my criticism. I’m not looking down on those who enjoy harmonious decor, interesting cocktails, stylish clothing, soothing music. I like these things, too. Even though I feel like an imposter when I’m in the territory of the trendy. Everywhere around the world, there are places that cater to the look-at-me crowd. Those who don’t want to, or can’t, adhere to their dress and behavior codes know to stay away. It’s the sense of entitlement that disgusts me. The attitude that they are the ones responsible for the magic.

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It’s not so much the customers’ fault as it is the developers’. One must adapt to stay competitive in the marketplace. Struggling artists don’t equal profit. By the summer of 2013, the battle had been lost. Kuplung, Corvintető, and Fogas Ház had been completely renovated. The sleepy, disheveled bartenders had been replaced by clean cut pretty boys, and scowling wannabe models. Ruin pub crawl tours were advertised to backpackers and stag parties.

Fogas Ház had become another favorite the year before. The pub had expanded from the ground floor of one building to the upper levels and into the courtyard of the connecting building. The tables and chairs matched. New eyes swept over the scene, making assessments. My husband and I became visible: a middle-aged couple sitting in a corner. I squirmed under the scrutiny.

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Szimpla Kert had become a tourist attraction long before I had discovered it. It never pretended to be otherwise. For this reason, it has survived unscathed. Hipsters, hippies, trendies, backpackers, stag parties, the elderly, chubby fanny-pack wearing tourists, and children. No group can claim dominance.

As of July 2013, our final month in Budapest, just one stronghold remained: Kőleves Kert, a circus/playground themed ruin garden right in the middle of the Kazinczy Street mayhem. Other, more underground, ruin pubs and gardens had opened in other districts. It takes some effort to find them, and I’m not going to offer my help by naming them here. Maybe they, too, have since metamorphosed into something else.

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The Day of the Dueling Revolutions

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Budapest, Hungary – March 15, 2012

I weave my way through the crowd, which swells with every passing minute. An unfamiliar sun reveals an immaculate blue sky. The vicious cold of this past February has dissipated. It is Revolution Day, the Hungarian national holiday that commemorates their uprising against the Hapsburgs. Most of Kossuth Lajos square is cordoned off. The Parliament building is decked out in Hungarian flags. A podium awaits. I linger near the cordon. A cheer arises from those gathered. The red and white Polish flag appears. The crowd parts and applauds as a large group of Poles strides forward. They have come to show their solidarity with Hungary and with prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently at the top of the European Union’s shit list. Among those who despise him, he is known as “The Viktator”.

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I’m here as a spectator, not a participant. Drawn by the promise of some excitement. It’s been a long winter. Over a hundred thousand people are expected. Over the past couple of years, I’ve declined invitations by foreign activists to various rallies or marches in Budapest. There are expat news websites, with dubious funding, that follow the accepted pro EU slant. It seems rather obnoxious to meddle in the affairs of other countries when my own country is a total mess. No, thanks, I’m just gonna stand back and observe.

The cordon is lifted. The crowd surges forward with the jubilation of teenagers at a rock concert. I’m swept along in the wave. The stage rises above us. Spontaneous songs snake through the crowd. Flags and balloons float overhead. All that’s missing is a beach ball.

A roar erupts as people begin to file onstage. A politician, the opening act, speaks for a few long moments. The crowd fidgets. When he steps away, the crowd begins to chant, “Viktor! Viktor!” And he struts forward. Eyebrows raised, a chuckle of surprise. He begins to speak. The crowd falls silent. Their attention is so rapt that I feel self-conscious as I try to slip away. A couple of women narrow their eyes and block my path. I put on an I’m-going-to-vomit face. “Én beteg.” I’m sick. People back away and let me pass. The square is completely packed and runs into the side streets. It takes me several minutes to be free.

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I make my way towards Erzsébet Bridge. A left-wing opposition rally is taking place simultaneously. I arrive just as a young man takes the stage. He speaks with the passion of someone reading his shopping list. The crowd stretches far down the road, but there’s more breathing space between bodies. There are no flags and very little signs. Meager applause. Did I get here too late? Well, there’s still the Far Right Jobbik rally to check out at Deak Ferenc ter. It is said to be the most colorful of them all.

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Then I hear gruff chanting coming from Ferenciek Ter. I perk up. Could Jobbik be coming to stir things up? I head towards the excitement, passing a smiling gentleman with a pro EU sign.

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Not really sure what that last part means.

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The chanting grows more ferocious as I draw near. A group of around one thousand has assembled. Flimsy metal fencing and a wall of riot police separate them from the pro EU crowd. A banner that says Nem EU – no EU- hangs next to a small stage.

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They are not from Jobbik, but rather Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom*. Shaved skulls and Hungarian flag arm bands. Black flags. Spontaneous growling chants. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I step up onto a small cement garden plot and lean next to the tree. A couple of young British girls stand next to me. The crowd behind me thickens. The pro EU people have moved down to check out the action. They yell “Nazis” and other taunts. The black flag people turn their heads away, but cast baleful glances over their shoulders. Some of them shout back and then restrain themselves. The air is thick with tension. The riot police put on their helmets. A female officer blinks back tears. My heart pounds. I look up at the tree. A couple of people are already up there, but if needed, I could shimmy up there. One of the British girls turns to the other, “Are you okay?” Her eyes shine. The girl shrugs, but her jaw is clenched.

“I bet you weren’t expecting this when you booked your trip.” I say with a snicker.

She smiles and shakes her head.

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A small-boned, bespectacled man wearing a tweed blazer and wielding a briefcase inches his way forward. He sets down his briefcase next to me, puts his hands on his hips and squeals. “Fuck you, fascists!” He nods his little bald head. “Yeah, fuck you!” He looks around at us with a smug smile and then moseys along.**

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A guy with a guitar takes the stage. Another picks up the microphone. The guitarist begins to strum a pleasant melody. Both sides fall silent.The singer unleashes a stream of guttural croaks into the microphone. The contrast is so shocking that I burst out laughing. Acoustic death metal. Slipknot meets Bob Dylan. The British girls look at me and giggle nervously. I clamp my mouth shut. The pro EU people resume their taunts, but with less gusto. Their bait is not being taken.

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The crowd behind me begins to thin out. The tension ebbs away. One row of the riot police moves forward, urging us to move along. I cast a look over my shoulder one last time. The finale of the rally seems to be a ritual. Dark pageantry resurrecting past glory. I shiver and turn away.

When I reach Astoria, I look to the left, towards Deak Ferenc Ter. The Jobbik rally is probably still happening. A profound weariness stifles the last of my energy. I turn away and shuffle home.

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*The Sixty-four Counties Youth Movement. This group seeks to take back all of the pre-Trianon Hungarian territories, such as Transylvania and Slovakia.

**I caught this on video.