Postcard from Esztergom, Hungary

As I walked up Berényi Zsigmond utca, a black-cobblestone street lined with colorful one-story residential buildings, it felt as though I were the last tourist in town. It appeared I had missed the last bus or flight home, leaving my feet no choice but to give in to this deserted path. Both “deserted” and “desert” come from the Latin desertum, meaning “thing abandoned.” I was the thing abandoned, and I, myself, abandoned. I belonged in the desert, inside the sun’s field of vision. As a cactus, I needed the sun. October didn’t have many suns left.

At the foot of the Basilica, I found chestnuts, some fully naked, others still halfway covered by their spiky brown shells reminiscent of tumbleweed. I gathered a handful to feel their smooth surface—the same creamy gloss of a bald head. Unfortunately, they were horse chestnuts, inedible and toxic, unsuitable for roasting. I made a note to myself to purchase the right kind of chestnuts per a friend’s recommendation; whenever she traveled to distant places in the fall, she missed only her Viennese roasted chestnuts. Nothing about the brown balls in my hand screamed “chest” “nut,” no more than my computer that was used to rising along with my breathing, electrically warming my rib cage. I liked their Polish name better, “kasztany,” because it more closely depicted the sound they made when clacked together: kasz / ta / ny. Stepping over three undisciplined puddles, I picked up an entire shell, one that hadn’t split open when it cracked down from the sky. My thumbs did the trick, picking off the exterior bit by bit, spikes eating into my hand. There was something magical about shelling nuts and seeds, uncovering their still tough insides. It almost equaled the ecstatic feeling of finding mushrooms during a well-fought battle with crowded bush and uneven slopes. Almost because with nuts and seeds, the feeling was guaranteed. It was nice to work hard for food, to slow down, to use the tongue as a beak for something other than kissing.

Up close, the Basilica looked like walls and arches. The grandeur of its cylindrical face frozen into an intimidating lighting scheme disappeared. I wound my way around it, the grounds smelling sweetly of recently fallen leaves, stopping every so often to catch sight of a bird-v—though at first it looked like any number of letters—take off from a nearby roof. I was wrong before about there not being any tourists; they moved along the perimeter of the Basilica in drunken huddles, periodically calling out to someone who made a beeline for a different perspective. Various outfits among a group of Japanese tourists made their way into my closet. They were always so cleverly put together, fit not only for weather and activity, but also for fashion, for social media. As I fulfilled my daily quota of observations, the surrounding hills beckoned me. To settle? In a house I would build along with a husband, behind curtains that might as well be sewn into my underwear, protecting my privacy. Why do we care so much about privacy? I had the urge to stuff my mouth with too many hills, playing a European version of Chubby Bunny. They reminded me of San Francisco’s hills, as seen from the De Young observatory. There, I observed a life enter each of the seven hills, run a different course, say hello to different shopkeepers and neighbors, all to the tune of a dystopian soundscape.

Karolina Zapal is an itinerant poet, essayist, translator, and author of Polalka (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018). Her second book, Notes for Mid-birth, is forthcoming from Inside the Castle in late 2019. She is collaborating with the poet CA Conrad on translating their book, The Book of Frank, into Polish. Her work has appeared in Posit, Cathexis Northwest, Witness, and others. She served as the Anselm Hollo Fellow at Naropa University from 2015-2017 and now works in Student Services at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.

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