It is not Thanksgiving in Budapest.
By now in the Midwest, they’ve entombed pans of limp potatoes under pulverized corn flakes. In the South, vans of cousins have travelled the pine-framed four lanes that connect county to red-dirt county. But in Budapest, it is not Thanksgiving. It is Thursday.
On this Thursday, life bleats incessant in the sharp cries of ailing mufflers and motorbikes, in the steady din of drizzle on concrete. A great commotion that climbs—tenacious as ivy—through the open hotel window and in between the tree-bark sheets.
Budapest, she’s lovely, but she throbs like a swollen gland. Angst seeps from her grottos and her ghettos, a tattered mist hangs over the Danube. The buildings seem primed with soot. The city is built in rings—you can walk all day and never leave.
On this phantom holiday, I look for ghosts, for the shadows of Nazi barbarism and Soviet brutality. Like my own wished-away secrets they hide clumsily behind street signs, at the feet of oxidized statues, ducking low in the corners of drafty cathedrals.
So like the Celts and the Turks and the Romans and all the homesick lonely before me, I go to the baths. I learn to say ‘clean’ in Magyar Nyelv: tiszta. Its consonance scrapes the dust from my teeth.
The train that brought me here rushed through frozen fields beneath dishwater skies that conjured the lives I have lived (ones wreathed in soybeans and tobacco leaves)—a sorrowful but insistent landscape I know by heart.
Sealed in my first-class compartment, I dreamt. A handsome home with a glowing hearth—but just outside its front window a shopping mall, a frenzied parking lot. The metaphor did not demur: the treason of refuge as oceans roil and the displaced search wildly for shore. In Budapest, the Christmas markets buzz with happy revelers. At the country’s borders, razor wire and water cannons await the uninvited.
At a café in the Palace District I consider a novella of desserts and the characters around me: the wrung-out waitress, the brazen young backpackers. I wonder if I have ever been so weary or so brave. I wonder where we all have come from.
Night watches us from the window—eager as a matchstick, earnest as a letter home.