It was a hot August night that first metamorphosed into a gentle, agreeable drizzle, then at once, into a disagreeable, violent downpour of rain. In no time, the streets were inundated with fresh rain water, joining forces with the not-so-fresh waste water that the sewage pipes were spitting out in torrents. At first, I was attempting to hop over the accumulating puddles, but soon realized that it was pointless trying to fight the immensity of the deluge. I was soaked through and through. Of course, I didn’t think to pack an umbrella. Nothing about the glorious summer day had indicated an imminent rain. So there I was, with the only thing I could find in my bag: a cloth shopping bag that I now attempted to use as a shield, to no use. Looking like a wet poodle, I ducked for cover under the first shelter that I could find. I wasn’t alone. Also standing at the entrance of the same apartment building was a handsome young man who didn’t seem at all bothered by the torrential downpour that kept us stranded under a moderate sized roof. He was sipping his beer intermittently, while casually scrolling down the screen of his mobile phone. I was at least a fifteen-minute walk from home and I kept staring at the downpour of rain, wishing that it would let up, just a little. It was past midnight, but still early in Király utca where party-goers rarely retire before two in the morning. We’d been standing there for a good fifteen minutes minding our own business, and the rain continued to intensify.
“Shit,” I said out loud. A little louder than I had intended.
“That’s right. We are never getting home,” the man said with a youthful glee. “But I’m all set here with my mango flavoured beer and phone.”
“I envy you,” I replied. “My phone is dead and I’m desperate to pee.”
“Go for it,” he said. “I’ll turn around.”
He turned around, and I laughed. I actually believed him, but still, didn’t take him on his offer.
“You’re a tourist?” he asked.
I hesitated. “Kind of. I was born in Budapest, but I now live in Montréal.”
“And where are you from?” I asked.
“Munich!” He replied with such an ardent pride that made me wonder how I had never thought of visiting this Bavarian capital.
“Are you enjoying Budapest?” I asked, pointing at the pouring rain.
“I’m having the best time of my life! It’s so beautiful here. Much better than Prague. This is a proper city.
“I hear Prague is very clean. And beautiful.”
“Budapest is clean too.”
Coming from a German, I took this as a compliment. He was a dermatologist from Munich (“The best place ever”) with an infectious joie de vivre. He reminded me of myself – not just my younger self, but my present self. The part of myself that could stand in the rain with a stranger, appreciate the randomness of this moment and suddenly pray that the rain would never stop, and be a little heartbroken when it finally did. Because in that unlikely, unorchestrated moment, the young German man and I shared something real of ourselves, without the pressure to be anything other than two soaked strangers on a Budapest street. If only life could be as simple as that, I thought. If only we could have the same lightness, devoid of expectations and a need to perform. When the rain eventually let up and we parted ways wishing each other a nice evening, I found myself smiling all the way home, no matter how heavily the rain resumed beating down on me. Now the rain was a gift, not an inconvenience. It had transformed an otherwise ordinary evening into an event. A story, which I was soon drafting into a larger, fictional story in my head as I stood under the running hot water. I even had the perfect title for it.
“És mi van a pasikkal?” Niki leaned closer and looked directly into my eyes.
We were sitting on a terrace of a trendy bar, on our second cucumber lemonade, our clothes sticking to our bodies in the unbearable heat. Not that she hadn’t paid close attention to all that I had said about the writing grant I had just won and the ambitious writing projects I planned to write, but the topic of men demanded pointed scrutiny.
“That is a more complicated subject,” I said in the hope that she would not press me further, but no such luck when you are asked to summarize a year of your life in a short hour. I told Nikki about my magical coffee date with an Italian man that “had no future,” since two days after our date he was flying to Germany and would not return before I was scheduled to fly back to Montréal. “Other than that, nothing exciting to report,” I concluded, as if it didn’t matter.
Nikki didn’t draw back, but drew closer. “You know Imola, when I look at you now, you seem to be so much more grounded than last year. Energetically speaking, you are soaring. But I ask – where exactly should the universe deliver this man to? Budapest? Montréal? Where are you Imola?”
Her question made me so uncomfortable that my eyes welled with tears. I had known Nikki for barely a year. It was my friend Bonia who had introduced us, but now was absent from this afternoon lemonade date. This allowed Nikki and I the opportunity to communicate in our native Hungarian, and not resort to English as we normally would, out of respect to our mutual friend. Perhaps this was part of the problem: in English we could stay on the surface of things, but in Hungarian we dove deep, and fast.
“I feel that your heart is pulling you back to Budapest, but I know that you cannot leave Montréal because of your girls.” Nikki made a swift and an accurate prognosis. I was well aware of what this hopping between the two countries, pretending that they were next door to each other, was costing me financially, but hadn’t been prepared to contemplate what living “neither here, nor there” was costing me emotionally. Nikki was unfortunately right. How could I get close, or allow anyone to get close to me, when there was always a looming departure date threatening to undo any possibility of a meaningful connection? I was inexplicably sad when I said goodbye to the Italian man and he confessed to feeling the same. “It was incomplete,” he later wrote in a text message, “but you were leaving and I didn’t want to be pushy.” I didn’t want to be pushy either, even if secretly I hoped for one more reason to come back to Budapest, sooner. So, we boarded two separated planes e basta.
When in Budapest I walk around the city with confidence, like someone who knows the streets intimately. How many times have I passed by the House of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica, or Váci utca, and still, I always pause to appreciate the view, or just another spectacular gate. I order food and drinks in Hungarian, and I am no longer asked where I’m from. It seems that I have finally managed to shed that “slight accent” thanks to my frequent visits back to the city and my reading in Hungarian. My ‘office’ is Massolit café, which is also an English language bookstore and a Mecca for expats, students and tourists. Nikki is the first Hungarian friend I made as an adult in Budapest, thanks to my bestie Bonia, whom I met through my French friend Kareen, whom I met through my friend Szilva, whom I met through Stephen, who happened to be the cousin of my good friend Nichola in London. This summer I became close friends with Romanian/Italian Georgiana, whom I met through Matt, a local American writer who used to be the editor of a literary magazine I happened to pick up at Massolit. He recommended that I submit my writing to Panel and this is how I met the magazine’s chief editor, Masha, another expat, and we hit it off straight away (at the Massolit, naturally).
Four years ago, when I decided to cut ties with my father, I released myself from the uncomfortable duty of having to sit through excruciating family gatherings that could turn toxic at any given moment. I no longer dreaded “going home,” but began looking forward to it. By sharp contrast, my mother has become an increasingly more present, and comforting force in my life. I still tear up when I think about the bath she ran for me, when my body was exhausted from breakthrough Covid and the never-ending battle of survival. It feels strange – and wonderful – to take a brief break from mothering, and be mothered for change. Shabbat dinners with mum, followed by a casual eleven km walk up the castle, or the improvised lunch, and soup breaks from work do wonders to both of our souls. At our
older wiser age, we have learned to be more compassionate and forgiving. We don’t hash out the past, but drink Aperol Spritz instead. We talk about literature, architecture and the ridiculous cultural wars that tear our society apart and make any positive change impossible. We don’t always agree, but we hear each other out. We both vehemently agree, however, that we want to live a very different life to that of my ninety-one-year old grandmother, who has always existed in the shadow of someone else: first her mother, then her husband, and now, bedridden and frail, in the shadow of her younger sister Klára – her caretaker and tormentor.
Klára is always in the room when I am with my grandmother. Instead of hearing what my grandma has to say, Klára launches into another speech about the increasing price of medicine and how I should return to Hungary because Orbán will help me and my daughters. As a side note she tells me that yoga is “not worth a dog’s ear,” because I practice yoga, and still, I am fat. Then she showcases with pride the silk underwear she bought at the Chinese market on sale, and the various knickknacks I will inherit one day, including the rug made out of a bear’s skin, with its gruesome dead head attached to it. I nod and say nothing. I play with my grandmother’s hair and am secretly grateful that I live far from this place and this culture that takes an inherent pride in suffering. Silently, I am aching for my grandmother, the opportunities she never had, and the fortitude she never acquired to voice what she really thought, wanted and needed. All I can do is kiss her weary forehead, tell her that I love her, and cry on the train on the way back to Budapest.
I never know how to answer the question, “where are you from?” To keep things simple, I often reply “originally from Hungary.” The word ‘originally’ saves me the trouble of having to recount the trajectory of my many moves: growing up in Israel, living in London, New York, Madrid and New Zealand, before meeting my ex-husband in India and following him to Montréal. But if you were to ask me “where is home?” I would be lost for words. I am still searching for that home, hoping to find it one day. In the meanwhile, I have found it in writing. It is when I write that I feel most anchored to myself. But to my roots? That is a more complex question. I prefer to say that I am ‘a writer from Hungary,’ and not a ‘Hungarian writer,’ not because I am ashamed of my origins, but because I don’t think I can live up to whatever being ‘Hungarian’ means. And yet, there is definitely a part of me that longs to be back in the country of my childhood – even if I can never quite assimilate, or be part of it. For now, I navigate the city like so many other tourists, looking around in awe and take in as much of the culture as I can. So what if I happen to speak the language and was born here? Nobody needs to know. Besides, I have a plane to catch.