An Ode to Literal & Metaphorical Gates
It may sound strange that during the past couple of years as I found myself locked behind a ‘Maple Curtain’ and cut from my European roots, I was dreaming of beautiful gates.
But during a particularly challenging period of completing a university degree, a separation, four moves and a pandemic, my respite from the gloom was the occasional coffee at Felice and walks in the cemetery. There were no pretty gates in sight. I picked up the habit of reading Dante out loud every morning (a ritual my daughter Celeste denominated “incantation”) in the hope that the enchanting rhythm of Dante’s Italian would inject some beauty into the grey days and my insatiable longing for home.
When things are hard, I am in search of the light. I am a sucker for beauty. An aesthetically presented cappuccino, a moving poem, an unusual crafted sentence in a story, a beautiful word, an unexpected call from a friend, my daughters’ smile – these seemingly small offerings make the difference between a good day, or a bad day. But during the past couple of years I have had to dig deep, and search even deeper for things to appreciate. In an attempt to “stay positive” I have been silencing a call from the heart: that Montreal, where I live, is not my natural habitat and that I have been ready to leave it for at least a decade.
I realized this on my first day in Budapest when I laid my eyes on yet another spectacularly constructed gate. Its beauty brought tears to my eyes. I was humbled by it. In our rushed modern world where we do most things “on the go” nobody has time to make such beautiful gates. I doubt that we even have the skill. Gates serve a function, a purpose; we hurry through them without time to pause; we are already late for our next appointment. But there I was, in front of such a striking gate, one of many in the city, and I paused to marvel at it. And while appreciating its unusual iron curls and decorative design, my soul let out a sigh and I heard myself say, “you are home. Breathe now.”
Budapest of my childhood wasn’t this beautiful. Forty plus years of Communism ravaged its natural beauty and its glory was hidden under a thick layer of dirt. Yes, there was always the natural beauty of the Danube, the Castle District, the Chain Bridge and Gellért, but Budapest of the eighties was largely grey and oppressive. And then with a fragile new democracy in the nineties came a massive cleaning and renovation campaign that revealed jaw-dropping architecture. Every summer when I came home for a visit I discovered a previously unappreciated area. First there was the extension of Váci utca’s lower part, then the restoration of Kiràly and the Gozsdu udvar in the seventh district, and with the creative reconditioning of old ruins into buzzing “ruin bars,” Budapest began to pulse with life and become an attractive Mecca for tourists, international students and investors. Today, in this city of vibrant coffee culture and culinary paradise of vegan and gluten-free choices, it is hard to imagine that twenty years ago it was difficult to find a smoke-free restaurant that offered a simple vegetarian dish that wasn’t made with beef broth.
Alone in Budapest for three weeks, I allow myself to adopt a slower pace. I drink my first coffee at home and two others in a cafe; I treat myself to a luxurious looking cake after meandering in the city; I visit an art gallery and snake up the castle through a labyrinth of ancient tunnels and stairs and watch the city and House of Parliament peeking out from under the fog; I visit the vibrant Szimpla Kert and mingle with a carefree crowd that is busy smoking hookahs in bathtubs and seems to have never heard of Covid. The vibrancy of the city suddenly feels like an oxygen mask. I didn’t realize how much I needed it, until I tasted it: Life, at last. I milk it for all its worth. I am on vacation; a “much deserved break from the routine,” as a friend comments on my pictures on Facebook.
But as I feel myself come to life again, I can’t help but ask myself an uncomfortable question…
Does beauty have to be temporary; something you dip into while you are on vacation? And what is the reality then, that I have earned my “much deserved break from”? A grueling sequence of survival in a place of uninspiring scenery, six months of winter, with the occasional respite of a walk, a meeting with a friend and drawing all my strength from my daughters’ smiles?
Does my reality as a mother who must always put her children first is to continue to repeat the mantra, “oh, but this is such a great place to raise children” every time I feel an aching need to address my own desires? Would I wish the same fate for the strong, independent daughters that I am trying to raise? Would I ask them to make the same sacrifice for their children?
Do I have to continue to dream about glorious gates and suppress my appreciation for them with self-shaming words like “selfish,” or “just a European snob”? Or, will I finally embrace the truth that beautiful gates are actually very important to my well being; that beautiful gates are an essential part of the life that I imagine for myself. Not in seven years when my youngest daughter turns eighteen, but now. Today.
It isn’t “positivity” to tell myself otherwise, but a blatant lie that deprives me of my oxygen.
Beauty is of course subjective. Each has his own preference. Some crave mountains, some long for oceans. Some are city dwellers, some prefer the quiet of the country. Some like the heat, some prefer the cold. And wherever you go, there you are. But searching for beauty shouldn’t be such hard work. It should be forever present. And sometimes an encounter with a spectacular gate forces you to pause for a moment and ask yourself what beauty is to you. And then comes the harder question…
Once you hear the call – loud and clear – are you brave enough to walk through the gate that will inevitably lead you in a different direction, not knowing what waits for you on the other end?