Sunday, June 8, 2014

Snippets of Reality

Perhaps my favorite part of traveling is entering little pockets of reality I never knew existed. Or rather, knew existed, but had no way of existing inside of them because I had no experience doing so. I know what life as an English teacher in Korea is like; I know what graduate school is like; I know what being a student at Calvin College is. Those are realities I can exist within, if only in thought. They are my realities, past and present. But there are a thousand, a million and more realities of which I cannot conceive.

“Be it life or death,” H. D.Thoreau wrote, “we crave only reality.” I am convinced—after quite a few solo ventures in various countries—that only a very skewed version of reality exists outside of community. People are what make reality real.

This is the crux of traveling: people can make or break a trip. My flight over to Europe was completely “made” by my seat-partner and will forever remain in my memory as one of the most pleasant voluntary 8-hour incarcerations in an uncomfortable seat on a giant metal cylinder with wings. Plenty of other plane flights will be forgotten, but my Polish grandmother made that one a reality.

Budapest was made real by my hosts, Bekah and Caroline (day 7). Both are Calvin alumni I met through the English department who have been teaching this past year in Hungary. From Budapest airport to fast asleep on their couch, showered and exhausted, was one of the smoothest transitions into a city I’ve ever experienced, despite anticipated difficulties, given Bekah’s somewhat “shazzy” directions:

“Getting into the building - there is always someone around and they are good at holding doors open. Take the elevator to the fifth floor and the key will be under the mat. Turn it four times to the right to get in.”

Like magic, as soon as I found the apartment building, a neighbor held the door open for me. I took the elevator up, found the key, turned it four times to the right, tapped the brick three times with a wand, and did the hokey pokey. I failed to figure out how to turn on the shower, but succeeded in washing most of myself by awkwardly crouching beneath the tall faucet in their tub. That’s not weird, right?

Bekah hand wrote me directions to places I’d vaguely thought about going to see, gave me tickets and, in the evening, they took me to their house church, attended by expats and Hungarians alike. Over an Italian dinner even my jet-lagged stomach could appreciate I learned that Hungarians believe that if a woman sits on a cold floor, her eggs will freeze up and she’ll become barren. I also learned that Hungary prefers to be known as “Central” rather than “Eastern” European (it implying development) that “utca” means street and that all Hungarian children must be named from a governmentally pre-approved list of appellations.

I didn’t go to a single museum or open a single Wikipedia article while I visited Hungary. I drank wine and swapped stories with Bekah, Caroline, and their friend Mandy. I ate marrow while they told me about their co-teachers (a vastly different relationship from the American-Korean co-teachers I’ve known).
Everyday life: the anti-electrocution mobile

It was only for a few nights—but they allowed me to share in their reality, a reality they’ve probably forgotten as they live it out. Turning the key four times to the right. The coos of belligerent pigeons roosting outside their window, the flaps of their wings oddly resonate in the small living space. The mechanical heaves of the hev 5 tram as they roll into town, the sharp curve between the second and third stop on the line, and the thin metal strips, supposedly stairs, down to the platform (I almost face-planted the first time I alighted). Avoiding the red elevator in favor of the blue (it’s trustier). Converting Hungarian HUF to USD on the fly (take off two places and divide by two and you’ll come out a little ahead).

Budapest’s churches and parliament were photogenic. I enjoyed meandering down her stone streets—towering aged buildings lurking above—and figuring out her efficient transit system. But the real treat of Budapest for me was existing, if only for a few days and only in a small, small part, in a reality not my own.


  1. Oh my goodness! That's my problem! I have not had a reality shift in far too long a time! Enjoy the rest of your trip, and may reality continualy chase you!

  2. This is too funny, I gave birth to my fourth child two days after you posted this probably to the amazement of my Russian host family. In Feb 2000 when I traveled to Sevastopal, they warned me repeatedly against sitting on the floor because my eggs would freeze! Glad some thawed out :D.

    1. Thawed out with a vengeance! Congratulations!