The sun is bright this morning, bursting out of a rich blue sky. The cars roll by in the streets, and the church bell tolls at half-hourly intervals. I can hear the buses screeching to a halt on their rails and the constant exhalation of air conditioning in our apartment.
I’m sitting next to tall windows as I type, looking through crinoline curtains at the building across the street.
I’m fighting a stuffy nose and running a constant mental dialogue about the evasive state of being present.
The actual moment of being here, of eating strawberries and toast in a residential building a few minutes from the Danube, has been years in the making. It is not something to take for granted.
In 2019, as my parents and I were leaving a family party in Simi Valley, my great uncle pulled me aside when I came to say goodbye. He wanted to know if I would be willing to go to Hungary with him and write his story.
It was such a big thing in such little words, something beyond my wildest dreams as young person in love with story. Of course I said yes.
I promised myself that I’d drop anything the be on this trip and write the stories of his life. Of course we would go, as soon as possible.
As it turned out, that soon-as-possible was quite a bit farther than we’d imagined. The first summer we all stayed home, quarantining and washing our hands. There would be no travel that year.
We turned to virtual meetings, as so much of the world did, to begin the process of recording. My great uncle was 93 that year, and sitting around and waiting for the pandemic to end before we started talking ran a very high risk of loosing the story altogether. We met over zoom that summer, and I hastily scribbled notes and recorded voice memos on my phone to the background noise of bread baking and ducklings.
I was amazed at the clarity and chronological order with which he was able to recall memories. Most of the time, the big stories and important events didn’t start with “One time…” It started with “In 1947, when I was…”
He gave me context, both personal and historical, dates, google-able events, and times of year. His ability to remember was a dream come true compared to the uphill battle of historical research that I’d heard other writers talk about. We recorded and recorded and recorded, and once or twice I had ideas about how to begin the story, but they always petered out into nothing. We would try and travel next year.
The next year there was still the huge unknown of traveling in our new reality. There were multiple government regulations to pass. It was discouraging, and didn’t seem like a good time to go.
We would wait until next year.
Uncle Frank was almost 95, and in incredible shape for his age, but still 95. I began to feel like we were cutting our luck close. I wanted to keep the possibility of COVID transmission from our travel as low as possible, but I also knew that at some point we’d just have to go. The pandemic wouldn’t disappear overnight, but Uncle Frank might.
In the early months of the year, his daughter, Margaret, began emailing with family in Hungary and designing our trip for this summer. She got an AirBnB and investigated the places that we wanted to go.
Despite the war in Ukraine, we bought plane tickets. It seemed crazy to be going close to a war and during a pandemic, and it seemed crazy not to take the opportunity.
On June 8th, after a week of visiting a dear friend in the UK, I flew from London to Budapest. I picked up my bag, got through customs, and walked into a room where I could see the familiar faces of my aunt, cousin, and great uncle, and the smiling faces of family I hadn’t met or barely remembered.
We finally made it, and now we’d be able to walk in places I’d only ever heard about.
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