Not long ago Andrew Sutton has asked me to describe what spending a large chunk of my childhood in Hungary was to me. I guess it'd be easier to write about what it wasn't, because how can you quantify and dissect memories? It's a very vivid, very pleasant part of my life. I was seven when I first went there, I was about ten when I left for good. At the time it seemed like a different world. I arrived from then-communist Poland. Hungary was also part of that block, but their take on the system was entirely different. Back home store shelves were continuously empty. People waited for hours in lines to get anything from meat to candy. You needed stamps to get anything from food to gas. There was a regulatory monthly allowance on a lot of things you can think of and often there was just not enough product to satisfy demand. Toilet paper was a sought after item. Sweets, if you could ever get your hands on them most of the time were not real chocolate. "Chocolate-like product in a substitute packaging" became a memorable thing of that era, and yet again, you were lucky to get your hands on it. Most everyday items were not available to everyday people. Stores around town would only be supplied on certain days with whatever they decided to bring. A word would spread that they "threw" something somewhere and people lined up whether you needed it or not. Some people would just grab whatever they could get, while others made a profession out of standing in line for other people. Everything was sad and grey but there was a certain rhythm to this lifestyle. Hungary was like a touch of the Western lifestyle. I remember going to the store with my parents, I remember the juices, the delicious peach nectar, the colorful packages, toys, chocolate, you name it. And the wonderful yoghurt like puddings!
Back home you would only get jeans and imported soft drinks in foreign-currency only stores. My Brother collected German beer cans and every package from the US or Germany caused great excitement. In Budapest I saw a Commodore computer in a display window once. A few times a month I got a comic book. That's how I first started learning Hungarian, I translated an entire issue of Tom es Jerry with my mom. Quickly, I was speaking the language well enough that I was translating our landlord's jokes I didn't understand, I remember her saying that the Soviets must've been shutting down our electricity when the lights flickered a bit. I remember Hungarians as very positive, giving people. Literally. My neighbor gave me a chocolate bar to get me to stop singing every morning as I was passing her window in my braces. One conductor gave me a hearth shaped diary, while another a comic book about the Smurfs.
Poles have a very grim, sarcastic sense of humor. We tend to celebrate the anniversary of every failed military attempt in history. Sad, reflective national celebrations. We tend to be serious and very convinced of our unique role in our place in the world. I never really interacted with other kids' parents. I never met them. Virtually all left them for the night and most didn't take them home for weekends.
I remember the swimming pool with the artificial wave on St Margaret's mountain. I remember my father's dream that one day I will walk up Gallert's mountain. Mostly to me Budapest was a place you can just live in. Be normal and be happy. They had a metro we couldn't finish for a hundred years. Yes, everything was wheelchair inaccessible just like in Poland and my mom would carry be and the stroller separately onto the bus (one time it even closed on her when she was getting it). But first and foremost I was stuck in between those two realities. None of my Polish friends got to travel, speak a language, see new places. They were going to school and I was away a lot. And then I brought gadgets as gifts. Like rollers that when you looked at them at a certain angle gave an illusion of movement. I read a lot, and the novels I'd devour often described adventures of people who chose a life of adventure or were banished and spent decades far from home. And sometimes I wondered if that is what my life would be like forever. I felt like a bit of a tramp, being here, being there. I guess the good thing about it was I didn't really contemplate how different my disability made me from my colleagues. I liked being able to experience things they weren't. I had a passport at age of seven when most adults didn't have one, we had foreign currency when you needed special permits and we traveled when people couldn't move freely even within the Eastern bloc. All because of my disability. Many Polish families established a permanent or at least a semi-permanent home in Budapest. We didn’t. My parents didn’t speak the language, my dad had a job in Poland and my brother had a life. Every time we rented a different apartment. The nun’s, the sportsman’s. All up on the floor with plenty of stairs. I remember the food. The spicy and the gooey soup like things with peas.
The little things I remember. The sheer joy of spending time with my parents in the really old apartment we rented from a nun on the weekends. The books I read. The retro style piano. The feeling of going home on the evenings during the months that my parents decided to stay with me in Budapest. I don’t remember much, but I remember feeling safe. Nobody wanted to trick me, nobody was about to operate on me, which is something I needed after all the surgeries.