Three years ago, on September 22nd, our flight touched down in Vienna. With four suitcases between us, the driver met us at the airport and whisked us away to Bratislava, Slovakia – our new home. Pat was particularly excited. He had agreed to move to a place he had never visited, had barely heard of and for an uncertain duration.
Three years ago! Let me get all the cliches out of my system – Time flies. In the blink of an eye. Like only yesterday. But alas, it wasn’t only yesterday. It was three years ago. Which means our time here is nearly over. I will talk about the future in another post. Right now, I want to enjoy the present – and remember the past.
That first night, we dined at a modern Italian restaurant on the Danube. We could have been anywhere; Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Michigan – any of the states which previously served as home. Somehow, that realization felt comforting. Every month, on the 22nd, we returned for an anniversary celebration of sorts. Then one month, we stopped. Bratislava became familiar. The need to feel comforted subsided.
Those first few weeks were a dream – a long, lazy European vacation. We ate most every meal in a restaurant; endured surly waiters who spoke very little English and greeted us like tourists; and spent days traipsing to wine festivals and goose feasts in remote villages.
Virtually every night, we wandered home through the old city. Sometimes we sat below back alley windows on cobblestone streets and listened to classical music rehearsals, pinching ourselves at the realization this was, at least for the moment, where we lived.
When we scratched below the vacation facade, we struggled through a myriad of activities: buying furniture then not being able to arrange shipment; emptying my grocery cart at the checkout only to realize, yet again, I had forgotten to weigh my produce; watching the cashier, once again, roll her eyes. Then it hit us. Long about the time a vacation should end, we remembered our airline tickets were one way.
Life lapsed into a series of niggling challenges. When people asked how I was doing, I fought an enormous urge to break down and cry. A peer, and fellow American living here, told me to hang in there. “Julie, it’s normal. Expect those feelings to last about two months.” He was right.
Like the passing of seasons, each day became imperceptibly better. Then, one day, we recognized the cumulative impact of those changes virtually immeasurable on a daily basis. We adjusted, learned how to speak in the slowest and most basic noun based English, tossed out a word or two of Slovak, and ate whatever was placed before us.
Slowly, slowly we had found our stride. Sure, we ate meals we never ordered from waitresses who knew us and treated us as friends but understood little of what we said. After all, we lived on their turf but did not speak their language. The blame for our daily foibles was ours, and ours alone.
We regained our ability to laugh, and used it often. Pat attended the opera almost weekly. We met Igor and Vlasta and integrated into their lives. Some days I still wanted to go home, but those days became less and less frequent.
When my manager asked me to move to Budapest, I declined. He explained that was where the business needed me. In corporate America there are penalties for declining opportunities – costs I wasn’t ready to pay. Pat and I discussed what we should do, we talked to Taylor, and I agreed to move.
As much as I expected to cry when I left Bratislava, I didn’t. We never looked back. Sure, we go back frequently, and we still love the old town. But life moved on and so did we.
We just finished our 18 month anniversary in Budapest. The passage of time is accelerating. The city is massive with so much to see and explore. We seek more and more places previously beyond the bounds of our comfort zone and tick off a list of rural Hungarian towns – Eger, Balatonfured, Pecs, Sopron – for our more frequent weekend vacations.
Yet, we never really settled in here the way we did in Bratislava. We miss long bike rides into the Austrian countryside and the company of good friends. Budapest offers a variety of cultural opportunities which is unsurpassed and a selection of international restaurants that is nearly endless. Yet it lacks the creature comforts of small town life.
Everyone tries to pin us down; “Which do you prefer?” Slovaks ask, as do Hungarians and Americans. It’s an impossible question – we loved them both and for very different reasons. Everyone, Slovaks, Hungarians and Americans, can’t believe we don’t pick Budapest hands down. We discuss this when we are alone and our conversation can be completely unguarded and truthful. Yet still we struggle to choose, and fortunately, we never needed to.
Next year on September 22nd, I am not sure where will be. But I am sure it will not be here. We have made the decision to move to Philadelphia the first of March (I can hear the collective exclamation of “Philadelphia?!” from our family and friends). At one point, we had decided to live in Hungary permanently. It was a passing fancy, an impractical dream. The United States is our home – it always will be.
Taylor moved to Philly a few weeks ago. Now, two of our kids live there with our third not far away. Next year, we will have a big traditional Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends. I have missed those things. A side of me yearns to live someplace where life isn’t filled with the daily angst of living permanently off kilter – a place where the defining element of each day is normalcy.
That said, I signed a lease to spend next summer in Paris. I can’t stop myself. After that, we expect to return to Philly before heading to Traverse City, Michigan to live a few months near Pat’s family. Then maybe Charlottesville for Christmas with our son and daughter-in-law, Mike and Emily. Philadelphia will become our launch point for the world, a default destination when I need to regroup.
We do not plan to buy a flat or sign a long term lease. For now, we will carry our lives on our backs. Which also means we will empty our storage unit. Like the Italian restaurant of those early days, the boxes and beds have lost their importance. We are ready to give up the last of those possessions which acted as an anchor while our lives felt tossed.
We have changed during the last three years. When the time comes, I will reflect on exactly how. Perhaps I will not recognize many of these changes until I actually live back home. Some little Americanisms get on my nerves. Others, I miss. Many, I have probably forgotten.
Our goal right now is simply to enjoy our last months here. For the first time, I feel ready to go. When March 1st comes, I will leave and not look back. Adventures await. In more ways than one, it’s time to move on.