Yesterday evening, just as the sun dipped below the Buda hills, a group gathered in the park below our apartment. A cluster of candles flickered at the base of a statue surrounded by diffuse pinpricks of light as people continued to stream into the gates.
“Hey Pat, check it out. Something is happening in the park.”
He grabbed his camera and shot some photos from our balcony. Then he pulled on his coat to explore further. I stayed back. Pat has an attribute of great street photographers – a fearlessness when shooting a scene. Me, I am way too self conscious to feel comfortable taking photos of strangers. In street photo situations, we tend to split up and work alone. Pat snaps away while I pretend not to know him.
A while later, he reported back with the story. An eminent Hungarian journalist, Andrassew Iván, had died of cancer on January 16th. He was a critic of the current political party controlling Hungary – a controversial party that has many Hungarians speculating about their future and the future of the country. He had won a prize created in honor of another journalist, Fejtő Ferenc, the one commemorated by the statue below our balcony.
Political feelings run deep here. Some people left candles while others wept. Everyone Pat approached during his reconnaissance told him the story of what was happening. He talked to a Ukrainian man, an attorney, who moved to Budapest from the Ukraine border. And he spoke with a colleague of Ivan’s. When he returned to our apartment, his first words were “I love it here. Hungarians are always so friendly.” Pat says this often – at least daily.
For an hour or so, Pat and I googled both Fejtő Ferenc and Andrassew Iván and read their stories aloud to each other. Somehow, until last night, I never noticed this statue at the edge of Szent Istvan Park. I certainly never realized its significance; the name of the man or what he had accomplished.
When we first moved to Slovakia, I avoided the unknown. Surprises rarely ended well. Each time we headed out the door, I wondered what would happen next. Perhaps we would ride the right bus in the wrong direction or the wrong train in the right direction. Maybe we would fail to mail a package home from the sheer inability to communicate. Or perhaps we might eat a dinner we hadn’t ordered – or at least hadn’t thought we ordered. The unknown and me were well acquainted, but we weren’t friends.
Over time, I have learned to enjoy surprises – even seek them out. Not understanding the language has morphed into an ability to turn off conversations while I read or work on the train. I have benefited innumerable times from a human spirit which drives people to step in and help a stranger. A woman at the post office drew a map of how to get to the spot where I could drop off my package and then acted out the sequence of turns. A man in a restaurant stepped forward to translate an entire menu into English even though he was a fellow customer, not an employee.
Usually, we end up talking to these people. They want to tell their story. And they want to hear ours. “What do you think of this country? Why do you live here?” They love to practice English with a native speaker.
I have learned to value these exchanges – even to seek them out. Meeting new and diverse people is the very best part of expat life. Now, when we see an unusual situation, one or both of us invariable jumps into the fray.
If I think back over the last three plus years we have lived in Central Europe, like last night, my best memories have been created in that space just beyond the reach of our understanding by people we have never seen before and will likely never meet again.
Categories: Insiders Budapest