Being Happy And Making Plans In Budapest
Above, the last photo that will likely ever be taken of me and my dear old friend Roscoe. I went to tell him goodbye on the way to the airport on Sunday. He is so very old. Fifteen, which puts him at the outer limits of age for his breed. He can't see more than a foot in front of him, he is incontinent and has to wear a disposable diaper, and is so senile that he no longer recognizes me. This is a dog who, over the years as my wife and kids observed, would know when I was about to come home. He would go stand at the window and watch for me, even though I came and went at odd times, and he could not possibly have known my schedule. Roscoe just knew when his master was on the way. And now the poor creature's mind is so gone that he can't recognize me.
In that photo above, I am fighting back tears. That little dog absorbed so much sadness from me over the years, and gave back far, far more love and comfort than he received from us (and he surely got a lot from us!). He has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. Earlier this year, as we were working out post-divorce arrangements, my wife said I was welcome to take him, as he was closer to me than to anybody else in the family, but when I returned and saw how physically and mentally infirm he was, I knew it would be unkind to remove him from the home where he knows where everything is. Leaving Roscoe behind was hard. All of this is hard.
But I'm getting settled into Budapest. My apartment is right next to the Danube, and gets the morning sun. When I woke up and walked into my sunny living room, my icon corner was glowing. I wasn't able to capture the moment itself when the sun's rays reflected brilliantly off the gold of the icons, but this gives you an idea:
Who do I have there? I suppose the figures on the top level need no introduction. Vladimir Grygorenko is the iconographer who wrote the Christos Pantokrator. The Theotokos and Christ Child I bought at a church bookstore. On the second level, that's a diptych of St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Genevieve of Paris I commissioned from the iconographer who did the frescoes at the Benedictine monastery of Norcia. On the bottom shelf is an icon of St. Alexei Mechev and his son, St. Sergei, that I bought in Moscow at the parish where they both served as priests. St. Alexei died in 1923, and St. Sergei in the 1940s, in Stalin's gulag. And next to them are postcards of the Catholic saint Galgano Guidotti, and the sword he put into the stone in Tuscany in the 12th century. Oh, that's a holy water flask in front of them. And up top, there are my prayer books, a white stone I plucked from the Mediterranean this summer, having felt it underfoot when I was standing in the sea praying my prayer rope for my kids; I keep it as a sign of hope that God will protect them through their parents' divorce. And finally, that is the prayer rope of the saintly Anglican bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, an enthusiast of the Jesus Prayer, and close friend of St. Sophrony of Essex. His daughter, the Rev. Helen Orr, has loaned it to me. I prayed on it this summer, visiting her and her husband James in Cambridge.
So that icon corner is the rock of my new dwelling. I think I'm going to like it here. I looked out the window this morning at the faintly blue Danube rolling by, and the House of Parliament standing watch on the other bank. What a beautiful city, Budapest! I came here because, for private reasons, I concluded that I can't stay in Louisiana right now. My friends in Budapest offered me some meaningful work, and I already knew that I loved this city, and its people, so ... why not? A Hungarian friend asked me if I was sure that I wanted to do this, given the shadow of war, unrest, and deprivation hanging over this region. Yes, I am sure. I feel called to be here. The friends I made here in the summer of 2021, and kept over my last sojourn here earlier this year, were a balm to my soul battered by a decade of living within a failed marriage. They didn't know how much they did for me, but they did. My son Matt, who lived with me here in the summer of 2021, told me at the end that he felt that he had his old dad back. He did! These people in Budapest -- Hungarians and expatriates both -- restored me by their friendship and care. I want to be with them for a time, and if that means sharing their suffering this winter, well, it's a privilege.
I met an American international businessman the other night at a big dinner. Well-off guy, with homes in two other countries. We got to talking, and he said, "I'd bet my life that we are going to have a global famine in the next year." Why do you say that? I asked. "Because there won't be nearly enough fertilizer to plant next year's crops" -- this, because of the effect that the Ukraine war is having on the global petroleum supply. So, Mr. Banker, what are you doing to prepare? Answer: laying in stores of pasta and rice, as well as toilet paper and wine. Why the latter two? Because, he said, manufacturers of t.p. and wine bottles are shutting down for lack of power.
"Golly," said I, "I wonder if it was a good idea to come over here. Maybe I should have stayed at home."
"No, you did the right thing," he said. "People in this part of the world know how to live in hard times. We Americans don't. Our country is going to fall apart if this happens."
I have never lived as an expatriate, unless you count the previous three-month stints I did in Budapest. This is more permanent. I have romanticized the expat life ever since reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast early in my college career. There is a certain kind of young American to whom the Lost Generation seems like a company of angels. I can't separate my love of Paris from the deep pleasure I took at reading Hemingway back then. This is the kind of thing that made me realize my idea of heaven on earth is the Left Bank of Paris, in the 5th and 6th arrondissements:
You could not possibly live in Paris today as Hemingway did. It's far, far too expensive. But you can make a go of it in Budapest, which is quite affordable. I say you can make a go of it, but only if you have a job in which you get to speak English. The Hungarian language is massively difficult, everybody says. I like languages, and would like to learn more than a few phrases, but even Hungarians discourage me. We'll see.
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There was a time when I almost expatriated to Prague. It was the early Nineties, after the fall of Communism. Some Americans of my generation, then in our twenties, lit out for the Bohemian life (literally and figuratively) in the Czech capital, which was very cheap for Americans then, and thus catnip for Lost Generation-bedazzled Yanks. I had read The Unbearable Lightness of Being in college, and fantasized about living in a drafty garret apartment and talking philosophy with comely Czech women wearing nothing but bowler hats. But I had a good job working at the paper in Baton Rouge, and I was too afraid that if I ran off to do the romantic thing, I would never again find my footing in US journalism. I know I did the right thing by doing the responsible thing back then. Now, through an unsought fate, I find myself in my mid-fifties, washed ashore on the banks of the Danube as an expatriate, even an exile.
"Exile" is such a loaded word, and I really shouldn't use it. Nobody made me leave America. But if you've been reading me for all these years, you know the idea of Home is central to who I am. As I explained the other day here, I laid everything I had on the altar of sacrifice to move home to rural south Louisiana in 2011. It failed catastrophically, despite my best efforts. There are things going on back home in the wake of the divorce that it would be improper to discuss -- nothing scandalous, just me needing to respect the privacy of others -- that have a lot to do with my moving away for now, but mostly it's a matter of feeling a strong urge to put distance between myself and Louisiana. It's not Louisiana's fault; the state remains as beautiful and as dear as it always was. But I was very badly burned there, and I need a lot of distance to heal. My older son Matt is going to join me over here in Budapest when he finishes college this semester. We will see what happens. The stability that all of us had counted on no longer exists, and we are trying to keep our heads above water. I am having to learn through painful experience the Christian truth that we are only wayfarers in this world.
This morning as I prayed before my sun-kissed icons, I had a sense of fullness and gladness in my heart. It told me that despite the unwelcome events that brought me to this place, that God is here, and He is with me, and that I should not brood on what I have lost, but rather focus on gratitude for what I have gained, and therefore to try to be happy and make plans. Ain't no oysters here in Budapest that I've seen, but Hungarian white wine is pretty good. And I am a writer, which pleases me, because it means that despite being a stranger among the Magyars, all Budapest belongs to me.
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