Nicholas Kolumban

The Native Tourist

SOME PEOPLE DROP in on their birthplace once every three weeks. Others once every ten years. Some, on the other hand, never go back and proceed to breed llamas in Utah.

It was at the end of July in Budapest, hot and dry as expected, slightly steaming sidewalks. I was thirsty. Near the still-dashing Hotel Astoria with its elegant Cafe, its elaborate dining room, I bumped into a small street wide enough only for skinny cabs going one way. My throat was parched; luckily I discovered a sign in the window of a bar, advertising Amstel beer on draft: 210 Forints (about 90 cents) a mug. I entered. The bar was not much: four tables and a counter with three stools. No pictures anywhere, just dust. The bartender greeted me unenthusiastically; I was given my portion with too much foam. But I was happy enough. I sat down at my tiny table, opened a newly purchased book about Hungarian history.

I began to read. Slowly my ears distinguished two different languages spoken: Hungarian, naturally-spoken by the bartender and an elderly guest at the bar. But there was also this guttural, raspy language being spoken by six customers who were leaning back at two tables along the wall. All under thirty, they talked quietly, businesslike, occasionally removing wads of banknotes from their pockets, counting them out casually before giving them to others there at the tables. A quick glance told me the bills were 5000 Forints, the second highest denomination in the country.

Under the circumstances, I minded my own business. Generally, I’m ill at ease among people who amass too much of one thing. Meanwhile, these foreigners (but so was I) spoke so fast, now and then raising their voices. Finally, they nodded at each other, got up and left. But more came in soon after. The same procedure ensued. There might have been other commodities exchanged under the table (because who wants to just hand out money?), but I doggedly tried to keep concentrated on 13th century Hungarian society. Then, finishing my beer as discreetly as possible, I got up to leave — but too abruptly, it seemed. As I fumbled for my wallet in order to pay, out the corner of my eye I saw a man reach for something under his shirt. It was a well-rehearsed motion.

Luckily, I had the jump on him. I was faster with my money, showing it as prominently as I could. The man relaxed instantly. A wry smile. Meanwhile, dumb with panic, I didn’t wait for my change. I dashed out like a swallow from a barn when the door opens.

I must have been an unknown cipher for them, too. But, although I had not turned out in the end to constitute a danger, I had nothing to offer either, not even linguistically. The men had short haircuts, beautiful shoes; possible candidates for an Italian heist movie. I lowered my eyes, my calf muscles quivered. I distanced myself from them without looking back, hoping that they would forget my existence in record time.

For my stay I had rented a room above the Danube. It was small, but the view was breathtaking: in front of me a slender, taut bridge in the sunshine; at night it looked like a glittering necklace hovering over the river. It was the Elizabeth Bridge, lit up.

I took long walks on the cobblestone rug of the streets. The water lured me also, and I sat for hours on the stairs below the docks, watching the Danube scrub the cement feet of the bridge. It seemed to me that the river splashed softly in more than a few languages, flattering the nations that lived along its banks. I was also aware that — even here in the city of my birth — my mother tongue had ceased to be the vehicle of my thoughts. When I spoke Hungarian, even to myself, I was automatically translating words and phrases from English.

I felt somewhat lonely in Budapest. I wasn’t certain whether I belonged here; occasionally, I felt like the greenest of newcomers stumbling on the rocks of local custom. For example, I forgot to shake hands when saying “good bye” to people. Or, while leaving stores or someone’s office it always slipped my mind to say some parting words at the door. I just mumbled “Thank you” and went out. I had forgotten my manners.

My room was on the fourth floor of an apartment building that needed a coat of paint. My landlady was an old woman, wobbly and hard of hearing. Outwardly kind, she refused to allow any food in her refrigerator that wasn’t hers. She rented out three rooms: they had ancient furniture and rickety closets. All the rugs were faded. One room was occupied by a silent middle-aged man who was always well-dressed and bowed to me whenever we met in the hall. The other was taken by two young women who were blond to varying degrees, shapely, and wore very short skirts. The younger one, about 19, had high heels on, even while in our communal bathroom. These two were an enigma to me with their muted chatter in the evenings. Then one night I heard panting through the thin wall, my ears soon deciphering the nature of the din: people making love. I could make out four voices, two belonging to men and two to my sexy neighbors. All of them in one room. It startled me; I am used to more conventional arrangements.

The next morning I saw one of the women sitting on her bed, counting banknotes. Then, that evening, I distinctly heard the women speak in German, telling lewd stories to each other, unaware that I understood them. (My teenage years spent in West Germany had made me live in that language at well, though did I ever feel at home?) Later, the two women exchanged kisses — the popping of champagne bottles. Their exuberance just deepened my loneliness.

In the daytime I usually took a bus to Margaret Island, the seat of fragrant flowers and hotels. Margaret Island was located in the middle of the Danube, at an equal distance from Buda, the residential twin of Pest, and from Pest, the entertainment center. I went swimming in the Sportuszoda, the home of two public pools. In the larger one, not always open to the public, Olympic champions and waterpolo players swam. Being a 50-meter pool, it was partitioned into eight lanes.

One day I noticed that lane number 8 was empty. Quietly I lowered myself into the water and began doing my version of the butterfly. I imagined myself as a civilized dolphin. Soon two children began to use the same lane. An old man in low-cut bathing trunks instructed them. He pondered my presence for a moment, then accepted me as part of the scenery. By the time he was finished with the swimming lesson, I pulled myself out of the water and sat down at the edge of the pool. He approached me without haste and then asked with a smile in English:

“Are you English?”

“No. I’m from the other side of the Atlantic,” I said in Hungarian.

“Ah,” he said, switching to Hungarian too, “you’re one of the long-lost sons of the Revolution. But also an American, aren’t you?”

I nodded. Then he told me that he was the coach of the national swim team, that he had figured I must be a foreigner. “Native Hungarians wouldn’t dare use this pool,” he commented. He also confided in me that he had just returned from Los Angeles, from a swim meet. He liked the “bustle” there, the “possibilities.” The general well-being of the place, milk and honey oozing through the city’s pores.

“You see, I feel at home in both countries,” he said. “They both offer you something. You just have to be open to it.”

I told him that his was a very positive approach. In turn, I said very jauntily that I felt at home here in Budapest too, but also away from home. In a good way.

I had already noticed that both older people and children already had begun to accept me as being someone who belongs here. Senior citizens approached me in parks, then sat down next to me on the bench. They offered me amusing stories of their lives, reinventing their youth and forgetting the tough moments later on. The children showed me their toys and attempted to share with me chunks of their sandwiches and broken pieces of French fries. Then soon men in taverns warmed to my brand of humble Hungarianness by telling me that they found nothing “odd” about me. “You think like us,” one hairy man said in workclothes after he discovered that I live in New Jersey. But since I was paying his beer I wondered about the sincerity of his appraisal.

On the last day of August I visited a former high school classmate of mine and his spouse. They had no children, not a rare phenomenon in Hungary. Andras Bathory was a mechanical engineer with a Ph.D. He worked as an executive engineer in a company that manufactured machines able to produce plastic containers — plates and cups, etc. In the evening he also taught graduate courses in his discipline at the University of Budapest, supplementing his already sizable income. He was an introverted, earnest individual with a bodybuilder’s physique. His wife Katalin was high-spirited, prone to laugh at any time. She was one of the editors of a publishing firm that only printed foreign books in translation.

I was invited for dinner. I had already learned from Andras’ letters that Katalin happened to be an excellent cook. Needless to say, I only ate a light lunch that day. Their living room — they owned a roomy apartment in the inner city, quite a feat in space-starved Eastern Europe — surprised me. The ceiling was covered with posters of foreign movies and black and white photos of folk dancers. Soon Katalin arrived with a tray of open-ended sandwiches. I only took two, saving my gargantuan appetite for the main dish.

But nothing else materialized after they removed the tray. I felt like a hungry whale that had just arrived in waters depleted of plankton. Then soon we slurped sweet espresso and that concluded the feeding portion of the evening. It was then I realized I had forgotten that Europeans eat their main meal at noon.

They praised my Hungarian, then proceeded to ask me how I could survive my losses — the hole of 40 years in my memory? “What hole?” I asked them. I had become a witness to Kennedy’s inspired reign, King Arthur in Camelot. Later I had listened to and shook hands with Hubert Humphrey. Moreover, I had undergone the Vietnam War — as did many other Americans, even from their living room — this misconceived and intricate undertaking. I had learned much in undergraduate and graduate schools at Penn State. I had discovered delight in work. Teaching English had become my life’s calling, and writing poetry didn’t lag much behind. I had fallen in love with women who were not good for me — and with women who were. None of them spoke Hungarian. From a pensive, befuddled outsider, I had metamorphosed into a tolerable (and tolerant) semi-Yankee.

Now it was their turn to be astonished.

“Anyhow, you can certainly impersonate a native in Hungary,” Katalin gushed while hugging me.

We drank a few shots of Unicum, a rich Hungarian liquor, slightly bitter in taste. It’s guaranteed to strengthen your stomach against the trials of digesting mutton goulash, fried veal shank, spicy carp stew or other hearty Hungarian dishes.

My leave-taking of Hungary took place the next day. I sensed that I didn’t belong here, but I didn’t want to depart either. I also felt a little ashamed that unlike most natives, I could choose to leave. I also wondered where could a life-long native tourist like me could go anyway? Maybe the journeying itself could materialize into a country?

It took me eight years to learn English well. It required much memorization an painful repetition. I remember once at Penn State I spoke about Hungary to a well-meaning fellow student for twenty minutes; he just smiled and nodded repeatedly. Years later he admitted to me that the only words he understood of my English were the conjunctions. Naturally, I learned numerous nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the process as well, but one day it occurred to me that man doesn’t live by parts of speech alone. There had to be more to life than plain speech. Something more eloquent and personal. Being of lyric temperament — that is, intense but gentle — my desire could only lead to one thing: writing poems.

My poems are letters to myself. I’m an only child. I had been alone often and later, as a new arrival in the States, yet another immigrant. I was again left to my own resources. I became my own best friend, my own pen pal. These “letters” were about losses (mother tongue, country, friends) as well as gains (a new language, a new country, and new friends) — about living, at least in one’s mind, in America and in Hungary simultaneously. The things I write about now (the lives of emigres, how to adjust to a new place, how to shed your immigrant clothing) may seem beside the point to those who have never left their own country, or who have never really been face to face with diversity, especially when it speaks a completely different language. The poet Peter Klappert, who incidentally is quite cosmopolitan, said to me years ago: “Nobody writes like you in America.” Well, now in the 90s, maybe quite a few do. But then?

I now write poems in Hungarian, also. This gratifies a psychological need. I want to prove to myself that I haven’t been totally assimilated into English and never will be. That I’m a sovereign, polyglot being. My poems in Hungarian suffer from a linguistic handicap, however. Although I was born in Hungary, in the Hungarian language, by now I know more English. These Hungarian poems don’t even exist yet in English clothing. Probably they’ll never materialize in translation.

I feel like an indulgent father toward them. I have the urge to protect them, to guard their privacy. I don’t want them to be altered as was the case with me. —Somerville, New Jersey, June 3, 1999