POSTCARD FROM HUNGARY
a new chapter....
Dear friends, we made it to Hungary.
Three car rides, two planes and an emotional marathon brought us to Budapest a few days ago, where we were greeted by one of Andras’ oldest friends, Pati, with a welcome party right out of his trunk: home-baked Makos, Turo and Meggyes Rétes (poppy-seed, farmer’s cheese, and sour cherry strudels), cheeses and sausage and a giant dinnye (watermelon), of course.** Hungarians love their melons.
Two sleepy hours later, my kids’ leggy bodies piled all over mine in the back seat, we woke up in Porva, the quiet village where my husband spent summers as a boy, in the home of his Nagymama (grandmother)—where, also, we have been restoring a family retreat for the last 15 years, next door.
We spent the first day keeping house, which is far more romantical (to quote Anne With An E – Greta’s favorite series) than it would be back home: sweeping floors and fluffing pillows, making up beds and clearing away the too-small bits of clothing left behind last summer by mistake, proof that the last lost years weren’t completely lost, after all.
The story of how this house came to be ours is a long and beautiful one, one I promise to share someday. The short version: András bought this house as a young man, just before we met—a house that belonged to distant family long ago (before the communist era, before the war)—a house I saw for the first time well after him asking me to be his girl, forever. I have made it mine, slowly over years: planting lavender in window boxes, boxwood in the yard; adding soft touches of color to blend with the white of antique dishes and lace curtains—treasures inherited from his mother’s collection, and the sturdy, mid-century tables and chairs, left by the owners before.
Some of you who have followed along with me for years (on Instagram, or elsewhere) may remember our lagzi or wedding party here, 14 summers ago (somewhere on the internet exists a photo of me in my wedding dress and rain boots, holding Nagymama’s chickens)—or my solo trip in pursuit of my Hungarian residency, not long after (read about that, here). Some of you have watched my children eat ice cream against the crumbling stone walls, graze on pastry and stone fruit, or bathe in old wooden tubs as babies — and have stood by as I’ve shared our journey to restore this 300-year-old stone home that came to be, in all the important ways, our home away from home.
The first days of every trip involve a mission—the pursuit of a working bathroom, a cook-able kitchen, a hunt for tiles (and so on). This time, a large part of our first day was, for me at least, setting up a quiet spot all my own to work and write. My desk sits in the nook of a (new) skylight, overlooking the 1,000-year-old church and acre upon acre of farmed and wild land—some of which has been in my husband’s family for two and a half centuries.
It holds just a few things—a small woven basket (in lieu of a file cabinet), housing the handful of essentials I could justify hauling along: my camera, a small hard drive, The Complete Hungarian, an English-Hungarian dictionary, my book of passwords and No Cure For Being Human, by Kate Bowler (if you haven’t yet, read it: the wisdom is yours to keep when the story ends).
There’s no waste basket, so a pile of crumbled wet wipes sit at my feet, holding the dust of a year gone since we were here last. There also sits my calendar—with big circles around far-off dates, and empty notebooks on which to write the particulars of our adventure to come.
In the near distance, I can hear the radio of our neighbor Pisti, an expert mason, who has spent the last 12 months covering the entirety of our house, inside and out, in new plaster — the result of our decision to sink every spare dime into a restoration of a house that hung in the brink of extinction, for years. Room by room, he’s laid tiles, framed corners, made crumbling stone walls appear straight—or, straight enough.
As I write, Pisti and his twin sons, Isti and Szabi, lay a brick path along the decaying (yet perfect-to-me) barn. He’s impossibly tall and thin, his back curved over the walkway. A thin cigarette hangs from his mouth, and the sounds of 80s rock accompany him everywhere–Forever Young, Walking on Sunshine—the theme of our summer.
A layer of plaster dust covers every surface. I wipe it clean room by room. The prizes and perils of ownership here are not lost on me. We are stewards, preserving history, and allowing this house to move forward—with our children, and theirs.
Our days are punctuated by the sound of the village church bells. At noon we gather at my own children’s Nagymama’s house next door, for lunch (András mother and father moved here from the city, eventually, when his own Nagymama passed), followed by espresso and naps. There’s the song of the ice cream truck on Fridays, selling frozen fish and cream puffs, alongside chocolate ice cream and bright-colored ice pops.
My children come and go from the yard, picking plums and blackberries to scatter over lemon sorbet. Piles of fruit fall from the trees, dripping from baskets in every windowsill. Every nook and crevice, a story of a simple life.
The bells ring again, 8 PM. Evening walks, and settling down into the goose feathers for extended sleep, catching up on a decade of renovations and jet lag, at once.
From the still of previous summers here—slow, drawn from a different time—a few things are different now. We have moved this house into the modern century: the temperature can be controlled without a wood fire on a chilly night, or ice packs on a hot one (I will miss that wood fire, but not chopping the wood for it).
And this week, for the first time ever in the life of this home, we have the internet. I resisted it for years—firmly. But the fact of it means I can write you here, now.
We don’t feel so far away—for better, and for worse.
These changes were needed (so says my husband), especially since we’re staying put here for a bit this time. In years past, my spirit moved me to dash to Bratislava, or Rome with the children (often with Andras staying behind to work on restoration) when the lull of village life ran too slow for my blood. But for now, we stay. We will finish what we started long ago.
I’ll be writing to you from here for all of August, so I’m sharing a small glossary below, to make sense of some new words (and I’ll build on this, as we go). This coming week, I have a lineup of new summer-fruit-forward (American) recipes to send your way, so stay tuned for those--and meanwhile I’ll be shooting a story for one of my favorite magazines about our life here, and some beloved Hungarian recipes to go with (more details on that, soon!).
In the meantime, I’m so grateful you’re here with me now, along for the ride. Chime in below (via comments) to let me know what you want to hear more about, while we’re here.
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Hungarian food glossary, Vol 1*:
Fagyi: Ice cream
Rétesház: Strudel shop
Meggyes: Sour Cherries
*I’ll expand on this week by week whenever I write to you about life here, and repeat words when they’re relevant to the writing.
Hungarian-isms + Nicknames:
In Hungary, everyone has a nickname. No matter the age or name, there’s a beloved pet name, one that sticks and carries deep into adulthood.
For example, István (pronounced Isht-van– equivalent to our Stephen) could be shortened to Isti (pronounced Ish-tee), Pisti (pronounced Pish-tee), Pityu (pronounced Pit-chyou) or even Öcsi (pronounced U-chee). Peter is shortened as Pati, Balázs could be Bazsi.
Erzsébet (Andras’ mother’s name—similar to our Elizabeth) would be shortened to Erzsi (pronounced Air-zhee). An older woman named Erzsi could be called Erzsi Néni (pronounced Air-zhee-nay-nee) by family and friends. For example, Andras’ friends would call his mother, Erzi Néni, rather than a more formal Mrs., as used in the U.S.
Another common form of Hungarian nick-naming—using “ka/ke” at the end of a name, which denotes little, a term of endearment. For example, István (m) > Pisti > Pistike. — OR —Erzsébet (f) > Erzsi > Erzsike. My children, for example, are Grétika (for little Greta) or Grétácska (try to say that one!) and Matyika (little Mátyás).
More on this endearing practice, here.
**Find me an American man who makes three kinds of strudel from scratch, then drives four hours out of his way for an airport run! That’s the spirit of Hungary–and it’s people–in a nutshell.