Rosalyn Collings Eves is our UP CLOSE Trips and Travels guest author today. She enjoys traveling, although she hasn’t been able to do nearly as much of this since becoming a mother to two young children: a four-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. When not trying to plan and execute child-friendly trips, she plays with her children, teaches the occasional composition class, reads, and writes (not as much as she would like).
I was twenty the first time I went to Europe. It seemed like the height of adventure at the time, navigating different railroad stations with my handy Eurail pass, a single, large, unwieldy backpack on my back. And I was in Europe, a land drenched with history, with old castles rising unexpectedly from hillsides as we sped past on the train, and uneven cobblestone streets branching off of paved modern roads as we walked through towns.
I was traveling with an acquaintance of mine, a slim, pretty blond girl who got whistled at constantly when we were in Italy. I say “acquaintance,” because I didn’t know her well when we started: we were coming off of a semester abroad in London where we had been friendly but not exactly friends, and our mothers, fearful of the potential fates awaiting single female travelers, had arranged our airfare together.
At first it was almost idyllic as we made our way through Germany, Bavaria, and Switzerland. And then we went to Budapest. The name itself conjured pure romance for me, although I knew little about the country other than it had been the last bastion to stand between the ravaging Turkish armies and the rest of Europe, and that Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was thought to be a Hungarian princess because of her impeccable English. Our arrival wasn’t entirely auspicious: we arrived late in the day and were directed to a nearby hostel. We decided later that our guide must have had some kind of financial arrangement with the hostel, because it was so dirty. (We were too scared of the grime to even risk the showers.) At the time, though, that just seemed to be part of the adventure.
I was alone when I set out on my exploration of Budapest; Kirsten had a different agenda for that day. I stopped in a local grocery store to buy a yogurt and some bread. After eating, I brushed the crumbs off my lap and set off across one of the many squares that dotted the city. I held my map in my hands (an obvious tourist, I’m sure), the map itself creased and uneven, the edges beginning to stick slightly to my palms under the warm spring sun.
I felt, rather than saw, the shadow in front of me; I looked up to see a stranger looming before me scant seconds before he whacked me in the head with the flat of his hand. He hit me hard enough that I stopped, suddenly, forcing the stream of foot traffic to part around me. I’m still not sure why he hit me, if I was in his way or he was just feeling particularly grouchy about tourists that day. I do know that I was left feeling off-balance, shaky and suddenly unsure of my place.
I decided to abandon my exploration of the city itself and headed across one of the suspension bridges that cross the Danube (called the Duna in Hungary) at even intervals. I was heading toward higher ground, toward Gellért Hill (named, I found later, for an early Christian martyr who was put in a barrel and rolled down the hill into the Duna). The figure of a woman upholding a palm frond beckoned enticingly from the base of the hill; ironically enough, she figures prominently in a monument to the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary from the rule of Nazi Germany. (Anyone who knows any Hungarian families who fled Hungary in the 1950s under Soviet rule understands the irony here.)
The initial climb was refreshing; the trail was crisscrossed by the cool, green shadows of a heavily wooded area. Ahead of me I could see a young couple, a few paces behind me a young family. It was only after I’d been climbing for several minutes that I realized that the couple had outpaced me and I had outpaced the family. The only person within eyesight (or earshot) was a young man in his mid-twenties. The only thing I really remember about him was that he had dark hair.
“Excuse me?” He called to me.
Surprised to hear English, I stopped and turned to him. I heard the rustle of the wind in the trees and realized, my heart suddenly beating faster, that we were alone on the trail.
I don’t remember exactly what he said; I do remember that he offered to show me a part of his anatomy that I had no desire to see. I said (with what seems in retrospect a ridiculous politeness) “No. Thank you.” I put my head down and walked as fast as I could (without actually running) and prayed that he wouldn’t follow me.
He didn’t, thankfully. And serendipitously I found my friend Kirsten at the top of the hill, having decided separately to make the same pilgrimage. I was overjoyed to see her; I may have even cried a little. I’m sure she was surprised by both reactions.
That night, I wrote in my journal. I thought of the two unfriendly encounters, my futile attempts to order stamps at the post-office or to navigate the metro system (although everywhere else I’d managed just fine), and I wrote, “I don’t understand the language, I don’t understand the culture, I don’t understand the people. This is the first city in Europe where I really feel like an outsider.”
Flash forward five months. I’m sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, surrounded by my friends and family. In my hands, I hold a largish envelope with my mission papers. I rip the paper open, scan quickly until I find the important words. “You are hereby called to serve in the Hungary Budapest Mission . . .”
I thought back on my negative experience in Hungary and I felt a little afraid. But I went anyway.
And you know what? I learned to understand (and speak!) the language (which, by the way, is supposed to be the third hardest language for English speakers to learn, after Finnish and Chinese). I learned that the people were not actually that unfriendly (or that lewd)—that they were, in fact, some of the most generous people I’ve ever known. I fell in love with the country, with the seas of sunflowers stretching for yellow miles, with the intoxicating smell of linden trees in the summer. (Every summer, when the linden trees blossom in late June and early July, I’m transported back.) And that woman holding a peace offering atop the “Statue of Liberty”? The missionaries called her the Pizza Lady.
Are there places that (like some people) you found you misjudged on initial acquaintance? How did those places improve with additional exposure? Did you learn anything new about yourself through your changing association with that place?