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Danube Maiden (The Ribbon)

The Ribbon

The Ribbon

Danube Maiden
(The Ribbon, Summer 2011)

For as far back as I can remember, summer holidays have been a jolting reminder to me that I am not from here. Nor am I from there exactly, but now that I live there, it seems to feel like here again. If this sounds confusing, it most certainly is. And it is the story of my life.  Let me explain.

The Hungarian summers of my early childhood meant sleep-away pioneer camps in the countryside and two weeks with Mother and Father at a Lake Balaton or  Mátra Mountain holiday resort provided by the Hungarian Army to its employees as a fringe benefit. This was the most prevalent form of vacationing during the 1950s, an era of severe austerity for most of post-World War II Europe. Holidaying was mostly domestic, and the purpose of government, company, and trade union-run resorts was to provide workers a brief respite from the hardships of everyday life.

As the daughter of a military diplomat, I was a child of such privilege.  I entered elementary school in Washington DC where Father served in the Military Attaché’s office from the end of the 1950s. I could read and write in English before I could do so in my native Hungarian. I pledged allegiance to the American flag at Murch School each morning, marched in the school’s Halloween parades, rode ponies at my classmates’ birthday parties, and watched lots and lots of Disney cartoons on weekends.

After we began to live in the U.S. my summers also changed. We had to return to Hungary for a summer holiday every year, but it was not the same as before. We stayed at the same resorts, but it felt very different. As one who was “living in the West,” people felt different towards me. I went “home” in summer, but separation from attachment to the homeland had, albeit unbeknownst  to me, irrevocably begun.  Mother and Father loved to travel, so during his tour of duty we also visited other places in transit to and from our Hungarian summers. I was already used to flying transatlantic jets when we crossed the Atlantic on the luxury ocean liner Queen Mary. I still have vivid memories of fine dining, mints handed out by impeccably dressed crewmembers to alleviate seasickness, and Mother and Father’s delight at winning two hundred dollars gambling on board.

Back in Budapest, my Hungarian education commenced in grade four. Our day-to-day life went back to what it used to be in austerity-gripped, pre-consumer society Hungary. We lived and holidayed as before, but we now owned a second-hand Opel Record at a time when private automobiles were so rare on Budapest’s streets that it turned heads. At school I stood out with my perfect command of American English. Having lived in the “decadent West,” I was also viewed with suspicion and denied admission to the Pioneers (the equivalent of the scouts under Communism) until Mother raised a fuss about it.  In striking contrast with Ben Murch, my Hungarian school was grim and authoritarian, albeit academically excellent. In class, we frequently had to sit at our desks with our hands folded firmly behind our backs.

Then my life shifted again, when Father was posted to London. I suddenly found myself one of those “Reds under the bed” during my high school years there. The bogeyperson du jour of the Cold War era, (the “Red”) still drew screaming headlines in the British tabloid press and resonated strongly with the public a decade before Détente. London may have been swinging in the second half of the 1960s, but the nascent counterculture made no dent in the prevalent “Communist East Bloc” stereotype. Cast again as “the other,” I stood apart from my classmates. Once I could speak English fluently again, I became a fierce defender of “my country” against what I regarded as baseless accusations. It appears I discovered my inner patriot.

In my not so splendid isolation I found a gratifying refuge in learning. I received a stellar high school education at Sarah Siddons Comprehensive School. I had to relearn English almost from scratch, of the British variety this time around. Reading English literature in the original and watching BBC Television  period dramas and adaptations of classical literary gems immersed me in a brand new world which provided solace to my painful aloneness and involuntary differentness.

We spent parts of our summer holidays in those years driving all over Western Europe, still out of reach for most of my compatriots. While not travelling extravagantly, Father’s diplomatic salary did afford us the comforts of bed and breakfast accommodation and simple restaurant meals on the road.  And when we moved back to Budapest for good, Father drove a brand new Renault 16 hunchback all across Europe.

By the time I entered university in Budapest I had spent nearly half my life growing up outside Hungary. I was now fully cognizant of my outsider status, albeit I did not understand its cause. From my most formative years I emerged  a bilingual and tricultural Hungarian, an extraordinary combination for the times. However, my overriding feeling was, for a very long time,  that there must be something wrong with me because I did not “fit in.” And, indeed, I did not. No coincidence, perhaps, that much much later I married an American and now, in my own right, returned to the United States. In making America my new home, Hungary once more became a summer holiday destination where I would charge up my Hungarian batteries. But what exactly were they?

In my dozen years in the States I discovered much about my “otherness.” The extent to which I am Hungarian, British, American, or, perhaps, none of the above.  When Hungary was my home I dreamed of being elsewhere. Summer holidays were a great, though temporary escape. When America became my home, the Old World became an ever more coveted destination after several years of permanent residence. Currently back in Budapest, I seem to have created a national identity-free universe for myself. Unlike before, however, today there are many like me. I am no longer the odd person out, at least not in my own world.  And in this world the old divisions of “here” (home) and “there” (summer holiday destinations at or away from “home”) no longer  apply. My home is within myself, wherever I may be geographically. Yesterday’s privileges are now par for the course. Mine came with the hefty price tag of being an “outsider” both in the West and Hungary. The years of exclusion and isolation were, indeed, painful. Until I discovered I did not need to join any club to belong, to have an identity. My happiness came at a price, but it has been well worth it.

In Budapest, I live a stone’s throw from the Danube river. There is a delightful park along the embankment that I love to take walks in. One day as I was gazing at the rays of the afternoon sun dancing on the river it hit me that I am, above all else, a daughter of the Danube. A Danube Maiden.

Zsuzsa Béres (My English language Author Blog: Zsuzsa Must Write)

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