The First Road Trip

I’m sitting here with my hot water bottle, contemplating. It’s like those pauses in the day you used to take when looking up at the clouds. Or those big think-ins on a Sunday morning when it was just you, your bed and a slow morning. I do this thing with a caster oil pack and my hot water bottle that requires me to be still for a while. And today I’m in no mood to watch Netflix as this happens – I’d rather just think.

Anyhow, while thinking I began to consider road trips – particularly since I’m still making friends with the little blue car we bought – and my mind drifted back in time to my and Zsolt’s very first road trip.

Fade from hot water bottle scene to a bright sunny day in Hungary. We are in a car. I am eating a pastry that looks like a short and wide cinnamon bun while Zsolt is driving.

We were going to Austria, which is snug against the Hungarian boarder. The trip started off with the limp ‘bang’ as the car lost all power just outside of Pecs. It cut out as we began to drive down a hill, and Zsolt pulled it over to the side. We both got out of the car to stand by the side of the road while Zsolt called his father for help. I opened up my brown paper bag and pulled out a second pastry to enjoy.

As it turned out, the wire connected to the battery came off and that is why the car died. Sweet relief, we could still go on our trip to Vienna. One very memorable thing about waiting on the side of the road was this woman who pulled over. . .

Zsolt and Laszlo are hunched over the engine, not having a clue what went wrong but trying to magically fix the car nevertheless, when a car pulls over and out steps this woman. She’s wearing leather. A lot of leather. And it’s yellow. Fixing her driving gloves, she strides over to the group of us by the car engine, and wades in – looking the motor, pointing at things, saying stuff. It’s all in Hungarian – I don’t understand a thing. But she seems confident!

Then Laszlo (Zsolt’s dad) gets a map from the glove compartment, and opens it on the trunk. They all gather around the map, and I am wonder how in the world does a map relate to fixing a car?

It doesn’t! The Yellow leather lady is just lost and needs directions. She  had  no clue what might be wrong with the car.

So weird!

Anyhow, eventually a mechanic showed up and everything is fixed up. Zsolt and I head towards Austria, and Laszlo heads back to Pecs for lunch.

Now here is the thing about road trips – they can be stretches of very boring moments, punctuated by wonderful discoveries. Vienna was beautiful without doubt, (parks everywhere) but it wasn’t my favourite part of the experience.

The best part of my first road trip with Zsolt, was the Széchenyi Palace. This is a mansion/mini palace (more mansion than palace) where Zsolt booked us to stay for two nights. It’s right by the border of Hungary and Austria, and very useful for catching the train to Vienna.

When we checked into the palace, the fellow working the front desk said it was his ancestor who used to own the place. And he whipped out a 5000 forint bill and show us a picture of his great great great (I don’t know how many greats) grandfather. The guy on the bill and this dude really did look alike!

How utterly bizarre to know your family once owned all this beautiful property, and had enough status to be featured on national money – and now – after it was stripped away – he remained there to check in passing travellers.  It makes me a bit sad, honestly. But in any case, this fellow was very proud of his history.

The Széchenyi Palace was a wonderful discovery. The place was quiet and overlooked by tourists. So it felt like we had the place to ourselves. The hallways absorbed all sound as your walked along them, with thick carpeting and old furniture gobbling up our voices. And the room we stayed in – the room wrapped around you – huge windows – but all dark wood panelling, and a tall bed in dark wood with thick blankets. There was a small hallway with doors on either side that seperated the washroom from the bedroom. At night, to use the loo, you’d find yourself in between rooms, lost in pure pitch black while groping for an ancient light switch. It was the perfect place for ghosts to hang out.

And during the day, after crossing the manicured garden out front, there was this gorgeous walk – it stretched straight out from the palace and far, far, back into what was now a farmer’s field (though I imagine once, before the land was seized by ‘the people’ it was all wooded), a corridor of field lined with tall trees – all the way down to a memorial. This was where the original Széchenyi honoured his wife.

It struck me as fascinating that a grave should be placed so far from the palace, but also very understandable. In walking between the home and the memorial, there is nothing to do except contemplate – to look at the clouds and trees, to look at the stone marker far away, to think and reflect.

What better way to remember someone than to create a passage where all a person can do is remember and reflect?

So that was my first road trip with Zsolt. We made it to Vienna and had a lovely visit. But what I really remember are the unexpected moments, the women in yellow, my cinnamon pastry and this palace where the history seeped from the floors, walls and rooms.

Now we have this little blue car here in Canada. Canada doesn’t hold the mysteries that Europe does, and yet . . . we will see. I hope to be surprised by unexpected discoveries. If nothing else, I’d like another pastry.

 

A week of things

This week was a good week. It’s nice to have them occasionally. I honestly didn’t expect it would be all that wonderful. But it was pretty chill, and productive, and somehow visiting with my radiation doctor made me feel less dismal and more . . . just . . . steady.

Boo!

Boo!

Here is what happened. It’s almost so unremarkable that you really needn’t read another word in this post. But I feel like writing it out, so there you go.

This week I saw Margaret Atwood for the second time in my life. I’m editing/recording a mini podcast feature for the Ottawa International Writers Festival and Foment Literary Magazine. It’s a nice thing that gets me out of the house on the rare evening, and lets me talk about events with other literary loving minds. Margaret Atwood wore skeleton gloves for the event, which she picked up at a gas station. Throughout the evening I know everyone in the audience was wondering why she wore those gloves. And I know this because during the Q&A at the end, someone ask her why and everyone clapped. Then when she explained it was a spooky season and she bought them at a gas station, everyone clapped again. Two rounds of applause for the skeleton gloves. And Margaret Atwood. And her new book Hag-Seed, which sounds really entertaining.

Also this week, we have had a bunch of pumpkins populating our home. Tomorrow I’m hosting a small gathering of family and a few friends, and we are carving these pumpkins up. This is really an overly elaborate plan to make other people carve pumpkins so I can enjoy the benefits of roasting pumpkin seeds later. Mmmm, I adore salted roasted pumpkin seeds.

Furthermore, I made a rather excellent cheesecake.

As well! It’s always a satisfying week when I’m able to make progress at work. It seems to me there is always another big project that needs attention. In general, it feels like having this massive piece of ice I’m meant to turn into some lovely sculpture. But the only way to accomplish this gleaming sculpture is to slowly scrape and scrape at the ice till it finally takes forms. The  scraping is emails, phone calls, writing texts, experimenting with ideas, sending newsletters and such. And in the in, you get something wonderful. This week, I could move that sculpture along. But next week, of course, there will always be more to do. This is okay. It helps me. By the by, the Amnesty International Book Club is having a Readers Choice vote – go vote! It closes on the 31st.

Counter that above point: this week I worked mostly from home. I just could not handle it otherwise. Firstly, it’s a post-chemo week. Secondly, I received shitty news about my treatment last week, which got me down down down – and so incubating myself, in a way, helped me cope with all the ice chips I needed to scrape off not only my work sculpture, but my life-in-general sculpture too. And I could cry whenever I wanted. Plus stop to take naps. And watch the end of Star Trek Voyager.

Next: My art class was attended by only two people this past Wednesday. While that sucks for our lovely instructor, it wasn’t at all bad for me. It was useful to have  a little extra input into my impossible-flower-painting-that-is-driving-me-crazy. Oil paint is an interesting medium, but my goodness does it require patience. Patience is not my strongest point. And so, I am reminded to slow down in life.

We cleaned. This is why you invite people over, in additional to harvesting their pumpkin seeds. It forces one to finally clean one’s apartment.

We had sushi. That was fun – it’s this roll-it-yourself sushi that Zsolt and I really enjoy. After finally finding sushi rice at Bulk Barn, we ate our hand-rolled sandwich style sushi. It made us both quite happy.

So you can see, it was an unremarkable week that was nevertheless good.

Last week was terrible. Apparently while other areas in my body are stable’ish’ in regards to the cancer, my liver spots just keep on growing. Fuck buckets. This terrible disease is terrible. However, there are areas in my body that seem mostly stable, and that is good. Dr Canada is working to see what alternative treatments he can find me. I hate cancer. And this is a shitty way to end this happy blog post.

Therefore I will add this! I booked a ticket to go on a trip. I’m excited. Extra excited because I’ll be traveling with my Dad, and we haven’t done anything like this together ever. Not that I can remember, anyhow. It’s gonna be one long plane ride of him saying crazy things, and me taking the bait every time. FUN!

Last thing, it snowed!! Holy moly.

Happy Halloween 🙂

Catherine

 

Night Train to Germany

It felt like a romantic idea, taking a night train between Budapest and Dresden. I’d seen these sleeper cars in the movies, Murder on the Orient Express and such. What it really became was an eye opener to the story of migrants moving into and travelling across Europe.

For weeks before we left Hungary via the Budapest Central Train Station (Keleti), we had been listening to conversations in Hungary about the migrants. Some call them economic immigrants: people moving to another country to gain a better quality of life; others call them refugees: people seeking asylum from the atrocities within their home countries; and many, many, many in Hungary ultimately called them a problem.

emigration migrants

Well over a thousand migrants a day are appearing in the country. Around dinner tables and along street cafes, everyone is discussing what they read in the papers or have seen on TV. Many of the comments are the same:

How are these migrants to be processed, supported, housed and moved? Hungary is not a rich country, and even if it was – in this a country by country crisis, or does it need EU wide policy and support?

Some migrants arrive looking, according to the newspaper which in turn becomes people’s opinions, too clean and polished for trust (though this documentary from Vice has a few words shared on that, plus having a nice shirt doesn’t mean you still don’t stink from weeks upon months of sleeping rough).

There are fear mongering campaigns from the government about how these migrants will take all jobs, steal all chickens, and bring disease; (unfortunately most of this is typical political crap to buy votes at the cost of a group’s core humanity).

And of course the words ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ are upon many, many lips. More fear, more uncertainty.

But still, I didn’t actually see any migrants as I swam in Lake Balaton. I didn’t pass any groups of displaced individuals as we walked through Pecs’s downtown square. So, it really wasn’t until the night train to Dresden that I finally caught my first glimpse of those searching for something better…

After an emotional goodbye to Anna and Laszlo, which is always so heartbreaking, Zsolt’s sister and brother in law took us to the train station, Keleti. They helped us carry our luggage to the sleeper train. In doing so, we entered this massive hall within the station – it looked like a huge old church, except without any seating. I looked around, checking for the migrants. But at first, I couldn’t see them. There were people of all colours, all traveling, all looking plain knackered as they waited for their trains to arrive.

I asked Zsolt, Nitti and Berci – do you see any migrants? They shook their heads, uncertain too. But then, while waiting for the train to arrive, we began to see them. Or rather, we began to notice them. Many of the women wear headscarves. Many of the younger men seem single, and rest together in groups. Many of the children cling to their parents. And the teenagers seem to do exactly what teenagers will do – float to the side, a bit away from their families . . . but not so far that you think they’re all alone. Like us, they were waiting. No one was begging, which actually surprised me.

Finally our train arrived, and Berci and Nitti help us take the luggage into our cabin. Yes we splurged on a two bed cabin. I figure, if you’re doing a sleeper train – do it right. The cabin was this incredibly narrow bit of a room, with bunk beds. After much puzzle-like arrangement of bodies and suitcases, we settled into the room. Zsolt’s sister and brother-in-law waited on the platform for us to leave. We waited in the doorway of the car. Everything was delayed.

Walking up and down the platform were the migrants. This train that we were on was going to Germany. They wanted to go to Germany. According to a friend of ours who works for immigration, Germany is their Shangri-La – the migrants hear the benefits are great. This actually reminds me of how many Hungarian Romas were arriving to Canada after hearing Canada had some excellent benefits. The Canadian government literally took out billboard ads and placed them in Roma populated cities in Hungary that basically said: We have changed our immigration laws. You will be immediately sent back if you come. Don’t bother trying.

Anyhow, these folks wanted to get to Germany, that’s where their hopes lay. The means, our train, was right in front of them, and yet it wasn’t possible to reach. What struck me most were the groups of families. Big groups, milling about on the platform together . . . walking here and then there, scanning the train together with children held in their arms, children held by the hands, and those teenagers finally paying attention and hovering closer to the herd. But how can an entire family stow away upon a train? They can’t.

Finally we began to move. We waved goodbye to Nitti and Berci, and returned to our cabin. Even as the train left the station, one off the conductors came walking through the corridor with a migrant in front of him. “This way” the fellow was asking the conductor, “that way,” the conductor – more or less- instructed. And so they walked together through our train car, towards the back of the train.

Half an hour later, we are in our cabin. I’m sitting on the only available floor space, eating from a bag of chips. There’s a very hard knock on the cabin door. “Immigration!”

I’m like, “one second,” and try to push myself up to open the door – it’s tiny and crowded, so this takes a couple tries.

“Immigration!” Rap, rap, rap!

“Coming!”

I try to open the door, but one of the bottom locks confuses me – so it opens, but then jams. The men on the other side try to open the door too. Obviously it’s still locked, it opens and jams again.

“Hold on,” I call again. They try the door again.

Finally Zsolt manages to lean around me and untwist the bottom lock.

The door is swung open.

“Immigration! Passports!” There is a security guy and a police guy. I lean against the doorway eating my chips as Zsolt fishes out the passports. For some reason, I laugh to myself. Probably become immigration guy number two looks a bit like a cartoon character, and I can’t help finding this situation both disturbing and ridiculous. The guy who kept calling ‘immigration’ passes back our documents one after the other, take a quick peek into our cabin, and then, they move on – pounding on the next cabin door.

Eventually the train arrives to its next stop in Hungary, and we see through the window a group of migrant men being herded down the platform. They got onto the train, but they didn’t get much further.

One, then two security officers pass by – large muscular men with tiny flashlights, shining here and there.

“You know, in many ways we are very lucky,” I say to Zsolt.

“I know,” he replies.

I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen to these thousand plus people a day who are crossing into Hungary and beyond. Where will they go, who will take them, what will happen next? It’s all beyond me. The only thing I know is what I saw on that train platform in Budapest. I saw a mother feeding her child baby formula from a big can with a kitten on it. I saw awkward teenagers with faded jeans. I saw groups rushing down the platforms. I saw young men sitting together and waiting for who knows what. I saw weathered old men holding the hands of toddlers.

I saw them watching us, and certainly they saw us watching them.

Eventually Zsolt and I give up looking from the sleeping cabin window and lower the blind. As the train rocks, creeks and charges forward, we tuck into bed. I can’t help but wonder whether anyone has managed to make it out of the country, and whether they’ll actually reach Germany. It feels unlikely.

This is the night train to Dresden. It is not so romantic.