Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Things You Miss

All I wanted was a spoonful of peanut butter. 

I wasn't the only one desperate for a taste of home. There were twelve of us living in Hungary that semester and each had something, one thing, that we missed more than anything. I remember one fellow waxing poetic about Cool Ranch Doritos. For me it was creamy peanut butter.

It's subtle, how certain foods, certain flavors, characterize a culture. Never before -- or since -- my time in Eastern Europe have I eaten such a variety of pickled vegetables. Between bouts of gastric distress we joked that there was only one thing a Hungarian would not pickle: bacon. And that was eaten raw. My memories of suppers that year are visions of braised meat in a savory sauce, balanced by pickled carrots or beets or cucumbers or cabbage and with a side of raw onion. Breakfast was crusty buttered rolls with cold cuts and a fruit tea I've been unable to find since. Sometimes we had a hard boiled egg. For dessert my host mother made a slightly dry, mildy sweet poppyseed cake dotted with cherries which she served us almost weekly. I never decided if I liked it. Lunch was more of the same, unless we went to a restaurant. There we delighted in thin, slightly rubbery pancakes that could have easily been confused with crepes. The Hungarians insisted they weren't French at all but a traditional Hungarian dish called palacsinta. Regardless, the restaurant had more than 40 options for filling, including an amazing savory spinach and mushroom concoction.

Saturdays the girls would meet at the baths and soak and get a massage for just $1, then relocate to a pastry shop to chat. We made up for our missing salads by eating pastries and desserts. Linzer tortes and flaky croissants, cakes with a thousand delicate layers. I have never felt so luxuriously indolent. But still we missed the tastes of home.

One of our students -- a New Yorker, naturally -- found the only bagel shop in Hungary. He was alternately overjoyed by and disappointed in the bagels. As a westerner not schooled in proper New York cuisine, I couldn't taste why. And the Hungarians? They were (again) baffled. "It's just boiled, baked dough" they would say. I think perhaps we were drawn as much to the rattle of English words and American slang as we were the food.

We tried, my roommate and I. We visited almost every grocery in the city, some twice. I've forgotten most of my Hungarian, but I will always remember approaching store clerks and inquiring after amerikai földimogyorókrém -- American underearth nut cream. They were universally baffled. Their solution was, not surprisingly, to point us to the Nutella. And while that chocolate hazelnut spread is delicious and amazing, it is almost exactly nothing like peanut butter.

It became a mission. The two of us lived with a host family in Buda just below the Fishermen's Bastion. It was a beautiful location. Sundays I would walk up the hill and get a couple of pastries for us to share for breakfast. We would savor them on the patio as the bells of the entire city rang in unison. Afterward we would go shopping, and wherever we went we inquired with no success.

I had to go to Denmark finally to find a jar of peanut butter. 

For Spring Break I took the train to Copenhagen where my boyfriend was studying business. He, too, had felt the isolation of being an American abroad. Scandanavia, though, was somehow more familiar than Eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the cars. The streets of Budapest were hazardous with Ladas and Skodas. In Copenhagen Saabs and Volvos were common sights.

My love's parents were immigrants to the US, Italian to the core. We had teased his mother about her first experience with American lingo -- she was apalled at the idea of eating canine when offered a hot dog -- but the edges of derision were worn away by our common experience of being foreign. In the shared kitchen of his dorm we made basic  spaghetti with his grandmother's pasta sauce and garlic bread, and I was comforted. 

One morning he took me to have danishes in Denmark. I laughed. They were little different than those from shops at home. Later he escorted me around a grocery store, pointing out dozens of preparations of fish, all strangely flavored. I squealed, I think, when I found the peanut butter, shocking both the Danes and my sweetheart. In the distraction of companionship and travel I'd forgotten my quest. I bought two jars and within minutes of purchase I had opened one and scooped a lump out with my finger. It wasn't Jif, but still salved my homesickness in a way that even his arms had not. I saved the second jar to share with my roommate back in Hungary.

I returned, sharing adventure stories with my compatriot students. One fellow brought back stacks of devalued currency with the dream of papering his walls back in the States. It was a pleasant reunion, and we remarked to each other how nice it was to come home. Our centers had silently shifted from Washington to Budapest. We had become ffriendly  with our adopted city, confident in our ability to stutter through the language, easy with the underground and nightclubs.

We travelled to Moscow and faced an entirely new level of foreigness. Our hosts -- a sister school -- treated us as honored guests but the country was desperately poor and we could feel it. Everything was shabby and the people were gaunt. We donned the mantle of tourist, exploring the city from dawn 'til dusk, but soon the poverty wore at us as well. For breakfast we were given the best they had: a small glass of Tang-like drink, two undercooked eggs, a piece of toast with jam, and a cup of black tea. Every day we walked through lunch hour returning late in the evening to a small portion of meat and a small bowl of borscht. Everyone lost weight, becoming painfully familiar with constant gnawing hunger. One of my classmates was a football player. We took turns sharing our food with him as his clothes became looser. Upon our return we learned he'd lost nearly 30 pounds in two weeks.

At our professor's instruction we had brought as host gifts long batons of Pick salami and other food stuffs from Hungary. We eyed the treats with desperation, imagining the fat melting savory on our tongues. Our courtesy was saved only by the knowledge of our pending escape. Someone acquired a loaf of bread and another found a jar of jam. I had brought the peanut butter. Each morning before breakfast we would huddle in a dormitory room secretly sharing out morsels of Americana before putting on our brave traveler faces and going out for the day.

We returned to Hungary, relieved. There was the museum we knew. This was the classroom in which we spent so much time. Jokes about our adopted home resurfaced, binding us with laughter. We gorged on palacsinta, savored the gulyas, scarfed down our cold cut breakfasts like natives. Then the semester ended, and we flew like dandelion seeds hither and thither. I travelled to Spain, met my beloved in France and journeyed with him to relations in northern Italy. With each country we visited the food became less exotic, less of an adventure. I returned one last time to Hungary and caught a plane home to the United States.

In my mother's kitchen I unpacked a parting gift from my host mother. It was an aluminum pan, much like a frying pan, but with large holes through the bottom and hooks on the rounded edge. As I recounted my adventures for my mother I prepared the cirke and set it to braise. While it cooked I mixed a loose egg batter and pushed it through the holes into boiling water. The nokedli sank and rose, and when they were done I served everything all together. We sat and ate the national dish of Hungary -- chicken paprikash with dumplings -- and I was home.


  1. Gorgeous writing--on a narrative and sentence level. Gorgeous emotions and sentiments, on a more overarching level.

    Food is the thing, isn't it? During our year in Turkey, a friend sent us Twizzlers and Triscuits, and we had to hoard and mete out those things like they were gold.

  2. Evocative and faithful to the narrower original narrative you brought home--delightful! I'm proud of your writing! SO glad you had that semester and that boyfriend at that time! More important may be your vision and ability to translate the images you remember so vividly. Thanks for sharing those spaces so deftly!