My husband bought a house in Brookline, MA. I live in Budapest with our two kids. The day he signed the deal, he ran into a new neighbor, who happens to be Hungarian. My husband explained that his wife and kids live in Budapest. The new neighbor concluded that I must want to live in Budapest because I have a lover.
When my husband recounted the exchange via Skype, I told him that my lovers are pint-sized. Right on cue the partially clad kids streaked behind me, climbed on my shoulders, and his image froze.
To clarify, he is the Hungarian from Transylvania. I am the American from Kansas. We came to Budapest three years ago on vacation with our young children. It was supposed to be a three-month stay. We had invested in an apartment, our first piece of real estate in Hungary. Many people in Brookline have vacation homes on Cape Cod. It turned out that we are not Cape Cod people. Instead we put roots down in Budapest.
True, the commute is too far for weekend trips. But we envisioned summers in Europe and our Hungarian-American kids growing up with the neighborhood pack. We want them to be bilingual and bicontinental. I had always enjoyed my visits to Hungary and Transylvania. Then something happened. An internal switch flipped. Probably it was my mother-in-law who came to live with us. Suddenly we had a live-in Grandma. She doesn’t speak English. I speak only enough Hungarian to be exceedingly polite. It was magic. And here I am, still in Budapest, planning trips home for vacation.
Brookline, where we now have (our first or second?) home is a foreign land to me as well. We moved there for my husband’s work, leaving behind my teaching job and friends in South Bend, Indiana, where we met and lived for ten years. Then we had two babies, seventeen months apart. I had made a few new friends, but felt adrift and lonely and yet never, ever alone with my little ones. Yet I was still surprised, when I realized I wanted to be in the heart of this energetic city rather than ensconced in a suburb. I stayed. He agreed to commute. Since then he has spent one month with us, and returned to Boston for one month to work. You do the math.
Our new neighbor in Brookline suggested to my husband I must want to stay in Budapest because I have taken a lover. Can I just say that it is very Hungarian to 1) conclude that I have a lover, and 2) more so, to say it out loud on the corner in front of the new house he has just purchased for his family. Perhaps it is not fair to categorize this as Hungarian, but it is certainly not the way I was raised.
If I thought my new neighbor’s wife had taken a lover several time zones away from him, I sure as heck wouldn’t say it to his face. I might, however, discuss it with my friends and shake my head. That poor man. His wife is playing him and eating her cake too. Budapest, as you may know, being famous for its elegant and rich cakes.
My husband bought the house in Brookline because we decided our first suburban home was too far from the city. Brookline juts up against the city, but the schools are decent. My husband can ride his bike to work. The kids can walk to school. There are excellent cafes. After we decided to try splitting our homes, he rented from a friend, a tenuous arrangement that was genial when it started as a short-term solution. Years had passed. It was time for him to move on. The new house in Brookline has everything we need, even the price was right. The kids can walk to a great local public school. I have no excuse to not move back.
Except that I do have an excuse to stay in Budapest. Our new Hungarian neighbor in Brookline was right. I do have a boyfriend.
At first I admitted it to myself, and then to my husband. Budapest is my boyfriend. That sounds cute, right? I am in love with the yellow 47 tram, the covered market, the superb coffee, and the chicken paprikas. Did I mention the thermal baths? How about that we don’t need a car? I take my kids to school each day by mounting a roller and zooming the four minutes to the first school, and the five minutes to the nursery school. We could walk to school. Most Hungarians do. But we ride our rollers because it is fun. I like being the oddball American in the staid Hungarian crowd. It gives me freedom to not fit in. Of course, it means I don’t fit in, which has a price too. But the pleasures of the expat life are many and sweet. Did I mention the thermal baths?
Anyway, I was effectively a foreigner in Boston too. We moved there and had two babies very closely spaced. I didn’t know anyone or have family close by to aid with infant mayhem. We were new to that city too. But it wasn’t the expat life. It was flat. Much like people claim about Kansas, which is where I started.
Life would be more comfortable in Brookline. I wouldn’t have to struggle to communicate with my kids’ teachers in my broken Hungarian. Life would be more comfortable in Brookline, but it is more exciting here.
I walked around for weeks in love with my new boyfriend, Budapest. I had finally found a way to express my choice to live here and not there. I was quite pleased with myself as I indulged in a slice of dobos torte on a fall afternoon while the kids were otherwise engaged. A slice of cake, a cup of coffee, time to myself. It was glorious.
It was not lonely.
Budapest is a very good boyfriend. You have to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, of course. You have to grit your teeth when the old ladies stop your five-year-old son on the street to chastise him for wearing “girl” shoes. My daughter did not want to sign up for soccer as the only girl. They don’t offer a girl’s team. But these are part of the deal when you are the outsider trying to live inside the local boxes.
I fooled myself for quite a while that it was Budapest who was my new lover. It sounds blithe, right? Oh, you know I just adore Budapest.
The truth, however, is more scandalous. It is certainly more strange. But then again, I am a foreigner in this land. I don’t speak the language. Sometimes I think I never will. My parents spoke the same language. I suppose love is both more and less than what it at first seems. It seems to hinge on real estate, I’ve learned. And cake.
I haven’t told my husband yet. I do have a boyfriend. He lives in another country and comes to me six times a year. He comes with bleary eyes and cravings for thick slabs of vanilla cream cake. He changes burned-out light bulbs when he is in town. I leave the exploded, blackened bulbs in place until he arrives. Sometimes the apartment is half in shadow for weeks. And then when he returns the kids gleefully scale the ladder with him. My daughter hands him the new bulbs with utter seriousness for the task. Then the apartment blazes with wattage, the light casting us in full relief.
Our arrangement is what it is, for now. When I describe it people, they often say, Oh that must be so hard! And I sometimes say, How long have you been married? Together? We have been together since 1997. You do the math. My parents were married for 52 years. They lived under one roof for all those years. Astounding. For me, life and love, not to mention real estate and the question of where to school the children, have produced a new algorithm.
Should I tell him? It might destroy the romance.
If I tell him, will he stay or go? Will we stay or go?
I want to keep my boyfriend. I want to stay in Budapest.