Where is Home, Really?

- by Sandra Molyneaux

If I had been asked as a 15-year old what I thought about my living in Valencia, I would have answered, “Neat!”  As a 35-year old, “You're kidding. No way!”  As a 55-year old, “Why not?”  Why not, indeed.  But, it took a while.  The trajectory necessitated movement from obedient Washington daughter, to dutiful Philadelphia housewife, to conscientious Baltimore mother.  It took hanging up one million diapers, driving thousands of car pools, cooking uncounted meals, attending to broken bones and fragile egos before liberation, not from, but to. 

 

And the catalyst for that liberating rupture?  Travel.  Vicarious – from post cards my father religiously mailed during work jaunts to what I considered exotic places such as Detroit.  Amtrak – up and down  for an occasional New York thrill.  Imaginative - sitting on the beach at Rehoboth, Delaware, thinking that if I could swim far enough I could reach Spain.  No matter that it was more likely Portugal – the details didn't matter.  And finally, actual travel which began with a study trip to Rome that quite literally shattered my life and set in motion all those liberations to come. 

 

The Women's Movement, Vietnam Protests, Racial Protests, Vatican II.  Liberation to the euphoria of study, the frightening independence of walking across the street without first checking in, the thrill of initiative and collaboration, the happiness of paying for new tires on an old car, the willingness to face jail time for civil disobedience, the confidence to be open to risk whatever – uncertainty, pain, joy.  Those were heady times, but none so great as my accidentally finding someone who shared similar goals.  As Larry often reminds me, If I didn't love travel, we would not be together.  I believe him.

 

And travel we have – squeezing out just “one more day” for annual trips to Europe, deciding on the focus, designing how to meet objectives, studying ten months for a one-month trip, sharing preparation (his: history, language, food, & mine: practicalities, art, literature), adapting to different needs, allowing one trip to inform the next. Traipsing around the USA for a career – Washington (source of new beginnings), New York (departed before we got hard), San Francisco (left before we got soft), Columbus (for my Midwest moral education).

 

And then one day, an article in the NY Times about Americans moving to Central Europe.  Why not?  Retire Early. Do the Math. It took two years of research to figure out that Budapest best fit our growing interest in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, and another two years to outfit the new kitchen. The hiatus, however, allowed a Grand Farewell to the Western Hemisphere – from Alaska, to the US National Parks to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. 

 

Surprises awaited – A much-delayed, rougher-than-anticipated arrival since Larry broke his ankle in Ecuador which meant one of us was pushing the other in a wheelchair.  In retrospect, this should have been a warning flag of some sort – broken anticipations, perhaps.  

 

I, at any rate, had a vision of the vibrant, active, committed Hungarians I'd seen on TV during the 1956 Resistance -- completely overlooking the intervening 50 years. What the Hungarians actually lived under was the cloud of Post-Soviet dictatorship – grumbles about having to pay for the bus and metro; strikes over proposals for $1.00 medical co-pay; protests about $50.00 university tuition; marches against liberal thought; Gay Pride Parade cut off from spectators “for the safety of the marchers.”

 

Consequently, our plan to blend in with the Hungarian residents – no ExPat community for us – also collapsed.  Lajos's two years of Hungarian at OSU meant little in moving us toward local circles.  But, as we found out, it wouldn't have mattered if he spoke like a native.  It was a very closed society.  Neighbors of ten years are “new,” suspicious; graffiti: “Americans go home.”  We adapted by slowly joining a lively US and British ExPat community, several of whom were actually Hyphenated-Hungarians who had escaped in '56 and returned to reconnect with roots and stretch retirement dollars.  But even these returning Hungarians were ostracized – “you left us to deal with conditions on the ground, and here you return with all your money and new ideas. Not welcome.”

 

Illiberal Democracy under Victor Orban became increasingly entrenched; statues  replaced with more acceptable icons; the historical narrative shifted radically; Hungarian complicity with Nazis or Communists erased.  And our Fifty-Sixer  friends, not finding the society they remembered as children, left town again and headed back to Canada, USA, and Britain.  We have only one American friend left in Budapest, and he is married to a Hungarian scientist; no Canadian friends remain. Only the Brits seem to have lingered as a group, perhaps because of deeper roots or maybe Brexit will hit them less hard than those in Spain. 

 

It was not all gloom. No.  We could escape into the 19th Century city which was lovely, and the performing arts scene outstanding. We were out 3 or 4 nights a week at the opera, dance, symphonies, much of it experimental and international.  And, as we anticipated, it was easy for us to get anywhere in Western or Eastern Europe for opera, into Asia and beyond.  And so, we lived in our Bubble as Hungary lived in its own.  Sometimes it felt like 1936, but we stayed, like locust, 7 years until …

 

Winter 2016 we spent in Ethiopia and Morocco until the February rains in Fes had us scrambling for sun.  The best weather report – Valencia. So, we followed the sun and made our way from Fes to Tangier to Gibraltar to Valencia.  Stepping off the train at 17:30, found us laughingly stripping off sweaters.  Three days later we were in a real estate office.  Two weeks later, barely missing the Fallas weekend, we headed back to Budapest to sell our flat and move.  This time with little study or preparation – just do it.  Why not! 

 

Again, it was not a matter of liberation from Orban and Hungarian gloom, it was liberation toward light and color and sunshine and cafe culture.  The threatening Danube became the welcoming Mediterranean. All assets that sum up an appealing, comfortable “Lifestyle,” as Lorenzo calls it. Although we had visited Spain previously, we looked at Valencia differently now that we were no longer “tourists” or even “visitors” but “residents.”  The way people walk downtown – long-legged women with wide strides, colorful clothes, swinging hair, confidence galore. Such a difference from the huddled women of Hungary, hunched in their grey or brown clothes, babushkas tightly tied, staring only at the pavement.  Here it's 10:00 almuerzos with pan con tomate, beer or wine; new rhythms of day and night, siestas, August's glare and January's chill; local markets, late meals; outstanding, affordable wine each evening; long-boozy lunches; grazing tapas and pinxos.  And, even a penetrable language.

 

This time we didn't kid ourselves and quickly settled into the ExPat community and more groups and events than we can absorb.  But the big differences here are in the people themselves – Spaniards, Americans, Brits,  people from all over the world who have gravitated to and mix in this beautiful city.  It is a vibrant community -- interested, friendly, cheerful, engaged.  Our own neighborhood, Marxalanes, is a settled barrio valenciano where we are the only Gringos. The grandparents pick up grandchildren, Fallas Casals are strictly local and “family,” daughters walk arm in arm with their mothers, benches line the tree-covered streets, senior citizen centers are packed with card players; and no cafe, bodega, carniceria, pescaderia, or peluqueria, is more than two blocks away.  But, change is also here as we mix with a liberal sprinkling of Latinx and a few Africans, Roma, and Islamic representatives. 

 

There remains, however, a lingering loss. Our different languages divide more than mere vocabulary or syntax, and we miss those cultural shorthands, those shared histories that cut through the need for long explanations or the search for just the right word.  Jokes, films, sports, colloquial expressions, place names don't translate well.  Are we really integrating or consigned forever as visitors?  It's hard to find outlets for for the energy we may have previously expended in political action or volunteerism.  Are we even welcome, or have we disrupted the familiar, the affordable?  Are we looked at as another hoard passing through like the Celts, Romans, Visigoths or Moors?

 

We do not share History.  As we learn more about Spain's history, we grapple with memories of our own country “back home,” memories that bear no relationship to what we read today in the NY Times or watch on TV. We don't recognize “home” any more. Are our own memories as distorted as those who cherished a childhood in the Hungarian uprising?  Is it childhood's safety we miss or a national “story” that never was quite what we thought it was?  Are we to remain forever alien “Americans” who just happen to live in Spain?  Our Bubble is bigger here than it was in Budapest, but can we ever escape into some other world that will be familiar beyond being described as a Pleasant Lifestyle?  We might read about the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War, but we did not live those experiences the way our neighbors did.  What do they talk about over cards?  Is it impolite to ask?  We have no way of knowing. 

 

From our sunny little balcony, we observe that many, but not all, of Marxalenes' street rhythms have changed since Covid-19 hit.  Residents on balconies more often, 100% face-mask compliance, more dogs barking, fewer visits by next door grandchildren. But we are affected very little.  We have no family here to miss not seeing; ours is scattered about. We have had to make adjustments – two major trips (Tunisia & South Africa) postponed or ultimately canceled. But, suddenly, the loss doesn't really mean all that much.  We've been lucky.  The Virus didn't take away much of value other than stimulating get-togethers with friends and cultural performances, but it did give us the opportunity to stop, to assess the Now, to reassess where we've been, where we are going, and how we might adjust to a more limited world. 

 

We have decided: 

There is no going back for us; no more fleeing to.  We are home.