By Geoff Peckham
I close my eyes, and I find myself looking out over onto the Danube. I’m on top of Gell?rt Hill. There’s a cool breeze in the evening air, which I only barely notice, because I have the Royal Palace showing off in all its glory before me. The river looks peaceful, and the Chain Bridge is illuminated in the darkness. These monuments of Budapest, as well as everything in the city, are all visible before me. It’s beautiful. It’s unique. It’s everything I wanted.
I open my eyes, and instead of looking out onto the Hungarian capital, I’m looking out over my deck, into the woods behind my home. My little sister is poking my arm, looking for attention. She has some Hungarian currency I gave her in her other hand, 1000 forrints. I don’t think she knows it’s only worth $5. But she’s having fun with it. She, along with the rest of my family, is happy to see me. And I’m happy to see them. But my mind keeps going back, back to where I was just a few days ago. By the time these words are read in the pages of the Free Press, several months will have passed since I returned from Budapest. But as I sit here methodically typing my thoughts, it hasn’t even been three days.
It’s strange thinking about it in those terms. Two different lifestyles intersecting so rapidly, as my time in Europe merged with my regular life back home. A Central European capital is pretty different from an average American suburb, not to mention a small liberal arts campus. I’ve had time to settle, to re-adjust, and before I fully submerge myself back into my culture, I want to remember the culture I just left. I want to cherish it while it’s still fresh in my mind, because I know as time goes by, I’ll lose bits of it.
That’s not to say I won’t remember it. I will always remember it, but remembering isn’t the same as experiencing. I can think of the things I did, but until I get back there, I’ll never feel the way I did looking out over the city from the Castle District. Or the way I felt submerged in the thermal baths, or staring up at Stephen I at Heroes’ Square. There was the way I felt staring at the bullet holes that still exist on many buildings throughout the city. Such a full culture and history can’t help but inspire pensiveness.
And it’s not just Budapest that inspired such a reflective stance from this young writer. It’s the glory of the Coliseum, and the notion that I’m walking on the soil of an ancient civilization, not to mention the sheer mass of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
It’s the vast greenness of the Burren near Galway, and the strange comfort I felt lying in the patch of brush surrounded by limestone. Irishmen have been coming out here for generations to sit and reflect. It doesn’t look like it would be comfortable, but it is. I could have laid out there forever.
It’s even in the somber chill I felt as I toured Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria. Strange, how the weather was beautiful in Munich for me until that day, when the clouds turned dark and I realized how much I wish I had brought my jacket. But it was fitting, touring those halls, shivering from the wind, but also from what such a place represents. It is a brief moment of sad remembrance, part of an overall experience that Europe should offer.
I traveled to eight different countries in four months. Eight different cultures to interact with, to learn about, and hopefully learn from. Perhaps most importantly, that’s eight different sets of people to get to know. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that it is always people that make the difference. Ten years from now I may not remember the streets I was on in Florence, but I’ll remember the three Italian bar hoppers I met, who oddly enough were all named Giuseppe. I’ll remember the backpacker from Kansas City and the Canadian girls who were my best friends for a day while I traveled to F?ssen. I’ll remember the NYU girls who I met in Ireland, who then came to Budapest to stay with family a few weeks later, a family which believe it or not lived right down the street from me. It’s a big world, but I guess it’s not that big.
I’ll remember the people in Hungary. I’ll remember how happy they were when there were children around, a stark contrast to their expressions the rest of the time. I’ll think of their pride, and how it manifested itself in the lion statues scattered around the city. My favorites: the lions standing watch over the Chain Bridge. It’s as if they’re guarding it, guarding the entire city.
Last but not least, I’ll remember the way my semester abroad in Hungary changed me, I hope for the better. Spending an extended period of time away from home makes you come out of yourself, because that’s all you can do. You’re forced to adapt, and soon enough you’re able to look at the life you’ve lived from a new perspective. I can sometimes think about things too hard, but as I look back on everything I did and everyone I met, it makes me want to write an entire book on the subject. But it wouldn’t do my semester justice. To sum it up, for me personally, spending four months in Europe changed the way I look at the world. Love, faith, religion, friendship, fate, destiny, romance, chance, ambition, passion, responsibility…
It’s different for everyone. Ask somebody else who went, they might just say they had a good time and that’s that. There are people who spend their entire lives traveling around the world, so four months away from home might seem insignificant. But for others, like me, such an opportunity doesn’t come around often. So you’ll have to forgive me if I blow the whole thing up a little larger than perhaps it should be. I prefer to look deeper into things. Thus these words are flowing now, from my mind, to the keys, to these pages. This column is the manifestation of my time in Europe. A milestone for me, because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for so long, and to accomplish a goal like that is worth telling the world, in hopes that someone will go out and do something they want to do, something they love. Why else are you living, if you’re not doing something you love?
I can see now that Budapest will always have a special place in my heart. I visited Italy. I visited Ireland. But I lived in Hungary. And no matter where I go in life, I’ll always carry that with me. For the opportunity I had, to do the things I did, see the things I saw, go the places I went, and meet the people I met, I will be eternally grateful. I’ll also be grateful for the opportunity to come back safely, because after being back for three days, I can appreciate home that much more. And no matter where I go in my life, it will always be home.
So until my next opportunity…welcome home, Geoff.