1. Uzhhorod, April 18
A woman in a tattered teal overcoat shambles along the platform, the entire right side of her face a terrifying sore that weeps dark blood. She cannot control her own feet; as I watch, she lists alarmingly and nearly collapses into a passerby.
“Speak English?” hisses another woman inside the bus. “You have vodka, cigarettes? You can carry some for me?” She rests her bag on the floor with a clank – god knows how many bottles she’s trying to smuggle. Mousey and brown-haired, with a bit of a pudge, she has thick oval glasses that make her look like a librarian or a grandmother. Perhaps in a better life, that’s what she would have been.
A Roma woman sits on a bench on the platform, her toddler at her side. She wears a beautiful frilly white skirt that tumbles over the planks, her dark hair tucked behind her ears. Her son is adorably bundled up in a thick blue jacket and a black-and-white checkered scarf. No one will approach within five meters; it is as if the gypsy mother and child are radioactive. A smile flits softly across the woman’s brown face.
I am on a bus to Košice. In the far east of Slovakia, in the far west of Ukraine, I am knitting together the two years I’ve spent abroad.
2. Košice, April 19
I have come to Košice in pursuit of symmetry. Five years ago, when I studied in Prague and Bratislava, I took some time after my program had ended to keep on traveling, east, east, to get to know all the corners of my host countries I hadn’t yet discovered. Compact, charming Košice was not only the farthest east I got; it was also, at that time of my life, the farthest east I could imagine.
Now I find myself in Uzhhorod, in far western Ukraine, and by chance, the westernmost outpost of my Kiva Fellowship is just three hours from the easternmost end of my 2007 road. I promised myself I would return to Košice someday, and the act of stitching my years together – the symbolic symmetry of it all – brings me pleasure.
Alas, I find no earthshaking realizations, no wistful nostalgia, no shifts in perspective so fundamental as to render Košice unrecognizable. The place is still as lovely and quirky and impossibly underappreciated as ever.
3. Budapest, April 22
It’s easy to forget, from afar, that Budapest too was one of the great imperial capitals of Europe. A strange omission, given that more than half of Austria-Hungary was ruled from here. Thankfully, Vienna, unlike other seats of royalty, was not stingy in allowing the other cities of its empire to share in its beauty and grandeur. Hence Budapest’s distinctively bustling aesthetic, the graceful, aging beauty of its avenues, the surprising wealth of its cultural, architectural, and museum scenes, and of course, the sprawling Buda Castle, perched above the Danube, where I sit on a wall and find unexpected peace.
As I stand on Margaret Island looking out over the glinting leaden river, I imagine that the chill breeze that wafts up off the Danube carries a slight tang of salt. Impossible. And yet, how it thrills me! In an instant, my imagination has taken me to Sandy Hook, to Atlantic Highlands, to Union Beach, and I stand on the shore of Raritan Bay in a springtime wind.
No matter how little is left for me there or how far I leave it behind, the Jersey shore will always lay claim to some deep part of me.