Ireland, Hungary, and the USA are three countries where I feel local, places I’ve lived for long periods. I still feel Irish and don’t lay claim to being either American or Hungarian but I am fascinated by what people miss when they’re abroad. Ask any American in Europe what they miss about home and, odds on, their list will include Reese’s peanut butter cups and Butterfingers. I don’t see the attraction myself. I’m not a fan of peanuts, or of American chocolate. Ask any Irish person living abroad the same question and I’m sure Tayto crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate would feature alongside rashers, sausages, and black pudding.
But what of Hungarians?
I stood behind a woman in the check-in queue at Budapest airport recently. We were heading to Dublin. With only one check-in desk open the queue was glacier-like. The chap behind the desk was doing his job. Any bags over the allowed limit were turned away, their owners slinking to the side, cursing, wondering for the millionth time whether it was really worth flying budget airlines. As they stepped aside and opened their bags in a frantic attempt to remove the offending kilo or three, the guilty among us got antsy. Would we weigh in under the limit?
My woman thought not. She opened her suitcase and transferred heavy stuff to her carry-on. I had a peek. The contents suggested that she was going to visit someone Hungarian, someone who was missing the creature comforts of home. She had paprikas. She had kolbasz. She had pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, and pickled beets. She had enough food keep a family of four sated for a week. Her entire suitcase was food. Nothing but food, except for the homemade palinka.
I’m Stateside this week and doing my bit for the import/export business between America and Hungary. I brought over paprika powder, marzipan, and lots of chocolate. I brought books by Hungarian authors Magda Szabo, Antal Szerb, and Móricz Zsigmond that have been translated into English. I brought bottles of palinka and Tokaj. I brought things that have come to epitomise Hungary…for me. I wanted to give my American friends a taste of the Hungary I know. And I’ll be bringing back the Reese’s peanut butter cups and the Butterfingers for American friends in Budapest.
It has surprised me though, that when I make comparisons, I make them with Hungary first and Ireland second. Perhaps it’s because Ireland is a country familiar to many in this part of the world, one that doesn’t need locating. Hungary is more exotic, not as well known. Out shopping today, some random stranger asked me where I’d bought the dress I was wearing. I could have explained that it was made by a Hungarian designer who has a small boutique on Ferenciek tere but I said simply that I’d bought it in Budapest, forgetting for a minute that not everyone in the world knows where Budapest is. She looked confused. Budapest, Hungary, I said, with a question mark in my voice. Where’s that, she asked. Europe, I said, waiting for the penny to drop. It didn’t. I smiled and walked away before I was asked to locate Europe on her mental map of the world. What would I have said? It’s beside Russia?
What I’ve missed most about living in America is the hospitality of its people and the stratospheric levels of customer service, comparatively speaking. I’ve missed the quirkiness and the belief that nothing is too weird to try once. I’ve missed the variety of food and culture, a product of the diversity of its people. And I’ve missed the grocery stores – those wide-aisled havens of choice in which I can lose myself for hours. It’s good to be back.
First published in the Budapest Times 4 March 2015