To Budapest, with Love

I am seventeen. I am in Budapest, and it is the Communist era. At the airport, there were Russian soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolling the runways. Only one airline flew to Budapest, the national airline Malév. There were few passengers. I stopped at passport control and showed my American passport. It contains a photograph of me next to my American name. I also have a Hungarian name, but I have not used it for a long time, since my mother changed our names so we could be more American. The passport control officer looked at me suspiciously. For a moment I couldn’t breathe. I felt a tightness in my chest, as though my lungs were being squeezed by a giant hand, like the beginning of a panic attack. Then I reminded myself, he probably looks that way at everyone.

That day, my grandparents, whom I am visiting, let me leave the apartment by myself for the first time. When my mother was seventeen, teenage girls did not walk around the city alone, but I am bored and restless. After all, I’ve been walking myself home from school and letting myself in the front door, then making myself Campbell’s tomato or cream of mushroom soup from concentrate, since I was twelve. So I am allowed to descend two flights of stairs to the ground floor, and cross the street, and walk in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum. As I walk under the linden trees, I smell something I’ve smelled before: the linden flowers. And I remember holding someone’s hand, and then a swing set, and then flying high in the air, and a song that starts with the words hinta–palinta.

But I also want to walk in the streets, to see more of Budapest, so I do. Just a block because I don’t want to get lost in this strange city, where no one speaks the only language I understand. The apartment buildings around the park are covered with soot from Trabants and Yugos.

There, walking down the street, I feel something for the first time that I will feel again many times in my life. Suddenly, it’s as though I am in a spaceship high above the city, looking down on it from above. I can see myself walking along the street: I am so small, inconsequential on this planet spinning through space. It makes sense that I should be in a spaceship looking down, because I only recently became an America citizen. Before that, I was an alien. A legal one, but still.

Looking down at myself walking along the city street, I think, that poor girl. She doesn’t belong anywhere.

This is a love story, but not a happy one, and I don’t know how it ends.

It begins when I am a child, the one swinging into the sky under the linden trees.

For a long time, I had a green card, which meant I was not yet American.

But I was no longer Hungarian either. I had lost my ability to speak the language. I went to an American elementary school. After school I watched He–Man and Johnny Quest cartoons. At home, my mother did not insist on Hungarian because how was I going to assimilate unless I spoke in English? So we spoke in English.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, assimilate means to “make like” or “cause to resemble.” I needed to be made like an American child. I needed to at least resemble one. But the word also has a secondary meaning, to “absorb and incorporate.” It was not enough to change me on the outside. I must be changed inside as well. I must become American.

Years later, I watch Star Trek on television. The Borg Queen says, “You will be assimilated,” and I think, yes. That’s exactly how it happens. It will take me a long time to realize that, ironically, the Borg are supposed to represent Communism.

When I was eleven, I started reading science fiction. I read about aliens, but not like me. These were science fictional aliens, from other planets. They invaded Earth or they were invaded by Earth. Sometimes they enslaved human beings, sometimes it was the other way around.  They wore either spacesuits or primitive clothes that looked like speedos and bikinis, but you know, gold. They were sometimes green, and sometimes resembled cats. Giant space cats. Sometimes they had the cure for all of Earth’s diseases. Sometimes they brought diseases that devastated humanity.

They never came to Earth and worked in hotels or opened restaurants, although that would have been more realistic.

There is one constant in alien stories. The alien and human are always in opposition to each other.

What does that make me, I wonder.

I started understanding Hungarian again the day I realized it was the opposite of English. Whatever I wanted to say in English, in Hungarian I had to say the opposite. Trying to reason from English to Hungarian always got me into trouble.

In Hungarian, tegnap is yesterday, not tomorrow.

Bor is wine, not beer.

Nyolc is eight, not nine.

In Hungarian, át does not mean at, but across or through.

Subject–verb–object, I tell my American university students. That is the basic structure of an English sentence.

But in Hungarian, it’s object–verb, and the subject is often implied. If I am in Budapest, Budapesten vagyok. I exist only in a case ending.

I am thirteen. My best friend Amy and I are swinging on the apartment complex swing set. She does not feel human either. Years later, she will write from college to tell me she is in love with another woman, that at some level she has always known she is gay. Marriage equality will still be many years in the future. That day, we talk about how a ship will come down from the sky to take us home. Our home planet is much more exciting than Earth. There, we are princesses. We fly genetically–engineered dragons. We save entire civilizations. We wear clothes of silver mesh, with boots that come up to our thighs. We fight sky pirates.

Then we kick our legs higher and higher, so we can feel as though we are flying.

She writes her name Aimée because it’s more exciting. I am still legally Dóra but I write my name Dora because it’s more American. That’s how I’ve been told to write it.

I continue to not feel human. I am, in fact, not feeling human now, as I sit here looking out the window at the trees in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum. There is a bird somewhere, making a sound like castanets. At first I thought it was some sort of machine.

I am forty–seven years old, and I have been back many times. I still do not feel at home here, but then I do not feel at home anywhere else either. This is as close to home as I think I’m going to get. Unless a spaceship comes for me, of course.

Don’t laugh. It could happen.

When I am twenty–five, I go back to Hungary for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell. Now there are no longer Yugos and Trabants on the road. Now there are Mercedes Benzes parked outside Russian casinos, and beggars sleeping on the streets. Budapest has become a frontier town in the get–rich–quick dreams of the West.

The last time I saw her, my city was dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Now she parades topless beside the Danube in a show called Girls Sexx Girls. I don’t know what to think of her.

We have not talked for a long time, and she has become so different. This is called alienation of affection, I think. Someone has taken her away from me, tempted her with money and fame.

“What happened to you?” I ask.

Girls Sexx Girls, she answers in neon light.

The OED tells me that alienation has several meanings. First, it is the “state of being estranged.” I have become a stranger to Budapest, and she has become a stranger to me, even though I was born here. I know because it’s the only thing I can read on my birth certificate.

It also tells me that in Marxist theory, alienation means the “condition of workers in a capitalist economy, resulting from a lack of identity with the products of their labour and a sense of being controlled or exploited.” Do aliens feel that way, I wonder. Do the Borg ever lament their alienation from the methods of production? They mostly seem to run around shouting “Resistance is futile!”

What about the alien in Alien? Does she feel discontented? Does she want something better for herself? For her children? Is the entire movie really a metaphor for the revolution, about how if the proletariat don’t get what they want, they will find their way inside the power structure and burst out of its chest? Or am I overthinking this?

A year after Alien appears in theaters, Ronald Reagan will be elected president. He will call on the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. Once the wall is down, aliens will start invading Western Europe. I don’t know, the timing seems significant.

When I return from Hungary, I ask my mother why she brought me to America. After all, I’ve lost my city, my country, even my grandparents, who are once again behind the Iron Curtain. When I send them letters, I have to be careful what I write, because my letters will be opened by the police.

She says, “To give you opportunities you could not have had there.”

So maybe it’s more like Kara Zor–El’s mother putting her in a spaceship and sending her to earth, where she can become Supergirl. Except I don’t have any superpowers. I can’t fly, and I’m certainly not bulletproof. I’m not even proof against the ordinary teasing and gossip of high school girls. I don’t think I’ll be defeating supervillains anytime soon. I mean, I barely survived calculus.

Each time I come back, Budapest is different. By the time I am forty–five, she has returned to her old self––a courtesan whose best days may be behind her, still beautiful despite her wrinkles and age spots, basking in the sun beside the Danube.

“Vienna is richer than you are,” I tell her.

“You don’t care about Vienna,” she answers, smiling. “You come back, over and over again. You don’t care if I’m dirty or poor. The air here is the only air you can breathe without effort. Everywhere else, you have to wear an invisible mask, a filtration system. You can’t adjust to the atmosphere. Here, the sunlight is the right color. Here, food tastes the way it should.”

“I’ll leave you and never come back,” I say.

She answers only, “I’d like to see you try.”

In Hungarian, when you are in a country or city, you are either –ban or –ben. Amerikában. Bostonban. But you are on Hungary, Magyarországon: the suffix is –on or –en. That’s because to the Magyars, Hungary was the world, and they rode their short, sturdy horses across it, from one horizon to the other.  It’s the same for Budapest. When I am there, I am Budapesten. I am standing on Budapest, and from here I can see everything.

By the time I am thirty–three, I’ve become a hyphenated American. This is a new century. Multiculturalism is an important topic at my university, and suddenly we are all hybrid, interstitial. I am Hungarian–American, but what does that actually mean? If I’m not fully American, but I’m not fully Hungarian either, where do I fit? Not on either side of the hyphen. Then perhaps I am the hyphen?

I imagine inhabiting a two–dimensional planet, an immigrant Flatland where I have no substance or shadow. I exist only on a straight line between.

As I write this, which is neither a story nor an essay, perhaps a hyphenated story–essay, I am in Budapest, and the birds that perch on the roof are clicking like castanets. I am leaving in the morning. Great Britain has just voted to leave the European Union, and I’m suddenly afraid that time will go backward, and soot will descent on the buildings, and there will be Yugos in the streets again.

I thought the future was going to be like Star Trek, with all of us living together as one human family. We got our communicators, right? Later I will call my daughter and talk to her, just waking up in the morning, six hours behind me. I will see her face, with the confident grin of a typical American teenager, on the small screen of my cell phone. “See you tonight,” I’ll say, and then I’ll fly across the ocean to have dinner with her in Boston. Surely it’s not that far from here to the Enterprise.

But today the future feels as though it’s turning into something by William Gibson. Neuromancer, maybe. Except that novel’s most famous metaphor is already out of date. Most of my students can’t imagine a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel. They’ve never seen a dead channel. They watch television on their cell phones. Someday, I suspect, cell phones will be implanted in them directly, and they will simply have to close their eyes. They will have become cyborgs. That’s another way of being assimilated, but also alienated. In that future, we will all be aliens, right here on Earth.

When I am seven, I see America for the first time through an airplane window. It looks like stars, far below me in the darkness. I am told those stars are the lights of New York City.

It’s difficult becoming American. I must learn to eat new foods. Will I be able to survive in this strange place on Wonder Bread, which you can scrunch up into a ball and bounce on the kitchen table? Campbell’s soup from concentrate? Captain Crunch? The atmosphere here is different, heavier than on my home planet. The sun is not as bright. This planet must be farther from its sun.

I watch The Brady Bunch. Perhaps if I become like Marsha Brady, the inhabitants of this strange place will accept me as one of them.

When I am twenty–one, I watch Alien on my boyfriend’s VHS player. I sympathize with the alien. She’s a mother, after all. She’s only trying to protect her children. Find a better life for them, one with more opportunities. What mother would do less?

Imagine what it’s going to be like for those little aliens, growing up in a world inhabited by human beings. They’ll probably need to disguise themselves as human, learn how to eat human food, how to speak English. They might try to look like Marsha Brady. In fact, the entire Brady Bunch may be a family of aliens trying to pass as human. That would explain a lot.

Nevertheless, they’ll probably be teased in school. It’s not easy being a creature from outer space. Trust me, I know.

If I am at home anywhere, it is here, in Budapest speaking a language I only fitfully understand, in a city I will probably never inhabit.

The Hungarian language is not related to any other language in Europe. Finnish, maybe, but even that is a tenuous connection. I once saw a chart on which the languages of Europe were represented as a tree. Hungarian was off by itself, a branch growing from the trunk, unconnected to any other branches. I wondered if it was lonely.

It sounds like something made up for a television show, like Klingon. Except I think Klingon is probably easier to learn.

It sounds like something spoken by an alien species. Perhaps it was taught to the Hungarians by the same aliens who built Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu, and the Egyptian pyramids. Or perhaps Hungarians are aliens. That would account for the prevalence of high cheekbones.

On a SwissAir flight over the Atlantic, I watch John Carter of Mars on the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me. It’s in English, but somehow I’ve managed to turn on the Chinese subtitles, and I don’t know how to turn them off. I decide the movie is actually better with Chinese subtitles. It adds a sense of dislocation that seems entirely appropriate.

During World War II, a group of Hungarian scientists emigrated to the United States. They were Jews fleeting the Nazi occupation of Hungary and when they arrived, they joined the Allied war effort. Among other things, they helped to develop the atomic bomb. Because of their religion and strange accents, they were not immediately accepted into American society. One of them, the physicist Leó Szilárd, jokingly referred to them as “the Martians.” The name stuck, and the group is still known by that name. If you don’t believe me, go on, look it up on your communicator.

When asked about the possibility of alien life, Szilárd responded, “They are already here among us: they just call themselves Hungarians.” See, what did I tell you?

When the plane took off, I remember thinking, hinta–palinta.

When I am a fifteen, I realize with satisfaction that “alienation” can be written “alien–nation.” I come from an alien nation.

Like a typical teenager, I hate everyone, including myself. I am alien–nated. Does that “nated” come from the same root as native, nativity, natal? Does it mean I am alien born?

Well then, I am an alien born.

The OED says that “alien” comes from the Latin alienus, which means, among other things, “of or belonging to others, unnatural, unusual, unconnected, separate, of another country, foreign, unrelated, of a different variety or species, unfamiliar, strange, unfriendly, unsympathetic, unfavourable, inappropriate, incompatible, distasteful, repugnant.” Repugnant? That’s a bit much.

In its fourth definition of the word, the OED mentions its use in science fiction: “of, belonging to, or relating to an (intelligent) being or beings from another planet; designating such a being; extraterrestrial.” I’ll take intelligent over repugnant, thank you. Even in parentheses.

In the Budapest airport bookstore, I find a copy of The Little Prince in Hungarian.

Back in Boston, everything seems wrong. I’ve flown from one ancient city bisected by a river to another, but that river is the wrong color, and the sky looks like a television tuned to a dead channel in the 1980s. I can’t taste the food: it’s as though I’m chewing on cardboard. My stomach hurts. I have a perpetual headache. Somehow, I seem to have wandered into an alternate reality, the one in which time travelers failed to stop World War II.

Every morning, to practice my Hungarian, I read a chapter of The Little Prince, or more accurately, A Kis Herceg. It’s exciting to recognize words I know. Bolygó: planet.  Repülőgép: airplane. Róka: fox. Rósza: rose. Óriáskígyó: boa constrictor. I learned that one at the Budapest zoo. The little prince comes from egy kisbolygó, a small planet, as I come from a small country. He’s also searching for home, answers, the cure for a broken heart. We’ve both felt the sting of a fickle rose, although mine is an entire city.

Maybe I can find a friendly fox. Or, you know, aviator.

It occurs to me that I will be leaving Budapest for the rest of my life. As though we are in one of those movies with Richard Gere or Diane Lane where two people meet for a month each summer until they are old and one of them dies. I will die before Budapest, which is reassuring.

What will happen to her? In a future I won’t see, will she grow into a city of steel and glass? Will spaceships from Mars and beyond dock at her towers? Will aliens from other worlds eat gulyásleves and somlói galuska in her restaurants? Will they sit in her bars drinking palinka, speaking alien languages, like a scene out of Star Wars? Will they go shopping on Váci utca?

Or will she drown when global warming raises the Danube? Will her buildings, crumbling by then, be flooded by jade–green water? Will her inhabitants develop gills and live beneath its murky surface?

Or will she be bombed again in World War III, as she was the last two times? Will her buildings and bridges burn? Please, I think, let me not see that happen.

When I am fifty–three, when I am seventy–five, when I am ninety–one I will return, assuming I’m still around. Who knows, by then I might be half machine, or half green gill–woman in a gold bikini. I will go back and stand in the park around the Nemzeti Múzeum and think, this is me spinning through space, but it does not matter, because for now, for a little while, I am Magyarországon, Budapesten. At least I am standing on my own ground.

I can smell the linden flowers…

Someone asks me why I write stories about space aliens, alternate histories, dystopian futures. Stories that could be classified as science fiction. I answer, because I’m a realist.

(Editors’ Note: “To Budapest, with Love” is read by Amal El–Mohtar and Theodora Goss is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 14B.)

Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss’s publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology co-edited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014). Her work has been translated into eleven languages. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Locus, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, and on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her short story “Singing of Mount Abora” (2007) won the World Fantasy Award. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Her first novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, will be published by Saga Press in June 2017.

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