I was carrying one of the last boxes out to our car when our neighbor called to me. She was the first person my wife and I met when we moved to Budapest’s 11th district three years ago. We were in our mid 20s; our neighbor was 76.
“Before you leave, would you come over to say goodbye?” she said. My wife and I had been renting this row house for the last three years, but we had just purchased an apartment nearer to the city center. These past days we were in the last stages of packing, and every time my neighbor had seen me carrying a box or a furniture item out of the house she had groaned and gestured, assuring us that we were making a mistake.
I said that we would come over when we finished packing the kitchen. Half an hour later, we were in her living room. Of the two of us, my wife is the one who had really become friends with her…I am more of an acquaintance. In spite of their age difference they had formed a bond. My wife is fearless and, even though her Hungarian isn’t perfect, she will talk with anyone. I think it was this willingness which won her over to our neighbor who had initially seemed standoffish and confused as to why this American couple and their cat were in Hungary. We were there on a teaching visa and were hoping to live there long enough to start a family. I had dreams of my children attending local kindergarten and elementary school classes in the 11th district.
The row houses in this district were originally built in the 1920s and they were modeled after the terraced houses that sprung up throughout England at the beginning of the 15th and 16th centuries. The English houses were built after the Great Fire of 1666 as a way to hold the family and servants together in one place, and this kind of side-by-side living did forge strong neighborly connections between us. Because we shared a main wall and a backyard fence with our neighbor it was inevitable that our lives crossed fairly often in any typical day. We always complimented her on her garden and flowers and she always asked us whether we had just washed our car.
Our neighbor had purchased her row house when she moved to the capital in the 1960s when she took a job as a secretary in a local tax office. She retired from that job in the mid-80s, as the country was going through the final stages of socialism, and her pension was just enough to take care of her bills. She never threw anything out and she grew most of her food in the back yard.
Her hometown was a small village in central Hungary. Last September, she had invited us to go with her back to her village during the Fall grape harvest. I remembered pulling into the village with our neighbor sitting in the passenger seat next to me. My wife was in the back seat. As we passed by the low-slung country houses on the outskirts of the village, our neighbor pointed off to the right at an old official-looking building.
“Could we stop here for a moment?” she said.
I pulled the car over. My neighbor got out of the car and stood still for a moment.
“Is everything OK?” I said.
“This was my high school.” She looked at it a bit longer before getting back into the car.
That week we met several of her friends and relatives who still lived in the village. I sensed a glow of pride in our neighbor when they asked her about her life in Budapest. She was wearing a dress suit, something we had never seen her wear back in our neighborhood. Seeing her here was so different from how she appeared to us in her row house. She rarely left the street we lived on; only leaving the house when she needed something from the local grocery store. When she heard that we were moving to the city center she was properly heartbroken.
“I’ll never see you again.”
“Nonsense,” I had said. “You’ll visit us all the time. We need you to bring us vegetables and teach us your recipes.” She had continually promised to teach my wife how to make fozelek, a kind of vegetable porridge that most Hungarians remember their grandmothers feeding them.
“No,” she said. “I’ve never been that far downtown. How would I find you?”
This seemed so odd to me. The first thing my wife and I did after we moved to Budapest was to visit everywhere. We saw several museums, crossed every bridge that spanned the Danube, and took walks far into the inner and outer reaches of both sides of the city. We did this all within two weeks after we arrived. We quickly made friends with other expats and with young Hungarians our age and everybody had an opinion about where the best restaurants were and which buses to take in order to get around.
It was probably this touring which gave us the drive to eventually look for an apartment closer to the center. The 11th district is the most populous district in the city, mostly filled with young families. The district’s northern border is Gellert Hill, a leafy mix of streets and residential buildings, topped with an old Soviet-era fort which overlooks the entire sweep of the Danube north to south. Gellert Hill has some of the most expensive real estate in the city, but the apartment buildings which stretch south from there are very affordable and each block seemed to have its own local park with neighborhood butchers and vegetable stands serving to the needs of each street. Where we currently lived was in the southern end of the district which has many more Communist-era prefab concrete apartment blocks, still neighborly but more spread-out and hotter in the summer months.
Our new apartment was just below Gellert Hill. We could see the hill from our new balcony and we had already begun to take evening tram trips up to that neighborhood to walk through the streets of our future home. It was easy to get excited about this move. But I had not fully appreciated how our neighbor felt about our upcoming move until I was sitting in her living room.
“But why?” she asked again. “There’s more room here. Your new apartment will have no back yard.”
“True,” I said. “But this gives us extra reasons to come back to visit you.”
She had poured me a shot of Palinka brandy and I was trying to drink it slowly, something which the fumes made difficult. Each sip felt like a streak of hot bile in my throat.
“What is the name of your new street again?” she said.
I told her and then pulled out my phone to show her. She waved my phone away. She went to the bookshelf and took out a paper city map. As she unfolded it on the coffee table I could see that it was marked with pencil lines and arrows pointing off in various directions. The map was printed in 1985 and several of the main streets and squares still had old names. I found our street and pointed it out to her.
She shook her head several times as she stared at the map. Then she said, “So far.”
I grinned at her and said again, “Nonsense. We’ll be back here the first week we’re gone. We’re only moving things in slowly. But I did want to ask you something.”
“What?” she said.
“We were wondering if we could leave our cat with you. We don’t think she would like being in a small apartment.”
My neighbor’s eyes grew wide. “Well, I don’t know,” she said. “Where would she sleep?”
“Anywhere,” I said. “You’ve seen her. She’s very friendly.”
We spent the next few minutes talking about our cat, and I could see a slow smile spreading across my neighbor’s face. Then my wife went next door and brought the cat back with her. Within moments she was stretching her back against my neighbor’s legs and exploring the pantry.
Two days later, we moved. We had invited our Hungarian students to join us and help us move in the furniture. More than thirty students showed up and the entire day went very smoothly. We ordered everybody pizza and ate on paper plates off of our unpacked boxes in the new living room. There was a cool breeze that day, and I glanced up at Gellert Hill several times with a sense of quiet joy.
One week later, we visited our neighbor again. She had already created a sleeping perch for the cat on the top of the kitchen radiator. We heard her talking to the cat when we knocked on the front door.
After visiting for a few minutes we said goodbye, but our neighbor said, “Wait a moment.”
She took out an old cassette player. She said, “The day you left I made this tape.”
She put the tape into the player and pressed play. A moment later I could hear her voice coming from the mono speaker. It said, “Today they moved away finally. But they left their kitten with me. She is a fine, stable girl. She purrs readily. I am already very fond of her.”