Her Heart Grew Three Sizes That Day

Last week, we had our Fulbright winter meeting in Bucharest, which happened to coincide with my birthday and the birthdays of two other Fulbrighters. We coordinated poorly–all of those coming in from Cluj (including me) came in at a different time–but we all reached our hotels and met for dinner. The evening set the tone for the weekend: we spent much of our time around the table in good company.

It was wonderful to hear about everyone’s experiences so far, and to chat about our common challenges and joys. Some of us have become quite close through our travels, and some I hadn’t seen since October, but it was lovely to catch up with everyone. Mihai, who coordinates the Romanian Fulbright program, even called me out as a pioneer as the first Fulbrighter in both Targu-Mures and Baia Mare.

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Fulbright gets fancy

In addition to our meeting, we had a reception at the same location as our fall reception (with the same delicious desserts), an outing to Parliament and Controceni Palace, and a lunch at the famous Caru’ cu Bere in the old town of Bucharest. On our own, we scoped out interesting restaurants, went on long walks in the beautiful sunny weather, and even tried to crash a party.

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Sometimes it can be hard to find, but there is beauty in Bucharest

I spent my birthday, on Saturday, with the Fulbrighters I have gotten to know well over the past 3-ish months. We wandered through the old town, had more delicious food, and got haircuts.

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Pastries for breakfast at Zexe

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A simple haircut became quite the experience

We wandered into a salon because it was open and three of us wanted to trim our hair. Little did we know what we were in for. First, our new friends at the salon insisted that we also needed to get our nails done. We all looked at our hands and agreed they could use some love. After finding out that it was my birthday, the man who made our reservations said that he would make some special drinks for us. He mixed some of the most delicious drinks–although it was challenging to drink them, as I was having my hair done and my nails done at the same time in order to make our dinner reservation on time. Our friends gave us a good price, and we took selfies together before running off to dinner.

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Looking good + feeling good

We ended up with a group of seven at dinner, with a mix of generations and fields of study, but lots in common. It was a perfectly-sized group for talking travel, Romania, and food. The restaurant was small and cozy with excellent food, and we talked into the night. I am constantly amazed by the people I meet here, and really enjoyed being able to take a long evening to get to know the people around me.

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Christmas market in Cluj

I made a quick stop in Cluj before heading home to Targu-Mures on Tuesday. I have considered myself a bit of a “Grinch” for a while now. I don’t enjoy getting into the Christmas spirit as much as many of the people around me. I don’t listen to Christmas music or watch Christmas movies, I don’t love decorating, and I think the Christmas season lasts entirely too long. However, I have really enjoyed the Christmas markets and lights here and was thinking about how they bring people together, even in the cold and the dark.

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With friends at the Christmas market in Cluj

And then I returned to my apartment in Targu-Mures, and Santa Claus (aka my landlady, Gaby) had visited! While I was gone, she left little decorations and sweets–even a tiny Christmas tree. And, like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes. I am so touched by the kindness I have found here, from my fellow Fulbrighters, to my colleagues and students, to the people I meet from day to day. I cling to their kindness when I get frustrated with Romania. I can say now that when this year is over, I will remember the people and their kindness above all else.

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Santa visited!

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A Grand Budapest Adventure

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They had to tear me away from Budapest, but I am back in my little city, in my favorite cafe, with a view of the Christmas lights being set up outside. I am content to be here, but thinking back to the wonderful long weekend I spent away with a few other Fulbrighters, I am already nostalgic and dreaming about going back.

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Our Airbnb

We arrived on Thursday for Thanksgiving, all of us having survived various difficulties leaving Romania, and found our gorgeous airbnb apartment on the Buda side of the river. Rita, our host, welcomed us with still-warm pastries, which tasted especially good after our 7-hour train ride. We picked a restaurant on the Pest side, and enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner toasted with delicious Hungarian wine, and three hours worth of food.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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Thanksgiving dinner

On Friday, we continued our mission to eat all the things in Hungary, starting with a cafe across the street filled with books. The food was delicious, but the atmosphere brought us back every morning we were there.

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We spent the rest of the daylight hours attempting to make up for all the food we were eating by climbing up and down the hills of the Castle District. The exercise kept us warm on a cold, but sunny, day. In addition to the stunning views, we discovered all kinds of little shops and bakeries and cafes.

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#FulbrightFunFam on Gellert Hill

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Pure exhaustion

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In the evening, we soaked our sore muscles in the famous thermal baths of Budapest. The Gellert Baths were closest to our apartment, and we were stunned by the beautiful tile work and the views of the outside bath. After a long day, we couldn’t stop smiling as we let the warm water relax us under the dark and cold night air, with views of the Liberty Bridge and city lights. After a few hours, we stumbled next door to the attached restaurant, continuing our quest to eat all the things.

On Saturday, Melanie and I decided we needed to stay an extra day, and emailed Rita to ask for her advice on changing our ticket. The next thing we knew, her 87-year-old father, Matyas, approached us at our favorite cafe and had Rita explain over the phone that he would help us change our train seat reservations.

We quickly discovered that he did not speak a word of English, but did have a bit of French as well as strong German. He talked us through a neighborhood walk, took us to the metro station and showed us how to buy the kind of ticket we needed, explained the construction of the new metro line, and took us to the counter at the train station. Between the three of us and the clerk, who didn’t speak English either, we managed to complete our mission. Matyas put us back on the metro and embraced us before leaving. Later, Rita told us that even though we hadn’t been able to communicate very well, her father had enjoyed our enthusiasm and persistence, and would have coffee with us if we came back to the city. She told us a bit of his experience during World War II, and we listened to his story incredulously. Melanie and I agreed that we would love to hear more of his stories–they reminded us that history is not abstract, but personal.

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Matyas and Melanie

We spent the rest of the day on the Pest side of the river, exploring Parliament, lots of little cafes and restaurants, and St. Steven’s Basilica. But we were reminded that no matter how beautiful a place is, it is impossible to escape ugliness: we unexpectedly found monuments and reminders of Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust, and shed tears for the Jews, the disabled, the gays, and the communists who were murdered. Especially emotional for me were the identification patches these different groups wore, displayed next to personal items such as suitcases, shoes, and a violin case.

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We turned ourselves towards fun again for the evening with a girls’ night at the opera. We saw Lucia di Lammermoor, and were blown away by the beautiful voices, particularly the soprano. She gave an athletic performance, writhing and twitching on stage during her mad scene, climbing ladders, and generally astounding us while hitting perfectly clear high notes.

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On Sunday, we explored the main Christmas market, sampling Hungarian street food and mulled wine as we shopped.

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Since the Christmas market was near Gerbeaud (one of the top 10 chocolate shops in the world, according to some) and we were on a mission to eat everything, we stopped in around dusk to warm up and refuel.

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Dobos torte at Gerbeaud

Finally, we sat down for the evening at St. Steven’s Basilica for a string concert. Although not quite as overwhelming as the opera, it was lovely music. I was particularly happy to hear Massenet’s Thaïs Méditation, which makes me think of my sister.img_3713

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With Melanie atop St. Steven’s Basilica.

With our final day, Melanie and I explored the Castle District, visiting the stunningly painted Matthias Church, and indulging in two lunches and a visit to a bookstore for some Hungarian literature in translation.

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At Matthias Church

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Matthias Church

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Homemade chicken soup with healing properties

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Chocolate cake and rosehip sorbet

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A magical bookstore

We made it back to Cluj, Romania the following afternoon (with a 5am boarding time), both utterly exhausted. Stories of our adventures in Budapest keep running through my head, and even though I didn’t sleep 5 consecutive hours our entire trip, every moment was worth it. The food, history, and company were totally captivating. We are already trying to plan our returns.

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Melanie braved train station falafel and a Coke Zero for breakfast

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I stuck with a grocery store iced coffee