Alone and Owning It

  Under the red awning funky multicolored lights twinkled, music thumped, and the restaurant bustled with activity.  Servers carrying precarious trays of beer squeezed in between large groups of friends guffawing at each other’s tales, families laughing at the fathers who were trying to get down with the beats, women on girls’-night-out leaning close together to be heard over the din, and… me sitting by myself in the center of it all.  After the hostess faltered after I held up the “number 1” sign to signal that I was dining alone and her attempt to seat me at a table off to the side by the kitchen, it became apparent that at Spiler’s in Budapest’s trendy Gozsdu udvar that people never ate alone. Or, more specifically, no one went to Gozsdu udvar, an alley of funky cafes, hip bars and eateries, alone.  But I had selected my own company, and I had selected this place for dinner, and I was determined not to be cowed by the raucous environment and the fact that in my solitary state, I did not belong.

  After I gave the hostess a look saying, “no one puts Baby in the corner”, she seated me at a table for two in the center of the action.  I could watch everyone.  Everyone, I realized, could watch me.  I had a decision to make: sit there in discomfort or decide to own it.  It was my very first solo vacation in a foreign land; I was supposed to be having fun.  Instead I was like a shrinking violet, apologetic for bringing a disease that one wants to get: the prospect of loneliness.  But I was alone by choice and I wasn’t lonely.  I decided to own it.



 Squaring my shoulders and leaning back in my chair, I looked about the room like I owned the place.  I ordered my food with confidence and selected the Magyar Vandor Ale as if I did  it everyday.  I took out my journal and wrote.  People who are writing look important.  They have thoughts. Important ones.  So much so, they should be recorded.  So I wrote down my very important thoughts of what I ordered for dinner (salmon with cucumber salad).  I made eye contact and directed the servers to me when I needed important things.  Like dessert.  “See?” I projected to everyone, “I eat dinner alone all of the time and I like it.”  Yep.  Everyone could watch me.

If they wanted to. It took me awhile to realize that nobody wanted to.  They had other things to focus on: their companions, their food, beer, and trying to hear over the noise.  The only one watching me was me.

The problem wasn’t the restaurant or the atmosphere or the other diners.  It was me and my decided lack of self-confidence.  It didn’t matter if I was alone; I was a paying customer, and everyone treated me well and were very helpful, including sharing what they thought I should see in Budapest.  I alone had the problem with my act of being alone.  Dining at Spiler’s reminded me that everyone has their own concerns; that if I had friends or my husband with me, I would have never eaten there– it was too loud; that I chose to be alone, chose my own company, and therefore, in order to feel like I belonged, I needed to accept myself; and that when I need confidence, I could always fake it.

Finding Zen in Buda

Looking south across the Danube under the grey clouds sat Gellerthegy (Gellert Hill): dark, dead, unwelcoming.  Budapest in March, unlike California with its early buds and blossoms, still slept in its winter slumber. Although it sits atop both the city and the “things to see” list,  I wondered if it would be worth the climb.  Was really now the time to see it in its barren tree glory?

Six months before I decided that I would visit Budapest.  By myself.  Partly to satisfy a life-long dream of exploring a foreign place alone and partly just as a personal challenge, could I do it?  Could I handle a language as complex as Magyar that added numerous “k”s and “z”s to words? The forint whose bills started at 500?  Could I navigate my way through streets that were unpronounceable? Could I spend a week in my own company?

  Budapest was easy.  Ridiculously so.  First, basically no one else in the world speaks Magyar, but almost everyone in the world (it seems like) speaks English.  English was their  default.  Most Hungarians were fluent, and if not, knew enough to get by.  The menus were translated. At first I felt the thrill of ordering off a menu I couldn’t understand and then my waiter came by and flipped it over– to the English side.  On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I acquainted myself with the Hungarian Forint, and by the time I reached my destination, I had the amount ready to pay him, tip included (10% as is customary).  Because I spent so much time researching my location and mapping out how to get places beforehand, once I checked in I set off to the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle without assistance.

My own company was a bit more complex. If Budapest’s default was English, mine was go, go, go, plan, plan, plan, do, do, do.  My energy lately had been spent outward, unfurled in all directions.  Solving problems, planning lessons, listening, cajoling students, cajoling adults, grading papers, leading, following, going to meetings, commuting, organizing, and on and on. Just “being” fell to the bottom of the list.  More frightening was looming feeling that I was not enjoying basic pleasures anymore.  Everything felt like something to do, as if I was on autopilot through my life.  My creative zone eluded me and even sinking into a good novel seemed out of my grasp.

Even on a trip by myself where I could be my own boss, I fell into this default mode. Following my itinerary, I made sure I saw the sights that were “worth it”.  My first day of exploring Buda Castle, St. Matyas Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion was quite nice, but my second day making the  trek to City Park, going to the zoo, walking around the Jewish Quarter, and then going to the Opera left me feeling flat.  These were things that I felt like I “had” to do. Maybe it was because all of them were on the Pest side of the Danube: the flat, more developed and trendy area devoted mostly to hip clubs and shopping.

  Gellerthegy called to me, but I resisted.  There were other things to do and see, like take a tour of the stunning Parliament building.  Surely this was more important than climbing a barren hill.  Then I thought about being part of a tour group and following close behind the guide to hear.  Then I thought about other people in the tour.  Then I thought about the time schedule.  Then I realized that I didn’t want a schedule, other people, or a guide.  In fact, I was perfectly happy looking at the outside all lit up at night from across the river.  That was enough for me.  What I really wanted to do was walk up a hill.

  The next morning was cloudy as I struck out down Karoly Utca to cross over to the Buda side via the spare, white Elizabeth Bridge.  Before I could reach it I was distracted by the shops on Vaci Utca and meandered down the narrow street of knick-knacks and souvenirs.  It deposited me in front of the Grand Central Market, Budapest’s largest market.  The first floor was rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, rich-smelling smoked meats, cheeses, pastries galore, and paprika stands.  Tucked in the back was a dairy stand selling fresh yoghurt, my favorite treat.  I purchased a cup of yoghurt and a cinnamon apple strudel and had a little picnic on a park bench.   The yoghurt was light and creamy with just a hint of tang; the strudel was warm and crisp, just sweet enough.  Sated by my treats I made my way upstairs to the maze of shops selling wooden products, Rubik’s Cubes (invented by a Hungarian), dolls, purses, glasses, every kind of good that could feature the word Budapest on it.

  Because of my detour I crossed the Danube on the green Liberty Bridge that placed me at the base of Gellerthegy.  I began my ascent at my own pace.  The hill was quiet with only a few people about.  The trees naked limbs cast a sharp silhouette against the clouds.  Vista points along the way allowed one to stop and soak up the panoramic view of both sides of the city: the bridges lacing the Danube; Margaret Island parting the river; the hills rolling into Slovakia; Parliament and Buda Castle just dots on the landscape.  My pulse quickened as photo opportunities revealed themselves to me.  Slowly with heightened awareness, I let my surroundings speak to me as I photographed the scenery.  Time, people, concerns all fell away as I entered a quiet space of focus.  Everywhere, it seemed, called to me.  Shyly emerging from scattered branches, flowers dotted the hillside.  I walked up to the Liberty Statue at the top of the hill of a woman holding up a palm leaf to the sky. The clouds dispersed to allow the sun to streak though, shining gentle rays of light upon all, revealing the hill, the flowers, and myself coming back to life.