Traveling alone for the first time since Bill died, I arrive in Budapest, Hungary to teach a one-week seminar at the technical university. I’d planned to fly to Paris after the seminar, and then, four days later, home. But the day after my arrival in Hungary, the Icelandic glacial volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupts. I’m stuck.
You’ve gotta be kidding. A volcano? Of all the things I don’t worry about, this is one of them.
But if I am stuck here, I don’t need to sit in this dingy room, in this hotel that once was grand, that once was a favorite of the Nazi elite. I can be out in the sun, in the Eastern European spring.
It’s beautiful weather, the ash cloud invisible above me. I walk the hills and streets of Budapest for so long that my calves scream. The buildings, the cafés, the squares. Layer cakes and glitzy fashion, marble and rubble. In the square in front of the famed pâtisserie Gerbeaud, three old men in shabby black coats play traditional music — a clarinet and two violins. Two of them lean on canes. I throw a few forint coins into the open violin case, and one opens his arms and staggers towards me. He’s drunk. I think about the changes they’ve seen in their lives. War. Nazis and Communists and Capitalism. My volcano cloud is nothing.
I’m at Gerbeaud as a pilgrimage. Bill loved this place, and Annie. On a bookshelf in my house, there’s a framed photo of Annie, age seven, sitting here, eating a twelve-layer cake. Now Annie’s 17, home alone with the dogs, waiting for her mother to find her way out from under a cloud. Those first months after Bill died, I think she did the same. When Bill died, my memory fled. Where had we been, and when? Life instantly separated into Before . . . and After, Before pancaking down like a poorly designed building in an earthquake. In Budapest, a city I’ve visited many times, my memories flood back. We were here! I order dobos torta and cappuccino. My cake is beautiful but stale.
On Vaci Utça, a street lined with stores and restaurants, the touts are lazy, the sky is clear, no sign of the ash cloud high above. I count at least six men pushing strollers, buggies, baby carriages. No moms in sight. Sunday — the day moms get off? It’s bittersweet to be here, and Bill not. My favorite part of him was his fathering.
Another walk, another day, another mood. I hike to Buda Castle, sit in an open air restaurant eating expensive goose liver paté and people watching. I’m elated! I’m free! I’m a short, somewhat plump, middle-aged James Bond girl, a secret agent on an international adventure. It’s awesome to be a widow! I get the best parts of being single — the freedom to do what I want, make my own choices, without the stigma of not being able to maintain a relationship. I spend my own time and money — as long as I like, and as much as I want. Bill would never want to order the most expensive thing on the menu. He’d never want to sit here this long.
I walk down the steep hill from Buda Castle, down a long stairway Bill and I once took together. I suddenly miss him more than I have in months. I am alone, and all around me, couples. On the stairway, and as I cross the Chain Bridge from Buda to Pest, women and men kiss, hold hands, look annoyed at each other. The world is paired off. There’s nobody to share these memories with. Who cares what I eat? Friends might ask . . . but it’s not the same. My daughter is across a continent and an ocean and a continent. And she’s on her own journey to independence, her own life.
A storm comes in. I am under the clouds — a cloud of rain, a cloud of ash, a cloud of grief. I buy cigarettes — I haven’t been a smoker in years — and smoke a couple of cigarettes over coffee. My mouth is ashy now. My lungs constricting. I’m being bad, and who cares? The volcano is dumping ash over my head, and I can’t get home. Why am I traveling in the first place? I’m just going to die. People do, you know. You’re there one day . . . and gone the next. Poof.
The moment passes. The air becomes clear and light.
A day or two later, my Sunday flight to Paris is canceled, and so off I go to the train station, to try, like my ancestors might have done, to get the hell out of Eastern Europe. I book a train ticket ten minutes before the kiosk closes. Budapest to Munich, Munich to Paris. Second class, with an actual seat! I have a plan!
And, once there, if I can’t get home from Paris? It’s a half-hearted fret. All my life, I was frightened on boats and planes, in foreign streets, and on the night streets of the cities where I lived. When Bill died so suddenly, I had two options. I could huddle into my grief, become more leery of life. Or, I could head straight into the wild ocean, let grief pound me full on, trust that the waves would recede, that I would float. I chose full-on grief.
But to do this, I had to stop being afraid. I know now: the things you worry about are not the things that happen. It’s the out-of-left-field moments that get you: the sudden internal rupture in a distant rainforest that kills your husband. The Icelandic volcano nobody’s ever heard of with the six-syllable name that grounds a continent.
The day of my train trip, I sit at breakfast at the Gellért Hotel overlooking the never-blue Danube. I’m cranky and I feel inconvenienced, but I don’t worry. Somehow I’ll get home. Most of my work can happen online. My daughter is taking care of herself and the dogs. Even my banking is electronic. My worst concern: no matter how this plays out, it’s going to involve a lot of waiting and standing in line. But who knows who I’ll meet that way?
A metaphor lands on the plate of stewed peppers in front of me. Aha! Widowhood is like the ash cloud above me. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there, clogging the atmosphere. It forces me to travel on a continent both strange and familiar, to find alternate, adventurous routes back to familiar places.