My partner and I spent the last two weeks cycling through Europe – specifically, we cycled from Prague to Budapest, via Vienna. Outside my familiar milieu of Amsterdam, work and chores, time seemed to stretch. The two week gap between finishing work and today somehow feels looser, as though time were a straight line that suddenly became a puddle.
We only had half a tired day in Prague after a sleeper train, followed by seven hours on a Czech train that didn’t have any air conditioning. But Prague still charmed and delighted me, the way it did when I first walked across the Charles Bridge two years ago. Cycling through the Czech Republic was tough, with a lot of hills – although by the time we reached the flat part of the Czech Republic on the last stretch to Vienna our legs were starting to get used to hills and the flat landscape seemed monotonous. Everyone we interacted with was very friendly despite our lack of Czech and their lack of English – we managed to get by with a few words of German via Dutch. The beer was incredible too and every pint was served with a thick, creamy head of foam.
We didn’t quite make it all the way to Vienna by bike because we were set back by a bust tyre that had to be replaced, so we ended up taking Czech and Austrian trains the rest of the way. I fell in love with Vienna. The first evening there we walked around the city looking at its beautiful, grand buildings, and ended up at a bar drinking cocktails and listening to a live jazz band. The next day we found an old cafe and ate Satchertorte and drank coffee (I don’t actually like coffee but it seemed appropriate to the occassion so I suffered through a very milky, sugary coffee). Everyone we interacted with was very friendly, especially our host, Mina, who went out of her way to help us wash our very smelly pile of cycling clothes. I really fell in love with Vienna. I was sad to leave Vienna.
For the next four and a half days we joined the Danube and cycled along it, with the exception of a rainy day dipping away from the river into Hungary. I’ve wanted to go to Hungary for a long time. I’ve spent my whole life explaining to people that my surname is Hungarian, that my grandfather was Hungarian, that no, I don’t speak Hungarian. Being part Hungarian has always seemed like an important part of my identity and I was drawn to the idea of visiting the small, landlocked country nestled away in the east of Europe.
And yet, and yet. I didn’t cross the border from Slovakia to Hungary and suddenly feel a deep sense of connection to the landscape around me. I don’t know why I expected I would, but somehow I thought I would feel different. That I would somehow feel as though I had come home and that I would be welcomed with open arms. But of course no one looked at me and instantly knew I’m part Hungarian and not speaking the language probably didn’t help. I had also expected to feel closer to my grandfather, who died when I was a baby, but I didn’t really find him there either. If anything, it only made me realise how little I really know about him and why he moved to Britain. It seems I’ve pegged my sense of identity on a country and a person I don’t really know or fully understand.
I’m part Hungarian, part Irish and part British, but since Brexit I’ve felt increasingly ambivelant about that last part. We encountered a few British people over the last two weeks and I mostly avoided them. They might be leave voters. I know some leave voters, they’re friends and family, so it’s silly to allow that possibility to change my perception of my fellow countrywo/men. But it does. I thought about it a lot when I was last home, after the referendum – although I’m proud of my home city of Manchester for voting remain. Yet being British is undeniably a part of who I am and it shapes how people perceive me, the way my surname probably shapes people’s perception of me before they’ve even met me.
How long does it take for a sense of belonging, of home, to morph? Two generations, one? Maybe only a single lifetime. My grandparents, Hunagarian and Irish, became British. My grandfather didn’t pass on his mother tongue to his children, his British children, who had British grandchildren. But who knows to what places the vagueries of belonging might tether or untether future generations of our family.
The last few days of our journey along the Danube were beautiful, the blue river twisting between hills and fields and past old towns. Then, after a quiet week on the road, we arrived in Budapest. I’m willing to believe that perhaps under different circumstances and had the weather been a little less hot (I’m fairly sure 20 degrees is about my upper limit) we might have enjoyed Budapest, and it certainly has some impressively grand old buildings. I really wanted to like it, but I just didn’t. Our time there culminated in a long, stressful day after we discovered the train we had been booked on wouldn’t carry our bicycles. Fortunately, due to the amazing generosity of the only bike shop in Budapest to be open on a Sunday, we, but not our bikes, made it to Munich and our sleeper train.
Sleeper trains are a fantastic way to travel. We went to bed in Munich, were rocked gently to sleep by the motion of the train and woke up somewhere on the German-Dutch border. We spent the rest of the journey lying on our bunks, reading or looking out of the window. It was so pleasant that I didn’t want the journey to end. Eventually we pulled up into Amsterdam Central Station and took a local train to our neighbourhood. As we walked back to our apartment I felt comforted to be surrounded again by familiar streets and familiar strangers. I felt happy to be home.