As I approach my 52nd birthday I ponder the centre of things. Almost at the halfway mark of this residency, the middle, here in the middle of Europe, past the middle of my life, a good place to look simultaneously forward and backward; what has gone and has yet to come, all the while straddling the ever shape-shifting present.
The Bridge Guard Residency wooed me for over three years before I succumbed, weighed up all the logistics, and applied. Apart from feeling a connection to the residency’s philosophy, my two biggest tick boxes were financial funding (met between the residency and Australia’s Copyright Agency) and that the residency would accommodate a partner ( I am blessed to share my life with a man who shares my love of literature and travel).
We knew language would be a stumbling block and learned some basics in the months leading up to leaving. In our early correspondence the residency’s manager meant ‘please be patient with me’ but wrote ‘please be passion with me’ … how could I not fall a little in love?
After the welcoming snow when we arrived forty days ago, through the unexpected milder days, sunshine breeching all our stereotypes of a European winter we wake this morning to the sound of a gentle but insistent rain. I have a 10.30am presentation to fifteen year olds at the local Hungarian secondary school or Gymnazium as it is called here, where I will try to explain yet again what a poet from Tasmania is doing in their small town of Sturovo. And it all goes a little something like this –
Each day I leave the apartment, the courtyard with its dying chestnut tree and museum of artefacts.
I open the heavy green wooden door and exit onto the one way street lined with leafless trees inhabited by blackbirds.
And I walk.
Past the Underworld nightclub, the bark so far seems worse that the bite.
Past the children’s home I have yet to visit but glimpse over the fence, where I imagine and hope children are helped to recreate family on their own terms.
Past Popeye’s restaurant that once sat in the middle of the destroyed bridge and now floats moored to Sturovo.
Inevitably I cross the Maria Valeria bridge, out of Slovakia and into Hungary, out of Hungary and into Slovakia. Different countries with a shared history, whose people can now cross back and forth unencumbered by border controls, can chop and change which country they shop in depending on the state of the euro and the forint. Can buy cheap beer and invaluable atmosphere at the Green Pub in Sturovo, and find solace and wonder on the hill of the basilica in Esztergom.
On these walks I have been surprised by the sound the wings of a wedge of mute swans make in flight, by how far that sound carries.
Delighted in sighting the great spotted woodpecker, so much more elegant than the TV cartoon version I grew up with. Similarly, the students here tell me they grew up with a cartooned Tasmanian Devil. I wonder if any of them will travel one day to see the real thing, if the real thing will still exist …
Strolled behind a tiny green butterfly entranced as it landed and clung to a single blade of grass, the brimstone butterfly, long lived for its kind (a whole year!) and the species from which all butterflies were so named.
Eaten pörkölt (a creamy bean and pork dish) at the school canteen with teachers and students, sour cherry strudel from the bakery and wasabi chips with Czech beer at the local pub.
And then there are the people … from both sides … who make the whole …
The Hungarian / German speaking family who live next door where they sell their wine from a glass cabinet in their sitting room. A few dusty bottles stand on the window sill looking out onto the street and would go unnoticed but for word of mouth. An unmarked, unassuming gate leads up a short path to the front door. I’ve met one of the oldest family members a few times now, she reminds me a little of my grandmother. We have no common lingo with which to converse, but a smile, a hand gently squeezing an arm works just as well. When I explain I am basnik (poet) she gives a little half bow/curtsey and we instantly laugh the same language.
The publican who takes such care to translate some of my small haiku-like pieces of writing in exchange for homemade chocolate cake and our patronage.
The woman who works at the museum, has a degree in Hungarian folklore, is a Hungarian folk dancer and invites us to dances.
The men and women who scrape the snow off the sidewalk or sweep the dead leaves into rows of small piles, who collect our rubbish. Who maintain the beauty.
The science and math teacher who is a novelist.
The psychedelic singer who works for a regional magazine.
The mother of three boys who owns a café/gallery/hostel, teaches Italian and believes we should treat old buildings like old people, with infinite love and respect.
The young man who works for the cultural office and paints, who has just had his first exhibition because his friends talked him into it and says with relief and a little shy pride that it will be his last.
The printer who each time he finishes a small job for me takes a moment to point out his favourite photograph.
The young woman who finished high school seven years ago and works for her father’s New York City Burger café … whose smile and conversational English are so genuine and engaging I want to linger …
The mountain climber with his quick bright talk of waking in the wilds of elsewhere.
The guardians of the bridge guard, two teachers who fed us chicken in lemon sauce, lettuce with walnut dressing, pickles, small donuts with homemade apricot jam …
I am number 36. 35 have gone before me with paint brushes, poems, music, recording and distorting the voice and face of the bridge, encouraging a society of mild mannered super heroes, guarding; one imagination, one realization, one creation at a time …
I have taken to carrying a chestnut in each coat pocket, picked up from the banks of the Danube, one from Sturovo, one from Esztergom. My hands take a shine to them. Little talismans, little reminders of all our common roots.
N.B. – in background of class photo the image of the Tasmanian Devil is credited to Tasmania Devil Program