My parents made it over the pond at the end October and after a stop in London, flew to Budapest to spend fall break with me. We spent the first part of the week in Croatia and the last part in Budapest. It was a blessing to have them here and to explore Croatia for the first time, but also to give them a glimpse into my world in Budapest. Traveling over break, plus an awareness of how quickly my semester abroad is flying by, has also led me to confront my increasingly splintered heart and the difficulty that comes with loving too many places too deeply.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
At the Budapest airport we picked up a car and headed to Zagreb, Croatia (with a stop at the lovely Lake Balaton along the way). We walked around Zagreb that night and the next day drove to Plitvice Lakes National Park, and as Rick Steves describes it, “a European Niagara Falls, diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon" (1). Despite the overcast, chilly day, and some flooding, it was a blast to discover the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice, often being able to get up close to the water on the park’s series of boardwalks.
When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatian Serbs rebelled and within a few months held roughly one third of the country. The fighting resulted in nearly a half-million internally displaced people (IDPs), with Croats fleeing Serb-held territory and Serbs fleeing Croatian territory. On the way to and from Plitvice, we drove through numerous small, agrarian villages that still bear the wounds of the war, even two decades later. Several of the homes and buildings had bullet holes in them and many were abandoned, overgrown with grass and with gaping openings where doors and roofs used to be. Although I only got a very brief glimpse, the villages in Croatia reminded me of our experience in Bosnia earlier this semester – with a similar level of development and scars from the war still apparent. In addition to the natural splendor of Croatia, I’m glad I was able to see this side of the country and its history too.
After our visit to Plitvice, we drove westward to Rovinj, a small town on the western coast on the Istria peninsula. Within ten minutes of stepping out of the car, Rovinj took my breath away. We stayed in a villa on the top of a hill, a 10 minute walk from the city, and from our balcony had a “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” view of the old town and the glistening blue bay.
We spent our day and a half in Rovinj wandering through the town’s winding alleys, admiring the charm and quaintness of the city, the deep turquoise sea, and the view from the top of St. Euphemia's Basilica bell tower. We marveled at the quirky, unique art showcased in Rovinj’s many galleries; we shopped at the local market selling every variety of honey, truffles, and olive oil; we ate pizza and pasta and drank wine (produced by the villa we stayed at); we explored the rocky shoreline; and we watched the sunset over the Adriatic on a boat. Can someone say paradise?
Part of the reason I found Rovinj to be so captivating was its unassuming authenticity. It’s a small town full of history and culture. Although it is a tourist destination, Rovinj has truly maintained its tradition and character and isn’t gaudily catering to tourists or commercializing their culture to make a buck (granted we were there off season). As a result, I felt like I was able to get a glimpse into everyday life for the people of Rovinj. The town continues to be a working-class fishing port, and we saw the boats as they went out and came in for the day, tossing freshly-caught fish into refrigerated trucks to bring to market.
Rovinj’s fascinating history only adds to its charm and mystery. From the beginning of its existence, Rovinj has been ruled by a succession of different empires. From the 13th-18th century Rovinj was under the Republic of Venice, then followed the Austrian Empire, then Italy, Yugoslavia, and now Croatia (3). Although there are elements of the Astro-Hungarian architectural style in Rovinj, the Italian influence is the most prominent. Rovinj also continues to be multilingual, speaking Italian, Croatian, and Istriot. All of this made me feel as though, in visiting Rovinj, I had stumbled upon a hidden gem.
After saying goodbye to Croatia, we headed back to Budapest. The drive was gorgeous, particularly as we drove through the Istria peninsula and the city of Rijeka. The bright blue sky set against mountains, green hills, rugged cliffs, picturesque villages and church spires nestled in the landscape, and the sparkling sea. Let’s just say Croatia is on my growing list of places I hope to return to!
Diving Deeper into Budapest
I love coming “home” to Budapest after being away and it was even more special having my parents with me this time. I haven't been very good about doing touristy things in the city, so having my parents here was also a good excuse to start getting to know Budapest better. We arrived in the evening and headed to Széchenyi Baths, the most famous of several thermal baths in Budapest. Afterwards we stopped by Szimpla Kert, one of the city’s largest ruin pubs.
The following day we shopped at the Great Market Hall, walked around Corvinus University, then rode the tram north along the Danube to Kossuth Lajos Tér to tour Parliament. The inside of Parliament most definitely holds up to the standards of its outer magnificence, and now I can officially say it is the most beautiful building in the world! (That afternoon we also discovered some of Budapest’s Jewish history, but I’ll touch more on that in my next blog).
The next day my mom and I ascended Castle Hill in Buda and toured Matthias Church, the most unique and beautiful church I've ever been in (yes I keep saying these things but I really mean them)! It has a stunning tiled roof and the interior is filled with an array of colorful patterns that seem to cover every square inch. Pictures can't do it justice, so you'll just have to come visit for yourself :)
That afternoon I was able to introduce my parents to two people who've shaped my time here in Hungary: Jeff, our program director, and Lina, one of my students from RMK. We met Jeff for lunch at the quirky Csiga Café and then met Lina at New York Café, one of Budapest’s classic and elegant coffee houses. That evening we shopped at the markets on Deák Tér, ate Rose Gelato, walked around St. Stephen’s Basilica, and, to finish off my parent’s time in Budapest, visited my dorm and met some of the students in my group.
An Increasingly Divided Heart
Fall break marked the halfway point of my semester abroad and with that came an abundance of emotions. To start, Croatia really stole my heart, and granted I’m a bit too easily pleased, but before even leaving I found myself scheming of how I could someday return. I don’t feel this way about everywhere I go, but I do about a handful and my list keeps growing. It made me realize how travel ruins you, how it exposes you to beauty and reveals new, rich corners of the earth that you never knew existed. Travel annihilates your blissful ignorance of such wonderful places, destining you to live the rest of your life with a divided heart. To an extent, it leaves you in a place of constant discontentment, because a part of you is always longing for places you can't simultaneously be in.
I was discussing this with a friend a while ago and joked that instead of boyfriends I have cities – and the metaphor mostly holds up. It seems obvious that the more places you go, the more places you’ll love, and thus the more places you’ll miss. And I believe it’s the same for people: the more people you meet, the more people you’ll love, and the more people you’ll miss. Silly as it may sound, anticipating leaving Budapest and the people I’ve met here feels like anticipating a painful, messy breakup. My parents flew out on November first and it really hit me how quickly the semester is flying by, how much I still want to do in Budapest, and how badly I don’t want to leave. I love this city. I have moments where my heart aches so deeply for this place that I can’t even accurately put it into words. Having live abroad short-term before, and experienced the withdrawals and longing that come with returning home, I know how much I will miss Budapest once I leave. I can hopefully return someday, I can hopefully see these people again, but it will never fully be the same and I know how much, at times, it will hurt to be away.
In the first blog I wrote about my semester abroad, I expressed my growing desire to invest in one place wholly. Yet once you catch the travel bug, it’s nearly impossible to put it to rest. This semester I’ve loved being able to delve into Eastern Europe and part of my heart would be content to travel and wander for the rest of my days. Yet when I encounter cities, like Sarajevo and Rovinj, another part of me starts dreaming (however unrealistically) about building a life there. I want roots in all these places. I want roots in London, in Seattle, in Minneapolis, in Budapest, in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Croatia, in Romania. As a result, the more places I go, the more divided my heart is becoming. Part of the dilemma is my tendency to fall in love with places too quickly and easily; I feel and love and get attached to a fault. So how do I reconcile this? If this is the result of traveling, is it even worth it? If the answer is yes, which I believe it is, how do I travel and engage without becoming unhealthily attached? This sounds ridiculously, but really, what does that look like?
I know what an immense privilege it is to have this "dilemma" and even be able to ask these questions, and I know they don’t need to be answered soon, and likely may not ever be answered, and yet they remain. I know it’s also not black and white and that it’s possible to invest in different communities throughout a lifetime, but I really desire to pick one place and go deep. As a Christian and (hopefully) soon-to-be development worker, I believe I’m called to authentic community and I know that true change comes with the sacrifice of a long-term commitment and relational investment in a place.
My college years are flying by, and while I’m making the most of everyday, my thoughts are beginning to turn to my future more and more. There is a laundry list of things I’m interested in, opportunities that sound incredible, and places I would love to be. So after graduation, how do I pick where to invest my life? How do I pick the best opportunity when presented with countless choices? But until then, i'm going to continue to live in the moment. I'm going to savor every last second in Budapest. I'm going to return to Calvin and relish this time in life where I can study and learn. I'm going to read books and laugh over coffee and order pizza at midnight with my best friend Meghan. And i'm, Lord willing, going to continue to see the world and wrestle with these questions but not be paralyzed by my fears, doubts, or seemingly insatiable longings. It's all apart of the journey after all, right?