Notes of an Ex-Pat 4: Jumping Tracks

05/22/2011 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2011

I keep having this vision. I am in a little wooden rowboat, out in the middle of the ocean. I can row, but there's not much point. I lost my compass a couple of years ago, so I wouldn't know which direction to head, anyhow. I just try to keep the boat steady and stay dry. I find fish and kelp along the way, and water, too, I guess, so I am fine. Just, as my therapist put it, extremely un-tethered. Then I see land. It is someplace really different from the place I left, but I am going to dock there -- at least for now. I have reached the other shore. I have a new life. I live in Budapest.

It's taken since last year, just about this time. I wrote my first episode of "Notes of a Temporary Ex-Pat One," on Easter weekend 2010, when I boarded Cheapo Air Aerosvit through Kiev, to Budapest. Soon I discovered I liked my life better here, and stopped calling it temporary. I've been a year in the crossing, but I am really here now. It takes awhile.

Why Budapest, people ask. I don't know -- serendipity, synchronicity, call it what you will. I wanted a place I could afford to live and write, a place with café life and an international community. I figured I needed at least one friend to get started. The friend invited me, and I came.

Budapest is filled with people who jumped tracks. One of my new buddies is a petite blonde, who looks young enough to have a herd of twenty-something guys chasing her. She had never been here before when she arrived with her two suitcases and no plan. Actually, she hadn't been much of anywhere since her junior year abroad, and that was six kids ago. Her banker husband promised her a life overseas, but it never materialized. Instead he moved them to the Midwest. There she led the predictable executive wife and mother lifestyle, with kids, PTA, charity events, tennis, and a husband who bored her to tears. Eventually she bailed on the marriage she'd hated since before her first child was born. She found a new boyfriend, but he turned out to be a phantom. In the end, she was left in a dead-end town with no husband, no boyfriend, no profession, a lousy lawyer, and very little money.

She figured if she stayed where she was, she'd die. I'll take her word for it. Someone -- I don't know who, maybe it was her hairdresser, told her she'd like Budapest. She put everything in storage and bought a one-way ticket. She arrived in November and lasted through the winter on gumption, a budget, and her mother's old fur coat. She found a tennis club to sustain her -- her one luxury -- and played whenever she could. This summer her teenage daughter is coming to join her. Most people wouldn't have the nerve.

A lot of people dream about jumping tracks. A small percentage actually do it. It takes something. Maybe it takes desperation -- knowing that if you don't, you will surely shrivel up and die -- if not physically, at least your soul will atrophy. And eventually your body is likely to follow suit. But even so... most of us would rather die. It's a damn lot of trouble to do this. There are so many details to attend to, unless, of course, you are under 25 with minimal baggage. There is health care to figure out, and how to stay in touch with the folks back home, passports, residency permits, finding an apartment, dealing with your "stuff," arranging for mail, bills, work, voting, and taxes. It takes transferring and re-establishing all the logistics of daily life into a new place, from mail to grocery shopping. It takes finding new streets and directions, getting lost, being lonely sometimes, learning new customs and manners, and making new friends. It takes learning at least enough of the language to buy milk and bread. Having an allergy to cow's milk and wheat, the first two words I learned after "please" and "thank you," were kecske tej (goat milk) and tonkoly (spelt).

Moving across the ocean to start a new life takes caring more about your life than you do about your stuff. It takes being extroverted enough to go to events alone where you know no one, and being open to meeting people. It takes trying new things and acquiring new ways. It takes having some income (it need not be much) or nest egg to get you through the first six months till you figure the rest out. It takes the ability to plan ahead in the details department, so that you don't run out of vitamins, bio-identical HRT, or whatever else you consider essential to your well-being. It takes searching out the resources you need, be it a cardiologist or an acupuncturist. It takes facing the unknown, and trusting that some combination of determination and Grace will get you through. No auto-pilot here; it takes your complete attention.

You need to be able to laugh at your mistakes and quirks in the culture. The customer service in Hungary ranges between non-existent and terrible. People don't like to be wrong, so they just say "Nem tu dom," (I don't know) rather than taking a chance, when asked a question. Being unable to read packages, I often find I have purchased paper towels instead of toilet paper, or split peas instead of lentils. Iced coffee, my favorite low-calorie treat in the US, comes here with ice cream in it. Oh well. Like a small child, it takes learning all over again the small things that make up being in the world. It takes being100% responsible for your own happiness.

The pay-off is huge. This is just the sort of action the brain specialists tell us will keep our brains young and agile into old age. If just taking a new route home from work helps, how can your brain possibly fossilize when you are figuring out a new tram system, exploring foreign hiking trails and flora, or making your way through a yoga class that is taught in half-Hungarian and half English?

But the greatest pay-off is this: Your life. No excuses. No more rehearsal. All yours, just as you make it.

Photo by Beth Martin

I left everything I thought I needed to find everything I want. It is all gravy, or Grace, if you will. And it is all mine. Outside my window, a large cruise ship docks. People are playing shuffleboard on the deck. A barge goes by, and then a sightseeing boat. This afternoon, I may sunbathe on my balcony, or walk to the covered market for asparagus and strawberries, or the gym for a work-out, before I see my clients. Then I will walk to an outdoor pizza joint on Raday utca to share drinks and conversation with other writers for THINK, the new Central European literary mag. This is my new life. I have reached a new shore. I may stay here or I may move on; who knows? But one thing is certain. There is no going back.