This worn-out, regal, fin-de-siecle staircase, pictured above, is one I have tramped up and down many times over the past few years. It is the entrance to my dear friend István’s top floor flat, in the VIIIth district of Józsefváros, in downtown Budapest. In 1988 and 1989, I spent a lot of time in Hungary, working in two of their big country theatres as a movement coach. It was still a communist country, very hidden and mysterious, and utterly beautiful. I fell in love with the place in an instant. But after returning home in the summer of ’89, just before the Berlin Wall came down – and when Hungary was already secretly opening its gates to neighbouring Austria, for the East Germans to pour quietly through in peaceful defection – I met my future husband Tim, and domestic life took over.
It took another 20 years for me to return to Hungary. But when I did, in 2009, I fell in love with the place all over again. So much had changed, in the meantime, with international capital (and now a determinedly rightwing government) having marched in, with chaotic gusto… But underneath the concrete, the new highways, the Mcdonalds and the Tescos – the smell of the earth, the passion and character of the people, the glorious musical cadences of the language, and the intricacies of its native culture – remained the same. It is a singular place.
Over the past five years, I have returned again and again to visit István, and the rest of the theatre community in Budapest, and to travel down to the south west country town of Kaposvár, where I used to work and live. I am grappling with the (fiendishly difficult) language, inching my way forward in conversations, plotting and planning, both to return for longer periods – and maybe to bring some of the Hungarian artists over to the UK, too: to showcase their astonishing, visceral, physical theatre.
Hungary, for all its foreignness, has somehow always felt like a second home to me. When I returned after such a long absence, I was welcomed so warmly, was folded in such a familiar, invisible embrace, that it felt hard to leave again.
But the “walking home” I am doing this year is much closer to home. After travelling so much – in my head, through such intensive language learning, and in reality, hopping on and off the plane to Budapest – what I need to do now is feel the ground beneath my feet, here, in my own back garden, in Yorkshire, in England.
Part of my plan, throughout 2015, is to simply walk myself back to health. Last year, in 2014, I started to feel very unwell. The symptoms slowly accrued, until a diagnosis finally came, of B12 anaemia (pernicious anaemia), and I crashed to the floor in a mighty tumble. For the first time, after years of caring for other people – my husband, through his ten years of cancer, my daughter, through her childhood and adolescence; and then, seeing both sets of parents, and several dear friends, fall ill and die – I succumbed myself to physical incapacitation.
B12 vitamin deficiency is dramatic. It makes your muscles ache and spasm, creates pins and needles in hands and feet, causes you to lose balance and strength. I am a dancer: but suddenly all movement tired me out. B12 also affects the nervous system, cognition. I am a writer: I couldn’t think clearly, let alone form coherent thoughts and patterns upon the page. And then there were my ears – inflamed and deafened from repeated infections, and painfully sore. I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious. Work, health, energy…Everything leaked slowly away.
But “in every winter’s heart there lies the seed of spring.” So it says in my meditation book. And nature indeed points the way forward. When my husband Tim died in 2004, I started digging in my garden and allotment – and wrote about that process in ‘A Handful of Earth’, a gardening diary of bereavement and recovery.
Now something similar is at work. I am no longer ill – simple injections can regulate the anaemia – but still feel in some kind of slow convalescence. The garden again provides a welcome haven. And the simple act of walking – in the park, in the countryside – offers strength and well being.
I’ll be writing about some of these walks – waxing lyrical about the garden – on this site, as the year progresses. Meanwhile, “home’ in Hungary remains a strong beating heart within. And “home’ in Leeds is a beautiful green landscape of new possibilities, new discoveries, new freedom.
“A Handful of Earth” (John Murray) is available on Amazon and elsewhere.
And here’s a link to a little piece I wrote about my garden a couple of years ago….