travelers-tales

By Ying-Ann (Annie) Chen

Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Gold Winner in the Funny Travel category

When I turned twenty, all the things I wanted got in my head. So, I went to Hungary. I scrolled through the program website of simple synecdoches. Brazil: Christ the Redeemer, Croatia: lakes, Mauritius: monkeys, Mongolia: yurts, Thailand: temples, Poland: colorful buildings, and Romania: Medieval architecture.

Hungary: sunflower fields. Off I went.

I stood in a clean suburban house under a slanting red tiled roof and windows that opened outwards. This was my host home in the village of Zalaegerszeg. I gifted my host-family Ghirardelli chocolate, a Sather Gate magnet, and pineapple cake. The city near where I live, where I go to school, and where I am from, I explained.

Our desires are very stupid. This is what I realized as I gazed out at the cherry trees that cooled the house from the scorching June heat. On the bus ride from Budapest to Zalaegerszeg, my expectations had swelled with each beige and slightly cracked stone house we passed: all that I would feel and become.

You can pick them. Just spit out seed anywhere.

My host-brother, Andor, reached out the open window and plucked a cherry from the tree. He spat the seed far into the yard. I marveled at his lung capacity.

There. More cherry trees. He grinned a wide, dimply grin.

In the host introduction file I received back in California, I saw that my host-brother was a blonde eighteen-year old boy. I read that his hobbies were partying and bodybuilding. I heaved. The boy I was about to spend a month with was the exact kind of person I avoided in America. What would we talk about? I researched protein shakes before I got here.

Andor stared at me with piercing blue eyes. I tensed up.

So, what is your favorite animal?

He lunged at my suitcase and hauled it into his room, as if he was too nervous to wait for my answer. His room would be mine for the month while he slept in his dad, Laszlo’s, main bedroom. Laszlo relocated to his girlfriend, Ágnes’. I felt bad that I had caused this domino effect of inconvenient living arrangements.

Koalas, I replied. I immediately worried that I answered too quickly. I didn’t want to come off as a koala fanatic, especially not for my first impression. I despaired at the thought that I appeared to be someone who enjoyed talking about favorite animals. He probably never thought about wildlife.

I stepped into his room.

Tiger posters lined the walls, tiger dolls clustered his bed, and tiger figurines adorned every surface. I wondered if I should even ask about his favorite animal. I did anyway.

Tigers, he replied with a reverential nod.

That night, I left the window open to let in what was left of the night. I crawled under the covers of the coffin-sized bed in my tiger themed room and noticed that Andor had glow-in-the-dark star stickers on his ceiling. I fell asleep in the faint neon glow to the protective watch of my host-tigers.

~~~

My alarm rang. It was seven. I woke up and immediately fell off the narrow bed. Hungarian birds chirped like drunken businessmen at karaoke.

Today you teach annoying Hungarian children English, Andor greeted me.

That morning after breakfast and the anxiety poop that ensued, I met my host-bike in the garage. It was early enough that the summer air was cool as we sped down the huge hill that led out of the suburb. I glided past houses with roadside flowers, wild yards, and pungent barns. I opened my mouth in glee, which Hungarian insects took as an invitation.

As I choked on flies, Andor swerved to the right. We were now on a bumpy sidewalk next to a busy road. Cars zoomed past me as I twisted and turned to avoid potholes and pebbles. I gripped the handlebars so hard my knuckles turned white. I glanced up to see if Andor had turned to check that I was all right. He hadn’t. The sidewalk of death traps finally came to an end and we pedaled into a park up ahead.

The shade of trees and whistle of birds swallowed us. Tree trunks were imprinted with patterns like arms after a nap on the sofa. I decided then that the crunch of gravel was my favorite sound and the waft of sandalwood my favorite smell. The sun pierced through the canopy and I pretended like Andor was abducted by aliens every time he biked through a stream of sunlight— payback for not checking in on me.

We left the green enclosure and entered the open town center. I looked up. Clouds were so flimsy that when I relaxed my eyes, they looked like lazy eye floaters. I trembled and tumbled over the cobblestone road like a cartoon character. We passed a church, an ice-cream stand, and a cafe. Finally, we made a left into the school gate and slowed on the gravel entrance to a bike rack.

Andor hugged me, wished me luck, and headed straight back home.

~~~

I locked my host-bike and patted it goodbye. Then, I trekked up the gravel path to the school building. I braced myself. I was headed into a group of children forced by their parents to take English classes during their summer vacation. I expected to find them splattered on the floor, doing the crocodile death roll.

I stepped into the classroom. Hungarian students sat with their arms folded on the wooden table accompanied by open notebooks and sharpened pencils. They stared up ahead at the whiteboard with their backs straight. Their backpacks piggybacked on their wooden chairs. They looked at me in wonder. In return, I wondered if I was the first person of color they’ve ever met.

I approached my co-teacher, Ollie, at our workstation in front of the classroom. We hugged in camaraderie. Ollie smelled like the park I just biked through. I recognized it as sandalwood. Ollie wore a blue tank top. I immediately felt bulky in my t-shirt. I was overcome by a stab of envy for Ollie’s lightness. I wondered why femininity felt like a competition to me.

Ollie was everything I wasn’t when I landed in Europe. In college, I was always hunched over in cafes, scribbling observations. It had been lonely. When I first met Ollie during our Hungarian program orientation in Budapest, I saw that here was someone who was fully occupied with being herself. I liked being near Ollie. My body soaked up her contagious laughter. I learned how to be.

As Ollie set up the computer and Smart board, I wrote Hello Zalaegerszeg! on the whiteboard.

Look at this, I pointed to the whiteboard. I should win the Spelling Bee. Three e’s and two z’s! I boasted.

But Ollie was busy. She stuck important chords into various outlets. So, I faced the whiteboard again and wrote: We are Ollie and Annie. Then, I had nothing else to do.

I started the class with a quick round of introductions. The students interpreted this as a competition of who could say their names the least audibly. I attempted to memorize all their mumbled names.

I think some of them are just mouthing their names, Ollie whispered to me. She could barely suppress her laughter.

Despite their shyness, the students understood almost everything in English. Ollie and I were in awe of their level of fluency. English often wasn’t even their secondary language, which was German. English was their second secondary language. But I was also surprised by what confused them. Every time I asked them “how come” instead of “why,” they all looked at me like I just used the most complex term, like precipitation titration. This was the most complex term I knew.

We asked what they would like to learn about. This was met with silence.

Maybe English, a boy named Peter finally murmured.

Thank you for your response, Ollie encouraged, even though I did not necessarily feel that it was helpful. I looked around at the other students, who all became entranced by the floor.

We decided to start with a game to warm the students up. I asked Peter if he would go first in a game of Who Am I? As Ollie explained the rules, I glanced at the students and noticed a lot of Marvel merchandise: t-shirts, lunchboxes, and notebooks. I wrote a name on the whiteboard behind Peter. The class whispered amongst themselves.

Am I man?

Yes..? The students were hesitant. They glanced at us for support.

Sometimes, I supplied.

Hey, no cheating, Annie. Only yes or no answers, Ollie reprimanded.

Okay, am I singer?

No, the students squirmed in their seats.

Am I in movie?

Yes! Some boys gestured wildly.

Um… Am—

Marvel! A boy named Adam blurted, then immediately covered his mouth as if it was involuntary. The class imploded in protest. Emma, who sat behind Adam, slapped his back repeatedly as punishment.

Oh. I am superhero?

Yes!

Green! Adam shouted once again. More vicious slaps from Emma. The class was about to riot. I looked at Ollie in defeat.

I am green? I don’t know green man. Peter was despondent.

A green Marvel Superhero. I consolidated the hints for Peter, assuming the game was over. But Ollie smacked my back, Emma-style. The class chortled. Some boys fell on the floor.

Oh, HULK!

The students exploded in applause and Peter high-fived all twenty-nine other students in victory, one by one.

After that, everyone wanted to play Who Am I?

When class ended that day, a group of girls stayed behind to tell Ollie and I that they loved the way we bullied each other. I wanted to teach them the word banter but I liked the way they pronounced the bull so fully.

Our desk was strewn with thank you letters and drawings of us.

One note read, Never Forget YOU.

This was day one of a month in Zalaegerszeg.

~~~

The students opened up to us like sunflowers. I liked spotting the students who had crushes on one another. It made me think about how obvious the most confusing things in life are to others. Then, because I was only twenty, it made me wonder if anyone had crushes on me that I didn’t know about. I fell in love often then.

Ollie and I sat together on the school steps. Ollie awaited her air-conditioned car ride while I dreaded my 40-degree bike ride. I noted the way our clammy skin met and the yellow hairs that glistened on her arm. A wave of fondness washed over me.

Okay, so next time, we need to crack open the windows.

I agreed. Deodorant wearers in the peak of summer, we learned, Hungarian children were not.

As I pondered about my own odors, I spotted Andor’s bright blonde hair in the distance. It bobbed up and down as he pedaled towards us. I said goodbye to Ollie and braced myself.

We biked. By the time I was face to face with the steep hill back home, my back was drenched. Unlike this morning, any hint of a breeze was stifled by the blanket of heat. The sun prickled me like acupuncture. I pedaled with all my might to greet the hill. My legs felt stir-fried and the world slowed. I was in those nightmares where I sprinted in slow motion. Just when I gave up to walk the bike instead, Andor glided past me. I could barely breathe as I watched him bound uphill. I wanted to harm all the tigers in the world. But, I stayed on my bike. Somehow, I reached the peak and pedaled home on the mercifully flat road.

~~~

My host-family congratulated me on my first day of teaching. To celebrate, they offered me shots of the famous Hungarian drink, Pálinka, that they fermented from fruits. My host-family told me that you had to ferment your own Pálinka these days. The store bought ones are so diluted.

It’s like drinking water, Andor translated, only 65% alcohol. Ours are 75%, at least.

Host-grandpa gave me a thumbs up.

            Cheers in Hungary you say egészségére, Laszlo instructed. And look into all eyes, if not, it is bad sex for life.

The room became somber at this warning.

Egészségére! They exclaimed.

Eggy-shi-g-rah, I mumbled.

Host-Grandpa and Grandma were extra cautious about the eye contact.

I took a shot. The Pálinka was a GPS. I located exactly where it was as it slithered down my throat, through my esophagus, and burned eternally in the deepest part of my body. I took another shot before my body could protest. All eyes were on me. I grimaced, shuddered, and sputtered. My performance satisfied completely. My host-family’s eyes sparkled and they all clapped, as if this reaction was all they expected from me in exchange for free food and board for a month. I was now a part of the family.

            In Hungarian, halo meant goodbye and szia, pronounced see ya, meant hello. After our delicious family dinner, I delighted in waving goodnight to the grandparents and giggling, halo, halo!

That night as we FaceTimed to lesson plan, I reported my Pálinka consumption to Ollie. I liked making Ollie laugh. She laughed like everything was the funniest thing she had ever heard. And this, in turn, did wonders for my ego.

~~~

The first week ended. My exhaustion was never draining, like lethargy from lounging on the couch all day. Instead, it was the sleepiness of a day in the sun, after my black hair had absorbed all the heat and made my head fuzzy.

When I went out into the kitchen on Saturday, I found Laszlo’s tall frame slumped in a chair.

Good morning, Annie. We have busy programs today.

Programs. I let the word ring in my head. I pocketed it.

Laszlo drove us to visit his girlfriend, Ágnes, and her children. Ágnes’ daughter, Nora, was beautiful and around my age. She talked to me about boys. Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her. Now, there was another boy. But she worried he loved his luxury cars more than he loved her. She swiped through photo after photo of him and his car.

Here he is washing his car. There he is driving his car. In this one, he is getting gas for his car.

Can I see photos of him with you?

Nora’s shoulders dropped.

I don’t have any.

Oh.

Is that bad?

I pretended to think this through.

Boys are so complicated, she sighed eventually. But we can’t help but love them.

I nodded and hoped it looked convincing.

Ágnes’ son, Gregory, was thirteen and a very smart student in my class. When I asked to see the garden, Gregory practically wagged his tail and skipped into the overgrown garden with me. He introduced every plant and smacked mosquitoes away from not only his body, but mine as well. He plucked berries from trees and examined them for ripeness. They were all shriveled.

Aha, finally! He exclaimed after thirty minutes. He revealed two berries in his sweaty palm.

See, so fat and juicy.

I cooed at them. They were not only as shriveled as the rest, but were now also soggy from his fist.

Try them, sweet as honey.

I put the berries in my mouth with doom. There was nothing to bite into. I chewed on the skin and tasted the saltiness of Gregory’s hand. I forced myself to swallow.

They were not sweet as honey.

My only conciliation was the thought of telling this story to Ollie.

**

The next day, we went to Lake Balaton as a big extended family. Gregory claimed me immediately. I looked for rescue but Andor was grumpy. He got stung by a bee when we laid the picnic blankets on the grass. Nora was crouched on the floor of the parking lot. She snapped photos of luxury cars.

I felt the eyes of every Hungarian on me as Gregory dragged me into the lake.

Families flapped around the water with dolphin and unicorn pool rings. Teenagers drank beer with friends. Gregory and I were out of place, like a foreign baby sitter with a kid way too old to have a sitter.

We waded until the freezing water was up to our chest. Then, Gregory pointed to a dock far into the lake and swam.

Somehow, I hadn’t expected to swim. For a brief second, I entertained heading back to the grass and the picnic blankets. I would be free. But, I didn’t want to endure the stares of a thousand Hungarians by myself. Plus, I knew I would be responsible if Gregory drowned, so I followed suit. I had contacts on and no goggles, so I swam with my eyes entirely closed. I also didn’t have time to tie my hair. Every time I turned to breathe, I ate hair instead.

I will drown, I realized.

But, somehow, I felt the cool railing that led up to the dock. I pulled myself up and the sun promptly warmed every inch of my skin. I kept an eye on Gregory as he jumped out of the dock and clambered back on. On and on this went, his wet brunette hair was a crazy tangle and his chubby stomach bounced merrily. I had dozed off by the time Gregory finally got worn out and plopped down by my side. We watched the sunset together. As we dried in the setting sun, I regarded my shriveled fingers.

Hey, we’re like the berries from your garden, I told Gregory.

He laughed so hard at this that the dock bobbed up and down in the wake of his joy.

I am so happy you came to Hungary.

The sun dipped under the water, like yolk sliding onto a pan.

Me too.

~~~

I hoped my days would be a continuation of my todays and tomorrows.

The weekend of my second week, all eleven volunteers and our host-families were summoned for a Midpoint Break in a village named Pusztaederics. As soon as I got out of the car, my friends swarmed to me like bees. We all attended different colleges in the States and none of us knew each other before we bonded in five, sweaty days in Budapest. Now, we were family.

Some of the volunteers’ host-families didn’t speak any English so this was their first English conversation in half a month. Their words spilled out like hiccups. When Ollie and her host-family finally arrived, we sprinted to each other in glee.

Didn’t you two see each other like an hour ago? Our friends accused. We were the only co-teachers in our program.

Yeah, we were sheepish.

The villagers herded us into a big room. One by one, we presented on our time in Hungary. I was the first to go. I looked out at the audience as my friends cheered me on. The audience consisted mainly of the entire population of Pusztaederics, most of whom didn’t understand any English.

I took a deep breath and focused on my little family of Andor, Laszlo, and Ágnes. I said wonderful things about them, all of which I meant sincerely. When I said something funny, Laszlo’s beer belly rose and fell in chuckles. This filled me with pride. My family clapped and beamed at me in the crowd.

After the presentations, we streamed out of the room and had pot luck by a bonfire with my favorite beverage, Pálinka. An old man from the village with no ties to our program brought a guitar with him that he refused to let anyone else near. But, he played a wide assortment of American pop songs by heart, from Tongue Tied to Yellow Submarine. Other instruments appeared out of nowhere. We sat on the grass, shook our tambourines, clanked our triangles, chattered our castanets, and sang along. It must’ve looked like a cult gathering.

Later on in the night, as we all got increasingly inebriated, the guitar hogging old man climbed up a wobbly, wooden ladder. He wanted to fix the lightbulb. It was not broken. Everyone else pointed and laughed at him. I realized it was my life mission to save him. I ran to the base of the ladder to stabilize it.

Szia, Szia. See ya! I giggled and fought off the urge to skip away.

The lightbulb is fine. Come down. We will cheers. Egészségére! Pálinka, Pálinka, I yelled.

He chuckled at my plea and half climbed, half stumbled down the ladder. We weren’t exactly Jack and Rose, but I was proud.

We all danced, drank more Pálinka, and squirmed in long lines to pee every ten minutes. Laszlo and I tried to dance together but instead, he just spun me around and around until neither of us could stand.

Then, a local Hungarian pointed at me and shouted. I immediately resigned to the racism.

But suddenly, everyone chanted my name. Ágnes came to me and explained that I was chosen to cut The Watermelon. I felt like I had won the greatest honor in Hungary.

I stumbled to the Watermelon Table. The villagers laughed at how drunk and dizzy I was and entrusted me with a sharp knife. The Watermelon wobbled under my unsteady hands but eventually, I cut it up into uneven slices. Everyone cheered. I raised the knife in victory. Ollie jumped on me in a bear hug. We were delirious.

The Hungarians challenged us to a competition.

Spit watermelon seeds. It is American tradition, no?

No one in the program had actually ever done this. But, in the spirit of cultural exchange, we obliged.

The mayor giggled at this. The news reporters snapped photos of us mid-spit.

On our car ride home, Laszlo turned to me and told me that I looked free.

You and your friends warm my heart, he smiled.

I did feel very free here in rural Hungary. I was free from my past and from expectations. I was free to try on different selves and become who I wanted to be.

Yes, you look so happy, with Ollie especially, Ágnes added.

Our friends also told Ollie and I that they had never seen two people laugh as much as we did. I realized that this was because all I wanted to do was make Ollie laugh. I collected anecdotes to tell her. I paid attention to the world for her.

I fought off sleep in the car and traced over every moment of the day. I clung on to it all and refused to let go.

~~~

I awoke abruptly. I had collapsed on my bed and immediately fallen asleep. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, removed my shoes, and crawled under the covers. I dreamt that I slept in a sea of watermelon seeds.

My body stored the fullness of my days. I fell asleep every night with a smile on my face and pranced out of bed every morning. I had been proud of who I was during my whole time in Hungary. This was a new and welcomed change. I became increasingly worried I wouldn’t be able to leave my Hungarian family, students, and Ollie.

Wednesday after school, Laszlo knocked on my door with a sly grin. I immediately suspected that the photos of us mid-spitting watermelon seeds got published.

Want to go on little bike ride?

I was so relieved that Hungarian villagers didn’t have to see watermelon seeds dangling from my slobber in their newspaper that I jumped up at his request.

The little bike ride was a 90mph motorcycle ride.

Laszlo never divulged where we were headed. The open highway did not provide the best acoustics for a discussion. I suspected that there was no destination. I didn’t mind one bit. I found peace and freedom in the lack of control I had over my days. I cherished my improvised days in Hungary.

I felt very safe on the highway, exposed to everything around me. The speed tucked me into the back compartment of the motorcycle. I closed my eyes. The wind jolted every part of my body. I was knocked into being.

Laszlo yelled back, you okay?

Yes, I screamed. Then, I realized my mouth had been open this whole time. I was a dog drooling out the window of a car.

Laszlo turned to face me and pointed to small altars on the side of the road.

Many people die here on motorcycle, not paying attention to road, he explained. Then, he snapped back to the road to make the bend.

We stopped at a little lake town. As we slowed, we encountered other motorcyclists. Laszlo made peace signs to them, and they made it back to us. I wanted to take off my helmet and reveal that I was not another white European to see their reaction. But, I didn’t want my Hungarian motorcyclist membership revoked.

We strolled through woods that led onto the dock. We gazed out at the lake and Laszlo informed me that we were on the motorcycle for more than thirty minutes. In the horizon, we saw hot air balloons. I pointed to them and told Laszlo that they were on my bucket list. All throughout my childhood, my final birthday wish was to fly. As I grew up, hot air balloons became the closest thing. Laszlo said that they were on his bucket list too until he actually went on one and realized it was the worst thing ever.

So loud and fire all around. Good thing, he pointed to his bald head with a smirk.

We meandered around the lake. Soon, it became clear that all we both wanted to do was to get back on the motorcycle.

We were right on time. We made the bend (of many deaths) and entered a whole new world. The entire landscape was basked in pink. The sun was just setting. All around me, stone houses blushed, golden fields melted, and winding roads simmered. We sailed right into the sunset. I wanted to bottle the chilled summer air and the whoosh of the wind. I wanted to take a photo of the sunset and tuck it away in a photo album.

How do I hold on to all of this?

We flew over the peak of a highway and my stomach dropped. I had always wanted to fly. This was it.

I breathed in and out. It was time to say goodbye to Hungary.

Halo, I whispered. Then, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Hungary had its way of making me laugh. I released and let all of Hungary flow through me.

We made another bend and there they were: acres and acres of sunflower fields.

I let go. And for the first time in my life, I felt myself vanish.

~~~

Ying-Ann (Annie) Chen was born and raised in Taiwan, grew up in an international school in Shanghai, graduated High School in Michigan, read and wrote in Berkeley, and is now living in San Francisco. She majored in English and Social Welfare at UC Berkeley and is now working at an API legal nonprofit. Her work can also be found in TaiwaneseAmerican.org and Ricepaper Magazine.