Budapest has character. It has gargoyles and leafy hidden walkways between the busy streets. It has the Danube, separating Buda and Pest. You can ride the tram from one side of the city to the other, gazing down upon the silvery Danube as you cross, for little more than a dollar.
On our first tram ride last weekend, we took an aimless tram ride to explore. Afterward, I realized that I have a lot to relearn about connecting with other human beings before I can start to explore the city itself.
On the tram, I thought the four of them were together: the father, the mother holding a baby, and the teenaged boy sitting next to them. The mother cooed and dipped the baby toward the teenager, who flinched as the little hands explored his face. The teenager’s eyes didn’t open all the way. They didn’t fix on any particular spot.
The faces I’d seen on the Budapest streets were closed and humorless, but the passengers all smiled faintly now as they watched the little group. A gaggle of old women, a few mothers with arms full of groceries and children, pairs of whispering couples. Underneath their voices one woman spoke quietly to herself. I couldn’t see where she sat.
When I looked across the aisle again, the teenager had leaned into the baby’s hands, eyes closed as if he were receiving a sacrament. At the next stop the mother and father got off the train, and took the baby with them.
The teenager began to speak in Hungarian, in the meandering, general way some people talk on trains while everyone else looks out the window. I looked out the window too, watching the gray, brown, and charred black buildings slide by, even though I also held a child in my lap, and wondered if the boy was asking where the other baby had gone, or asking my little boy to come play. I could feel my son watching the boy, but I was too shy to look.
Two stops passed. People shuffled off and on. The teenager kept talking. His voice grew louder, more plaintive. Someone behind me sucked his teeth. I was sure the boy was talking directly to me now, asking why I wouldn’t bring my son to him. Maybe it was rude of me not to engage him. I risked a glance. His face met mine, but neither of his eyes did.
I looked away and he resumed his speech again. He was begging, crying for something. Why not, why not, said the tone of his voice. I wished I understood Hungarian. Again I could feel my son looking curiously at the teenager, and again I felt that I should turn toward him, and offer my toddler’s hands. I looked out the window. My face grew warm. The teenager started to cry.
The crying was too loud, too broken and real for a commuter train. When the low, soothing voice of the woman came again from somewhere behind me, I heard it clearly over the rest of the train’s silence. The teenager’s sobs weakened and finally died in a gurgle as the woman shushed and comforted, her voice a streaming chant.
My stop came. I looked up when I saw the boy in front of me on the platform. The woman held his hand and led him away, between the a row of trees in a cobblestone alley. I could still hear her voice and I imagined her saying that they were going for a hot chocolate, and then to the park to watch the birds. I looked down at my son, who looked silently up at me. “Let’s go where they’re going,” his eyes seemed to say. So we followed them down the path. It was a good place to start, I thought.