Hungary Tales

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Do you know where Szeged is? 

Anybody? 

Guys at the very back? Szeged?

Hmm. 

I didn’t know where that was either, until a Kenyan wrote me an email during Covid and said, “what’s keeping me sane here in Hungary are your old stories.” She was reading The 3AM Man, which I wrote way back in 2015 and working her way to the most recent stories. I recently remembered her and wrote her an email asking if she survived Covid and she told me she almost ‘went mad.’ She said being alone can actually kill you. Then she told me her Covid story. 

 

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When I stopped giving the Hungarian I was married to a chance, I decided to give Hungary that chance instead. We had built a life in Budapest, a life that I slowly had to start untangling like a ball of wool. We both didn’t want babies, which made the divorce a much easier decision to make. Kids drag you with emotions, they take away your selfishness, and in divorce you have to be selfish. Nobody says, oh, I’m selfless, that’s why I’m having a divorce. I remained friends with my ex-husband because he’s a wonderful man, a true gentleman but one who just couldn’t get out from under his mother’s thumb. 

I needed a fresh start, and my options were to stay in Budapest or move to a different European city and start over. I opted to move towns instead, Budapest held too many memories. I moved to Szeged. We had vacationed in Szeged once when we were married and we liked it. It had 13-century architecture and bridges [I love bridges] and a history that felt gothic at best. The air was always so clear and sharp and when you looked at it, it looked like something you could bring to your nose and smell. Like a piece of clean fabric with a softener.  I love architecture and history and it felt like a place where I would never wither. The people weren’t exactly warm but I’m not much of a people’s person. I like to strike conversations with strangers but I hate having people over in my space. I hate hosting. 

I lived in a detached house, sort of like a maisonette in the outskirts of Szeged. A road separated my house from a small river. I bought it using the money from the divorce settlement. It had old wooden floors and thick windows and a high ceiling. Even after the renovation work, it still smelled of old carpets and disused wooden drawers. It felt like living in a chest. It was small enough for the small life I wanted to live but old enough to make me feel like a princess. I had a small garden at the back and a wooden tool shed that I didn’t know what to do with. Still don’t. I furnished it with all the furniture I had always wanted, a sofa that didn’t make sense; too stiff at the back but very colourful, splashing life around the room. I bought lamps from antique shops and rugs from an Arab guy who ran a carpet shop. My neighbours were mostly people my age [I’m 48 but look 31] with grown children who had left for work in other cities, which meant our streets were mostly very quiet and empty. Once in a while, you’d see a couple walking or running or walking a dog. During winters you’d see nobody. Not a bird. Not a dog. Not a car. It felt like a frozen television frame. Or a framed picture. 

I liked it that way. I work as an Artificial Intelligence expert in the medical field. I spend a lot of time on my computer, which means I spend a lot of time in my house drinking coffee and listening to jazz in full volume. My dad liked jazz. He also liked alcohol, but a little bit on that later. 

I settled in Szeged and I soon fell into a rhythm. Things were going well until Covid happened and things gradually – and then quickly – got off the rails. There was panic, of course. There was a feeling that the end-of-the-world, that death, was finally descending upon humanity and we would cough and cough and finally die in the holes we were hiding in. Suddenly I couldn’t take the walks I was used to taking or the runs I liked to go on every so often. The shops in the local arcades closed except for a few convenience stores. I couldn’t go to my local bar to have my craft beers which I loved. I couldn’t walk to my local bistro for my morning coffee at my cafe, a thing I loved to do because it meant I had time to think during the walks. I could no longer go to the river. 

Then the pandemic got worse and people really started dying around the world. There were deaths in my city, but not too many. News of people I knew back home in Kenya found me and numbed me. I feared for my mother. I worried for her. 

I found myself marooned in the house with very little to do. My mom Facetimed all the time, and although it was a source of comfort in the beginning, it started getting on my nerves. If I coughed during the call she’d panic and think I was going to die the next moment and she’d call me every hour for the next twenty four hours to find out if I had died in my bathroom. She didn’t understand why I was living alone. A woman shouldn’t live alone, she’d say. Find someone. I didn’t want someone. I spent a lot of time in my backyard, tending to my small garden to kill time. When I couldn’t do anything else I cleaned the house. I got rid of shit I didn’t need. I cleaned the windows. I waited for the evening when I could talk to some friends of mine on video with a drink in hand. I looked forward to those evenings to feel normal again. My drinking started increasing gradually. My ex- husband collected wines for decades and in the divorce he let me have the wines, but during the pandemic I wondered, why keep all those wines and then die. So I drank them and I enjoyed opening bottles dating back 25 years. The drinking got worse and worse. 

I grew up with a father who drank a lot. I lived in constant fear of him; he was a big, volatile man when drunk. And he was constantly drinking. He came from a family of drinkers. His brothers and some of his sisters drank copiously. I recall birthdays as a child when they would come over to our house and drink and shout, it was like a scene out of a Viking home. I hated birthdays because of that. I hate birthday celebrations now because of how they remind me of my unstable  childhood. 

Growing up, I once saw my uncle take a pee in the flower pot outside our house. I actually remember  seeing his penis and him laughing when he saw me looking at him. I was nine.  Their level of debauchery was unsurpassed. I once saw my aunt beat one of my uncles with a pan. Bam! Right over his head. He held a bloody towel on his head with one hand and continued drinking. Amid all this mayhem my mother would be running up and down serving these savages meat or more drinks, tiptoeing around my father. It was dehumanising for her and for me and my siblings. It’s not surprising that my two brothers turned into heavy drinkers by the time they were in their early twenties. One even lost his leg to diabetes because he refused to stop drinking. A leg for alcohol.  

I wanted to run away from this madness. I couldn’t wait to turn into an adult and go as far away as I could from my family and the shame I felt. Hungary was a Godsend. I married the first man I fell in love with. Or rather, I fell in love with the idea of escape. I had never been out of the country, couldn’t point out Hungary on a map. It was the perfect escape. I eventually cut ties with my brothers, who were basically bullies. They couldn’t maintain jobs. Their marriages were a mess. They seemed to be in competition with my father as to who would be the greatest asshole. 

My father eventually won; by dying in a car crash. Of course he was drunk. I had to attend the funeral for my mom’s sake, and as the plane touched down at JKIA in the afternoon, I got a serious panic attack for the first time. All the memories of him, drunk and abusive and violent came rushing at me as the ground rushed to meet the wheels of the plane. I sat in the plane long after everybody had disembarked, struggling to breathe into the sickbag. A kind airhostess sat with me as I cried and wiped snot off my face. She thought I was crying from grief. I was crying from fear. My father still had a hold on me even in death. It was a closed casket. My mother was inconsolable. I never understood her loyalty to this man who left her with scars on her body and in her body. I couldn’t muster grief or remorse. I tried but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wait to leave after the burial, to come back. For the longest time after I moved, I begged my mom to come live with me, to leave that monster and his relatives but she couldn’t. “What would I do abroad? This is my life.” She said, I was saddened by her resignation. But I also understood.  

Slowly over Covid, I realised that I was drinking more and more during the day. I’d carry my wine to the garden to sip as I worked on my plants and herbs. I’d then pour another glass to reward myself for the good job done in the garden. Then I’d drink again with my friends on Zoom and then a last drink to celebrate a great day for just being alive. There was so much death around I figured it didn’t hurt to celebrate life. And what better way to celebrate than raise a toast?

Winter came. 

Winter comes with bleakness. A white bleakness. Winter is death, because winter’s sole purpose is to kill everything alive so that they can be born anew. Nothing moves in winter. The trees die and look cancerous. I had restocked food and drinks for months on end. I have a big fridge and a freezer and my pantry had canned foods that I would end up throwing away because I couldn’t eat. You can’t drive either in that weather, rather I wouldn’t drive because in my first year here I heard about two people who died in terrible road accidents during winter and they lay in their cars, freezing to death as they waited for help. So, no. I spent my mornings working and drinking, my afternoons reading and drinking and my evenings sitting by the fireplace, drinking and thinking. I would connect with some friends on Zoom, but gradually that felt mournful and taxing.  I was certain that I was drinking more and more now. By December I was downing four bottles a day. I had reduced my calls with my mother. My ex-husband, bless him, would call in frequently to check up on me but I also started ignoring him. I felt like he could see my shame, my drinking, my weakness, because he is the one person who has consistently known me since I was 21. He’s the one person who I wouldn’t know how to hide from but at the same time the same one I wouldn’t want to see me naked.  

I started lazing about in bed longer in the morning. I started taking the work calls I needed to take in bed. I stopped washing my hair. Or shaving my legs. Hair seemed to grow faster in the winter, and before long I was like Nebuchadnezzar. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy prepping meals; cutting onions and garlic and things. Soon, I lost my cravings for my favourite meal; mushroom eggs and pancakes. I felt deeply lonely but also I felt I couldn’t face humans. 

For hours I sat by my window and stared outside at nothing, drinking, sighing, crying sometimes when I thought of my mum calling and me not answering. I would black out on the couch, an empty wine bottle on the table. I stopped turning on all the lights in the house like I liked to during winter. I like the warm glow of lights, it always felt intimate, homely, like I was waiting for someone special. I didn’t have anyone special. Nobody thought I was special, not even a pet. Nobody was going to knock on my door. I stopped playing jazz and my house turned dark and bleak and a deathly silence found a home in my house. Which was a great contradiction to the loudness and chaos ensuing in my mind.  

I fantasised being found in my house in the spring, sprawled on my stiff sofa, dead. One day I opened my front door and stood on my stoop with nothing but a tracksuit and a mug of wine. [I had stopped drinking using a proper wine glass. I stopped caring how I drank my wine]. I felt my feet freezing, frostbite setting in before I walked back into the house. I fantasised about dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. I had dreams of my father, vivid things that seemed so real I would wake up and smell his cologne mixed with beer.  

I dreamt of him standing on my doorway, knocking, and me – a little girl again – hiding in my bathroom, scared out of my mind. I dreamt of my father at his funeral, sitting next to me, watching the funeral proceedings while trying to hold my hand. I dreamt of him and my brothers taunting me in a Zoom call, laughing at me. Many days I would wake up crying. By Christmas Day, I was a mess. I drank the whole day. I cried most days. I told my mom I was struggling with alcohol and she prayed with me over the phone every morning and evening. She rebuked the power of the devil. Of the drink. 

I  was slowly turning into my father, into the one person I had flown to the end of the world to escape from. I was turning into an alcoholic.  The world got better as I got worse. I had no appetite for anything. I had lost weight and I was sad and lonely and I rarely bathed. One day there was a knock on my door, incessant knocking, and when I opened, my ex-husband was standing there in the brown winter trench coat I had bought him for his 45th birthday. His shoulders had droplets of water on them. His hair was wet, as if he’d come straight from a shower. His shoulders filled my doorway. His face was as kind as I remembered him. I didn’t have to say anything. He opened his arms and I collapsed into him and wept uncontrollably. 

He stayed two nights in one of the bedrooms as he made many calls. He committed me to a small rehab before he left. It’s in rehab that I started reading Biko’s blog. My very first article was the 3AM man, a link sent by an old friend in Kenya. I read it at night and I remember laughing uncontrollably for the first time. It sounded so strange, my laughter. I realised I hadn’t laughed in almost a year. I started reading more and more of his work because most of it was so sad and desperate. I was looking for painful things to fill my own emptiness. But I was also looking for the laughter in them. I was also escaping. I slowly started wondering why I was feeling sorry for myself, why I was wasting my life when others had it worse out there. I read about about the lady who was raped in a forest and her father came to rescue her in the dead of the night and she ran into his arms after walking in the dark forest. I cried and cried and the next morning I emailed him and quite honestly I didn’t think he would reply and he didn’t for two weeks. When he did I felt like a little girl. I was excited. 

A month or so later I was discharged. My ex-husband and his wife drove me home. I’m still an alcoholic, but I’m not my father. I’m healing. I haven’t had a drink since I left rehab and I don’t intend to. I tend my garden. I got a cat. I guess this all means I’m growing old. 

 

***

Do you have a compelling story? Please ping me on [email protected] 

 

 

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83 Comments
    1. Smooth Edu, saying “first to comment” without actually saying it. You clever cat! What type of person are you,? I bet you are a ladies man… No?

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  1. Alcoholism and depression can creep up on you and immobilize you completely. We all have demons lying dormant within us waiting to be triggered by something or other. Glad for the positive ending.

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  2. My goodness, I got tears in my eyes.. I cannot imagine the loneliness, so dark….happy that her ex hubby got to rescue her, can she come back home?

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  3. I coincidentally started watching the Walking Dead series on Netflix just when COVID struck. Man, I’d clearly see how Thika road would become a thin path from grass growing onto it: how most of us would’ve died from lack of survival skills. A certain pretty Kalenjin girl I’d met at a KQ Ab initio Pilot program interview told me she already had 3 German Shepherd pups that she’d train to be walking through the wasteland with. Talking of which, COVID took away my last chance of becoming a pilot. Saa hii I even dream in Excel and Powerpoint. But si ni life?

    To you Szeged girl, I am proud of you. You are stronger than you think. Keep keeping on.

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      1. Yes sadly is the case. But lately I feel like especially for divorce it’s become soo popular that at times, even for couples who can solve their issues. They opt to divorce .
        It’s scary because even when you find that person who you think is the one because he meets your criteria, you don’t know about the future. He could just switch up on you…

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  4. Biko!!!

    See??? Your reads are life savers! They touch the soul!
    Lovely lady, it is well, the world is colourful and as long as you have life, you have hope!

    Enjoy Hungary!!!

    Cheers!!!

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  5. Your stories also just do it for me. The one I read about how complicated your relationship was with your father, I saw my own in that story. An unexplainable understanding between father and son yet certain that love is in between.
    For this strong lady, I wish her well.

  6. Marrying for escape, do people marry for love nowadays? Cause financial security is an incentive.

    That aside, based on the environments we’ve grown in, we usually end up becoming that which we abhor as illustrated in the mannerisms, postures and habits we adopt on ourselves.

    I’m glad to read she’s a work in progress. She’ll definitely break those generational habits.

  7. Covid left many scars. I can relate to the drinking bit. Where only cashout would be the barrier to one’s continuous drinking spree. Good you’re on the healing path.

  8. I know it’s cliché Biko so don’t come at me but like they say, ‘tough times don’t last but tough people do.’ Most of us are running away from something but the irony is, it always catches up with us and we gotta face it or we’ll never be truly free from it. I’m proud of you girl. And yeah, you getting old if you got a cat just like Biko here.

  9. As always,a story of hope.Finding meaning in life is a never ending search.

    Life and choosing to be lively makes all the difference!

  10. Love this story. Because I can relate. To the loneliness. The winter. The family alcoholism. It’s what kept me from reaching for a bottle or four all through covid because I wanted to! So many times but I could see that one drink leading down this road. And yes, my pets kept me sane:-) I WILL NOT DRINK WITH YOU TODAY AND WISH YOU THE BEST.

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    1. Substitute women with people and I agree with you. What’s you purpose Jacob? I feel like as a modern techno species we can’t hide behind religion anymore, or marriage for that matter. Both of these things are bound to dissapoint you.

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  11. Many hugs to you Hungary lady…..about reading and being moved to looking for painful things and stories to fill your own emptiness…i get you

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  12. I enjoyed this. Even the bleakness of it was voyeuristically enjoyable. I’m an only child so loneliness fascinates me, just as much as it terrifies me. Good job Hungarian-Kenyan lady, when we wake up every morning with a sense of hope and a little purpose, that’s living, that’s life in it’s infinite possibilities.

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  13. “I’m healing” I really love this statement.

    And I’ll never stop being intrigued by how our folks and circumstances surrounding our upbringing will always affect you in some way as an adult. Feels kinda unfair to some extent because nobody asked to be there, you just find yourself.

    Halafu, kumbe you can be friends with your ex like this? Maybe I’m gonna stop cutting them off now

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  14. Never heard of Szeged but who’d have thought Biko would take us there? See Biko, how your stories are a godsend? To the AI lady, stay strong. You may be growing old (aren’t we all?) but you’re growing stronger, and wiser each day.

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  15. I come from a family of drunks, alcoholics who don’t admit to being alcoholics. We buried a cousin who is 33 last week due to alcohol. If there’s something am always afraid of is ending up like my father. When you come from an alcoholic family there is a very thin line separating you from alcoholism. I relate to this story on a different level and am glad she’s doing well. Hugs to you stranger, hoping you stay strong and peaceful and away from that bottle.

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  16. First time you didn’t name the subject of today’s story.

    And that is one of the most amicable divorces ever with the guy remarrying and taking care of his ex-wife together with the new wife. Not possible in Kenya.

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  17. The naïve primary and secondary school lad in me used to think that people who lived beyond the borders of our country, and by extension overseas, had it all figured out. That life was being served on a silver plate for them. Then I grew up, and so did my friends who later got to travel abroad. It is from their stories of life abroad that I appreciated the reality for what it really is. That life is life, everywhere and anywhere. That joy is joy and sadness is sadness regardless of your geographical location.
    This story serves to rub it in.

    Memories of the DC (During Covid) times flood in. I have stories for my kids, if any, which will always begin with, “I was born in 1997 BC…” or “Back in 2020 BC…”

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  18. “I started reading more and more of his work because most of it was so sad and desperate” Stories about experiences of real, living ordinary people always have tragedy. Sadness and desperation. I’m wondering if it is for this reason I bumped into Bikos blog right after highschool and stuck to it. This story! A story within a story within a story…

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  19. It’s interesting that the 3am man was also my intro story to Biko’s world and since then I become hooked and his stories became a part of my own healing journey. To know we are many of us fighting this demon of childhood trauma gives us the courage to move on. Madam AI hold on tight. It shall be well.

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  20. Haha Biko, I’ve heard of Szeged. I lived in Budapest back in the stone age when you could count the number of Kenyans there on one hand.

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  21. I work as an Artificial Intelligence expert in the medical field. My dream.
    I hope she is doing fine, great read Biko. Moments filled with soft smiles and loud sorrows.

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  22. Something about this story holds a mirror to my life. I pray we all heal from our traumas and do not become the very people who caused our trauma.

  23. Just read this, and my being kidogo sunk because… Depression can really do a number on you, especially when you don’t have something to hold on to/for.
    Raising my cuppa to you!

  24. i was here when I lost my job. The days were LONG and I had ZERO energy to do anything including cleaning after myself. Searching for one proved futile and soon, i gave up on that too. it is so easy to fall into depression and I self-diagnosed my state then as having been depressed. Looking back, I also realized that relationships are extremely important, but we take them for granted.

  25. This is a nice read. Indeed this blog has positively changed many minds. Bless you Biko
    For my sister in Hungary, the battle is won in Jesus name.
    Read more of the struggles home and you will thank God.
    We live by hope

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  26. My first encounter with Biko was The 3am man as well. Then he proceeded to keep me warm through a different kind of winter. I guess for everyone winter comes at some point, but when you have a warm fire to melt your pain, then you live to see the spring. Thank you baba Tams for being our fire and warming our hearts. For thawing us out.You’ll never know just how many lives you’ve touched.

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  27. the Pandemic changed the family dynamics and brought up the unresolved past traumas, cant wait to read more about person stories,its my favorite segment.

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  28. The first time i ever read about Hungary was in 2001. the book was titled “Times Beyond” by Omondi Mak’Oloo…. and the setting was in Hungary. I have looked for the book ever since and have never found even an old copy…… and the copy that i read belonged to my brother who died in a horrible car crash years later.
    this story brings back sad memories.

  29. The loneliness in Europe is what makes the most of us kushindaga kwa Kenyan twitter, Facebook, Instagram na Chocoman’s blog. Makes one feel they’re home though miles away.

    Being stuck in Brussels during the pandemic was somewhat a blessing. Life was a party; literally and figuratively. It really is a wonder we got through unscathed by Covid. I miss the city.

  30. I always want to travel and get out of this country, then I read about racism, loneliness, and the depression that people endure when they are away from home, and I stay back. I know it’s a lame excuse not to want to explore different cultures, places, and people but I love the safety of being in Kenya. The peace that it brings to my inner being, mostly because my low days are the worst and I always want to be surrounded by love but also because of the fear of the unknown.

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  31. Oh Biko. I’m in a salon and I’ve cried again about the story of the girl who was raped . How is she? Would you know? I’m like the Hungarian girl. I look for Bolo’s stories to compliment my feelings. Viva Bill Viva

  32. First encounter with Biko was the Nyadudi story ‘A milli for Nyadudi’ back in 2015 while on maternity leave. I was a new mother living alone with my little boy. Out of naivety I had mis counted my days and baby had come earlier than anticipated. I hadn’t found a nanny. Biko’s pieces helped kill the loneliness and boredom and I began writing too!

  33. This is a tale of several seasons of life. Keep on keeping on artificial intelligence expert…big job!
    This story confirms that a story can save a life. Keep at it Chocolate man!

  34. The first part of this story felt like my retirement dream. Working/consulting remotely, living a cozy old house, listening to music, sipping on something strong..the vibes but it went south pretty fast. Wishing her all the best