Hungary Magazine

Quarantine diaries: “An unexpected home away from home”

Welcome to Kafkadesk’s Quarantine Diaries, our new segment gathering testimonials from across Central Europe to understand how people in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic are living through the unfolding coronavirus crisis and, maybe, give you some comfort to show you you’re not alone in this ordeal. Today, Julia, a Californian student at CEU in Budapest, shares her home quarantine story.

Four years ago, I was living and working in the bustling heart of Tokyo and I knew almost nothing about Central Europe, let alone Hungary, which I am currently calling home. I had never met anyone that identified as Hungarian, I had never even heard the sounds of the Hungarian language – which, if I may interject, I can proudly identify and recite all 44 letters of now – and I had certainly never anticipated living in this part of the world.

The thought that I would ever spend weeks, now probably months, of my life enclosed in an old apartment in Hungary’s capital city during a global pandemic would have sounded, then, like a far-fetched dystopian fantasy. At least, another life.

But by chance I ended up a student here in Budapest, living in the 7th district which should usually be full of obnoxious tourists and is now serenely silent. I study International Relations: borders, sovereignty, international issues. And, as my college aptly joked when the pandemic first hit Europe, “we are not just studying International Relations, we are living international relations.” home quarantine

And it is true that the significance of our passports and of our national identities has sharply increased in the face of this global crisis. There is a triad of pressure from the media, from other US nationals, and from some Hungarian citizens to return to my ‘home country.’

Going “home” after the quarantine was introduced in Budapest was never an option.

But going ‘home’ was never an option for me because put simply, I have not considered the US my home in many years. I have no health insurance nor a place to stay there anymore. The safest and most sensible place for me to be at this moment is truly my little flat in heart of ghost-town Budapest.

What continues to surprise me every day, however, is that despite occasional unfriendliness, I have been experiencing a beautiful sense of comradery and community with complete strangers here which I had never experienced before the COVID19 times. Especially as an international student living in the tourist district, there was never any chance of being recognized as a ‘local’ in my own neighborhood.

But spending as much time perched on my windowsill as I do these days, I often wave to the dog walkers or neighbors that are just out for a walk – and they smile back at me as though they are acknowledging familiarity – a nod to our shared experience through this isolating time.

I now know the names of the workers at the nearby bakery where I get my bread. Each “how are you” (when I am feeling ambitious, “hogy vagy?”) we exchange bears a deepened sincerity, as if we are somehow looking out for each other in a much more genuine way than any typical employee-customer interaction would typically resemble.

To be honest, especially with the growing precarity of the political situation in Hungary, I was nervous about staying here when I watched most of my friends suddenly pack their bags and leave the country when the borders started closing. And this is not to say that I have not had my share of unfriendly experiences on the streets or that my other international friends here have not experienced an increase in racist and unwelcoming attitudes since the pandemic-related measures were established.

However, there is something about times of crisis which can also soften tensions and mediate differences. I do not think I ever would have had the opportunity to experience such a sense of community and neighborliness here in my corner of downtown Budapest had there not been the pandemic. And particularly at a time when the idea of ‘home’ is so closely tethered to our sense of safety, I am grateful to the local Hungarian community for adopting me and providing me with that sense of a home away from home.

Stay tuned for more of our ongoing quarantine diaries segment, Central Europe edition!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.