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flash to bang

Oct. 8th, 2008 | 07:07 pm

This blog ended somewhat abruptly last year much to the dismay of my loyal readers. Thank you to everyone who bookmarked Flash to Bang back when it all began in June 2006, and made a point of checking in to read my latest entries. This blog was wonderful fun for me as I began my journey abroad and it is my hope that although I will no longer be updating it, the archive of entries will serve as a helpful resource to anyone considering the expat life.

The end of my blog was unplanned and happened in much the same way that life "happens." When I returned from my trip to Spain and Morocco, I had the good fortune of securing a job in Budapest. I became a freelance writer and editor for All Hungary Media Group's suite of English-language web sites, Caboodle.hu, Pestiside.hu and Chew.hu. This was a wonderful turn of fortune for me as it meant I had achieved my original goal in moving overseas - to work as a journalist abroad.

One of the greatest things about expat life is that it allows you an intimacy with yourself, a personal privacy, that can be harder to honor in your own country. As much as the clatter of culture, government, language and of course, the comi-tragedies of life with family and friends, can enrich and embolden our understanding of ourselves, it also can be like a white noise that blends indiscriminately with our inner voice and lives. I believe at some point or at several points in one's life, it is important to take a breath from all this. When you move to a foreign country, you are suspended in a virtual silence - there is a brand new world at your finger tips, but you are moving through it completely out of context. Billboards and metro announcements don't make sense, eavesdropping in the grocery store aisle is out of the question, no more letters to your government representative or newspaper editors, and much less contact with family and friends. In this way, you are afforded a new inner space, which I considered quite a luxury.

For me, this experience of space allowed me to reflect on my life in a poetic way. I discovered a lot. Some of my most insightful realizations came from contemplating the arc of my writing life. Writing came to me very early. I began writing stories just as soon as I learned the English language. I feel blessed in an ethereal way by my Irish heritage, and by my father who recognized my natural inclination to write and inadvertently or not, made it a permanent fixture in my life when he gave me my first journal in the third grade.

I pursued creative writing with resolute and unwavering devotion all the way through to college. In my sophomore year, my writing life was changed. College was intense for me because it was like a shotgun marriage of my dreams and my pragmatism. I remember telling my mom about my aspiration to become a famous poet and she said, "So you want to make $10,000 a year?" I became quite afraid of the idea of graduating, moving home and working at my childhood desk to whirl together masterpieces for publication and eventual fame. I did not feel I had the courage and resilience for it, nor did I feel my maturity as a writer had been truly realized at that point in my life. So I searched around in my heart for some answers. Through my studies, I had developed an interest in government, especially international relations, so I followed that through, and found journalism, the so-called "third pillar," and a vocation that would promise me a steady paycheck for my writing.

My five years in journalism were a truly remarkable and exciting time in my life. I loved the field, loved telling other people's stories, loved being in the deep end of humanity every day. In addition, the practice of writing in journalistic style honed my understanding of language. It brought more efficiency and effectiveness to my writing, and several thousand clips later, I was truly seasoned.

Yet, there was one serious downside to my experience. All the way back in college, when I envisioned my career path, I imagined that I would be a journalist by day, and a creative writer by night. It seemed plausible at the time - write other people's stories during the day, then come home and write my stories for publication in literary magazines and the like. The reality was quite different. I discovered fairly quickly that at the end of a long day at the computer writing several stories for the newspaper, the last thing I wanted to do when I returned home was write more. In addition, the attempts I made seemed construed by style. It felt like I had to push my writing voice through a sieve in order to switch gears from news writing to creative writing. I found this extremely difficult. Much of my creative writing during that time came out wrong. In one of the night writing classes I took, my teacher said, "Catherine, I am not surprised to learn you are a journalist. Your writing lacks 'emotional through-lines.'" Well, this was quite funny to me because before I was a journalist, my teachers would advise me to be more emotionally efficient and structured in my writing.

As I moved through this inner space afforded to me by living abroad, I realized what I wanted more than anything was to finally and completely return to my creative writing. All the anxiety that goes along with graduating from college and the "commencement" of adult life, as they say, was long gone. I had established myself as a journalist and felt more confident than ever as a writer. But segueing from journalism to creative writing was a much longer and fitful process than I imagined. Even my blog relied heavily on journalistic style. So I began to troubleshoot. I came up with this prescription: pursue creativity in other mediums to awaken my creative writing voice. I began oil painting. I learned how to play the electric bass and formed a band for which I wrote the lyrics, sang and played bass. I began gestating an idea for a novel. I ended my blog. I got hired by All Hungary Media Group. I adored the job, but it was the final reiteration I needed to understand that I was ready, chomping at the bit actually, to leave journalism for a while, and pursue my creative writing full-time. When I left my job six months later, I opened a blank document on my computer and started writing my first novel. And so began a new chapter in my writing life.

Soon after that, I flew to Mumbai, India, and journeyed solo in South Asia for three months. I traveled through South India, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I wrote every day, not for my book, but in my journal. This was the first time I had journaled regularly since college. I knew everything was ripening. When I returned to Budapest, I had the opportunity to move to Cairo, Egypt, which I did, and in the three months I lived there, I worked on my novel every day, fattening my manuscript to a respectable girth. My goal is to finish my first draft by December.

My time abroad ended on September 15 when, after nearly two-and-a-half years, I flew home to New York for good. This was a big moment for me, and I believe the timing was perfect. In the renaissance of my inner life overseas, I was able to return to my home country with a purer understanding and commitment to my dreams. I know journalism will always be part of my life, because yes, fledgling novelists have to pay the bills, too. But here I am, in my new apartment in Los Angeles, listening to local radio and the neighbors chatting outside, and writing writing writing. In this sense, I believe an extended journey overseas can be a wonderful remedy for any soul. It truly was for mine.


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to my readers

Mar. 17th, 2007 | 11:59 pm

I will not be blogging for the next two weeks. Mary and I are leaving for Spain tomorrow afternoon. Please check back after March 31 for entries about Rebecca's visit, and my trip through southern Spain and Morocco.
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rebecca arrives

Mar. 11th, 2007 | 02:23 pm

Rebecca arrives at Budapest Ferihegy Airport March 10, 2007.

"Guess what?! It's a movie!"

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blue windows

Mar. 5th, 2007 | 05:01 pm

The morning of Michael's birthday, Erzsebet korut, Budapest, 5:57 a.m., Saturday, March 3, 2007.

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Feb. 25th, 2007 | 06:59 pm

I recently visited Gyor, a Hungarian town about an hour and a half from Budapest that, like Sopron, had a Celtic "air." Both cities were originally settled by the Celts, but in Gyor (pronounced 'jyeur'), there is also a more "modern" Celtic connection. A Catholic bishop from Ireland brought a painting of Madonna and Child to Gyor in 1655, and on St. Patrick's Day in 1697, the Madonna apparently cried tears of blood for three hours. Since, thousands of Irish Catholics have made an annual pilgrimage to Gyor on St. Patrick's Day to view the painting in the Gyor Cathedral.

We arrived in Gyor around lunchtime and went to the old town to eat at Varkapu Vendeglo near Becsi kapu ter and the Carmelite church. The restaurant's menu featured a lot of game-based dishes, and the walls were covered with heads of taxidermic animals, or simply just yellowed animal skulls mounted on plaques. I played it safe and ordered goulash soup.

We walked to the cathedral after lunch. It was empty, glorious, dark and cold. I walked up to the Madonna painting, which was above an altar on the left side of the cathedral. The altar was crowded with vases of fresh flowers and a few small Irish flags. I felt close to my Irish heritage as I stood before the painting, knowing that for centuries so many Irish eyes had gazed at it.

I sat in a pew for a moment and stared at the elaborate frescoes on the high, baroque ceilings. I also went into the Hedervary Chapel on the right side of the cathedral, which had impressive panels of stained glass and a gold bust of King Laszlo.

When we left the cathedral a large flock of birds swooped over the rooftops above us. I snapped a picture and was again reminded of Sopron, where I also took a picture of a flock of birds flying past the Dominican church and cloister.

We walked around the old town, passing the 1731 Ark of the Convenant statue, and stared into the windows of closed shops. There weren't many people around, and it was cold, so we decided to return to Budapest.

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budapest by day

Feb. 20th, 2007 | 11:03 pm

View of Budapest from Erzsebet Kilato, 2:20 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007

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ecseri piac

Feb. 19th, 2007 | 08:28 pm

A slideshow of photos from my visit to Ecseri Piac, Budapest's largest flea market, on Saturday morning, Feb. 17, 2007.

(Depending on your internet connection, it may take a few moments for all 14 photos in the slideshow to load.)

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erica, two

Feb. 19th, 2007 | 04:41 pm

After relaxing at home most of Friday, Erica and I woke up early Saturday morning to go to Ecseri Piac, a flea market on the outskirts of Pest near the airport. It is apparently the largest in Central Europe, and one I've wanted to visit since I arrived in Hungary. It was still cloudy and bitter cold - not the greatest weather for shopping at an outdoor marketplace. But we kept our fingers tucked into our sleeves and shuffled through the endless aisles of tables and booths cluttered with an overwhelming medley of dusty knickknacks. A lot caught my eye - beaded necklaces, silver rings, Herend porcelain, fur hats, typewriters, vintage sunglasses. It was hard to decipher which items were authentic and which were knock-offs, and even harder to ask. One vendor had hundreds of vintage film cameras, but discouraged by the language barrier, I didn't attempt to find out if any of them worked. Just before we decided to leave, our fingers and toes frozen numb, I found a red, crystal glass ashtray that looked like it was made by Herend, but I couldn't tell for sure. I bought it for a 1,000 forints or about $5.

We shivered in my Lada and drove back to downtown Pest. I showed Erica Heroes Square and we found a cafe on Andrassy utca for cappuccinos and hot, chicken broth soup. As we headed home, the sun finally came out, so I decided to bring her up to Janos-hegy and Erzsebet kilato for a bird's-eye view of Budapest. We drove up the winding mountain road, and strong, welcome sunrays flooded the inside of my car. Erica's iPod was playing, and we talked about Portland, Ore., and New York, N.Y., and music and love.

After dinner, we had a "girls' night out." We toasted to Baltimore at the bus stop (Erica accidently said "To Baltimore!" instead of "To Budapest!" as we sipped our cans of Dreher beer), and from Moskva ter, we caught the tram to Ulloi utca. I brought her to Kis West-Balkan first, and later, Nagy West-Balkan. We were out really late.

Sunday was another day for napping and relaxing. We all went out to the Persian restaurant Shiraz for dinner, and lingered at the table for hours. I wanted to savor my last night with one of my best friends.

In the morning, we drove to Ferihegy Airport and I said goodbye to Erica, a perfect guest and perfect friend who I've loved since I was 5.

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Feb. 16th, 2007 | 08:26 pm

The sun was strong the day Erica arrived. I drove to Ferihegy Airport Tuesday morning and ran in to meet her. Her flight got in earlier than scheduled and she was sitting with her suitcase reading "Memoirs of a Geisha." We gave each other a big, comfy, laughing hug. It was Valentine's Day.

We drove back into the city. We opened the windows and smoked. The air had a hint of Spring. My iPod had died on the drive to the airport, so we talked and listened to the breeze and we were reflected in each other's sunglasses.

Erica was jet-lagged so we took it easy the first day. We napped and watched TV, ate a big dinner at home. We read trashy celebrity magazines and stayed mostly horizontal on my couches, told tales, reminisced and laughed hard.

Wednesday was a typically cold and rainy Budapest winter day. I decided to take Erica to the Castle Hill District, where many of Budapest's classic buildings and monuments are. It also is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked around the cobblestone streets, saw the Holy Trinity Statue, Matthias Church and climbed to the top of Fisherman's Bastion for views of the Danube River and Parliament.

About 52 feet beneath the Castle District is a vast network of caves formed by thermal springs. The caves have been used for various military purposes over the course of history, but is now open to tourists as the "Buda Castle Labryinth." We ventured in to get out of the rain. The tunnels were dark and dank. Mold was growing everywhere. The exhibits were kind of hokey. The walls were covered in fake primitive art and the sound of drums pulsed through speakers in some rooms. The musky air gave us both headaches, and the smells in the room where wine poured from a fountain turned our stomachs.

We took a bus to Moskva ter and found a diner where we ate Hungarian dumplings and drank Hungarian beer. Later, we met up with Michael and Kevin and I took Erica to a few of my favorite bars here, Szimpla Kert and Filter.

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erica, mary, rebecca

Feb. 13th, 2007 | 01:14 pm

Those are the names of my three lovely friends who will be visiting me in Budapest over the course of the next month. I don't have a single girlfriend, or friend for that matter, in Budapest, so I'm importing them from abroad!

Erica, who grew up down the road from me in South Salem, N.Y., and who I've known since I was 5, arrives tomorrow morning and will be here until the 19th. Every time I think about picking her up at the airport, I can't stop giggling. My memories of her span 23 years. It will be so comforting to be in her company again.

Mary arrives March 5 and leaves April 12, which means she will be here for my birthday April 8. We're in the midst of planning a lot of travel while she's here, which could include trips to Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, Bucharest and Istanbul. Warsaw and Belgrade would be cool, too....

Rebecca arrives March 10 and sadly, will be here only for a week (until the 17th). But, it will be her second visit to Budapest since I've been here, which makes her a truly spectacular friend. B.F.F.!

These wonderful women are so precious to me and I'm so elated to share Budapest with them.

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i skate

Feb. 12th, 2007 | 09:03 pm

Mujegpalya at Városliget, Budapest, 6:11 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 10, 2007

(video: MW)

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Feb. 12th, 2007 | 02:30 pm

Round and round and round they go on silver skates, some slip, some fall, some go fast, backwards and beat them all. The Mujegpalya in Városliget (City Park) sits just behind Heroes Square and is apparently the largest outdoor skating-rink in Central Europe. It attracts hordes of locals who glide in a slow circle of fortune; a unified swarm, a flock of families, couples, teens and toddlers skating into the night under the bright beam of stadium lights.

We rented skates, mine white, Michael's black, laced up and walked clunkily to the edge of the rink. The ice chilled my cheeks. Pop music and techno remixes blared from the rink's sound system. It had been years since I'd been on the ice. I grew up with a pond in my backyard. When the ice got thick, my family swirled around together, my mom always impressing us with her elegant figure-eights. Michael and I stepped onto the ice, wobbly at first, and took baby steps, awkward and tense, but laughing. We tried to remember the way to glide, gripped each other's hands and found our balance. We joined the wheel, slow at first and faster later. Around we went in the shadow of the gothic Vajdahunyad Castle and Heroes Square with its massive bronze tributes to Hungary's founding fathers and the neoclassical Museum of Fine Arts. Around and around the great rink we went, letting go and clasping our hands back together again. Michael took a break, bought us hot wine. I circled alone and I liked the breeze. I watched my feet slide over the white ice and I watched Budapest around me. We went around together again. I tried to skate backwards, Micheal tried a trick of his own and we held hands on the ice until it was time to turn in our skates, put on our sneakers and waltz back to steady ground.

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Feb. 5th, 2007 | 02:13 pm

I went to the opening of the new "Dream Cars Collection" in the Campona Shopping Center this weekend, which featured about 40 mostly American cars from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They glittered under the bright showroom lights. They were massive, long, heavy, and evoked an American era when automobiles rose as status symbol, an emblem of personality. The sum of design elements and overall "aura" of each model captured different trajectories of the American Dream — I was reminded of Miami's Cubans in the 1970s, New York's mafioso, the 1950s nuclear family, the American greaser sub-culture. The pictures speak for themselves.

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vienna, again

Jan. 31st, 2007 | 10:28 pm

I got an email a few weeks ago from my lovely friend Sarah who I went to college with. She told me the band she tours with (as lighting designer) was stopping in Vienna, and of course I decided to make the three-hour trip to see her. Michael, Kevin and I hopped an afternoon train Monday. We got some snacks and drinks and found a place to sit. The train wasn't crowded. I was ready to relax, listen to my iPod and drift into daydreams. Unfortunately, the train sat in Budapest's Keleti station for almost an hour after its scheduled departure. As it streamed west, it started to rain. Somewhere in western Hungary, the train stopped at a deserted platform for another hour. The cabin got hot and stuffy. I went to the dining car and bought Michael and I sandwiches and Serbian beer (the train originated in Belgrade). I fidgeted and smoked. I walked to the back of the train, did a few forward bends, stretched my aching back and stared into the darkness of the countryside. The delay meant I wouldn't get as much time to spend with Sarah, which was really annoying.

We arrived in Vienna around 9:30 p.m. and Michael and I walked the few blocks to our hostel. Kevin stayed with his friend Simone (pronounced Simona) who met him at the train station. Michael and I vowed never to stay in a hostel dorm room again after our overnight in Salzburg in September. We checked into a private double room. The hostel was really clean and modern, and the cheapest place to stay in Vienna at 21 euros per person.

We took Vienna's underground to Flex where Brand New was playing. The venue was right on the Danube River. Sarah put us on the guest list, which got us in for free and the door guy gave us backstage passes. The dance floor was packed with fans. I spotted Sarah above the crowd in the lighting cage. I got as close as I could and called her name. She blew me a kiss. It was so nice to see a familiar face. Michael and I watched the last 20 minutes of the show. It was the first time I'd been to a rock concert and knew the lighting person, so I focused mainly on the interaction between the lighting and the music. My old friend did a splendid job.

Sarah climbed down after the show and took us to the tour bus. She was in the midst of a nearly month-long Europe tour and the bus was leaving at midnight for Zurich, Switzerland. She showed us the lounge area on the bottom floor and took us upstairs where there was a long hallway of bunk beds to the left and another lounge to the right. She has a top bunk all the way at the front of the bus, which gives her a birdseye view of the road. You can read more about her travels here. We bought a round of drinks at Flex and spent the next hour or so catching up. We talked about New York, where she lives when she's not touring, and our mutual friends from college. I gave her a big hug good-bye.

Michael and I struggled to wake up in time for the 10 a.m. checkout Tuesday. We found a coffee shop and smoked over cappuccinos. We called Kevin and walked over to Simone's apartment. Kevin and his friend William met Simone in Vienna earlier this month. She was incredibly hospitable and sweet, and offered Michael and I a place to stay that night.

Kevin, Michael and I ventured out for food and to see the Raymond Pettibon exhibit at the Kunsthalle Wien, a contemporary art museum in Vienna's Museum Quarter. We spent a few hours taking in the hundreds of Pettibon drawings. We also saw the "Americans" exhibit, a collection of American photography from 1940 to the present. I was blown away by Helen Levitt's work — a series of black-and-white photographs of 1940s New York City. I also liked Bruce Davidson's photos of East 100th Street, New York in 1966, and Larry Clark's 1983 "Tulsa" series.

It was dark when we left the museum and we were exhausted. We decided to spend another night in Vienna. Simone invited a few friends over. We drank beers, listened to music and Simone and Dani (short for Daniella) taught us some German. We learned "Rat haus," a stop on Vienna's underground that made us giggle, means town hall.

We left on the 11:52 a.m. train Wednesday. The train was virtually empty and it was a sunny day. It flew through the countryside and we were back in Budapest three hours later.

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iván fischer

Jan. 28th, 2007 | 07:50 pm

We saw Iván Fischer at the Budapest Palace of the Arts yesterday. Fischer, a world-famous Hungarian conductor, is known for his innovation and creative zeal. The Budapest Festival Orchestra concert in the Bartók National Concert Hall was one of Fischer's "secret concerts," which meant the programme wasn't published prior to the show.

Fischer's introductions to each performance piece were not translated to English, but his stage presence was unpretentious and playful. Many of his speeches provoked giggles and smiles from the audience. The concert began with "Cantus arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra)," by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Fischer's assistants rolled a giant bird cage onto the stage. While Fischer stroked the air with his baton, the birds chirped to the music, which itself mimicked the sounds of a nature preserve. I closed my eyes and the music carried me to pristine wilderness, a teeming marsh where the drama of survival waged without human interruption.

The next piece was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major. I had a CD in college with the same concerto, so it brought me back to long nights of studying in the dorm and the heavy-headedness of intellectual immersion. I watched the orchestra, the blurred, rhythmic movement of arms and instruments, and of bodies overcome by the music. I paid special attention to the violinists. I played the violin in elementary school, and remember my kid fingers stretching to hit the notes, straining to press the strings. I ended up switching to flute, but watching those graceful professionals made me want to try playing the violin again.

After the intermission, the orchestra performed Sándor Veress' "Threnos — In memoriam Béla Bartók." This piece was darker and dramatic, and made my skin tingle head to toe. I thought about my childhood, my home in New York, and my dogs Orion and Cassie (rest in peace). Next was Beethoven's "Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93." Fischer's assistants appeared again, this time with a giant metronome. Fischer climbed into it and with one arm raised, he swung a life-size pendulum rod back and forth. The audience laughed out loud as Fischer's pendulum went from even rocking to spastic jabbing during intense parts of the symphony.

The encore sounded like "The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods," part of The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, but I'm not really sure. Another assistant came out and played the "cuckoo" sound through what looked like an ocarina flute filled with water. Fischer also had one and toward the end of the piece, they tried to "out-cuckoo" each other, spraying water everywhere.

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