Adventure, Impermanence, Money, Sensitivity, Swimming, Travel

Of Chanukah and Darkness within the Light

Budapest is magical at twilight. Bright lights everywhere, except indoors.

During the holidays, Budapest is aglow with dazzling lights. The glittering silhouettes of bridges, illuminated landmarks and twinkling decorations on streets and buildings create a magical if not mesmerizing cityscape. Despite the high wattage public splendor, dead bulbs seem to be haunting me like Scrooge’s ghosts. Earlier I described the rather laborious attempt of a handy man to change a few bulbs in the kitchen and bathroom of my rental. Within days, two of the kitchen lights fizzled and darkened again, perhaps due to faulty wiring. Since I feel much better in brightly lit places, and my mood dims under low light, the dead lights were more than just a nuisance or aesthetic disturbance. Then, as if on cue from a sadistic stage director, one of three bulbs in the living room ceiling fixture died. Had I been too stingy when choosing a place to stay? Probably. I removed the globe-shaped shade around it, only to discover the glass part of the bulb had sheared off and fallen inside. It reminded me of a handheld children’s game where there is a silver ball in a maze. You move the ball through the maze by tilting and rotating the board. I was never skilled at such tasks. I could not remove the bulb. I screwed the shade back on, busted bulb still inside.

I e-mailed the owner and didn’t hear back. Meanwhile, the washing machine failed to perform. It left clothing soaking wet and in need of exhaustive and exhausting wringing. While most of my travel clothing dries quickly, my thick cotton Aikido uniform does not. I cranked up the heat to hasten it along. Later, I messaged the owner about the washing machine, too. He asked me to make sure the hose wasn’t twisted. No, the machine was simply old. That I was staying in a place where things didn’t work properly began to bother me. A friend offered the use of his apartment but I didn’t feel at home in it or in the neighborhood. Still, I did not want my living situation to irritate me too much. My Zen teacher would never advise sacrificing one’s peace of mind for the sake of a defunct light bulb or a clunky appliance. Yet, I also didn’t want stay beyond the period I’d paid for, which did not cover my entire visit. Even if the owner had extended my rate during the holiday season, that would have felt like settling. I decided it would be worth moving, even though I was recovering from a virus and my energy was low, too low to go to another city altogether.

This time, I looked on AirBnB for an apartment. I found one with 99 reviews averaging close to five stars. It seemed worth the higher price. The owners, an English speaking ex-pat and his Hungarian wife, lived within a short drive, unlike the French owner of the previous place who hired an Italian to meet guests and coordinate repairs. According to AirBnB, this couple responded within an hour. Given the glowing reports and pictures, I imagined staying there would be like a fresh breeze, quickly and gently blowing away the memory of apartment #1. I booked it. The owner e-mailed me to tell me that he could not meet me when I arrived but he’d leave instructions for so I could get in.

The day I checked out of apartment #1, the Italian fellow showed up to retrieve the keys. He asked me if everything had been OK. I again mentioned the lights and the washing machine. He shrugged. Since he’s rather charming, one of those men whose mere presence is as soothing as a warm beverage on a cold evening, all traces of annoyance instantly left my body. Perhaps if he’d shown up every other day to check in, nothing would have bothered me. Sigh. I didn’t belabor the point. The washing machine would probably need to shudder to death during the spin cycle before the owner replaced it. At the new apartment, I retrieved the double-sided skeleton key from a lockbox and, after fiddling with the horizontal lock, let myself in. In looking around, I noticed five of the eight bulbs in the contemporary, spider-like ceiling fixture in the living room were dead, and half of the kitchen counter lights didn’t work, even though the apartment had recently received a glowing review. I wondered if I were living in an alternate universe where I am the only person who notices dead bulbs (and faulty appliances). Perhaps others didn’t take heed or care, or in the interest of leaving only congenial feedback failed to mention it so the owner had no idea. Still, arriving to a somewhat neglected dwelling that dozens had raved about left me feeling profoundly alone and as if I’d been gaslighted.

I tried logging into the WiFi so I could contact the owner through AirBnB’s site, the preferred way to communicate. None of the networks that appeared on my phone seemed correct. I looked for written instructions, common in other rentals. I couldn’t find anything. Nor did my e-mails from the host contain the information. Flustered, I called him. His phone beeped and went dead. I called several more times and couldn’t get through. Even though every bone in my body screamed for rest, I have learned it’s best to resolve problems as quickly as possible. I walked to a cafe and used their WiFi to contact the owner. I figured he’d respond within an hour, so I stayed long enough to receive a reply. While there, I checked my AirBnB reservation again online. It mentioned the WiFi network and password. I felt foolish for having missed it. Yet, back at the apartment, the network did not appear. I found the modem and router, tucked in a corner next to a wood carving of a Buddha head, eyes serenely closed in meditation. Was that supposed to be spiritual tech support? I unplugged the modem and reconnected it…a few times. No luck. I texted him that the WiFi wasn’t working. That, alas, was worse than dead bulbs.

As hours passed without a response, my frustration and disappointment increased. I called once more but he didn’t pick up. Again I was reminded of being on El Camino de Santiago and arriving at an albergue after an exhilarating day outdoors only to be confronted by a grouchy hospitalero or decrepit facilities that crushed my mood. Remaining in good spirits and becoming my own welcoming committee when faced with an uncongenial or uncertain environment remains one of my great challenges, especially when every piece of available evidence suggested things would go smoothly this time. When 8:30pm rolled around, more than five hours since I had let myself in, I called the owner again. He picked up. He said he’d been driving. He told me he’d show up the next day, Friday, to fix the lights and the WiFi. Still, I did not feel at ease enough to completely unpack. That night, I tossed and turned.

When I returned from a grocery run Friday afternoon, the owner was sitting on the living room couch, tinkering with a new router. He told me he could see the network on his laptop but there was still no Internet service. He’d send someone else to look at it over the weekend and he offered to reimburse me for a WiFi pass I’d purchased, restoring my trust. Meanwhile, he’d replaced the kitchen counter lights and the living room ceiling fixture blazed with fresh bulbs.

“There’s just one that’s not working,” he said, pointing overhead.

The WiFi did get restored. Tonight, Chanukah begins. Who knows, perhaps in a contemporary and odd twist on the ancient miracle, that 8th bulb might spontaneously glow before I leave. In these dark days and times, the world needs every last bit of light.


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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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