It was a very sunny day on Wednesday last week. And the warmest day of 2011 so far. The skylight in my Beregszász room was washed a very springy sky blue, and after writing some emails, I looked up at that sky and wondered what on earth I was doing inside.
The week before, it had been snowing steadily nearly the entire time I was in town. The tiny snowflakes obscured the doilies and dried herbs and fresh milk the village ladies were selling just outside the big market. This week, a record number of ladies had invaded the sidewalk space in numbers not seen since the fall. The warmer weather also has added eggs and pussy-willow bouquets to the sidewalk displays. I’m always tempted to buy the dried beans and fruit and herbs and mushrooms they’re selling, but I don’t actually know what everything is and how it should be prepared. And I’m not really in Beregszász long enough each week to sustain that amount of food. I often wish I had a Transcarpathian Food Picture Encyclopedia.
After I passed the entrance to the market, I entered the main square. This square has as many moods as I do. On some days, usually the somber and gray ones, the square just echoes footsteps – workers in leather shoes, women in high heels, the elderly in clunky snow boots – and nobody talks. One morning as I walked by, the only sound was a lame beggar intoning pleas in Ukrainian. He paused his chanting only long enough to take quick breaths, and when someone put money in his outstretched bag, he would sing “Dyakoyu” into his string of words and continue. On other, opposite-feeling mornings, another lame beggar, this one in a wheel chair, plays the accordion for change, and the entire square feels like a festival.
The hour after school gets out, children throw snowballs and run and laugh and shout. On sunny market mornings, walking without running into someone gets complicated. The square is populated with every variation on Transcarpathian life. There are old women in kerchiefs, maybe alone, maybe linking arms with a child. Gypsy women push old baby carriages filled with used clothes or boots for sale. Police officers or city workers tromp about in combat boots, young college students sling bags over their shoulders, middle-aged folks pedal by on bicycles with shopping bags on the handles. Sometimes the Reformed Church bell is ringing, and then its single note echoes so persistently that the sound fills every crack between the cobblestones.
After the square, I walked to the only stoplight in town (actually, it’s only stoplight I see for months on end). On the other side of the crosswalk sits a tiny street-vendor cafe that serves as a daily temptation for me. The little shop sells kürtős kalács, one of the best street sweets I have ever eaten. I can always smell the chimney cakes baking/roasting as I walk past, and I have to think very hard about something completely unrelated – like knitting socks or a memory from my senior year in high school – to keep from reaching into my bag and shelling out the 3 1/2 hrivnia (about 50 cents) for one treat.
But that day, because the sun was so nice, and I was a little hungry, I decided to splurge. To my great dismay, they were out of kürtős kalács by that time of day. But my sadness was easily assuaged by other tasty-looking pastries sitting by the window, and I ate one happily as I continued walking. I passed the circle where most of the buses stop (but not mine) and walked to the Catholic Church. A side-chapel was open, and I decided to take a moment to pray. I stowed my pastry in my bag, which ended up being a poor choice, since the pastry was covered in powdered sugar. No matter. Just dust off the phone and Hungarian dictionary, and I’m back in business…
The chapel was simple, painted light yellow, with four statues of saints. At the saints’ feet were spring offerings – a small bouquet of crocuses, several bundles of pussy willows, fresh doilies, bunches of dried flowers. Outside the church, the sun had sunk even lower and lit up the whole yellow church like a candle.
I walked down a side street, noticing abandoned lots and well-kept homes – that strange contrast that is simply an everyday reality in a country still figuring out its identity. The cobblestones in the street were worn smooth and the sidewalk was cracked and canyoned, and the houses’ shadows were creeping up to the other side of the street. I returned to Kriszpont before the sun went down because, to me, there is nothing more lonely than walking in a city at dusk. So I hurried home to make dinner. And I can only assume everyone else did, too, because Beregszász clears out by 5 o’ clock, and I was almost alone on the sidewalks.