The Long Shell

1

July 30, 2020 by ellie892

by Ellie Csepregi

“Travelling across borders, zooming through cities. I write in Chengdu tea houses, cafes in Budapest, bars elsewhere. “

Haibun during the time of Covid

A travel log:

PROLOGUE

Departure: October 23rd, 2019

I am at the Starbucks in Gellert Square in Budapest which is in the building where we lived. I’m sitting under the window of our old apartment from where I watched the world when I was a very small child.

Now as a retired teacher and a nomad I return, but miss the commemorative march for the 1956 Revolution by a day. Being alone, I have not spoken to anyone in over a week. I know no one in the land of my ancestors. I suddenly receive a text from a friend living in Chengdu to attend a Mega City Literary Festival in November. Hungary proves to be a palace of social desolation for me, so I begin to plan a trip to China and book a nonrefundable departure for mid November.

the other side is distant

we float between stay and go

silence holds deeper loss

Arrival: November 15th

In Chengdu near Wenshu Monastery I tap an orange vendor’s fruit cart with my carry-on bag. To make up for my error, I offer to buy two oranges, and he sells me a dozen.  They are heavy as I try to follow the faint directions on my cell phone. Google maps doesn’t work in China and I am lost again.  I walk past the dumpling shops where an elderly man puffs on a cigarette at the end of a long bent tube that touches the damp road awash with the juice of ripe fruit and the thin blood of livestock. The scent of early evening is remarkably familiar here, where I feel welcome in the chaos of these streets. 

At the foot of a small crimson bridge, a group of young men and women in black business suits and white shirts are selling apartment rentals. One approaches me and asks if I need help, so I tell him I’m looking for the LazyBones PoshHostel. He apologies for his English instructions so excuses himself from the others, and accompanies me to a busy, dusty road and leaves me in front of a nondescript concrete building with a cartoon drawing of a dog bone on the door. I offer him oranges and he declines, but we scan each other’s WeChat codes and wish each other luck. Later I will receive a text asking if I’m safe, if I’m comfortable and I answer yes to both questions. That’s all he wants to know. 

The hostel is a design of rustic wood work, colourful tiles, pictures of happy backpackers. My private room is large with a gated window that opens into the hallway. No birds sing, no roosters commanding. I roll into the comforter to sleep unaware of time.

                                   languages become one sound

                                        there is talk of dough and crowns

                                          how breath shatters

Cruising: November 16th – 25th

I feel like hiding and meditating. The meditation revolves around my poor planning and my depleted bank account. I cannot afford to see my friends until next week when the Mega City Festival begins, so I walk endlessly along the river, on the bridges, the dusty streets, busy markets. Buy food from the local vendors: two steamed vegetable buns for four yuan. Farther on, I buy three fluorescent plums: orange, sweet, without pits and wrap them in a hand drawn photocopied map of tourist attractions, places to find blanket noodle soup.  Later, I return to the hostel to make dumplings, for free, with travellers from Malaysia, Spain, Italy, France, Alaska, Brazil, Australia. We pose for the album of smiles. 

                                          abandoned rental bikes

                                              broken sidewalk a ditch is dug

                                                ancient dust stirs

I keep returning to Chengdu for warmth, acceptance, poetry. The scent of the musty earth grows in the air with each jackhammer punch. At the tea house under a commuter bridge, it is still quieter despite the click of mahjong tiles and teasing. As I sit and write, I hear opera voices, Puccini. I wonder where the concert hall is and after finishing my tea, I leave and follow the path along the river to the voices to find men and women with a microphone and a boom box taking turns to sing Italian and Sichuanese arias under a concrete shelter. I decide not to take pictures or record them or even applaud. There is no applause. They just sing, smile, another person takes the mic. A man outside the circle dances continuously, randomly. I wait by a planter box like a heedful flower. 

Which voice do I use now? My young voice went dancing. My working voice walked out. Now I am left with the voice of a vagabond.  Travelling across borders, zooming through cities. I write in Chengdu tea houses, cafes in Budapest, bars in Prague. 

The man outside the circle spins. The wide sleeves of his yellow windbreaker flapping like wings.

near death Kafka wrote

                                        he would return home 

                                              count steps to the Yangtze

Song birds in copper wire cages sway on trees in the park. Fun Lu is a market street near the monastery. People line up for sweet cakes. I wander behind the red walls that lead to the temple tea house. Listen to men arguing about politics, lack of love, the best places to dance. Perhaps. I don’t understand this language so I put words into their mouths. I take pictures of empty flower pots stacked in corners. I rest here under a yellow sign that indicates exit. 

Days have moved on. The air is thick and the sidewalk in front of the LazyBones, has been dug up. The pedestrians have vanished behind a corrugated metal barrier. I learn city crews are replacing gas lines. 

                               birds sing from fine cages

                                    water in delicate blue cups

                                       rusty wheels on long roads

 

I join my German friend and stay in her condo in Tongzilin. Some sort of karmic obligation has been met. In Chinese astrology, 9 is a good number to put an end to something, but 10 is inviting misfortune. This is my ninth visit.  I spent my last few days watching the grandmothers push strollers along the streets. Sometimes, I go down to the courtyard to dance with the damas on the cool November nights.  Other times, I become drunk in expat bars on fizzy cocktails. 

As much as I am drawn to China, I also fear it and its power to pull me in. Especially this city of Chengdu where the goal is that everyone lives each day fully in complete joy. I could stay here endlessly in delightful terror. So I step back, keep my distance, avoid the rush of crowds. Observant and silent. 

I meet my friends, celebrate art and poetry. The Mega City Festival is mostly local and later films would be shared with other cities in China of people reading their work in both English and Mandarin. Life here is changing.

The small local shops, the barbers, the noodle houses, the repair shops I used to pass on the road to work two years prior are partially bulldozed. Only steam and smoke rise from behind the construction barriers. The new buildings are tall, slick with granite facades and elaborate walkways. I miss the old muddied streets. 

                                 cold air from the metro entrance

                                    streets are wider in the night

                                      we run too fast not looking 

Departure: November 26th, 2019

Staring at the cast iron bamboo chairs in Taikoo Li, the plaza is filled with piped in techno music and places to pose for pictures. A playground with giant inflatable pandas and duck swings and flowery teeter totters are where parents bring their toddlers. A woman I used to see skating by on a street blade under the ginkgo trees in Tongzilin zips past. She is tall and very thin, severe looking in her shiny, chinched black coat, black leggings, black face mask, mirrored sunglasses, hair tightly slicked back and she is a whisper. A swift, gliding shadow. 

I fly out tonight and have a final coffee with a friend who, in a few months, will be unable to leave. Leaving and returning will become almost impossible and I regret not filming my last visit to China. So I begin to record the crowded ride in a Beijing airport bus.

                          jolts along the tarmac 

                             ocean waves of shoulders

                               glasses reflect every face

Arrival: November 27th

After a twelve hour layover in Amsterdam on a cold wet night, where I slept on a green carpeted shelf in a fake forest, I land in Budapest and stay at a hostel near the Oktogon. On the first night I meet two young students ironically from Chengdu who have been studying in Europe. They came here hoping to find groups of eager backpackers to play cards, charades, perhaps learn how to make liver dumplings. Instead they find tired migrant workers who travel to the city from the villages – look at their cell phones and hope to be called to work for a few hours.  

I agree to meet the students after breakfast the next morning. We visit Gellert Hill, the Grand Market, where we share goulash, langos, cabbage rolls. Then we wander the crowded Christmas Markets, drink hot wine and travel to Hero’s Square where they tell me one of them is a rising star in the ‘Party’ and it is delivered like a punch line to a joke. We all laugh and I understand why they had such finely tuned questions.

We scan WeChat codes and then I take them to the train station. Later we will send pictures to each other posing before fine hotels and Christmas trees. We will ask each other, “ Are you safe, are you comfortable?” Yes, yes, that’s all we need to know. 

                                  stainless steel tables 

                                     rows of metal chairs wait

                                       someone shuffles a deck of cards

Departure: November 29th, 2019

Travelling by train from Budapest to Szeged then to the town of Hódmezővásárhely to pay for the upkeep of my grandparents’ grave. I am next in line for that homage, and returning to the ancestral lands. Again, I feel a karmic debt that has to be fulfilled, but I am nervous. No one really knows that I am here, and the sexton thinks I might show up, or I might not. 

Decades ago the family wondered where my parents and I vanished. To anyone who saw us in Budapest that day, it looked like we were going for a quiet walk, but we boarded a train. On the train, it  looked like we might have been sightseeing. When the train disappeared into the fog, so did we. Swallowed by the mist. Today the fog is thick. 

I pay the fee and there is no need to be worried. Except when the sexton fills out the receipt, he questions, “Why do you Canadians only write two letters for all your provinces?” Then he quickly, without asking, writes Ontario and Kanada in full letters. I imagine he’s done this many times over the years, for the others who, like us, also ‘vanished’. The Hungarian word for grave is, sír (pronounced like sheer). The Hungarian word for weep is also sír and sounds like, sheer. 

                                     nothing less unmitigating 

                                        a shroud becomes a veil

                                            joy and grief carry tears

One thought on “The Long Shell

  1. […] connected with Ellie as she travels, writes, and eats cake, please follow her wordpress blog at https://swirl-yonders.ca/2020/07/30/the-long-shell/ .  Ellie is also on Instagram at @nomadtiers2020. Congratulations and thank you for sharing with […]

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