Closing and Opening

We saw plenty of houses with tired kitchens and cheap windows. We toured one house with a minimally outfitted kitchen but four giant bedrooms and seven full bathrooms. We visited an American-flag-flying Republicans’ house, with a sign to the Elephants’ Path through the garden. It was another somewhat neglected house with an immaculate barn where we realized we had already seen the house we wanted to make an offer on. My husband and our good-humored real estate agent and I stood on the circular driveway of this house owned by nice people who were out in the barn, neglecting their downspouts and grout but taking exemplary care of their horses while we somewhat guiltily plotted to make an offer to Mrs. Gardenwinkle.
Mrs. Gardenwinkle countered, and we countered again. Finally, she came back with the amount the Bacon Provider expected her to sell for in the first place, and we had a deal. The next question was could we close by the 15th. Somehow there was yes after yes. 

The inspection was a long day. The house is 30-ish years old, and many of the systems of a house (AC, windows, boiler, well, water heater, roof) have a 30 year lifespan. Every house I looked at had the same boiler, it seemed, in house after house. The septic guys showed up to test the septic system. There was a lot of digging and standing around. I wrote checks.

The inspector checks boiler maintenance 
We hired a real estate attorney because that’s what people do here. We have also bought and sold houses in other places, and there are regional differences regarding the closings. On the west coast, papers get signed and exchanged and you might not even meet the sellers. In Vermont, you hire lawyers and have a formal closing, in a conference room, with the title company, a banker, your lawyers, their lawyer, buyers and sellers all in attendance. Since that was our first house purchase, in Vermont, way back in the late 80s, it seemed strange and intimidating but normal. Strange in that adulthood was mysterious to us then, and normal in that we’d never bought a house before so whatever these people said was the regular thing to do became the regular thing to do. At that first closing, one of the heirs to the estate complained about the wilted flowers on the coffee table. “Get these out of here,” she said. And added, by way of explanation, “I can’t STAND dead flowers.”
As I recall they weren’t really even very dead, just a little wilted, and a bewildered bank employee did the honors, after having the vase thrust upon her.

Our New York closing was held at the office of our attorney, in the upstairs of a Victorian house on a neat street in the shady village of Mount K., in Westchester. We arrived after the real estate agents, Mrs. Gardenwinkle and her son, who was there to act as her attorney, but before the representative of the title company arrived. Mrs. Gardenwinkle recommended having a son grow up to be an attorney.  Mrs. Gardenwinkle’s son rolled his eyes. I did not allow myself to be distracted by the thought of any of my children going to law school. 

Our attorney’s conference room was cozy and prettily lit, with red walls and a collection of distractingly gorgeous 20th century design posters, and between those posters and his dogs wrestling at my feet most of the time we were there, I didn’t have much of an idea what was happening. Everyone knew everyone else, and spoke at length of mutual acquaintances, sailing, pending legislation, golf, and local board planning commission gossip. The title company representative breezed in at last, with long decorated nails and blow-dried straight hair, an animal print blouse and cleavage, injecting a bit of The Other Westchester into this bland, white crowd. My husband signed some things, and passed them to me, and I signed them and passed them to the title company representative. I produced the Big Bank Check I’d had prepared in advance, and wrote some more checks.
Mrs. Gardenwinkle, who celebrated her birthday the week before, is exactly my mother’s age. She passed the last set of keys across the table, and reminded me that I have her cell phone number in case I have any questions. I realized without fanfare that we owned a house again, after four years of waiting.

On the way out, we all shuffled, still chatting with the satisfaction of the happy closing of a deal, through the attorney’s assistant’s office and descending the narrow stairs to the small, gravel parking lot. Our cars were a mix of Volvos and BMWs. Mrs. Gardenwinkle was parked next to me, and she told me that she had owned the same model car as my beloved wagon, but had recently switched to the sedan instead, which she regretted.  We pulled out of the lot last, and drove directly to the new house.

On the counter, Mrs. Gardenwinkle had left us a list of all her utilities, the numbers for her housekeeper and her yard guy and a large folder, with contracts from the alarm company, roofers, trash collectors, AC service companies and all the rest. She even included the plant tags from her roses, with photographs of them each in bloom. My mother never grew roses, but if she did, she would have kept a carefully organized file, documenting their needs and accomplishments, and given this information to their next caretaker. I wonder if she would have agreed with me that Mrs. Gardenwinkle shared her mother’s taste in wallpaper.

Budapest #2 ⅔: Looking for Váci Utca

There is a story my mother-in-law likes to tell, laughing until the tears fill her eyes, about my husband when he was a young boy. The story took place on the street, in Budapest.

I dreamed about the story a couple of months ago. In my dream, my husband had written down the story, in Hungarian, for his blog.

My husband left Hungary around the age of 5, with his parents and his older brother. After that, they sought asylum in Austria for a year or so and then, received permission to come to the United States. None of them spoke any English when they came; it had been forbidden. Now, a generation later, everyone in Budapest speaks it.

Growing up, the only people my husband ever really spoke Hungarian with was his parents. Among his siblings, they spoke English unless they were using it as a secret language, to say things in front of other people. There was very little danger of anyone overhearing them and knowing Hungarian.

Spoken Hungarian sounds a bit lit people are making up sounds and are pretending to talk. I always thought that the character of Latka Gravas on Taxi as speaking a gibberish resembling Hungarian. 

My exposure to Hungarian has mostly been overhearing one end of my husband’s phone calls with his mother.  I am only familiar enough with this famously difficult and unique language that I know a couple of weird, mild curses, plus, “Én nem tudom,” which means, “I don’t know,” and “Nagyon jól, which is, “Very good.” I am familiar with the stuff of ordinary conversations with Mom, “Good night!” and “Love you!” but that’s about it.

My husband had asked his mother for a list of things to do when we were in Budapest, and it was mercifully short. It was easy enough to buy opera tickets. We stayed near the Szent István Bazilika and went in on the first day; there were art students sitting on the floor, sketchpads on their laps, their heads tilted up, as they drew the ceilings. We stumbled onto the Labyrinth. It was pretty cool and creepy, though I still don’t understand the manikins in renaissance costumes and the piped-in opera music. Still, we did it; we paid the ridiculous 2000 Ft, used our phones as flashlights, got water dripped on our heads, and checked it off the list.

By the second day in Budapest, I was wondering about that story my mother-in-law likes to tell. Where had that story had taken place? My husband called from Budapest to ask his mother if she knew what street it was on.

She remembered it to be on Váci Utca. We had already found Váci Utca on the Pest side of the Duna, a shopping street with souvenir shops, chain stores, and restaurants. Pretty much the kind of street where you weave between the shuffling tourists and the restaurant barkers, offering “authentic gypsy music and Hungarian food.”

All I wanted was a picture of a street sign. The three of us fanned out, my husband with his camera, and my oldest son and I with our phones. I take so many pictures with my phone I’ve gotten pretty good at snagging candid shots of random people without drawing attention to the fact that I’m getting a photo of them. But there was one photo that got away completely that morning. It was a man, not too young and not too old, with the flushed complexion of a guy who drinks a lot, but that lean, thin look of a guy who works hard, but maybe drinks more than he eats. He was standing on the corner of Váci Utca and Türr Istvan Utca, solemnly wearing a paper Burger King crown. I really wanted this man’s picture, but he had a wild and terrible look in his eye. My husband saw him too, but took a photo of the street name on a different corner.
Váci Utca, Budapest

The old story goes like this: Kís Otti was walking with his brother and mother and father on a Budapest street when a black market peddler whispered to them that he had chewing gum to sell.

People in Hungary had not had chewing gum before. It was new, chewing gum, yet children knew about the stuff somehow. It is children’s business to know about candy, especially new kinds of candy.

Kís Otti paused and said, in a whisper, “Rágógumit akarok!” which means, “I want chewing gum.”

His mother and father pretended they didn’t hear him, and kept walking.

Kís Otti stopped and said, in a quiet, speaking voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father heard him, but they couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was too expensive. They kept walking.

Kís Otti would not go another step. He said, in a loud voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father had to stop. What were they going to do? They couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was out of the question.

Kís Otti began to chant in a small, powerful voice, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! 

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, who stood to benefit from the purchase of black market chewing gum, stood nearby, not smiling, but not frowning, either. Kís Otti kept chanting, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

One stick of chewing gum was 1000 forints. The family had just 16000 forints for the week. Kís Otti’s father thought they should pick him up and carry him away from the black market peddler with the 1000 forint chewing gum. Kís Otti’s mother thought he would never stop chanting.

Kís Otti still chanted, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, looked from his frowning father to his pleading mother, said nothing.

When we got back from Budapest, I was struggling to write the story of “Rágógumit akarok!” on the grounds that I still didn’t have enough details. Didn’t they live in another town? Why were they in Budapest? How did they get there? How expensive was the chewing gum?

I called my mother-in-law and she was happy to oblige. Her English is very correct, and her accent is gorgeous and slow, with rolled r’s. They had travelled to Budapest because, as she tells it, “We did not want our little sons to be not aware there was a larger world.” They were living in a small town, “quite close to Budapest,” and had a car, a Moskvich. 

It was a terrible, underpowered car, and struggled mightily on hills. She laughed her way through a reminiscence of driving it into the mountains, a long line of cars following as they struggled up, their finally overheating on a narrow shoulder and their efforts to cool it down by heaping snow into the engine. She told me her in-laws had bought it for them, and they were meant to pay them back, but they, “did not get lucky enough to pay them back.”

Of course, if you know my husband, you know that he got chewing gum, and so did his brother: one piece each. They chewed it all day and wanted to save it for the next day.

As for me, I continue to have new questions. Will I really have to call her again to ask, what color was the Moskvich?