Tuesday, July 29, 2008

1996 is dead

1996 was an interesting year for me.

I was a sophomore in college. I was unhappy with my major - especially because it involved four times a week statistics classes at 8 a.m. But by the end of that year I decided to make a change and become a writing major, so things were looking up.

I had plenty of friends and while I wasn't invited to the cool parties with all of the international students - despite being one - I had my own possee of American friends to make up for that.

I had professors whose influence is still with me. I had a cool job the summer before and after my sophomore year at a business paper in Budapest. I might have still been wondering what life was all about -- I am still wondering today -- but everyone around me was doing the same.

That was also the year when very uncharacteristically for me I began a whirlwhind romance/friendship with one of those snotty international students. He was -- and I assume is -- exciting, and smart, and glamorous. He was the kind of guy who I thought would never be interested in a chubby Jewish girl from Budapest. But he was. Things didn't work out with him -- I now understand why and I am OK with it -- but at that time, the 20-year-old me didn't know any of what was to come.

Anyway, so it was a confusing, exhilirating, exhausting, liberating year. The possibilites for excitement and adventure were endless. To remember the time, the place, the people, I bought a Swatch watch after my finals in the spring. It's gold-colored, with the numbers 1-9-9-6 scribbled on the face. It was fitting, I tought.

And today I found out that the watch was dead. I took it in to a watch shop just to get a new battery for it when the salesperson delieverd the news: Your watch is dead. I stood there for a moment and mourned.

First, I thought I was only mourning a fashion accessory. But as I walked back to my office, I realized that my watch's death was somewhat well-timed. For the past couple of weeks, Drew and I have been making plans for buying a house, having a family, and really becoming settled-down adults. And while I never thought I had commitment issues, suddenly I was having heart palpitations when I thought about taking on a 30-year mortgage.

That's almost the rest of my life.

There will be no more spontaneity, no more chances for just quitting our jobs and running away, or traveling to exciting places. We will be stuck. With a house. And a baby. Yikes. All of last week I was plotting my escape -- escape from my responsibilites, from growing up, from being serious. I wanted to be 20 again. I wanted to be carefree and young and naive.

So the death of my watch was a wake-up call in a way. 1996 is dead. "You got 12 good years out of it," the watch repairmen told me.

He was right.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Secret Immigrant Behavior

A couple of years ago, when I was fresh out of college and living in my first apartment, my parents came to visit from Hungary. Opening a kitchen drawer, my Mom was surprised to find months' or even years' worth of Hungarian snacks, spice mixes, and other food stuff stashed away.

"Why do I keep sending you all this when you don't use them," she asked me. I didn't really know the answer - or didn't want to admit - that it just felt good to have all those familiar flavors right at hand, even if I didn't want or need to use them. The shiny packages of meatloaf mix, the crinckle of the chocolate pudding powder package, all reminded me of home.

Eventually I began to understand that all of us immigrants are hoarders in a way. We might be well-adjusted, we might fit in, and there might be nothing about us that screams "I am not from here." But I bet that ever immigrant in every part of the world has a drawer like mine, packed with stuff from home.

It doesn't have to be food - I also hoard magazines from Hungary, a package of tissues my childhood friend's mom gave me when I had the sniffles during a visit to Budapest, and a sweater that was last washed in my parents' washing machine at home. I haven't worn it - or washed it - since in hopes of keeping some of that familiar smell intact. It's fading now, but if I burry my nose in it for a couple of minutes, I can still get a faint whiff.

Another characteristic of this behavior is buying things in your home country that are available in the US, because you believe that your country's product is superior. Now that my parents are living in America, I think they are slowly beginning to exhibit traits of this secret immigrant behavior as well. They just returned from a visit to Hungary and they brought back things like pots, dessert forks, shower gel, and deodorant. I admit - the deodorant was for me. That, along with bags full of Hungarian cookies, chocolate, and spices all made the trip in suitcases and I know that my Mom will be hoarding them until the next holiday or birthday when she will sneak them into our packages. I can't wait.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this hoarding. But I feel silly admitting the melancholy I feel when I eat the last Pilota cookie from Hungary, or when I run out of my favorite deodorant. It feels odd that my identity and how I define who I am are somehow tied to such ordinary objects. I mean, what does an old plastic grocery bag from Kaiser has to do with who I am? But somehow, it does.

So I try to treat my secret hoarding drawer and the stuff in it matter of factly: it is there, it serves a purpose, it makes me feel better to have one, and anyone who doesn't like it can get over it. All right, so I am a little defensive about it. I protect it from my hubby who likes to throw away unused stuff and I will not publicly admit its existence.

It will be our secret.