The Odyssey {and a Jar of Jam}

veszprem, hungary

I arrived Saturday in Hungary on a 48-hour solo mission to collect my residency papers, a process András and I started on our last visit back in July. It was my first trip to my husband’s homeland alone, two and a half days poised purely for a 1 hour Monday  meeting on which my future citizenship resides.

My trip began at András’ parents house, where I am greeted by his mother's traditional welcome meal, and a backyard brimming with the fruits that were only promises back in July—füge {fig}, alma {apple}, dios {walnuts}, birsalma {quince}. My head spins with possibility. There are purple grapes to turn into pies,  figs to jam, quince to preserve and elderberries to make into deep, black syrups.

But that’s not why I’m here. So, I rest and let Anya, his mother, spoil me in the love language we both speak— thick kokoa {cocoa} and fresh kenyer {bread} and warm palicinta {crepes} smothered a summer’s work of preserved apricot and plums. Anya’s jam, or lekvar, tastes more like fresh fruit than anything we get back home, the luscious whole pieces of fruit just sweet enough to melt on the tongue and remind me why András can make a whole meal of nothing else.

In two short days, we plant cherry trees and visit my favorite winery in Csopask and eat ice cream on Lake Balaton. And every few hours we return to the kitchen where I dip back into her jars, spooning decadent portions of preserves over her homemade bread and the kefir she has curing on top of the fridge. With each bite I regret first that András is not here with me, and second, that I can’t eat enough for us both. I regret most that I can’t possibly bring back enough flavors from home to take the place of actually being here. But I can try. I clasp my hands in front of me and say his name, a gesture Anya rewards with two giant jars of jam, wrapped tightly in paper for travel home.

Monday arrives too quickly, and Anya wakes me at 6 AM for reggeli {breakfast}, a cup full of her kefir with apricot lekvar and a bowl of peeled kurta {pears} from Porva. I pack, tucking my treasured lekvar into my little bag, and head to the office of immigration with Apa, András dad. I’m greeted by a friend of András who works there; she triple warns me what to and what not to say. If I am asked why I didn’t come sooner, I am not to say it’s because I live in America. I am to say I was on holiday. I’m not so say why András wasn’t there with me. I am to say he's off playing sport on the other side of the country. I’m not to say I’m leaving on a plane bound for New York within the day. I am to say the address of our little house in Porva, which I know, but practice saying in Hungarian over and over again in my head as the gravitas of my accuracy sinks in.

At the desk, alone, I’m greeted by curt words I don’t understand. Angol?” I ask. Another agent steps in, half smiles and offers me broken English and a thick file with documents all baring my name or András’; banking slips, our marriage license, proof of property ownership. I recognize all of these from our first meeting here. She asks me to write and sign several declarations, and then, after much breath holding, she produces a passport-sized document with the Hungarian emblem and a photo of me in coiled buns taken back in June, looking decidedly Hungarian. She presses it into in the back of my passport and marks it with a final authoritative stamp, granting me resident status until 2014.

I beam. “Szep,” I say. Beautiful. She smiles. 

I meet Apa in the waiting room and convince him to help me celebrate with a quick trip through the piac {market} to get my last fill of local favorites. I fill up on barack {Peaches}, muskotaj {muscadet} grapes and rétes {strudel}. We polish them off during the two-hour journey to the Budapest airport where he drops me with a hug and a smile that matches the one that will greet me on the other side. I promise to give András their hugs, and feed him well.

Inside, I proudly display my resident’s sticker to the passport control, who flips past to the front page where a blonde and blue-eyed American girl smiles back at him. I ignore his disinterest in my pending countrymanship. I’m buoyant, thinking only of returning home to share my good news with András. I slide my bag through the security belt and glide through the metal detector.

“Open your bag, please,” an examiner asks. He hands me my bag.

I confess immediately. “I have lekvar.” 

“Do you know the rules about liquids?” he asks. “No liquids.”

“Yes, I know the rules. Lekvar is fruit and sugar, it’s not liquid.”

“No liquids.”

I proceed to explain that this is the only bit of home I can bring back to my husband, that it’s harmless, that it’s impossible for me to hurt anyone on the airplane with lekvar. Bombs have never been created from lekvar. He is unmoved. I begin to doubt the authenticity of his Hungarian accent. Certainly a Hungarian would know that I could not, would not, throw one’s mother’s jam away. I consider asking him to see his residency card, but instead I ask to see his supervisor. I tell my story again. I cannot throw it away. I will not throw it away. And besides, it’s not liquid, it’s lekvar.

“No liquids, no lotions, no lekvar.”

“Show me where it says no lekvar!” I demand. I recognize the desperation in my voice, and the fact that I’m treading on thin ground with a man who could make sure neither my lekvar nor me return to New York, but I’m unable to stop myself. He pulls the sign, points to lotion.

“But this is jam. It’s fruit and sugar. Fruit and sugar.” I repeat. My voice cracks.

“I’m sorry.”

Tears flood from my eyes as I lay the two jars of jam on the top of the pile of discarded water bottles and lotions, and pass out of security toward the gates.
On the other side, I stop, dropping my bags with my resolve, and cry. When I wipe my eyes, I see my gate directly in front of me with a flashing sign “oversold,” and in my hand a boarding pass that reads seat 35 E, the last row of the plane. It was more than I could bear.

I found a pair of soft eyes at the gate, and my tears come again. I’m not feeling well, I explain, asking to be moved up to bulkhead.

“Are you well enough to fly?” He asks.

“Yes. It’s just, I’m upset. They gave me a hard time at security.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. What did they do?”

“They took my grandmother’s jam.” I said, embellishing the facts beyond my control. “It was just lekvar, just fruit and sugar. It wasn’t going to hurt anyone. ”

“No. No, of course not. That’s terrible,” said the man with the soft eyes. Finally, a real Hungarian, I thought. “How about we put you in first class, seat 6A.”

“Yes, that would be fine.” I say.

On the plane, I recline my seat (before take off), snuggle into my duvet and fall into a deep sleep on my feather pillow. I wake up to wine in a real glass, filet mignon and a cheese plate, which I pick at before reaching for the cheese and piros paprika {red pepper} sandwich on fresh bread Anya packed me. I admit, I enjoy the endless stream of movies and service, the infinite legroom and 9 hours in a fully reclined position. I admit this is the better way to travel. But I’m still not convinced that all the free mimosas in the world can make up for being robbed of a whole month of Anya’s jam. Luckily, Mr. tough guy missed a jar.


jenny said...

This story made me cry! I'm so thrilled that you got at least one jar of lekvar home!

Katherine said...

Oh Sarah! I love this. So much depth and meaning. I feel I took the trip with you!

porva inn said...

Sarah nice you have your papers,sad to lose the jam
loved your story
greetings from Porva inn.
Jacco and Trudy

Holly said...

what a heart-wrenching story, Sarah! Poor Andras missing the Lekvar. Glad to know the tip about the seat-backs in their upright position, though.

JJPickford said...

This is a beautiful story, revealing your special aura and the fortune that follows those in love. I think airport security needs to focus on more important things and leave us our treats.

daniegil said...

I thought for sure you'd be able to convince the security guard. But at the very least I'm glad you snuck one jar by him.

On a more practical note, thanks for teaching all of these Hungarian words!

On a food note, I'm really curious to try lekvar now.

Tara said...

This happened to me with homemade crackers and cheese spread on the way to family for Christmas. I begged them to at least enjoy it as a snack themselves. They said we can't, and I stood there and watched them throw it all in the garbage. Dishonoring food and family tradition is a matter of national security!

Erin said...

I think the poor guy left you one last jar of levkar as a peace offering. You know his grandma had made him some in his childhood and he just had to have a jar...

I just love Anya and Apa. You are such a part of them now and they have truly become a part of you.

Sarah, your tales put me right in the middle of your adventures. Now, all I can think of is the imposterologist at the Embassy Ball in My Fair Lady thinking he has discovered Elisa's secret -

'"And with a voice too eager
And a smile too broad'"He announced to the hostess that she was a fraud'"
'"'Her English is too good,' he said. 'That clearly indicates that she is foreign'"'Whereas others are instructed ln their native language'"'English people aren't'"'Although she may have studied with an expert dialectician and grammarian'"'l can tell that she was born '"'Hungarian'
"Not only Hungarian but of royal blood'"She is a princess'"'Her blood,' he said 'is bluer than the Danube is or ever was'"'Royalty is absolutely written on her face'"'She thought I was taken in
But actually I never was'"'How could she deceive another member of her race?'"'l know each language on the map' Said he'"'And she's Hungarian as the first Hungarian Rhapsody''"
(copied and pasted - so overlook the punctuation errors please).

Anonymous said...

Adventure, love, heartache and magic. Your blog has it all, Cope!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS STORY!!!! my eyes watered when you i read that you started to cry.....i love the way you write. it's as though i'm standing right there with you! what a sweet story.


Seasonal Wisdom said...

What a lovely story. Thanks so much for introducing yourself to me on Twitter. It's delightful to learn about your experiences in Hungary, and I hope you'll keep telling your stories. I've been around plenty of grouchy foreign security officials, so I can completely imagine how it must have felt. Fortunately, it sounds like you'll be enjoying homemade Hungarian jam very soon. All best, Teresa

Istvan said...

Very sorry to hear about your experience in Budapest, since I’m Hungarian also and had many jars of lekvar in my childhood I feel your pain of loosing it. Similar fruit (lekvar) is available from. http://bende.com/

Good luck next time.

sarah said...

Thank you for your comment Istvan! I'm so glad to know about Bende so I can get more lekvar, paprika paste and all the other goodies Andras loves from home!

Come back and visit anytime. More Hungarian stories to come after our next journey.


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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.