“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I’m a naturally curious person, but I have my limits. Even during one of my exploratory hikes, I often question why I’m pressing on, what I’m trying to find, and if my life is really just going in circles. Through this existential cacophony, I hear my mother’s words, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and, if only for a few extra tenuous moments, I’m no longer in my downward spiral.
As is my custom now, it seems, I took another stress-relieving hike after teaching English at a business far up Szépvölgyi út on a Buda hill. I trundled and stumbled over terraces of foot-tall stone walls – possibly remnants from wartime fortifications of the German holdouts during the Siege of Budapest – which seemed to wrap around the great mound like lacing around a wedding cake. At the top, I acknowledged another uneventful triumph of yet another Buda hill with yet another panoramic view of Pest. Then, I noticed the eyes staring at me with horror – or intense interest? – from the muddy ground. What I foolishly mistook for a rogue seashell I later discovered to be the shedding of Helix pomatia, a common relict in Hungary and the surrounding European countries and also known informally as the Burgundy or Roman snail. Against the pressed wet leaves matting the forest floor, they and the smaller, more cylindrical Phenacolimax annularis were easier finds than the spherical discs I was really after: Marasmius oreades. Known as the scotch bonnet, the fungi’s other namesake, fairy ring mushroom, more appropriately describes the phenomenon, rather, that I hoped to happen on. Imagine my shock then, when I looked down from a clearing and saw this:
Of course, I was disappointed on two counts, the first being that the patterns were constructed with rocks, and the second, that I’d be seeing no dancing devil elves on this day. A homeless man (or otherwise an unusual camper) was tidying up his tarpaulin shack nearby, and I asked what he could tell me about his fantastic lawn decoration. What with my poor grasp of Hungarian, I gleaned that he had no idea of its origin, as he was from Yugoslavia, having presumably escaped to Hungary in the early 90s during the Yugoslav Wars.
Nearly back where I started my now three-hour expedition, I veered off the path in another direction, this time to find a perfect container for my growing collection of Buda treasures: a spun ceramic jar from Kecskemét Cannery, 50-some miles from Budapest and which first opened and produced these candied goods containers from 1901. A rigorous scrubbing later at home would reveal a red crest with a rearing goat (“kecske” in Hungarian), the official coat of arms of the city. Not only was this the birthplace of a favorite famous Magyar musician of mine, Zoltán Kodály, but it is also now linked with Universal Group (Univer), the products of which my flat mate Heather is very fond (look up their popular squeeze-tube flavors such as Onion, Goulash Cream Mild, and “Erős Pista” or “Strong Steve”).
At the end of the day, I felt my silly little trek turned out to be another time-waster, something to fill up the pages and pass the hours, ending exactly where I had begun. But perhaps not. Maybe my trajectory was and is more of a line than anything: Maybe the reason I can’t see where I am or where I’m going is because I’m not going in circles but rather a line, which stretches onward and can never go back on itself. And, after all: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.