Happy Places Change

Written by Henriette J. Runte

I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

It seems appropriate to begin the New Year with an entry about Happy Places.

My Happy Place in the Carpathian Basin has been mentioned many times on my podcast and in my latest book, Life with Coach Pop, but perhaps I should tell you about it in this blog as well.

A very good childhood friend has a cabin outside of Bálványos that I have been going to for years. The little village of Bálványos is located north of Brassó (Brașov in Romanian; Krohnstadt in German) and east of Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș in Romanian), cradled in the bend where the Eastern Carpathian Mountains extend into the Southern Carpathian range. The thermal baths of Sováta and Tusnád lie to the west, not far away. My friend’s little cabin outside of Bálványos has been my Happy Place since my early 20s, when I first stayed there.

Everything I associate with this cabin is wonderful, even the long, complicated way to get there.

To get to Bálványos, I always have to go through Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca in Romanian; Klausenburg in German), the city where I was born. I still have old classmates and some friends of my parents’ living there, and Kolozsvár is an exciting city culturally. The city takes me down memory lane and makes me feel like I know who I am.

Bálványos is less than 200 kilometers from Kolozsvár, but the trip takes between 6 and 9 hours because of the terrible road conditions.

The first time I went to Bálványos, it was with several friends. We had two cars. We got a late start from Kolozsvár. It took us forever to get to Bálványos, and it was 3 am by the time we got to my friend’s cousin’s house, where we were supposed to pick up the keys. My friend’s cousin and his family take care of the cabin a little, so they are the ones in charge of the keys. This was in the early 90s, pre cell phones and such technological conveniences. We had no way of contacting my friend’s cousin from the road. They knew when we left, and they calculated when we should be there, and then they waited.

We felt terrible about arriving so late and thought we would find the keys hidden outside somewhere, with a little note of instructions and pointers. Instead, the entire family was still up, waiting for us. They had made beds for each of us with fresh, ironed white linen. And they set a table with bread, salami and fatback, peppers and cucumbers, butter, and milk.

We couldn’t believe it and felt we should not impose or put them out any more than we already had. We were all, except for my one friend, complete strangers to them after all. But they would not let us go up to the cabin in the middle of the night. They said it was too dangerous because of the roaming bears and because of road conditions being even worse up around the mountain hut. So, we ate and ended up spending the night.

In the morning we made our way to the cabin. We were almost immediately greeted by a pack of stray dogs. There were about 10-12 of them, big and small, young and old. I instantly fell in love with a midsized puppy that looked like a little wolf and could not have been more than 3-4 months old. My friend explained that the dogs protected the cabin from the bears in exchange for being fed. I didn’t want to think of what they did when no one was at the cabin. I wanted to adopt every single one of them.

The cabin is a very simple mountain hut with two rooms downstairs and a big attic flat upstairs, where all the beds are. There is no running water and no bathroom. There is an outhouse about 10 meters away from the hut, and the kitchen consists of a tiny underground room with two electric plates and some storage shelves. Most of the cooking is done outside, at the fire pit, where you hang a big iron skillet on chains and cook over the open fire. This is called bográcsozás, and it’s a traditional Hungarian way of cooking food. There is electricity, but the water has to be brought from a nearby fountain. It’s all wonderfully basic.

The nature around the hut is incredible. There are 2,000 meters high mountains with pine forests directing you to the peaks. There are natural sulfur baths. There’s a lake in a volcanic crater nearby, and there are exciting hikes to take, whatever direction you go. 

When I am there, I find serenity. The feeling is addictive, and I cannot stay away from this place for too long. After a while, I start craving this feeling of peace and belonging, this true calmness and oneness with nature and myself.

Already when we start out towards Bálványos, I go into this zone, this mindset, and I enjoy every single minute of the journey. Whenever I am there, I have to go to my favorite hill, the one that I have claimed as my own personal Happy Place. It is two rolling hills actually. Sheep and cows graze on it. The air is fresh. And there is nothing else. And this place has been my Happy Place, for as long as I can remember.

The last time I was there was with my husband to be. I took my husband there before I married him. Luckily for him, he appreciated my Happy Place. I guess we wouldn’t be married otherwise. With our children being born, and so many of my friends from Kolozsvár having moved to Budapest, we have returned several times to the Hungarian capital, but haven’t visited my Happy Place in Bálványos since.

Being too far away from your Happy Place isn’t a good thing, and I have been very emotional about this, especially in recent years. It has been a source of great sadness for me not to be able to retreat to my Happy Place at will. I have felt detached, uprooted for a very long time. I would even go as far as to say that I have been somewhat hopeless. If I couldn’t even manage to see my Happy Place on a regular basis, how could I hope to feel at home and to achieve a sense of completeness and tranquility.

But the title of this entry is “Happy Places Change” and here it comes …

It is very difficult to go from Hamburg all the way to my Happy Place in Bálványos. Either way you calculate it, I need at least 3 days to get there, if I plan it perfectly and everything goes as planned, which is rarely the case with a trip to Romania. First of all, there are no direct flights between Hamburg and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), so I always need to initially reach a connecting city in Germany, then fly, and then go by car to Bálványos. Going by train takes several connections and more than 20 hours, and then there is still the 6-9 hours of driving to Bálványos. There are buses that connect Hamburg and Kolozsvár, but these take about 28 hours. And don’t forget about the subsequent car ride to the mountains! It takes a lot of time for me to reach my Happy Place. It means setting out on a long, expensive and exhausting voyage, every time.

Much easier to reach is Denmark. An unexpected turn, I know! 

The first time I went to Denmark was when our twins were 4 months old. My husband’s family rented a house there. The vacation was wonderful, filled with great food and family around, but I hated Denmark. The beach was cold and windy, even in the summer, and the people seemed grumpy and snippy.

We returned one more time in the summer with my husband’s family, and then I started exercising my wifely veto on the matter, and we didn’t return for a while.

One year, when our third child was still a toddler, and I had been very sick for a long time, and we didn’t have the energy to plan anything else, we ended up renting a house on the beaches of Denmark again, this time in October. The house was an absolute disaster, moldy and stinky and truly horrible. Thankfully, we were able to switch houses, and the new one was acceptable, but nothing amazing. Still, we had each other. The dog was still alive. And we settled in to our little house. We took long walks, went on bike rides, played games, and recharged our batteries a bit.

One day, on one of our lengthy walks, we discovered a beach with breathtaking dunes. The beach is several meters wide (about 50 meters at high tide and more like 70 meters at low tide). It is a soft sand beach with beautiful, scattered shingles and cobbles. In the morning, you can walk in either direction for hours without seeing a single person, with only the sound of the crashing waves and the North Sea breeze to keep you company.

And then there are the dunes! To reach the beach, you walk through rolling sand hills covered in grass and shrubs. It is difficult to convey the beauty of these dunes to someone who has never experienced them. The landscape is almost surreal, like something an artist has dreamed up. The hills are often quite high, and you have to endure the climb. When you are in one of the valleys, all the surrounding sounds are blocked out and you are left alone with the little birds chirping. You often encounter deer grazing along your path. If you are lucky, you can see the occasional fox. And oftentimes, you will see a squirrel, a bunny, and frogs scamper by. From the top of the hills, you have a panoramic view of pure nature.

I often turn slowly 360 degrees to take it all in, the blue and white of the horizon, the green and yellow of the dunes, and the explosion of pinks and purples of a sunrise or sunset.

After our discovery of this pristine beach, we decided to return to Denmark the following year. This time, we rented a house closer to our favorite beach. It was wonderful. We could sit in a hot tub heated with firewood outside, overlooking the dunes. We could eat breakfast on the glass-covered, wind-protected, sunny porch. And we could reach the dunes and the beach without having to see another house or another person. Please don’t think that I am antisocial, but this feeling of seclusion and oneness with nature is something I do enjoy very much. And it is a feeling that I rarely manage to have, since we live in a big, cosmopolitan city in Europe! We have sought out this type of serenity on other vacations, to Norway, Argentina, and Croatia, for example, but since all of those destinations are also quite far away from us, we have never been able to return regularly.

Denmark became our vacationing place for the fall holidays. Our kids grew up expecting to go to Denmark at least once a year, usually in October, when Hamburg typically has two weeks of school holidays. We got to know the area around our favorite beach and we have rented one house after the other until we found what we consider the perfect house, a very modern construction, with comfortable rotating chairs and a cushiony, soft sofa in a living and dining room that allows for a view of the dunes in every direction through the multiple floor-to-ceiling windows that make up two of the outside walls. The house is cozy with its fireplace and little corners where you can read, write, or settle in for a chat or a game of cards. The modern kitchen and bathrooms provide for contemporary conveniences and comfort. This house in the dunes has become our little October home in Denmark, and we return with enthusiasm year after year. 

We look forward to going in to town by bike to buy bread for breakfast. Rundsykker (breakfast breads; Brötchen in German) and valnøddebrød (a type of Wallnut bread) are personal favorites. We are always delighted to buy the Danish potatoes, sold on the side of the street in little huts where you just take a bag and pay into a metal money box – left up to your conscience and sense of honor to pay the right amount. We crave ahead of time the rullepølse, a traditional Danish cold cut, the leverpostej, a Danish liver pate, and the rygeost, a Danish smoked cheese we particularly enjoy. Interestingly, it is also in Denmark that I find some of my favorite American treats, Twinkies and corn nuts as well. And we always go to the same restaurant for a round of the best burgers the North has to offer!

I originally started writing this entry while we were in Denmark on this year’s fall vacation. My whole family was asleep after a long day of playing in the dunes, running up and down in the sand, flying kites, and breathing in the crisp, iodine-filled air of the North Sea. I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

Right now, I am sitting in front of the fire at our house in Hamburg. It is January 1st in 2023. My family is still asleep, and I am trying to finish up an entry I can offer you in celebration of the beginning of the new year.  

If I closed my eyes and try to conjure up an image of my Happy Place, I see my children running in the dunes of Denmark. In my mind’s eye, they are in turns toddlers stumbling over rocks and almost teenage giants passing me on the paths with long strides. Memories of our dog who shared the dunes with us in his lifetime and still joined us in spirit this past Fall flood my mind. I smile at the thought of my husband and I on our morning jogs that inevitably turn into us goofing around like children, or our evenings of binge-watching our favorite series, a sinful pleasure we only allow ourselves in Denmark where the abundance of time spent in nature during the day justify such sedentary activities.

I remember particularly one day this past Fall when we were walking back from the beach and I was suddenly hit by the realization that Jutland in Denmark had become my Happy Place.

The kids were running around, giggling, and telling stories excitedly with pink cheeks and foreheads sweaty from all the playing. My husband was telling jokes, relaxed and carefree. Tiny, perfectly round spider webs lined the shrubs on the path. The grass was leaning backwards, engaged in a romantic dance with the wind. And the sun was caressing my face. Everything was picture perfect, like a drawing in a children’s book. I turned around in a circle, as I often do in beautiful landscapes, and I realized that there was nothing I would have wanted to change, not in what I could see or smell or feel. I was at peace, in my Happy Place.  

But how could this be? How could Denmark have become my Happy Place? And had Denmark replaced the Carpathian basin?

I am Hungarian, by blood, by ethnicity, and by ancestry. Much of my cultural identity is marked by an upbringing anchored in the Carpathian Basin. History and family link me to the area. I carry the Carpathian Basin deep in my soul. But we are meant to develop over time, and to adjust to new conditions and circumstances.

My father made a bold move when he fled Communist Romania. His decision severed our official ties with the country, and made a connection to the people and the places there more difficult to maintain and almost impossible to develop further.

I cherish the close friendships I still have in Hungary and Romania. I am proud to still be able to speak Hungarian with native fluency and to still have working knowledge of Romanian. I absolutely insist on teaching my children about the area I am originally from, and I try to instill in them an appreciation for the writers, musicians, and artists of the region. I raise them to understand the delightful humor of Transylvanians. I give them the tastes of the cuisine. I teach them the history and the mentality.

But happily, I too have moved on. I would like to begin the new year with this realization: that my cultural identity crisis is perhaps slowly finding its way out of confusion and panic. Together with my husband and our children, I think I am creating my own history, and I am starting to instate my own traditions and cultural markers. Although I have found a new Happy Place in Denmark, the Carpathian Basin and the house in Bálványos will never be replaced.

But it is perfectly all right to be happy in more than one place! In fact, you know what? I’m not that unhappy sitting right here, in my living room, right now!

Here’s to Happy Places around the world and why not also to being happy wherever we are! 

Recommended artists

  • For paintings of the North Sea Dunes, Reiner Würz and Lothar Struebbe, two German painters
  • For paintings of the Carpathian Basin, the Hungarian painter from Csíkszereda in Transylvania, Imre Nagy.

Written by Henriette J. Runte

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