“Chicken Soup, Perfume, and the Dunked Minister – Easters of Days Past”

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old! …

Oh, Easter is a special day in our family. It certainly has been a VERY special day, ever since I almost died on Good Friday when I was 5 years old!


My mother is the religious one in my family. She belongs to the Reformate church, which is the only branch of Protestantism that exists in Hungary and Romania. My father is a Catholic, but not a very good one. When asked by my mother to teach me the Lord’s Prayer in Hungarian, my father taught me a rated R version that resulted in my mother not speaking to him for weeks. For those who speak Hungarian, his version of the prayer began with, “Mi gatyák, aki a kosárban…”

My mother has always taken religious holidays very seriously, and Easter has always been second only to Christmas in her book. On Easter, my mother has always taken it upon herself to feed her friends and neighbors, as well as the poor and unfortunate. As a result, she has always cooked for days before Easter.

The year I turned 5, she decided to initiate me into this tradition, only everything went wrong.

My mother had prepared a gigantic pot of chicken soup and placed it on a wooden board under the window to let it cool off. She proceeded to further busy herself at the stove with the preparation of the other dishes. I went to the sink, which was right next to the window, to lick out some bowls that had been used to make the desserts. I took one wrong step, landed with my foot partly on the wooden board the chicken soup was resting on, lost my balance, and fell into the pot, with my behind first.

The pot was so huge, that I slipped in all the way to my waist and got caught. Apparently, I only let out one little scream and then fainted. My mother pulled me out of the soup as soon as she could, but my poor bottom still cooked into the soup for altogether too long.

What made matters worse was that I was wearing nylon panty hose that quite dramatically melted into my flesh.

The story turns funny in a second, so please keep reading.

The ambulance was called, I was taken to the hospital and saved, but my mother insisted on bringing me back home, trusting only herself to take care of me. Now, you have to know that in the late 1970s in Romania, the way they treated severe burns was to clean the wound thoroughly and press sterile gauze, dipped in iodine into the wound. As the skin grew back, the gauze pieces would slowly peel off.

So, you see, I returned home, wrapped from the waist to my knees in gauze dipped in iodine and could only rest on my stomach.

And it was Easter!

But it would turn into not only a memorable Easter, but also a joyous one.

My father, the not-so-good Catholic, has always been a very good father. And he was not going to let me be sad on Easter.

In Hungary and Romania, one interesting Easter tradition, for kids especially, is the practice of locsolás. On Easter Monday, excitement about spring and ancient fertility rituals mix into the religious celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Little girls and women paint eggs, mainly by attaching little flowers and leaves onto the eggs, tightly wrapping them inside old pantyhose, and cooking them in water with red onion peels or red beets. They also prepare obscene amounts of cookies and pastries.

On Easter Monday, little boys and men are supposed to go visit every woman they know. Men start early in the morning with the “less important” women in their lives, and mostly time it so they are with family and close friends for mealtimes. The evening visits are reserved for the most special women, and these visits tend to be a little longer than the others.

As a little girl, I kept a special diary of my Easter visitors, and compared how my list developed from year to year. The boys and men who came by our house would put their name down in my book and would maybe draw a little something, or write one or two lines.

According to tradition, the men recite a poem to the women and ask if they may water them. In the villages, the watering sometimes means throwing a bucket full of water over the head of the woman in question. But most of the time, a few drops of perfume are used instead. The gentleman callers are then rewarded with colored eggs. One of the best know poems that men tend to recite goes something like this:

„Én kis kertészlegény vagyok –
Virágokat locsolgatok.
Azt hallottam, hogy egy rózsa
El akar hervadni.
Szabad megöntözni?“

Translated, this means, “I’m a little gardener who is watering flowers. I heard that a rose was wilting. May I water it?”

Other poems are more humorous, or poetic, or personal. It is up to the man to decide on his particular poem. Some men write their own poems and come up with a new one every year.

How many different perfumes mix atop of your head on Easter Monday, and how long your list of callers gets is a particular point of pride, especially for little girls.

So, back to my burned behind (-:

As you may know, my father was the National Olympic Weightlifting Coach in Romania. On the Easter when I was burned, he had all his athletes come and call on me on Easter Monday. He recruited neighbors, friends, everybody he knew. There was a line of boys and men outside our house that year, which cheered up even the little girl in considerable pain, lying on her stomach, with her bandaged backside in the air.

Of course, stories tend to forget about my poor mother, who in light of my funny, heroic, extroverted father, gets ignored. So here are a few lines about my dear mother as well. You can imagine the feelings of guilt she was coping with that particular Easter. Nevertheless, she finished her cooking. She prepared hundreds of colored eggs. And, she set up a system to disinfect all the visitors’ hands and maintain hygiene around her severely burned daughter.

And to top it off, she served everybody a bowl of soup!

This cheered me up the most. Knowing that people were eating my butt soup just cracked me up inside!

Not the article about Easter you were expecting? Well, welcome to my world!

Once we moved away from the Carpathian Basin, my Easter experiences became less spectacular. But I do still have one or two stories about Easter that you might enjoy.


Skipping forward to the first Easter experience my kids had in the US, I will tell you about the year we visited my dear friend Deborah in Dallas.

My parents have been living in the US for over 40 years now, but Easter at their house is still more reminiscent of the Carpathian Basin than of anything real Americans do. So, one year, when our twins were 5 and our little one had not yet turned 1, we went to celebrate Easter with a childhood friend of mine in Dallas, so the kids would finally experience a real American Easter.

The part of Easter I was looking forward to the most was Sunday Mass at Sunrise, because that is something that I had shared with my friend Deborah when we were growing up. My parents felt a little estranged from churches in America when we first moved to Texas from Romania. There were too many branches of Protestantism to pick from and ceremonies were way too jovial and loud for their cultural taste. My parents have since found a Methodist church where they feel very welcome and comfortable, but during our time in Texas, my church experiences were limited to going with Deborah to her Presbyterian church. I particularly enjoyed Sunday Mass at Easter. The church always organized a lock-in on Saturday night. We watched movies, talked, ate junk food, and spent the night in the church. Then, on Sunday, we were expected to get up at the crack of dawn and go to mass. The services on Easter Sunday at Deborah’s church, with the sun coming up and the minister finding just the right words and sentiments, always appealed to me. These were some of the most religious moments of my early teens.

I really wanted my kids to experience Deborah’s church on Sunday, but with three little ones – four, actually, with Deborah’s son – we just didn’t make it that early. But the church was organizing an Easter Egg Hunt and many games and activities, so we headed out as soon as we could.

What struck me as different from the way I remembered things was that the eggs that were hidden were basically reusable plastic egg-shaped containers filled with various types of candy and chocolate. I found that quite progressive and environmentally friendly.

We used the choochoo train that was set up for the occasion. We blew soap bubbles and played the games.

Then, we wandered over to the dunking booth. In case you are not familiar with dunkin booths, they are big containers of water with a seat on top. The objective is to hit a lever on the side that makes the seat drop into the water. Different volunteers, some more prominent than the others, sit on the seat, and people try to dunk them, making them sink into the container of water. Often, dunking booths are used to raise money for a cause. In this case, it was simply a fun way of bringing the community together.

Many people sat on the seat and got dunked, but whenever the minister sat atop the dunking booth, somehow no one managed to make him sink. My kids took turns trying. Deborah and her husband and my husband tried their luck. I just watched. I’m not a particularly good thrower, so I just stayed out of it.

They announced that it would be the last round and the minister volunteered to sit one final time atop the dunking booth. I said that I would give it a go this time. I took the baseball handed to me. No one thought I could do it, but with my first shot, I dunked that minister good!

It was very funny. The minister, completely soaked from head to toe, came to meet us and to have a chat about the different ways Easter is celebrated around the world. It was all very light and pleasant and very comforting and uniting.

Afterwards, I had to think about how strange life is sometimes. Until that moment when I dunked the minister, Easter somehow always carried the gravity and drama of what had happened to me at Easter when I was little. But leave it up to the good ol’ US of A to add a little cheer to it all.


By the way, did you know that Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday are national holidays in Germany, a secular country. And yet, in the US, although “In God We Trust,” only Easter Sunday is observed, with very few exceptions like the White House Easter Egg Roll or days off due to Spring Break.

In Hungary and Romania, including the Carpathian Basin, where I was born, Easter is also celebrated and recognized nationally as a public holiday from Friday to Monday, both Friday and Monday being official days off from work.

In France, Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, is not a public holiday, because the day does not call for celebration. However, Easter Monday, which marks the Resurrection of Christ, and the end of Lent, is a day of rest, a day when all public offices are closed and the people are given the day off from work.

I have only spent one Easter in France. I spent 7 summers researching at the theater festival in Avignon, countless summers in Paris, studying, taking groups of students on university exchange programs, or just vacationing, and many summers traveling around the country, visiting my host family in the Nantes region, or enjoying the beaches of the Vendée or the beautiful landscapes of the Dordogne area or the South of France. But almost all of the time I have spent in France has been in the summer. But I did live in Besançon for a year and taught at the Université de Franche-Comté, and that is the only time that I experienced a French Easter.

There are only two things that seemed particularly interesting to me. One was the fact that all church bells seized to ring on Thursday before Good Friday. Out of respect for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, all church bells fall silent until Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection. The ringing of church bells in France is quite present, something you cannot easily ignore. There is almost an eeriness to when they fall silent. When they are rung again on Sunday, there is a sense of awakening, of rediscovering the sounds of Christianity. You have to experience it to really know what I mean.

My other observation about Easter in France is actually an erroneous one. The year I was there, Easter fell on one of the last days of March, and children were already getting ready to play April Fool’s jokes. French kids cut out colorful little fish, symbols of Christianity, and place them on the backs of the adults they are fooling. I was not familiar with the tradition and was fooled. When I discovered the fish that had been attached to my back, I didn’t quite understand. I found especially confusing why such a prank would be played on Easter Sunday, of all days. To this day, I find it strange how the Poisson d’Avril somehow mixes religious fervor and April Fool’s antics.

It is perhaps in Germany that I have had the most experience with Easter, because this is where I had my children and where I had to decide on the Easter tradition my family would observe.

Good Friday is a holiday here, and we use it to color eggs. We spend the whole day painting eggs and reading our favorite Easter books. My youngest daughter’s book, Magical Easter Eggs, is of course among them. (-:

On Saturday, in Germany, you are allowed to burn any access wood or shrubbery in your back yard. Some friends of ours have used this opportunity to organize an annual bonfire, which serves as an excuse to have a huge party. Over the fire, the kids roast Stockbrot, which is dough wrapped on sticks. Once cooked through, the little breads slide off the sticks and can be eaten. They are often dipped into butter. There’s also a barbeque and a potluck buffet, so enough to eat and drink for everyone. This party has become a part of our Easter tradition.

Easter Sunday is reserved for family. We set a table with ham and fish and cheese and bread rolls, the works. Of course, the highlight is on the colored Easter eggs. To begin the breakfast, we each select an egg. Then, in pairs of two, we take the pointy part of our egg and try to break our “opponent’s” egg with it. The winning egg then goes on to the next round. The person who selected the egg that breaks last is the winner. This is called Eiertitschen, and the King or Queen of this family Easter egg battle boasts about his or her victory all year!

The way we eat our Easter eggs is also special. The eggs are pealed, cut in two, and then the yolks are removed. You put a little bit of the following ingredients inside the two egg-white halves: oil, mustard, mayonnaise, vinegar, as well as salt and pepper. And then, you carefully squeeze the egg yolks back in. All this is done with your hands, no particular etiquette to follow here. The final bites are also placed in your mouth by hand.

After breakfast, the kids go out in the yard and look for hidden chocolates. Traditionally, neighbors also place chocolates and little bags of goodies into each other’s yards, so the “hunt” is always worthwhile. Older kids sometimes find a book or another small present hidden as well.

On Monday, we always go for a long walk. Otherwise, we spend the day at home, together, doing nothing in particular.

And those were my Easters of Days Past and Present. I guess the only two traditions I miss are Easter Sunday Mass at Sunrise from the US and the Easter Monday tradition of men reciting poems and watering women in exchange for colored eggs from the Carpathian Basin.

And with that, I wish you all Happy Easter, wherever you are and however you are celebrating (or not).

Written by Henriette J. Runte

Integration, Emotionality, and my Name Day

Written by Henriette J. Runte

In Germany, in public life, I am always on my toes, always second guessing myself, never allowing myself to fully relax. I always question my instincts first, count to ten, and then react in order to make sure my reaction is culturally appropriate. […] But where does my emotional identity come from?

Last week, while dropping off my daughter at school in the morning, I overheard two fathers speaking. The conversation was in German, but the men spoke with strong accents. One of the dads, we’ll call him Dad #1, appeared very upset and was telling the other father, Dad #2 about how his lawyer had asked him not to be so emotional in court. Dad #1 explained how his lawyer thought they had a solid case and that they were likely to win, but the attorney also advised his client to please tone down his emotions, to speak less loudly and less fast, to gesticulate less, and to appear altogether calmer and more unemotional. Dad #1 seemed very frustrated by this request from his lawyer. He said he was greatly angered by the injustice that had been committed and that he felt it would be appropriate to express his anger in court, instead of trying to suppress it and be fake. In fact, he continued, he thought his emotions would show how genuine and honest he was. Dad #2 tried to convince him that he should follow his lawyer’s advice. The two men walked away before I could hear more without actually following them and eavesdropping.

I was deeply troubled by what I overheard, because I could relate to this need to be emotional and expressive. I have no idea what the conversation was actually about, or what the case at hand pertains to. Nor do I personally know either one of the gentlemen in question. But I can understand the frustration that comes with being considered overly emotional. I have often been told here, in Germany, not to take it personally – “Nehmen Sie es nicht persönlich!” – when the situation, comment, or conflict, was most certainly personal, at least from my point of view. I have often been advised to go into certain delicate situations with less emotion, even though my instincts would have been the opposite. I have slowly learned not to show hurt or disappointment. I have learned not to express disagreement or doubt directly and bluntly. In one particular situation I was told, just like Dad #1, that the only thing that stood in my way, the only thing that could be held against me was my emotionality.

Through my line of work and by having lived and worked around the world, I have developed quite a strong sensitivity for communicating effectively despite cultural differences. I feel I can empathize with many different cultures and understand where people are coming from most of the time. I also speak several languages fluently, which allows me to actually communicate with several groups of people in their native tongue. Yet, when it comes to feeling understood, to feeling at ease and being able to be myself on an emotional level, I have a little more trouble.

In Germany, in public life, I am always on my toes, always second guessing myself, never allowing myself to fully relax. I always question my instincts first, count to ten, and then react in order to make sure my reaction is culturally appropriate. And I don’t think this is necessarily wrong. I chose to live in this country. I admire the way of life, the convictions, the ethics and beliefs held by the people here. And again, I’d like to point out that, although I have traveled extensively throughout the county, I have only lived in northern Germany, in Hamburg, so my views are based mostly on experiences in the Hansestadt Hamburg. I speak German fluently. I have a job here. We have lots of dear friends and neighbors. I even have a German family through my husband’s relatives. Our children are fully integrated. Yet, emotionally, I do have to keep myself in check.
Otherwise, I tend to speak too loudly, I tend to crack inappropriate jokes and make too many funny comments, I tend to greet people too openly and laugh too much and too loudly, and the list goes on and on.

But where does my emotional identity come from?
I have been molded and influenced by several cultures, so what made me pick and choose to feel comfortable with the set of behaviors and feelings that I call my own?

Recently, while shopping for a new T-shirt, I came across one that started a whole line of discussions with my family and friends. The T-shirt said something to the effect of: “I am not yelling. I’m just Hungarian. We speak this way!”
Certainly, Hungarians tend to be loud and very emotionally expressive, if compared to Germans or the Japanese, for example. But to everyone who has been in a restaurant in Barcelona at lunchtime, on the other hand, Hungarians must seem a very quiet people. In fact, it always depends on the register, doesn’t it?

Allow me to generalize for just a second: Hungarians are loud when speaking with friends and family, and they tend to gesticulate a lot and to speak with feeling and spice. But Hungarians are rather shy and reserved while using public transportation or while eating out at a restaurant or during cultural activities. To continue with some of the other cultures I know, the French, and I am including French children in the bunch, will not speak loudly in restaurants. But have you ever been to a puppet show in the Jardins de Luxembourg? Not even American children scream louder at puppet shows than the French kids do. The event is reminiscent of Shakespearean times when the audience threw onions at the actors to express dissatisfaction, or hooted and hollered if the performance was good. Similarly, French children yell at the characters on stage, try to get involved in the action, express all of their thoughts and emotions during the show, and they are encouraged to do so by both parents and the organizers. In other situations, however, French children have always struck me as “bien élevés,” as very well raised, polite, considerate little beings.

In comparison, Americans, adults and children, tend to add volume to any conversation or event. There’s a confidence and assertiveness that comes across in most situations, even during church ceremonies. Actually, every time I’m in an American church, it strikes me how light, merry, communal, and loud it is. I guess this is because I was socialized in the Carpathian Basin, where going to church is more of a somber and contemplative affair.

But what about Germans? I have experienced Germans to be almost paranoid about disturbing someone. I find this to be true when it comes to how loudly they speak, or how closely they stand to one another, or the noise they make both in their homes and gardens, and in public spaces. But there are situations that call for volume in German society as well, for example, in Bavaria during Oktoberfest (where everyone dresses in traditional garb and drinks lots of beer), or in Köln during Fasching (celebrated in February by dressing in funny costumes and taking to the streets to sing and dance and be merry), or in Hamburg during Schlagerfest (the festival of Schlager music, which is a popular form of pop music in Germany), or during Hafengeburtstag (the yearly anniversary celebrations in May, commemorating the port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest).

When living in a culture other than the one you grew up with, it is difficult to know when to contain your emotions and when to let them loose. It is even difficult to know what occasions and celebrations call for just what amount of joy or cheer. Growing up in the Carpathian Basin, one of the biggest celebrations at our house was my mother’s name day, névnap in Hungarian. Unlike her birthday, which was celebrated only with members of our family, her name day brought neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and friends of all kind to our house. My mother used to take the day off from work to be able to welcome all her guests on her special day.

My mother’s favorite flowers are freesias and carnations. On her name day, the house would be filled with these flowers in every color imaginable. According to tradition, people simply came by to pay their respects, brought some flowers and stayed for a quick coffee or refreshment and some pastries or a small bite.
In Hungary and Romania, name days are generally known and often announced on morning TV and radio programs. It is a common courtesy to acknowledge the name days of the people you know.

This week, on March 16th , is my name day, but it will be an ordinary day for me. My mother will send me flowers, and I will thank her for them. She will express a degree of sadness that no one else remembered, and I will try to console her. My name day doesn’t mean that much to me. Even stranger, my birthday is quite an annoyance as well.
As a child, my actual birthday was only celebrated very serenely with my parents. Set for a later date, there was, of course, a larger party, that, organized in a fashion suitable for an only child, included many guests, at least two or three cakes, games, presents, music, the works.

In Germany, birthdays are a big deal as well, but somehow differently. The German way to commemorate a birthday resembles, for me, more the name day celebrations in the Carpathian Basin than the birthdays I have known. In Germany, everybody calls and congratulates you on the day of your birth. People keep meticulous records of all their family members’, their friends’, their friends’ children’s, their colleagues’, and their neighbors’ birthdays. It is baffling. The birthday child is then expected to take muffins to school, or cake to work, or to invite friends and colleagues out for a drink.

I have not yet been able to bring myself to adopt the German way of relating to birthdays. I’m a bit of a birthday Grinch, I’m afraid. I do follow the traditions as far as my children are concerned, but when it comes to my birthday, a bombardment of phone calls does not appeal to me, so everyone who cares about me knows that I prefer a brief text or video message instead. My colleagues know not to expect any cake at the office from me on my birthday and that I truly do not wish to have my birthday acknowledged.

But allow me to get back to this day last week, when I overheard the two gentlemen at my daughter’s school, talking about some legal trouble and how being emotional would not help their case. That same day, when I arrived at the school for pick up, several parents were already standing outside, some talking, others busy on their phone, or just staring into space. I went to stand with one of the fathers I know. We’ll call him Dad #3. We engaged in some social chit chat and then just stood there, awkwardly waiting. Another father, Dad #4 arrived, came up to us, smacked Dad #3 on the back, and said, “Na, du Sack!” To explain, both Dad #3 and Dad #4 are German. They know each other, but are not close friends. They are both educated and respected members of our community. And yet, Dad #4 greeted Dad #3 by saying, “Hey, you testicles!” And that was perfectly acceptable.

Straight off, they found the right tone, laughed, and chatted away effortlessly. And that is the big mystery of integration, that no one can teach you. The social morés and celebrations, the actual emotionality behind daily life, the tone of voice, the nuance of interactions is the hardest thing to understand and adapt. Dad #1 and Dad #2 in this story found common ground by both being “foreign,” but they felt great frustration in their interactions with the “natives.” Dad #3 and Dad #4 engaged in what would seem, at first sight, as socially inacceptable, controversial, vulgar, even. Yet, Dad #3 and Dad #4 were seen as perfectly appropriate, funny, and cool. You bet Dad #3 and Dad #4 won’t be celebrating any strange name days, but I’m pretty certain they will bring cake to work on their birthday and will remember to place a birthday call for all their friends and acquaintances!

I guess my point today is that true integration is very difficult. It is not enough to have linguistic and educational integration programs. For a society to truly become one and grow together, there has to be a platform of sharing. Feelings and personalities have to be respected. Perhaps Dad #1 should not have been advised to try and hide his emotions. Perhaps emotionality should not always be regarded as negative. Perhaps there could be room created for this man to be able to say, “Look, I come from a different culture, and I apologize if this might seem inappropriate in your culture, but I am angry. I feel frustrated. I accept the rules, but feel certain aspects make no sense, or are unnecessary, or unfair.” Perhaps Dad #4 should dare slap the two “foreign” dads on the back as well, and call them “testicles.” Perhaps that would break down more walls than any specific, organized integration program. And perhaps I should actually let people know that, although I try to suppress the feeling,
I am always sad on my name day, because it makes me feel detached from my
parents’ culture and confused about where the heck I actually belong.
Be well everyone, and never stop trying to connect!

Written by
Henriette J. Runte

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

The Power of the Soup

Written by Henriette J. Runte

I write this entry while on a bike tour in the Czech Republic with my husband and three kids. We took our bikes down to Prague by train and are working our way back to Meissen in Germany. We ride about 45-65 km a day and spend the night in little hotels.

I write this entry while on a bike tour in the Czech Republic with my husband and three kids. We took our bikes down to Prague by train and are working our way back to Meissen in Germany. We ride about 45-65 km a day and spend the night in little hotels. On the way, we stop for drinks and snacks from tiny locals on the banks of the rivers Vlata (Moldau in German) and the Elbe.

It is a wonderful vacation. We are together, enjoying the fresh air and the magnificent landscape, and using the strength of our legs and the sturdiness of our bikes to drive us up and down the beautiful rolling hills. One perk of the trip has to do with a part of my culture that is deeply anchored in my family tradition, something that brings with it many stories and memories, and an aspect of daily life that ultimately makes me feel at home in a foreign country.

If you listen to my podcast, read my books, or just follow me on social media, you know by now that one of my central themes is cultural identity. And MY cultural identity is not always easy. (A quick recap for those who might not know yet: I was born in Romania as a Hungarian minority, grew up in Texas and in Kansas, studied and worked in France and in the USA, and traveled around before settling down in Hamburg, Germany.)

One very important part of cultural identity is how we eat. Culinary similarities have been known to unite people in the most controversial situations, while differences in the preparation of meals have often set two cultures apart. At our house, we eat like a Hungarian-German-American family with strong influences from France, Italy, and Mexico.

One dish that is almost always a must is soup! We have soup almost every day. On weekdays, when the kids come back from school around 1:30 pm / 2:00 pm, there is usually a bowl of soup waiting for them, and it is met with limited enthusiasm. Since time is of essence, this soup that serves as lunch resembles more a stew and is meant to be filling and nutritious. On weekends, I cook up more elaborate soups that take longer to prepare, are more fine and light, and are accompanied by other courses. I vary my soups across cultures, but mainly use traditional Hungarian, German, and French recipes.

Growing up in the Carpathian Basin, I learned that a proper meal included some kind of soup. My mother was known for her tarragon soup with lamb, my grandmother for her white bean soup, and my mother’s best friend for her tripe soup. It seemed like every household made a soup that they were particularly proud of and loved to share with family and friends.

Perhaps the most famous soup of my childhood was my mother’s chicken soup, though. My mother is a very religious person who, in the Christian spirit, believes in helping the poor and doing good by others. She also observes religious holidays and follows the traditions strictly. A personal tradition she started when she got married was to feed the whole neighborhood on Easter. My mother believes that part of the Easter tradition should include a communal celebration, to which she likes to contribute her amazingly savory chicken soup. (Again, if you have read my books or have listened to my podcast, you already know how important cooking is to my mom and how she loves to share meals with close friends and neighbors.) The  Easter Sundays of my childhood in Romania did not include Easter Egg Hunts but were marked by my mother’s gigantic pot of chicken soup, which she served to rich and poor, to friends and strangers, or in other words, to anyone who cared to come by our house for a helping.

When my parents moved to the US, we ate a lot of soup, to feed our bodies and our souls, and to accommodate our budget. My mother knew how to cook with very little. She had managed to feed us with the food shortages and rations of Communist Romania, so she was certainly going to manage in the US. My mother would buy a chicken and use every part of the animal to create a goulash, a broth, a stew, a ragout, and still have enough for some meat jelly and some bouillon. She would literally feed us for 7-10 days from that one chicken.

My friends from school all knew that at my house, we ate lots of soup, and they grew to appreciate this. Next to recalling my mother’s enchanting Hungarian pastries, my friends from school still talk about my mother’s various soups.

In college, I tried to recreate my mother’s recipes, but for the most part, I failed. My room mates and my boyfriends of my undergraduate years don’t have memories of my cooking, but still recall my mother’s soups.

My first attempts to make a soup involved following some recipe, trying to add all the ingredients at the appropriate times, stirring, mixing, waiting, … and then being disappointed.  Somehow my cookbooks failed to teach me how to make a good soup. Somehow I was missing a secret ingredient. Somewhere along the way, through trial and error and lots of patience, I did manage to make a decent soup – a good cream of broccoli soup, a fabulous potato soup, a magnificent tomato soup, a legendary lentil soup, etc. I picked up recipes from everywhere I went and adapted them to create my own versions of these traditional soups. 

Another remarkable phase in my personal history with soups was during my pregnancies. Next to berries (all kinds of berries, from blackberries to blueberries, to red current and raspberries), the food I craved the most during my pregnancies was soup. I just didn’t feel right without a bowl of hot liquid mush. My husband was constantly hunting for soup. Our twin pregnancy was particularly tough, because I had double the cravings! But it was during our pregnancy with our youngest daughter that I struggled most to find available soup. I remember being on vacation in France for three weeks when I was about 5 months pregnant. It was in the middle of the summer and we were traveling through the South of France in an RV. One thing you have to know about me is that I adore France. I think everything in France is wonderful when I am there. It’s not objective, I know, but I can’t help myself. But even my beloved France found it strange to be providing hot soup for me in summer temperatures.

Wherever we went, the restaurants and bistros all did their best to provide the demanding pregnant woman with soup. One restaurant asked the nearby hotel to defrost some soup for me. Another sent a waiter home for a can of soup, which they reheated for me. Most restaurants placated me with a cup of gazpacho, or a cold cucumber soup, or a chilled tomato and basil soup. A few had a traditional French onion soup, but if there was one soup that I didn’t crave during pregnancy, it was an onion soup…

Near Cannes, we stayed at a campsite that had a restaurant on it, run by a Vietnamese chef, named Giselle, and her husband. Giselle was one of those chefs who would look at her customers and just know what they craved. She cooked two meals a day for me for two weeks, and once a day, she made me some soup. She was very good at her job. I don’t want to know what she really thought about my cravings, though. One thing is for sure, I was the only one she was making soup for that summer! 

Everyone I have known has always found me bizarre for liking soup so much, everyone except for my friends and family from Hungary and Romania, where it is quite normal.

This summer, knowing that we would take a bike tour through the Check Republic, I prepared myself and my belly for two weeks without soup. I knew we would be riding all day and stopping at some small establishment along the way for lunch and drinks. In the evenings we wanted to pamper ourselves and our exhausted bodies. On the itinerary we set for ourselves, we made arrangements to have nightly shelter at rather nice hotels, where we also planned to eat our evening meals, but I expected more traditional salads and meat-based main courses to be offered to us.

We left our car in Meissen and took our bikes by train to Prague, where our adventure started in temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius, which is about 97 degrees Fahrenheit. We arrived at our first hotel in Prague fairly late in the evening, and I figured we should be thankful if they still had anything left for us to eat. Indeed, the kitchen was almost closed, but they weren’t going to let three kids who had ridden through Prague go to bed hungry. And they had a lovely minestrone for the mother.

We left the Check capital in the morning after a magnificent breakfast. It was already hot, and we had to stop by 11 am for a drink. Another little piece of information about me: I am very picky about my drinks. I don’t like beer. I avoid all sodas. And I typically find water overpriced. At our first stop, my husband had a beer, our three children each had a soda, and I was left with the choice of still or carbonated water. Carefully, and already expecting to be disappointed, I asked if they might, by some chance, have a soup on offer. We were at one of those tiny stands on the river bank, and my husband looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. He was about to order me a water, when the answer to my question came. They had not one, but two soups to choose from – a potato soup and a minestrone. Having just eaten a minestrone the night before, I took the potato soup. The five of us toasted to our first stop with beer, soda and soup, and I listened to my family make fun of me for hours.

Our next stop was for lunch around 1 pm. Encouraged by my success at our previous stop, I asked, more bravely this time, if they had a soup on offer. And they did, this time a creamy garlic soup with croutons. While my family enjoyed a cold, refreshing drink, I slurped on my hot, delicious soup!

The trip continued with this newly found ritual of ours. At every stop, with every meal along our way, instead of a drink, I always ordered a soup. The first few times, my family made bets that my luck would run out soon. But finding a soup on the menu was not a mere coincidence. Every single place we stopped at had at least one or two soups on offer.

My family was baffled. My husband just couldn’t believe it. How strange! How weird! No way! My kids made faces every time I spooned some of the hot liquid into my mouth. How can you eat that; it’s so hot outside!

On the fifth or sixth day we stopped at a place that had a large group of Check kids there. It looked like some sort of a summer camp. The kids were sitting in a circle in the grass, playing a game that their instructor was leading them through. Then, in turns, they each took out a ringing buzzer from their pocket and went up to the little kiosk to get their order that was announced ready. Our own kids were taking their time with locking their bikes up, so I was able to observe the group of Check children a little longer. One by one, each child returned from the kiosk with a big bowl and a spoon. It was sauerkraut soup with meatballs and ham bits.

Once we made it to the kiosk to place our own orders, I of course bought myself a sauerkraut soup. At this point my husband couldn’t contain himself and asked the chef, “How can you have sauerkraut soup in the summer? Who would eat sauerkraut soup in the summer, besides my wife, I mean?!” The chef looked at him strangely and answered, “I don’t know what you mean. In about half an hour, I will be sold out of sauerkraut soup for the day. It’s very refreshing, especially on a hot day!”

And all of the sudden, after all those years of feeling like “the other,” I was the normal one, and my husband was the one whose taste was put into question. All of the sudden, my instincts were just fine. All of the sudden, I didn’t have to make excuses for what I naturally craved.

Everyone around me was eating soup, young and old alike. A lot of people were drinking beer and soda as well, and eating sausages and French fries. It’s not as if soup were the only food item consumed. But my quenching thirst with soup was in no way weird or out of the ordinary. It was considered usual and even logical. It was part of the cultural norm, part of the tradition and custom. And for me, it was an official, open legitimization of my own culture.

My husband and my three children of course know how my family has always eaten a lot of soup. They have also observed my Hungarian friends serve soup at all occasions. But to them, it was still an isolated practice, somehow part of mom’s weird otherness, somehow still something to make fun of and roll your eyes at.

I realize we’re talking about soup here and that my enthusiasm for this topic might seem exaggerated. But the cultural similarity I shared with the Check people through our liking of soup made me feel at home and accepted. It also made me stand a little taller in front of my family.

When you live in a foreign culture, you walk the thin line between integration and assimilation. On the one hand, you hopefully learn to accept, abide by, and even enjoy the culture of your host country. On the other hand, it is, in my opinion, very important not to lose touch with the customs, traditions and values of your country of heritage and to see this culture valued in the eyes of others as well. In the case of someone like me, a third culture kid, who brings not only one but at least two distinct sets of cultures to the equation, this balance becomes even more delicate and significant.    

I’ve had tremendous difficulty deciding what to write about in my very first entry for Dr. J’s Diary 4 Culture. Everything I wanted to write seemed either too academic or too banal, too silly or too sad, too personal or too stereotypical. This story about eating soup in the Check Republic seemed to combine all the ingredients I wanted to include. So, this is what I was able to cook up for you today. I certainly hope you enjoyed it.    

Book suggestion for more information and research:

Janet Clarkson – Soup: A Global History.

My books that reveal more about my culinary preferences:

Henriette Javorek – Life with Coach Pop.

Anna Molnar – We Fade to Green.

Written by Henriette J. Runte