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