Hope Reese-Diary

My train arrived in Pécs on a beautiful, sunny, Thursday afternoon, at 12:42 on the dot. Károly Méhes was right at the platform, waiting for me. We loaded into his little white Prius and drove through the city, turning down the narrow street of Felsőmalom utca, where a small apartment had been cleaned up, all ready for my arrival.

It was the first day of my very first writing residency. As soon as I was led to my apartment, I spotted the placard next to the door, stating: “Writer in Residence,” bearing the logo of the “Culture Capital of Europe,” which Pécs had been officially dubbed by the EU in 2010. 

I had originally been slated to attend the residency in Vajszló, a tiny village close to the Croatian border, but because of the recent surge in energy costs in Hungary, several branches of the program had been forced to close for the winter. These branches, I learned, were relatively new – Pécs is where the program had been founded in 2007, and the sole location until several new cities had been added a few years ago. Because of the closures, it also meant that I would be joined in Pécs by two other writers – Abdallah Al-Naggar, from Egypt, and István Vörös, from Hungary. 

I am an American freelance journalist, based in Budapest. In addition to my regular articles, I have now begun work on a larger project: a nonfiction book proposal. My proposal is based on to true story of a group of Hungarian women (the “Angelmakers of Nagyrev”) who poisoned and killed their husbands 100 years ago – and continued for nearly two decades. I had been tipped off about this incredible tale in my early days in Budpast, by a friend whose Hungarian grandfather had been poisoned by his grandmother. My goal for the residency: to submit a revised draft of my nonfiction book proposal to my literary agent in the UK. (My origin story of finding the Hungarian Writing Residency is also related to a Hungarian friend. On a short solo getaway in Pécs two years ago, I was writing in my journal in an amazing breakfast spot called Reggeli, where I met a Hungarian woman who was actually moving to Budapest. She and I became close friends – and she’s the one who recently told me about the Hungarian Writing Residency, urging me to apply. So returning to Pécs, coming back to breakfasts at Reggeli, felt like I had come full-circle).

Over the past 15 years, The Hungarian Writing Residency has hosted hundreds of writers. I am the third from America. Many of the other residents have different full-time jobs, families, and routines than my own. As someone who makes my living writing and lives alone, in a city, the residency did not represent such a drastic change in my day-to-day routine.

Yet this time, allocated to a single project, in a city where I know no one, where I have no other instructions except “write” was priceless. It gave me an opportunity to work, reset, and rejuvenate my writing.

No single day was the same, though they had common themes. As someone who works alone, on my own schedule, I have to carefully guard myself against distractions. I usually start the writing day with a 9am London Writing Hour – a free Zoom meeting, which can attract up to 300 other writers around the globe – a precious space to simply write together each day. But I never write too long in one spot; I like to move around. I enjoy working from cafés, and within a few days I had established a regular circuit at some favorite local spots: Szabad Kikötő, a cultural center/café around the corner; Reggeli, where I cozied up in the window booth, enjoying a Buddha bowl; the Cat café (okay, I didn’t get so much work done there!); Partisan (a café by day and an amazing cocktail bar by night). Because of the ideal location of my apartment, I could just spring out of the door at any point and be in a new, interesting place to write. Within a few days, I began wishing I had planned to stay in the city for longer.

Another unexpected dimension of the Hungarian Writing Residency was my chance to meet with Abdallah and István. We first met after I had been here for a few days, in Szechenyi square, just moments before we would be filmed together for a short promo video for the program. We also had a lovely dinner together, hosted by Enikő and Károly, and got to know each other even better.

On top of my writing life, Pécs has been an opportunity to create new habits. My room here, with my little single bed, has a college feeling, inspiring me to get back into a student mindset. I would spend mornings (before the Writing Hour) doing meditation, practicing a little Hungarian, and writing in my gratitude journal. During the Writing Hour, I would pick a writing task to focus on. (As a tool for focus – the real benefit of this is that it gives me a schedule. I don’t have to show up, but the sessions go on, regardless; I can’t cancel or reschedule them.)

Part of my daily route was also my “morning pages.” These come from a book I’m currently reading called “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. It’s an inspirational, focused guide to reconnecting with your creativity. A staple of the book is the “morning pages” – three, stream-of-counsciousness pages meant to purge the junk from your mind, and to get you in the habit of daily writing, to free up your creative self. The practice of morning pages are not only therapeutic, but the birthplace for some good ideas. They also reinforce the empowering idea that I am a writer – which is not as established as you might think.

Afternoons were spent either in other cafés, or wandering around the city streets. This is really my favorite thing to do: wander. Pécs is the perfect place to do it, because of the city’s beauty, history, and many walkable areas. I found myself constantly discovering new, captivating spots, vistas, constantly taking photos. This time was also peaceful and helped me reconnect with myself. At the cafés and restaurants I visited, sometimes I would work. But other times I would write or sketch in my journal. Other times, I read. These things were not all directly related to my project at hand – but all of them served as mental fuel. (There were other places I “stumbled into” in Pécs, including an acid rock show and a nighttime spa deep in the woods – but you’ll have to ask me for details in person).

All of my experiences have contributed to a real sense of belonging in Pécs. One evening in the city, I found myself calling my apartment “home.” I was, at first, surprised when it came out of my mouth, but it was automatic, and felt true. I was assured: “that’s right, you’re home.”

On my first evening in Pécs, I was having a conversation about the role of the writer in society. To be a writer used to be an esteemed vocation, revered in Hungarian society, he told me. “Writers were society’s truth tellers,” Károly reflected. “It is no longer the case; but it should be.” 

This writing residency marks a new chapter in my writing life, and I expect the effects to last long after I return to Budapest. I am here alone, yes; yet I am part of an invisible community of writers – those who have come before, and those who will follow. I am inspired by them and honored to be among them.