As a kid, the only thought I had about my surname was that people never pronounced it correctly. I would fume at elementary school gymnastics meets when the inevitable “Sara… Ma-TIE-us?” would be announced over the loudspeaker. As I entered medical school and had to start distributing my signature copiously over orders and admission notes, I got questioned frequently about the origins of my name. “So unusual!” docs would exclaim, and react in mild surprise when I informed them it was Hungarian.
Funny too, to have my identifying name be Hungarian when I so proudly identify as Ukrainian. Being so close to my maternal family, I had often considered changing my surname to my mom’s maiden name. But even after my dad left the picture and my mom remarried and changed her name yet again, something kept me from relinquishing Matyas. I think I always knew that there was no danger of me losing my Ukrainian roots, what with my own interest in the culture and the plenitude of family connections wrapped around me. But my surname was my one link to my paternal side, and I could not deny that for both better and worse, that side of my family also played a role in shaping me.
When Mom and I were plotting our route, we realized that the overnight train from Vienna to Lviv would pass right through Hungary. So we broke a long travel day into two and planned an overnight stop in my fatherland: beautiful Budapest.
Budapest is a city that deserves the sighs of appreciation that inevitably accompany any mention of it. Architecturally speaking, it is stunning, offering graceful views of sweeping bridges and domed spires from nearly any vantage point. Historically speaking, it is the ancient throne of King Mátyás Hunyadi Corvinus aka “Mátyás the Just.” Born in Transylvania (um, awesome), King of Hungary from 1458-90 (with stints in Austria, Italy, Burgundy, and Bohemia!), famous for his exorbitant and controversial tax reforms, renowned as a “friend of the Muses” who loved reading and languages (and also astrologers, but apparently he was a fan of “real scientists” too). And, of course, my great-great-great-great—ad nauseam—granddaddy.
History sticks to your feet and leaves sometimes indelible traces of itself in the whorls of your soles and the creases behind your knees, even in the case of an ancient King with gossamer-thin claims to my present. But setting foot in this lovely and beloved city and seeing my name – my mispronounced, misspelled, “unusual,” name with all its hard history in my personal family story – written on street signs, on the currency, and on one of the principal landmarks of the city was unexpectedly and breathtakingly emotional for me.
Yes, I am proudly Ukrainian. But I was also so proud to be a Mátyás in Hungary, and to claim my part of the beautiful and challenging story that is constantly unfurling from ancient past to my present.