In an ex­tract from his new travel mem­oir, James Jef­frey dis­cov­ers fam­ily se­crets while cruis­ing the Danube

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THE Viseg­rad set off on time at eight pre­cisely (ac­cord­ing to Dad, who checked his watch as she nosed out into the rush­ing cur­rent), Mag­yar tri­colour flut­ter­ing from the stern over the grace­fully spread­ing wake. And then, af­ter a voy­age of roughly three min­utes, we stopped to pick up the sec­ond load of pas­sen­gers, which seemed to con­sist al­most en­tirely of el­derly women gig­gling like girls. Dad started fid­get­ing as the board­ing party flowed out on to the up­per deck in a tide of sil­ver and henna-dyed hair. A soli­tary man walked with them, help­ing his wife with her walk­ing-stick as she sat down.

‘‘ Go on, love, hit him with your stick,’’ Dad mut­tered un­der his breath. Then as they all shifted to the sunny half of the top deck, ‘‘ Oh, dear. Go on then, all move to one side and tip the boat over while you’re at it.’’

‘‘ You’re in a vi­cious mood this morn­ing,’’ I com­mented.

‘‘ Yes,’’ said Dad with a proud smile. Scot­tish side show­ing.’’

We glided un­der a bridge graf­fi­tied with two stages of love: LU­CIA SZERETLEK (Lu­cia, I love you) and GYERE VIS­SZA, CLAU­DIA (Come back, Clau­dia). Both mes­sages moved the old women deeply as they be­gan open­ing their bags of cheesy pogacsa scones and their care­fully wrapped salami and paprika sand­wiches with the fas­tid­i­ous speed of mil­i­tary sur­geons. ‘‘ Oh, Lu­cia is the lucky one, isn’t she?’’ ‘‘ Yes yes yes, but why did Clau­dia other one?’’ ‘‘ Poor boy.’’ ‘‘ Poor boy. Ha. There is al­ways a rea­son.’’ ‘‘ That doesn’t mean it was his fault.’’ ‘‘ Maybe. Doesn’t any­one need ex­tra salami?’’ ‘‘ You re­ally think it wasn’t be­cause of the man?’’ The group’s soli­tary male shifted in his seat.

‘‘ It’s my



Yel­low trams made their way across the Mar­garet Bridge, which, like ev­ery other bridge in Bu­dapest, was a re­con­struc­tion of one that had been blown up to­wards the end of World War II by the re­treat­ing Ger­mans. Now the trams — charm­ing in an agree­ably creaky sort of way — were in the process of be­ing phased out and re­placed by Ger­man ones. Europe’s full of th­ese lit­tle sym­me­tries.

As the women bus­ied them­selves with break­fast, more sup­plies and pack­ets of back-up bis­cuits kept ap­pear­ing from small but seem­ingly bot­tom­less bags. They ate like jolly shrews, feed­ing ev­ery 10 or so min­utes as if they feared they might lose con­scious­ness if they didn’t keep up the in­take. Not ev­ery­thing was suc­cess­ful, though.

‘‘ Th­ese are the shit­ti­est bis­cuits I have ever bought,’’ said one as she moved down the cen­tre aisle, prof­fer­ing an open packet. ‘‘ But try them if you want.’’

‘‘ It re­ally does taste just like she said,’’ an older one gig­gled qui­etly to her neigh­bour, who pulled a face.

‘‘ Jaj ! This makes me want to eat soap.’’ This pro­voked much merry screech­ing in the group. ‘‘ Who wants cof­fee?’’ ‘‘ I have more bis­cuits . . .’’ ‘‘ Who has the pogacsa?’’ Then the old­est one in the group stood up and, danc­ing slowly up the aisle, be­gan singing to her friends in a high, soft, pa­pery war­ble. She was a pe­tite wo­man in rouge with stylishly over­sized sun­glasses, a sen­si­ble hat worn at a rak­ish an­gle and a set of hyp­not­i­cally large moles that poked up through her foun­da­tion like man­hole cov­ers on a snowy street. ‘‘ When I was a lit­tle girl . . .’’ she be­gan.

Al­though they were spread out at first, the cool morn­ing breeze blow­ing off the river soon had them clump­ing to­gether like pen­guins in a bliz­zard, guf­faw­ing and point­ing out var­i­ous sights — stat­ues, ex­pen­sive new apart­ment blocks, some of the more in­ter­est­ing traf­fic snarls and, as the city thinned out and even­tu­ally ended, fish­er­men, lit­tle beaches, seag­ulls perched on river buoys, and a stork flap­ping low over the tree line. ‘‘ Bu­dapest is such a beau­ti­ful city.’’ ‘‘ Piece of cake any­one? I have some strudel as well.’’ ‘‘ Look at those trees. Jaj , so many shades of green. So lovely.’’ ‘‘ Ooh, it’s a bit cold up here.’’ ‘‘ Just you wait ’ til that breeze calms down. It will be so de­li­cious sit­ting out here in the sun.’’

As we edged closer to the Danube Bend, they seemed to munch their way through their body weight in snacks; it was an awe-in­spir­ing sight. Then sup­plies be­gan to run low and a mo­men­tary dole­ful­ness

de­scended un­til one of the party emerged at the top of the stairs with a joy­ous ex­pres­sion and cried, ‘‘ The can­teen’s open!’’

In­deed it was. The cof­fee wasn’t much chop and the plas­tic cups it was served in felt like they might melt on to my slowly com­bust­ing fin­ger­tips, but it did con­tain caf­feine. Af­ter just a few sips, Dad was feel­ing chatty again and ea­ger to talk about my chil­dren, Daisy and Leo. Again. As we talked, the Viseg­rad kept paus­ing at wharves decked out with astro­turf and pot­ted gera­ni­ums to take on more pas­sen­gers, many of them chil­dren on their last ex­cur­sion of the school year. They held hands as they were shep­herded on board by teach­ers who ei­ther opted for dowdy dress or a dis­tract­ing skimpi­ness, but rarely any­thing in be­tween.

We chugged past Vac with its pretty, baroque sky­line, its back­drop of quar­ryscarred hills and its prison that had been a tor­ture cen­tre much cher­ished by both the Right and the Left. In Ptolemy’s time (when the Mag­yars were mov­ing out of the marshes and fens of west­ern Siberia and prob­a­bly dream­ing of some­where with fewer mos­qui­toes) the town had been sad­dled with the longer name of Uv­cenum.

‘‘ Make sure you take a photo, young man,’’ the singing lady told me. ‘‘ Vac is beau­ti­ful, no?’’

‘‘ It is,’’ I said and du­ti­fully per­formed my pho­to­graphic duty, won­der­ing whether or not to in­clude the quarry’s ap­palling gash. A soli­tary egret moved through the shal­lows with the slightly hes­i­tant grace of an off-duty bal­le­rina, its eyes scan­ning the wa­ter for fish, its slen­der dag­ger of a beak poised. A group of chil­dren lounged on a wooden pon­toon, wav­ing with the lan­guor of kids who have the en­tire school-free sum­mer spread be­fore them.

‘‘ Daisy would en­joy this,’’ Dad said. I told him what he al­ready knew but loved to have re­peated to him on a reg­u­lar ba­sis: I adored hav­ing chil­dren, loved them to dis­trac­tion. Their births had been marked by the sound of my spinal cord slip­ping out of my brain and leav­ing me a mushy-headed, gib­ber­ing, grin­ning sim­ple­ton. But I also won­dered what it might have been like if they were Bel’s chil­dren and not my own, how I would have felt tak­ing on two kids who were not con­nected in any way with my DNA. ‘‘ So, Dad, how was it for you?’’ ‘‘ You mean with Eszter and Laci?’’ He mas­saged his chin with his fin­ger­tips as he pon­dered my brother and sis­ter from Mum’s first mar­riage. ‘‘ No, it didn’t worry me.’’

‘‘ You were get­ting mar­ried in Hun­gary to a di­vorcee with two kids; weren’t you even a lit­tle ner­vous?’’ Dad looked at me blankly. ‘‘ No.’’ His an­swer sur­prised me. Was he be­ing blase in hind­sight? Was he un­flap­pable? Or was it some­thing else? Per­haps it was just that he’d be­come so hung up on Las­zlo and Eszter’s fa­ther in­stead.

‘‘ More than any­thing else, I was prob­a­bly a lit­tle naive in be­liev­ing all your mother’s sto­ries about Kruller and what a nasty bug­ger he was and things to that ef­fect.’’ Dad al­ways re­ferred to Mum’s first hus­band as Kruller; call­ing him Las­zlo would have caused too much con­fu­sion in a fam­ily where a cou­ple of names have been so thor­oughly cher­ished and re­peated through the gen­er­a­tions.

That was one change I’d no­ticed in Dad over the years, that cer­tainty he’d done the right thing slowly meta­mor­phos­ing, through long nights of re­flec­tion, into a ques­tion­ing, then a gnaw­ing sense of wrong­do­ing and ul­ti­mately a leaden feel­ing of guilt that he’d done an­other man a ter­ri­ble in­jus­tice.

‘‘ I re­mem­ber how I felt when your mother tried to take you and Olivia away from me. But then I think to my­self, I did ex­actly the same thing to some­one else.’’

By now the old women had grazed them­selves out and mi­grated one by one to the rear deck, where they lay bask­ing in a state of supreme con­tent­ment like a colony of wrin­kled seals. The sil­hou­ette of a hill­top ci­tadel meant we were ap­proach­ing Viseg­rad, once the sum­mer cap­i­tal of Hun­gary and the not en­tirely se­cure repos­i­tory of its crown jew­els.

In 1440, King Sigis­mund’s daugh­ter, El­iz­a­beth of Lux­em­bourg, pulled off the heist of the year when, helped by her lady-in-wait­ing (or, more cor­rectly, her lady-wait­ing-in-theget­away-car­riage), she made off with the jew­els and raced south to Szekesfe­hervar to have her baby boy, Las­zlo, crowned king.

The fur­ther west we trav­elled, the more money showed in the river­front houses, sim­ple vil­las giv­ing way to man­sions with sparkling swim­ming pools and stair­cases with fat ce­ment balustrades de­scend­ing to the river. Glossy mo­tor­boats as pointy as sharks’ teeth skipped past the lum­ber­ing barges, leav­ing white gashes of foam. A fish­er­man with a bare, well-rounded belly bulging proudly over the top of his board­shorts waved as we passed.

‘‘ You do know that Kruller had cus­tody of Eszter and Laci when I met your mother, don’t you?’’ Dad said, al­most in pass­ing. ‘‘ Eh?’’ I hadn’t known this. When I was younger, Mum would pause from her di­a­tribes against my snake fa­ther (he was al­ways a snake in Mum’s more fiery ora­tions) to let me know that she’d been so un­lucky in mar­riage, her first hus­band had been a com­plete bas­tard, too. Pos­si­bly even hand­crafted by Satan him­self. (Once this turned into a tri­fecta — three bas­tards on the trot — she gave the game away. Or so she keeps say­ing.)

I’d never ac­tu­ally asked or had it spelled out for me, but I’d al­ways as­sumed that when Mum and Kruller parted, she’d kept the kids. Af­ter all, we’re talk­ing about an age when a man al­most stood a bet­ter chance of be­ing tram­pled to death by an ele­phant than win­ning cus­tody of his chil­dren ahead of the mother. And the chances of a wo­man los­ing cus­tody twice in two con­sec­u­tive mar­riages seemed as likely as get­ting tram­pled by an ele­phant in boots. And the odds of a wo­man los­ing cus­tody of two sets of chil­dren in two com­pletely dif­fer­ent coun­tries with com­pletely dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies and le­gal sys­tems . . . well, we’re talk­ing a pretty ex­ot­i­cally at­tired ele­phant.

And yet, as I learned sit­ting on that hard lit­tle bench as we slowly slid past the lachry­mose-sound­ing town of Szob, Mum had. She was even more re­mark­able than I’d thought. I’d never known she’d struck such a blow for equal rights.

But then Dad man­aged to pull off a feat even less likely than death by ele­phant. Af­ter he mar­ried Mum, he sued for cus­tody of Eszt and Lac. Look­ing back now, I can’t help but ad­mire his op­ti­mism. There he was, a Westerner in a com­mu­nist coun­try dur­ing the stag­nant depths of the Cold War, try­ing to wrest his wife’s chil­dren from their Par­tymem­ber fa­ther. Even now, as we cruised be­neath the lime­stone hills of the Danube Bend, Dad looked taken aback as he talked about what un­furled in that Pecs court­room.

‘‘ They care­fully weighed things up, but in the end what they said was that it would be bet­ter for the kids be­cause they’d have bet­ter con­di­tions in a West­ern coun­try.’’ He gazed across at the north bank where Hun­gary was com­ing to an end and Slo­vakia was be­gin­ning. ‘‘ I ad­mit I was some­what sur­prised to hear sen­ti­ments like that ex­pressed in a com­mu­nist coun­try.’’ Dad al­ways was rather par­tial to un­der­state­ment.

We cruised on, with Hun­gary to the left of us and Slo­vakia to the right, both sides anx­iously fly­ing their flags. Ahead of us loomed a mas­sive, duck-egg blue dome capped with a golden cross, rest­ing on a ring of ele­phan­tine col­umns with a pair of domed bell­tow­ers perched on its shoul­ders like epaulettes — the Basil­ica of Eszter­gom. Be­neath it, five green arches of bridge stretched across the Danube to the Slo­vakian town of Stur­ovo. The Vi­enna-Bu­dapest hy­dro­foil sliced past with a great fan­fare of noise and spray, while be­hind us the old ladies were stir­ring with the first pangs of pre­lunch hunger.

‘‘ Shall we have a lit­tle some­thing be­fore we go to lunch?’’

‘‘ I still have some pogacsa wants one.’’

‘‘ Last chance to grab a shitty bis­cuit be­fore they go in the bin.’’

‘‘ Oh, even if they are shitty, it seems like such a waste to throw them away.’’

‘‘ Yes, that’s true. Here, let me take one, too.’’

And so we docked in Eszter­gom. This is an edited ex­tract from Paprika Par­adise by James Jef­frey (Ha­chette Aus­tralia, $35).


if any­one Cour­tesy of Ha­chette, we have 20 au­to­graphed copies of PaprikaPar­adise to give away to read­ers. To en­ter, write your name and ad­dress on the back of an en­ve­lope and tell us in 25 words or less why you’d like to win. Send to: Paprika Par­adise Give­away, PO Box 215, East­ern Sub­urbs MC, NSW 2004. Book re­view of — Page 12,

Pic­tures: Photolibrary (women in cos­tume); James Jef­frey

A river runs through it: Clock­wise from bot­tom left, the au­thor’s fa­ther be­side the Danube; Hun­gar­ian women in tra­di­tional dress; a

river­boat passes Eszter­gom Basil­ica; the basil­ica’s or­nate in­te­rior

Pic­ture: James Jef­frey

Miss­ing link: Re­built Maria Va­le­ria bridge be­tween Hun­gary and Slo­vakia

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