AROUND THE BEND
In an extract from his new travel memoir, James Jeffrey discovers family secrets while cruising the Danube
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,
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
Missing link: Rebuilt Maria Valeria bridge between Hungary and Slovakia