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The Eighties – The University years: ‘Just a Hungarian type of boy’
Ildiko’s family comes from Gyor, an ancient city in the northwest Hungary, just on another side of the Slovakian border. In 1945 the Soviet Army liberated Hungary and Slovakia from Nazi occupation, then outstayed its welcome by 54 years. In that time they managed to divide these two nations by artificial border line often crossing through the middle of a willage. As it happened few Ildiko’s family members ended up on Slovakian side leaving the home and the rest of the family behind.
“I told you that you end up with my brother, I felt it in my bones,” Ildiko winked at me when I pinned the duck’s feather, Robert brought me next to his photo on my wall.
“He said we are going to Gyor this weekend, are you joining us?” I smiled dreamily brushing gently the small photo of Robert in his hunting uniform holding a shot duck victoriously in his hand.
“No way, good luck with all those aunties feeding you langoshe, cause they think you are too skinny and need to eat more, anyway how would you cope, you don’t speak Hungarian?” Ildiko twirled in front of a mirror trying her new skirt.
“No difference to visiting your family here in Slovakia, they speak only Hungarian anyway,” I murmured angrily: “And your mum constantly repeating that Robert will marry Hungarian girl, what does she think?”
“Bibi,” Ildiko rushed to me and got hold of my hands as my eyes filled up with tears: “Do not take notice, my parents still live in Hungary in their minds just like the rest of the willage…”
“I noticed,” I quickly dried my tears, “All the signs are in Hungarian, couldn’t even buy the bread in the shop, I couldn’t understand the shop assistant, one would think I am not in Slovakia any more.”
Ildiko just waved her hand: “This is how it always been, even in primary school we spoke only Hungarian, but what you expect, we are Hungarians after all.”
Robert burst into our room and the floor shook under his strong feet: “We won two – nil,” running to me he picked me up and I sqeeked with delight.
“Cut it out, basketball is all you can talk about,” Ildiko angrily spitted out in our direction: “Heard you take Bibi to Gyor, tell mum I am joining you, will you?”
“So you can sleep around with that ‘skinny skunk’? Robert suddenly put me back on the ground and his dark face darkened even more.
“Not everyone is built to be a big muscle man just like you, anyway he is very gentle and funny, so don’t dare to scare him of.” Ildiko carefully applied a lipstick on her full lips and turned quickly on her high heels to open the door.
“Just don’t get pregnant, will you?” Robert sighed, “I suppose to look after you, and tell that skunk I punch his face when I see him next.”
Ildiko showed her tounge at him before banging the door behind her: “Now, who is talking, Bibi watch out…” We heard her laughing down the corridor until the silence enveloped the room. The other room mates went home for a weekend so this supposed to be our day together but suddenly we felt uncomfortable sitting next to each other on my narrow bed.
“Let’s go to Gyor, pack some clothes for night,” he suddenly jumped up.
“You said the bus goes at 5 in the morning, now is 5 in the afternoon,” I tried to protest but he was already moving out of the door.
“What they say when we turn up there for the night, your mum was not happy at all…” I rushed after him down the broad staircase.
He picked me up taking two steps instead of one, he turned around and brought me back to our room shutting the door tightly behind.
“You are right, the aunties will watch us like hawks,” he smiled showing his strong white teeth and his dark moustache tickled my cheeck.
It was still dark when we left the quiet dormitory, Robert through the window and me through the door. Ildiko didn’t return to her room at all. The dormitory lady was snoring loudly, her knitting needles lying comfortable on her huge belly in the entry hall so I managed to sneak out without being questioned.
I found Robert phoning his mum in the nearby telephone boot. It irritated me not be able to understand what they were talking about, but I heard Ildiko’s name mentioned few times.
“If mum asks, Ildiko is with us, allright ‘kishason’? He smiled and sqeeked my hand when we rushed to the bus stop through the sleepy dusty streets. The morning was breaking up behind the bishop’s castle, that was now occupied by the communist party. The huge red flag was flapping violently in the wind.
“What do you want me to say?” I snapped back, “you know I don’t speak Hungarian.”
He hugged me tightly: “I will teach you and then mum will come around, you will be the best Hungarian girl of them all, ‘kishason’.”
I freed myself from his hug and running towards the bus that just pull in I shouted back: “I am not Hungarian, you are, kishason.”
“I can not be ‘kishason’, silly, it means a pretty girl,” he laughed catching up easily with me.
Sqeezed in between workers travelling to their factories on a border at the back and bumping at each hole on the unkempt road I layed my head on his strong shoulder and whispered: “Describe for me your Gyor, never been in Hungary before.”
Robert looked out of the window at a grim, unattractive city with belching chimneys and dirty streets and sighed: “Looks just like here.”
I looked up at him in sheer wonderment: “So what for we go there, what for?”
The old house at end of unkempt street was filled with Robert’s adoring relatives, who hugeed him constantly and pinched my cheecks while offering me unlimitted amount of chocolate. I felt as I didn’t belong listening to their laughs and chatting in a language that was foreign to me. Robert noticed my discomfort and placing his arm confidently around me he started to translate: “The chocolate is from our uncle who ran away to Switzerland after the bloody revolution in 56.”
I nodded: “You mean the one we had in 65, I remember the Russian tanks in front of Grandmum’s house, but is he allowed to visit, cause my father is not allowed to come back..”
Robert shook his head: “He just sent parcels…that’s him and his new family.” Someone from the family handed me a photo of an elderly man with a big scar on his cheeck, a red haired woman and a little girl by his side.
“What’s happened to him?” I pointed it at the scar.
An elderly aunt said something and everyone started to laugh. I looked confused at the laughing aunt and chuckling Robert, then stood up and stormed out of the room.
“Don’t be stupid, we didn’t laugh at you,” he caught up with me down the street turning me forcefuly around so I had to look straight to his eyes: “You are such a sensitive little ‘kishason’, my auntie just called the hated Russians who cut my uncle’s face ‘our Soviet brothers’, do you get it, its their Hungarian nickname, because everyone knows you can’t pick your relatives.”
I stood there sulkily not knowing what to do next: “And they don’t let you to pick me,” I said finally.
“Come with me, I show you something,” he took my arm and pulled me in direction of the glistening water in the distance. We came to the junction of the three rivers where a group of children were competing who throws a pebble further away. We joined them and kept throwing pebbles one after another. Suddenly I felt much better.
Suddenly Robert stopped and pointed at the ruins nearby: “Here in 1944 Gyor’s Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, of the 4000 men, women and children, only a handful returned, my auntie told me about it, her neighbour was one of them, she said he looked like a ghost and died soon after.”
I closed my ears in exasperation: “Stop it, Robert, stop it, I can’t take it any more, I just want to go back home.”
The dark was already enveloping us when he picked me up and tickled me with his moustache on the cheeck: “It’s okey, ‘kishason’, it’s happened a long time ago, let’s go to the bishop’s residence now,” he put me down and we ran up the cobbled street laughing our hearts out. The rundown monastery was also decorated by a huge red flag but behind it was a beautiful orchard. I could see a juicy peaches beckoning to me from a nearby tree.
“Pick me that one, if you dare,” I pointed at the biggest one further away.
He bowed to me and climbed the forbidding iron railing. He swung himself skillfuly on to the peach tree to pick the chosen one. In a second he kneeled down in front of me holding the round peach as a trophy.
2011 – A pilgrimage to Gyor to reclaim student’s memories
“We should stay in Vienna, Mum,” my teenager daughter looked up at the renovated castle from the 16 century, “I liked that castle where empress Maria Theresa lived much more.”
I opened the city map looking desperately for the street I would know: “It changed so much, here it said it boasts the second largest collection of historic buildings in Hungary, I never knew that, and do you know that Turks lived here in this castle for 150 years?”
“So what,” my daughter slumped her shoulders: “What are we going to do, mum, you said you know someone here…”
I closed the map and nodded: “Okey, I call him then,” I picked up the mobile and soon enough I heard his throaty voice: “Is it you, Bibi, just wait where you are, ‘kishason’.”
Soon enough he rushed towards us down the street, still strong muscle man with little belly and a crown of silver hair and a silver moustache to tickle my cheeck. He hugged me tightly so I felt we separated just yesterday not back over twenty years. He pinched my daughter’s cheeck with a confident smile: “‘kishason’ you look just like your mother used to look, are you sure your father is not Hungarian?”
She looked at me confused, her stare said it all: “Is this man mad or what?” Then he turned to Robert and said in Aussie lingo: “My Dad lives in Australia.”
He bowed politely towards her and said in perfect English: “Beg a pardon, little lady, I love Australians, we have them plenty over here every holiday.”
“Robert, your English is really good,” I applauded him with an honest admiration.
He straighten up and salluted in a Russian style: “Had to prepare for so important visit to our city.”
My daughter looked at me and rolled her eyes: “Can we go to eat somewhere, mum?”
Before she could protest he grabbed her hand and dragged her up the street: “Of course we can, but before that I take you on a tour of this magical city, as I see on your figure you need a little bit of exercise…”
My daughter turned around with a pleading eyes: “Mum, tell him off, mum?”
I had to laugh and shouted after her hurrying to catch up: “It is easier said than done, sweetheart, you don’t know Hungarians.”
We stopped in front of recently uncovered celtic ruins dated back to 500 BC.
“We saw them already in Slovakia,” my daughter murmured struggling to free her hand, but he managed to take her other hand and twirled her around in ‘chardash style’.
“Did your mum tell you how we used to dance whole night, she was a quick learner, I can tell you…”
“Robert, that would be enough,” I said crossly and he stopped in a midstep and holding my daughter around her arms he pointed at ruins again:
“Okey, then, ‘kishason’ you are right, just like in Slovakia, Romans established here an important trading centre. And you would not guess, Gyor was in turn home to Slavs, Lombards and Franks as well until the nomadic Magyars, just like me, settled here in AD 900.” He pumped up his chest and even my daughter chuckled and asked more cheerfully: “How do you know all that?”
“It is my city, where my family was born and now I live, what do you expect?”
“I don’t know anything about Perth,” my daughter said.
“You should,” he nudged her towards the castle: “I have a daughter just like you and she is prouder Hungarian than me.”
“Is your wife Hungarian?” My daughter asked suddenly and I crossed their path: “Stop with those personal questions, it is not polite…”
My daughter looked at me stubbornly: “Why not, he started with up to close and personal, how you danced with him all night.”
I was ready to spank her when he caught my arm: “Bibi, she is right,” and then he turned towards her: “Of course she is, Hungarians were expected to marry only Hungarians, but it is changing now and believe me I am more than happy for that.”
He looked at me with those dark deep eyes and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable: “Maybe it is time to go for lunch.”
“And what about the castle?” He protested but my daughter pulled his arm now for a change: “Been there, seen that, Turks lived there for 150 years.”
“You are clever ‘kishason’ after your mum,” he laughed and let her to pull him towards the Szechenyi Square.
“Robert, it is beautiful,” I stopped in a sudden shock. Whitewashed and painted in soft colours, the freshly renovated baroque buildings enveloped me. The summer concert trio was playing one of the Bartok’s long forgotten melodies on the square’s corner.
“Look mum, a cafe hub, just like home, maybe they have muffins as well,” my daughter ran towards the closest lunch bar without waiting for us.
I wanted to follow her, but he got hold of my arm: “Let her, she is not a kid any more, if she wants she will find us,” and led me toward the starkly beautiful monastery built by the Jesuits in 1634. I breathed the distinctive fragrance of incense and candlewax and looked at him with a question in my eyes.
“I first came here many years ago when the Hungarian regime which was hostile to religion, as you know had let the building fall into disrepair but even in that delapidated state nothing could mar the beauty of it, or at least it was beautiful in my memories…”
We walked around the buildings and reached the orchard.
“One dark night, spurred on by you, I climbed that forbidding iron railing.” When we stopped and touched that fence now, I felt, he was still proud of this students’ adventure. We both stared deep into orchard when my daughter caught up with us.
“What are you looking at?” She asked impatiently.
None of us replied. Over twenty years later, we were searching for that tree, how could I explain.
We walked slowly beside the fence peering in, and have almost given up when we saw it tucked away in the far corner just close enough to the fence to make the exploit possible. The old tree still bearing fruits, the precisely one peach was still hanging there. Robert looked at me and I shook my head: “It is someone else turn now.”
“I don’t like peaches, do you mum?” My daughter pinched in.
“Oh, she does, believe me,” Robert winked at me and hand in hand we walked back to the square. At the end of it we said goodbye and each of us went their own separate way again.
While my daughter was munching on her blueberry muffin and chatting away about her home back in Australia I was looking back at the orchard and on our old tree. Then I realized I forgot to ask about the Ildiko’s whereabouts. The last postcard I got from her was from Italy, where she lived with some Italian.
Why do women betray their family customs more easily to follow their heart?
It was a poignant end to my tour of rediscovery, the old tree still bearing fruit has outlived our relationship, but I came back to make amends with my past in this beautiful city restored finally to its former glory.