Erd Part 3

Érd, Part 3

Now, with the help of the woman at the census bureau, I had an address for my cousin, but no way of finding a taxi. Taxis in this city had no identifying markers, no black or white or yellow stripes. We decided to eat, and ordered sandwiches at a corner restaurant, where we asked about a taxi. The owner made a call, and within minutes one rolled into view.

I handed the driver my cousin’s address and explained that we were pressed for time. He was uncertain of the location but had a general idea. After driving for fifteen minutes along bumpy, potholed roads, he admitted to being lost. I whipped out my cellphone and keyed in the address, and before long we pulled up in front of the house.

How was I to do this? We had an hour, no more, before our train left. With the meter running and my head spinning, I asked the driver to wait while I visited my cousin. I grabbed my purse and my husband’s sleeve, and we approached a locked iron gate. All was hushed and still, except for the yapping of a dog and the flutter of a circular that broke free at that moment from a waist-high black mailbox stuffed with uncollected mail.

Erd HouseI pressed the buzzer several times and called my cousin’s name. No response. From my purse, I retrieved a pen and scrap of paper and wrote a message, explaining who I was and why I had come, and promising to visit him on another trip to Hungary. I expressed my disappointment at not meeting him, and included my email address. Then I shoved the paper into the mailbox, hoping the wind wouldn’t claim it.

 

Back in the taxi, I cried to the driver, “Please hurry to the train station!”

“Which one?” he asked, shrugging.

My pulse was racing. “I don’t know, just as long as it takes us to the South Station in Budapest.”

Moments later, we arrived at a shopping mall, filled with parked cDSCN4068ars and people milling around a courtyard. It was a very different place from the spot where we had arrived. The driver explained that there were two train platforms but both went to Budapest. With a deep sigh of frustration tinged with relief, we made it to the train on time—and even had to wait a bit.

The train was not the super-red speed train we had come on, but a dark green antique sprayed with graffiti. I felt sad as it lumbered away from Érd, away from the cousin I had failed to find, away from the past I had hoped to own. And my note? It must have been caught by the wind, for he never emailed me. I have yet to write a proper letter, though I still hope we will meet one day.

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City of Érd,Part 2

City of Érd, Part 2

Please read Érd Part 1 first at http://sheilabali.com/wordpress/?p=323

How does one find a cousin in a foreign land?

On that crisp, cold, sunny day, my husband and I headed for Érd’s information center. Unfortunately, a note on the window said it was closed. Locals were going about their errands all around us, but I hesitated to stop anyone for directions. Finally, I asked a middle-aged couple how one finds someone you haven’t seen in five decades. The woman raised an eyebrow in surprise and then suggested a telephone directory or perhaps a library or post office. The man mentioned administrative offices, such as a civil office, or the magistrate’s or mayor’s or city council’s office. But those places, too, were closed for the weekend. Others I spoke to mentioned the police or fire department, or going back to square one—the information center.

My husband encouraged me to press onward. We went in and out of doors, questioning several doormen as people queued behind us. One of the doormen recommended the census–motor vehicle bureau around the corner. It turned out we had already been there.

Nevertheless, we took a ticket and sat down to wait. Three hours later, a blond woman called our number from behind a glass. I explained my situation in great detail, leaving out nothing. She agreed I had come to the right place. I sighed with relief. I spelled my cousin’s name, my parents’ names and even my paternal grandparents’ names, just in case a link could be made. When she found none, I asked her to please go back and recheck. Lo and behold, this time she found my relatives—their birth dates, death dates, cemetery plots—but she couldn’t divulge my living cousin’s address. Surely, I pleaded, there must be some provision for a person like me searching for a long-lost relative. She listened with compassion and then phoned her supervisor.

I listened to half the conversation. “No,” the woman said, “she speaks Hungarian with an accent. No, she’s with her husband. Yes,” and at this point she nodded to me, “they’re speaking English and have U.S. passports. I think they’re authentic, and they have been waiting for hours.” Then she hung up, leaned forward and whispered, “Here’s what I can do.”

I pulled my chair closer and she printed out a paper and placed it before me. “I’m legally not allowed to give out addresses.” Then she pointed her pen at the name János Dvořák, resting it on the paper. “As you can see, we have so many names,” and she looked the other way.

I understood immediately and quickly jotted down the address. “Thank you for this great gift,” I said.

Then I thought, how do I get there in the two hours before my train leaves?

Sorry, I’m without pictures of Érd however here’s a link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K1IJrbqmgo

 

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City of Érd, Part 1

The City of Érd, Part I

After Vienna and Sopron, I had one final destination before our trip to Hungary came to an end—the city of Érd, a word derived from “forest,” where cavemen once lived.

By mid-morning, my husband and I had boarded a fast, modern train from Budapest’s Déli South station. Train v2It smelled clean and new, and glided with a quiet hum along its steel tracks. We smiled politely at the expressionless passengers seated facing us or walking about waiting to disembark at the few stops along this express route. I guessed that most were headed to work or school, perhaps some for shopping. I didn’t ask, as no one seemed to be interested in small talk.

The train flashed by the less populated towns and villages, the snow-covered fields, the old-world villages nestled between farms, the backsides of commercial buildings in the cities. My spirits bubbled. I was headed into vague territory, my paternal grandparents’ city, my father’s birthplace, where I dimly remembered childhood incidents.

After thirty minutes, the train arrived in Érd. Passengers hurried about in dark winter coats, pulling their hats and gloves tight, snatching their bags and dragging collapsible shopping carts brimming with food. They scattered through narrow tunnels like army ants. We didn’t know our way, so we picked one of the underpasses at random, like tossing a coin, hoping it was the correct exit. It pointed to Érd and seemed the most logical one.

I was delirious with curiosity. I had no realistic expectations, yetErd Train Station my questions were limitless. Most of all, I wanted to reconnect with a cousin I hadn’t seen since he was a teething infant. I had no information, no address, no reference, no photograph to guide me, only the intuition of my gut. My distant relatives were unknown to me, or had long since died. It was now close to lunch time and we had to catch the train back to Budapest at four o’clock that afternoon. My cousin’s first name was János, a common name, but his last name was uncommon. That should make it easy, right? How do I find the great great nephew of a composer named Dvořák? Time was running out. How and where to begin?

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Has Anybody Seen Cary Grant Naked?

Has Anyone Seen Cary Grant Naked?

Vienna at nightThe air in Vienna was sweet with the delicate perfume of pastries. My husband stood at the door of a quaint Viennese café while customers came and went and I pressed my face into the plateglass window. My mouth watered from the fragrance of vanilla, chocolate and full-bodied Arabica coffee. “We’re going in to have strudel,” I said. Austrian strudel was on my list of treats not to be missed, and I wasn’t walking away without checking it off.

The maître d’ ushered us to a table with cane-backed chairs. The smoke-filled room sizzled with smells and activity. Delicate coffee beans churned in the grinders, which spit out granules of black gold. Mocha machines gurgled with foamy steamed milk. The clientele was a contented mix of starry-eyed lovers, parents rocking infants, and elderly men with salt-and-pepper hair reading their papers.

From a long menu in German, my husband chose apple strudel, I picked cherry, andGiant Steff Bear. we both ordered cappuccinos. After consuming enough cream and butter to spike our cholesterol, we paid and headed out to explore the crowded Viennese shops before returning to Budapest.

The streets of Vienna might not be on a par with the haute couture shops of Paris, but they are just as tantalizing. While we strolled arm-in-arm and window-shopped, we happened upon a special boutique—the house of Steiff bears, a pricey collection of bears in all sizes and colors. Dead center, in a recessed display, towered a splendid, tan-colored bear, taller than I am. Excited, I approached the entrance, just as my husband pointed me in another direction. I turned and, aghast, what did I see? Not my gargantuan bear, but a giant poster of a very bare Cary Grant! So, I ask you, has anyone seen Cary Grant naked? Well, I have, and I didn’t have to visit the Champs-Élysées to find him.

If you’re curious, there’s more news on Steiff bears. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Z8VbEzRQQE

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The City Of Music

In Sopron, my husband and I spent half a day visiting ancient ruins and the many colorful ethnic shops. Later, we figured we would drive into Vienna to sample its famous strudel, for Austria is renowned for its pastries. The capital is only a short distance by car from Sopron, but we were prepared for a thorough inspection at the border crossing, with reams of questions. We lined up with many others and crept toward the glass kiosk. There, an Austrian agent glanced at our passports, without checking for stamps or dates, and waved us through.

That was easy, easier than any inspection I had had in all my years of travel. It set me to pondering about a crossing half a century earlier, a crossing by hundreds of thousands fleeing Hungary in the space of two short weeks in 1956. For me, for my family, for those hundreds of thousands, this crossing signaled a new beginning, the start of a new life.

By nightfall, we were in Vienna, the city of music, of Beethoven, Strauss and Mozart. It teamed with life and light, with trendy clothing shops and street vendors speaking all kinds of languages. How different it was from those troubled days long passed. Now it was vibrant, packed with cars and pedestrians, and loud.

Vienna-streetsHalf a century ago, most people walked long distances. Yes, some commuted by bus, trolley, cable car or horse-drawn wagon, and some rode bicycles. But what I remember is the walking, lots of walking. What else do I remember? A field that served as a border crossing, a quick tug of the hand, a push to climb up a ridge, with gobs of mud caked on my heels. I remember trying to scrape my shoes clean on the cobblestones under a gas lamp at dawn. The streets of Vienna, in that long-ago memory, were much less traveled than now. I remember Red Cross trucks, an immense building, helpful arms inside, and flat carrybags being dispensed, brimming with oddities—toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, soap in rubber boxes, bandages, needles, thread and safety pins. To a child, these were wonders, their minutest detail never to be forgotten, the emotion of them to be imprinted for a lifetime.

The You Tube I’ve added is a film edited by Olson Wells in 1968 and 1969 of Vienna. It’s vintage but worth the watch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kz39VdxoQc

 

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Revisiting The City of Sopron

Revisiting the City of Sopron

The city of Sopron had beckoned me to return for a visit. It plays a vital part in my novel, but my mental pictures of it had waned, or were full of inaccuracies.

Being close to Christmas and the New Year, my husband flew from the United States to Budapest to join me for the holiday. In Budapest, we enjoyed mingling in the festivities, dazzled by the lights while we sipped mulled wine and tasted pastries and roasted chestnuts from the street vendors. The next day, we rented a car and sped along the autobahn to Sopron, in the cultural part of Western Hungary. As we looked for a parking spot, I discovered that Sopron had many churches and statues of famous people. How could I have been so ill-prepared to think I would find the past I remembered? Sopron wasn’t a small town. It was a vibrant, bustling city, filled with tourists, and its many excavations of antiquities lay as reminders that this was once a province of the Roman Empire. I wondered how my memories of fifty years ago, memories through the eyes and thoughts of a child, could have been so naïve.

We treaded carefully along the cobbled streets—and a visceral reaction overcame me. I had lost a slice of time from my past. Was it my identity, my innocence, my roots? I felt that these had once belonged to me but now I had sadly misplaced them.Sopron had always taunted me. It was here, in November 1956, that my family found a safe house after we left Budaörs. From here, we fled to Vienna. From here, thousands of families like my own were ripped to pieces. I realized that what I was seeking were these pieces, these snippets, these landmarks. But there was nothing. And yet I recalled a late afternoon when we faced a distant horizon, with fog and drifting snow. That was when we escaped from Sopron, never to return to Hungary.

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How History Leads to Historic Fiction

How History Leads to Historical Fiction

I write historical fiction, and I’m quick to admit that I’m not a historian. I just love to write about the past. Flip open the pages of a historical novel and you are thrown into another time. A woman in Ireland during the potato famine digs for bits of food. A child of the Industrial Revolution in England toils in a textile mill. A man trapped in a coal mine in Wales dares to cuss as he prays. In historical fiction, these characters live on the page as they once lived in time. They tell us their story, and in this way they tell us about history.

Since the beginning of language, storytellers have created tales steeped in history. History is the greatest source of both information and story. As listeners and readers of historical fiction, we too revel in history—we are entertained, enlightened, horrified, engaged.

My forthcoming novel, Shattered Tears for My Homeland, takes place during the turbulent years of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I have spent over a year on research alone, reading archived newspapers and magazines, interviewing people, viewing documentaries and black-and-white films, and thumbing through the dog-eared volumes of history. A daunting task? Of course. But I need correct information, lots of it, and I need to understand it so well that it almost becomes part of me. My handwritten notes are voluminous—even in this technological age, huge quantities of paper go into research. With all the files and folders, and folders within folders, I sometimes think I’m obsessed. I’m sure you can picture this, and perhaps you are chuckling. I’m chuckling too, but it has all paid off.

During all of this, I have begun to learn the difference between the history that historians write and the historical fiction that novelists write. Reading history is like going on a journey of ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes. Novelists take those ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes and do wonderfully creative things with them. But I understand now why historians cringe at the release of a historical novel: sometimes historical fiction produces historical distortion.

If you gathered all the historians in the world and put them together in a hall, they would disagree on almost everything. History is generally scripted by the victors. Where go the spoils, so goes history. But some history is written by the vanquished, and their perspective is entirely different. They tell another tale. It is for this reason that the accuracy of history is always in dispute. Just as there are two sides to every coin, there are two sides, at least, to every piece of history. What is a novelist to do?

As a writer of historical fiction, I investigate all points of view. Readers, I believe, should be able to identify with more than one side. They should know how the vanquished feel crawling out of the ashes, overcoming the obstacles. This makes writing historical fiction challenging, but it is worth it. It takes a long time to write a novel, longer than I had imagined. Sometimes my patience wears thin and I find myself wanting to plough through to the end. I must dedicate the time it takes, however long that turns out to be. I cannot afford errors or falsehoods.

History scholars excavate facts from the past. They unearth precise dates, capture victories and losses in battles and wars, cite lives lost, redraw maps. They name rulers, despots, tyrants, heroes. They analyze the results of treaties.

But when those treaties fail, like the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the historical novelist might illuminate a broader truth, a universal truth, as it was lived at a certain time in the past. The novelist writes the bigger scene, the scene of ordinary people, how they survived with everything stacked against them, and in that way the novelist takes the reader to the doorstep of history.

How does the novelist do this? Through convincing, well-developed characters that transport the reader into another time. The characters of historical fiction relive the past by experiencing it in the present. They wake to the sound of tanks rolling through the town and flee the shaking house. If I have researched my history properly, I will know what happens to that town, and that will determine what my characters do next. Do they run to the streets, to the forest, to bomb shelters? What are the names of the streets? Is there even a forest? Did bomb shelters exist? Are my characters engulfed by bullets or by flames? Do sirens scream? Do radios blare? What are the messages? Who lives? Who dies?

The historical novelist gleans the rubble of the past, tasting the grit, extracting the jewels. History becomes an eyewitness account, and we, the readers, live the scene. And as we do, we learn, we appreciate, and we vow never to forget the past.

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Katona József Theatre

Katona József Theatre

Katona (Soldier) József Theatre, a splendid construction in neo-baroque style, designed by two renowned Viennese architects at the turn of the nineteenth century, is near the center of Kecskemét. I was anxious to check out its sumptuous interior, for I had used it as a scene in a historical novel I had written as a prequel to Shattered Tears.

The theatre scene involves Admiral Horthy returning from one of his hunting expeditions with his prized horses. A number of foreign heads of state accompanied him, but they had ulterior motives: they were pressuring him to supply additional troops to Hitler. But I am getting ahead of myself. I wanted to see Katona József Theatre first hand.

You can imagine my disappointment when I arrived to find it closed. It was Monday, and the theatre is always closed on Monday. After traveling so far and getting so close, the best I could do was peer through the front door.

I had another reason for wanting to see the theatre and find someone who would take me around. I remembered as a child sitting next to the plush red curtains in the upper balcony. My parents had taken me to view a show, my first time ever in a theatre. I don’t remember the play or the music, but I do remember being impressed by the stage and the vast seating. The theatre seats 900, and for a young child occupying a big, velvet chair, all to herself—well, that theatre seemed enormous.

And then I was heading back to Budapest, never to see it again. I regret not being able to capture a picture of the theatre’s interior.

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Kecskemét City Hall

Kecskemét City Hall

It had taken us over an hour to drive from Budapest to Kecskemét, and by the time we arrived the sky was cloaked in darkness. I had things to do and see. My cousin—my generous escort—suggested we head to the city square after our visit to the military base. Charming buildings many hundreds of years old surrounded us. In the 13th century, the prairies of Kecskemét were invaded and settled by Mongol tribes. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the French, Turks and Hapsburgs had all taken their turn. Each of those conquerors left their cultures through architecture: French Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, Moorish and Art Nouveau. Take a look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23vFWrOB9U4&feature=related

With the wind in their faces and their breath swirling in the freezing air, the local inhabitants trudged through the streets, bundled tightly in their thick coats. I fancied that the square knew it had once bustled as an open market. I could imagine peasants hauling their produce, pushing their fruit carts, urging their horses to pull wagons laden with wares. I saw barking dogs corralling cattle for trade. There must have been bargaining, bartering, haggling. I retrieved my camera and clicked away, taking touristy photos of statues, churches, synagogues, a mid-1800s university, and an opera house. If you are interested in learning more about Kecskemét, here is a link: http://www.csipero.hu/Kecskemét/latnivalok.php?nyelv=gb

My next stop was the City Hall. This beautiful salmon-colored building was built in the Art Nouveau style. But it offered something more. Every hour, on the hour, its bells chimed. You can listen here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7CJ-79M6Fc&feature=related

With the bells still ringing in my ears, I headed through the wrought-iron gates and into the entryway of the city hall. I passed handcrafted furniture, leather chairs, stained-glass windows, paintings and chandeliers. All beautiful. I entered the immense archives, with its high ceiling, thousands of books, and clerks everywhere, busy carting papers, binders and books for filing. The room smelled of old paper. A clerk asked me in Hungarian if I needed help. I answered in English. If you recall my unpleasant experience in Budaörs, you will understand my unwillingness to speak my mother tongue. I had asked my cousin not to interpret but to let me talk. He obliged with a good-natured smile.

To my surprise, the woman spoke decent English, though with a heavy accent. She apologized for being ill-prepared for my questions. I asked if I could see photographs of Kecskemét before and after World War II and before 1956. She whisked herself away, and in no time returned with stacks of leather-bound books. We spread them across a table and opened the pages. There I found photographs of a parking lot full of hundreds of horses attached to wagons. I found other information, too, that I never would have thought I needed. I asked a lot of questions, and the clerk handed me her card and offered to help me by email. She has kept her word, and I thank her for that.

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The Story of Kecskemét

The Story of Kecskemét

This week I want to share with you my stop in Kecskemét, the eighth largest city in Hungary, situated almost dead-center in the country and surrounded by a great plain. My father’s military base was located here in the early 1950s, before he was posted elsewhere. Here in Kecskemét, he trained, and passed his exams. I believe that in this photo he is a first lieutenant, he eventually reached the rank of colonel. Somewhere in a drawer I have a sepia photograph of him in the fields during a drill. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced it, but I recall living here as a child. Though I’ve misplaced some of those memories, too, I remember being uprooted and moved to Budaörs, to a newer house.

On my recent visit to Hungary, my cousin was kind enough to take a day from his work at the airport and drive me to Kecskemét—he was always a generous chauffeur, and I appreciated his big-heartedness. I wanted to pay for the gas, as gas in Hungary is exorbitant, but as usual he declined. I insisted on treating him in the restaurants, and to that he had no choice but to agree.

After two hours, we arrived at Kecskemét, a name stemming from the root word for goat. The city used to be a market town, between the Danube and Tisza rivers. I found the city square surrounded by colorful buildings. It had snowed the night before, making these Renaissance and neo-Baroque structures even more alluring. It was a captivating sight, quaint, steeped in history.

The tires of our car squeaked on the compact snow at the entrance to the military base. I was immediately disappointed. Rust covered the gray, dingy paint of the iron gates, which spanned an archway high above me. The gates were locked and there was no one around. The place seemed deserted, hardly what I would call a military base.

My cousin turned off the car, and I rolled down the window, breathing the cold air as if it would transport me back in time. I shut my eyes, thinking, So this is it. This is where Father spent his years, studied, passed on his knowledge to others, clicked his heels to the anthem of a small nation. If only he were alive, he would tell me his story. I am old enough now to understand, to know his secrets, old enough to write about the life that broke his spirit. His country—and mine. Who was this man, really? Who was the father who lived and worked here? My intuition told me he had sent me here, but why? I can only surmise, and hope to write his story—and mine—accurately.

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