Finding the Unexpected

A tourist traveling in a country other than her own—even in her country of birth—is apt to find the unexpected. Fact-finding in Hungary was making me wiser. Each day, sometimes more than once a day, I picked the language I would communicate in, depending on the circumstances. When blending in would be to my advantage, I spoke my mother tongue. But when speaking Hungarian got me no where, I spoke English. Perhaps this sounds false-hearted, but after my experience at the library, I decided that strategy was called for in gathering information.

After the library, I searched out the famous Gundel restaurant, near the historic Heroes Square. I had heard much about it. It was founded by the János Gundel in 1884 but was now owned by the cosmetic magnate, the Estée Lauder family. I entered the restaurant hoping to warm myself, as my toes were ice-bitten and my black coat and boots were covered in a dusting of snow. I decided to speak English, to see what would happen.

The staff were rushing about, setting the tables with white table cloths, polishing stemware and cutlery that didn’t quite pass the gleam test, and arranging fresh flowers. It turned out they were preparing for a special New Year’s party. Still chilled to the bone, I huddled at the entrance. All I wanted was a glass of warm mulled wine and a sample of pastries.

The dining room manager explained that this was a black-tie affair and they were closed to the public, but he was kind enough to ask if I had a reservation. I told him I was a writer, researching my family’s past during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Immediately, he took me into his office. There he retrieved a beautifully illustrated book and handed it to me. The book was about the Gundel family and the history of the restaurant, and looking at it quickly, I learned that this famous restaurant had been frequented by kings and princes.

I thanked the man profusely and promised him that somewhere, somehow, I would weave the Gundel restaurant into my novel. For this I was handsomely paid in kind, not only with this beautiful book, but also with coffee and crepes served by a waiter in an adjoining room. My decision to speak English had brought me this reward, and for this I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Kóvács Ádám.

About Sheila Bali

Sheila Bali, historical fiction writer, is soon to complete her novel, Swans and Cranes, based on a family’s escape from the iron grip of post–WW II Russia during the turbulent 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The book focuses on a young girl’s experiences as her family’s world is uprooted, forcing them to flee their home and country to save their lives. Sheila holds a Fine Arts Degree from Concordia University, plus two graduate degrees from McGill University in art education and special education. She now lives in San Francisco Bay Area of California and paints with colorful words. Sheila is a member of CWC Tri-Valley Branch.
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