The sight of the Danube River took Mummy’s breath away. We had finally returned to her hometown of Budapest, a city she holds dear to her heart. Now ablaze in the autumn sunlight the luminous landmarks were casting reflections onto the tawny Cognac-hued water. The regal facade of the Parliament was the jewel in this crown as the handsome line of the Chain Bridge with its lion statues stood in the distance. Maria sighed softly as she opened the curtains inside our river cruise cabin’s balcony overlooking the river she knew all too well. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what she was thinking. But knowing my mom, I knew how she’d react to a letter atop her bed. I had read mine a minute earlier.
“Mummy here’s a letter addressed to you.” “Me?” she replied in disbelief, surprised by the gesture. With camera in hand, I watched her eyes widen and her grin grow. “The captain has invited me this evening to join him for dinner,” she giddily announces. It was a Kodak moment. That reaction I photographed alone was worth my trip. Her sheer happiness over this special invitation re-affirmed that this 7-night river cruise I had booked for us aboard Uniworld’s The Beatrice, a year earlier was a great idea. Mom enjoys life. She gets great joy out of the simple things, is fun loving and has always been the one to start cracking the jokes in our family.
Still, ever since her family escaped during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 by ship to start a new life in Canada, she has never sailed. While only 12 years old at the time, mom holds onto these vivid memories, recalling the entire journey as if it were yesterday. Through her stories I had a longing to retrace my own roots. I also wished to share her dream which was to cruise again. The Danube was the obvious choice with its breathtaking scenery and rich history between Budapest and Passau, Germany aboard our boutique luxury vessel. Growing up all I ever heard was The Danube. I’m a first-generation Canadian-Hungarian so took the prescribed piano lessons, played and later waltzed as a debutante to the emblematic Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (whose grandfather was Hungarian I learned on our trip).
On our first day we broke from the ship’s excursions and arrived to the Buda Hills for a trip down memory lane. Maria is quick to say she is from Buda. Buda still retains its cachet as an affluent location in which famous actors past and present reside like Angelina Jolie who made her directorial debut there. Mom walks confidently through the 12th district and every few seconds like a tour guide she announces what used to be. “Here was my girlfriend’s house. This used to be our vegetable seller and this block was an empty shell of an apartment bombed during World War II,” she says of the new building across from her childhood home.
I had no idea mom’s neighbourhood was an Embassy Row of Residences. We passed by several ambassadors’ homes enroute to her old school on Csaba Utca. Glancing at these towering mansions many of them laden in thick vines with gloriously tall acacia trees, I wondered how in the 50s, considered the terror years in Hungary, these residences might have unlocked their gates to allow local families in for refuge. The House of Terror on Andrassy ut is a museum dedicated to the darkest days in Hungary’s recent history. The structure itself was the original AVO (Hungary’s secret police) Headquarters, in which prisoners were tortured, imprisoned and killed. We quietly watched the videotaped testimonies of those unfortunates who were later executed pleading for their life. We saw countless photos of victims, names of the victimizers, and cherished family heirlooms of handkerchiefs, and bibles among the shackles and other torture devices.
It is indeed astounding how such a rich vibrant culture as the Magyars heralding some of the world’s most creative minds were choked by the iron fist of Communism. But I applaud the Hungarians for opening this building which is indeed a testament that shows how fragile democracy really is. I now have a better idea on what compelled my mom’s father, a young Charles Steiner with his pregnant wife Irma and their five children to just abandon their home in the middle of the night in the dead of winter. The Steiner’s took only their children along with my grandmother’s favourite hand crocheted doilies she had sewn in between her winter coat lining as offerings for the toll men as they fled on foot to Austria.
To change the tune we boarded the metro to Vorosmarty Square for some pastries and a tour of the nearby opera house. At the Gerbeaud Cafe we sampled Gerbeaud and sipped coffee while mom relayed how this place was a social hotspot in the 19th century. The Hungarian pastry houses became a cultural symbol of defiance as these landmarks even under Communism were never allowed to close. Inside the Hungarian State Opera House, the gold glimmered. “Everything you see in here that is shiny is gold,” notes our guide about the Neo-Renaissance designed shrine to classical music, which fittingly was opened by Emperor Franz Joseph I and his much adored wife, Elizabeth affectionately known as Sisi.
Mom like many Hungarians has a close affinity to this long-haired raven beauty. “She loved the Hungarians just as much as they loved her,” mom explains about the Habsburg queen. Viewing the famous stage, Maria proudly whispers, “Back in Canada Nagymama (grandmother) sang tenor and was part of the Toronto Kodaly Ensemble. She performed Aida at the O’Keefe Centre in 1964.” That was news to me. But then again whenever we visited my grandparents, opera and waltz tunes emerged from their hi-fi set at some point during our visit. Nagymama was also quick to play a Rhapsody or two on her cherished upright piano. Back at the ship we changed into our Captain’s Welcome Dinner attire and waltzed to the upper deck, cameras in tow. It was our final evening by the Pearl of the Danube. The city’s landmarks all aglow, our ship slowly plied up the Danube toward Austria, the country which embraced our family as they sought safe passage.
A return to my maternal roots at this period in my life has indeed revealed many things. The river cruise became the vehicle for my mom to share parts of her past I never knew before. As our boat cruised up the Danube away from Budapest I could feel my mother and I becoming closer and closer as we now shared all the new places on our river adventure. We could hardly wait to see what was in store for us. Surrounded by the lofty Carpathians, the Danube River in all its’ splendour took my breath away too.