with photography by Michele Andrews
On the road between Vienna and Budapest through the Danube River valley, we made a couple stops. The first was in some small Austrian or Hungarian village where we stopped for a pee break in a converted convent boutique hotel where I checked my email and clicked into facebook. Back out on the streets we found a farmer’s market of local flowers, produce and ruddy cheeks begging for snap shots. Reverting to genetic impulse, I took an early lunch of red beet soup, sausage on a dark roll and beer. Shelly abstained. A small crinkled coughing man walked up to me and launched into a monologue in a tongue that I couldn't recognize, bending across the outdoor table toward me. I imagined TB germs spewing from his mouth and settling in my quaint tourist meal. I gave him a few coins, Forints, Euros, whatever was in my pocket and he ambled off to make another speech. Out of sight, out of mind, I finished the hunky grub. Minutes later we walked along a small tributary and saw the beggar relieving himself in some bushes with his back to us but not quite hiding a frontal view from a toddler peering backward on the other side of the foliage with a young couple relaxing on a park bench.
Back in the Coach we continued cruising along the Danube through small broken down villages and viewing the same in Slovakia on the opposite shore. It was a bumpy ride blamed on the inferior paving of the Communists. The road began to rise into a hilly country. In the distance could be seen a mountain range. I remember hearing the word Carpathian, but I could be wrong. We came to a medieval castle and basilica at the top of a hill, maybe a mountain. The town we had passed through coming up was Esztergom, substantial and prosperous. The basilica was huge but didn't look ancient as it had been renovated or maybe completed a hundred years ago. It had a long formal name that I can't recall but I know it had Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Adalbert in it.
It seemed odd to me that the church wasn't named after St. Stephen because his skull and some of his other smallish bones were in there in a reliquary of gold. St Stephen was a medieval ruler in the Magyar who accepted a crown and splinters of the Holy Cross sent from Rome and shored up the defenses of his people. At least that's what I heard the guide say. The guide said that the tribes that settled in the region to become one united people "Christianized themselves." I assumed the guide was an atheist. He repeated quite often what the religious breakdown was in European countries. Most of the time, it was 50% atheist, 40% Roman Catholic and then the OTHERS. The St. Stephen set-up was at a side altar. There was no mention of him being decapitated in life, but there was his skull in a gold and glass cage behind a veil of gauze on a bed of satin.
After we left the basilica we walked along the battlements and walkways high up on the precipice. Lots of Kodak moments up there. Down below was a bridge connecting Hungary to Slovakia. The guide wasn't around but I imagined that thousands of humans were killed defending that bridge over the last thousand years.
We came back down to a nice dining hall to answer nature's call for which we had to pay a stern, tall, big shouldered woman for the usage who was guarding the doors with a cash register. The shithouses were immaculate with plenty of toilet paper and the paper hand towels were thick. The big dining hall was built into the side of the mountain and there were no windows and soft lighting. No one was eating as it was between meal times. There was a wine bar with a handsome young woman behind it who spoke good English with a slight British accent. It was a place where you wanted to spend some time.
About 8 of our group settled-in to drink the local wine. Our barmaid told us all about the grapes, the process, the age.......The tour was informal and open to independent exploration. The paths of the tourists crossed only occasionally but we travelled together between cities and got to know each other a bit. We sat drinking the wine on benches at a long plank table. In our party was the lone African-American man in our group with a white American woman who appeared to be travelling with him, but we had learned from tour gossip that they had just met on the trip.
The woman was middle-aged and nice looking and dressed well. She got my attention because of the hats she wore, always different, kind of flamboyant. She began a conversation with Shelly. "I heard you 2 are from Michigan." After the chummy Q & A and another quick wine before getting back on the bus, it turns out that the hat lady was from the eastside of Detroit and attended Holy Name of Jesus grammar school with Shelly. They didn't know each other as "Katerina" was 3 years older but they had a lot of names in common, in common with me as well. She was now in Florida, in Real Estate.
Mark James Andrews is the author of Burning Trash (Pudding House, 2010). His writing appeared in many print and online venues in 2010 including Camel Saloon. You can look it up. Full of Crow has published him this year with upcoming work in Deuce Coupe, Rusty Truck, the Short, Fast, & Deadly Anthology and Red Fez (novel excerpt in RF). He lives and writes approximately one mile from the city limits of Detroit most of the time.
Photographs © 2011 by Michele Andrews.