Theremin wizardry, untrusting cellmates, four-chord honky-tonk, little North Stars, nightclub sidemen, gray bokeh, stolen pianos, Ukrainian railcars, national anthems & Aelita: Queen of Mars.
M y last train ride in Ukraine was to Chop, the last stop on the border with Hungary. Platzkart was sold out. From Kiev, I could get a berth only in kupe, and the beds in my compartment wouldn’t fold up. The outside of the window, characteristic of a post-Soviet sleeper still in everyday use, hadn’t been cleaned in a long time.
My bunkmate was Yuri. His English was worse than my Russian. Our charades weren’t working well, though he did help me with the provodnitsa when she came around to check tickets and take orders for tea.
Yuri and I mostly sat across from each other, heads stooped under the folded-out top berths, silent as untrusting cellmates. The passing countryside streaked itself as gray bokeh on the window glass. Shadows shot across the frame like cracks and pops across old movie strips.
The grayscale and the silence made me think about the silent Soviet films I saw during my college days. Potemkin, screened by the political science department. Aelita: Queen of Mars, scored with a live organ and theremin wizardry from the school of music. I went because I was following Sarah, and those old movies became a part of our story together.
He told this and every other story with Hungarian stresses, invariably on the first syllable, peppered with profanity made ever more exotic by his choices of placement.
Peace Corps stationed Sarah in southeastern Ukraine. I followed her there, too, if only for a visit. On our last day, we kissed goodbye along the long gray walls running the length of Leninskaya Avenue in Zaporizhzhia. We looked over our shoulders at each other as long as we could, until all we could do was Skype each other and wait.
Sarah and I would survive her Peace Corps service. We would get married. We would have a son together. I knew none of that as my Kiev–Chop train went west into Sunday morning, toward the eastern parapets of Fortress Europe.
I woke up with a couple of hours left to ride. Yuri had gotten off at Lviv several hours before. I sat in silence and looked at myself in the window. The darkness had turned it from gray film into a smudgy black mirror. My face seemed to float there, emerging out of the heavy black coat and black driver’s cap I had on. The light at the top of the compartment hung above me like a little North Star.
I was anxious and starting to question the wisdom in forsaking a quick connector flight for an overland train ride through Hungary. I could have had a few extra days with Sarah.
But my father was a refugee of the failed Hungarian Revolution. Even though he was all but absent in my young life, I’d built so many imaginations of his country. I had to see it. What better way, from East to West, than on the train?
In the space between cities, I recalled some of the few stories my father gave me. The one of my grandfather, who went to the New World for Klondike gold and barely got enough to turn tail back home. Of the Soviet army officer, who was quartered in his house during the Siege of Székesfehérvár in 1943.
The outside of the window, characteristic of a post-Soviet sleeper in everyday use, hadn’t been cleaned in a long time.
The Soviet officer was a pianist, and through some maneuver of military finesse he’d made a piano from the neighborhood church appear in my grandfather’s living room. My grandfather protested the presence of stolen goods in his house,and negotiated with the Red Army for a transfer to his shop across the street. The Red Army apparently obliged.
My father, then five years old, was watching all this from a stair landing. He told me the tale some sixty-five years later, during one of the very few hours I ever spent with him, in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
“So I am little chickee, I watch as this eh-Russian gets his men to wheel the piano across the street. I am sure there is no one around, and I go over, jump on the lid…”
My father half-looked at the traffic stalled at the South Florida red light and half-conducted his memory of sixty-five years past, his hands bobbing up and down from the top of the steering wheel, his accelerator foot stabbing for long-ago ivories on the first keyboard he’d ever encountered.
“And I eh-sit on the…the lid of that eh-piano and…la, la, la…”
I sensed my dad starting to feel again his childhood wonder at being alone with such a grandiose noisemaker. But the light turned green and reality jolted him back into operating an automobile down the urban-sprawl avenues of South Florida. The story continued, sans gesture.
“And eh-so, I la, la, la…with my eh-feet heels. But the Russian, he is not gone. So I think…oh, baby! The jig is up! I am little boy. What do I know?
“But this Russian, you know what he does, my son? He says ‘Eh-no-no-no, sonny, like this.’ And he eh-picks me up, sits me on his knee, he puts his hands on top of my hands and he shows me eh-C major…C major scale. Is my first session with maestro!”
The passing countryside streaked itself as gray bokeh on the window glass. Shadows shot across the frame like cracks and pops across old movie strips.
At the point of telling me this story, my father had been in America for almost forty years. He was armed with English taught to him by nightclub sidemen and restaurant people. Accordingly, he told this and every other story with Hungarian stresses, invariably on the first syllable, peppered with profanity made ever more exotic by his choices of placement. Even after forty years, he mixed up pronouns.
“Travis, your mother, how is he doing?”
Back on my own ride to Budapest, as I looked out at the Great Hungarian Plain into the October mist and Sunday morning light, I tried to tie his stories into my instant landscape. I remembered him telling me about hearing Hank Williams for the first time, on Radio Free Europe or Voice of America or something like that.
“Oh, baby—I hear, you eh-know, ‘Eh-hey! Eh-good lookin’! La, la…’” He conjured up another memory, that time conducting four-chord honky-tonk from atop the steering wheel while we made our way into Miami.
“I hear this, I am fourteen years of age. I think, ‘Fucking shit, what is this sound?’”
“What, the steel?”
“You got it! Oh, baby! So I determine to get eh-steel guitar. I find man to work for, he say I need sixteen years. So I say, because I am eh-smooth operator, I am sixteen. I get the money to get eh-steel guitar. In Hungary, you have to find way to get what you want. You have to shit from your own ass.”
My father used that phrase a lot to describe self-resilience and grit. He convinced me that it was a good and honorable thing to shit from one’s own ass.
The scene contrasted their European turns and spins and splits against the carnal, hormone-candied rhythms of American popular song, fermented fifty years.
During the 1956 revolution, my father was a few months shy of nineteen. He spent the second half of that October running around Budapest, presumably shooting at Soviets with a stolen rifle. I tried to coax a story from him about it once.
“Oh, my son, eh-fifty-six. I still have metal in my body from eh-fifty-six.” That time, my father, usually florid and profane, had the quiet, minimalist murmur I’d observed in old American war veterans who didn’t care to share.
Of what little he said, I remember one thing the most.
“They tell us the Americans will give us so much. My son, I am American now. I have eh-USA passport. I love America. It is…”
At this point he took a hand off the steering wheel and clutched it into a fist over his heart.
“…is eh-best country.”
After a silence, long for the relative period of speech, he stared out at the road ahead and sighed.
“But my son, they did not give us anything. They tell us so much. Then, fucking shit, they leave us to be dead.”
That time, my father, usually florid and profane, had the quiet, minimalist murmur I’d observed in old American war veterans who didn’t care to share.
I don’t know what I expected from my ride across Hungary. Maybe I thought it would reveal some sort of life affirmation. Maybe I thought, as the bastard son of a refugee piano man, I’d find something that would help me make sense of my various missing pieces. I guess I thought some signs and talismans would magically reveal themselves as I rolled across the Great Hungarian Plain, train-sick and smelly.
I guess it seems silly in retrospect. What did I think I would possibly find in a day trip across my father’s landlocked—in some ways time-locked—country, a country he left behind nearly fifty years before?
Halfway through the ride, after the train had come and gone through Debrecen, I hadn’t given up yet on trying to find some answers for myself. As overwhelmed and exhausted as I was, I felt like I had to make an effort to catch one of these ghosts I’d pursued for so long.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been in such a situation. A year before, my father had called me and told me he’d booked me with him at his community Kossuth House New Year’s Eve extravaganza. I was immediately anxious. Even though I was a musician myself, I was small-time and amateur. I didn’t think I belonged on the same stage as my father. I showed my reluctance when he gave me the invitation.
“Oh, my baby boy, it is fine. You will shit from your own ass.”
After I apologized and told her I didn’t speak the language, she rolled her eyes, paused as if to collect all the bits of junk scattered across a room in her mind and addressed me in English.
We met for one practice the night before New Year’s Eve. He could catch everything I threw at him, but all I had were country tunes—American rockers that really weren’t engineered for dancing. We came up with a few numbers, all of them older crossover songs or universals from the late ’50s and early ’60s. Stuff my father and his countrymen knew from around the rebellion, heard over Radio Free Europe on black-market radios from refugee camps and first years in the US.
He was right there with me on every song. I was a little surprised he knew some of the obscure ones.
I started to dread what would go on when we were up the next night. My dad sensed as much, after he tried to coax my voice up uncomfortably high on “You Belong to Me.”
“Oh, it will be okay, my baby boy. The show must go on.
You will shit from your own ass.”
I heard that encouragement on the train across Hungary. I knew we were getting close to Budapest.
The train inched up to Ferihgy airport. I watched people greet and good-bye out on the platform. There was a final burst of optimism that maybe I would have an easy time of getting sleeper tickets, and that I’d have a few hours to see something in Budapest. I dug out the DK tour book and tried to get a plan together. I’d get my ticket, in Nyugati if possible, then go up to Citadel Hill. Maybe I’d find some of the places where my dad had held court all those years ago.
I started to become hopeful. It had been my experience in travel, and especially in a big city, that you could just plug yourself into the energy and let the current carry you somewhere, to see something, if only by accident. Surely there would be something in that city to carry me along. The show must go on. I would shit from my own ass, at least as a Sunday sightseer of my dad’s old stomping grounds.
How long will I remember those dance partners turning and splitting apart, hands open in the air, facing the music and another encroaching year?
The show went on that New Year’s Eve at the Kossuth House. My father’s cohort, mostly in their sixties and seventies, eased in. Everyone was dressed more handsomely and elegantly than anything I’d ever seen.
A few greeted my father and cut eyes at me. One woman fell back to me as I was helping hook cables into my father’s keyboards. She started to speak in Magyar. After I apologized and told her I didn’t speak the language, she rolled her eyes, paused as if to collect all the bits of linguistic junk scattered across a room in her mind and addressed me in English.
“Eh…do not eh-let your father drink eh-too much.”
I nodded. He’d already downed a Jack Daniel’s and a couple nods of Zwack Unicum, the liquorous Hungarian syrup that walks and talks a lot like Jägermeister. Hungarians, including my father, tout its medicinal properties. I still can’t figure out what about it makes it medicinal. Maybe the gold-foil cross on the label.
Once everything was corded up, my father nodded. He addressed the crowd in Magyar and we kicked it off. We started out with the stuff we felt the best about, picking up “Bye Bye Love” into the territory of Ray Charles’ cover—a little bit of jump on the piano. The Hungarians came out to dance, and, to my surprise, they found a groove.
We took the song around twice and my father put a long piano break in it to give the crowd a little more time to cut rug. I leaned back, chunking out filler rhythm on the guitar, and watched those people, handsome and proud even in the last quarters of their lives. The scene contrasted their European turns and spins and splits against the carnal, hormone-candied rhythms of American popular song, fermented fifty years.
My father and his friends were the essence of a lost generation. Most of them were fresh out of school or only starting families when they had to flee Hungary. The older ones were doctors, engineers and professors.
Some were able to transition after the refugee camps, but others had to pander to the systems in the places that took them in. How many professional people took to cooking goulash and paprikás in country club kitchens? How many other accomplished musicians took to pounding out sideman’s ivory in second-rate clubs and cruises out of Miami?
Some of his friends tried to tell me about the revolution, as if I didn’t believe they had fought it.
For a while, they were convenient fuel for America’s fearing of the Soviet. But after the Hungarian Everyman was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1956, they were collectively forgotten. Hungarians of my father’s vintage weren’t quite in step with their distant kin who had emigrated, mostly to the cities around the Great Lakes, in the years surrounding World War I. By the time the Iron Curtain fell, they were in their fifties and sixties. The older ones were beginning to die off. It was too late in time to just go back.
So how noble they were, in my eyes, that New Year’s Eve. Forgotten rebels from a losing side, their cause mostly unknown to the world. How brave they remained, advanced in age, but still dressed smartly for the show, able to find the beat on any song. How long will I remember those dance partners turning and splitting apart, hands open in the air, facing the music and another encroaching year?
From my vantage onstage with my father that night, I understood the oft-repeated phrase: “The Hungarians dance across the years with tears in their eyes.”
We had one song left in the first set when someone came up to whisper something in my father’s ear. I knew it was about me. We were losing the pop with the songs, and you could feel it from the stage. My father had barely nodded at the guy, and I found myself reaching for the cord on the end of my guitar. It was time for me to pull the plug.
“You sing good, baby boy. But the Hungarians, they want eh-Hungarian song.”
“Go sit with my friends. They will take care of you.”
The main hall at Nyugati station was like an abandoned reception in a small-town mansion where the wife had died many years before and the husband’s recent passing had taken the cursory, perfunctory caretaker life spirit out of the ether.
My embarrassment was assuaged by the kolbasz and sauerkraut they brought from the kitchen. For most of the next few hours, I kept my father’s glass full and listened to other stories of 1956, of coming to America. Some of his friends tried to tell me about the revolution, as if I didn’t believe they had fought it.
Close to midnight, my father got my attention and motioned me close to the keyboards.
“Baby boy, you eh-know the American Hymn?”
“Sure, Dad, I know a bunch. Like ‘Old Rugged Cross’? ‘In the Garden’? ‘Washed in the Blood?’”
“No, no, no… Ah-Merican Hymn. You know…‘Ho es-say can you eh-see…la, la, la…”
He started conducting “The Star-Spangled Banner,” his pointer finger skipping and bouncing up over the bass side of his keyboards.
“Oh, sure. The anthem. Yeah.”
“Good. At eh-New Year, Istvan will sing Hungarian Hymn. Then you go sing American Hymn.” He pointed to the main stage that flanked the hall, situated off alongside the dance floor. It reminded me of my high school auditorium stage, raised up six feet or so and under a carved wooden arch, adorned by two shields, one painted with the seal of Hungary, the other with a stylized American flag.
I wasn’t as nervous as I should have been, because I’d managed to have a glass or two of Bull’s Blood wine myself. But I still protested.
“Oh man, Dad, I—”
“Is okay, baby boy.”
I agreed to do it. I figured most of the people there were on their way to three sheets anyway.
Words stabbed at me with their serifs and peaks.
After the countdown and the first champagne, I hopped up the side stairs and waited in the wings while Istvan stood ramrod straight in a bow tie and white dinner jacket, defying the aches of his aged body with a soldier’s posture. He defied time with a solid and carrying tenor. My father rolled the rise and fall of the first few bars of “Himnusz.” I knew that the last words effectively translated to “have mercy on the Hungarians, for their suffering so far has been enough to pay for their sins forever.”
Istvan’s voice quaked through the hall, surely testing the stress tolerance of the bones and muscles of his octogenarian frame. I felt goosebumps. He laid the last lyrics down into my father’s piano coda and unceremoniously turned toward me, not unlike a kindergarten kid who had just recited an over-coached part in a pageant for the parents.
I took Istvan’s place, and my father eased me into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If he didn’t hit my key right on the money, he was awful close. I felt like I got out of the gates okay and I didn’t lose it on “rocket’s red glare.” I got through it. The crowd applauded. Some of the drunks wondered aloud why I didn’t sing opera. I felt a surge of optimism.
I think I felt something similar as my train stammered through the last slow miles toward Budapest. I felt a surge of hope for the next few hours, before I got my berth to Munich on the Franz Liszt Express. The plan was coming together. I was feeling a rising ambition. I would shit from my own ass.
But then the actual arrival came, and the train left me in a cold, deserted Sunday afternoon that I was not ready for. The main hall at Nyugati station was like an abandoned reception in a small-town mansion where the wife had died many years before and the husband’s recent passing had taken the cursory, perfunctory caretaker life spirit out of the ether. The place felt once opulent, long abandoned and recently dead. Cold.
I’d long been familiar with Billie Holiday’s cover of “Gloomy Sunday.” I’d long known it as a dangerous song, one with a lyric—“My heart and I have decided to end it all”—that could catalyze a listener, if sufficiently vulnerable to dark places, to catastrophe. Set to diminished scales, the song is consistent sorrow, void of hopefulness at any syllable or beat.
The gray flickered until we’d passed through Győr and into Austria, where the darkness of night showed itself entire.
I did not always know that “Gloomy Sunday,” like my father, had its origins in 1930s Hungary. While the original Magyar lyrics offer at least a cursory “we’ll see each other in heaven someday” resolution, it is just as dark as the English version. From the time it was written, it was associated by note and circumstance with the end of love and the end of life. Its haunting quality earned it the world-renowned moniker of “Hungarian Suicide Song.”
Gloomy Sunday indeed. By the time I left the station proper in search of a metro stop, a fog was starting to fall on the streets. I couldn’t find an open coffee shop. I couldn’t even find a McDonald’s in which to seek an Ugly American’s asylum.
Some cruel trick of the universe made me think of calling my father. Not only could he tell me where to go—he’d been for several visits since the fall of the Iron Curtain—but he could probably set me up to sit in on a Sunday supper in the house of some distant kin. Surely he could.
But in my instant calculations, I knew it would be too late at night in South Florida. I would have had to call him at home in the presence of his wife, who, despite never having met me as an adult, hated me enough that my father always had me interact with him at his cousin’s house in another South Florida town. Of course, I always heard it was his wife who was responsible for the limited access. I never dwelt long on the other variables that kept me separated from my father for most of my life.
I ruled out calling him for help. There in Budapest, five thousand miles from home, I stood lost at an intersection. Lost in the same city where my own father was a rebel, running about with a stolen rifle, maybe on the same exact streets, fifty-four Octobers before the one in which I found myself standing.
Through the train’s obligatory crawl through the rest of the city, headlights from approaching cars and window neons from the side-street bars seeped and spread across the night-shaded bricks like thinned-out tempera along the washboard ridges of the Habsburg alleys.
It was at that point, as a traveler, that I gave up. I looked around at the closed storefronts and office facades, all written in my father’s oddball language. The words were long and sharp, with accents and consonants slamming together in a manner most foreign to me. Things were made worse by the fact that so much of this should have been familiar. Accessible, at least.
I’d hoped, maybe, I’d see myself a son, a grandson, of Budapest and Hungary. I guess I am, really, and I always have been. But that day, all I felt was the hard reality of being lost. Hungary was not my home. Passing places and passersby were telling me so with their rolling eyes, with the quick-cut consonant words and phrases strung out across the billboards and building facades.
Words stabbed at me with their serifs and peaks. The letters gleamed in the aftermath of my mispronunciations, surely like shards of broken glass, little congresses of wasted communication, left to crunch under the feet of passersby along the storied Danube. If there were missing pieces for me to find, I wasn’t recognizing them.
I found the map of the Budapest metro in my guidebook and descended into an empty station on the 1 line. One transfer. One lonely companion on the platform, two lovers snuggled in the shadows of the second subway car, lit by milk glass from another time. I emerged at Keleti and tried to get my bearings. Surely, had I not been so exhausted, so anxious, had it not been such a gloomy Sunday, I could have kept myself together. I could have discovered something of my father’s country.
But after screwing up an attempt to order a chicken gyro from a food cart, I looked over my shoulder at the track bays in the station. An Austrian Railjet sat, glossy and humming. It looked as if it were in a class of its own, apart from the clunky, dented locals. The sleek red siren called me west, and I obliged. In the first-class lounge, in shameless English, I paid for a ride to Munich, due to leave in twenty-five minutes’ time.
Railjet 61 pulled me backward out of my father’s city. At that point, through my rain-pocked window, the hills of Buda were a faint apparition in grayscale. I traced them like a set of charcoal pencil shades, subtle on the gloomy Sunday fog. The gray flickered until we’d passed through Győr and into Austria, where the darkness of night showed itself entire.
He brought his Liszt, his cruise-ship kitsch, his lead sheets for Sinatra covers, his absorption of contraband music from the Radio Free Europe of his youth. I brought my copies of crunched-up Chicago harp and Louisiana blues from the public library, my lessons from the Pickin’ Parlor circles in the Appalachian foothills, my academic tune-ins to WSM 650 AM out of Nashville, always at night, and only when the sky was clear.
Somewhere in Budapest, I have a sister. Somewhere in Hungary, I left stories that might have surely solved so many unknown variables I’ve been saddled with my whole life. Amidst all that, I sat and stared, filthy, hungry and nervous. I was mad at myself for not “finding” anything on that trip.
It wasn’t long until my tired loneliness merged into the soullessness of a first-class train ride in Western Europe. The big fluorescent floods on the platforms, during our sit in Vienna Hauptbahnhof, were the last hard lights outside my window. Through the train’s obligatory crawl through the rest of the city, headlights from approaching cars and window neons from the side-street bars seeped and spread across the night-shaded bricks like thinned-out tempera along the washboard ridges of the Habsburg alleys.
Eventually, all color and light faded out. For the few hours left to Munich, I was reunited with my reflection in the plastic’ed black of a train car window, a final black mirror on a gloomy Sunday. There, looking into myself again, as I did on my way out of Ukraine, I realized I might have already found what there was to find about my father and our story together.
The glasses from the New Year’s toast at Kossuth House were empty and random on the banquet tables around the dance floor. It was coming on 1:30 a.m. The Hungarians in Miami were still going strong, albeit with a steadily widening wobble. For the most part, my father was flying the music on autopilot, noodling around one-handed on one octave while his canned loops simmered the roux for the drunk and dancing. I had an idea and wondered why I hadn’t thought of it earlier.
“Hey, Dad, what key are you in?”
He looked at me with a slow nod and jumped a little when he realized I had asked a question requiring an answer of some precision. He had to look down at his hand for a few seconds.
“C, baby boy.”
I still had my harmonicas set up on my belt like a minor bandolier of bullets. I caught his eye again and flipped up the edge of my tux jacket to show them. He grinned. I pulled out my F harp, waited for the music to come around and flipped the switch on the mic I’d used for singing earlier in the set.
I repeated my father’s phrasing for a few bars. He kept it easy until the music came around again. We passed through the checkpoint gates and jumped the barriers of Hungarian and American English. The conversation began.
From the time it was written, it was associated by note and circumstance with the end of love and the end of life. Its haunting quality earned it the world-renowned moniker of “Hungarian Suicide Song.”
Call and response. Groove in common time. For all our rehearsal the night before, it was an improvised jam that got my father and I talking. He brought his Liszt, his cruise-ship kitsch, his lead sheets for Sinatra covers, his absorption of contraband music from the Radio Free Europe of his youth. I brought my copies of crunched-up Chicago harp and Louisiana blues from the public library, my lessons from the Pickin’ Parlor circles in the Appalachian foothills, my academic tune-ins to WSM 650 AM out of Nashville, always at night, and only when the sky was clear.
I’d put our practiced set and my awkward earlier exit in the back of my mind. We’d struggled around Hungarian and English for so long, not realizing until that moment that we had a much better, much clearer, means of communication. Of the precious few memories I have of my father and me together, that was tops. That was our jam.
My father’s people never stopped dancing. When we ran out of things to say, after it came time for the coda, there was applause. A handful of Hungarians came up to the stage. They rattled off enthusiastic lines in Magyar, looking at me as they did before the show, but this time they weren’t cutting their eyes. They were grinning and laughing, in receipt of genuine joy. My father was proud.
“My baby boy, eh-you know what they say?”
He was leaning hard on the bottom tier of his keyboard stand, a laborer in the last moments of his shift, just after the last strike of the hammer, in the instant before rest.
“They eh-never hear anything like our sound before.”
He wanted to say something else. I could feel it. I guess he did the best he could with the English he had.
“My son! You shit from your own ass!”
The woman that warned me to watch my father’s alcohol intake was below me at the foot of the stage again. She held her hand up to me like a noblewoman would in a receiving line. Again she paused, as if to collect every bit of linguistic junk that was scattered across her mind.
In the last of the reflections I saw in my window on Railjet 61 to Munich, I remembered that jam with my father. I heard it again, across years, over “Gloomy Sunday” and “Bye Bye Love,” over the barrages of Magyar that cut from passing billboards, that squished out from the mumbles and rambles of train-station people and strangers on the streets of Budapest.
Perhaps I took no substance from Hungary because my father had brought it with him so many years before. Perhaps there was nothing to interpret in those foggy streets of Budapest, because my father and I, we’d already hashed it all out. In common time, in a late-night jam, in the key of C. In a language universal and immune from the side effects of words.
Travis Nagy is a writer currently living in Baltimore. He also builds puppets and writes songs. Follow him on Instagram (@teemcgee603) or Facebook (@travismichaelmusic). This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: Josh Nezon