Daniel – Part Two
Daniel – Part Two
40 minute read
Click here if you haven’t read the first part of this story yet.
He gripped the armrest. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple. “Flight attendants please prepare for takeoff.” He swore he could hear his heart beating above the roar of the plane engines. Somewhere a baby wailed. I feel ya, kid, as he tightened his grip on the armrest.
He wanted to cry like a baby, too, but given his grown-man circumstances he thought it might be just a touch out of the ordinary. No need to freak out the passenger seated shoulder-to-shoulder with him, who was happily knitting away unfazed by the growing mechanical growls and creaks of the plane as it took to the runway. When had planes gotten so small, or had he just gotten bigger?
This Wonderland effect had him feeling he had grown two sizes too big for the confines of this metal bird that was about to take to the sky and, in that moment, he had wished for an elixir that would make him shrink. Just then he remembered. He rummaged through his rucksack like a man possessed. The woman slowed in her knit one, purl two, darting sidelong glances in his direction. He grabbed a small yellow pill from his toiletry kit and tossed it down his throat before he could even reach for his water.
“This should take the edge off during your flight. You may even fall asleep.” His doctor said as he ripped the piece of paper from his pad and handed Daniel the prescription. This piece of paper was his golden ticket.
Daniel’s phobia of flying was akin to most people’s fear of public speaking. He would break out in a cold sweat. His heart would palpate. Death felt imminent.
‘So, this is what a heart attack feels like.’ He would ponder.
While this yellow pill wasn’t going to make him shrink like Alice it would spiral him into a dream world and that was good enough for him. Soon his body went slack and the weight of the world fell away. The plane engines went from a deafening rumble to a lulling purr and his eyelids dropped like theatrical curtains, closing out the world around him.
A massive jolt shook him awake and he looked out the window to see the gears descending above a sea of lush green fields, tiny trees dotting the landscape like a diorama, a flock of white, fluffy clouds in the distance. He rubbed his face and eyes, trying to bring himself back into the present; the anxiolytic haze remained.
Soon he was being herded into the airport with other passengers who looked far more spry and alert than he as he weaved his way through people to get to baggage claim. With his suitcase in tow and a quick jaunt through “nothing to claim”, he was greeted by a man in a suit waving his name on a piece of paper.
“Hi, I’m Daniel,” he extended his hand to the man in the suit.
“Hi Daniel. “I’m Ferenc,” Ferenc’s hand met Daniel’s with a hearty shake. “Welcome to Budapest.” Ferenc whisked his suitcase from his hand and off they went, pushing through the sea of arrivals. “Is this your first time in Budapest?”
“Yes, it is.” He paused. “It’s actually my first time in Europe.” The man looked at him as if he had sprouted a second head.
“What made you choose Budapest?”
“My grandmother was from here.”
“Ah, doing a little family research then?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
Before long the desolate airport melted away into rows of suburban homes, from which soon sprouted a milieu of cafés, restaurants and buildings; people smoking and drinking espressos outside, soaking up the last little bit of the warm weather.
Tourists with cameras around their necks stopped to snap endless pictures of the ornate architecture surrounding them, while others tussled with their folded maps, attempting to make sense of where they were going. Pretty soon he’d also be that guy with the folded map, tilting it left and right and furrowing his eyebrows to help him get his bearings.
“You’re staying close to the Parliament, “Ferenc eyed him in the rearview, still darting quick glances at the road. “It’s right in the city center; very close to everything. You’ll like it.” While he should have been driven by the urge to get out and explore he could already feel the lingering feeling of jet lag sinking in, a mix of excitement and pure exhaustion tangoing in every sinew, making his muscles feel weak. His mind raced with thoughts that disappeared as soon as they appeared. A quick shot of espresso and a splash of cold water and he would be right as rain again. He looked down at his knapsack, the dented cocoa tin reminding him of why he had trekked across the Atlantic to come here and he was hit with a surge of adrenaline.
Soon the sea of buildings parted and he found himself winding around the Danube. It was larger than he expected; the city sliced right down the middle by this flowing mass. Buda and Pest were separate entities yet still unified by multiple bridges. The city became a stimuli overload. He found himself scanning every building; the amalgamation of neo-Gothic, neoclassical and baroque influences spiraled, undulated and towered above him. The Buda Castle standing high above its Buda perch watched over the city below while the formidable Parliament building also kept watch over the Pest side like two stone guard dogs.
Soon the tour was over and Ferenc was carrying Daniel’s suitcase into the hotel. “I hope you have a wonderful stay here in Budapest, Daniel. Should you need anything, you can call.” A business card appeared from his hand like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. “This is very kind, Ferenc. Thank you for your help.”
Just as he had predicted, a quick shot of espresso from the hotel bar and a quick splash of cold water from his bathroom sink and the yellow pill was a distant memory. He grabbed his knapsack, the tin clinking around inside. His stomach began to growl. He realized that while everyone had probably gotten breakfast on the flight he had been fast asleep in a beautiful Valium-induced La La Land. “Oh don’t worry, you’ll certainly be eating on this trip,” he cajoled his stomach.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
The concierge greeted him as he pulled out a beat-up tin from his backpack.
“Hello. I wanted to see if you might be able to direct me to these locations.” Daniel pulled out the old photos and the concierge’s face lit up; his eyes widened. The concierge went through each photo handling them as if they were rare artifacts, touching the sides of the photo as not to leave smudges.
“Oh yes, I know these places. I would be happy to mark them on a map for you. May I ask where you got these?”
“These photos are of my grandmother. We actually just found them, so I’m here to piece together the parts of her life that we didn’t really know.” The concierge delighted in placing stars within the map like he was creating a treasure map to uncover his grandmother’s past.
His stomach’s growls broke the silence and the concierge looked up at him.
“Perhaps you’d also like some food recommendations?”
“What gave it away?” Daniel laughed, patting his stomach as if to comfort it. “That would be great, thank you.”
“The Downtown Market isn’t too far from here on Hold Street. It’s a great place to grab lunch. Not as crowded as some of the other markets.”
“Perfect.” His stomach agreed.
The sun blinded him as he took his first steps outside. It was the perfect fall day. There was just a slight chill in the air but the warm reminders of summer still lingered. His jacket was almost a bit too much for the occasion but he knew he would be glad to have it in the evening, as he had no plans to stop his quest early in the day. He would carry on until he was too weary and tired to walk one more block and only then would he cart himself back to the hotel, wash up and throw himself into bed.
Finding Hold Street was surprisingly easy and before he knew it the world around him had opened up into a bustling market, the sound of chattering and the smell of meat dominated his senses. Vendors peddling fresh sausages, cheese and breads mixed with sit-down cafés and restaurants where people were already imbibing on glasses of wine with soups and other dishes. If he didn’t eat soon he feared his body might go on strike.
After a lunch of savory pumpkin soup and grilled trout his stomach was much appeased and he was ready to tackle the day. Only a glass of white wine would have made the food more delicious but he begrudgingly refused it, knowing it would only deepen the effects of his jet lag. He unfolded the map and began to plot out his next steps. After wrestling the map back into its original shape he was traversing the city, ready to soak up everything it had to offer.
He breathed in the fresh air and something within it resurrected his spirit. Soon the little side street he had been following poured out into a square, a monument jutting out from the center encrusted with a gold hammer and sickle. Above the crest was the five-pointed Communist star. A child cycled by as his parents rushed to catch up. People were soaking up the last of the beautiful weather, having picnics or sipping coffee outside a café. The sounds of children’s screams and giggles from the nearby playground filled the air.
As he continued his walk around the square he noticed an inscription in the awning of a café, “Things of the past live always with us.” How apropos. His grandmother was no longer alive, but every time he felt that little tin rustle around in his bag he sensed that she was still there with him. It brought him comfort.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Having called Chicago home all of his life there was something quite exhilarating about discovering all the splendor and secrets of a new place. He walked past a group taking a guided tour — the leader waving a tiny flag in the air — and it reminded him of his kindergarten days when all the children walked single file and held on to a long lead so they didn’t tottle off.
Soon he found himself away from the crowds and down a small side street lined with trees, not looking so different from many of the quaint little streets he frequented for coffee and a croissant in Chicago. Soon a café came into view, and a counter lined with delicious pastries welcomed him. Eszterházy, Dobos….all the traditional Hungarian cakes sat just waiting to be devoured.
“Szia!” The young waitress leaned over the counter of sweets to greet him.
“Hi! Can I help you?” He pulled out his grandmother’s tin and produced the recipe.
“Yes, I thought you might help me with something. This is my grandmother’s krémes recipe. She was originally from Budapest. I wondered if you have something like this or could make it.” She looked at the recipe intently then giggled.
“Oh no. We don’t make anything like that here. Sorry. We do have krémes though; it’s very good.”
“Do you know anyone that might make this?” She furrowed her brows and shrugged her shoulders in defeat.
“I don’t know. Perhaps the café two streets down on the left.” It was more of a question than an answer, but he stored that away in his memory all the same. In the meantime he figured he might as well try their traditional krémes. And, as the girl said, it was supposed to be “very good”. He used this as an excuse to order one krémes and an espresso.
The krémes looked like a tiny tower of stiff, fluffy custard sandwiched between two flaky crusts and soon he found that his fork was no match for the hard protesting crust; the cloud of cream flowing everywhere could no longer be contained within its dough-like home. Soon the cream was scattered all around the plate. He was making quite a mess. He looked up to see if anyone else was wrestling with their desserts and soon he spied an older gentleman ever so delicately removing the crust from the top of the krémes and taking a polite nibble, the cloud of cream unmoving. It was the tenderest of gestures, like removing a precarious Jenga piece knowing full well that the rest could topple to the ground with one wrong movement.
At that moment a deluge of memories came flooding in like the overflowing cream on his plate and he was transported to his grandmother’s kitchen on the south side of Chicago. It was a crisp fall day. They had the windows open so they wouldn’t overheat while they were baking. The vibrant leaves from a nearby oak tree rustled in the breeze. His grandmother was mixing the flour and butter while he carefully whipped the egg yolks and sugar.
“Not too much, dear. You don’t want to overbeat the mixture.”
Soon the dough was ready for the oven and he remembered practically licking his lips and watching the dough bake as he waited for the timer to buzz. The first time he had tried to eat the krémes was not unlike his experience in Budapest, the custard went everywhere while the crust would barely break apart under the weight of his fork. The six-year-old who just wanted his sugar was frustrated. “My dear, be patient. Just watch.” He watched as she removed the top pastry sheet and took a bite. He mimicked her actions and soon his pouting lip had turned to smiles and laughter.
And just like that he was back on that little side street café in Budapest looking down at his destroyed krémes. Sometimes he was still that little impatient six-year-old who just wanted his sweets. As if Anna were beside him, he removed the top layer of pastry and took a bite. The delicate paper-thin layers of buttery dough practically melted in his mouth. He closed his eyes and he could feel the breeze of that fall day coming from the window of his grandmother’s kitchen, the air rich with the scent of butter. He thought he even felt Anna’s gentle touch on his arm; however, while quite delicious, this krémes was not the one his grandmother used to make. He would have to keep searching. He took the last sip of his espresso and continued on his mission.
It was the vibrant sea foam green and ornate design that caught his attention before he recognized the sinuous contours of the door. The House of Hungarian Art Nouveau was a vibrant beacon in a row of traditional brown and tan buildings not far from the square. The building’s undulating facade reminded him of Gaudi and the café on the first floor beckoned with offerings of hot chocolate and desserts; however, he would be saving his next sugar rush for the bakery the waitress had recommended. At this moment he would just stand in the spot that his grandmother did and take it all in.
To be honest, he didn’t know what he should have expected from visiting these spots. It’s not as if his grandmother would materialize and the scene from the photo would unfold into a black-and-white movie of Anna and Dániel, and yet he felt like she was all around him, in the crisp fall breeze, the warmth of the sun and the rustle of the trees. His grandmother’s presence was immortal even if she wasn’t. Goosebumps formed along his arms just standing in the spots that he knew his grandmother had once tread, her arm interlaced with her love’s.
It was then, looking at the building that he was transported back to his dorm room his sophomore year of college. He was pouring over a textbook for his art history course where he was trying desperately to remember the famous art deco artists before his big final. His head ached and he found himself pouring one bad cup of coffee after another from the cheap coffee maker he got from the student store. Just then he heard the buzzer. He assumed it was a drunken student who had buzzed the wrong room. He ignored it but the intercom buzzed again.
“Daniel. It’s your grandmother, honey.” He buzzed her in. What in the world was she doing there? He heard the echo of her shoes in the stairwell. A little out of breath she hugged him hello, a small box with a ribbon nestled in the crook of her arm.
“I know you’re busy so I won’t keep you. Your mother said you are stressed over schoolwork.” His bloodshot eyes and wild hair gave it away. She didn’t dare ask the last time he might have showered. He had one toe sticking out of a hole in his sock and he was sported some rather crumpled plaid pajama pants. He chuckled.
“Yea, you could say that.” He ran his fingers through his messy mane. She saw the pot of half drunk coffee sitting on his desk, the textbook lying open to Tamara de Lempicka, a young lady sporting a vibrant green dress, white gloves and matching hat. Her lips were crimson.
“Wow, what a beautiful painting.” She brushed her hand over the textbook as she placed the box down on his desk. “This dress reminds me of something I used to wear as a young woman. I even had the gloves to match. I thought I was so fancy.” Her giggle sounded more like a girl’s than an mature woman’s. “I think I even used to wear red lipstick.” She saw that Daniel was just standing in his doorway quiet as a mouse.
“Oh well, that was a very long time ago and you probably don’t want to hear about the silly musings of an old woman. That’s not why I came anyway. I came to bring you this. A little dessert to help you with your studies. If nothing else, the sugar rush may replace another cup of coffee.” She looked over at the coffee pot.
“Thank you. That’s really sweet of you. Mom must have told you that I’m pretty pathetic right now. It’s just finals. It will pass.”
“Your mom was concerned. I just know that most of life’s problems can often be solved over a slice of homemade cake. It’s chocolate and chestnut crème.” Nothing sounded more delicious in that moment than that cake. Without saying a word he walked up and embraced her.
“Thank you, Grandmom.”
“Oh, you are most certainly welcome, my dear. Just enjoy. And remember to try and sleep every once in a while too.” She cupped his tired face in her hand.
He looked down at the photo of his grandmother and Dániel in front of Bedő Ház. Despite the fact that the photo was black and white he could tell immediately that she was wearing the green dress. Her dark lips probably sporting that luscious red lipstick and her hands delicately hidden under white gloves. It was this photo that conjured up a memory that had been forgotten, lost in the annals of his brain for so many years. He couldn’t quite remember how he had done on that final but he did remember his grandmother’s cake, how the chocolate and chestnut crème soothed him in a way that nothing else could. His grandmother always showed love through her desserts.
He continued his walk, the sound of crisp leaves offering up a satisfied crunch. Soon he had come upon the little café that the waitress had recommended. It was not unlike the one he had just visited. It was small and quaint, decorated in delicate pastel colors and looking not unlike a piece of dessert itself. Another counter full of desserts peered back at him and there stood the krémes, still the pristine white custard with a brown flaky crust. He pulled out the recipe and walked up to the counter.
“Hello!” Daniel announced. The teenage boy looked up from his book.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I would like to know if you make krémes like this.” He hands the recipe over to the boy whose immediate disinterest soon perks to life as he reads the ingredients.
“Wow. I’ve never seen something like this.” That was not what Daniel was hoping to hear.
“So, you don’t know any place, a restaurant or café, that might make this?”
“No. If you want chocolate we have dobos torta, of course. As for orange, I don’t think we have anything like that.” He looks at the case to figure out what he could offer the weary traveler as a consolation.
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” He felt guilty not getting something. “I’ll just take an espresso.”
“You might want to try the café not too far from here. It’s right on the corner. Take a left outside the café and it will be your third left. It has a green awning.”
“Thank you!” He smiled. Before the caffeinated liquid had a chance to warm his insides, he was on to the next café.
He walked past Parliament and soon felt the magnitude of this sprawling limestone colossus, the large faded-crimson dome standing like a beacon amongst the neo-Gothic spires that sprouted around it. The nation’s flag flicked at the air with its stripes of red, white and green. He could hear his mother’s eager voice hit an octave reserved only for hyper children and for talking to puppies and babies.
“You have to see Parliament. It’s absolutely breathtaking! And the third largest Parliament building in the world.” His mother may be retired but she had been and always would be a history teacher at heart.
People were outside the building, snapping photo after photo as if the building were a celebrity. Some people sat on the benches soaking up the last little bit of the warm sun like lounging lizards. The setting sun bounced off the blonde limestone, turning it a lush amber. People looked at peace here. He let out a heavy sigh. He felt at peace here, too.
He continued along Parliament as trams went back and forth carting passengers home after a long day of work. He suddenly felt the pangs of work sneaking up on him. He had run off (much to the art gallery owner’s behest) but soon he would have to hunker back down in his studio and produce something that could be shown at the gallery in the next few weeks. It wasn’t much time, but he couldn’t think about that now. He had to stay focused. Something was telling him that once he stopped looking for the answers they would finally appear.
He came along Falk Miksa Utca, where one antique shop gave way to another one. He held up the photo of Anna and Dániel, leaning against a tree. While the street was lined with trees he was pretty sure that this was the spot. Of course, the antique shop was not in the photo but it looked like many of these shops were new. He tried to picture what Anna and Dániel were doing, what they talked about, how they interacted as they took photos of themselves all over the city. Had they talked about marriage? Did they talk about children? Why didn’t they end up together in the end? He looked at the photo of them, Dániel with his arm wrapped around Anna’s waist pulling her close to him. Both had huge smiles on their faces, which was unusual given the decade. There was no denying it; they were clearly in love.
Again, Daniel found himself transported, but now to his studio apartment in Chicago. His ex-girlfriend’s clothes had been folded up on his bed and placed in a box with some knick knacks, a photo of them standing in Millennium Park holding each other and smiling sat on top. She had moved out only a few weeks ago and while the thought of having his space all to himself should have been a good thing the breakup hadn’t been what he wanted. It didn’t feel right. He folded the flaps down on the box so he didn’t keep looking at that photo of them, a reminder of happier time. He heard a knock on the door. Amanda was early.
It wasn’t Amanda who greeted him on the other side of the door but his grandmother.
“Hi, dear.” She wasn’t empty handed. She never came empty handed.
“Did mom call you?” He smiled.
“Your mom has your best intentions at heart.”
“Grandmom I’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. But in the meantime, I understand that sometimes breakups can also be soothed with some dessert. It helps soften the blow.” She winked at him. English wasn’t her first language, so it never failed to surprise him that she always had a way with words. She placed the plastic container on the table.
“It has rum in it. Because sometimes you need something a little stronger to dull the heartache.”
“Did you bring the whole bottle?” He laughed. It hurt to laugh.
“Oh my dear boy.” She cupped his face just had she had all those years ago in that dorm room. This time, the bloodshot eyes were from tearful nights wrestling to fall asleep in a bed that now felt so very big and empty. “Heartbreak is one of the worst things we go through. It changes us, but it can also make us stronger. I know this better than I wish I did. There are some people that we love fiercely, that change who we are, but who just aren’t meant to be with us.”
“Did you always know grandpop was the one for you?” She stood in silence, taking in the magnitude of the question.
“From the moment I met him I knew we would have a beautiful love story. And we did. And you will, too. In the meantime, it’s okay to drown your sorrows in a little cake.” He smiled for the first time in weeks. She smiled back, dimples forming on her cheeks.
He looked down at the photo of them once more. They looked so happy and yet they didn’t end up together in the end. Maybe she was right. Maybe there were some people who aren’t meant to come into our lives only for a fleeting moment but aren’t meant to stay. It had been some time since his last relationship and this photo reminded him that perhaps he was ready to let someone in again. Maybe he was ready for a love story of his own.
After spending hours into the evening wandering around the city watching as every light flickered alive on the Buda hills, Parliament and Buda Castle glowing like beacons amongst the darkness, he decided it was time to put his tired feet to rest. Tomorrow would be another full day and he couldn’t let jet lag get the better of him. He mustered the last bit of energy to get up the stairs to his guest room. Just before his eyes shut out the world around him he thought, ‘Please help me find what it is I’m looking for.’ He hoped that perhaps his grandmother was listening.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
The flutter of wings and the cooing of pigeons on the windowsill woke him from his slumber; the sun’s rays peeking through openings in the curtains. He stretched his arms over his head and let the weight of the sheets hug him. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept so soundly. Not even the liters of espresso he drank the day before could have kept him from sleep, but this morning he woke reinvigorated with the sense that he would find exactly what it was he was looking for. He showered, changed and soon he was stepping out into another beautiful day. The trees around the hotel were already parading their autumnal colors.
With his map and the concierge’s helpful recommendations he was ready to set off. Unfortunately the third photo had been a bit of a mystery to both him and the concierge who stood there scratching his head in the lobby.
“I don’t know the specific cafés on Pozsonyi Street, sir. But I don’t believe it’s a long street. You could probably walk it without much trouble. I’m sorry I can’t provide more help.”
“No, no, this is good. I have my walking shoes so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
While traipsing through the leaf-laden streets listening to the chatter of many languages he discovered quite a few bakeries and cafés cropping up along his travels. He walked into one café after another confident in his conviction to find this elusive krémes and one after another he walked out feeling just as downtrodden; so many “no’s” and shaking heads or, at worst, disapproving looks. No one made this recipe or knew anyone that did, and certainly no one was volunteering to make the recipe either. The recipe itself, having been manhandled through the last two days, had already begun to develop new wrinkles and folds. It looked older than when he had first started the journey. He wondered if perhaps he was starting to look a little older, too.
Soon his feet ached from the miles of walking. His stomach wrestled with all the sugar from the desserts he had already tried. They were all delicious but they still weren’t what he was looking for. He would know when he tasted it. He came upon another café and sighed. He already knew their answer. As he stood outside the café preparing himself for another “no” he was almost knocked to the ground, the only thing he could see was a flutter of auburn hair and a long ochre coat.
“Bocsánat! Bocsánat!” She said grabbing his arm in apology, her eyes wide. The color drained from her face as she searched him for injuries.
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” He said, trying to calm the flustered girl.
“Oh!” she caught her breath. “Okay. Okay good. I’m very sorry.” And just as she came into his world like a whirling dervish she exited just the same, the tails of her ochre coat flapping behind her.
He turned toward the café then turned back to see the last little flutter of the woman’s coat like a bird taking flight. He didn’t know why he did it, but at that moment he followed her.
While he had lost trace of the woman he still felt like he was going in the right direction. He didn’t know why he was doing this; but his feet kept him moving as if an unknown force was propelling him forward. At some point he had to stop and catch his breath, the ochre coat no longer in sight. “I’m definitely not a teenager anymore,” he panted. Suddenly the smell of vanilla engulfed his senses and he felt like he was back in his grandmother’s kitchen. She always smelled of vanilla and butter. She would sweep him up in a big bear hug while planting a big kiss on his cheek and humming to herself. For a moment he thought he heard her cheerful hum being carried away with the wind.
He found himself surrounded by apartment buildings and antique shops. Where is that coming from? He soon found his answer. Tucked away on the corner of Pozsonyi Street and a tiny side street sat a cozy café reminiscent of a gingerbread house. The café, decorated in pink and white looked like it was covered in frosting, and it seemed to illuminate the entire street with its warmth. The words “Happily Ever After” were etched on the window. He felt the tin shift in his bag and he patted it for good luck.
There were only a couple of people sitting down to dessert when he entered, but given the café’s demure size it looked quite crowded. He found couples sampling little cakes while holding hands and giggling, oblivious to the world around them. He also noticed families with young children, enjoying a post-school treat while the parents guzzled their double espressos. The metronome clicks of an old clock above the register were audible despite the hum of conversation. The black-and-white-striped wallpaper balanced nicely with the light pink molding and decorations.
He hung his coat on the hook near the door and that’s when he saw it—the ochre coat that had come darting at him on the street like a bat in the night. He swiveled around to look for the coat’s owner but she wasn’t sitting in the café. He went to the counter where a sea of traditional and very untraditional cakes and cookies sat lined out like rows of made-up pageant contestants. He didn’t see anyone behind the counter but he did see a bright ruby cake sitting partially devoured and destroyed.
“Hello?” He said peering behind the counter. Soon that rush of auburn hair appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with a fork in her mouth and a tiny patch of ruby icing on the tip of her lip. She licked the icing from her lip and looked up at the man standing on the other side of the counter staring at her.
“Oh!” Her eyes were wide as saucers as she wiped the sides of her mouths to remove any evidence of cake. “I know you.”
“Yes, I was the man you almost knocked over on the street.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m so sorry. That was very clumsy of me. I’m Nóra, by the way”
“No harm done. I’m Daniel and I’m actually here on a mission and I hope you can help me.” She kept staring at him and he had the sneaking feeling that he had met her before. She looked so familiar and from the way she was staring at him it seemed that perhaps she felt the same.
“Ok.” She wiped her hands on her apron, traces of ruby icing trailing behind. She got closer to him as he opened an old tin to show her a picture.
“Is this café the one in this photo?” She blinked several times as she craned her neck closer to the photo.
“It is! Where did you get this?” She snatched the photo from his hand.
“It was my grandmother’s. She’s the one in the photo. The man. Well…I don’t know him.”
“How curious.” She rested both elbows on the counter the photo still in her grasp. “This is definitely my café.”
“Who owned it before you?”
“I couldn’t tell you, but this was before the war,” she tapped the photo with her finger. “I did see a photo of the café before I purchased it, however. I loved the style so much I decided to keep it the same.”
“It’s really lovely.” He peered around, a couple were spoon-feeding each other pieces of each other’s cakes. In most instances he would have found the behavior rather ludicrous but he was on a quest for love of sorts and so he let it be. “Clearly, a popular spot for young couples.”
“Oh, yes. Well, I guess you could say that dessert has a way of bringing people together.”
“Well, it clearly did for my grandmother. She used to own a bakery with my grandfather.”
“Oh how lovely,” she looked at the picture again.
“That wasn’t my grandfather. I don’t know this gentleman but clearly he and my grandmother were in love before she left Hungary. I’m here to find out more about them and also for this…” He pulled the recipe from the tin.
“Maybe you know this recipe?” She studied the recipe, a furrow developing in her brow.
“I’ve never seen this recipe before. As you probably know, this isn’t a traditional krémes…”
“Right…” he bowed his head.
“But I could take a crack at making it myself if you’d let me.”
“Yeah, why not? We’re not exactly the most traditional bakery here, if you couldn’t already tell. Plus, anything that has to do with love always has my vote. I didn’t name the bakery what I did for nothing.” He felt his heart swell up so much he thought it might burst. Suddenly the methodic tick of the clock had been replaced with his rapidly beating heart. He wanted to throw his arms around this woman and kiss her. He glanced at her hand—no ring. As her eyes caught his, he thought she might be able to read his thoughts. He blushed.
“This is…I feel like….’thank you’ just doesn’t seem enough. You have no idea what this means to me. I traveled all the way here to find someone who made this recipe.”
“You came to Budapest just for this recipe?” She waved it in the air like a flag.
“Well, sort of. I also want to find out more about this man in the photo. His name is Dániel but that’s all I know. It was clearly someone my grandmother was in a relationship with before my grandfather but she never mentioned him to anyone in the family.” He didn’t know why he had just blurted all this salacious family history to a stranger. Perhaps it was the excitement he felt at the sudden unfolding of this family mystery. He also found himself quite comfortable sharing these details with this woman that he had just met. That sense of familiarity crept back in as he followed the trail of freckles that danced across her nose.
“Well, that I cannot help you with, I’m afraid. But at least you will have your krèmes…and eat it too!” She giggled at her own silly pun. She was surprised to find that he chuckled back.
“Okay….” She scanned the slips of paper tacked to the wall. “It looks like my orders can all wait until tomorrow. So, I’m at your disposal for now. I will need to grab some ingredients and then I will get to work. It will take a while though.”
“Oh, I know it’s a long process, and I wouldn’t want to disturb the master while she’s working.”
“Can you wait until tomorrow morning? Say around noon?”
“I would wait all week if you asked me to,” they both smiled. “It’s a date.”
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
As he stepped outside the café, the little bell above the door chiming his departure, he was relieved that he already had mapped out the rest of the day, as the excitement and rush of adrenaline that swept over him in violent waves had left him foggy-headed and drunk on euphoria. He pulled out his map and soon he found himself on the banks of the river. Margaret Island came into view, a lush little island embraced by the Danube and situated between Buda and Pest. The concierge had told him that the tree where Anna and Dániel had been standing is now an almost 200-year-old virgin sycamore tree.
He followed the bridge down to the island where he was pleased to find that visitors no longer had to pay admission just to visit. “When your grandmother was there,” the concierge had told him, “they would have paid a fee just to visit. Not anymore, though.” He had also recommended wandering through the old convent ruins.
The afternoon was warm and radiant. The sun’s rays caressed him as he walked along the trails where people jogged and biked past. Couples and teenagers sprawled out on the grass picnicking, cuddling and sunbathing. In the distance, a child was throwing a stick and a black fluffy dog was racing to retrieve it.
The island was larger than he had realized but he didn’t feel in a rush to soak it all up too quickly. The whole trip had already been a whirlwind and it was nice to be able to relax and breathe. At this moment, Nóra would be starting on his grandmother’s krémes recipe, and the thought made his heart flutter.
Between the convent and the chapel he found it: the almost two-century old sycamore tree. He also found a couple leaning against the tree in the throes of a romantic kiss, oblivious to both him and the world around them. He pulled out the photo of Anna and Dániel. Apparently, it was this sycamore tree that drew couples to steal kisses under its massive branches. The couple finally noticed Daniel standing there. They giggled to each other and moved along, most likely to another tree that would become the new setting for another kissing session.
Soon he was reminded of a picnic that he and his grandparents had together in Millennium Park when he was just a child, perhaps only seven or eight years old; the sounds of downtown Chicago all around them. Despite the noise of the city, with the honking horns and hum of chattering tourists, when he was with his grandmother it was as if the world around him melted away and they were the last two people alive. It was Saturday afternoon, and his grandparents had sprung him free from a day most likely spent at home reading or playing a game with his sister. He loved these solo moments with his grandparents, where all the attention was on him; he didn’t have to share that time with his sister.
His grandmother pulled out some sandwiches from a basket, devouring the food in silence; the sound of robins chirping filled the air. His grandmother pulled out some homemade cookies from a plastic bag for them to share. Daniel, always the curious child, watched as his grandparents gave each other little tender moments of affection—cheek kisses, hand caresses and another hand that nestled on the small of his grandmother’s back. They both looked at peace.
“When will I get married?” Daniel blurted out between bites of his cookie. His grandparents looked at one other and smiled.
“Well, I don’t know sweetheart, but when you are older I’m sure.”
“But when?” his grandmother sat in silence looking at the tender eyes of her grandson, always so eager to grow up.
“When you find someone you love, my sweet. One day you will find someone who turns your world upside down, who makes your heart race and makes you feel so full of love that you could burst. It’s a love that changes you and never makes you feel quite the same again.”
“Just like the way grandpa makes you feel?” She looked as if she were about to say something but stopped herself in that moment. She looked towards the lake for a brief moment and he noticed her eyes welling up. János put his hand in hers awakening her from her thoughts. She turned back to them and put her hand in Daniel’s.
“Yes, my dear sweet boy. Just like the way your grandpop makes me feel.” She squeezed János’s hand.
That day in the park his grandmother had most likely been talking about Dániel, the man that she left behind in Budapest as she created a brand new life in the States. There was not a doubt in his mind that she had loved his grandfather János, but her first love had been and would always be Dániel. It was a love that could never be, despite all the kisses under old sycamore trees and tender caresses stolen on quiet side streets of this beautiful city.
It was at the moment that everything came together. Heritage. He pulled out his phone; his fingers danced across the keys trying to catch up with his brain’s flurry of thoughts. He knew now that nestled deep within that word heritage was also the word love, and love was in everything his grandmother touched: the desserts she made, the love that she shared with Dániel, the beautiful family she would go on to create in a new city. It was a bittersweet blend of love and loss that made her life the rich tapestry that it was, and this trip had brought to life all of those memories that he had shared with his grandmother that perhaps would have stayed hidden within the deep recesses of his brain if he hadn’t come to Budapest.
The art show would be a tribute to his grandmother, every canvas would be a specific spot in Budapest, her first home, blended with images of Chicago, her new home; a link that connected her past with her present. Within each painting, he would blend pieces of her handwritten recipes within the fabric of the canvas. After all, some of the most important moments that he shared with his grandmother happened over dessert. He looked around him. Families and couples in love seemed to stand out amongst the rest of the island’s visitors.
As the day melted away into evening he found himself phoning up Greg, the gallery owner, to let him know that he had found his muse and that he would once again be ready to tackle the pieces when he got back to Chicago in the coming days. There was a deep sigh of relief on the other end of the phone as Daniel hashed out his ideas. In the meantime, the only thing he had to do was to breathe in every last bit of the beautiful city. Lights twinkled on, one by one, across the Buda hills like a sea of stars guiding him home.
Early the next day, Nóra carried a small blackboard to the street, the words “Krémes ahogy Anna készítette”, Krémes as Anna did, written in white chalk. Her heart thudded with anticipation. I hope the krémes is just as he remembers.
The tap of a cane broke the hushed lull on her street, as she noticed a small elderly gentleman in a brown tweed suit shuffle by her shop. She greeted him but he hadn’t heard, his eyes fixated on the blackboard she had just placed on the street. She walked back into her café. The old man stood over the menu board and then stared at the café. Despite her curiosity she had a mound of dishes in the kitchen that were calling her name; however, when she emerged from the kitchen minutes later she found the old man still standing over the sign lost in thought. He removed his tweed hat and rubbed his head, riling up sparse patches of wispy gray hair.
She found herself so enthralled by this stranger that she didn’t notice that Daniel had walked through the door. He was sporting a white button-up shirt and a huge smile across his face. He radiated with a new energy. Perhaps the jet lag had worn off. No, she admitted to herself, he looks different somehow and it seems like it is from more than just a good night’s sleep.
“Am I too early?” he asked. His voice brought her back to reality. She could still see the old man turning his attention from the blackboard to the café.
“No, not at all. I’m sorry; my mind must be elsewhere today.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure my mind is only on one thing: the krémes. How did it turn out? Was it difficult to make?”
“Not any more difficult than making traditional krémes,” she laughed, “but I think you’re going to love it. At least I hope so.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. It’s clear you have a gift.” He gestured to the almost full café of couples and families connecting over dessert and coffee, not a single one had a cell phone out. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a room full of people not deep in the thralls of their handheld electronics.
“Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that,” she said, sliding the krémes plate across the counter. It looked so soft and delicate, and he almost couldn’t believe that this was the same krémes that his grandmother used to make all those years ago in this very city. Having spent the last couple of days wandering through the streets where his grandmother had once tread, he felt closer to her somehow. She had been gone for two years and yet her spirit was alive and well in every nook and cranny in the city. He could feel it in every warm breeze and in every scent of sweet dough from the local cafés. The city was her.
“Thank you so much for this. You have no idea how much this means.” He could feel a surge of tears building up. This unexpected trip had led him to experience the part of his past that he never even knew had existed until a few weeks ago. It was the second to last missing puzzle piece of his family history, and this woman that he didn’t even know had given him this gift. The last puzzle piece was unearthing the mystery of Anna’s Dániel. Of course, he had accepted that perhaps this was a mystery that would remain unsolved. After all, he was now holding his grandmother’s hidden recipe, tucked away under the floorboards of her old home, and it was all thanks to this wonderful woman with her crazy mane of curls and a perpetual dash of flour on her freckled nose.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Absolutely nothing; this was my pleasure. It’s on the house.” She smiled at him and in that moment he remembered his grandparents’ romantic gestures in the park and he felt a deep desire to put his hand in hers.
As Daniel sat down to enjoy his grandmother’s dessert the old man in the tweed suit walked into the café. Daniel was far too enthralled in his cake to look up or even notice anyone else around him. The world had melted away and it was just he and his grandmother’s spirit alone in the room. The old man didn’t say much as Nóra handed the man a piece of the krémes. She watched as he shuffled to the table next to Daniel’s, his eyes never leaving the dessert. He took his tweed cap off and placed it on the table, his cane leaning against the wall.
Nóra should have been watching Daniel but instead she was fixated on the stranger in the tweed suit. He looked familiar and yet she knew she had never met him before in her life. She watched as both Daniel and the stranger pulled the top layer of flaky dough from the krémes, stealing a soft nibble from it, and then scooping the first spoonful of fluffy cream into their mouths.
Their facial expressions were mirror images, as a sea of tears welled up in their eyes. The old man placed his hand over his heart; a silent tear fell from his cheek onto the cake. Daniel’s bottom lip quivered as he tried to compose himself. The old man broke the silence and Nóra heard him whisper, “I can’t believe this. How is this possible?” Soon Nóra was eye-to-eye with the old stranger. “Where did you find this recipe?” was all he could muster, his eyes red with tears. She looked at him but pointed at Daniel. “It’s his grandmother’s recipe. It’s Anna’s krémes.”
The old man pivoted toward Daniel with the help of his cane. At that moment, Daniel looked up from his krémes, and their eyes met. They stood in silence, staring at one another for what felt like hours. Without saying a word they somehow knew what the other was thinking, but Daniel needed to know. It was his deep-seated curiosity. It was the missing piece of the puzzle. Daniel finally gathered his courage to ask the old stranger, “Te vagy Dániel?”
The featured cake in this story is called Narancsos Krémes. Just like the traditional krémes (mille-feuille, mille foglie, Napoleon, vanilla slice, Crèmeschnitte), the Narancsos Krémes is also made up of puff pastry and crème pâtissière, however, what makes it unique is that it has cocoa in the puff pastry and orange in crème. As a result, the Narancsos Krémes has a beautiful brown and orange color. Narancsos Krémes is only available at Auguszt Cukrászda during the winter months.
Duration: 3 hours
Difficulty: Easy city walk
Neighborhoods: 5th and 13th districts in Pest & Margaret Island
The locations in Daniel’s story are all centrally located. As you’ll explore Budapest’s 5th district, you’ll get to see some of the city’s most impressive squares and buildings while the 13th district will give you a glimpse into a more residential part of Budapest where you’ll find a slower pace and a relaxing atmosphere. Scroll down to find out about the locations that are worth visiting in these neighborhoods.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of our Budapest Series. Make sure you take Daniel’s walk to explore the beautiful places he visited in the story. Or sign up for a custom tour to discover the city with a local guide.learn more
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