Elise lifted the cup to her lips, paused to inhale its aroma, took another sip and smiled. It smelled deep and rich like moist earth from a far away land. She took a drink and let it sit on her tongue before she swallowed and allowed the heat to slide down her throat. "God, why can't I get coffee like this back home?" she thought. She shook her head in disbelief as she thought about how she would stand in a long line each day before work, to get a cup of coffee that couldn't begin to compare to this blend. She toyed with the thought of filling her suitcase with nothing but this coffee before her trip back home. Again a smile formed across her lips as she imagined customs opening her bag and finding nothing but coffee. They would slit open a package and as a cascade of beans spilled to the floor, she would innocently look at the quizzical stare of the burly customs man and in her sweetest voice, she would explain. "I really, really love this coffee."
She had been in Budapest for three days before she found the little restaurant. It became her home base. She preferred it over the stuffy office she worked at, as well as her lonely hotel suite. Here, she could at least see people and not only a screen and codecs. Working in Budapest was not much different to making a living in the State; with the exception, that here, she didn't feel the oppressive sense of urgency that she had grown accustomed to back home.
She tapped a few keys on her laptop to access her email and sighed. Most of her mail was work related. One or two were from the few acquaintances she had and one was a reminder she had sent to herself. She wrote a brief summary to send back to the home office, updating them on her progress. As she logged off, her desktop revealed a picture of a lake back home where she and her parents had spent their summer vacations. She remembered how much she loved to walk along the shore, watching the small fish skitter from the shallows to hide beneath the plants. As they sensed her nearby, their tiny bodies quivered in anticipation as they waited for her to move so they could swim back to the shallows and warm themselves in the sun. She missed the sunsets the most. She would sit on the dock overlooking the lake in her sweatshirt and shorts, while she listened to the music her parents played outside by the fire. Her mother would play the violin as her father strummed his guitar, and she would watched the colors of the setting sun appear and change as if they were summoned by the music. Sometimes friends would gather at the river banks and join in with drums or hand clapping while others sang. They would drink and dance, and laughter and song filled the air as she watched the sun become a sliver on the horizon, which would finally gave way to a night sky filled with stars.
Her reverie was broken by joyous greetings being exchanged at the counter. A young woman had arrived and was leaning over to kiss the cheeks of the owner. She wore low cut jeans that hugged her hips snugly, a scarf around her waist and her arms were adorned with bracelets. Long, wild black hair flowed down her back, moving as if it had a life of its own. The woman reached up with a slender hand, to move tresses away from her face, Elise could see a bright smile as the woman's head briefly turned in her direction. A glint of gold from the woman's earrings made Elise think of how impractical it was to wear such large hoops with such unruly hair. As if the woman could read her thoughts, she looked over at Elise, catching her with dark eyes that Elise could not turn away from. The woman smiled. Elise felt a burning sensation rise from her cheeks as she quickly smiled back and then dropped her head down to look at her laptop.
She retrieved a document from her files, and went back to the safety of her electronic world. She quickly fell into her familiar pattern of reformatting and verifying data. She prided herself on her dedication to her job, and felt secure amongst numbers and programs that were complex, yet structured, like her life. Everything had to be well thought-out. Logic would dictate reason. Precise and literal paths lead to solutions. Any problems that came about could be solved either mathematically or factually.
The placement of a glass on her table broke her concentration.
"Palinka . . .very good, you'll like it."
"I didn't order this."
"No, it is a gift." The man wiped his hand on his apron and pointed to the young woman as she left the restaurant, "She said you needed it."
Elise watched as the woman disappeared into the street and then looked back at the glass sitting in front of her. She wanted to ask the man more, but he was already walking back into the kitchen. She reached for the glass, quickly pulled her hand back, and looked out the window as if the woman would miraculously be standing there smiling at her. She reached for the glass again, lifted the aperitif to her nose and inhaled, liking what she smelled. She decided that the drink was a friendly gesture in a country where people were generous and open. She took a small sip and determined that she liked this drink as much as the coffee, and allowed herself a larger swallow. The delicious burn of the alcohol and the fruity taste swept away any thoughts of her being drugged and kidnapped. "You've been here two weeks," she thought, "and everyone has been nothing but nice to you. This isn't NYC."
Minutes later, she ordered another of the same and sipped, while reading a letter from her parents she had scanned and placed in a file before she left for Hungary. They were having a very successful year with their strawberry and raspberry plants and were making large batches of preserves. They would be sending her some shortly. Elise rolled her eyes. She could never understand why they didn't just sell their products. It was delicious, and they could easily market it, turning a comfortable profit. Instead, they gave it away to their friends and to food banks. She read how her mother had sold a few of her paintings, but grimaced when she read that most of the money had been given to a local animal shelter. "So much for planning for your retirement, Mom." She clicked off the letter and closed her laptop, not wanting to read any more. She gathered her belongings, paid her bill, and started making her way back to her hotel room.
She didn't feel like walking, so she caught a bus and settled down into an empty seat. She watched out the window as buildings and people went by just as they did back home. Her eye caught a reflection in the window of someone sitting across from her. It looked like the woman she had seen in the restaurant. Casually she turned her head and again found her eyes meeting those of the dark haired girl. She gave Elise a warm smile. Elise smiled back, dipped her head and went back to looking out the window. "Pure coincidence." she murmured.
She watched, as the reflection in the window watched her. A slow shiver ran through her body, her heart started to race and she felt the need to run. The bus came to a stop, and she immediately jumped from her seat, and left. She walked along the street daring not to look at the bus as it passed her. She could feel the woman's dark eyes following her. In the next moment, a warm body pushed into hers and she found herself staring into the wrinkled face of an old woman. Her eyes were dark and kind.
"I'm so sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going"
The woman smiled at her. "It's God's way of letting us meet people." She then pointed to a church behind Elise. "I lit a candle for you."
Elise turned, and looked up at the church. The stained glass shining in the setting sun reminded her of a kaleidoscope she had as a child. When she turned back, the woman was gone. Elise looked around, but there was no sign of her in the street. Looking back at the church she found herself drawn to go inside and her legs moved as if they had a mind of their own.
She warily pushed the old wooden door open and stepped inside, finding herself reacquainted with the smell of candle wax and incense; the smell of sanctuary. As by habit, she blessed herself and genuflected, before sliding into one of the ornately carved pews. She sat quietly, letting herself take in the wistful faces of painted saints framed in marble walls that adorned the rear of the altar. To the side of the altar was a sculpture of the Holy Mother and her child, and to her left, another Saint that she didn't recognize. She looked at the older women in their babushkas clutching rosaries in worn gnarled fingers, their mouths moving in silent prayer, beseeching the son of God to grant them absolution. But for what sins, she did not know. She knew these women to be pious and hard working. What sins could they possibly have to atone for? Maybe they were praying for the souls of others? Perhaps asking for divine intervention on behalf of the sick, or the poor. Prayer was elusive to her; she felt it to be an illusion. She had been brought up as a good catholic girl - an intervention on the part of her grandparents. She knew about prayer and Saints and all the rituals that went on in church. While the orderliness and expectability of rituals drew her in, the comprehension of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the plight of the martyrs and the adoration of the Holy Virgin left her confused as a child. Believing in someone you couldn't see, hear, talk to or touch didn't make sense to her over active left brain. It was as misleading as magic, politics and true love.
She sank down into the wooden seat, and let her eyes roam over the art and architecture, crafted by the hands of the devoted, so many years ago. They loved their work, they loved their God and they combined it with their love for life. She looked again at the old women and their hands. Her own hands were still smooth and delicate, despite her long hours of typing on a keyboard. Eventually she may develop Carpal Tunnel in her hands, but these women, their fingers were bent in arthritic twists and yet they never ceased to work hard. She admired that. Hard work was something she instilled within herself.
Devotion; that was something else she understood intimately. She devoted herself to her job, to being perfect and orderly. "Is that so wrong?" she thought to herself. "I'm dedicated to my career, it's a reflection of who I am, and what I can achieve." Her mind went back to the dark haired woman on the bus. The wild hair and all that jewellery. She might as well have worn a neon sign saying "Look at me." Just like her parents and the people they chose to be with - out there and in your face, not caring who looked at them or what they said. She remembered how embarrassed she would be when her friends saw her out with them. Later in school she would be called "hippie" as well as a few more colorful things. "Hey Elise, would your mom make me some love beads and wind chimes?" They would taunt her, and then go on to making comments about her father's long ponytail. She wanted nothing more than to just disappear - unnoticed.
Elise shook her head of the memories and rose from the pew. As she was leaving, she saw a small alcove with a statue of the Blessed Virgin. She walked over to it and looked up at the woman's serene face. Taking a few coins from her pocket, she deposited them in the donation box and found a taper, and lit a candle for no one in particular.
The streets outside were starting to fill up with the evening crowd. Pulling her jacket tighter around her, laptop bag over her shoulder, she walked towards a small market area. Vendors were already selling a large mix of Christmas goods, reminding her that the holiday was only a month away. She sighed to herself and decided that she would stroll through and see if she could find something to send to her parents. She always sent them something from the cities she had travelled to - usually something handmade and indigenous to where she was staying.
As she glanced over the various stalls, the smells of sausages cooking made her hungry. "I'm hungry in Hungary" she giggled to herself, "Oh God, now I'm just a loony American." She spied what she wanted - a kurtoskalacs vendor. Even more so than to the coffee and palinka, she was becoming addicted to the sweet strips of dough rolled into a cylinder, coated in sugar and slowly browned over a coal fire. She ordered one to go, planning to have it later in her hotel room, where she could lick the caramel goodness from her fingers in private.
As she walked further, she came upon a stall selling beautiful scarves and handcrafted jewellery. Among the bracelets and necklaces were amulets for luck, love, health and fertility. The Roma or Gypsies were a large part of the community here. Many of them sold their crafts in the markets - beautifully handmade trinkets, some infused with magical properties. She thought of her parents – Hippies . . .Gypsies. Was there really a difference between the two?
"I don't have what you are looking for," said a voice from the back of the stall. "I don't have memory cards or data disks."
Elise squinted, trying to find the exact location to where the voice was coming from. "Pardon me?"
A figure stepped out from behind a makeshift curtain of an embroidered forest scene. The dark haired woman sipped her tea from a small, chipped china cup and looked at Elise. It was the woman she encountered earlier. Elise felt a flush of anger mixed with embarrassment as the woman stared deeply into her eyes. Then she looked down at Elise's laptop bag.
"Perhaps . . . " She reached over for an intricately tooled leather bag, " . . . this might be something of interest to you?" Her hands smoothed over the leather bag, fingers tracing along the designs, "Smooth calfskin . . . well made . . . sturdy. And much more pleasing to look at than that bag you already have."
"Thank you but no. Mine is functional and I don't need something that . . . elaborate." She clutched her dependable bag a little closer to her.
The woman smiled and set the bag down and then selected a pair of earrings. Silver coins strung on small loops that gave a pleasant sound as they moved against one another.
"These perhaps?" she held them close to Elise's ears, "They will look beautiful against your hair."
Elise stepped back and shook her head.
"I'm not really shopping. I mean I am shopping, but not for me," She hoped that she wasn't sounding like the complete idiot she felt. She couldn't help it. This woman made her nervous.
"I'm trying to find something for my parents. They live in the States."
She grimaced. "That's obvious, isn't it? I mean, I'm American so they must be American and if I'm shopping for them then they aren't here. Not that they wouldn't like it here, it's really beautiful. My mom would probably buy out your entire shop."
The woman simply smiled back and then went back behind the curtain, leaving Elise standing alone, still clutching her bag and her snack.
"Lord," she thought, "she must think that I'm a lunatic, rambling on like that."
The woman reappeared with two small glasses filled with palinka. She handed one to Elise.
"Here. Relax. I think you'll like this. My father makes his own and it's the best in all of Hungary."
Elise took the glass. The liquid slightly burned and warmed her insides. She hadn't realized that she was trembling slightly. She set her bag with the pastry down on the table for fear of dropping the glass.
"Thank you. God, this is good."
"You're looking for a silver orange."
"There is poetry written inside you . . . but those two words, they have no rhyme. You need rhyme and rhythm in your life - a flow that makes sense. But yet, you want that one thing that makes no sense."
"I believe that things have logical meanings and a precise sense of order."
"You spend your days tapping against the plastic keys of your computer."
"It's called making a living."
"Ha. Life shouldn't be work. I can go and dance on this table and not care what others think. That is my rhythm. You are tethered to a desk where you drink in bytes and piss in binary codes. You have no rhythm."
Elise put down her glass. "You're right. You have nothing here for me." She picked up her bag and rushed off into the market crowds.
Her mind was spinning. Who the hell did this woman think she was, telling her what she was looking for? What right did she have to say anything about her life, when she herself, was just a gypsy shop girl?
She kept thinking about their conversation all night and into the next day. As she was getting dressed for work, she remembered her snack from last night. She picked up the bag and something dropped to the floor with a thud. It was an amulet of some sort. She turned it over in her hands, looking at the designs engraved along the silver surface. "Gypsy magic." she muttered to herself. "Great, now I'm a shoplifter."
Elise spent the rest of her day staring at her computer screen or turning the amulet in her hand. She would have to return it, but she really didn't want to have another confrontation with that woman. Their conversation kept playing over in her mind. How did this woman know what she did all day? Crystal ball? Cards? Tea leaves?
"Pull yourself together, Woman," she thought, as she bit her lower lip, "You don't believe in that shit."
Her laptop had to be the giveaway. She decided to just go right then and there to take the amulet back, apologize, then come back here, and attempt to be productive. Today had been a total waste.
She quickly walked down the street to where she had found the market the night before. She clutched the amulet tightly in her hand. She felt a tingle and a warm sensation that she shrugged off to the tight grip she held it in and dropped it into her coat pocket. Flexing her fingers, she wiped her hand against her coat as if she could brush away the feeling.
She reached the church she had been in the previous night and there, as if waiting for her, was the old woman she had bumped into the previous night.
"I knew you would return." The old woman gave her a warm crooked smile.
"I hadn't really planned on it."
"I have faith that you will find what you are looking for here."
Elise stood momentarily bewildered. "I'm looking for the market place, that's all."
The old woman took Elise's hand and making the sign of the cross on Elise's forehead muttered "Ja Develehi, Az Develehi, Ja Develesky, Az Develesky"
She smiled again, nodding her head as if pleased and walked down the street away from Elise.
"Um…ok . . . thanks . . ." Elise mumbled in the old woman's direction.
She shook her head, and continued on her way to find the dark haired woman's stall. She could still feel the sensation of the old woman's fingertip on her forehead.
It took several minutes of searching through the groups of tourists and townsfolk before she found the stall. The woman was there talking animatedly to several people who were trying to bargain with her over some scarves.
Elise took the amulet from her pocket, wondering if maybe she should just leave it on the table and slip away unnoticed. A woman next to her asked her opinion about which earrings looked better, making Elise feel trapped. She pointed to a pair she would have selected for herself, rather plain silver hoops. The woman made a face and opted for the dangling coins instead. Turning around, Elise found herself face to face with the dark haired woman.
"I take it you may have found something after all?"
Dumbfounded Elise held out the amulet.
"Good choice." The woman smiled.
"No, you don't understand. I took it." Elise stumbled over her words as the woman stared at her with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, accidentally. I took it accidentally last night. It must have been when I grabbed my bag. I found it this morning and I wanted to return it to you before you thought I stole it from you. Here." Elise pushed the amulet into the woman's hand.