Even as a child, I was fascinated with Eastern Europe. I eschewed what I was told was my British Isles heritage. I looked up Hungary and Gypsies in the encyclopedia. I instinctively knew that I had lived there in another life.
An inquiry to Ancestry.com confirmed that in this life, at least, I was not from Eastern Europe. Its analysis changes often, which is head spinning. They must keep testing more rapidly evolving populations constantly. At one point, they said everyone had some Iberian in their bloodline. But before I got my matador’s hat and cape, they said that was a mistake.
Now, I am Northwestern European and Scandinavian, which explains my fascination with the Sami reindeer people. It’s been said that a blond Gypsy looks like a performing canary, but I don’t care. Still, my closet is crammed with folkloric peasant blouses, Gypsy chains and Nordic sweaters.
Heeding the call of my past life, I chose a Viking Riverboat cruise down the Danube River in spring 2018. I had planned to dazzle everyone with my bohemian wardrobe. My suitcase at the Philadelphia airport was so heavy with gold-hued necklaces that I had to sandwich it open in front of the whole line and throw some of its contents into Jeff’s more Spartan one to meet the weight requirement. It made no sense to me, since they were both going on the same plane. I flung more jewelry on my person to lighten my Sephardic transport.
Once, while going through the TSA inspection line, I set off all the alarms. I had to spread my arms and be patted down. Jeff explained, “That’s what you get when you dress like a Gypsy!”
Our first destination on this trip was Prague, the capitol of the Czech Republic. The hotel was right out of the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” From our window, I could see the golden onion domes of a nearby cathedral, and I knew I had at last come home. We enjoyed an evening of folk dancing, purple cabbage, and Wiener schnitzel. The famous clock in Prague’s main square was under repair at the time, but I could just imagine a Punch and Judy-type puppet show from medieval days long ago.
Onward through the Bohemian Alps we traveled to our riverboat location which was docked in Passau, Germany. The ship was a Scandinavian dream. A huge portrait of a Viking loomed above the staircase to the dining room. I soon realized that passengers form their own countries and establish boundaries like small versions of the world today. Small groups that traveled together seized tables by the windows, achieving this by planting purses at place settings and tilting chairs up toward the table every evening, but this was a minor complaint.
We like to travel, just the two of us, so we can meet new and fascinating people. My new best friend on the trip was a beautiful woman from South Korea, my rival for conversation-worthy outfits. The evening of the opera in Vienna, she wove cherry blossoms through her hair. What I remember most about Vienna was the horses with red velvet triangular caps on their ears, and an Orthodox gentleman striding down the sidewalk wearing a giant sable hat.
One memorable Saturday, we sailed down the Danube through the Wachovia Valley with ancient castles on both sides and visited an apricot orchard tended by a monastery. Then, on to Bratislava, Slovakia. The very name sounds exotic. We visited a beautiful blue church; they seem to favor this color for their Moravian places of worship.
We had signed up for a visit to a local home. This turned out, to my surprise, to be the dwelling of a bachelor who served us the Slovakian version of our Southern pretzel salad prepared by his mother.
Our longboat passed through several locks on the way to Hungary. This is a fascinating mechanical process of lowering the boat as it makes its way downriver. Viking planned our arrival into Budapest at nighttime, and now I know why. It’s spectacular! A diamond-encrusted Evening in Paris scene in the capital of Hungary which rivaled the City of Light. Even I ran from deck to deck in amazement.
We docked near the famous Chain Bridge, still standing after World War II. Finally, I’m in the city of my former life as a Gypsy! I planned paprika-colored outfits. The Hungarian people were warm and friendly to us strangers, as I have seen they are now to the refugees from Ukraine. I visited the giant marketplace and acquired some Gypsy treasures. Even their currency is exotic, featuring a bearded man in an Astrakhan hat looking like a benevolent Vlad the Impaler.
We sat in a plaza in front of a McDonald’s feeding pigeons French fries with smiling Hungarians who could not understand my English, but we laughed and nodded in friendly understanding. Later we strode down the wide avenue to a local café with big, colorful round lanterns and sampled goulash. A friendly mocha-colored pigeon had flown down the street hoping for more fries. I named him Brownie and kept one of his feathers as a keepsake.
The friendly cafe owner gave us a voucher to return. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was leaving his beautiful city the next day. I hope Brownie is still flying down the avenue in search of tourist tidbits. If only all of us in this world could be like the friendly people sharing the simple fanfare of the pigeons in the city square. It was so nice to find my former home!