My mother’s first job in Australia was at the ABC in Ripponlea back in 1972. She worked at the canteen where she served meals, made cups of tea, and cleared tables. My mother often took me to work so she could keep an eye on me. Naturally, I was bored and began chatting to the staff when they came down for their break. It was there that I met Leigh, a young university student doing a work placement over the summer holidays. She took a liking to me, and we spoke about many things that summer, including our love of dogs. Leigh lived with her parents in Ferntree Gully and owned a kelpie.

‘Kelpies are Australian dogs. They’re the best,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come and meet him?’

‘Would I ever!’ I said

‘I’ll have a talk to your mum. Maybe you could come over this weekend to meet him,’ she suggested.

Leigh kept her word and arrived the following Saturday to collect me in her Mini Minor. My parents hadn’t owned a car since I was five and I felt grown up and important sitting in the front seat. At that time, I had seen very little of Melbourne and only knew the places in my immediate environment, places I could walk to easily. We drove for what seemed like hours, down straight roads and through endless suburbs. Finally, we came to a house up on a hill. The driveway was steep and treeless. A sleek brown kelpie ran to meet us, barking and nipping at the wheels. When Leigh stepped out of the car, he could barely be contained. His tail wagged his whole body. This dog was loyal, smart and a whole lot of fun. I wanted a dog just like him.

Leigh and I hatched a plan to get a rescue pup.

‘I won’t be allowed to keep it, Leigh’

‘Leave it to me, I’ll talk to your mum.’

I wasn’t so sure. ‘What if she says no?’

She laughed. ’I’m pretty good at convincing people.’

Leigh worked her magic on my mother, and I was finally allowed to go with her to the Lort Smith animal home in North Melbourne. We drove from the ABC during one of her long breaks. Going in the car with Leigh always felt like an adventure. We drove down St Kilda Road all the way into the city, then past Queen Victoria markets and up Flemington Rd. Everything was so new to me. The modern office blocks on St Kilda Rd, Flinders Street station with its open mouth reminding me of the entrance to Luna Park on the St Kilda Esplanade and the smells wafting from Victoria markets were all new sights and sensations. I could have driven around town with Leigh for hours, but I was anxious to get my new pup.

When we finally arrived, we were taken to where dogs were kept in what looked like large cages. The sound of dogs barking, whining, and howling echoed along the concrete walls. The result was a cacophony of misery. Walking along, I felt as if I were a warden in a prison, just like I had seen on our black and white television set. It was a depressing scene to witness. Dogs came to the front of their cages and pleaded with us for their freedom. I found it hard to meet their gaze. And then there was the foul odour of too many dogs in a confined space. It smelled like wet dog, excrement, and fear. It may have been cleaned regularly but the smell crept into every corner and was impossible to eradicate.

Finally, we came to an enclosure teeming with tiny black and tan pups. The warden with the key opened the gate and we were let in.

‘Go and choose one,’ Leigh said. ’Take your time and choose the one you like best.’

There were about ten puppies in the enclosure. It was feeding time. The pups all ran towards the trough and the strong ones pushed the weaker ones aside. One small pup with a protruding belly was trying to get to the food but was not strong enough to muscle in. It looked sad and forlorn. My heart went out to that pup.

‘This is the one I want,’ I said, pointing at it.

‘Are you sure?’ Leigh asked.

‘Yes, this is the one that needs me.’

The pup was taken for a check-up at the veterinary hospital attached to the facility. The vet looked at us.

‘Are you sure you want to take this one? It looks as if he could have distemper, and he may not survive,’ he said gravely.

‘He is the one I want.’ I said with tears welling in my eyes. ‘If he dies, at least he will be loved until that time.’

The vet looked apologetically at Leigh.

‘We’ll take him,’ she said.

‘Look, if he dies in the next couple of weeks, we’ll give you another one,’ said the vet. What will you call him?’

‘Scooby,’ I said. ‘Like Scooby-do.’ It had been my favourite cartoon when I lived in England.

Leigh paid not only for the dog but also for his vet bills. It must have cost her a packet. Despite everyone’s concerns, Scooby pulled through and lived to a ripe old age.

My mother stopped working at the ABC and Leigh went back to university. After that summer, I lost contact with her. Even now, so many decades later, I wish I could express my gratitude to her for the kindness and generosity she showed to that little migrant girl in her fledgling months in Australia.

A generous sum

The year after my father died, I returned to Elwood High School to complete my HSC. I knew it was the only way forward. My father had instilled in me the belief that education could change the trajectory of lives. He had always wanted to go to University, but the war had intervened. By the time WWII was over, it was too late for him to realise this dream, but not for his younger brother. My father completed an apprenticeship, worked hard, and helped my uncle get his education. This was how uncle Lajos became a professor of history at Budapest University and my father a humble leather worker. I knew what I had to do to get on in life.

A kind teacher at school, who barely knew me, decided to put my name forward to the Returned and Services League for a $100 scholarship. In 1978, that was generous sum of money. 

‘Your father fought in the war, didn’t he?’ she asked.

‘Yes Miss, he was shot in the knee.’ I answered enthusiastically. She ticked the ‘veteran’ box on the form. 

Elwood High School only ever had assemblies for special occasions, as our hall had burnt down in 1975. It was difficult to line up over a 1000 students on the basketball courts to listen to speakers. It must have been an Anzac Day assembly as a retired major gave a speech which most of us couldn’t hear at the back. We were getting restless standing there for what seemed like a very long time. 

This was when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The kind teacher, whose name I can’t remember, was signalling for me to follow. On our way up to the makeshift stage, she suddenly stopped and turned to look at me.

‘Where was your father from, again?’ she asked.

‘Hungary, Miss,’ I replied

This was followed by a long pause as she searched my face. ‘So, so he fought in the war?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘And Hungary was, Hungary was… whose side was Hungary on?’ she asked, suddenly realising she was more than a little rusty on her knowledge of history. 

‘Sorry, Miss?’ I wasn’t sure what she was asking.

‘Oh, never mind. Just go up and accept the cheque. It may be best if you don’t say much while you are up there,’ she cautioned.

I went up, shook the Major’s hand and thanked him. It was a generous sum and it made a considerable difference to my ability to complete the HSC. 

Easter Eggs

My father gave me a box of Easter eggs every Easter Sunday. He chose them carefully for their appeal and elegance. The boxes were usually silk lined and contained one large egg and occasionally some smaller eggs surrounding it. I loved receiving these eggs, but I never ate a single one.

‘The chocolate is there to be eaten,’ my father said each year.

‘They are too perfect, Papa. If I ate the eggs, all their beauty would be lost. This way I can look at the eggs and enjoy your gift for the longest time,’ I replied.  

My father just shook his head as my eyes feasted on the eggs in the box before I finally took them to my bedroom to be placed on top of my wardrobe with all the other eggs from previous years. The eggs faced into the room and whenever I got dressed, I looked up at the row of stunning boxes and the eggs they contained.

My friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t eat them. Every time they came over, they’d look longingly at the chocolate eggs, but I never relented.

‘You wouldn’t even miss it if one wasn’t there,’ my friend Stephen chided.

‘Can’t we just share one?’ Necef chimed in.

‘No! I love looking at those beautiful eggs,’ I said firmly.

One late spring afternoon I decided to clean my room thoroughly. I tidied, swept, and dusted. I climbed onto a chair to take down the boxes of eggs. To my horror, all that was left of the eggs was the coloured foil, neatly arranged to make it look as if the eggs were still there. I cried tears of rage, frustration, and utter betrayal. I knew who the culprits were.  

The following day, I approached my friends with righteous anger.

‘You ate all the chocolate. How could you!’ I cried.

‘What are you talking about?’ replied Necef and for a moment I doubted myself.

‘The Easter eggs on top of my wardrobe,’ I said. ‘It had to be you!’

Necef and Stephen looked at each other and began to laugh.

‘Oh, those eggs,’ Stephen said. ‘We ate those about six months ago and you are angry about it now?’

I was hurt that they had betrayed my trust, but I could see the funny side too. They knew I wouldn’t look too closely and that they’d get away with it.

That night, I complained about my friends to my father as I cleared away the cheerless, empty boxes.

‘So will you eat the chocolates next year?’ my father asked.

I shook my head. ‘No, Papa. You should know I need their charm to last all year.’

My first trip back to Austria

I was 23 when I first returned to Europe, to search of the girl I had left behind. The girl that I remembered was more like a character from a storybook than a younger version of myself. That trip, half way across the world in a Boeing 747, so many years before, had marked a complete break with the old world. I was never to write to anyone, never to speak German, never to mention Austria. As my father never did learn English, we continued to speak Hungarian at home. I desperately wanted to fit in.  At the time, bilingualism was a social stigma in Australia and, armed with that knowledge, I decided that trilingualism must make me even more of a target. I pretended not to understand or speak a word of German. 

When I returned to Vienna with my then husband and mother-in-law, I found that I had not forgotten my German at all. In fact, I could get by quite well. I had no addresses of school mates, I only knew where we had lived. I simply drew on my memory and found my way back. 

We took the commuter train from Wien Westbahnhof to Pressbaum in Lower Austria. This was the same train line my father had travelled twelve years earlier on his way home from work. It took just over half an hour from Vienna to Pressbaum, the little township nestled in the Vienna woods. In my memory we had lived a long way from the city. 

Once there, I followed my nose. I climbed up the steps from the railway station to where the small kiosk stood, midway between the station and the walking path through a forest. It was shut. As I looked about, I remembered it as a little oasis between home and school. This is where I had bought Twini ice-blocks in summer, holding the siamese twin pop-sticks until I could pull them apart so I had the illusion of two treats when I had paid for only one. 

I had many happy memories of this small kiosk. My father had a tab there which he allowed me to freely use.  On pay day, he settled his account after a couple of glasses of beer with weathered old locals whose dialects were unintelligible. I wondered where these old men would meet now. They had always had a Stammtisch  –  a regular table, and sat there from morning to night – or so it seemed to me. These locals must have felt as displaced as I did now, looking at the forlorn, boarded up wooden structure. 

We turned left at the top of the path, walked through a small patch of forest and sought out the house where I had lived. The gate was shut and no-one stirred behind the curtains. I looked up to the second floor and thought of the kindly old woman who had once lived there and supplemented her pension by selling moonshine to her loyal supporters. 

I have some photos taken in the last couple of months before our departure from Austria. Black and white, they show me holding the handlebars of an ancient bicycle in front of the gate at number 40 Bahnhofstrasse. Although I know that the child looking at the camera is me, she is a time traveller from a bygone era. I said goodbye to that girl in the photo and crossed the railway line. 

Next stop was the old station masters’ cottage. The tiny two storey house stood frozen in time. Before I could ring the bell, an old dog came tottering up the path. It was Rigo. A very old dog now, his tail still had the piglet curl. I was sure he wouldn’t recognise me but my heart skipped a beat when I saw him. My handsome and faithful dog who had accompanied me in my adventures through the surrounding woods was still alive! 

Then, an ancient, crooked woman approached the gate. 

“Frau Deim?” I ventured. 

Her eyes searched my face and crinkled into a smile. “You’ve come back!” 

She unlocked the gate and my first reaction was to reach out for Rigo. He was happy to see visitors and who knows, maybe he did know who I was. After giving the dog a long pat out in the cold, we were invited in. Frau Deim apologised over and over for the state of her house. I was simply happy to see her.

In the past I never understood my mother’s desire to leave Europe behind. For years I was homesick for this place yet I could never tell anyone. Europe was a door slammed shut. My job was to face forward, embrace the New World and not look over my shoulder lest I turn to a pillar of salt. But for years I furtively glanced back, when no-one was watching. Now I came face to face with what we had left behind.

Frau Deim was the widow of a railway worker whose body was found strewn across the tracks one icy January. She kept to herself, worked hard and bought up her only son as a single mother, well before the term was coined. The only assistance she received was her right to live in the signal master’s cottage until death tracked her down. 

In 1983 she was an elderly woman with few means and plenty of problems. She had no running water and was reliant on a hand pump in her garden. Then, one day she noticed a foul odour emanating from the well. She asked the Austrian railways to investigate. The water was deemed to be undrinkable. From that day, she had to boil her water for ten minutes before it could be used.

Entering the house was like entering a sauna. Water droplets formed brown constellations on the ceiling, gliding down the walls and fogging her windows. It was hard to breathe. Mould invaded every crevice and advanced with military precision. Frau Deim looked about apologetically. Her bedroom opened onto the kitchen and had suffered the same fate. Her clothes hung limp over doors, on nails and draped forlorn over her bed. The wardrobe doors were swollen and warped. 

As I witnessed the pitiful fate this woman had to endure, I saw my parents’ choice to leave with adult eyes. Leaving Europe was like buying a lottery ticket. The outcome was uncertain but it had offered them a last chance of starting anew.

Blue Dog

Blue Dog painting by Tracey Mackie

When parents label children, they live up to their expectations. My sister was considered artistic. She could paint and draw, and I couldn’t. In my family I was joking referred to as the Blue Dog Girl.

It all goes back to an incident in grade one. My teacher gave the following instruction, ‘I want you to draw a colourful dog.’ She walked past the desks handing out art paper. ‘You may get your pencils out once you have your sheet,’ After these scant instructions, she returned to her desk on a raised platform at the front of the class.

            I slowly slid the zipper over the interlocking teeth along the edge of my pencil case and took out three coloured pencils. I sharpened each one in turn and laid them out in a row in front of me. The lingering spicy smell of the wood mingled with lead shavings made me feel giddy. I wanted to surround myself with this luscious scent.

‘Stop making a mess on your desk,’ the teacher called from her seat as she looked over her glasses that had slipped down her nose. I sunk into my chair. When I felt the danger had passed, I let a breath escape slowly. I then looked at my three pencils and, on a whim, chose the blue one.  Heads down, we were completely absorbed in the task. The only sound was an occasional rustle and the high-pitched legato scrape of pencils on paper. 

            I have always loved dogs but wasn’t allowed to keep one in our small flat. To be asked to draw a dog in class was treat. I loved the freedom my teacher gave us to choose the colours for ourselves. I liked that I had coloured the head blue. I decided to add blue ears and, for good measure, a blue body. After that, the legs were also coloured blue and when I came to the tail, I let my pencil glide in long strokes to give the dog the bushiest blue tail ever. I leaned back to admire my creation from a distance. I smiled at the crazy creature that peered back at me with one eye. 

‘What’s this?’ the teacher’s voice boomed. ‘What were you thinking? Well? Have you ever seen a blue dog in your life?’ I opened my mouth to answer but no words came out.  ‘What is going on in that head of yours? Tell your mother I want to see her!’ She shook her head, turned on her heels to clippety clop her way back to her desk. 

            At home, through tears, I tried to explain. ‘But she said to draw a colourful dog and I did. Besides, I like blue.’  My mother laughed and laughed. I couldn’t see what was so funny. ‘Our Blue Dog Girl, you’ll never be an artist,’ she said. This story has been retold many times over and has passed, embellished, into family lore. I had become the Blue Dog Girl who couldn’t draw.

            On the wall of my current study, I have a picture of a blue dog. It was painted for me by Tracey Mackie, a local artist who lives in the Central West of New South Wales. It is one of my favourite paintings. I love the way Blue Dog looks at me quizzically, flaunting his red bandana. This dog commands attention and won’t let anyone mess with him. Best of all, I finally wear the mantle of Blue Dog Girl with pride.


Chanterelles  or Eierschwammerl/ Pfiffferlinge © Nadya Kubik /

‘See if you can find some mushrooms in the woods, when you come home from school’ my mother said before leaving for work. September was the best time for picking mushrooms and of all the chores, this one was my favourite. I took my dog, a bitser of a German Shepherd and, wicker basket in hand, we headed off. Going mushrooming was an adventure, a reason to go exploring the woods with my favoured companion.

I was nine years old and knew all the edible mushrooms of the Vienna Woods. I followed my nose and went deep into the forest where the dappled light shimmered across shadows and birds courted each other atop the canopy of beech trees. I listened for the cuckoo, the woodpecker, and the chirpy lark. They accompanied me in song and lifted my spirits as I meandered from the path in search for mushrooms at the base of ancient tree trunks.  

Looking for mushrooms was different to every other chore I had. It wasn’t time bound – I could justify being away for hours, unlike going to the shop to buy bread. To my dismay, my mother could calculate the time it took to walk there and back to the minute. Mushrooming, however, was an art, and art took its time. No one would accuse me of dawdling in the woods.

Deep in the forest, I felt at peace. Safe with the dog by my side, we looked out for one another. He never ran too far from my side. I was there to remove a thorn from his paw or find a cool stream for a drink, he was there to protect me. Sometimes, it was he who led me to the tastiest mushrooms. These afternoons were our precious time together.

While finding mushrooms for that night’s dinner should have been foremost on my mind, there were unexpected pleasures in the woods; a salamander that scuttled across the path and disappeared under leaves, a doe that looked deep into my eyes before trotting away. These encounters were pure rapture. I knew I belonged to this magical world and would always be welcomed home.

And then, there were the times when I found a meadow of wildflowers and I’d fill my basket before remembering the real reason for my ramble. Or, tired from my long walk, I’d lie down in a clearing and watch the clouds assemble into my favourite animals. All I had to remember was to be home before six and explain that mushrooms were particularly difficult to find that day. This was the latitude I was given when looking for mushrooms that would provide our evening meal.

Even so, I still had to find them. I could not go home empty handed for there would be no dinner on the table. I’d search carefully around promising trunks, moving leaves with a stick or bending down to explore a mound that could signal a troop of mushrooms. I was always delighted when my instincts proved right and I could pick three or four chanterelles before moving on.

On bountiful days, I’d return with enough mushrooms for a couple of meals. The sweet earthy smell in my basket scented the kitchen. For the next two nights, we would eat well. We’d have our fill of fried mushrooms and boiled potatoes and would not go to bed hungry.

The ink blotter

As a young child I loved my pen but hated my handwriting. My letters were neither neat nor tidy; they danced a wild tarantella across the pages of my exercise book. I had learnt to write with an old ebonite fountain pen that belonged to my mother. The pen had an elegant green and black pattern and made me feel quite grown up. But fountain pens are faithful creatures, and they won’t accommodate another person’s hand. The nib of a pen is bent toward the shape of a writer’s hand.

Try as I might, my letters were either scratchy or overflowing. Many a night I sat crying over words that spilled on the page or smudged as I closed my exercise book. Yet I loved the smell of the blue-black Pelikan ink that ebbed and flowed from the bottle on my desk. My fingers were constantly spattered with ink which left adults frowning.

Later, when my letters had been beaten into shape, I enjoyed writing letters to a friend left behind at another school or to my grandmother who lived in a country we would never visit. And then, there was the old woman who lived in a villa on the way to school, who reminded me of grandma. She had fine lines around her twinkling eyes which appeared when she smiled. When she invited me in, I was ushered into a large room with floor to ceiling bookcases and a stately oak desk upon which I spotted an ink blotter. At first, I had no idea what this contraption could be. Her ancient husband sat at the desk composing letters and when he finished a page, he reached for the blotter and in a see-saw motion, he dried the ink.

I found this simple device endlessly fascinating. I could watch for an eternity, waiting for him to finish a page and reach for the wooden artifact with a piece of blotting paper covering its convex base. There was something alluring in the simplicity of its design. I inched closer to watch him write. He used a carbon copy book for his correspondence, a habit I later adopted myself.

‘May I dry the page for you?’ I finally had the courage to ask. He lifted me onto his lap and guided my hand over the ink blotter. I felt entrusted with an important task as my hand rocked back and forth drying the ink. He then folded the letter, slipped it into an envelope, and I licked the gum to seal it.

I adored this old couple in the villa with its overgrown garden. I visited often and we talked about the books I had read and poems I liked to write. Entering their library, I was transported to a magical world of books and writing. The old ink blotter remains a tangible expression of that magic.

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