With refugees very much in the news – perhaps even more sharply following Donald Trump’s shock win – Liz Posmyk’s book about her family’s decision to flee Hungary following the 1956 Uprising and resettle in Canberra is timely.
The Barber from Budapest & Other Stories is a love story. But there is nothing mushy about it. Written half in first person by her father, András, with the second containing musings of Canberra-born Liz growing up in the capital, it gives a raw sense of what life was like in Hungary during World War II and in the 1950s, and what drove her family to risk all through leaving an oppressive regime.
Ms Posmyk’s parents did not have a fairy tale romance; both had been married before and both could easily have been cynical. Her father recounts their chance meeting; he looking to buy butter and eggs – and black market cigarettes – while she was securing extra income from supplying both in what was the beginning of a friendship.
Things were difficult in Hungary at that time, and both had entrepreneurial pursuits on the side of their day jobs as barber and cigarette factory worker to ensure they had enough to eat.
András was clearly smitten from the outset, although it was not all red roses and chocolates. “A few short months after we became companions, she started telling me she needed this or that, rather than asking me. I began to wonder who was wearing the trousers.”
At the launch here in Canberra last week, there were tears and smiles, with people choked up while delivering the readings. There were several people from the Hungarian community there, including shadow minister Steve Doszpot MLA (who is also of Hungarian background), and the account of a young family of five choosing to cross a just-frozen river into the Yugoslavian border – despite having already been caught twice and knowing the consequences – struck a nerve with those who understood the urgency.
And even for someone who, like me, does not have a refugee or recent migrant background, the book is absorbing. I had devoured half of it within an hour of coming home; I started flicking through it and then could not pull myself away.
Despite the success of the Multicultural Festival, Canberra is not always known as a diverse community the way Melbourne or Sydney are. Yet migrants have had a strong impact in shaping its early days.
Canberra then was lonely enough for many who came from elsewhere in Australia let alone a family from halfway across the world. After an austere and culturally alienating stint at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre near Albury Wodonga, Ms Posmyk’s family settled in Canberra when her father was offered a position as a barber. Young Liz spent her early days playing on the banks of the river that is now Lake Burley Griffin. Their former home is now better known as The Buggy Shed at the Constables Cottage on ANU grounds near Old Canberra House (restored during centenary celebrations). From there the family moved to a series 405 ‘govvie’ house with poo-yellow bricks.
Never mind what modern interior designers might think; to them it was paradise. Her capable father filled the garden with trees and fruit and vegetables, while her mother Irén indulged in filling the home with the aromas of Hungarian cooking. Ms Posmyk recounts a happy childhood full of love and laughter.
In the award-winning food blogger and food writer, her mother’s love of magyar home cooking shines through.
The last chapter contains recipes, and while she does share her mother’s goulash recipe, there is much more than this to tempt. I was quite taken by the chocolate/walnut/apricot gerbeaud slice, cauliflower soup and a simple yet I am sure delicious chicken paprika recipe.
What: The Barber from Budapest & Other Stories
Where: On sale in quality bookstores including Muse, or online at http://www.bizzylizzysgoodthings.com/my-book.html
Who: Liz Posmyk is a Canberra based food and travel writer. She blogs at Good Things (http://www.bizzylizzysgoodthings.com/), previously wrote a weekly newspaper column Stirring the Pot, and previously featured on the Ten Dollar Dinner session on 666 ABC’s Afternoon Show. She is a former co-owner of one of Canberra’s leading cooking schools.