I heard about Karl before I met him, for I had read fabulous reviews in Metro Pulse about the restaurant he owned in Homberg Place called Budapest Café. This was 1992. I went immediately to check it out and was not disappointed. He was, and is, quite simply, the best chef I have ever known. Certainly he is the most courageous and interesting person I have ever had the good fortune to meet. This is the story of how Karl came to live in Knoxville from Budapest, Hungary.
"I'm not a U.S. resident, but an alien," Karl tells me as he stands over the sink rolling cigarettes out of butts he found on the street. "I'm a goddamn foreigner." He laughs as he hands me a re-rolled cigarette.
I laugh, too. "Well, I know you're an alien," I reply, as he opens a bottle of cheap red wine and pours us both a glass.
It is 2013, over 20 years since I first heard about Karl and ate in his restaurant. I happen to live one floor up from him at Summit Towers and he often cooks for me. The time is approximately 4:30 a.m. and there is a blue haze in the room from the cigarettes we are chain-smoking. Karl's apartment, unlike mine, is tidy and beautiful. A multi-colored Peruvian rug covers the floor and there are 1950s Christmas lights strung over the door and through the plants. The wail of Turkish music comes from the CD player, and we might be anywhere but Knoxville. As Karl begins to tell me his story, he speaks with a slight Hungarian accent, which gets stronger as he continues with the story of how he escaped from Communism.
"It was 1983," he says with little emotion. "They took us on a two-day shopping trip to Vienna, to buy clothing and other essentials. They called it a ‘pleasure trip,' but there was little pleasure, for we were almost always being watched or guarded." Karl takes a sip of wine and puffs on his cigarette. Looking out the window at darkness he continues. "But first they took all our papers. All our identification. As if we didn't already feel like we were nothing from the way they treated us. They took so much—I was in training for the Olympic boxing team, but they took me out and made me go into the army."
He looks at me solemnly and continues.
"On the trip, I did what they told me to for two days, only when it came time to get back on the bus to go back, I just got on a tour bus going further into Austria. All the while I expected them to haul me off the bus and drag me back to Budapest—or worse still. Shoot me. I sat very still, neither looking neither to the left or right, as though if I did not move I would become invisible. Finally, the bus began moving, going faster and faster. And after all that, I looked out the window at the charming, picturesque houses and shops of Vienna, with people bundled up in fur coats as they shopped for Christmas, and I could not believe my good fortune. I had escaped."
Karl takes a sip of wine and stares at his shoes, almost as if he was praying. "No. It was not good luck. It was grace. I stayed with a most kind family and then moved to Knoxville."
"That must have been a culture shock," I say, lighting us both a cigarette.
Karl continues: "A pastor and his wife met me at the Knoxville airport. They were not the only ones. Churches were making bids for me—one church offering me more money than the other to go with them—like I was a piece of meat, or a slave. Like I was human exchange.
"It was very late and my sponsors drove me in a 1967 gold-metal Chrysler. It was huge, like a land yacht." Karl spreads his arms out and the end of his lit cigarette leaves a trail in the dusky light. "We drove down a dark highway, which I later learned was Clinton Highway, passing Weigel's Farm Store. And all after that we arrived at a little house in the middle of a subdivision."
Karl stands and looks down at the sparkling lights of Market Square. "I felt hope. I had a vision of a better life."
Suddenly he begins to laugh. "The worst part of the whole experience was that their dog, Felix, got into my bag and stole my Téliszalámi, which was the only thing I was able to bring with me from Hungary. ‘Your dog stole my sausage,' I said to the young pastor and his wife.
"‘He would never do that,' the pastor said. ‘He is trained never to go in anyone's bag.'
"At that point I leaned over and smelled the dog's breath. It was the unmistakable smell of my Téliszalámi. I looked under the couch, and sure enough, there was my half-eaten sausage."
At this point we are both laughing. Laughing and smoking and drinking. It's what we do best.
"On Sunday they took me to church, but I didn't understand a word of anything, so I just said ‘thank you,' no matter what anyone said to me. After the sermon people started coming up and hugging me like I was a lost child. ‘Thank you,' I said, over and over. ‘Thank you.'
"After church we went home to wait for the Sunday night service. About an hour after we got home there was a knock at the door and a man, another preacher, led me by the hand and showed me a large car. It was gold metal."
"What, were all the cars in Knoxville gold metal?" I ask, laughing.
He laughs with me. "Well, I guess they might have been."
"The preacher handed me a set of car keys and motioned for me to get behind the wheel of the car. When I realized what he was doing I began quietly crying, and began hugging him like I had never hugged anyone before." Karl sighs and I go to embrace him.
"I always wanted to go and thank that preacher, but by the time I got around to it he had moved on to another church."
"Well, you never know. Maybe he will read this story."
"I certainly hope so," Karl says. We are both tearful by now, as the sun begins piercing the dark clouds, bringing a wondrous light to everything. I look at Karl with love and he looks back at me. How grateful I am that this amazing man escaped, for that man is my husband and I am his wife. For today. Tomorrow we will be divorced again. Because that's just the way we are.