It was the cardboard red lollipop sign waving above heads that drew us toward her. She was of average height, weight, and had dark auburn, shoulder-length hair, and bangs. At first glance, her age was indeterminate; she was not whom one might call a beautiful woman; but she possessed something much better--age assurance looks--at seventy, she'd still be a stunner.
"I am Ilona, " she said. "Hello."
As she talked, her voice carried a decided accent: yet her English was flawless. Within moments, she had us waiting for her next word. When asked where she was from, she smiled and replied, "All over."
On the way to the hotel, our eyes stayed focused on her standing up by the driver as she pointed out places of interest around Heidelberg. At the hotel, she had us checked in and our room key in our hands before the luggage had been unloaded from the bus; all this done in a calm, decisive manner. And even when my luggage went missing--she found it--only to discover the zipper pull was no longer there; and we had to cut open my beloved, years-of-traveling, leather suitcase. She took me by the hand to the front desk. In a short time, she had called the airlines, notified the insurance comapany and secured permission (since the day was Sunday) for me to buy a new suitcase in the next city. There wasn't a hair out of place on her head.
Each day she greeted us with a smile, and at the end of the day, her smile was the same. She entertained us with stories surrounding each city, and the history behind every designated stop. When questions came, there was no hesitation in her answers. Her knowledge seemed a full well. I could imagine her in her 'off' time,' as she put it, sitting in a libraried room, wine glass by her side, and a book in her hands--history, perhaps--and refilling her well of facts.
During our tours, her walk never slowed, and even after hours of being on her feet, dashing to urge someone to keep within sight, I never saw her sweat. And on late nights, she never wore the day on her face. We were her 'watch.,' and when exploring a museum, or a royal courtyard, she circled around making sure everyone was having fun. "It's required," she'd say with laughter in her voice.
It was in Vienna, at the Imperial Concert Hall during a chamber music concert when her elusive demeanor slipped: she sat like the rest of us, eyes rounded in child-like wonderment, unmoving, and caught--in the music from a Stradivarius.