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Rendezvous with My Past
To me, everything begins with a question.
I wrote this book because over the last half century I have often wondered whether I dreamt my past or if someone has been dreaming it for me.
The answer came to me during a trip to Hungary, to show my wife the town where I was born and educated. During the seemingly interminable flight, I fell into the kind of receptive haze that can be produced by a solitary prison cell or long hours of jet vibrations--both experiences with which I am painfully familiar.
In my flight-trance, I was walking along Palotai Street, near our family home in the ancient town of Szekesfehervar, and suddenly I was stopped by a bright-looking young man who mumbled something about wanting to talk to me. Without waiting for an answer, he adjusted his steps to mine with great ease.
I didn't feel like talking to anyone and I tried, politely, to get rid of him, but he just kept walking with me. Suddenly he looked at me intently with his slanted blue eyes and said, "Do you remember when you were my age? You were determined to play the Bach G-Minor Unaccompanied Sonata the way it should be played. What happened?"
I was too shocked to say anything.
He continued, "During sleepless nights, you hoped to emulate Alberti, the archetypal Renaissance man whose life encompassed a half-dozen disciplines, including music, writing, philosophy, and painting and who, at the same time, indulged in the more earthy pleasures of life."
I finally found my voice and said defiantly, "I did learn and practice six different disciplines, and like him I tried to re-create myself through the power of my mind."
Whereupon he looked bemused, just as I do when confronted with sophistry. "You resolved not to care about what the world is concerned with, and to focus on things the world disregards."
"But don't you see," I answered with growing confidence, "those who live by this theory will remain professional adolescents for life."
He turned left at the end of Var Boulevard without waiting for my reply.
By this time, I was trying to get away from the odd, mesmerizing stranger, yet I followed him because I was stunned at how much he knew about me. He turned to me and said, "In your thirties you were obsessive; in your forties you spent too much time on making it; in your fifties you didn't believe in anything with the possible exception of yourself, and now, in your sixties, you are like a ship without sail or rudder, on the vast ocean, whose captain has forgotten where he came from and where he is going."
"What can I do at this late date?" I stammered. "And who are you, anyway, and how do you know me, turning my insides out like my father used to do with an old jacket in his tailor shop?"
There was silence as we arrived at the street where I was born. He made a funny kind of gesture, the kind I used to make when I said goodbye to my friends many decades ago, and said with a faint smile as he disappeared toward the park, "George, don't you remember me? I am you at eighteen. Don't you recognize yourself and your dreams?"
My trance was interrupted by the instruction to fasten our seat belts for the descent to Ferihegy Airport in Budapest.
I felt with undeniable force that I must respond to my alter ego's accusations, and when I returned to my hometown in Hungary, I wondered if I could base my recollections on the music in my life that has sustained me for as long as I can remember, or on survival, an art form at which I became so inventive that for a while I had a false feeling of immortality. Or perhaps I could organize the fragments of my life around my sweet and steady friends. Yet another approach might be to recall childhood flavors and aromas, vivid and unaltered by later experiences, unalloyed sensations of the palate. I wasn't sure at the time how I would go about it, but I knew that all these would play a part.
In writing about my early life, I am taking a serious chance, because while confession is good for the soul, it can be bad for the reputation. So, my beloved wife, Jenifer, and my dear children, Brian, Simon, and Georgina, and everyone else reading these words, fasten your seat belts for a trip back to the summer of 1924, to the town of Szekesfehervar, where, in a cramped little bedroom, a baby emerges from his mother's womb and is greeted by the customary slap of a midwife.
The only thing of which my hometown of (at the time) 42,000 people could be proud was its unpronounceable name and the fact that in the eleventh century King Stephen made it the capital of Hungary and built there a magnificent basilica surrounded with walls, parts of which exist to this day. More recently (before World War II), Szekesfehervar's mayor mortgaged the city to try to turn it into a spa by digging for hot mineral waters. What he did find was delicious, naturally carbonated water close to our house. Unfortunately, it took another half-century to reach the era of mise-en-bouteille waters. Szekesfehervar's history is otherwise not so amusing. Its inner city was destroyed by assorted invaders on a regular basis. During the winter of 1944 it changed hands between Russian and German forces three times.
* * *
My father married my mother in 1921, and the newlyweds moved from their nearby villages to the "big town," where my father started his custom tailor shop, using their single-room apartment as a workshop. A few years later he moved his business to a store in the center of town, which was created by splitting the wide entrance hallway of a baroque building in half and enclosing it with walls.
The front of the tiny shop was filled with yard goods and a tall standing mirror. The workshop in the rear was populated by a foreman, a couple of junior assistants, an apprentice, and my father, of course. In between was the cutting table, the sole domain of Father. He always kept a couple of canaries in the workshop, and whenever he worked on the sewing machine it inspired them so much that they sang like two coloratura sopranos auditioning for the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.
Until I was six years old, my parents and I lived in an apartment on Main Street, in a building that faced the town's only theater. I do not want to give the false idea of a sumptuous flat--the single small room served as a bedroom, a workshop, and even as a playroom for me, flanked by a kitchen. In one corner of the kitchen my father made a collapsible board that functioned as a chopping block; when extended, it served as a work surface for my mother to pull strudel dough with the backs of her hands (if you stretch it with your hands in palm-down position, it tears) and also as a dining table for the three of us. Miraculously (or so it seemed to me at the time), it could even be lowered and turned into a play table for me when it was not otherwise engaged. But to me its primary function was as a surface upon which my mother made so many variations on the basic sponge cake recipe that Grandma Gizella had given her that she was able to serve us a different version for months on end.
Carelessly, no one recorded my first words, but according to my mother, I began to eat the same foods as my parents at a very early age, and two people had to feed me with speedily alternating spoons because I screamed impatiently between bites. Clearly I was precocious; I already knew what foods were worth consuming. And I was just as impatient then as I have been for the rest of my life--my daily prayer being "Please, God, give it to me, and now!"
One of my first memories is of a long-ago evening, and of a family sitting at a round table close to a large cream-colored ceramic stove. It is the little boy's job to bring a basketful of chestnuts from the larder so that the father can cut a deep cross into each before putting them into the smoldering coals. The child, consisting mostly of a pair of almond-shaped eyes and prominent cheekbones, and dressed in short pants, sits on the edge of a big chair, eager to wolf down a dozen chestnuts; he tries to convince his father, not an easy man to sway, that the chestnuts are cooked.
The big world doesn't seem to exist for this family; the three of them are insulated by their affection for each other, by the pleasure of the crackling fire, and by the taste of the improbably vivid tangerines in the center of the table, combined with the comforting texture of the roasted chestnuts.
I remember some of these fragments firsthand, but my recollections were augmented over the years by stories about my childhood told by my mother, for whom my father was only second to me, closely followed by her parents and God, in that order.
Long-buried memories don't emerge in order of importance. Our bathroom and, of all things, the outdoor toilet appeared on my inner screen when I began writing this chapter. It was located in a cobblestone-paved yard and was supplied with yesterday's newspaper cut to pieces of convenient size which made it impossible to put together any story. As for the bath part, a portable enamel tub was brought in from the outside when my mother was able to wear down my resistance. An early form of Jacuzzi was approximated by a revolving paddle my father made for me from pinewood. We collected rainwater for the weekly washday, and my mother and our maid scrubbed with the hard, brown, homemade soap in the tekno, a large wooden tub in the shape of a topless coffin, then put the huge sheets through a wringer.
Although the firewood was delivered already cut to about a foot in length, by the time I was about twelve it was mostly my job to split the logs with a hatchet to different degrees of thickness, depending on their intended use.
Milk was delivered every morning, except Sunday, by a horse-drawn wagon, from which the milkman would fill a large tin container we had left on the street. A tinker came every now and then to patch and reline our aging pots and vessels as needed.
When my father had a toothache, to save the expense of going to a dentist he would put on his tooth a small lump of the blue crystalline copper oxide he used to spray on the plants--highly poisonous, but apparently effective. When one of my baby teeth refused to come out and the new tooth was already pushing underneath, my father's foreman would tie the tottering tooth to the window sash with a strong thread and close the window lightning fast, pulling the tooth with spectacular success.
My mother was proud of our white wooden icebox. Icemen came every morning to put a huge ice block into its metal-lined compartment. The crystal radio in my parents' bedroom could, on rare occasions, even bring in a station broadcasting from Bratislava, at least a hundred miles away. I felt privileged to have all these modern devices.
A sobering lesson that served me well throughout my life occurred when I was four years old in the aforementioned cobblestoned yard used by the several tenants of our one-story building. Mother made vizes uborka, water-pickled cucumbers topped with sprigs of dill and a slice of bread (as opposed to the vinegar-pickled ones that are put up to last through the winter), in one-gallon jars, and these she kept in a sunny spot in the yard. Finding one of these imposing jars absorbing the ripening rays of the sun, I turned it sideways with some difficulty and began to roll it on the cobblestones with as much speed as my little legs allowed. It didn't take long before disaster struck and the broken shards of glass mixed with the pickles while the pickle juice soaked into the dirt between the glistening stones. My father, who was home for his customary lunch at exactly noon (always followed by a thirty-minute nap and a prompt return to his shop at one-thirty), heard the crash and came out to survey the disaster; he then gave me one of the most memorable beatings I ever received.
My parents worked latastol vakulasig (from predawn until dark), and when I was six years old they were finally able to buy a splendid house. It had enough space for a huge rosewood case filled with books, a dining room decorated with gilt-framed still-life paintings of food, a large garden flanked by a yard for me, a real indoor bathroom, and, most important, a great kitchen where I could watch my mother turn ordinary things like flour, eggs from the few chickens we kept, and vegetables from our garden into dizzyingly delicious luncheons, the main meal of our day.
When, many decades later, my friend Jacques Francais, one of the foremost stringed-instrument dealers of our time, opened his huge steel-lined vault to show me a mind-boggling collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century violins and cellos, what came to my mind was my mother's pantry jammed with edible treasures, the pride of my family and the subject of envy of my friends. I am sure Jenifer was puzzled by my improbable parallel until I told her about the Great Pear Incident.
My search for the perfect ripe pear began over a half-century ago, long enough to warrant public confession. It happened during one of the summers when it was my cousin Evi Kellner's turn to stay with us. My parents and hers (our mothers were sisters) had an alternating exchange program that made our respective parents ecstatic every second year. I must have been about twelve years old when Evi arrived at the beginning of July, and I proudly showed her the new trees in the garden, the big rose garden in full bloom, my dog Tiger performing his latest tricks, and my precious books, which included a volume of letters written by Mozart's father to his son. The guided tour also passed by the very same pantry filled with huge enamel vessels of goose fat, bins of different types of flour, crates of beans, rows of pickled vegetables, jams, sauerkraut, and especially jars of compotes made from the fruits in our garden, which stood in rows like fat-bellied soldiers. Unfortunately, permission to open a jar of those precious desserts was not an everyday occurrence.
The very first day of my cousin's arrival, I sneaked into the pantry during the night and made a tiny hole with one of my mother's sewing needles in the cellophane covering one of the jars. This let air into the jar, causing a slight spoilage, and, miracle of miracles, as soon as my mother noticed it, we were served pear compote. I glanced triumphantly toward my cousin, but she hardly had time to be impressed, as she was swallowing half a pear almost without chewing.
Several times during the summer we ate pear compote, thanks to my nefarious scheme. One day, upon returning from an especially satisfying soccer match in the neighborhood and entering my favorite room, the kitchen, I could feel an ominous silence. My mother had grown suspicious about the ongoing compote epidemic, and that morning she had discovered that the jars were spoiling in a very orderly fashion, one after another on the shelf. Then came the final clue for Mother Sherlock: the entire row was at precisely the height I could reach! Fortunately the grownups were so amused by my resourcefulness that my mother told me to pick any compote I wanted for a snack, with or without holes.
I had already acquired the knack of not waiting for things to happen, but of making them happen.
During one of the summer vacations we spent in Evi's hometown, Tamasi, there was a day when we just couldn't leave the local swimming pool to get back to her house in time for the noon luncheon. We sneaked in about a half hour late, wearing our most innocent expressions.
"How could you be so late?" asked Annuska, Evi's mother. "Your father is furious with both of you!"
I'm not sure which of us came up with the outrageous answer: "We kept looking at the church clock, and we left when it said ten minutes to noon. Only at the last minute did we notice that a big black bird was perched on the big hand of the clock, stopping it from moving."
The funny thing is that, during a recent visit to Tamasi, Evi and I saw the same church clock with a black bird sitting on the big hand, and we both wondered aloud if this was a descendant of the bird that had helped us in our hour of need.
Fond as we were of each other, Evi and I had a running argument over who could eat the hottest cherry peppers--no mean task in Hungary. On market days we would separately scout the farmers' stands for the hottest peppers in every shape and color, and then confront each other with our finds. It wasn't easy to buy a single pepper, but often we were given just a sample. When Evi chose one, hoping that it was smoking-hot, I had to bite and swallow a piece, and then it was her turn to survive my choice. There was no clear winner in this decade-long fiery contest, but it hooked me for life on this particular form of masochism.
Even as a child, I would ask myself, Why do I eat it, why does it give me pleasure? When the poet Pablo Neruda visited Hungary in the 1960s, he wrote:
* * *
A family is made up of a cast of characters with more than one casting director. Ours was fortunate to have two leading players who were well balanced to produce a good show. My father's uncompromising approach to life and duty was balanced by my mother's love, which provided me with a warm feeling of trust and safety. There were probably few hours of the day in her brief life when I was not part of her thoughts. Today I often tell my children vignettes about my mother, hoping that the little stories will become part of our continuing family lore.
My mother did everything fast: writing, walking, working, even speaking; there was so much to tell, especially when the subject was me. To the amusement of her friends and my father's employees, she used to talk about me, piling on superlatives, intoning a kind of a nonstop exaltation. The foreman in my father's shop, Istvan Halvax, bless his memory, had a great sense of humor, and one day he hired a court stenographer to record secretly the stream of adjectives and stories my mother told about me.
Naturally, I had to be the best-dressed kid in town. My father was proud of his ability to lay out a suit pattern on the fabric in such a way that he needed less fabric than any other tailor in Szekesfehervar. My mother would then snatch away the leftover pieces and make little outfits for me whenever she had the time. One evening when my parents' friends the Stauszes were having dinner with us, my father, half boasting, half complaining, said, "I'm willing to bet you that Gyuri has probably a dozen pair of shorts, and I can prove it." My mother naturally wouldn't admit it, and protested. So my father started collecting the little pants from different armoires, drawers, and shelves, and found forty-two pairs. It became a standing joke in our family; whenever anybody said "forty-two," everyone would burst out laughing while my mother blushed proudly.
When I was four, my mother took me to a local photographer to have my picture taken as a birthday present to my father. When I refused to change into a dark-blue velvet outfit she had made especially for the occasion, the exasperated photographer took a picture of me standing on top of a bench in his studio, wearing one of the aforementioned forty-two outfits (the picture is now on the dust jacket of this book).
I have no doubt that both my father and mother did engrave their behavior on me, as well as transmitting many of their personal traits, and I have passed those on to my children. I was an only child, born during an era of economic recession in a society where egyke, "the single little one," was the vogue, so that he or she could be given the best of everything. I believe this influenced my entire life.
Although I can't remember my father ever praising me--it was just not his style--one of his remarks, which I treasure, made me feel praiseworthy, at least for an afternoon. I recalled this event a couple of years ago when our six-year-old son, Simon, ran a race. He came in perhaps sixth in a field of a dozen kids, but I praised him, telling him that for his age he did extremely well.
When I was six years old, in the first grade, I won first prize in a similar race, and received a silver medal with the Roman numeral I engraved on one side. Panting hard, I ran to my father, who had been watching, to receive his praise. With a faint smile on his face, carefully measuring his words, he told me, "I expect my son to be the first."
The only physical difference among the men in my family in the last three generations on my father's side is that Grandfather Armin had a huge handlebar mustache, which shrank to quite modest dimensions on my father's face, and got lost altogether when my turn came (although once I grew a mustache in an attempt to look like a cook). My father was a short, stocky man of uncommon physical strength, a hot temper, and a disposition that was eminently fair toward anyone who was willing to do a little more than was necessary. He was a multitalented craftsman, yet he had completed only six years of elementary school because he had had to go,to work full-time at thirteen to help his father, who was a tailor and a descendant of tailors for many generations. He was proud of being a superb craftsman and once, during an argument with his friends about their respective professions, he ended the discussion by saying, "Let's not forget that after God, the tailor creates the shape of a human being! And also remember," he added, "that before Adam became a gardener, he and Eve, as it is described in Genesis, sewed fig leaves together to make nifty aprons for themselves."
Recruited in 1912, my father had already served two years in the Austro-Hungarian army when the big war broke out in 1914, and he was shipped immediately to the Russian front. Within the first few months he was seriously wounded, was captured, and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Siberia. He escaped, with several of his cronies, by swimming across the Amur River to China; he was among the few who made it to relative freedom. The Chinese authorities, in order to show the world that they were more civilized than the warring Occidental barbarians, treated these escaped prisoners quite decently, and Father was interned in a small remote town near Tientsin (now Tianjin), where he worked mostly as a tailor. At one point he made a deal with the mayor (after providing him with an entire wardrobe) that he would teach his four sons to speak English if the mayor would get him to a ship sailing for Europe. The lessons continued for about a year, just after the war ended, when Father caught the SS President Grant in Port Arthur to return home. Father managed to bring back all sorts of precious gifts, Chinese silks and such, some of which he presented to my mother when they were married in 1921.
Whenever he was depressed (which was quite often during the last few years of his life), my father would try to imagine what had happened the first time the mayor's sons had a chance to try out their English on a native speaker. You see, my father didn't speak a word of English, so he had taught the boys Hungarian. A couple of decades later I would have to emulate his resourcefulness in order to survive.
I grew up with the comforting feeling that my father could do anything. With the help of one of his friends he built an addition to our house, doing everything himself down to the last detail--he even installed the locks and sewed the drapes. He also cultivated implausibly dark blue roses in his beloved garden. In his playfulness, he grafted apple branches to one of our pear trees, and within a couple of years it was the only tree in the county that grew two kinds of fruit--neither of them very good, by the way. He even taught himself to play the piano after a fashion, and I remember when my parents' friends would stay too long after a dinner party at our house, my father would sit down at our upright Pleyel to play the "Rakoczi March," which in Hungary instantly reminded everybody what the function of a march is.
Many of my fellow members in snobbish food and wine societies could learn something of a true appreciation of dining from the time my father instructed me about the proper way to order and eat boiled beef, a dish that is not popular in our current culinary flea market (except, of course, at our Cafe des Artistes in New York). This important rite of passage happened on a Sunday during the summer. Since my mother was away visiting her parents (which always put my father in a dark mood), he took me for lunch to a nearby garden restaurant and there initiated me into the joys of husleves fott marhahussal (the Austro-Hungarian pot-au-feu). My entire childhood comes back to me with the arresting aroma of this dish, and lingers in my memory like a sparkling ribbon amid the thousands of smells I have accumulated since.
After ordering the meal, a process that amounted to a protracted negotiation with the waiter, my father unfolded the enormous starched napkin and tied it around his neck. Then he set the salt and paprika cellars and the mustard pot within reach, and the waiter brought out a large soup tureen full of fragrant broth. My father ladled into his soup plate enough broth to reach the line running around the top, though at the second helping he failed to respect this line, since the soup lived up to its promise of greatness.
Next came a large platter filled with steaming marrow bones, surrounded by sliced and toasted kaiser rolls. He spread the marrow on a piece of toast, sprinkling it with salt and paprika.
At this point the waiter's assistant brought a large carafe of local white wine and poured it into thick-walled tumblers. When we had our fill of marrow toast and a little wine (mine having been watered), a steaming mountain of boiled beef appeared, each cut reclining lazily on the platter, flanked by a bowl of grated horseradish in vinegar, and a dish of currant sauce. Soon it became clear to me that my father had a game plan. He began with a rather insignificant piece of meat and worked himself up to the finest chunk, which squirted juice when he pierced it with his fork, meanwhile giving intermittent attention to the little potatoes, carrots, knob celery, parsnip, and Savoy cabbage that came from the same pot. I copied him eagerly, following his every move, though I had no mustache to wipe afterwards.
This was my indoctrination. And ever since, I have been trying to duplicate this experience. All week I used to anticipate the Sunday mornings when I could keep company with my father. It always began with the ritual of removing his precious gold I.W.C. Schaffhausen watch from one of the walnut armoires in our bedroom (my parents and I slept in the same room), polishing it with a soft chamois, and then opening up its hunter's case with an affection that went beyond the appreciation of a beautiful objet d'art. Then, with slow, measured motions I would wind it up, adjusting the time before putting it back in its protected hiding place.
This family tradition is carried on by my son Simon, who is named after my father (and my wife's paternal grandfather), and who performs the weekly ritual of winding my Schaffhausen watch.
In 1961, when I opened the spectacular Tower Suite restaurant in New York, on top of the Time-Life building, one evening a guest, whose table I had just passed, took out his watch to check the time--always a disturbing sign during pre-theater seatings. The watch looked familiar to me, and when I expressed an interest, he removed it from its chain and showed it to me. It was the same type of I.W.C. Schaffhausen watch my father had owned. I told the owner that holding a watch that was exactly like my father's had a profound effect on me.
The next day the guest phoned me and said he had a large watch collection and since this watch seemed so important to me, he would be willing to sell it to me at the price he had paid for it at a London auction years earlier. Buying this watch did induce me to become an avid collector of fine repeaters, early chronometers, and skeleton watches, mostly because I felt that watches are perhaps the only objects in which artists, scientists, and craftsmen collaborate with spectacular results. This particular watch is still my prize possession.
My father also owned a silver Omega for everyday use, which he wore attached to a chain affixed to his lapel buttonhole. He had bought it in a pawnshop, and had asked a jeweler friend to cover up the initials of the previous owner with a lime gold oval plaque, but to leave the plaque blank. Today I realize that not having his initials engraved there was consistent with the mentality of those who had experienced diaspora throughout history, to be ready at any time to sell their belongings and run.
I was an alien even in my own hometown, in the country that passed the first so-called zsidotorveny, or "Jewish law," when I was fourteen years old. Before that, anti-Semitism was not institutionalized, though, like other Hungarian national sports, it enjoyed great popularity.
By the time I was fifteen, in 1939, the world outside my family and friends was becoming more and more a hostile camp, and I learned--together with my other Jewish friends--that we had no place in that society. In my hometown, anti-Semitism was not something one talked about, it was just there, permeating the air like noxious gas, and one learned to live with it. For instance, the man who owned the grocery on the corner of the street where I lived was Mr. Krausz, who, when introducing himself, invariably clicked his heels while sticking out his right hand and said, "Krausz--but not Jewish."
Each year more and more poison entered the bloodstream of the Hungarian nation, and it eventually had a tragic effect on my entire family. In retrospect, one of my most heartrending memories of my father is from 1942. He was sitting at the round table at the foot of the bed, writing in a long leather- and linen-bound book, the official ledger of the local tailors' guild. His handwriting was overly careful, like that of most men who are self-taught. He was the secretary of the guild, and he took the job very seriously.
After signing the entry, he pushed the book toward me so I could read it. On the page were the words of a man who was proud, defiant, yet broken to the world he lived in, addressed to his fellow tailors. The sentences were an attempt to understand and to explain and live with the fact that he had to resign because of the latest of a series of "Jewish laws" that would prevent him from continuing in this unpaid, honorary position. He told me that many of his erstwhile colleagues remained neutral fence-sitters at best. If he had been able to read the Greek philosophers, he would have learned that those who stand on the sidelines are just as guilty as the active malefactors.
The last paragraph of his entry is etched in my mind: "Since I was thirteen years old, there has not been a day when I did not toil in one or another tailor's workshop, and I am proud of being a tailor. I received one of the highest military awards during World War I, the Silver Medal for Valor, and I consider myself as patriotic as anyone who is now wrapping the red, white, and green flag around their stomachs."