'Both moving and entertaining, George Lang's absorbing autobiography draws the reader into an extraordinarily rich life filled with talent, wonder, and passion: an example of how torment can be transformed into beauty."-Elie Wiesel
'A heartfelt, funny, moving story of survival. A great read."-Paul Newman
'Anyone reading this remarkable memoir will understand why George Lang remains not only one of New York's great restaurateurs but one of its most vibrant citizens as well."-David Halberstam
'A book to savor, relish, smack one's lips over, and profoundly appreciate."-William Safire
'You don't need to be Hungarian to enjoy this book."-George Soros
'George Lang's success story, so brilliantly recounted here, is the absolute personification of the American dream."-Dominique LaPierre
'This book is as charming and sophisticated as its author."-Walter Cronkite
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Read an Excerpt
Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen
By George Lang Authors Choice Press
Copyright © 2005 George Lang
All right reserved.
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:
The feaster offers his tongue
As a sacrifice to the gods;
When swallowing a flaming morsel.
* * *
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."
Then he went to a sideboard where he kept a bottle of torkoly palinka, the rough-edged Hungarian brandy, downed a full shot, and quietly said to me, not really believing it, "Maybe, Gyurikam, you'll grow up in a world that is more just."
Bless his memory, his words were prophetic.
* * *
I must have been about fourteen years old when my parents were called into the principal's office in the Ybl Miklos Real Gymnasium, the school I attended, because of a prank I had organized which had one of our teachers as its target.
Nobody liked our history teacher, and one day when he gave us a particularly time-consuming homework assignment, I suggested to my classmates during recess that we should all submit identical papers reading, "Sorry, but I didn't understand the homework assignment. Which of the four King Bela's were we supposed to write about--Bela I, II, III, or IV?"
It didn't take too much detective work to discover the originator of the prank, and my parents were sternly informed of the incident by the principal.
When I returned home, my father asked me ominously if the story was true, and even before I could answer, he started hitting me very hard while my mother cried and begged him to stop. At one point in this one-sided confrontation, I did the unthinkable: with all my strength, I got hold of his hands, trying to end the humiliation and the pain.
My declaration of independence against my father had to end as a classic paradox: If I couldn't stop him, I would lose, but in asserting my independence, I would find out that he was not all-powerful. Turning on my father went against all fundamental Jewish teachings, and looking at his face made me realize that, for that moment, he regarded me like a son who had died. Eventually we both felt (I certainly did) the need to be forgiven and to start all over again. It helped me to see that my temper came from my father, and he probably at last understood that brutality, even when based on good intentions, is not an effective tool to use in raising one's offspring. It was especially difficult for him, because my father was never good at expressing intimate feelings, although now I know that he loved me unconditionally. He invested everything in my mother and me, and I like to think that I inherited his unlimited energy, his total commitment to his profession, and his constant affection toward his family, but that I was spared his rigidity.
During that winter my father was sick in bed, from an infection that set in after he cut himself with his straight razor while shaving. He lay in bed with bandaged face, knocked out by strong painkillers. Hovering around his bed, I showed such concern and affection that it surprised him almost as much as it overwhelmed me, after what had happened between us.
He pulled me to his chest and whispered hoarsely, "My son, my son, I do have a son who loves me!"
Lamentably, not too many years were left to us to prove him right.
My two grandfathers and their families lived in villages next to each other. They shared the same religion, age, and other decisive statistics, yet it would be hard to imagine two people who were more different. My paternal grandfather, Armin, had never gone to an opera in his life, and I am sure he never heard of the composer Kodaly or his masterpiece Hary Janos, which is about a retired mercenary who returns to his village and tells tall stories about his exploits. Nevertheless, my grandfather did a pretty good approximation of the fictional soldier. I remember him sitting in front of his home in the village of Mezokomarom with a csibuk (the long-stemmed pipe that Hungarians inherited from the occupying Turkish forces in the sixteenth century) in his mouth. He was telling me how he could have married the royal princess as a reward for his bravery in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he was an infantryman in the Kaiserliche und Konigliche Austro-Hungarian army, but for the machinations of the evil Archduke somebody-or-other. This was one of the more believable stories from his vast repertoire.
Armin used to go to Budapest twice a year to buy yard goods for his tailor shop, and a canny merchant there, knowing his penchant for carp heads poached in paprika-flavored fish broth, would take him to the same restaurant time after time, plying him with this delicacy. At the end of the lunch he would casually put a piece of paper in front of my grandfather, saying, "Just sign this, Uncle Armin, and everything will be taken care of." IOUs were nothing to kid around with in Hungary--not paying them was a felony, and my father and his sister and three brothers had to chip in regularly to get him out of trouble. So at one point, when Grandfather was probably barely middle-aged, they persuaded him to retire and live happily in his village, avoiding fish heads and valtok, as the IOUs were called, knowing that it would cost them much less in the long run.
Ignacz Lang (whose name I took after the war), my maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a sage, a person of biblical presence, who served as the rabbi and cantor for the entire congregation consisting of about one hundred families in the small town of Tolna-Tamasi. There is a story about him that illustrates how a rabbi-scholar could deal with a problem in a very unorthodox manner, matching the solution to the problem.
My cousin Evi was the only Jew in her class. Not having a place to go during the classes in religion, she would sit quietly at the back of the classroom. At the end of many of these classes, however, the priest-teacher would point at her and roar, "Your people killed Jesus Christ!" Naturally, when the class let out, the other kids taunted and pushed her around, yelling ugly epithets, until the next class began.
After one such incident she ran to Grandfather Ignacz, crying and asking for help. First he set about consoling her, and then he instructed her what to do if this happened again.
A week later the same scene was repeated, with the priest again shouting at her, "Your people killed Jesus Christ!" Whereupon twelve-year-old Evi rose to her full height and said cheerfully, "Sorry, Father, you're mistaken. It was the Jews from the next village who did it." The laughter of the kids, who suddenly realized the absurdity of the priest's statement, reestablished peace in the class, and the priest never brought up the subject again.
Once I asked my grandfather one of my typically adolescent questions, convinced that finally I had come up with the kind of conundrum to which even he, a wise rabbi, had no answer. "Grandfather, one of my friends walked out of a used-book store with a book hidden under his jacket without paying for it, and no one noticed it. According to the Bible, every sinner pays for his sins. But it doesn't quite work that way all the time. Does it?"
Grandfather looked at me with his gentle yet penetrating blue eyes, stroked his goatee, and replied, "Gyurikam [Hungarian for "my little George"], your friend is punished for what he did. The punishment is that the next time he will do it he will have less fear, and each time he commits the crime it will seem more and more trivial to him, and that is his punishment. Most likely, the final consequence will be much more serious than the penalty for stealing a used book."
For me, intellectual sparring in my early adolescence became not only a pleasure but a necessity. I had almost unlimited energy when it came to irreverence toward representatives of assorted gods, but with the chief rabbi of our temple, Dr. Pal Hirschler, I had little chance of winning a round. His commentaries on the books of Esther and Nahum are still taught in theological seminars around the world, but his translation of the book of Ezekiel, which he completed in the Szekesfehervar ghetto in 1944, was never published. A wispy, gentle person, he died in Auschwitz.
After a sermon that he had based on Genesis, I mentioned to Rabbi Hirschler that God must have rigged up some temporary expedient when he said on the very first day of creation, "Let there be light," since it was only on the fourth day that He came up with the bright idea of setting the sun and the moon in the firmament, throwing in the stars for good measure. If he had an answer to this riddle, he kept it to himself.
Dr. Hirschler must have seen something in me, unless he considered me one of the ways God was testing him, and he often talked to me after Saturday morning services. At one point, when I had just read a book about the origins of the universe, I asked him his opinion about the scientific explanation of the creation of the earth. He invited me into his study, where his mother offered me hot chocolate. There he told me the story of a scientist whose best friend was a pious rabbi. The two argued endlessly about how the universe began. Using scientific theory, the professor tried to convince the rabbi that the story in Genesis should be considered fiction. A few days later, upon entering the rabbi's study, the scientist noted an overturned inkwell on top of the rabbi's desk, defacing the blotter. On further examining the mishap, he noticed the following words apparently trailing away from the ink blot: ". . . and God created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God finished his work which he made . . ."
"Who wrote this sentence?" asked the scientist.
"According to you," said the rabbi, "the world was created accidentally, over a very long time. You see, my dear friend," he continued, with a little smile, "when I accidentally knocked over the inkwell, part of the blotch became this sentence as one of the unlimited variations the ink could form. Isn't this just about as reasonable as your hypothesis, and as logical?"
The moral of this and many other stories of Dr. Hirschler's is that when your rabbi is an inventive thinker and raconteur, religion often is able to explain the unexplainable.
After I completed the fourth year of the Real Gymnasium (the equivalent of the U.S. eighth grade), my father insisted that I quit school for a year and work in his shop to learn his trade. "Gyuri," he said, "no one knows what's going to happen, but as a tailor you will always be able to make a living."
It was a difficult year for me, even humiliating to some degree, wearing a worker's cap instead of the school uniform with the silver-braided cap, and being left out of the world of students. But I did take the tailor's exam at the end of the year, and then returned to school. Four years later, when I was in a forced-labor camp, my father's plan would indeed save my life.
In the new school I entered after my year of tailoring, I was the only Jew in my class. Being a reasonably good athlete made me almost acceptable to my gentile classmates, but Hungarian national pride, which was inseparable from prevailing ethnic and religious prejudices, poisoned many parts of my world. It was commonly believed, before the state of Israel was born, of course, that Jews were weak, made lousy soldiers, and were unable or unwilling to do heavy physical work. After a few frustrating arguments with some of my loudmouthed schoolmates, I decided to show them a thing or two. During the next summer vacation, because one of the job captains knew my father, I got a job in the stone quarry on the outskirts of town, a kind of work that was unheard of for a high school student. My job was to throw the sharp-edged, often huge rock pieces into a metal wagon that ran on rails, and then to push the wagon to an area for processing.
The labor was extremely strenuous for a fifteen-year-old student, and parts of my body hurt that I hadn't even known existed. My mother would fill a huge bag of food for me to take with me to the quarry. After a few days she half-jokingly observed that the amount of food I consumed cost more than what I was earning. I kept the job for three weeks, making sure that a few of my classmates came out to see me working side by side with day laborers twice my size.
Did it make any difference?
As far as my worthy schoolmates in the overwhelmingly non-Jewish school were concerned, it changed their attitude not one iota. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson's line about patriotism, anti-Semitism is the first (and certainly not the last) refuge of scoundrels.
At the predictable age I developed a crush on a pretty girl named Marika, and I asked her one day to come with me to the Arpad movie house, where one had to buy a ticket for assigned seats--the closer to the screen, the cheaper the ticket. I saved pennies for a week to be able to invite her to sit with me in the seats in the first or second row, and it was a staggering blow to my budding machismo when she declined.
"If you don't come with me to the movies, I'll hang myself in front of your window," I declared in an appropriately grave tone.
And then came the real blow--she replied sweetly, with a crushing one-liner: "Oh, please don't do it, you know Daddy doesn't like for you to hang around the house."
She did come once to the local athletic field to watch me run the hundred-meter dash, an event I was quite passionate about. My physique was far from ideal for this competition, since I have rather short legs, a thin but overly muscular upper body, and, of all things, rather flat feet. From the first grade on, however, I won most races by developing a carefully worked-out starting technique, which gave me an advantage in the critical beginning of the race. Also, I had almost boundless energy combined with a will to win and a loathing for losing.
I did become a loser, however, during a race in the city of Szolnok when I was about sixteen years old. To my surprise and delight, the local chapter of Mav Elore, the sport club of the state railroads, invited me to be a member, and I participated in the hundred-meter regional championship, coming in third, with a time of 11.6 seconds. Later, in the four-hundred-meter relay, one of the four participants from our club became indisposed, and I was asked to take his place. Never having run this race, which was just around the soccer field where the events were held, I started running exactly the way I did in my usual hundred-meter event, and the entire stadium stood up cheering, thinking that they were witnessing the birth of a new world sensation. Unfortunately, when I got to about the middle of the race, my lungs didn't quite seem to fit their usual location and I felt ready to explode. By the time I was able to pass the baton to the next teammate, he had to start with a fifteen-meter handicap.
This event had a decisive influence on my future life. I realized that the old adage that there are things that look impossible until you do them is an attractive theory, but to learn one's limitations before embarking on a project is the first step in life's feasibility studies.
An anthropologist must gather material in all sorts of ways before he is able to reconstruct the past. One of the ways I was hoping to collect and reconstruct the first two decades of my past was to listen to the friends I grew up with. So in 1961, after a fifteen-year hiatus, I decided to return to Hungary and my hometown. Considering how few of Szekesfehervar's Jews survived the war, it was a miracle that four of the seven members of my old crowd were still around to sit with me at a table at the Alba Regia Restaurant (so called after the original Latin name of the town). Well into the night we recalled with glee the outlandish games we played, which, in some ways, seasoned us for times to come.
The world we grew up in had no telephones, certainly not in our homes or our fathers' businesses; mothers rarely had full-time jobs, and I didn't know anyone who was divorced or had changed professions; school discipline was so strict that I literally had to salute anyone who was in a grade higher than I was; and the tax collector had to depend on my father's mood in order to enter his shop to meekly request payment.
There were no hot dog carts on the street, no ice cream vendors, but we did have the pumpkin lady. Always a clear signal of the arrival of fall was the appearance of an elderly woman in fingerless gloves who presided over a rusty black iron grill in the same way that a Caribbean street player cajoles music out of his steel drum. She would keep rearranging pumpkin pieces on the grill until each one was cooked to a creamy texture with a slight charcoal edge. As my friends and I passed by the corner where she'd had her cart, we recalled the great day when one of our fathers asked us who could eat the largest number of pumpkin slices, and stood by while we consumed world-record quantities. Watching his idea turn into a major expenditure, the father grew more and more anxious, and at last he told us that unfortunately he had an appointment on the other side of town, calling an abrupt end to our pumpkin-olympiad.
School in our town, just as in the rest of Hungary, was highly competitive, but our gang made sure that nothing interfered with our favorite diversions. A typical after-school activity at the age of twelve went something like this: The five of us who made up the core of the gang--Jancsi, Laci, Gyuri, Pista, and I--would roam the little streets of our medieval town, throwing challenges at each other, such as to enter a store that we had no business to be in. When my turn came to choose, I dared Laci to go into a lady's corset shop. Of course he had to improvise a reason that was good enough to avoid either being thrown out bodily or having his father notified, which would result in certain punishment. He entered the shop, filled with rotund ladies, and asked innocently, "Excuse me, but I have to find my mother, and I was told that she may be here." Although the story was implausible at best--since a youngster of our age would never have been asked to go to a corset shop--he got away with it. And then it was my turn to meet the challenge.
We passed by a pastry shop where our mothers got together to add sweet calories to the--presumably--piquant stories they exchanged. As it happened, in the window display of luscious desserts there was a golden-yellow, fully packed kremes, a sort of Napoleon pastry, with a desperate fly caught in its cream filling. While we watched the fly's hopeless attempt to escape, my friends came up with a devilish plan: I was to go in and order a kremes, and I had to request the one in the window, complete with the fly.
I sat down at one of the shop's marble-topped tables, and, when the pretty waitress in her bone-hard, starched headdress reluctantly served me the pastry, everybody in the room watched, appalled, as I devoured the confection, fly and all, thus evening the score in the game. Decades later I would recall this incident when a host in Mexico offered me a glass of pulque, the Mexican spirit made from the agave plant, and served with it the customary special treat of thick, white, crisp-fried maggots.
Children getting an allowance must be part of the American Bill of Rights, but in Hungary we had to do all sorts of odd jobs to be able to buy that kremes, with or without a fly. One of the more colorful sources of income appeared twice a year, when the circus came to town. Instead of a 50-horsepower motor, the carousel was powered by eight money-hungry kids, each pushing one spoke, way above the revolving figures, making it turn in a rather erratic manner.
As I spent time with my childhood friends, I was pleased to find that some of the old spark was still there, even after all they had been through. At the end of the evening they convinced me that we should visit the house I'd been born in, if for no other reason than to see the impressive plaque at the entrance. True to the irreverent spirit of our childhood, it turned out to be a For Rent sign my cronies had put up for the occasion.
I was pleased that every one of my friends remembered when, at the age of sixteen, wanting to surprise a girl with whom I was infatuated, I had dug up a couple of chrysanthemum bushes from our garden and planted them in front of her courtyard window. I didn't sleep all night, waiting for her reaction in the morning. Unfortunately, during the night it snowed, making the white chrysanthemums invisible. I was so embarrassed that I never told her the story.
The day after our evening at the Alba Regia, we ambled along Palotai Street, where our family house was located, and passed by the Nyoli Bakery, which released a basketful of memories. Bread was not only a staple, but was also almost sacred in our home, almost godlike, as rice is for the Balinese. From ancient times, the bread a person ate was emblematic of his rank, and based on this criterion, we were the blue-bloods of Fejer County. I had to do many of the little jobs around the house, the easiest of which was each week writing little labels with our name on them, sticking them on top of the bread dough my mother had prepared, and then taking the two huge risen loaves in woven straw baskets to the nearby bakery to be baked. At Friday's lunch my father would take one of the fresh loaves, which seemed like the work of a master potter, bless it, and, ritualistically, holding the loaf tight against his chest, cut a little piece for all of us, using our special white bone-handled bread knife. Then he broke off a small chunk for himself and invariably told my mother, after thoughtfully tasting it, "This time it is the best ever." My maternal grandfather, during the bread ceremony in their home, always put a little salt on his first taste and, as a little affectation (and a sign of affection), for many years I imitated him.
Bread was almost as important to us as air, water, or life itself, and when we dropped a piece of bread on the floor we had to kiss it and then, unless it was hopelessly dirty, eat it. Sometimes my mother made fancy loaves of challah with bread-dough birds perched on the top, with peppercorns for piercingly realistic eyes. We were convinced that if bread were the medium, Michelangelo would have been outclassed by her in a competition.
Most every small-town household in Hungary had its steady procession of beggars during the Depression years of the early 1930s, and my mother's favorite, if that's the right word, was an old ragpicker who assumed the casual air of a gentleman beggar, one who begged only as a hobby. He came every Friday, knowing that it was bread-baking day, to collect a few slices of fresh bread from us, as well as from our neighbors. One particular day he showed up before lunch, and my mother apologized that the bread was still uncut, so she was unable to give him any. He cheerfully countered, pointing to his bulging canvas bag, "It's all right, ma'am, I can give you change!" My mother, who loved good repartee, promised him an entire loaf the next week. Knowing her, I am sure he received it.
When a girl married in central Europe, she got a piece of starter dough from her mother, as did mine in 1921, when she married my father, just as her mother did when she married my grandfather Ignacz in 1890. There was more continuity in the weekly bread-baking than in the ever-changing governments and elastic borders of our part of the world.
Another constant in my life that turned out to be fundamental was a passion for cooking.
Watching my maternal grandmother's tiny figure leaning over the blue-and-white enameled pots, continually adjusting and stirring like a possessed alchemist, was, and still is, an inspiration to me. She infused old formulas with new energy, and taught my mother the importance of skill, flavor, and appropriateness for an occasion. My friends would usually avoid kitchens as alien territory, but I headed for the kitchen when I came home from school, to watch my mother kneading dough for bread or dumplings. By the age of ten I cooked simple dishes fairly well, though my mother was uneasy with the way I would make slight alterations in the traditional recipes, which had not changed in her family for generations.
In addition to different tastes, I was also seeking different worlds, and one of the great gifts I received for my bar mitzvah was a red bicycle that probably meant more to me than a car to an American youngster who comes of age, because I had not been allowed to ride my father's precious bicycle since the day I had almost crashed it.
The very first trip I took on it was to the nearby village of Csor, perhaps eight kilometers from our house. Approaching the village on the two-lane road, I felt like a great explorer nearing his goal after months of arduous trekking. The little village had a general store on its main (and only) street. Parking my new bike, I walked into the store, not quite sure what language the natives spoke, and in a delicious euphoria I bought a pencil, expecting to find a strange foreign imprint on it. To my disappointment, it was the same kind of pencil I used in school. This incident stays with me to this day, as I still yearn to find and experience different worlds.
I was fortunate to have my own world before I even entered grammar school. From the time I started making music, the violin was my refuge, and it carried me through difficult times. It wasn't a hobby but a necessity for me, a private language that said everything to me. I had been surrounded by music from the day I was born. Sunday-afternoon radio concerts from Budapest were almost like a sacred ritual. My parents told me years later that as a baby I used to giggle with pleasure when a violin solo was played during the broadcast, even more than when they took me to see a puppet show.
Never having smoked, I have little affinity for cigars, even though they triggered my life as a violinist. One of my father's closest friends was a serious cigar smoker. One day, according to my clearly prejudiced parents' tale, when I was almost four years old I attempted to make a violin out of one of his discarded cigar boxes, fashioning strings of thick silk buttonhole thread from my father's shop. Shortly afterwards, I began taking violin lessons from Professor Horvath, who taught me in exchange for suits my father made for him.
My first, somewhat less than formal debut recital took place in the first grade, when I played the transcript of a simple Hungarian song, "Magasan repul a daru," "The Crane Flies High in the Air," with great success. Years of study with two of the great violin teachers of Hungary, Professors Rados and Waldbauer, followed before I escaped from Hungary in 1946.
Both sides of my family had produced fine violinists and musicians. My paternal grandmother's brother Aladar was a talented violinist who had graduated from the famed Franz Liszt Musie Academy in Budapest. He fell in love with, and married, a gypsy girl in around 1870, which was almost the same as a white man in Mobile, Alabama, marrying a black girl during the same period. The newly married violinist with an artist's degree changed his name from Sommer to its Hungarian equivalent, Nyari. Being a good fiddler, complete with a gypsy wife and soon thereafter lots of kids, he shocked the entire family by becoming a primas, the leading violinist in a gypsy band. As one of the best, using the name Aladar Nyari, he played in some of the glittering cafes of Budapest. My mother's first cousin Erno Neufeld was a noted prodigy on the violin, and eventually became one of the first musical directors of Universal Studios in Hollywood. Another of her cousins, Erno Rapee (ne Rappaport), was the first conductor of the legendary Roxy movie-theater orchestra in New York. I had enough of the right kind of musical genes to become a second Heifetz.
In 1940, at sixteen, I received a coveted scholarship to study with Professor Rados, and even before I had graduated from high school I would take the train to Budapest twice a week for my lesson. The next year I moved to Budapest to live in a furnished room on the Buda side of the Danube.
Ever since my cigar-box violin, I had been dreaming about making my own violin and playing it at my future concerts. I thought this would be a profound musical experience, and a first in the world of performers. Also, I always had the urge to learn new skills, and I thought that being able to create the instrument I was playing on would help me comprehend the mystery of sound and acoustics on a different level. So I befriended a fine violin-maker, Mr. Kovacs, near the Franz Liszt Music Academy, and in addition to my daily practice, anywhere from zero hours to eight, I apprenticed in his workshop a couple of hours every day to learn how to make a violin. It took me almost a year to complete one instrument, though I should hasten to add that it was with his considerable help.
A few years ago, when my partner, Ronald S. Lauder, and I purchased two of the finest vineyards in Hungary, I made it my business to learn as much as possible about the technique of winemaking, from the planting of the vineyard all the way to the details of making the wine itself. Yet I found that knowing as much about--let us say--the aging potential of wines as did our maitre de chai did not increase the sensitivity of my palate, just as learning how to cut a perfect purfling on the tender pine of the belly of a violin did not make me better able to hear the subtleties of the fiddle.
And what about the sound of the violin I made? Well, to paraphrase a critic's line about an unfortunate singer, if the G string had had the quality that the E string was missing, the middle strings would have been very pleasant to listen to.
Although my father generously supported me with a small monthly stipend, I still had continuing problems with my budget.
Take, for instance, the crucial matter of eating. I was not allowed to have a hot plate in my rented room, though the Korossy family, my landlords, kindly invited me to their family table every now and then, so I had to be creative to be able to fill my belly between times. An egg, it is said by unemployed philosophers, is a whole day's work for a chicken; I had to work as a page-turner for at least two concerts to be able to obtain one, scrambled, at a neighborhood basement joint.
One day a friend of mine who was a great poker player and a lousy artist (painting away during the day the money he made at night at the poker table) took me to lunch. He was a tall fellow whose legs barely fit under the table. At one point he jumped up and yelled to the waiter to bring over the owner of the restaurant that instant. Apparently a nail, sticking out under the table, had ripped his pants, and he demanded satisfaction. The apologetic owner told us that the lunch was on the house, which barely placated my friend.
It is written that all great men are gifted with the ability to recognize opportunities, and at that very moment I rose to unsuspected greatness. The very next day I invited a young woman in my class to a modest tavern-type eatery. Lo and behold, when the time came to pay the check, it turned out that my pants had been torn by a nail strategically located under the table. Profuse apologies and "please don't pay for this dinner" followed.
The custom of "going Dutch" was unheard of in the early 1940s in Budapest, and if I went to the theater or the opera, I usually did so unaccompanied. Opera was my real passion, and a performance at the magnificent Budapest Opera House was a red-letter day for me. I never had the money to buy a ticket for a decent seat, so I was always relegated to the standing-room space at the very top of the opera house. After one performance I decided that I would cut down on all my expenses so that each month I could buy a ticket for a seat one level lower than the last; then one day, as I recall the strategy, in eleven months I would arrive at an orchestra seat, if possible in the first row center (a location I don't advise for anyone seeking a perfect opera experience). Yet I never made it to the ground floor of the opera house, because just when I was ready to make my move on the ticket office, fate, in the guise of the Hungarian government, arranged for me another kind of performance.
In the meantime I continued my violin studies in Budapest, playing chamber music and performing here and there, and whenever I returned to my hometown I played sonatas with a comely, dark-haired girl who lived in the nearby village of Seregelyes. Among my deeply etched memories is an evening when we sat under the leafy horse chestnut trees with a carafe of wine glittering in the moon's generous light. The wind held back its breath that evening; the chambermaid sang in the kitchen about a fickle lover, and my friend Agnes was waiting for the end of the song so she could play my favorite Bach piece for me. At the sound of the first chord, I thought the entire world was well-tempered, and I lived in paradise.
A few years later my friend, her family, the house, and the Bosendorfer piano were gone. Only Bach's music has remained, along with aromas and flavors that my brain and nerves have preserved throughout these years.
It took me many decades to understand the fairy tale in which the wish of the wise person was to be ignorant about his future. I was fortunate to have no idea what the next four years would bring.
Excerpted from Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen by George Lang Copyright © 2005 by George Lang. Excerpted by permission.
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