Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Christmas Day and No Santa

Christmas Day and No Santa

It is difficult to get enthused about Christmas when it is just the two of you. We do not exchange presents since our travel has always been the gift we give each other. We had our hand crafted, quilted stockings hung on the lights with care in hopes of St. Nicholas visiting, but we must have been bad when we weren’t looking. The old geezer never showed up. It was a lie, Virginia, it was a lie!

Not having a schedule, we are lazy most mornings, watching CNN, BBC World Report or writing and reading, so this morning was not much different except that Ron went to the Mozart Christmas mass at the cathedral. He reported that Mozart never showed either. He is as reliable as St. Nicholas, however, they did perform his music without him. We were invited to Hugh and Mark’s for a Christmas Tea at 2:00 pm. It was supposed to be a potluck, but Hugh called yesterday with the change of plans, but we had already shopped so we would proceed as normal. Ron cut up fresh veggies, we had different cheeses, Christmas cookies from the Christmas Market, pickled onions and pickled cauliflower.

The subways were not running, but the buses were. We took a bus close to their area and walked about five blocks from there. They live right across the street from the mall where I bought my coat, so we were familiar with the area. We found the apartment building without a problem and rang their buzzer. Mark answered and buzzed us in. He yelled out over the railing in the center courtyard that the elevator is not working, so we would have to walk up the stairs to the third floor.

The hallways looked a bit more run down than ours do and had more of an old Eastern European flavor of deprivation to them. Hugh and Mark both greeted us at the door and welcomed us to their home. The old Eastern European flavor almost came to an abrupt halt once crossing the threshold. There was almost nothing European about the apartment at all. I have been to private apartments in Italy, Holland, France, and Belgium and this apartment was huge by European standards. During Communist times, you could picture either a very high-powered political figure living here or a family of fifty.

As you entered the apartment, the entry hallway is wide and long. To the right is the kitchen. A separate kitchen all to itself with room for a table and three chairs to fit comfortably with room left over. The only evidence of its European heritage is the lack of cupboard space, the three-burner stove, and the old fashioned sink. Back in the hallway, as you walk forward, there is a door to the left, which is the bathroom. We will journey in there later. Keep walking forward and you will be in the living room. The living room is actually large enough to provide living space. They have two small sofas, enviable wooden bookcases, a matching CD case that they have bric-a-brac on, and a large Christmas tree. They have the walls decorated in South African artwork, mainly hand carved masks. Mark is the collector. On either side of the living room is a bedroom that is equally large. Each bedroom has a huge almost floor to ceiling wardrobe that is about five feet wide. Going back to the powder room, there are two doors so it can be entered from either one bedroom or from the hallway, which made it a large room. A large room with built in wooden shelving for storing towels, toiletries and assorted other things. In some of the European apartments I have been in, the kitchens were smaller than this bathroom. Now that I think about it, my entire first apartment would have fit in their living room. Mentally, I was transformed Eastern Europe where we lived to some exotic country where space was in excess. At the same time, I was embarrassed for a moment that we had had them to our apartment. When I caught the thought fleeting through my mind, I waved it away as ridiculous and rationalizing it by thinking about how labor intensive their cleaning must be compared to ours.

Trying not to feel like Jed Clampett and Jethro visiting the Drysdale’s for the first time, I put on my party smile and met their guests. They had a friend, Marvin, who is from South Africa, but is living in Germany and a friend Yanaslav who is a Ukrainian immigrant to Hungary. Yanaslav does not speak much English, but is fluent in Hungarian, not a great help in the communication arena. So, it was the six of us, not for a Christmas potluck, but for a tea, four who knew each other and us. Everyone was very nice and we had tea and Christmas cake, but I felt like we were on club membership interviews without questions being presented. We would be judged on performance only. I do not feel when we are the guests, it is our job to keep up the conversation, but it seemed to happen that way. There were long pregnant pauses of silence and you can only admire a Christmas tree for so long before you start the needles of each branch or redecorate it with your eyes. In order to smoke, we had to go to the kitchen, which is fine with us. Mark smokes, but was out of cigarettes and without any stores being open, we were the nicotine saviors. Going to the kitchen started to be a test to see if discussion would begin in the living room once one of us left. It did not seem to matter much. Conversation did seem to flow freer in the kitchen. I guess when you are smoking someone’s cigarettes you feel a sense of obligation to speak with them. No, that is too critical, the discussions seemed to be easier in dyads rather than small groups, and it was easier to focus on common interests.

After hours of meandering back and forth from the kitchen to the living room maintaining a inventory of how many cigarettes were left in the pack and realizing we were not getting anything close to additional food groups than sugar and flower, we suggested they set out the cheese and veggies we brought. I was fading in need of a protein fix.

The conversation started in movies and the possibility of going to see one. The options were bantered about, but there was never a consensus. We stayed out of the conversation for the most part, since we were not sure if that was a cue to part or if we were being invited to be part of the crowd to hit the cinema. Before our answer could be answered, two more friends arrived.

Gabor is a native of Budapest and was heralded by Hugh and Mark as the best tour guide of Budapest that they have ever met. His is a student of history and knows the city like the back of his hand. They encouraged us to use his services in this capacity. This raving recommendation was before we met him that afternoon. We were anxious to meet him and to engage his services ourselves and if he lived up to his reputation to continue to use him when and if we ever received company. Gabor, I was assured was the one to ask my other questions of too, like where to buy a printer and other computer supplies and which cell phone company to purchase a cell phone from.

Gabor and his friend arrived and we were all introduced. His friend was a Parisian who is living in Budapest and was not known to anyone, but Gabor. He was friendly and perky. He lives not far from us and mentioned that he was lacking friends to go to the theater, opera, ballet, concerts, and movies with. I told him he could find a willing volunteer in Ron for the opera and concerts, and the both of us for the other events. He was taking off for Paris for a family visit the next day and said he would get our phone number from Hugh and Mark when he returned.

In passing Gabor in the hallway, I mentioned hearing of his talents as a tour guide and said we would like to utilize his services. From the expression on his face, you would have thought that I just shared with him that Hungary returned to the Communist fold. Hugh was standing nearby, but never said a word. Realizing that something was uncomfortable, I let it pass and asked about the computer needs. He gave me the information that I needed and answered my questions about the cell phone too. Then he joined the group in the living room insulating himself in my mind from further inquisitions.

Shortly after they left, we decided we had better go to. As incredible as it may seem from what I experienced, we left at 9:00, seven hours after we arrived. It was difficult to believe. As they were saying good-bye and seeing us to the door, Hugh made a strange remark. He said, “We’ll be in touch.” As we walked home, I mulled that comment over and over in my mind. It sounded like one of the last things you hear at a job interview that did not go well, similar to “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” sort of responses. As I reviewed the time spent and our ‘performance’, his response did not sit well with me. Did we act like star-struck fans at a rock concert in order to make friends in our new city? And I really did not think that giving them each a pedicure was overboard, we just wanted to be their friend and get to do stuff together. Maybe it was our choice of nail polish that did us in. It is lonely being new in a new city. Stay tuned for further developments.

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