YA GOTTA HAVE...
I lost my surrogate grandmother on Tuesday.
When I first came here, 1991 it was, my thoughts were more on escape than on arrival, on port of departure rather than destination. England, my England, had disappeared, the connections I felt were to something that existed only in memory. The country had changed and I had remained stubborn and steadfast. Or was it the other way round? Either way, I'd had enough of witnessing the destruction of my working class heritage, watching it being stripped of its dignity and worst of all, colluding in its own emasculation. And yes, sweet hearts, before you berate me for my choice of noun, women can have balls, too. I was desparately tired of football score body counts, of a society seemingly bent on proving Thatcher's theory of its non-existence, of the deification of giddy princesses and the elevation of the celebrated over the truly important, of ignorance over education, wealth over worth.
It is also highly probable that all the above was just an excuse and that I was a 33 year old fuck-up with zero prospects in serious need of a fresh start.
Anyway, I'd financed myself through university by dint of two years working on the land and now, in proud possession of post-graduate certificate (with distinction), I was disembarking at Ferihegy Airport, Budapest.
It could have been anywhere, or so I thought at the time. All I needed was a blank first page. Now, when I think back, I'm not so sure. I'd had numerous job offers, Japan, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy but no matter how much I reconsidered (thanks for that word, Lisa. I shall treasure it), I would always come back to the job in Hungary. Now, I think what I needed was not just to travel in terms of distance but also in time. And I would stress that this is an observation made from where I am at this moment, that any idea I might have had about Hungary being somehow 'behind' was at most, sub-conscious.
So, there I was. Descending from the plane onto the land of the Magyars (the Hungarian plain in fact) and I had the strangest sensation. Not of departing, nor of arriving. Of returning.
I didn't, at the time, draw any analogies between the concertinad gangway and a birth canal as I had singularly failed to so do between the aircraft and flight, but I was thrust, alone, helpless and totally dependent, into a very alien world.
We all grow up with some awareness, minimal as it may be but pervasive nonetheless, of cultures beyond our own. We hear European languages and accents, are possessant of some knowledge of croissants, bratwurst and paella, may possibly have GCEs in French and German and even be able to place Liechtenstein on an outline map of Europe but to hear the Hungarian tongue is to have all one's frames of reference rendered absolutely useless.
So whence came this feeling of homecoming? I cannot say. It was real and it was visceral. If I attempt to rationalise it now, maybe I can point to the fact that every Hungarian on the plane applauded as it landed so happy were they to be home; to the lack of automation, the appearance that every process I witnessed on that day depended upon people. That there was little apparent distinction between them, no Armani suits, no visual markers of difference. There was no uniformity, nor drabness but there was nothing by means of which I could make any of my accustomed assumptions as to class, education, wealth, mind-set, anything. Here it seemed that everybody started with a clean slate. That any judgements to be made would be on the basis of internal and not external evidence.
Newly born then, and unable. The only Englishman in town. I was contracted to provide English language tuition to oil company workers and my first two courses were made up of drillers, oil rig workers, complete beginners. I was billeted in a guest house in a spa-village in winter. Nobody could speak English. There was nothing, and I really do mean nothing, which could provide any connection whatsoever to the life I had left behind. To the me who I was, and indeed am.
What could I give of myself? How could I show anybody who I was? How could I recognise a kindred spirit, a possible friend? Oh, I indulged in drinking competitions with the drillers, and rather surprised them by holding my own against all but the seriously alcohol dependent. We even arm wrestled and they were similarly taken aback...those years on the land paid off in more ways than I could have imagined. We had no common language beyond the basic English I had taught them and yet, even now, whenever the accidents of life make our paths to cross, we celebrate, remember and renew our bonds. They accepted me. Without artifice. Without the sophistication of language. Without pretence. Few people will ever have the opportunity of knowing just how good that feels.
And yet, our lives together existed in a bubble. They were given time off work to study and most of them were from other towns, temporarily resident in the company's holiday villa where the courses were held. They could go home.
And then there was my third course. I was three months in and beginning to entertain what could possibly be described as second thoughts. It was just before Christmas and, as much as I enjoyed being here, the bubble life, the disconnection from everything that my lack of Hungarian entailed was beginning to exact a toll. Three things happened in remarkably quick succession. First, I met Iván. He had escaped Hungary to live in a suburb of Chicago and had returned after the change of regime. God help me if I ever utter the phrase, 'collapse of communism' in anything other than a herein type context. He was a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist playing the tenor and the piano in coffee bars in town. He shared my interests in jazz, fucking young women and drinking good quality liquor to excess and expended his endeavours towards fulfilling my ambitions with regard to the second with all his attention. He failed. Chemistry and pheremones might just be valid explanations of the horizontal dance but the lack of a common language can prove insurmountable. And it did.
Until one day...he had developed a taste for pool in the States which was unfortunate for him as I am aces in that department and would regularly remove quantities of the specie from him in wagers. Anyway, we were playing in a local bar and speaking English which drew the attention of a rather stunning young English speaking lady (yes, no, maybe) who happened to be in the right place at the right time. She told me later that she had had the thought, "Have him washed and brought to my tent" but anyway, he introduced us. I fell. Hopelessly, illogically, arse over apex in love with her. She had the remnants of Genghis Khan's genetic inheritance and her slightly slanted ice-blue eyes had me in their thrall. Jess's later observation that she could not imagine the two of us together would have been prescient had it been made in time but there you go.
And yet, these two events would not have been enough in themselves to keep me here. Okay, I could now speak English, both to a friend and to someone with whom it was my pleasure to carnally explore on a regular basis but something was still missing. I am so hard to please, wouldn't you say?
But my third course was teaching executives and middle management based in the town where I lived. The chief mechanical engineer of the company was part of it, a Slavic looking, verdantly mustachioed chappie with whom regular readers will be familiar by virtue of my visit to the vineyard post of Saturday, May 14th 2005. He invited me to his house where he and his girlfriend were bringing up twins from his previous marriage. We all went swimming together on Saturday mornings and, as my Hungarian improved, I allowed myself to be drawn into a conspiracy between them and against their father that further reinforced my belief that I might just be worthy of something.
X is only 10 years older than me and yet I allowed him to slip into the role of my surrogate father with ease. He took me to his vineyard and to his parents' house in the nearby village and I was introduced to his mother and father. I believe Shulz had Linus say that happiness is a drawer full of warm socks but he had obviously never met the Xs. X senior would ply me with his 'toolpusher's wine' and parade for my perusal his knowledge of American cuss words..."dumb ass mother fucker", X junior would regale me with tales of just what a hard ass his father could be and X himself would just leave me to get on with it as best I could.
His mother took me under her wing, devoting to me exactly the same attention she paid to her own son. His father delighted in my enjoyment of his wine. He was the same age as my own father (adoptive, in case you forget) and yet he was a grandpa to me, spoiling me and chastising me in equal measure. His wife performed the same function but with more buns and cakes.
I am not sure that, without their attentions and ministrations, I would not have cut and run for home. They gave me a stability, a frame of reference...a family.
X's father provided the inspiration for my eulogy at my own father's funeral, (Wednesday December 17, 2003) having himself expired shortly before that event. And now...
I mentioned travelling back in time, or it seems I did, 'tis such a distance ago but his introduction to me of a way of life that was so connected to the land and through which the idea of family was perpetuated and preserved, the vineyard as family cohesion, remained formative.
However, X's reaction to his father's death was to embrace Catholicism, to collude, with his mother, in the theory that those who do not believe are destined for the fires of hell. This included his own common law wife and brother in law. And, if truth be told, myself.
Now, I am never at my most comfortable with those who have faith. My own lack of it makes it impossible for me to have any feelings of empathy whatsoever with those who do.
The funeral of his mother, which took place today, therefore, was an interesting exercise. It was a full catholic affair with knobs on, including numerous hymns and several recitations of the Lord's prayer and interminable Hail Marys.
I stood at the periphery, a part and apart. I walked a little closer to the graveside and blew a final kiss at my grandmama. A recognition. Gratitude for what she had done and what she had meant to me. And I watched my friend. He was distraught. He tossed the first sod onto his mother's coffin and handed the trowel to the other members of the family who performed the same task and then withdrew.
The chants and entreaties finished and the mourners dissapparated. I remained. I watched as the mourners paid their respects and got the fuck out. Only X was left. He saw me. We moved towards each other and embraced. Long and hard. Everybody else had gone. And I knew that, for him, at that moment, God was not enough. What really mattered was friendship and that, at that particular instance, I was what he needed. A friend.
Voya con dios.
Thanks for the memories,