Saturday, November 29, 2008


When I was teaching English in Budapest, I had a group of adult intermediate level speakers with whom I got on smashingly. Probably because the class was in the evening, they were relaxed, mildly inappropriate and willing to do all the crazy language exercises I did with them in lieu of a textbook. They liked to quiz me on how to get from point A to point B in Budapest using only public transportation. On the last night of class, I walked into the classroom, the lights went out, and the students (who had been waiting in the back of the room) paraded up to the front of the class, single file, led by their classmate, Zoltan, a midget, carrying a book of Hungarian art with a candle-topped cupcake burning on top. It was like something out of a David Lynch film.

Because very few people in Hungary had telephones in their homes at that time, I would leave my address on the chalkboard after our final class if I really clicked with a group of students (that seems so foolish to me now). On a Saturday about a month later, there was a knock on my door. I opened the peep "hatch," and seeing nothing, I closed it and went about my business (the alcoholic couple who lived next door had a grandson who like to liked to play knock-knock ditch). And then another knock. I did the same thing, my annoyance plainly visible and audible, and then a high-pitched but gruff voice, "Hi! It's me. Zoltan." Looking down, I saw him, bundled up against the cold, a stocking cap with a pom-pom on top almost covering his eyes. Embarassed but happy to see him, I invited him in and my boyfriend and I offered him a drink. He asked if we had any tea, so I put the kettle on. The apartment was insanely small and I remember worrying that he was going to burn his face on the stove as he chatted with me in the kitchen standing very close to the open flame.

Zoltan stayed for six hours that day. We learned a lot about his life. He lived with his mother. He was a door-to-door salesman of children's books, and before that, of doorknobs (I kid you not). He loved working, meeting new people, and he loved his mother. He said he was thirty years old. As he got more comfortable, his cheery conversation took an ugly turn. He asked if we had met any Roma people (aka, Gypsies) since living in Budapest. We said, no, we didn't think so. "Well, it's not like you'd be able to tell these days," he suddenly fumed. He then went off on a tirade. His hatred was palpable, coming off him in waves. He turned red, he slammed his small fists against the arms of the chair. He hated them for stealing Hungarian jobs, for being given preference in housing (because the Communists had wanted to keep these nomadic people in one place), for breathing the same air as him. I feigned sleepiness, I didn't offer him more tea, I started drinking beer, but he didn't take the hint. He raved for three hours. He never came back.


Beverly Hamilton Wenham said...

And that man was my father.

No just kidding! That was wonderful. I can just see you there being the good hostess not seeing what was coming. An angry bitter troll of a man. And I don't mean because of his size. All that resentment had sat way down deep inside him. As he relaxed under your good care it slipped out and ate everyone in the room.
As I read this, I was in that room with you. And for the first time I wanted to kick a dwarf.

Ana said...

Um... he was a midget, not a dwarf. ;-)

Eva said...

I think I would have had the same reaction as you and wonder why he would start complaining about the gypsies since he's been prejudiced all his life. Then what you said was right about him having the right to do so if he pleases but did he have to do this for hours on end? I think that was pushing it. Great story though!

Ana said...

Eva -- Thank you.