VOLUME XLV * No. 175 * Autumn 2004
Even If They Do Look Inside
I have a name, and yet I don't.
I open my ID booklet, everything's in order, just that secret name of mine, that's not in it.
I swear to God, I do have one. They put it in a big book, there in Saint Stephen's Basilica. It was a Dutchman who gave it to me, actually. A Dutchman who held me as the baptismal water came. A half-Hungarian Dutchman. The son of my grandma's brother. Uncle Johan. And this became my invisible name, too. No Uncle, of course. Just Johan. Like the name of a tree. The yarran, for example. In Dutch they write Johan with just one 'n', and that's elegant.
Back then in '56, Uncle Johan was obviously not yet an Uncle, he can't have been more than twenty-five. Was he there in the Basilica at all? The christening was some time in December; the fraternal tanks had long set themselves up. Or was the border still open, here and there?
Uncle Johan was a racing driver.
My godfather's a racing driver, you see?
He sat in his Porsche, his open-top Porsche, for Uncle Johan pays no heed to the great Russian winter, and with a long scarf around his neck he tears across Europe to find me under the holy baptismal water in time, to save my soul from Kádár. The Yankee machine-gun clattered away on the back seat. Uncle Johan was never frightened of death.
Or is that not quite how it happened?
I look at the pictures, the old family photos, or rather I'd look at them but they're packed away somewhere. (It's a bit strange that the most of my very Catholic Dutch cousins look like Sephardic Jews, especially my godfather. Actually, to this day, I'm still not able to ask about this.) Aunt Toncsi ended up there, she was part of the Dutch programme to fatten up the children, sometime in the twenties. Invited by the Queen, or something. She came home, then went back again. She fell in love with a Dutchman, a very Dutch and very Catholic Dutchman, they made themselves twelve children, after every three boys they had a girl, right up until nineteen fifty-five. The ones that took after their mother had what they called uncontrollable black curls. Most of the boys were damnedly, horribly handsome, with olive-brown skin. They might even make you think of the tough Jews in Once Upon a Time in America. So that's how I always imagined the Dutch. Six foot tall, smiling Brooklyn gangsters.
There's a type of cigarette you can't get nowadays. Stuyvesant. Peter Stuyvesant, the man who founded New York. At one time that's what I smoked, when anything, esoterically proving that I was on the point of being Dutch.
A little bit Dutch at heart. A Dutch learner smoker.
Actually, just to let you know, New York was originally called New Amsterdam.
A habit it was a shame to give up.
The world as a Dutch colony. A Dutch planet. Basic Dutch-the language everyone would try to speak in. Ear, nose and throat specialists would have their work cut out. Einstein is leaving the room, so he turns to the other Nobel laureates in Dutch: Gentlemen, you can switch to Hungarian now.
Sometimes the Dutch come home, back to Hungary.
The situation is complicated by the fact that my godmother is Dutch, or rather entirely Hungarian, as she is the daughter of my grandma's other sister, who stayed behind in Hungary. So my godmother was born Hungarian, but when she went to visit Aunt Toncsi in the beginning of the sixties, a Dutchman got into her compartment in Vienna, and they started to talk. She and Robi. And I always like to imagine that by the time they reached Aachen, Robi had made a wife out of Márta in the buffet car.
So the Dutch come sometimes, like Aunt Toncsi's husband, come in whopping great Western cars, we go out to dinner at a hundred miles an hour, even though Uncle Johan (he is Johan, too, just to make things harder) is blind in one eye, because he was wounded in the war, or had an accident, I can't remember. But he's a mechanic. So obviously because he's a mechanic he is allowed to drive, he knows more about cars than non-mechanics who can see properly, the two things cancel each other out, I told myself, trembling, as we were going at a hundred and fifty. It is nineteen sixty-two. Quite simply, the Hungarian police had nothing that could catch up with him. I am a bit scared of Uncle Johan anyway, strict and playful at the same time, and if we are eating I can't take my eyes off his glass eye.
On the subject of eating, the Dutch like Hungarian food, at home they are stingy, of course, it drives my grandma round the twist at home when they count the number of meat slices, if there are seven people for dinner, so my grandma tells me, then seven pieces of meat are cooked, the mind boggles. While down here, Hungarian chicken legs are flying all over the place. It doesn't matter. Not that I mind, just it's strange that arithmetic doesn't call the shots in the same way down here.
And look how thin they slice bread, she points out.
Almost thin enough to see through.
And there are no curtains in front of the windows. You walk down the street, you can peep in anywhere, obviously no one actually peeps in anywhere, but away they live their lives so that you can peep in at any time and not see anything shocking.
Once the Dutch brought glass marbles, a bag of them.
A little bag, a bit like what you get garlic in nowadays. Tight little nylon rhombuses. There are thirty marbles, I have never seen marbles as nice as these in my life, a bit like glass eyes, maybe, but they're really nice. I roll them on the floor. The marble rolls, the Sun plays with it, not just me. It spins, some blue light glows from inside. Must be a nice place, Holland.
And I can't tell you how much I love Dutch cocoa. I come home from the park, after football, there's the pan on the stove, down it in one. I think my grandma left it there on purpose.
She made it.
Real Dutch cocoa.
On the tin box is a Dutch woman, with a funny whatsit on her head, like she were a nun. The woman is shown as Dutch. Wooden clogs, of course, and folk dress, shame you can't wear a windmill. There's a tray in the nun's hands with a tin of the same cocoa on it, then there in miniature is the Dutch woman on the tin painted on the tin, holding herself in her hands, et cetera. If the tunnel were fine enough, you could see into infinity.
You can still have a look, of course, for an eternity.
As if you were standing at the sea.
I read that in 1939 the Dutch made a decision, nice and resentfully, that if you guys are stupid enough to invade us, then we'll become an island, flood eastern Holland with water, it'll work, just think, it's all below sea level.
I wonder what anyone in eastern Holland thought about that idea.
Read on ...