The windows of the Európa Café glistened with tantalizing tortas and dainty bonbons; in their reflections, I saw the familiar man sitting in a wheelchair. His jet-black hair was sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar-like flakes, which barely hid the pockmarks furrowed on his dark-skinned forehead. He loosened his tattered wool scarf and craned his leathery neck in search of a kind soul who would drop a few forints into his tin cup.
Each time after indulging my sweet tooth at the Európa, I handed him my spare change. He gratefully nodded and stashed the coins under his fake fur seat cover, greeting me with the formal “Csókolom,” an expression of respect reserved for women only. (I learned this the hard way after telling an amused male taxi driver, “I kiss your hand.”)
On this late January afternoon, the man was shivering against his wheelchair, exhaling into his glove-less fists. My heart sank as I watched passersby do exactly that—pass by without a glance. While he circled the nearby newspaper kiosk, I snuck into the café and ordered him a slice of Esterházy torta and an Earl Grey tea to go. Gabi was running late, as usual, which gave me time to warm up my words, as well as the brisk St. Stephen’s sidewalks.
The man’s eyes twinkled as he downed the tea and gobbled up the dessert.
“Linda vagyok,” I introduced myself, extending a hand.
He tossed the empty paper cup into a side pocket and returned the handshake. “János vagyok.”
“That’s ‘John’ in America.”
“Amerikai?” János’s belly laugh confirmed Gabi’s assertions that I smiled way too much to be from anywhere other than America. “What you do here?” he asked, his calloused hands motioning toward Margit Island, the direction from which I’d come.
In basic Magyarul, I shared a few details about expat life until I saw Gabi approaching from the antiquarian bookstore, his body language suggesting that of a sunken soufflé. Uh-oh. This is going to be more difficult than I expected.