St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th in Hungary, as well as in many parts of Europe. The progenitor of our American Santa Claus tradition, his birthday is the occasion for young children to receive small gifts, separate from the ones given out during Christmas. I was approaching my third birthday, and we were visiting my mother’s sister, who at the time lived in a balconied apartment within walking distance of ours. We had just finished dessert, when there was a knock on the balcony window, and who comes in, but St. Nicholas himself! Complete with a winter coat and a big white beard, he gave me a big smile, and asked “Have you been a good boy this year?” Petrified, with eyes as big as the dessert plates we just finished, I stammered, “I tried to be.” He reached inside the sack he was carrying, pulled out a couple of wrapped packages, gave me a pat on the back, told me to listen to and obey my parents, then, with a big laugh, went back outside through the balcony door, closing it behind him. To say I was impressed as well as scared would be gross understatements. I was anxious to unwrap my gifts (which turned out to be toys I had been lusting for in the window of the toy store we passed on our daily walks), but at the same time frightened what may happen if St. Nicholas were to find out about a few of my indiscretions, such as the time I couldn’t resist swiping one of my grandmother’s fresh baked cookies prior to supper time.
My conscience bothered me enough that for the next several weeks I would wake up during the night crying, afraid of the punishment that awaited me when St. Nicholas found out I was less than completely truthful. This continued long enough for my parents to tell me that I need not be afraid, that St. Nicholas was just my grandfather dressed up to look like him, waiting patiently on the cold balcony to surprise me. However, I was so convinced that I had seen the real St. Nicholas that they finally had to have my grandfather come over, put on the big coat and fake long beard in front of me, and then take it off again, before I believed their words. Strangely, I didn’t think badly of them for deceiving me, feeling the love behind their actions, and appreciating their willingness to come clean when my fears kept me awake at night. I went so far as to play along with the charade in the years to come, and refused to out St. Nicholas to my other childhood friends who still believed in him.
There was (and perhaps still is) a German chocolate manufacturer with a product called Katzenzunge (Cat’s tongue) consisting of tiny milk chocolate bars in the shape of (you guessed it!) a cat’s tongue. A foreign visitor brought a box to my mom’s office, and she shared them with me. It immediately became my very favorite chocolate, far superior to the waxy imitations available at the time behind the Iron Curtain.
Twice a week my parents would frequent a local coffee house called the Club, where they would meet friends and acquaintances, sharing an hour together over an espresso. Being an only child, they always took me along. The place reeked of cigarette smoke (thankfully, my parents didn’t smoke, though my grandmother along with most people at the time did) and there were not a lot of other kids around for me to play with. The place had a set of steps leading up to a landing, and then a few more steps to the floor where the restrooms were located. The railing along the steps had a large chrome ball at the landing, where the stairs reached a 90 degree turn before getting to the top. The landing afforded a good vantage point over the whole café, and the reflection of the scene in the chrome ball, mixed with the smoke induced haze, gave the place a sense of mystery from which my fertile imagination could create fantasies about meeting with spies (of which, in retrospect, there may have been a few) or similar adventure scenarios. One of the occasional visitors at my parent’s table was a man involved in bringing difficult to obtain (and more difficult to afford) import items from the West. Somehow, during our conversations, my mother shared with him how much I loved Katzenzunge, to which he responded that obtaining this delicacy was no problem for a man with his connections, and he would bring me a box, free of charge. I couldn’t believe my luck! From then on, I needed no coaxing to join my parents at the Club. Every time I saw him there, I would remind him of his promise to me, and each time he would offer some excuse, varying between “I forgot to bring it,” to “The last shipment didn’t have it,” to “I’ll be sure to bring it next time.” I’m sure it didn’t take long for my parents to figure out that this man would never make good on his promise, but I was less easily dissuaded. Finally, they had to tell me to stop pestering him, for he would never bring the chocolates as promised. I couldn’t understand why anyone would lie to a six year old like this, and build up my hopes, especially as this was a gift I didn’t request, but which he offered on his own. They tried to explain to me that some people lie easily, often just to enhance their own image. It was one of the painful lessons in life I had to learn, though there would be many more to come.