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Prague


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First Impressions

The deceptively simple rules of the game sincerity, as played late one Friday afternoon in May 1990 on the terrace of the Café Gerbeaud in Budapest, Hungary:

1. Players (in this case, five) arrange themselves around a small cafe table and impatiently await their order, haphazardly recorded by a sulky and distracted waitress with amusing boots: dollhouse cups of espresso, dense blocks of cake glazed with Art Nouveau swirls of translucent caramel, skimpy sandwiches dusted red-orange with the national spice, glass thimbles of sweet or bitter or smoky liqueurs, tumblers of bubbling water ostensibly hunted and captured from virgin springs high in the Carpathian Mountains.

2. Proceeding circularly, players make apparently sincere statements, one statement per turn. Verifiable statements of fact are inadmissible. Play proceeds accordingly for four rounds. In this case, the game would therefore consist of twenty apparently sincere statements. Interrupting competition with discursive or disruptive conversation, or auxiliary lies, is permitted and praiseworthy.

3. Of the four statements a player makes during the course of the game, only one is permitted to be "true" or "sincere." The other three are "lies." Players closely guard the identity of their true statements, the ability to simulate embarrassment, confusion, anger, shock, or pain being highly prized.

4. Players attempt to identify which of their opponents' statements were true. Player A guesses which statements of players B, C, D, and E were true. Player B then does the same for players A, C, D, and E, et cetera. A scoring grid is made on a crumb-dusted cocktail napkin with a monogrammed (cmg) fountain pen.

5. Players reveal their sincere statements. A player receives one point for each of his or her lies accepted by an opponent as true and one point for each identification of an opponent's true statement. In today's game of five people, a perfect score would be eight: four for leading each poor sap by the nose and four more for seeing through their feeble, transparent efforts at deception.


II.

SINCERITY—A STAPLE AMONG CERTAIN CIRCLES OF YOUNG FOREIGNERS living in Budapest immediately following 1989-90's hissing, flapping deflation of Communism—is coincidentally the much-admired invention of one of the five players in this very match, this very afternoon in May. Charles Gábor, when with people his own age, seems always to be the host, and at this small café table on this sunny patio he reigns confidently and serenely. He resembles an Art Deco picture of a 1920s dandy: long fingers, measured movements, smooth and gleaming panels of black hair, an audaciously collegiate tie, crisp pleated slacks of a favorite cotton twill, a humorously pointed nose, a sly half-smile, one eyebrow engineered for expressivity. Under the green and interlacing trees surrounding the terrace and nodding over the heads of tourists, resident foreigners, and the occasional Hungarian, Charles Gábor sits with four other Westerners, an unlikely group pieced together these past few weeks from parties and family references, friend-of-friend-of-friend happenstance, and (in one case, just now being introduced) sheer, scarcely tolerable intrusiveness-five people who, in normal life back home, would have been satisfied never to have known one another.

Five young expatriates hunch around an undersized café table: a moment of total insignificance, and not without a powerful whiff of cliché.

Unless you were one of them. Then this meaningless, overdrawn moment may (then or later) seem to be somehow the summation of both an era and your own youth, your undeniably defining afternoon (though you can hardly say that aloud without making a joke of it). Somehow this one game of Sincerity becomes the distilled recollection of a much longer series of events. It persistently rises to the surface of your memory-that afternoon when you fell in love with a person or a place or a mood, when you savored the power of fooling everyone, when you discovered some great truth about the world, when (like a baby duck glimpsing your quacking mother's waddling rear for the first time) an indelible brand was seared into your heart, which is, of course, a finite space with limited room for searing.

Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two, this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a café patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone's receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.

To Charles Gábor's right sits Mark Payton, who will eventually think of this very moment as one of the glowing, unequaled triumphs of his life. Retrospection will polish from this ambiguous, complicated afternoon all its rough edges, until Mark will be able to see nearly to its crystalline center, to its discernible seedpod of future events, to the (extremely unlikely) refraction of himself as a young and happy man, sniffing love and welcome in the spring air.

He sits at peace, a state he is lately finding harder and harder to achieve. When these five met at the Gerbeaud this afternoon, before Charles pulled out Emily Oliver's chair for her, Mark was already discreetly securing the seat he wanted, as he always does at the half-dozen places he's come to love in his two months in Budapest. He knows that his view, and with it his afternoon, perhaps even several days, would have been damaged if his secret wishes had been thwarted by a misseating of even forty-five degrees.

Safely placed, he can turn his head to the left and see the Café Gerbeaud itself, into its antique interior, into the very past: pastry cases, walls of mirrors and dark wood panels, red velvet seat cushions on gold-painted chairs. In daylight, the cushions are threadbare and the paint flakes, but Mark Payton doesn't mind. A reupholsterer would steal a certain something in exchange for his handiwork. Atmospheric decay and faded glory reassure Mark, prove something. Much of Budapest-unpainted, uncleaned, unrepaired during forty-five years of Communist rule immediately following a brutal war-provides similar pleasures. For now.

Straight ahead and past his friends, Mark's New World eye is treated to the grand, intentionally overwhelming European architecture of the nineteenth century (though it has long since lost the ability to overwhelm its native audience). For years Mark has longed to stare at such architecture, to inhale it, ingest it somehow. Unfortunately, he cannot forget that down Harmincad utca to the left, a Kempinski Hotel is slated to inflict its glass-and-steel corporate modernity on the odd, neglected asymmetry of neighboring Deák Square. But at least he can't see the site's unspeakable stretch marks and scars from where he sits.

Just to the right of tiny (hardly mappable) Harmincad utca stands an office building in his beloved typical-nineteenth-century Haussmann style, the sort of giant mansard-roofed beauty sprinkled all over Pest and Paris, Madrid and Milan. That its ground-floor, window-front space is occupied by the dusty and only sporadically open sales office of a second-string airline does not offend Mark's aesthetics, because the decor of the office, plainly visible from his seat, is so absurdly 1960s East Bloc, so unintentionally and yet bittersweetly hilarious, that it evokes a golden age all its own: a sun-faded epoch of boxy-suited apparatchiks and black-and-white Ivy League diplomats in round metal glasses, of stewardesses in pillbox hats, of Bulgarian assassins and Oxbridge traitors, of this amusingly foreign and irrelevant airline acquiring such prime real estate due to ideological compatibility rather than free-market wherewithal.

That office building defines most of the east side, and the Gerbeaud the entirety of the north side, of Vörösmarty Square, the touristic (if not geographic) center of Budapest: artists and easels scattered around the towering bronze perch of Vörösmarty, a poet Mark intends to research eventually, if he can find translations. And the plaza's southern side: nineteenth-century buildings parting to reveal Váci utca, a pedestrian shopping street, curving away and out of sight. From its mouth echoes the anachoristic sound of an Andean band, piping and thumping love songs of the Bolivian highlands. The musicians serve a welcome purpose for Mark: The throbbing serape-clad romantics screen the unsightly view of a blocks-long line of Hungarians, some in finery for the occasion, eager to sample Hungary's first McDonald's.

Of course, the rest of the group has not been spared the square's west side, from which Mark has protected himself. But even with his back to it, he can sense the building jeering at him, the concrete slabs and offensive edges of its 1970s façade (too old to be new, too young to claim the aesthetic privileges of antiquity) painfully visible from the Gerbeaud unless one is farsighted enough to claim the westernmost seat under the gentle green branches, next to the graceful ironwork, with the view into the café's dark interior, into the sparkling past.

Fast losing his red hair and fast gaining weight, his pouched and sagging face always looking vaguely exhausted even when his conversation motors hyperactively on matters of history and culture, Mark Payton comes from Canada, where (barring some quasi-French enclaves) it doesn't look like this. He has just emerged from nearly twenty-two years of education. Having acquired his Ph.D. in cultural studies a few months ago, he is now three weeks into a projected eleven-month European trip, researching the book that he intends to be a popularized expansion of his doctoral thesis: a history of nostalgia.

Next to him sits Emily Oliver, a Nebraskan, though she passed her first, mostly forgotten, five years in Washington, D.C. She too has recently arrived, landing in March to serve as the new special assistant to the United States ambassador, a post she secured on her own merits but also with the assistance of peculiar family connections. Answering the noticeably keen inquiries of the newest arrival at the table, she has just described her job as "neat" but also "a little, you know, menial, not that I'd ever complain," complaining being a crime her widowed father punished with tickling (until Emily was seven), pithy aphorism (seven through twelve), and thereafter with stark descriptions of real suffering he had witnessed-in Vietnam or in a local thresher accident or in her mother's last weeks. End of complaints.

Emily looks very American; even Americans say so. ("She smells like corn on the cob," Charles Gábor will say, shuddering, when discreetly asked later this evening about her availability.) She wears her light brown hair pulled into a ponytail, entirely revealing what Nebraska society politely termed a square jaw but which in fact is much closer to a broad isosceles triangle hanging parallel to the ground, suspended from her ears. Imposing as it is, she has always laughingly resisted the well-meaning roommates and hairstylists who devise methods to "soften" her features or "accentuate her eyes."

She embodies and publicly extols straightforwardness, a quality her history-battered Hungarian acquaintances find simultaneously charming and a little inexplicable, a flat-earth approach to the world. Embassy elders and their wives cite her listening skills, her aura of certainty and solidity, her similarity to their younger selves, and she cannot argue with any of that, though she wouldn't mind hearing the last comparison a bit less often. Roommates invariably declare her to be just the sweetest, most trustable woman in the world, not the boring girl you'd expect when you first meet her.

Here at the Gerbeaud this afternoon, as on most days, she wears khakis, white oxford shirt, blue blazer, standard dress for young nondiplomatic employees of the U.S. embassy, but also the unmistakable tribal costume of the world's interns and first-year assistants. Emily appears to be one of those, too, despite her up-beatitude, one of those about to face the disillusionment of boring jobs with glamorous titles, soon to retreat into the warm embrace of another, more marketable degree and a little more time to think.

To her right sits a young man who recently asserted quarter seriously that he will return to school only "when they institute a master's degree in living for the moment." Scott Price's declaration testifies to a diet of self-help books, brief and impassioned love affairs with Eastern philosophies, and a cyclical practice of wading in and out of various regimes of psychotherapy, accredited and otherwise. Scott's repeated requests, however, each sharper than the last, that Charles ask the elusive waitress whether the Carpathian mineral water contains any sodium, and his evident frustration at Charles's unwillingness to comply or even take the question seriously, belie Scott's recent public claim to "have achieved a new, better relationship with anger."

Seven months ago Scott swayed very close to a heaving stage-front amplifier in a Seattle nightclub, and he bathed in a long-overdue and honey-sweet epiphany. "Look at Me, I'm Above It All"-an early hit during Seattle's dominance of American pop-roared over and through him, and though he knew the song's title was meant ironically, he chose not to take it that way; from that moment, he would be above strife, out of reach of another recently fumbled relationship, yet another unhappy work situation, and, most of all, his family's long-distance constrictions and chills and cruelties. He knew he would not return the next day to the small athletic woman who had been guiding his failed six-week effort to tweeze out and incinerate any repressed memories of his parents doing something even more sinister than what he could naturally recall. He stood between the amp and the crowd, and the sound peeled from him years of resentment, which he knew he would never need again.

He left the U.S. a week later, not informing his family in Los Angeles, punctuating nearly two years during which contact with his parents and his brother was already infrequent. He surfaced, breathing easily, in Budapest. There he put his college degree to use as Assistant Head of Programs at the Institute for the Study of Foreign Tongues, a privately held chain of schools-first Prague, then Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, plans afoot for Bucharest, Moscow, Tirana-hawking that most valuable commodity: English.

It is not only at that school or at this table that Scott's ash-blond hair, nearly Scandinavian features, svelte muscularity (tank top), and patently Californian health stand out. In any corner of Budapest he looks positively exotic, an obvious foreigner even before he confidently mispronounces one of his few words of Hungarian, or, in slow, pedagogic English, pesters underpaid waiters in state-owned restaurants that haven't changed their pork-predominant menu offerings since the birth of Stalin to make him something vegetarian. Not so different after all, Scott has joked, from his L.A. childhood spent among three foreigners claiming to be his parents and younger brother. (Though Scott neglects to mention that he was then the tremendously-cartoonishly-obese blond Jew in a family of more traditional models: short, slim, curly-haired, olive-skinned.)

After four months in Hungary, Scott blundered into his predictable but somehow always surprising moment of sentimental weakness. Late one night, bothered that his mother might suffer even more regret than he would wish for her, he sent to California a postcard with a picture of Castle Hill in Buda and the text Am here for a while teaching. Hope you are all okay. S. He regretted it as soon as the card schussed into the little red mailbox, but he consoled himself that he had given no address, and surely even they would be able to read between the lines. His carefully constructed world was still safe.

Except that two months later, to Scott's right sits today's fifth competitor, his newly arrived and disproportionately loathed younger brother, John.

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Excerpted from Prague by Arthur Phillips. Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.