Aleko Konstantinov

Our train steamed in under the vast vault of Pesht Railway Station. Uncle Ganyo and I entered the buffet. Knowing that we’d be stopped here for a whole hour, I felt no concerns in settling myself at a table and ordering breakfast and beer.  All around me – a heaving crowd!  But not a bad crowd. You know Hungarians aren’t closest to my heart, but look, I don’t have anything against them. Distracted by the noise I didn’t notice when Uncle Ganyo vanished from the restaurant with all his bags . Where was Uncle Ganyo? Just an empty plate. I looked around, stared into every corner of the restaurant – no sign of him. I went outside – onto the platform – E-ey! Here Uncle Ganyo? there Uncle Ganyo? – not a trace anywhere! Extraordinary! I just assumed he’d gone to the carriage to make sure no-one had made off with his rug.

I went back to the restaurant. There was still more than half an hour  to the train’s departure. I drank my beer and looked about me. Every five minutes the porter rang the bell and called out train destinations in a measured lazy voice:  “He-gesh-fe-ke-te-he-gi, Kish-ke-resh, Sze-ge-dii, Wi-ve – dek. Some English passengers stared at him open mouthed, but he just grinned from ear to ear,  evidently used to the attention his extraordinary diction provoked, and continued in an even louder huskier voice: “Wi-ve-dek, Kish-ke-resh, He-gesh-fe-ke-te-he-gi…”with a sharp stress on every syllable.

There were just ten minutes to the train’s departure. I paid my bill,  I even paid for Uncle Ganyo’s beer and I walked out on to the platform with the intention of  finding him. At that moment a train slowly entered the vaulted station and can you imagine, in one of the carriages of this train, hanging half way out of a window, Uncle Ganyo’s shiny face. He saw me, began to wave his fur hat at me and from far away shouted something that I couldn’t hear because of the hissing steam engine. I understood what had happened. As soon as the train stopped, he jumped to the ground, rushed up to me and told me his story mixed with a great many energetic  swearwords that with your permission, I won’t repeat:

“Dear me, mate, that chase nearly killed me…”

“What chase, Uncle Ganyo?”

“Come on, what chase! Didn’t you see me in the buffet?”

“Well?” I answered.

“Well? Just at that moment, don’t you know, that bloke by the door rings his bell, then I hear the engine whistle, I go out – I couldn’t call you – I look, our train is drawing out. Flip! My carpet! So I jumped up after it, and how I ran and sprinted. Dear me! At last at some point I see it’s stopped and me – hop – I’m up aboard.  Some guy shouted something at me – some startled mumbo-jumbo – you know I don’t mess about, I glared at this guy facing me, showed him the carpet, and as it turned out he was a reasonable chap.  He even had a laugh. How was anyone to know we’d be coming back… Typical Hungary!

Sinner that I am,  I laughed my socks off at Uncle Ganyo’s plight. Poor guy!  The train had been shifted so it could come in on another line and Uncle Ganyo had chased it three kilometers – just for his rug left on board.

“Well, you were in such a rush, you forgot to pay for your beer, Uncle Ganyo.”

“Big deal!  As if they don’t rip us off,” Uncle Ganyo replied in truculent mode.

“I paid for it.”

“Well you’re made of money – you paid for it indeed!  Just climb on board!  Get a move on so we don’t have to dash after the engine,” said Uncle Ganyo in head-teacher tone.

We got into the carriage.  Uncle Ganyo crouched down over his bags with his back to me, took out half a round of cheese , cut off a thin slice tore a large hunk of bread, and began to loudly chomp away with gusto, puffing out first one cheek then the other and from time to time stretching his neck so he could swallow the dry bread.

Uncle Ganyo ate up, belched a couple of times, picked out the crumbs from his lap, swallowed them too, muttered under his breath – “Eh, if only there was someone to treat me with a little wine”, sat opposite me, smiled good-heartedly and after he’d held me a whole minute in his kind regard, he spoke:

“Has your Honour traveled much around in this larger world?”

“I’ve travelled, Uncle Ganyo, quite a lot.”

“Huh, well I mean, me, what a lot of the world I’ve trudged through!  Tut, tut, tut! Forget Edirne, Constantinople, but Walachia! Can you believe it? This Giorgiu, Turnu Magureli, Ploesht, Piteshti, Brailya, Bucharest Galatz – hang on so I don’t get muddled, Galatz I can’t remember – was I there’ was I not? – I’ve counted the lot.

Our journey to Vienna passed in monotony. I offered Uncle Ganyo  one of my books to help pass the time but he politely declined, because he’d read quite enough in his life and felt that taking forty winks would be a much more practical use of his time. Why should he stay awake? So much money for his ticket – at least he could have a sleep. And he slept.  And slept and snored loud enough to rival the roar of an Atlas lion.

We arrived in Vienna and reached the traditional Hotel London. Porters took my case from the car and wanted to take Uncle Ganyo’s  bags but whether out of delicacy or not, he didn’t  surrender them.

How are you going to hand them over, mate?  This is rose oil. No joke;  strong smell – they’ll rummage till they get their fingers on a bottle –then you  try and get it back! Don’t I just know them? Don’t be fooled by how they’re so greasy (Uncle Ganyo wanted to say helpful but this word is new to our dictionary and so is easily forgotten) , don’t be fooled by  how they wind themselves round you.  Why the bustle? You don’t think it’s for your benefit?  Eintz Zvei !  Gut Morgin , they’re just looking to nick something. And if not, then they want a fat tip! Why do I always make sure when I leave the hotel to sneak off unnoticed.  Beggars! A Kreutzer for this guy, a Kreutzer for that guy – there’s no escape!

As the rose oil that Uncle Ganyo was carrying was indeed quite a valuable commodity, I recommended him to leave it with the Hotel Security.

“Hotel Security?” he cried in a tone reflecting sorrow at my naivety.  “You’re incredible you intellectuals! I mean how do you know what kind of people they are? They take your rose oil, squirrel it away somewhere…and then? What do you do? Forget it!  Do you see this belt? “ And Uncle Ganyo pulled up his thick cardigan – “I’m pushing all my samples under this. I admit they weigh a bit, but they’re safe.”

And Uncle Ganyo turned his back on me as if to say “ In this big world, with all kinds of people in it, who’s to say what kind of fellow this lad is” and he began to stuff his sample vials under his belt.   I suggested we had lunch

“Where’ll we eat?”

“Downstairs in the restaurant.”

Thanks, but I’m not hungry. Your lordship can go and eat. I’ll wait for you here.”

I’m sure that the moment I left the room Uncle Ganyo opened up his food tin. If a man has a ready snack, why should he spend money on a hot meal – not going to starve – eh!

I took Uncle Ganyo to the office of a Bulgarian trader and left him there, while I caught a tram on my own and went to Schonbrunn.  I got out at the arch, viewed Vienna and its surroundings, wandered the paths through the zoo, stared a whole hour at the monkeys and returned to the hotel just as dusk was falling. Uncle Ganyo was in the room.  He wanted to hide what he was up to but he didn’t succeed and I noticed that he was sewing a new pocket into the inside lining of his jacket.  As a man of experience he wore his Bulgarian jacket under his French clothes even in summer. Old folk say “Have Plenty of  bread with you in the winter; Plenty of clothes in the summer” and this was Uncle Ganyo’s practice.

“I sat down to a bit of sewing,” he said

“You’re sewing up some kind of pocket, you must have made a killing with your rose oil,” I teased him.

“Who me? Are you kidding! Why do I need a pocket here?  Lo-ots of pockets, if only I had the money to fill them.  No pocket, no nothing, just decided to spruce up my clothes a bit, fix up a bit of cloth… You, where have you been?  Out for a walk? Well done.

“You haven’t been out, Uncle Ganyo, to take a stroll, to see Vienna?”

“What’s there to look at in Vienna, city like any city: people, houses, flim-flam. And wherever you go it’s always Gut morgin and give us some money. Why should we give money to Germans – as if there aren’t enough folk to gobble it up back home.”