Ice Breaker

Me, awkwardly posing among the rubble of the Parthenon while staying as far as possible from my traveling companion, c. 1999.

I’m working on my dreaded “get-to-know-you” video for my A-term course, and finally settled on my “one thing you probably didn’t know about me” thing:

When I was a much younger and more enchanting ingenue — la Belle, not la bête of my later years — and a young teacher in Budapest, I made the acquaintance of Hungarian choreographer Pál Frenák, who had just returned from exile in Paris (this was shortly after the Hungarian regime change, in the early ’90s).

Frenák was heading a very racy dance troupe (lots of beefy Roma hanging naked from the rafters and writhing on chains to house beats – type thing). I was tutoring one of his dancers by chance, and the choreographer had asked to meet me, ostensibly for lessons as well. 

But. He wanted to meet at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath in Buda to discuss the details. Big eye-roll.

I would normally have chosen the very severe and serviceable cafe at the old Goethe Institute for a first meeting (I had a lot of clients in the Diplomatic Corps), or, if I was dealing with an arty type, maybe the Muvesz Kavehaz, across the street (the Goethe had better coffee but the Muvesz had cakes to die for). Both were a stone’s throw from the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House.

But I was game for a little adventure. Little did I know, it would eventually take me to Greece with nothing but a speedo, an old Smena and a pocket full of cash from the Institut français de Budapest. If this all sounds very fin de siècle. It was.

Anyway, the idea was that I would wander the streets of Athens taking pictures, presumably of Frenák, while he took in inspiration for his next solo piece. We ended up on Mykonos (naturally), explored the Cyclades, and I had an unforgettable tryst with a Bulgarian waiter on a jetty that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it all these years later.

So far so good, right? Unfortunately, it turned out Frenák was the jealous type. Who knew? Of course, he had no claim to my affection, even (especially) if our association had begun in a bathhouse.

In the end I didn’t take any pictures worth showing (tbh it was just an excuse we’d worked up so I could go along), and when we got back I really wanted nothing to do with Frenák, but he wasn’t through with me. I mean, fair is fair: you have to pay for everything.

I avoided and rebuffed him at every turn, even refusing to accompany him on another junket, this time to Tunisia. One day I went to my office in Deák tér, not far from the Parliament and the Duna Korzo with all the international hotels, where the Romanian street trade sauntered to and fro in those days, scowling at tourists in that fiercely, alluringly, off-puttingly solicitous way rough trade does. 

Anyway, I was heading to the office, when the janitor, Kalman, came up to me red-faced and warned me that hanging posters in the stairwell was forbidden! He had torn down one which he assumed I had something to do with, since my name was on it. He handed it to me, and sure enough, it was a poster advertising Frenák’s latest solo work, which he had cleverly titled “MENnOnNO, and had likely hung in the hallway hoping I would see it and show up for it.

The infamous poster

I was horrified. I remembered him telling me in his weird Lawrence Olivier in “Marathon Man” accent at dinner one night in Mykonos after the waiter on the jetty incident, that he had watched me walking on the beach earlier in the day when I didn’t notice him on the terrace, and felt that he finally understood something about me. 

I thought, “oh my God, he’s going to make a dance piece about me bottoming a Bulgarian waiter.”

And maybe he did. In the end, I’m not sure what it was about, but it did include my blue speedo. (You can see a performance of it here, but be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted.)

So, yeah! That’s something you might not know about me! And you are?

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