Budapest buffet

For the next six days, I shall take the stage – with my Parkinson’s – at Hotel Ibis in Budapest. My performance is played out in the grand dining hall during the daily breakfast buffet, immediately after the tourist buses have picked up the larger groups at around eight o’clock – leaving me with a handy audience, the smaller the better.

Breakfast buffet is a complicated ritual also in Hungary. What it takes – apart from steady hands – is a sense of order, even a sense of colour and form; an ability to match portions with hunger; prepared to improvise; with a minimum of technical understanding. Personally, all I want from breakfast is to get through it quickly and quietly, like a man of the world would do. Turning it into a performance wasn’t my idea, but Parkinson’s.

“Room 905!” Its premiere day and I report at the entrance to a young lady wearing a yellow T-shirt. The dining room, still well-filled, is neither remarkable for its decoration nor for its coziness. There are at least a hundred tables, the smallest seating four people. The breakfast buffet – sufficient to keep you going for the rest of the day – has been practically arranged on top of a cylindrical structure. In harder days, this hotel was named Volga. The lady in yellow ticks me off, which means show time!

Shaking inside, with rigid limbs and a back bent to the point of falling, I step forward, mixing with other new-arrivals. Attention is not long in coming, and it spreads like a wave as people raise their necks and direct their eyes in my direction, multiplying my symptoms till I shake all over. It’s a greedy attention, eager to see whether I will tip over and land among cheese and sliced meat. That risk does exist, simply because the upper part of my body follows the movements of my arms, a strategy that makes my hands focus better.

Keen observers judge me to be right-handed, which I have apparently forgotten as the left hand is the more active. Should someone expect to see me drool, those expectations will not be fulfilled; I check the corners of my mouth incessantly, simultaneously repeating a mantra inside, “Bread, butter, cheese!” In other words, the basics. Tray, knife and napkins are already in place, while a bread knife reluctantly divides my soft roll into two unequal parts without cutting my fingers. I’m making progress now, confident that I shall get value for my 9 euros.

Hard butter in silver paper is given up in favour of soft margarine in tiny plastic cups with a smoothly removable lid. At the cheese section, things go wrong – the slices of cheese stick to the metal plate they are served on. Again and again, I try to squeeze the appropriate tool beneath the edge of the cheese, helping with my awkward fingers. The plate soon looks like a disaster of ripped-up cheese. I hurry away, just to be surprised by another plate of cheese; here I succeed in liberating four slices.

With a feeling of being watched from top to toe, I approach the coffee automate, all the while spying on the others so that I can copy their deftness – and consequently, when it’s my turn, I will know exactly which buttons to press to make myself a good cup of tea. I have of course a table in sight, one of the nearest. My full tray seems to cause excitement; as if people anticipate that I will drop it or tilt its contents onto the floor. However, my tray takes off, proceeds toward the table at a foot dragging pace and without tilting alarmingly. I just sit there – exhausted – with my arms stretched out on the table.

Others march past with fresh fruit and fruit salad, tomato and cucumber, boiled and scrambled eggs, even steaks and portions of fish. Tomorrow I must broaden my own selection. “Eat!” commands the audience – they want the show to go on. As good as my motor functions allow me; I relocate the margarine from its plastic container to the bread, and then fold the cheese on top of it. The interest of the audience is annoying to me without being hostile. But, when feeling drained and paranoid, I can put harsh comments in their mouths: “He’s just drunk!” – “He pretends to be ill!” – “Walks like a monkey!” – “Sour as vinegar!”

Hey! In the very minute I had gone to get myself more hot water, some conscientious employee has emptied and cleaned my table. I am truly surprised that no-one sitting around me didn’t call out. I begin to contemplate some potential reasons for their attention – sheer curiosity, fascination about the illness, or pleasure in seeing others make a fool of themselves in situations normally handled automatically. I catch myself criticising my own audience. As an alternative, I could start a dialogue with them, but then I risk hearing those judgmental words: “People with Parkinson’s should stay home!”

Terje Raa (Denmark) 20 October 2008