After three flights in 30 hours, and a 2-hour drive at manic speed across the Austrian border, we have finally arrived home for Christmas. When I say home, I mean hubby’s family home in Eastern Europe. Although this is definitely not the first time I have spent Christmas with the in-laws, this place is a vast contrast to our home in Australia so I still need to switch on my adjust button whenever I come here.
On arrival, Mamka would laugh in genuine delight at the sight of her first born, one that she has not seen for far too long. Amongst the excitement, 87-year-old Babka would lift herself out of the chair, making sure no one notices her difficulty. The traditional three kisses on the cheeks are exchanged all round, and as usual, my cheeks are patted by weathered hands for good measure. A rowdy exchange occurs between the two brothers; they slap each other’s backs amongst verbal insults. M and I take off the layers of our winter gear, while his brother mumbles at the weight of our luggage as he drags them across the threshold.
M’s mother, grandmother (or Babka as she’s fondly known), and 34-year-old brother live in an apartment in the town centre. This is a 2-bedroom apartment that has not been touched since the 1960’s, the whole floor plan would fit easily into our lounge room. It would be unheard of for us to stay elsewhere when we visit, even though his brother has to move out of the second bedroom onto the lounge room sofa to accommodate us. The décor of the apartment has not changed since M’s parents have gotten married and moved in in the early 70’s. Old cupboards in orange pine lacquer line the walls, each with scratches and peeling edges. The shelves are bent in the middle under the weight of timeworn books, vintage ornaments and items of all sorts for the last 50 years. Childish stickers adorn the glass panels of these cupboards; old photos, trophies and toys line the benches, all live documentations of his childhood.
The apartment is in desperate need of renovation. The toilet flushes but does not rest evenly on the floor, thus it rocks if one sits down on it with full weight. The small balcony off the kitchen French doors shows cracks in its concrete floor, barely strong enough to hold any human weight but serves as a perfect spare fridge/freezer in the cold winter months when the outside temperature is barely above 5 degrees Celsius. The bathroom holds a bathtub that is as old as the apartment itself where one still has to shower the old fashion way – sitting, soaping one handed whilst wrestling a shower head with the other hand. The stove and oven is one that is only seen in a museum nowadays with iron holders and old racks. The sink is barely large enough to fit a soup pot; old plastic drying racks rests on top of a laminated bench. What dishwasher? I would have gladly purchased one for them, but not only is there no space for such a luxury, but they do not actually have the appropriate plumbing to fit one.
The ‘second’ bedroom really is the front sitting room and part of a passageway into the main bedroom (which is shared by mum and grandma), thus there is no privacy to speak of. Babka lies in her bed most of the day, watching soap operas with the volume dialled up, as she is not one to admit to the need for a hearing aid. Occasionally she ventures out of bed for the essentials, one of which includes a cigarette and a glass of beer every couple of hours. It is a regime which prevents pressure sores and satisfies her curiosity as to what everyone else was up to. She never goes outside the apartment anymore; the osteoarthritis in her knees prevents her from walking more than a few steps at a time. A cane sits stubbornly ignored by the door and whenever her knee is mentioned, she would hold onto the cupboard and do a little jig just to prove that it is all a figment of our imagination.
Everyone smokes continuously in this household, everyone, that is, except us. This is irony at its best considering M is a heart and lung surgeon. Cigarette smoke constantly permeates the whole apartment, which then infiltrates into everything in our luggage, a reminder of our visit when we move onto the next European destination. Opening windows to air the apartment is never an option, as the bitter cold of European winters, when permitted to slip inside, renders the heating systems ineffective.
It is not uncommon for us to escape the apartment with long walks, the biting wind and icy footpaths a better alternative to the indoor haze. Once rugged up, with gloves and a rubber soled boots over wool-covered feet, we would tackle the local hill up to the township castle, or trudge by the icy river at the base of the retaining walls. Two hours of fresh air not only flush out our smoke-ridden lungs, but also brings sanity back after being stuck in a small shared space. Hubby is often silent on these long trips, as he takes a rest from being bombarded, not only with the latest local gossip, but also with questions about the latest developments in his life from his mother and grandmother. This is also a time when he enjoys a reprieve from being the translator between the three women in his life. It is a concept that the older women do not seem to understand as they continually talk while he tries to translate to me, until he gives up – usually by the end of the first day of our visit, at which time they berate him for not involving me in their conversations.
Breakfast is not for the faint-hearted here. Mamka would get up around 7.30am. She sits down at the vinyl covered dining table, leisurely enjoys her first cigarette before her preparations. An hour later, we would wonder in, with hubby being in charge of the coffee and I, in charge of toasting sliced bread. Once everything is placed on the small dining table tucked in the corner of the closet kitchen, Babka shuffles in on her slippers and in her pyjama dress. The first meal of the day starts with a shot of Vodka or Cognac, of which she knocks down in one toss with a big satisfied sigh. A black coffee is then savoured with toast and homemade spread. The spread alternates between the fishy one (a blend of sardines, mackerel, mayonnaise, butter, and mustard), or the cheesy one (a beaten mix of blue cheese, beer, butter and seasoning). This is accompanied by freshly sliced brown onion, radish and strips of paprika. Often with a look of disdain from Babka, I stick to my jam or marmalade on toast. As I daintily chew through my breakfast and sip my coffee, I would recognise the word ‘princess’ in conjunction with my name as she comments on how I eat ‘like a sparrow’. Once breakfast has been consumed, a cigarette is then lit, accompanied by a shared bottle of beer. As an excuse to get away from the fumes, I would volunteer to do the dishes. In reality, it is not the meal which bothers me. No, it is the burp that comes out of hubby about two hours later when we are on our walk, when he decides to steal a kiss, at which time a rumble starts in his stomach and releases as one toxic explosion in my face. One might think I am swooning at his kiss, but I can assure you that it is no other than the stench which permeates my nose for the rest of the day.
Christmas here is celebrated on the 24th, at four o’clock in the afternoon, as the winter sun descends rapidly behind the hill, we head to the town cemetery, armed with bags of candles, matches and fresh greenery. The place is full of people and constant traffic passes by the gate. It is an exercise that may take time depending on how many friends and acquaintances Mamka runs into. At every visit, we hear the story of whom each graves belong to, and stories of the deceased. Candles are lit, the marble headstones are cleaned, and the greenery is laid on each family grave. She mumbles a prayer quietly and we move on. The walk home is usually filled with peace, places of interest are usually pointed out. This is where M went to high school; that way is where Mamka used to work, and this is the road that leads up to Babka’s old house.
Dinner is usually served around seven, in the small lounge room that barely fits a sofa, two lounge chairs and a rectangular glass coffee table. His brother is made to remove his pillows and blankets, and he is in charge on turning the lights on the Christmas tree. The smell of fresh pine leaves from the tree cuts through an odd mixture of stale cigarette smoke and evaporated oil of deep-fried carp in the lounge room. Family crystals, silverware and porcelain are laid out on Christmas-themed table clothe. A round of Vodka or Cognac is shared as a toast to health before the meal starts. Grace is spoken, with blessings bestowed on all at the table, where Mamka paints a cross is on everyone’s forehead with a honey-soaked garlic clove. This is rather troublesome for one who sports a fringe such as myself – for the rest of the evening, I have to try and ignore the discomfort of having my dark locks plastered to my forehead, not to mention the slow descent of excess honey into my eye lashes and my nasal tip as we work through the courses.
Entrée consists of poppy seed pudding with poppy seed coated prunes. Once we are floating on poppy-induced Christmas cheer, the fish is served with a potato salad. Beer is consumed like water, and one is never allowed to rest on an empty glass. As we munch through our meals (eating carp is never a graceful affair), we again listen to both older women tell the story of how each dish came to be part of the Christmas tradition. It was an eclectic mix of the two families. Your father’s family didn’t like fish, so they always had cabbage soup. We never had the prunes coated in poppy seeds, that’s something your father’s mother brought into the house.
An apple is cut by grandma after the mains, and if a star is found when sliced in half, it bodes good luck and prosperity for the new year. It therefore doesn’t take a genius to figure that the apple need to be cut perpendicular to its core, although it can be nail-biting in case worms are found in a rotten fruit, disrupting a perfect star-shaped core. Dessert is a self-serve affair, consisting of chocolates hanging from the Christmas tree. Sometimes this could be a little sparse when the sweets mysteriously vanish from the branches during the days before Christmas Eve. Mamka however always have a spare stash for such an emergency, of which she hides in the TV cabinet next to a large collection of DVD’s until required.
Presents are given and opened before the stroke of midnight. Each person is given the attention and time to open their presents and thank the giver. By now if the poppy-seed doesn’t make one happy, the beer would make one exuberant about any present, no matter what it may be. Without doubt, Babka would run a dry commentary on each present revealed whilst happily nursing her umpteenth glass of beer in the large lounge chair.
This is Christmas. A tradition that my husband has shared with his family since he was born. A tradition that makes me grateful to be a part of when I am here, as a member of this small loving family.
Vesele Vianoce to you all.