Love and Death at Christmas
Snowed-over, the road disappeared before me. The GPS declared that the region I was entering did not exist. What if I’d blundered into Poland? I was running late, and the last village the satellite recognised lay twenty kilometres back and was called after a certain deciduous tree. It was one of the Slovak words that I’d mastered, because for some incomprehensible reason my learner‘s textbook had it in almost every lesson.
What was I looking for in the north of Orava? There had to be something basically defective in my life if I was preparing to spend Christmas at a place that wasn’t on the map. In the festive season you’re supposed to relax, but I was in such stress that my heart was thumping and sweat was steaming on my forehead. I’d already been travelling for six hours, having despaired of finding any other transport in a country that plainly had more cars than people. What if the engine happened to break down now? I grabbed the steering wheel more tightly, so that my hands wouldn’t shake.
All I’d experienced during ten months in the country passed through my head in a flash. I had come to teach French literature at a university which by no means deserved that exalted name. In this eccentric land universities sprang up where there weren’t even secondary schools.
The students read nothing and downloaded the contents of books from the web. Most of them thought Madame Bovary was an American film, Sartre a brand of rank cheese, and Deleuze some crooner on TV. They “wrote” their seminar works by the copy & paste method, from pages full of wretched secondary students’ essays. But how could I reproach my students for their duplications when the institution’s only qualified “dozent” had coolly copied his entire thesis from Czech? This was a place where scholarly research was equated almost with a Xerox service.
Just before the exams started the department heads informed me that I must not fail anyone, because this would mean grant money lost. The professional guarantor of the French department was a lady professor who spoke a kind of French that I couldn’t make head or tail of. At the beginning of the semester the young pro-rector set a task for the fourth years to research political motifs in Balzac; a few months later he collected their findings; and a year after that his new book on this theme was published.
Sophisticated methods were used only for the illegal collection of school moneys. I too forced upon my students dubious donor contracts, cheques for garage PLCs and invoices to the accounts of fictitious NGOs. The regular employees never saw a cent of the money acquired, while the bosses enjoyed not a few Pacific holidays. An even better source of income for the bosses was the awarding of honorary degrees to politicians, whom I never got to know except at these investitures.
It was enough for me to see the building at a distance, and I’d feel a frightful emptiness. As Christmas approached, the situation got worse. They stuffed so much brushwood into my staffroom that I didn’t even have a place to sit. Had the teachers brought the same verve to scholarship as they did to tinsel decorations and carol-singing, I’d long ago have been teaching at Slovakia’s École normale supérieure.
The breaking-point came on the day when my superiors informed me that to increase the volume of work published abroad they were founding a publishing house in the Ukraine and would issue their own “scholarly” books there. At a meeting of their so-called academic council I announced I was leaving in protest. In my own mind, however, I was not so sure, because that would mean losing the Paris grant, and above all – where would I go back to? My home in La Défense hadn’t been my home since the summer, just as my wife Denise hadn’t been my wife. But despite that, what I wanted was to return immediately.
But then I met her. Stasia wasn’t my student, she was in the lower year. I had never in my life seen such a beautiful young woman, actually still a girl. She had deep blue eyes, almost translucent skin, broad lips, pointed chin, and blond hair. Her receding cheekbones perfectly matched my idea of Slavic beauty. During consultation hours she came to ask if she could visit my optional seminar on contemporary French poetry and prose. (She didn’t realise that they’d cancelled it because no one had signed on...) She wanted to know if I’d discussed Érik Orsenna yet and asked me to recommend her titles from Duras. I didn’t believe my own ears.
We started talking and we couldn’t stop. Stasia loved to read Camus in the original, and not only Albert but also my own favourite Renaud, author of the scandalous French Expedition. She spoke practically without an accent, having spent one secondary year in Marseille. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her. A torrent of thoughts and plans flooded upon me. I’d have liked to invite her to a cafe, but in that high-rise dump there was no such thing, just numberless pubs. Besides, there was a clause in my contract that strictly forbade me to start affairs with my students. Anything like that carried the risk of dismissal.
It occurred to me that together we might bring some life into this sink-hole. She accepted my plan, gave some good tips, and did most of the work. In June we organised a lecture by the young Bratislava film-maker Ernest Polto, and in November we had a guest appearance of the Astorka theatre group with their much-discussed play Elizabeth the Second. During the performance I learned the word “nenávidím”, I hate, which Bernhardt’s Austrian hero had repeated a good thousand times during the two-hour performance. But there was something else that was much more important. That night after the play Stasia gave me a French kiss the like of which I had never experienced in France.
When she invited me to spend Christmas with her parents in their little village in Orava, I didn’t reveal my joy, so as not to scare her away. Online I bought her the new Houllebecq and a fine edition of the Mandarins and, just to keep in step with the times, an electronic reader.
At last I made out the two-word name of the village on a roadsign. I braked, and the tyres skidded on the uncleared road. Following my instructions, I stopped at the end of the village. I didn’t see much, because the lamps gave light sparingly, but it looked a bit like an open-air museum. I advanced into the perfect silence of the night. In front of her house I could see Stasia, and everything else ceased to matter.
I took my baggage out of the boot, we embraced briefly, and I went into the wooden building. Though dead-tired, I managed the introduction to parents – a ritual with new girlfriends that had always terrified me – more easily than usual. The stocky father was heating caramel oil, alcohol and ham strips on the range, evidently a popular winter mixture for lubricating agricultural machines. But no, he poured tots of the yellowish liquid into little glasses and offered me one. I had a sniff of the scalding glass. Hriatô, Central Europe’s illicit answer to absinthe. It shook me, and I felt a mild nausea. So as not to insult the hospitable gentleman, I tossed it down. After the second glass my pupils expanded; after a third I was hallucinating.
I made the acquaintance of ten of Stasia’s relatives and carefully learned their names. Though the night was well advanced, Mama offered me thick lentil soup with a wooden spoon. All the time I was hoping they’d allot me to Stasia’s bed, but they fixed me a nook in a corner of the elongated house. Though disappointed with the solitude, I slept like a trooper.
I was woken very early by knocking. I was glad that Stasia had come, but first her father burst in and only then – clad in costume! – his daughter. She patiently translated everything for me and interpreted my answers. On the day of Christ’s Nativity, if the first person who came with greetings was a woman, that would bring bad luck. A man must be first to come in to the guest. At that moment I couldn’t have imagined any custom more stupid.
Still in pyjamas, I received a glass of home-made cherry brandy, and immediately one more for the other wing. I would say that the French are a nation of alcoholics, but what could you call this? Immediately I put on my shoes, because on that day, from respect, one must not step barefoot on the ground. I did not have much breakfast, as they directed me to fast, but alcohol was not counted, so they kept on pouring me refills.
Spirits had no effect on the father. Under every tablecloth in the house he put money, so that poverty wouldn’t get a grip on the family during the coming year. That seemed a good idea, so I imitated him, but alas, only with credit cards, because I had not brought cash of any kind, as if purposely. There would be no change in my teacherly poverty.
At ten there was a trip to the graves of dead ancestors. The little wooden graveyard on a steep rise was strewn with wreaths and dried flowers. We lit candles and deposited them in red lanterns. Honey wine was drunk and some of it poured on the graves, so that the dead would not be thirsty. I gaped at this pagan Slavic ritual which would have delighted Claude Lévi-Strauss, but Stasia told me that the family was Catholic.
Afterwards the father cut a sheep’s throat in the courftyard and let the blood drip, so that the earth would awaken and bear good fruit. He sprinkled a pinch of salt in a well, apparently so that the water would remain wholesome.
Stasia brought a round cake, resembling the sun in shape and meant to ensure that as soon as possible after the winter solstice it would re-emerge to warm the world. The cake, as large as a tyre, full of raisins, honey, curds and poppyseed, tasted better than the Bûche de Noël.
Reinforced, I took a walk in the surroundings. Maybe I’d sober up in the freezing air. Behind the house there was a small holding with a flock of sheep, two cows, pigs, hens and rabbits. This economic zone, with an acidic smell hovering over it, was guarded by a sheepdog. I plunged into snowdrifts, heard the noise of trees in the wind, and felt as if I was in a novel by Charles F. Ramuz.
I found my girlfriend by the stove. She was creating figures of domestic animals from gingerbread dough and baking them. I bit off the frail leg of a readymade sheep, and for the first time Stasia yelled at me. That excellent pastry absolutely mustn’t be eaten, so that the shapes would not be destroyed!
Christmas Eve began at three, when most of us in Paris are having lunch. Already my stomach was rumbling, but there was no sign of food. The father put piles of straw on the floor, so that there would always be enough grain for bread. Every member of the family picked one stalk without looking and showed it to the others. I extracted the shortest one, which meant I was going to die within the year. The relatives vocally pitied me and shook their heads in sorrow.
Afterwards an apple was symbolically sectioned. I’d guessed what that was all about, so I took the nicest-looking one from the dish. The father sliced it through with his knife. Under the flawless peel the rotten pulp had miniature corridors tunnelled through it to the core, where two little worms were sadistically laughing in my face. Infallibly I would soon get some awful disease, the company present declared.
I wanted to lighten the mood a little, so I got up to propose a toast. They screamed at me in chorus and cursed me with their looks. During Christmas Eve the woman of the house alone does the serving at table, everyone else stays sitting and no one must rise before the concluding prayer, because it would mean his death. I was at a loss for words. The father threw hazelnut shells into the four corners of the dwelling, to please the dead who live there. Wonder-struck, I peeped into those dark corners where the shadows were bobbing.
My eyes fell on an empty dish and plate: they had laid a place also for a deceased aunt, in case her spirit should decide to return. My conviction that French culture was the most morbid in the world had deep cracks in it by now.
I tasted a home-made wafer with honey, hazelnut, garlic and black pepper. Mama related a story about the birth of the Saviour and crossroads. Stasia made a honey cross on my forehead with her finger and then licked it off. She told me to do the same. I didn’t need repeated urging. But I might have done it too passionately, because her father grabbed an axe. I was afraid he was going kill me, but he hacked it into the wooden leg of the table, so that the metal might fortify our good health. Afterwards he put a spade also under the table-leg. He tied a coarse chain around the table, so that the family would meet again in a year’s time. The first good portent.
Finally we were allowed to get down to the food. To begin with they offered me soup with long noodles, so that long ears would grow on the corn. This was followed by potatoes, pancakes, bits of savoury pastry called opekance, Christmas Eve cake... The meal consisted of nine courses, the last being Orava sauerkraut soup with mushrooms, allegedly the best to be had far and wide. The food was said to be ranged in order from the best to the worst, but I liked everything. I asked for a glass of water, but they responded with such shocked glances that I continued drinking only wine and home-made brandy.
My tongue was knotted, my head spun, and my belly was ready to burst. Everything could be found on that table except a fowl, so that no scratching bird would scrape away our fortune. Also, something from every course was taken out to the animals.
The father rang a cowbell, welcomed the Saviour into the house, and we were allowed to rise from the table. Presents were given out. The Christmas tree hung from the ceiling like a suicide. My legs buckled under me. I had not received anything, but everything I brought Stasia was appreciated, and for me that sufficed.
We went on foot to the neighbouring village for Midnight Mass. The snow was falling really heavily, and besides I had a load to carry for that five kilometres. During Advent the father had made a table without using a single metal nail. I placed it in the wooden church before the altar, so that the people would be able to spot all witches. I was ashamed that even on the one occasion in the year when I came to church I was drunk, but the likeable priest, a great francophile, was even farther gone than I was.
I can still remember going into the priest's house and admiring the collection of bottles. But after a murderous glass of pear brandy the space around me became opaque and diffused in darkness. I fell from my chair to the Toulouse-Lautrec polsition. I could see a deathly pale woman silently eating from an empty plate.
From then I have a blank until the moment a few hours later when a Christmas gift came into my room. Joyeux Noël! On va chez toi ou chez moi? I asked, but Stasia shook her head. She led me out to the barn, the straw. Le Réveillon. Like the winter-bound sheep pressing tightly together, so did we, bonded by our mutual nearness. Je t’adore, ma biche. La petite mort.
I opened my eyes and there was mistletoe hanging over my head. When I established that I could stand upright, I went out. Stasia was waiting on the road in front of the house. She was holding bread that was still steaming in the frost. I went over to her. I was the first who had stood before her that day. She asked me my name, so as to learn what her husband’s name would be. I introduced myself, and then I had to bite that delicious crust.
The snow was no longer falling, the sun came out and hesitantly warmed the world.
In the coming year I would only make love and die.