Monday, December 24, 2007

More Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

Photo Berlin Wall Flickr-siyublog
Photo Flickr-Eric in SF

There is spice to talk about. The salt, the smoke, the herbs, the leaves and bark of trees we eat.

Since today is Christmas Eve Day, I'll tell a story about something made with spice. A ham.

Each time the season of Christmas approaches, I think of this story. It was about a woman, a man, a child, and a ham.

And some other things.

The machine guns were firm in the hands of the tense guards at the border. They were wary and ready for anything that night at Checkpoint Charlie one day before Christmas Eve in 1989.

Nervously passing their hard-eyed inspection we drove on into the gathering dusk to our destination. The tiny house set in the sloping streets of the East German industrial suburb was grim-looking and dark when we first saw it - only the faintest of yellowed lights dimly shone behind the closed curtains. Anna pointed her finger urgently towards the house, after reading the number on the mailbox twice out loud. We pulled into the narrow driveway and sat there together with the car engine still running.

“That’s it! He lives there!” Her voice was tight, high timbered, and strangled at the place it hit her heart.

Her brother was inside that house. She had not seen him for many years. They had been children when the Berlin Wall was built and the family had been split in two - Anna lived with her mother in the West - growing into a woman with her own children - and her brother remained with his father in the East. There had been very little communication over the years.

The door opened and a slight man looked out at the car in his driveway from the threshold. Vaguely outlined, the dusky light allowed enough to see that he was dark and slim, and had a moustache. “Tomas!” his sister cried out. “Tomas!” She almost fell out of the car then ran, stumbling up the concrete walk to the house where she and Tomas fell into each other’s arms. He pulled her into the house. His wiry arms were wrapped so tightly around her that she almost disappeared right into him, blending the two of them into one solid shape.

We waited in the dark driveway for a while to be sure all was well. It was quiet and lulling, the wintry night air clear, bright and and heavy. When the door to the house opened and light streamed out into the darkness it startled us. We awoke from what had seemed like a dream. Anna beckoned towards us, delicately making her way down the icy steps.

She wrapped her hands around the support of the opened car window. “Please come in and meet my family. My brother would like you to.” We bundled out and followed her up through the snow into the house. It was chilly inside. The only fuel for heat was coal.

As Anna gestured us towards the battered sofa (a brightly colored crocheted throw carefully laid over its back) her brother walked into the room carrying a platter of food. Dark thick slices of ham were carefully arranged on one side of the platter, black bread and pickles on the other side. It looked like the same ham we had eaten at the hotel in Bratislava the day before, the same ham we had eaten in the grimy yet elegant cafĂ© in Prague. No matter what we’d tried to order from the menus, we were served ham for some reason, ham in some guise.

Ham was everywhere in this part of the world, but this ham - Anna’s brother’s ham - though it may have been the same as the others, tasted somehow quite different.

It had the texture of leather - tough, over-salted and difficult to chew. Yet it was a ham of some merit and distinction in that particular season, in that specific year, at that exceptional time.

As we left that night the starless sky smelled of coal and snow and hope. The car seeped little bursts of heat as we backed down the driveway, Anna waving to us with her brother’s arm firmly around her shoulders. We turned for one last look before driving away towards Vienna. Anna’s fourteen-year-old nephew (who had told us as we all chewed together on the tensile ham with crisp pickles and soft thick bread that he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up) ran from the house out to our car. As I rolled down the window he thrust a few thin cardboard boxes into my hands. In English (for he could speak it enough to translate for his father) he called through the window.

“Here, please. Take these – we make them right here in this town. My father makes them. Happy Christmas!”

I looked down through the thin cellophane front of the top box. Scrolls of white and gold glitter gleamed from delicate glass Christmas tree ornaments tucked into the sagging paper box. We drove off into the dark night. My fingers kept running over the rough glittery embroidery in the moonlight and the taste of tough spicy impossible-to-chew ham lingered on my tongue. It was not the sort of ham I would have bought if I'd had a choice.

Yet surely
it was a ham of some merit and distinction in that particular season, in that specific year, at that exceptional time.

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