I am not inclined to pine for home during the festive season, being old enough to be convinced that it’s the same gluttonous and vaguely disappointing occasion wherever you celebrate it. Besides, the Polish Christmas has its own charms, though this year they don’t include snow.
One of them (since this is my first ) is anthropological and linguistic charm. There is a whole vocabulary connected to Christmas which is unfamiliar to me and I learn the words for midnight mass, creche, and the unconsecrated wafer which you break with your brethren (or brethren- in- law) before the Christmas Eve dinner, and one line of an archaic and very boring carol which is still circulating in my head a week later. There was also the novelty of hearing people complain that they’re still hungry after the Christmas Eve dinner, which doesn’t include any real meat because it’s a ‘fast meal’ . (What this means in reality is 12 courses of fish but the absence of pig causes a psychological craving in some.)
The simplicity of the food was compensated for by the extravagance of the dress. We received about 500 phone calls to talk us out of cycling to Pruszków because Marcin’s parents were convinced we would appear at the festive board encased in muddy lycra. Kuba’s stepson asked him where his mother (who was swathed in lace) had got her curtain from.
We went to the neighbour’s house, since Kuba (Marcin’s brother) is married to the girl next door and there is now a grandson in common. Convenient for me as my winter boots had broken and were in repair; all we had to do was mince across to the next klatka and hey presto, there we were. A slightly stiff occasion which was only eased by the children and presents and the ensuing mayhem.
Afterwards we went to drop in on Babcia, who celebrated her 93rd birthday in the summer. A terrifying joyride with Marcin’s father at the wheel- he had a stroke in September but can’t admit that his vision and coordination are not what they were. It was wet and slippery and when he skidded he just said, “Well, it was a controlled skid..” Babcia was lying in bed, recovering from that mysterious ailment which strikes the old, young and unresistant in Poland- almost-pneumonia ( I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve had it myself.) Since we got to Poland I’ve barely heard her say a word and we always wonder after seeing her if any pleasure remains in her life. One of the grandsons in law had been detailed to keep watch over her, and being unable to work out how to use the remote control, he had settled to ‘reflecting’, as he put it, in a horizontal position on the couch with his eyes closed.
But my favourite part of Christmas was a walk with Marcin’s old schoolfriend Czaja through the old mental hospital in Tworki. On the afternoon of the 25th, suffering from cabin fever, we decided on a prolonged stroll with a can of beer through the grounds of this place, whose inhabitants were murdered by Hitler and friends in the 40s. It was grey and damp and the fishermen who fish the rehabilitated river were at home torturing their families. All the maniacs were inside. This walk lasted for several hours while we excavated Marcin and Czaja’s family history, marvelled at the sheer effectiveness of the Nazis (who would think, in the middle of a war, that it would occur to somebody to liquidate the mentally ill of Tworki?), sang a carol by phone to Jeziorek in India, finished our beer, bought some vodka and finally had a last drink under the viaduct before returning merrily home in the pitch dark at 4:30.