house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Taste of Old Times

It's been a while, but I'm back. Let me recount.

My holiday from writing started over a month ago (first it was a relief, then a creeping cramp, growing and gnawing, and now a numbness I struggle to overcome. To do so I've so far tried coffee, lists, and compulsive cooking. Nothing worked, but at least the family got a few good meals).

But now we're moving, we're off. Sparked by the memory, this time last month, of sitting at my parents' table with a dozen people I've known all my life, all there to celebrate dad's 80th birthday. A few relatives, some old friends. They arrived early, wearing their best clothes. The women smiled, warm in cashmere shawls, the men smelled of wonderful cologne.

In the hallway, they shouted greetings and laughed out loud, shaking their umbrellas, stuffing their scarves into the sleeves of their winter coats. The men bent and kissed the ladies' hands with effortless gallantry.

Their faces still red from the cold, they stood and chatted around the laden dinner table, unsure about seating, alert and excited and full of news. Someone brought hot brandy with spices, and the noise level jumped up another notch.

Mum worried about the food, dad made a big speech. We cried. An aunt broke the gloom with a joke. We laughed. Absent children and grandchildren were mentioned, praised, discussed. Photo albums came out. An uncle stood up stiffly and solemnly for another speech. We cried again, then laughed again. Wine glasses clinked, were emptied and refilled.

I know this kind of dinner so well. In my childhood it was repeated with reverent regularity. Umbrellas, winter coats, hand kissing. Eating and crying over sentimental words. Buoyant and silent in turns, sharing pictures and stories, towards the end bursting into song.

Mum fussing over food. I remember one time we had a poet visiting. In the late afternoon, overcome by emotion and a particularly fine vintage, he stood up and recited some of his best verse. With tears in his eyes he roared about his love, he murmured about delicate peach blossom... “My peach compote!!!” - mum shrieked and dashed out with a clatter of dishes to bring a forgotten delicacy from the fridge.

My aunt remembers even more. How they used to play cards late into the night, then fall asleep on sofas and start again in the morning. “How young we were” - she ends with a sigh, a sip, a sob, and another silence.

It strikes me then, how extraordinary this day is. I am back on a shrinking island of humanity, a fading ritual, key to a distinct and vanishing world. Shrinking because so many of us have grown up, moved on, changed. Vanishing, because those who still inhabit that world are older and fewer every day.

Romania itself has changed more than I can admit or understand. I have been away too long, I come home only for a week or two at a time, I feel at home even less. My family, my parents' friends are the same, warmly and reassuringly so, even as the world outside tilts towards the weird and the scary.

These days, just watching the news leaves me shaking. Just driving a few kilometres into town takes hours. Just looking around requires either ample courage or total lack of care. Loud and messy politics, greed, stress, stray dogs, stray people. Smog stretches from chimney to chimney and then tightly around people's chests.

Of course, it is only a brief impression. There's clearly much more, beauty and brilliance and kindness I fail to see. Time is always too little, and I venture out less. Instead, I turn to the people round this table, now a little tipsy and tired. They rest in smiling silence, replete. A small song starts in a corner and is picked up by a few shaky voices.

In a short while they will be getting ready to go. A few more minutes of happy commotion and chattering in the hallway, silk scarves falling out of sleeves, boots zipped up, faded lipstick and fading strength in every hug and the lingering lemon slap of Turkish cologne. We shall close the front door behind them and stand together in silence, regarding the chaos of crumbles and wine stains on the table, and underneath the sleeping dog.


At 15 January 2009 at 19:03 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, an amazing and authentic trip back in poignant.

At 18 January 2009 at 06:47 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article has remained in my thoughts for days, like the memory of a great party or a particularly delicious dinner. It also makes me realise something bad about myself: for years now I've been going to the kind of event's that Monica describes here (as I live in Romania) and I have to confess that I've become a bit blase about these meals with the older generation, as they tend to go on for ages. Rather than seeing them as a unique opportunity to witness how people behaved in a bygone era, too often I get bored and drift off. And the more I think about this the more hypocritical I feel as I am always going on about how important it is to observe and integrate into the local culture. This article is a wake up call for me and now I will go to these events with a much more open and sympathetic attitude.

At 11 February 2009 at 21:23 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a film scene in Ulysses's Gaze by Theo Anghelopoulos where the almost tragic feelings of your article take the form of an excellent expressed metaphor: the end of a common dance.

Am avut sansa ca pe cand traiam in exil, sa dau de acest film si sa imi pice in maini o carte celebra a lui Horia Vintila.

Asa ca mi s-a facut dor si a trebuit sa ma intorc de urgenta acasa. :)


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