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Back in Cold-War Bucharest, when I was a young girl, there was a proverb that said “Christmas gorges, Easter’s gorgeous.” But to me Christmas was by far more gorgeous. Christmas was artifice, it was workmanship as opposed to nature, it required a careful assemblage of many small decorations and props, an entire luminous stage set erected in a corner of the modest flat my parents rented in a Soviet-style tower block in the district called Titan. This marvel of transparent luminosity materialised in our home when the nights were long and our surroundings at their greyest and ugliest, whereas the Easter celebrations had the backing of nature: so many hope-inducing blues and golds shimmering in the sky, so many emerging buds with their promises of new foliage and blooms serenading in vast cartoonish choirs outdoors, in the narrow green spaces allotted out to each tower block.
Christmas became even more gorgeous after my brother Alexis was born, just as I started to go to school and found out that Father Frost, the Communist avatar of Santa, didn’t exist. Having a little brother meant I had the chance to cling to his way of marvelling at the festive winter dazzle and ever since Alexis was about one year old I started to see Christmas through both my eyes and his.
Mum, Dad, little Alexis and I put the tree up together. Then we attached loops of green thread to the silvery caps of the baubles, mooted the perfect position for each decoration, tied it to the chosen branch, stepped back to see how it fitted in the cosmos of glitter we were about to kindle in our front room, conferred with each other about any gap or imbalance in colour or form or composition, worked with endless dedication on bringing our constellations of suspended trinkets into more and more complicated harmonies, until ta-da! the tree was ready and we all looked at it in silence – our parents through my eyes, through Alexis’s, then through my and my brother’s combined visions as well, until ta-dee! Alexis and I looked up at our parents’ faces and it was our turn to see everything through their eyes, again, anew, with a renewed happiness brewed by their happiness. Thus we stood by the tree, united in delicate, galvanic circles of reflections, warmth and lightness: 4 demiurges of fondant, aged 3 to 39, then 4 to 40, then 5 to 41 etc, in Block of flats C15, Entrance number 2, Flat number 24, in the Titan district, somewhere near the far end of a Europe broken into 2 by a bunch of ogres with 0 brains.
Our intense and dutiful parents looked after us with loving tenderness yet, like all adults, they disconnected themselves from us at times, they just stopped seeing us while they had to look into something urgent, of major significance to them, of no weight or worth whatsoever to us. Oh, the flares of dismay at finding oneself cut off and rendered invisible to Mum and Dad, as if cloaked and choked by the thickest, heaviest fog. Being six years older than Alexis, I had grown out of such instances of puerile despair but I remembered their sting all too well and so I vowed to be very tactful whenever I wanted to disconnect myself from my little brother and plunge into my own urgent, major endeavour: reading. Alexis and I played many games in which I was supposed to sit in an armchair with a book in my lap while he would look for me everywhere else in the flat, according to complicated routes and maps I drew in colour and handed to him; he’d search inside wardrobes, he’d flash torch lights under the beds, he’d inspect the balcony, the larder, the broom cupboard and then in the end find me and shoot me with one of his toy guns, as I was a nefarious spy staring at secret documents and he was some kind of James Bond. But we also used to play many games of his and, every now and then, I organised puppet theatre shows at one end of the big sofa in the living room while he sat at the other end. We didn’t have proper puppets, I just used toys, making them say things I read in my books, and various other objects. A small Aphrodite of plaster was often a statue in a public square where a bear, a dog and a robot with shot glasses filched from the kitchen and tied to their paws with invisible nylon thread would meet to drink mead and recite ballads; they’d sit around a table made of two encyclopaedic dictionaries under a willow tree: the catkin bearing branches our mum kept in the big crystal vase on the old chest of drawers; at the end of the act, the willow declaimed a poem about its longing for real flowers with proper petals, instead of the infuriating furry pimples of ash it found itself covered in, spring after spring, while I stroked and grated the crystal indentations with a spoon for atmospheric sound effects. That was one of the ways of sharing my slightly portentous thoughts and artistic discoveries with my brother and he always followed my strange rants with interest, even as a toddler. Thus united in our games we developed a poetics of our own, based on absurdity and surprise. It worked by blending various household items into the toy world – upside-down soup pots could be towers, or, when filled with water, they would be the Great Lakes – by mixing cuddly with metallic heroes, turning doilies into hats, and hats into wigwams, making button mushrooms into cups while cups became telescopes, using scraps of textiles or bed linen, pieces of wood found outside, green and dried plants – anything was supposed to be everything in our ambitious if miniature theatrical productions.
During term time, my parents fed us in the morning, sent me to school and took Alexis to the day nursery before heading to their offices. During summer holidays, I took care of him while they were at work, we ate together, I read or told him stories or poems. Little by little, after literally sinking his milk teeth in some of my books, Alexis grew up and took to reading on his own so on most of those scorching summer days we lay in the front room sprawled in an armchair each, keeping cool, plunged in magic journeys around the seven seas, drinking iced water and devouring small round chocolates wrapped in paper decorated with vignettes of characters from children’s literature. I used to save some of my pocket money especially for those treats. One day, though, while stuffing ourselves as usual, we looked in each other’s eyes and agreed that our chocolates had lost any trace of taste or sweetness. Moreover, something unpleasantly sandy in their texture had become an insult to the palate. We tried another brand, and another, only to discover that the same horrible disease contaminated all the chocolate. Then in a short while chocolate vanished from the shops altogether. Tea followed shortly. In the nearby grocer’s, the old style coffee grinder that used to roar with a bitter lively fragrance also vanished – there were no more coffee beans to grind. Coffee in any form vanished into thin air. Instead, we had the memory of its fragrance and an invasion of paper packets filled with powdered oats flavoured with dried root of chicory. People made fun of the brown mixture, called it “Neigh-rich,” drank it, served it in fine porcelain cups at the end of dinners and hoped things wouldn’t get worse.
But of course things got worse.
Insidiously scarcity installed itself everywhere. Not just coffee, but meat and eggs, cooking oil and flour and all the other basic foodstuffs became scarcer and scarcer season after season. Our blocks of flats got shabbier and shabbier, in a landscape rich only in greyness, as if we were living in a world of ruins and shadows, where everything seemed to turn into a pointless sign or mere shell of itself. Ours was a land of lampposts with no lamps. Phone boxes with no phones inside. Playgrounds with child swing frames but no swing seats. Sandpits with no sand. Every day more and more restrictions and cuts were declared, not as such, on the telly they were dubbed “firm, dignified steps towards a golden future,” and they meant that, wherever one found oneself, the light bulbs would fizz and refuse to give light, the taps would cough and refuse to spout water, the radiators wouldn’t radiate, the heaters wouldn’t heat. Every single object one’s hands touched was faulty, every piece of equipment malfunctioned, washing one’s hands, and many other such daily routine gestures were suddenly turned into insurmountable challenges, our lives were turned upside down. Slowly and surely, scarcity, which until then had been like a continuous line ruling under our lives, turned into the very definition of our lives.
Meanwhile the great ruler of our country, the mastermind of scarcity, received signs of copious adoration. Every official channel excelled in feverish odes hailing his exceptional vision and depicting the abundance we wallowed in. Even children’s magazines started to open each issue with a huge portrait and a lead article about him which usually revolved around calling him by his ritual names e.g. guarantor of something like peace, prosperity etc, remarkable thinker, genius architect of peace, prosperity etc, glorious supreme commander until, in a final perfervid metaphoric twist he’d be said to encapsulate an essence of some kind, to be our country’s eternal spring for instance, a spring encompassing the lives of the ancestors, of people living in the present, of their children, and of their future children, some nutty non sequitur of the kind that gets traction with dictators and their sycophants. Hedge-Pig-Spiky-Wig, a popular local cartoon character who supplied the name of a magazine for very young children was phased out. A magazine called The Fatherland’s Falcons was to be published instead. Bored stiff, at first incredulous, both Alexis and I noticed how fast whatever used to be amusingly written and illustrated in the remaining children’s magazines was now making way for headlines such as:
“Achievements and hard work – emblems of our revolutionary patriotism.”
“How the red cravats contribute to the five year plan.”
“Attending the school of life and hard work with mettle and tenacity.”
“Pioneers – in the amphitheatres of diligence and hard work.”
“Is our class a true, functional working collective?”
“Milestones on the highway of communism.”
“Romania – a star in the galaxy of science and technology.”
We never read those things and yet somehow they snuck into our heads. At school, our pioneer instructor asked us to buy yearly subscriptions and read all that nonsense but I decided never to open those magazines, and chucked them in the bin as soon as they arrived. At home, we created our own amusements and antidotes. We made a two-page newspaper, Tee-hee – written by hand in print letters and illustrated in watercolour. Tee-hee’s most prolific hack was Diocletian Dandelion aka DD, a scheming careerist who often stole his colleagues’ ideas and churned out copy chop-chop. Sometimes, in order to keep up with his pace, we only wrote headlines such as “Who put potato purée in every pioneer’s beret?”, then sketched the photos and drew the drivel underneath in the shape of small blocks of straight and serpentine black lines – always scattering the signature of DD everywhere on the page.
Another of our games consisted in placing a pile of magazines between us – specialised ones, covering theatre, health, cinema, houseplants – picking one at a time, leafing through it, and inventing alternative names for the genius ruler they never failed to feature on their first pages: look, Alexis, the best Harpagon in years on the stage of the nation, the slayer of chocolate, the smasher of the breakfast cup of tea and the eradicator of any banal boiled egg in view; look, Stela, the sickest man in a nation of sickos; the greatest make-believer in a nation of dupes; look, Alexis, this is the picture of Him-Himself and he’s beyond doubt the largest, the thorniest cactus in the desert of the whole nation; the fattest barrel cactus, ha, ha, ha; no, he’s the thinnest rattail cactus; look, this Christmas cactus pot here looks just like his head, complete with hair, big ears and tie knot – a miracle! it must be reproduced in a stadium during one of the big shows where thousands of people raise coloured placards to create His enormous portrait!
The poetical retribution for our giggles was to get a cactus instead of a Christmas tree, that year. Not literally a cactus, yet not too far from it. There were no more Christmas trees in the fatherland. Not enough of them, anyway. As soon as a couple of dozen appeared in the outdoor markets, they sold like hot cakes.
The trees had followed the disappearance-pattern of everything else that was enjoyable in our early years: when we were very young, we used to go to the open market with our father, to choose them together. We only decorated them on Christmas Eve, never before, as was the custom in the whole country. We kept them throughout the New Year celebrations, and then sculpted them into swords, very useful for some of the gladiatorial games we played outside, in front of our block-of-flats. Those were the days of the silver firs, which kept their fragrance and leaves a long time. But they vanished into thin air, alongside so many other goods and conveniences, small and big, so dearly missed. Instead, we got a species of odourless spruce, very attractive on day one due to its richer foliage but which was always losing thousands of needles on day two, and ended up looking very naked and discomfited on day three. What’s more, families stopped going to the market to choose together the best loveliest tree. There were so few of those spruces available, and people got so desperate and ruthless in their need, that only fit men dared enter the small improvised enclosures where the trees were delivered. Those were the days of gladiatorial clashes between adults over prizes in tattered spruce. Father took part in those clashes and the possibility of violence over so innocent an object scared my brother and me. But Dad never discussed much about how he got hold of our trees. A fortnight before Christmas, he usually traipsed the markets for hours on end after he finished work, as the ways the trees would be dispensed here or there knew neither timetable nor logic. He returned exhausted, empty handed at first but after persevering for several evenings, he always got a tree in the end and when he brought it into our flat we danced about with excitement, jumping up and down and waving our little hands and bodies gracefully just like two half-lamb half-cat animals.
Once, though, his tactic didn’t work. It was Christmas Eve and we still had no tree. As usual, he came back from work and left to hunt for one, immediately. Five hours later, after ten in the evening, he returned home at last, his face and hands covered in scratches, a bleeding wound above his eyebrow, blood stains and mud spattering his scarf and coat. He was cradling against his chest, the way one would carry a sleeping child, a small silver fir tied with rope, a marvel we hadn’t seen in years.
He had looked for spruce in one place after the other. At last one market had been graced by a delivery – a truck filled with spruce parked next to one of those special Christmas-tree enclosures made out of planks; two men climbed inside the trailer; from up there they threw the trees down, one after the other, in the midst of the crowd of vociferous fathers. The males in the enclosure were as agitated and bellicose as rams squeezed in the catching pen of a shearing shed. The lucky ones who managed to lay hold of a tree had to take it through a narrow corral, adjacent to the wooden enclosure. They handed the payment to a third man who was sitting on a stool with a box of change in his lap at the far end. Once freed, they left with their spoil, grumbling, shivering in the frosty air like sheared animals, their adrenaline still running high. After being scratched by the needles and branches of around a dozen trees he had only half grasped, father had managed to grab a little spruce and approached the paying queue. But last in that queue, empty-handed, stood another man, waiting: a big cat in ambush. He turned round, punched father in the eyebrow, pushed him down, snatched the tree, jumped the queue, planted a note in the money box and then ran away ignoring the ineffectual if noisy interpellations of the other men. By the time father managed to re-enter the main enclosure the truck had been emptied. All this happened quite far away, in a market on the edge of the Titan district. Dejected, he decided to walk back home. All the streets and alleys were deserted. But after a few minutes, he saw a man in a sheepskin coat coming out of his block of flats, with a small silver fir in his arms. Father approached him and inquired politely where he got it from.
“This tree is yours, if you want it,” said the man.
“Oh, please, don’t make such jokes, how can I believe you’re giving a true silver fir away just like that?”
“I’m not joking, here, please have it.”
So father had it for a reasonable price while the other man explained that a couple of days before, a relative of his from the highlands had called in with his wife, who was to be admitted for a week to a big hospital in Bucharest for some tests. They had brought gifts with them: half a slaughtered pig and a splendid tree. Now another relative, this time of his wife’s, also from the highlands, had just popped in with another set of medical problems due to be investigated in another big hospital in the capital, another half of a slaughtered pig and another nice little tree. Now two halves of pig on Christmas Eve were an unexpected blessing – his wife was busy upstairs at that very moment with the sausage making machine, black puddings sat snugly in a tray in the fridge, a huge pot was boiling on the flame soon to transmute into aspic, the man drooled lyrically – but who needs two Christmas trees in one big happy family home? A home can only take one tree, just as in anything alive on this earth there’s only place for one heart, he touched his sheepskin coated breast while for a few seconds all the lights in the windows around them seemed brighter.
Thus Dad lit up the end of his story, while Mum placed a large box with medicine, gauze and plasters next to the Christmas lights box on the kitchen table and, to keep our childish ritual alive, Alexis and I did our half-lamb half-cat dance, and I asked myself which half was going to take over later in our lives, when we’d grow up into adults.
But the following year, not long after our stupid cactus jokes, there was no tree whatsoever. Again, our dad’s method failed. On Christmas Eve, he returned home late after having roamed all the markets, empty handed and miserable. At least he wasn’t hurt, we thought, exchanging glances filled with relief and resignation. But mother wouldn’t permit any hints of resignation on Christmas Eve. The evening’s happy conclusion came from her.
“I made a nice meal, we’ve got stacks of little presents to open and –” she pointed to the lushness of the tallest rubber fig in our front room “– here’s our merry-plant, this year. Will you help me drag it by the window?”
“Are you sure? But how is it going to look?” asked father. The rubber plants were his, actually, he fed them, re-potted them, pruned and propagated them. The largest one he called Mayakovsky, for fun, because the poet hated rubber plants, saw them as potted symbols of the philistine values of the petite bourgeoisie. The smaller plants were his little Philistines. These names weren’t just fun, they were great pretexts for our father to teach us what an antiphrasis was, or tell us stories we wouldn’t learn at school, about Delilah, the Philistine beauty who seduced Samson. Alexis and I enjoyed the stories and liked the plants. We sometimes used the Philistines as jungle vegetation in our theatrical games but, despite our poetics of surprise, we had clearly remained traditional in many other respects, we would have never thought of turning any of the rubber plants into a Christmas tree.
“Gorgeous,” Mum said.
It was: Mayakovsky’s large shiny leaves became enchanted dark mirrors dialoguing with the light and the glitter. When we finished decorating, we all looked at it – our parents through my eyes, through Alexis’s, through our combined visions – united in another of our perennial circles of reflections, warmth and lightness, another growth ring in the diaphanous tree of our love for each other.