Monday, December 27, 2004

Record Of The Past Few Days

christmas, originally uploaded by azurenath.

I set my alarm for 0400 Christmas Eve. I had to be at work by five, and wanted to make sure I’d have enough time to finish packing and assure the cleanliness of Alisha’s kitchen floor, which I’d found carpeted by soapsuds the evening before after I put hand soap in the dishwasher following a fruitless search for pellets.

It was still dark, and the bus was late, but by 0500 I was at the dairy brewing instant coffee the strength and approximate taste of rocket fuel. Bleary-eyed and stumbling, still smelling last night’s cigarettes and beer in my hair, I went upstairs, scrubbed my wellies, snapped on my sexy hairnet, and set to sorting out the bread deliveries. Even at god-awful hours of the morning the smell of fresh bread puts me in a good mood; sometimes the Puglieses, the spelt Sultanas, and the Poilânes are still warm, which makes life even better. After an hour of organizing bread, Roy helped me haul two dozen oozing Stiltons onto a shelf outside for people who didn’t want to join the half-hour queue to enter the store. Stilton defies the rules of marketing. It reeks, seeps a vile, putrid liquid—it’s just ugly, all around. But at Christmas in London, it sells by the truckload.

By seven o’clock, the sun had barely risen and the store was already packed. By nine all the bread had been sold and people were queuing halfway down the block. On one of my runs to the fridge to pick up a shop order I spied Susan and Aniko pouring Old Grouse into people’s coffees. The store was in a state of merry chaos, controlled. Broad shouts of “More Spenwood!” “Where’s the Cotherstone?” “Over here!” and “Happy Christmas!” bounced off the beams overhead.

At 11 I bid my adieus and ran out, picked up my bag at Alisha’s, scoped the floor again for renegade suds, rushed to the train station, and slept all the way to Belgium. (In theory it’s pretty cool to take a train that goes under the English Channel, but actually it’s just another dark tunnel.)

By five I was in Charleroi with my enormous suitcase and box of stinky cheese. It was dark, of course, and freezing. But in Marcinelle the garden shrubs were lined in light and I could see my sister and Grand-père eviscerating lobsters through the kitchen window. Recognition lowered my hackles; familiarity melted me. I sat on a stool in my socks and munched on a cookie. Hoooooome.

A fair avalanche of family ripped through the door at half seven, and we popped the champagne. I studied the faces, animated and rosy, and observed through alcohol’s hazy serenity who shared noses and eye sockets and chins. Grand-Mamy had decorated a portrait of an illustrious ancestor with a gold bow tie, and he stared down benevolently at the motley gathering before him. For dinner we ate Marie’s foie gras, Grand-père’s lobster, my cheese, and fruit tarts. And then we fucking passed out, or at least I did.

In the morning we all reconvened for breakfast (twenty-one people aged seventy-seven to nine). There were cougnoux (Jesus-shaped breads) that we spread lavishly with nutella, accompanied by Jesus-shaped sugar candies wearing deliciously crunchy blue loincloths. Also pains aux chocolat and toast and yogurt. After breakfast I took a nap with my dad, whose poor liver was still picking up the pieces from last night’s fiesta. I woke up, stumbled over to my sister, and we napped together for a while. Then I went and napped with my mom—it’s all I did that day, really. I’m so not a napper, but I think my body needed to recover from its ninety-hour, thirty-pint work week. In between dozes I heard the muted, golden voices of my family vibrating up through the rafters.

The next morning we awoke to a downy lawn and trees delicately dusted, white above, black below. Snow! Last time I’d seen it the land had been awash in the brilliant, colorful fire of autumn; now strewn across were the ashes, white and gray. On the afternoon drive over to my aunt’s in Tournai, occasional bell towers punched out of the fields, perpendicular spikes punctuating a landscape planar as Florida.
When we got there we helped Marie de-vein a few kilos of fatted goose livers for foie gras, which she is now producing artisanally. Basically the job involves plucking threads of veins out of what feels like butter and smells like death. (Mental note: next time I enjoy foie gras, appreciate the effort that goes into it. It is disgusting work.) Afterwards I looked through her old LP collection, dusty and ragged, and realized that, twenty-five years apart, we shared exactly the same taste in music. Obviously like the rest of the developed world she now listens to CDs and her changer’s packed with jazz and Norah Jones, but she had all my Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Janis Joplin and Fleetwood Mac albums. Like, rad.

It’s been like forty hours and already I’ve settled into a totally different lifestyle, mentality, routine. I haven’t forgotten London at all, but I’ve kind of forgotten what it’s like to be there. And in forty more I’ll be in Egypt! Damn.


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