Sunday, March 01, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Nineteen

Saturday, 24 December, 1988
Christmas Eve
Löhenthal*, Switzerland

As for what transpired today, I got up around 9:00, took a shower, and appeared upstairs. Everyone else had already eaten but Mrs. Renzberger* produced breakfast for me. Instant guilt, even though she’d said for me to sleep as long as I liked.

The family put up the Christmas tree today. Lukas* and I did the decorating. He put on the red candles in their clip-on holders and showed me how they also use these hanging fireworks-like sparklers that one can light just for fun. I started in on the ornaments. They were, characteristically, heavy clear stained glass balls, each of all one color; though some had designs and textures molded or blown into them, most were smooth. I’m afraid I left a memorial to myself behind-- I shortened up most of the strings on the balls I hung, to keep them from sitting on branches below.

There were also a few handmade decorations and contributions from family friends, which Lukas told me the story of. And a contribution of a red-orange tail feather from Kapten Blood*, the West African parrot.

Didn’t do anything terribly useful after that except look at a French Gothic book Lukas pulled off the shelf for me, till time to go fetch his maternal grandmother from her apartment at an old-age complex near Zürich.

I went with him and sat there in Granny's front room, feeling very dull, as if I hadn’t a great deal to say. But silence can be a virtue, can’t it?

(On the way over I did ask about his mother and he said don’t worry, I’m not being any trouble. Well, if you say so.)

His grandmother, Frau Heimdorfer*, treated us to coffee (tea) in the complex snack bar and then we drove back to Löhenthal. I sat in the back seat, contemplated the scenery, and idly let the German conversation in the front seat wash over me.

When we returned I had just enough time to wrap my present for the family before time for supper and time to meet Lukas’s middle brother Thaddeaus*.

Dinner was all sorts of charcuterie, better than what I had in France, despite Greti’s* constant concern that I wouldn’t like it. Table conversation started out in English and a little French but gradually went predominantly into Swiss German. It occurred to me I didn’t mind, greatly. It relieved me from the necessity of having to be clever myself. And it reminded me a lot of the Coverdale College* dining hall, where due to the noise I can’t understand anything being said around me anyway. I found I enjoyed the sound of Lukas speaking German. The Swiss do it more softly and gently than the Germans do and his voice in his native language is pleasant in itself.

I wasn’t totally left out, though. Talked about England a bit, since everyone there had been there.

After dinner the tree candles were lit and the family assembled in the living room. Lukas officiated and set the mood by having the "Pastoral Symphony" played on the stereo (Handel’s, from the Messiah). Then he read the Christmas story, according to Luke, through the annunciation to the shepherds, from the NIV out of consideration to moi-même. After that, we lit the candles we had been given, passing the flame and with it a wish for peace around the circle. Then each person put his or her candle on the tree.

Then, in a move designed to destroy my peace and everyone else’s, Lukas’ mother asked me to sing a carol or something else for Christmas. Oy vay. Seems dear Lukas had given his mother a proper buildup for my vocal abilities. And, she said, none of her Kinder will sing anymore. They did to a certain age but then refused. So I was elected.

Deciding it was appropriate after the text about the angels, I gave a verse of "Angels We Have Heard on High," to everyone’s seeming satisfaction.

But I wasn’t off the hook yet. Frau Renzberger declared that after she read the company a story I was to sing again. Panic!

Fortunately the story was long. In German, of course. I caught words here and there. As explained to me afterwards, it was about a former political prisoner who had the meaning of Christmas and freedom suddenly come together for him on simultaneously hearing Handel and being given a drink of warm milk. The homely comfort and the glory of it combined . . .

I’m not sure why I did what I did then. Yes, I do, too. Instead of a traditional American or British Christmas carol, I, after some preliminary fumbling around for the proper key (I couldn’t trust myself not to crack on the high f''), sang Schubert’s "Du Bist die Ruh’." I did it because it’s in German. And I did it especially because I remembered what Lily Michaels* [a little girl I used to babysit] once said, that it reminded her of Jesus. So it seemed more in the tone of the story just read than a conventional carol would have been.

I sang with my eyes shut to keep off the nerves (I know, Dr. Smith† said never do that) and only stumbled over the words once. Still, I’m no Dame Janet Baker and maybe I shouldn’t’ve tried it. One gets that feeling when the predominant response is, "Oh, we know how difficult it is to sing before people!"

These preliminaries over, it was time for presents. They told me that if the family is going to Christmas Eve service each person usually just opens one or two, often those given by friends they’ll be seeing at church. But tonight things were running late and Thaddeaus was taking the only car back to Neigendorf*, where he lives. That meant everyone would have to walk and Grandmother wasn’t up to it. Leaving her at home alone wouldn’t’ve done, either.

So church was punted for the evening and everything was opened. Lots of socks; Lukas and his brother gave each other calendars; the former brought all sorts of things from Oxford. And there were two gifts for me. One was a dark blue-black scarf with a-- what do you call it?--oil swirl design running through it. Turns out Lukas had suggested it and his mother had picked it out. Funny, because we’d been talking about the Oxford fashion for that sort of thing at dinner and Mr. L. Renzberger had not betrayed a clue. My other present was an assortment of Swiss chocolates. Good. I can serve them for tea in my room at Coverdale.

Mine for them was hiding under the tree and thus was one of the last opened. My drawing of the Hobbit House went over rather better than my singing did, I think. And it seems to be rather appropriate, since most of the walls of the house are hung with contributions from friends and family. I immediately told them I’d need to take it back to Oxford to get it framed, but Lukas’s father said no, no, they’d get it done.

Maybe that’s better anyway. They can choose the frame style and mat color to match their décor-- or maybe choose not to hang it at all.

After presents were all opened there was more wine and more cookies and playing with the bird, who’d been let out of his cage. Me, I did not venture to pet him. Would like to keep my fingers.

The household retired to bed around 11:00, whereupon I discovered something very awkward-- Lukas’s mother had been kind enough to wash all my dirty clothes today, but she doesn’t have a clothes dryer.‡ Therefore my flannel nightgown was still very wet and I had no idea where my cotton boatneck shirt, which would’ve done to sleep in, had been hung to dry, let alone the underwear which I would need in the morning.

I finally decided to make do sleeping in my bathrobe, not being comfortable sleeping in nothing, but it was a pis aller. I’m afraid I retired in a very uncomfortable state, especially inside me: I wish I were pretty, I wish I could sing properly, I wish now I were ten years younger and could go back and do everything right, I wish I never had to cause anyone any trouble . . .

†My voice teacher at KU
‡They had the typical European drying room, where wet or spin-dried semi-wet clothes could be hung on racks or laid flat on slatted wooden shelves and take advantage of the heat emanating from the not-highly-efficient, uninsulated furnace and water heater.


Sandy said...

Ah, Kate. You are a lovely person both inside and out. Don't ever sell yourself short.

whiskers said...

Yes you are.

But hearing it only helps a little sometimes, doesn't it?

Sometimes the inner self that others see is only the part that is TRYING to be lovely, and there is an inner inner self that is full of pain and hate. That just wants to disappear. I understand. And I think you handled it very well.


St. Blogwen said...

The ironic thing is that maybe they were responding to the production I made of singing the song, fumbling around for the key, shutting my eyes, etc., and not to my actual performance at all. But me, I assumed I'd stepped out of line singing that song in the first place. Oy, what a joke it is when we pile unnecessary trouble on ourselves!