Christmas Comes But Twice a Year

February 2, 2007

Happy Ground Hog’s Day, O Best Beloveds, which is just proof that it’s taken me too long to write this email, since I last sent around a Malady on Christmas night. Since then, the tumor markers, they remain NORMAL, I’ve discovered how much more productive one can be when one isn’t losing two to four days a week to chemo and post-chemo sluggishness, and we had a very nice trip to Serbia and Montenegro. That’s the short version for those with minimal time.

For those with more stamina/interest, the following is an account of one particular extraordinary day on our trip, full of unexpected cultural encounters, extremely good food and overwhelming genorousity that at times threatened to veer into a near hostage situation. It’s also really, really long, but there is food porn. And at the end, one part in particular that you might want to skip ahead to.

To set the scene, Serbia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Since much would be closed that day, we half-joked that perhaps we would meet some local who would invite us over to participate in their family holiday. Failing in that (that scheme worked out not at all for Estonia’s St. John’s Eve), we figured we would celebrate a traditional Jewish Orthodox Christmas, to wit, Chinese food and a movie. (There were several playing, undubbed, in Belgrade that we wanted to see.)

Now, on the flight from Heathrow to Belgrade, I end up in a very long wait for the airplane bathroom and to pass the time, chatted with the woman waiting behind me. S is from Serbia, but she and her husband Z have lived in New Jersey for 12 years. She gave me their cell phone numbers, urging me to call them should we have any problems or need anything at all. After baggage claim, she had Z help us get a cab, and then she said “Come stay with us! We live about 90 kilometers away, and my mother in law has a big house!” Sure enough, Mom was nodding her head in agreement. Since we weren’t sure this was for real, since we had a shortish stay in Belgrade, since we didn’t know a thing about their town, and since we had, you know, just met them five minutes ago, we simply said thank you, and didn’t really think about it again. That’s because we were too dumb to notice that the very thing that we wanted to have happened happened, and not five minutes into our trip.

Days pass, and we travel to Montenegro and back. It’s now Christmas Eve day. The night before, we went to a very large Orthodox church so that Steve could tape the services (his new passion; it’s like a free concert, twice a day), but despite being told by several different people that services were at 7pm, they weren’t held at all. So we returned for the 9am, and then decided to go to the nearby open air market, full of little old ladies selling ripe homemade cheese and other sights our trusty guidebook assured us was “the real Belgrade.” But when the walk trusty guidebook map claimed was but three blocks turned into eight, we stopped at a corner to get our bearings. Only to have a young man stop next to us and offer his help in perfect English. Turns out he was headed to the market too, and offered to take us there.

V spent some years working as a broker, including a stint in London, but recently turned his back on the long hours and soulless work for some months spent “reading Russian novels” and living at home with his doting parents. We asked him about Orthodox Christmas and he insisted on taking us to Sveta Sava, the largest church in Belgrade, and asking the first priest he could find about services that evening. Throughout, he gave a running tour commentary on Belgrade, pointing out historical buildings, bombing sites and the like. He told us about the bombing (“since the power was out, my friends and I had to barbeque all the meat in the fridge, which is what we did every night, have barbeques and watch the bombs like they were fireworks. And that was my war.”). Then he took us out for coffee. While drinking, I asked him if we could use his cell phone to call S and assure her we were okay, and that we hadn’t called because we hadn’t needed her help, but thank you for the offer. I felt a little foolish calling–she had probably forgotten about us–but she had been so insistent about wanting to hear from us regularly.

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” exclaimed a delighted S. “Now, we want you to come over tomorrow to spend Christmas with us.” Er–really? Why, yes. But we have to fly back to Belgrade the next morning. No problem! They are on the same flight! They can drive us back! Then it turns out their flight was actually the day after ours, but no problem; just come out tonight, and spend the night. Well…okay. V, it turns out, is from that same area of the country and pronounced it well worth seeing, and so walked us to the bus station to get tickets, but not before we took a trip to the open air market that started this whole serendipitous adventure. Barrels of soft cheese, some feta-like, some more like creamy combination of creme fraiche and butter, various smoked and dried and cured animal parts, glass jars full of the local pepper puree, and more more more. Heavenly smelling, we wished we weren’t pressed for time so we could sample it all.

But pressed we were–after all, we had to buy presents for our hosts (local candy, wine, a Serbian translation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” because I liked it) and a few hours later, we were on a bus hurtling through the dark to who knows where. Seriously. Not sure where it was. Somewhere 120 slightly winding kilometers outside of Belgrade, in the countryside. Chacak, the town is called, and Z picked us up and took us to the sparklingly-decorated small flat he and S maintain, only to then tell us that his mom was expecting us, with a dinner feast ready to go (despite it being well after 10pm). Off we go to her place, to meet her and their two kids. And out comes the food. Dish after dish of food. It seems Serbians “fast” for some days before Christmas, and by “fast” they mean “avoid all animal byproducts except fish, but otherwise, stuff yourself.” And so we ate delicious smoked whole river fish, some kind of fatty smoked fish (smoked by them in their own smokehouse out back–wood smoke smell was everywhere out here in the country) that melted into a pure strong taste in our mouth, plus cabbage salad and an array of fancy desserts, all of which were, to our shock, homemade. Actually, everything was homemade, they said. S and Z were constantly amused by the US emphasis on “organic,” because they come from a place where everyone grows their own veggies and meat and so forth, and everyone makes their own nearly everything. (Witness V buying items at the market for his family’s Christmas dinner from the country people/farmers who sell their wares at the market.) We stop down first for a holiday custom; Z comes in saying “Merry Christmas!” three times, carrying branches of dead leaves, and each time his mother throws seeds, grains and coins at him for luck. Mom, by the way, waits on us at dinner and when we try to get her to sit down, Z shrugs it off. “No, don’t worry about it.” It’s just the way things are done.

By now it’s 11pm and continuing the theme of what will be our 36 hour excellent adventure, ie, a dizzying array of unexpected excellent events about which we have not been consulted, we are now told we are going to see S’s sister perform. Because she’s a big Serbian rock star–well, someone has to be–and she’s doing a solo show in town. Typical smoky bar, tight talented band, covers during the set rather than orignials, but he’s got a good strong voice and a feel for the lyrics that indicates she knows what she’s singing, rather than having just learned it phonetically. From there, we go to church, because, where else?

Orthodox Christmas celebrations start at midnight and go until 2am, and feature a big bonfire outside the church where, earlier in the day, everyone trooped around in procession for awhile, burning the elaborate arranges of pungent dead leaves and branches we had seen for sale all over Belgrade. (The symbolism is unclear. It may be having to do with the end of death as brought about by the birth of Christ.) The church was crammed to the seams, and the shelves that held prayer candles were so full one couldn’t stick another candle into the sand that held the tapers upright, because it was covered rock hard with melted candle wax. We basked in the smoke and the warmth and wondered about it all.

So to bed around 3am, and in the morning we are greeted with a breakfast of fresh salami, local thin sliced ham (sort of like Spanish jambon), a Serbian staple of a kind of shredded roast pork that looks like tobacco, some of that feta-like cheese and the cream/butter combo which we are told is “serbian caviar” and another national dish. It gets mixed with excellent homemade cornmeal mush. There is also the red pepper spread, handmade by Z’s mother. There is more, but I think I forgot a few things. We see there is snow outside–remember, pitch black when we arrive–and that the town is a nice little hodge podge of late 1800’s architecture and much newer buildings. Z’s family used to raise hogs out back, so this is also partly rural/argriculture country. We are told that on this day one no longer says “Merry Christmas!” but instead a Serbian phrase meaning “Christ is born!” to which one responds with a phrase that basically says “Got that right.” (Actually, it translates as “Indeed, he IS born.”) We add this to our repertoire of six Serbian phrases. (Anyone we speak these to has the same reaction; surprise, pleasure, and amusement.)

Around 11am, Z’s oldest friend and his wife arrive. The friend knows all about local history and so the six adults, plus the two kids, are going to drive around the area, looking at monasteries, and then we will come back and have a feast. Again, we’ve not been consulted about any plans, but as it happens, driving around looking at monasteries and then feasting is exactly how we wanted to spend our day. We are mighty impressed by their prescience. When we meet the whole roasted pig that will be the center of the feast, we are even happier. (This is the traditional dish for Serbian Christmas, and Z explained that while they have often roasted their own pig, it’s a local speciality; their area supplies many of the pigs for the rest of the country. So they just bought one this year.)

Right, so into the minivan and off we go. We drive past horse-driven carts and other quaint things. Hey, where are we going? Well, we WERE going to several local monasteries, but they decided to take us to the two oldest and most famous ones in Serbia. Cool! Are they far? Farther that the local ones, but pretty close. Okay! So we chat–well, the personable and bright kids jabber with Steve, who is adorable with them, and I talk with Z and his friend, who understands some English and speaks less (sadly, because he is lovely and so very interesting), so there is translating going on. He in turn points out various historical spots along the route. Z explains about the war, about local politics, why he went to America, and more. As we drive. About 90 minutes into the drive, they ask us if we want some borak, which is a flakey savory pastry of layers of filo and either cheese or meat. Sure, but where are we…?–and a delicious smell fills the car, as we are presented with fresh, hot, homemade borak on a silver platter. I thought for sure they were whipping it up in the back seat, but no, Z’s friend’s mom made it, lest we get peckish on the drive. (Serbians, you may have gathered, like to eat. A lot. This is one of their many delightful qualities.) She has also ruined us for this Serbian snack, because hers was by far the best we have eaten and never again will we be satisfied by anything less.

And we are driving through steep mountains, alternating snow and green vistas, and there are ruined castles and gushing rivers, and I ask Z how close we are, and he says not far, and so another hour passes. We learn we are about 10 miles from Kosovo and that “bullet proof vests are under your seat.” (Kidding, but we weren’t going there anyway. Z, who used to be in the Army, says its the worst place he’s ever been and that was before the war. Also, we didn’t have our passports.) Z explains that the area we were in was now about 80% Muslim (and Albanian) in contrast to the 85% Orthodox makeup of the rest of Serbia. We hit a chaotic dusty dirty small city, in the throes of market day, mostly Islamic, and so where there had been in the places we had driven through earlier in the day the domes of Orthodox churches were now the spires of mosques. They get lost, and lost some more, and we twist through neighborhoods full of shacks, tiny cobbly streets, poverty and dirt and confusion and life and energy, a way of living and economic status totally unexpected in what is supposed to be First World Europe. I can’t do it justice but at some point I thought this was the most exotic place we had ever been. Indonesia, Thailand, Morrocco, Peru–you expect it to be different, but not here, not quite like this, not so radically, not so close to relatively cosmopolitan Belgrade, with its Belle Epoque architecture, internet connections and high fashion stores. It was waking up on the moon.

And we are still driving, but now uphill in the right direction, and we finally land at Serbia’s second oldest monastery, built roughly 1100 or 1200. The church interior is covered with glowing near-pastel fresco (“Art historians agree this are the best in the world!” said a happy monk, and I thought “Well, Leonardo’s Last Supper is considered rather highly, but never mind.”), which had been left open to the elements for centuries after the place was bombed and the roof destroyed by the Turks back in 15-whatever. It was restored in 1929, and the paintings, of the Annuciation, of various Saints, of a Crucifixion as powerful as a punch, are remarkable works of art, graceful and deeply moving. We strolled around the melted-snowy grounds before heading to the gift shop so that Steve could continue to look for CD’s of Orthodox music, and every member of our party could turn to me and say “Here, Mary, this is for you” and hand me some pretty little booklet about the place, or a map to Belgrade monasteries or some other gift. This on top of the drive, the borak, the room for the night, the pig yet to come. “Why??” I said to Steve, “this generosity, where is it coming from?” and we still don’t know.

From there, we retrace our steps and Z says we are going to the oldest Serbian monastary on our way home. But we’ve come a long way, and it’s getting dark. But the Plan Is Not To Be Denied, and also it’s not far. Which totally isn’t true, because it’s hours later before we crawl our way up the even steeper, very narrow and thrillingly icy road through the rapidly fading light. It’s quixotic, as we will spend nearly two hours for what will prove a fifteen minute visit. We crunch through snow in the twilight to enter the towering Gothic church (circa 1090), which is dark but for some flickering candles and one or two light bulbs. A monk tells us about various uncorrupted saintly bodies enscounced within, including one he claims is fresh as a daisy despite being roughly 800 years old, and that he is displayed–and touched!–every Sunday. Which it is. But despite my pleas of calender consistency,we missed the viewing and there will not be a second one. At one point, it’s service time, and while we MUST go (it’s dark now, and the road is icy and narrow), we stop to hear the first bit, in the stone grand nave of the church, lit only by a chandelier of candles, amid billowing black robes of priests flung deep into their devotions, our breath steaming in front of us and then the deep tolling of the bells. It was 45 seconds of pure, visceral, crackling sensory ecstasy and it made every bit of effort to get there worthwhile.

And so back down the mountain we go, as Z says home is only about 60 miles away. By now, you’d think I’d learn. Time passes. More time passes. Speaking of which, the last bus to Belgrade–a nearly three hour ride–leaves at 8pm, and we are coming up on 6pm, and by now we’ve assumed we aren’t staying for dinner. Oh, yes, we are, they are not to be denied, and, frankly, we want pig! So Z and his friend consult and it’s concluded that we can take a cab back to Belgrade for not much more than two bus tickets, and a somewhat faster ride. We have to leave for our flight around 7am (and we need some sleep as we are going the next day to hang out with old friends in London, and we don’t want to be all nodding off, sleep deprived for our precious evening together), but we do the math and figure that if we leave at, say, 9pm in the cab, that gets us to Belgrade with enough time to pack up and the other things we have to do and still get a reasonable night’s sleep.

Time passes. Still driving. We eventually get back to Chacak, and we, naturally, have to drop off the friends first, as they are late for their Christmas dinner, and then we get back to Z’s mom’s house, and to meet some more relatives, and also, pig! v Oh, delectable, and there was homemade chicken soup, and two kinds of salad, and all the other things, the cheeses and the meats and the pepper spread, and it turns out that Z’s mom has worked as a chef. No kidding. We visit with other family members, and time passes, and we pack up, and the kids, who have been really good all day, descend into that constant squabbling that is what kids do when they are tired, and we think it’s about time to call that cab, but Z is missing and we can’t leave without saying goodbye, and the clock ticks, and more time passes, and Z finally appears and we say “About that cab?” and he and S say “We are going to take you to our house, and you will get it there.” Ours is not to reason why about anything, and so we get in the car, and S says “I hope you don’t mind, but I have this friend, and her daughter is in a wheelchair, but she makes these icons, and she wanted to meet you and give you a present. So if it’s okay, we can stop there on the way to our flat?” What are we going to say?

It seems the friend is a rather well known local journalist, and she lives with her tween age daughter and older girl, who is 22 but looks 14, and has severe cerebral palsy, of the sort that leaves her with only minimal control of her left hand and nothing else. We are greeted with cake and coffee, and we resign ourselves to what clearly will not be a quick “how d’ya do? Gotta go” visit. At some point I murmer to Steve “Just go with it,” and he agrees.

Which is more than okay, because we learn this story; Journalist Mom, who does religion reports for the national news, took her daughter (pause here to show us a photo album of the daughter with various Serbian celebrities) to meet the Serbian Orthodox Patriach (widely regarded as a living saint; pause here to show us a TV program Mom produced on him), and right afterward, the girl, who cannot dress nor feed herself, began working with seeds, rice and paint to produce icons. It’s a miracle! They all exclaimed. Well, all right, we said…and then they produced several examples. And it’s…gallery worthy outsider art, I mean, it’s flat-out incredible. “Primative”, sure, but it’s quality art even without the story, and with the story, it’s unbelievable. There is at least one piece which depicts the girl herself, in her wheelchair, dreaming this all up. It should immediately go in a museum. They take us into her bedroom, and demonstrate the impossible process; her sister sets up her tools and puts the brush into her hand, and then the girl heartbreakingly slowly and laboriously places glue on the page, and puts, one at an agonizing time, a grain of rice (or seed or whatever) in place. Over and over, for hours and hours and hours. It’s flabberghasting. And a true example of the kind of mystic ecstasy the devotional act of icon-producing is supposed to be.

So as we are processing this, Mom brings out a frame and says “We want you to have this.” Now, I had been hoping to buy a nice Mary icon on our trip but I never found one I liked. What did she hand me? Oh, you know. And it’s stunning. Again, folk art, but just what I would have chosen. Meanwhile, I add this; before we left, Dr. W, he of the normal tumor markers success, asks me to bring him a Serbian flag, so he can hang it in his office along with my photo, for his other patients, to show them what is possible, even with cancer mets. We kept saying during the trip “Must get the flag for Dr. W.” But we hadn’t. So what did Journalist Mom hand me next? Hours before we were about to leave the country? Why, isn’t that such a perfect little Serbian flag? At this point, I don’t know what to do, except tell the story to S, who translates to Journalist Mom, whereupon they both burst into tears and cross themselves repeatedly. What the hell–I join in.

It turns out that they have not really ever thought about selling her art, which is hard to imagine, as we know at least two galleries in New Orleans that would take her stuff in a heartbeat, not to mention any number of friends who would buy it. So we started planning to help her out, and also to maybe do some stories about her once we get home. Speaking of which, it’s getting really rather late–two hour plus drive to Belgrade and packing and all the rest–but we have to listen to the other daughter play the piano (I asked; I thought she might get overlooked because of her sister a great deal) and also have the artist sign her work, which involves Mom first writing on the painting, and then getting ready to hand the pen to her daughter, but constantly getting distracted and walking away to show us something else. And then we are asked to participate in a traditional Christmas ritual (burning those dead aromatic leaves in a small bowl) and then there are the extended goodbyes. At this point, I really was thinking we weren’t ever, ever going to be allowed to leave. And I felt horribly guilty even thinking it. Because after all, this has been a day, a day of serendipity and adventure and sharing, and the only thing wrong, really, was that we were trying to do it all in a day. These lovely, gracious people, they wanted us to come out earlier, to stay awhile, for good reason, because they had so much to show us, to share with us, and we were too American to understand our great good fortune until it was nearly too late.

But finally, we did leave, of course, full of exaltation and exhaustion in equal measure. We made it back to Belgrade a mere four hours later than we intended, but what’s a little no sleep compared to this.

A couple of photos to follow. And Dr. W liked his flag very much.

Hristos se Rodi! Voistinu se Rodi!*