Last year my writing partner asked me to share a memory of Christmas for her blog; merrily my thoughts scurried across the Pond to magical Prague, city of 100 spires.
Ginger and Auld Lace was the result of that trip down memory lane.
GINGER AND AULD LACE
Czech Christmas in the City of 100 Spires
Dobrý den! Cheery Czech greetings to you, dear reader, on this wintry day.
When Evelyn asked me to pen a personal memory of Christmas for her blog, my heart flew at once to Prague, city of 100 spires (“města ve výši 100 věží”): Dec 24, 1995.
Robin and I were married earlier that year, and three months into our blissful domestic routines, he received an unexpected offer to transfer to the Czech Republic for the better part of a year with the Johannesburg office of Ernst & Young. He left the following Monday morning, and by the time I joined him a short time later, he was already familiar with a few words in the lovely language we would hear daily for the duration of our stay; comfortable with the layout of the convenient underground, bus and tram routes; and acquainted with a handful of beautiful people who would become lifelong friends.
Upon my arrival I was introduced to half a dozen South Africans, in addition to our new Czech “family”—with whom we lived for a while in charming Vila Anna on the outskirts of town. Magda’s language lessons enabled me to find my way around the local potraviny in search of groceries, and Karel’s cooking taught us to embrace the culinary delights of our home away from home. Little Katařina and I played happily in the nearby park for hours on end, neither one able to understand more than the basics of the other’s mother tongue. Needless to say, our first Christmas in foreign climes, surrounded as we were by strangers in a distant land, would prove to be most memorable.
For the first—and only—time in our marriage, we set up a cedar-sweet tree in our living room and adorned it with handcrafted lace angels (andělé z krajky), wooden tree ornaments (dřevěné ozdoby), edible freshly baked gingerbread men, and other treasures from the colourful Christmas market (Vánoční trh) in Old Town Square.
Just before supper, we opened the door of Na Výsluní 22 to our motley crew, red-cheeked and cheery. Robin and I had been chosen to host our South African crowd of colleagues and countrymen, and in lieu of the local tradition of Christmas carp—which swam around in the tub until transferred to the kitchen sink—I opted for a couple of roast chickens and a mini-feast of our favourite foods.
Keeping drinks cool proved no problem for bartender Joe: the little balcony overlooking the Strašnice tram line provided the perfect fridge. South African burgundy was served at room temperature, of course, in Bohemian crystal. A couple of us poured assorted liquids into gold-rimmed goblets and added to the symphony of sound by tinkling on the delicate rims with tiny teaspoons.
Janine, Myra and Tracey helped me cook (sampling or salvaging, as needed)—I forget which boy-chefs also tried to fit into our kitchen cubicle before we shooed them out—and soon the divinely inspired aromas of our banquet drew the remaining revellers in from the cold. As we held hands around the crowded living room table and gave thanks, our hearts rejoiced in the sweetness of this season. Each of us was separated from family and all things familiar—some for the very first time in our adult lives—and yet we were home.
The music-maker(s) among us entertained the group after supper. Michael (minus his enormous red ski jacket) played his klarinet—and the rest of us joined in by singing Christmas carols with gusto (some of us remember the music as heavenly; others say ’twas dodgy. Shaun recalls a flute—or was it a guitar? And I swear I can hear the sonorous notes of a saxofon. In retrospect, I think our reminiscences may be more musical than our one-man-band reality). If memory serves me well, someone got up and danced on the table after the plates were cleared … Shaun, perhaps? Or Warren’s brother, Tim, and his friend (Trevor?)—and who ate the gingerbread ornaments off the tree?!
Amidst the ginger and lace of our Christmas Eve spent in the shadow of the matchless Old Town clock—a train ride away from Staré Město (Old Town), Týnský Chrám (Tyn Cathedral) and Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square)—we had found a haven; a sacred sanctuary; a cosy cathedral of kinship.
In the months after Christmas, we walked as companions along the Vltava River, across Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) and up several flights of sober stairs to Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle) and on to St. Vitus Cathedral. Oh, those stained-glass windows!
What a privilege it was being in postcard-perfect Prague together—spring-skiing; shopping for Český křišťál; drinking Czech beer (“dvě piva, prosím”) and eating goulash with knedlíky (dumplings) and sweet palačinky (pancakes). We attended cultural events, savouring the music of Dvořak and following the Telemann Kvarteto around the city from one venue to the next; we dressed up for a night at the Rudolfinum with the Czech Philharmonic, and took in a Mozart show at the National Marionette Theatre. We traversed the countryside in search of countless castles and breweries and spas … and gathered together a lifetime of cherished memories to be brought out and dusted off during future Christmas Eves.
The magic of our snowy December night so long ago in Praha still fills a special chamber of our hearts. We lived life in all its fullness. Veselé Vánoce! Merry Christmas, to one and all.