Nothing but the tooth

When it comes to wisdom teeth, the world is divided into haves and have-nots. Those that have suffer stoically while those that have-not continue on, blissfully unaware of their good fortune.

Sometimes the have-nots playfully roll their tongues to the back of their mouths and say: “Oh, I don’t think I’ve got any! But I’m honestly not sure!”

You’d know, trust me.

Not only have I got a wisdom tooth, I’ve also got a wisdom tooth infection. Just in time for Christmas.

Arriving home to my parental home in poor condition has become a festive tradition. Last year I spent Christmas wrapped in a blanket hogging the sofa nursing Lemsips.

This year I came in dental agony, prompting fears that I am in fact poorly all-year around.

Having never experienced intense, shooting pain like it before, I asked my mother tearily how she ever managed to give birth.

“Your toothache might be worse than giving birth!” she said modestly. “At least with childbirth you know it’s going to be over in a while.”

My father took me to a dentist in Sandymount.

image source: Wikimedia Commons

image source: Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, you poor pet,” the dentist said, looking into my mouth.

Then she sent me to stand in an X Ray machine, clasping a piece of plastic in my mouth.

“Your tooth needs to come out,” she said. “But it’s too risky for me to do, as it’s right on this nerve.”

My nerve is a long white snake stretching from my tooth to my ear. Pain has been shooting along it for days now. I will probably need to go to a German hospital to get my tooth pulled. My way of dealing with that eventuality is to ignore it.

My father came with me to Rathmines to pick up some antibiotics and intense painkillers.

I paid for them using my VISA card. Then I went into the hairdresser’s to book an appointment.

Last night my father said: “I marvelled at the debonair confidence with which you sailed through your errands in Rathmines earlier.”

I blinked at him.

“You remind me of your sister (the one in America)” he said. “She also pays with plastic.”

“How do you pay?” I asked him.

“I pay with cash,” he said nostalgically.

“Yes, but what do you do when you don’t have enough?”

“I write cheques,” he said. “A dying art.”

My father opposes change of any kind. As long as we avoid talking about politics, it’s not much of a problem.

In fact, as an emigree, the certainty that nothing will change at home can be reassuring.

My father’s constancy is primarily associated with food.

Therefore, I can be absolutely assured that no matter what time of year I return home, there will be a bowl full of soaking butterbeans on the kitchen table and a half-open packet of Lidl cream crackers.

Yesterday my mother made her trademark exquisite celeriac soup. Later she hung up our walnut baby Jesus on the Christmas tree.

In the evening we watched a poorly-dubbed version of Ceclia Ahern’s “PS Ich liebe dich” on German television.

And I curled up wrapped in a blanket munching Dominosteine on one side of my mouth.

There’s no place like home.

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Christmas with Frau B

Willy Brandt wouldn’t really have been my type,” Frau Bienkowski says, examining the Tagesspiegel’s full-page spread in his honour.

“Nor mine” I say.

“He was a bit of a womaniser.”

“Well, just as well he’s not our type!”

Willy Brandt  source: Wiki Media

Willy Brandt
source: Wiki Media

She laughs. “Shall we get some coffee?”

“Sure!”

“So Katechen, tell me about your week.”

I tell her about my friend’s visit and our trip to Dresden. And about work and the Christmas parties I’d been to.

She tells me her niece is arranging a little Christmas party for her and that the cooks downstairs have agreed to roast them a goose.

This will be Frau B’s 95th Christmas. She has decorated her room with electric candles (real ones are deemed too hazardous in the home), a bunch of deep red flowers and a table cloth she made herself.

We agree that Christmas is an event choreographed by women and enjoyed by men.

“I remember my father standing by the fire once. It was just after Christmas and he was saying ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful time of year! I could do this all over again.’ Quick as lightening my mother piped up ‘No wonder – you didn’t have to lift a finger! ’”

Frau P smiles. “I’ll never forget that!”

I take out my gift for Frau P.

It is poorly wrapped in grey tissue paper.

She opens it gingerly and fingers the picture frame.

Because she has impeccable manners she says immediately: “Oh, it’s lovely!”

But I can tell she hasn’t seen it properly yet. I wait for a moment while she examines it more closely.

“Is that… us?” she asks.

“Yes!”

“But when..?”

“Do you remember my parents when my parents came to visit in the summer?” I say.

“Oh yes!” she says. “Thank you, Katechen – that makes me really happy!”

“Now,” she says. “It’s my turn.”

“What? Frau B … you’re shouldn’t have.. ”

She hands me a little package wrapped in reindeer-themed paper. “It’s just five bars of chocolate,” she says. “You know I can’t get out to the shops.” Then she presses an envelope into my hand.

“Open this at home,” she says. “It’s for you and Andrew. I made an attempt at writing but you know I’m no longer capable of it.”

I stammer a thanks and tuck the envelope into my bag.

I pick up the book about the Irish nuns.

(My current fine on it is €8.75)

“It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this,” she says. “We are just so good at chatting!”

“I reckon we’ll have it done by this time next year,” I venture.

“Oh come on Katechen,” she says. “How long are you expecting me to live?”

“Oh, there’s life left in you yet!” I say – brightly because that is the only way to talk about death to a 95 year-old.

Later on at home, I open the envelope. Inside is €30.

I can’t make out much of what it says in the card inside but I can discern the word “Katechen.”

LSB and Kate Katharina Fail to Elope

LSB’s arrival scene had been playing on loop in my head for several weeks. I would stand at the dingy arrivals hall at Schonefeld looking radiant. LSB would get off the plane and fly into my arms. We would embrace. He would vow to abandon his studies in Edinburgh with immediate effect. We would elope. Publishers would flock to our door offering him a job. If that didn’t happen, I would pick up enough freelance shifts to hire him as my domestic servant.

But my dreams were thwarted by wintry showers. The trains on the way to the airport were cancelled. LSB’s flight was due in at 12.40. I was shivering at a train station at the time. The plane had the audacity to land punctually. At 12.45 LSB called me.

“Katzi! I can’t believe you’re trying to dodge me. After all this time!”

“Did you not get my text?” I cried. “I’ll be there soon, promise.”

“Four months!” he said, sighing.

The S45 condescended to arrive. When it pulled in at Schoenefeld, I dashed like there was no tomorrow. I arrived panting and with a pile of snowy slush heaped on each of my boots. LSB was standing there, looking maddeningly nonchalant. “Oh you turned up then?” he said.

LSB and Lego snowman

LSB and Lego snowman

I welcomed him with a punch.

LSB has aged gracefully since I last saw him in August. The highland air has been kind to his complexion and he even trimmed his beard in anticipation of our reunion. He still insists on wearing unsuitable canvas shoes in all weather and lists meeting Joe Duffy as the most momentous occasion of his life.

The highlight of LSB's life to date

The highlight of LSB’s life to date

The last few days have been idyllic. We have been streaming Seventh Heaven online and pressing pause at opportune times. Reverend Eric Camden’s expression of brave resilience has been etched, again and again in our memories. Last night we listened to the Adrian Kennedy phone-show.

Sometimes we interrupt our analysis of the Camdens with weighty conversations about our future. When we get tired of that we go to the Christmas market and buy a bag of five Quark balls, which we share in an equitable ratio of 4 to me and 1 to LSB.

Sometimes we use our infinite wisdom and experience of travel to cast wistful judgement on the country we’ve left behind. Ireland has become homogeneous and backward since we left.

We wonder how the Catholic Church can still have such a hold. And we wonder if the recession will ever end.

Then we smile when we think about cosy nights in the pub with friends, Tayto crisps and the way Grafton Street twinkles at Christmas time.2012-12-15 17.03.59 - Copy

We may have been temporarily evicted but it’s home, glorious home and the craic at Christmas will be almighty.

Let it snow, please let it snow.

It was morning, my least favourite time of day and I was tired. I’d worked until 2 am and was due back in at 10. I was still blurry eyed when I tore open the curtains and was half-way to my dresser-mirror, ready to contemplate the enormous bags that had inevitably festered themselves below my eyes, when I did a double take and let out a tiny squeal.

It was snowing.

I had not seen this coming. Granted, it’s been cold. But given that being cold is my default it would have been a leap to expect snow. I could have checked the weather forecast but with such foresight my life would be entirely without thrills.

I squealed again on the way to the train station and smiled stupidly at strangers, who looked irritated as they battled through the cold.

I sat at a computer beside a window and tried to sound hip as I translated a technology show, known apparently for its ironic tone and trendy catchphrases.

But all I could think about was snow.

Snow is the material which exempts me from adulthood. It is the compound which brings a rush through my body, makes my heart skip and causes me to squeal.

I spent every winter of my childhood in a continued state of daring hope followed by crushing disappointment. I remember vividly rushing into my parents’ bedroom at an ungodly hour to check if it had snowed overnight. I remember the familiar sadness that overcame me as soon as the green of the grass and the bleak black of the sycamore branches in the garden were revealed.

Grown-ups don’t like snow. They say it’s a pain. It causes traffic chaos and turns to sludge.

Two years ago, LSB took me to the Christmas markets in Nurnberg. It was possibly the best move he could have made in our relationship (which would you believe, celebrated its 5th birthday last week; he sent me a card with a crocodile wearing a party hat and blowing out a candle beneath the caption “5 Today”). The snow reached up to our knees and we spent three glorious days drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate laced with amaretto. For those of you nostalgic for my juvenilia, you can read about my experience with the Christmas markets in Regensburg here.

LSB and I at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

LSB and me at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

By the time I completed my last jazzy sentence for the technology show, the snow had disappeared but the feeling remained. I headed into town and spent the evening wandering around the Christmas markets at Alexander Platz. I treated myself to a little cardboard plate of rosemary potatoes. I even paid an extra 50 cent for Tzatziki. The texture was divine, the rosemary subtle but brilliant. But they were cold.

As I waiting for the underground home, I watched an old woman drinking beer. She was wearing Birkenstock sandals with socks. She had a wide face and a big forehead. She almost looked noble but I suspect in fact that she was very sad.

My left-leaning Christmas tree from Crumlin

If there is an awkward, complicated way of accomplishing an easy task, the Ferguson family has found it. At Christmas, this means leaving buying a tree until very late and then refusing to bring the car out to transport it home. And of course refusing to buy one close by, because they can be found more cheaply further away.

This year was no different. Given that it’s only four days until Christmas, today seemed like the appropriate time to acquire a tree.

“Dad, we should get a tree”, I said stuffing a potato waffle into my mouth.
“Righteo. Let’s go”
“What, now? I’m eating!”
“We’ll leave in five.”
“FINE.”

Grabbing my coat and boots, I found my dad at the door.
“I’m cycling. Will you accompany me?”
“Nyee… No.I’m wearing a skirt.. and these boots aren’t suitable. You can wheel your bike there and then we’ll carry the tree on it in on the way home.”

He seemed to be okay with this.

Until we were making our way down the canal and he cycled off, leaving me trotting behind, fuming, resentful and futile. I chased him all the way around Harold’s Cross but we found none of the usual haunts open for business.

Dejected, we parted. I dared him to return home without a Christmas tree.

Sure enough, an hour later, I heard the gate creak open and caught a glimpse of my father’s head bopping between a mass of bushy branches.

We argued about the best way to fit the tree through the door. He heaved it all the way into the dining room, where he dumped it unceremoniously against the bookcase. “Got it in Crumlin”, he boasted before announcing he had to dash out again.

Alone now, I took a look at the specimen before me. An absolute beauty. Totally symetrical, full-bodied and tall, with a well-endowed base. This was the Beyoncé of all trees. My Papsi had done well.

The rest of my day went something like this:

I went to the garden and found a large green pot full of earth but without signs of vegetation. Armed with an enourous spade, I emptied it out and marvelled at the reflexive movements of the pinkish-blue worms which resembled varicose veins. Then I boiled several kettles of water and washed it down. My favourite part of the day happened next.

While I returned to the kitchen, I left the pot on the grass. I’d poured in some boiling water and a little cloud of steam was rising from it. When I came back, I found a robin perched at the edge of the pot, with its little red breast all puffed up and its head errect, enjoying a sauna.

I spent a long time cleaning that pot and making the acquaintance of a number of worms, who didn’t seem to want to engage in small talk with me and even, on a few occasions, phsyically recoiled with fear.

When I had finally finished, I brought the pot inside, and lined it with a collonade of bricks, which we happen to keep in our garden.

I took a firm hold of the tree and lugged it over to the window. Employing every ounce of strength my small and under-exercised frame would allow, I lifted it up and tried to jam it into the pot. It didn’t fit.

I breathed in deeply, turned on Mooney Goes Wild and relined my pot. This time it slipped in seemlessly, and, while it is now stable, it leans slightly to the left, which is a position I can identify with.

I was so happy alone in the house today, carrying one box of German Christmas decorations after the other up the stairs and unpacking it all to find it all just as I had packed it away last year. I whiled away six or seven hours dressing my full-bodied, left-leaning tree from Crumlin.

My heart did a little skip when I found my favourite decoration again. It is a little baby (probably Jesus) wrapped in a pink blanket, sleeping inside a walnut shell.

I am incredibly attached to the walnut baby. I would dispense with all our straw stars, our wooden horses, our glass presents and our golden baubles just to save this little one. It’s so simple, so lovely, so constant.

I hung it up on a protected branch near the top of the tree and this evening, in my armchair sipping a glass of spiced apple wine, I watched it swing slightly under a white light and thought that the best moment of Christmas was passing before my eyes.