The third weekend in Advent has always been my favorite. I think it’s the most peaceful day of Christmas. There is a sense of anticipation in the air, and in the northern hemisphere, sometimes it is accompanied by a sense of snow. People are going about their Christmas preparations, but they still keep a leisurely pace, before the frenzy sets in that may take hold of them at the approach of the fourth and last weekend. As I look back on the Christmases I have known, I find my most treasured times took place on the third weekend of Advent.
One in particular I remember in the early nineteen eighties. My wife Lucy was healthy. Our daughter had not even been born. I was trying to get into the shipping business and I had spent the autumn in Athens. Lucy flew out to be with me, and on the third Saturday of Advent we sat in Zonars Café, which then wasn’t fancy— a traditional Greek café with attentive service. We had bought Christmas cards at the Benaki Museum and we sat together at a table to write them, fortified by ever replenishing pots of tea.
This year in Berlin I experienced a similar feeling. I had not slept well the night before—I awoke before three and was unable to go back to sleep. I did what I usually do when that happens and got up and sat in an armchair with a blanket around me, and wrote—this time a dispassionate and unaccusing letter to someone who had treated me thoughtlessly. By dawn, the letter was done, and I went back to bed with a pleasant empty feeling.
“Now you have space for many more worries,” said my friend and neighbor Udo. Besides having an ironic sense of humor Udo also has a scanner. I had asked him if he could help me scan some photos to send to my publisher in Athens
who has started to collect them for my next book. While we waited for the scanner to scan the photos with its slow, rhythmic sound, I reminisced with Udo, inspired by the photos of times gone by.
“A long time ago,” Udo said, coming upon a photo of my mother as a young Greek woman holding an almost newborn baby in what appears to be a London drawing room.
“And this one is not so long ago,” I said, showing him a photo of me, my daughter and my father. In the photo my
daughter is four or five years old, and far from being a newborn, I was near fifty.
Udo looked thoughtful. “So when your daughter was born you were forty five years old.”
“Forty-six,” I said.
Udo laughed. “I was half that when my elder son was born.”
When we had finished our work, I went back to my apartment to leave the box of photos, picked up a Christmas card that I wanted to mail to my brother in London (although it was after one, and I knew the post office must now be closed,) and I picked up the shirts and the pair of trousers I had left on a chair by the front door. There was still time to take them to the cleaners as it closes at two on Saturdays instead of weekdays when it closes at six. When I got there, the woman was standing by the door with some other customers who were leaving. I said “Guten tag” to her, not “Zdrastvutye,” which is hello in Russian because I know Russians often don’t like to talk Russian in front of German people, and she wouldn’t have liked me to talk Russian to her in front of the other customers. Together, the lady and I counted three shirts and one pair of trousers, which the lady said I could pick up on Thursday in the afternoon.
Then I started up the street towards Hauptstrasse (High Street,) now carrying only my book with the card and the envelope addressed to my brother acting as a bookmark. The post office was about a hundred yards up Hauptstrasse to the left, but I knew it must be shut now. So I crossed Hauptstrasse towards the Croissanterie where I knew there often were delicious apricot croissants, sometimes freshly baked.
I asked the young lady if it was possible that I could have an apricot croissant. The young lady said there were no more but if I was willing to wait ten minutes, she would bake me
one. I said of course I would wait. I sipped a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and leafed through Harper’s Bazaar in German.
When the croissant came, it was steaming hot and deliciously fresh. I had a cup of tea with it, and as I ate it in ever diminishing chunks, I remembered what Greeks say when something is truly delicious.
“It’s a loukoumi.”
As I was paying, the young woman asked me if I would like to take the last baguette, as a present. It took me a moment to understand what she was offering, and then I said of course I would. “ I’ll go and buy a piece of cheese and I won’t need supper,” I said, and as she wrapped the baguette I had a sense that I was in an O. Henry story that was the reverse of
The Gift of the Magi, where everyone gets what he or she wants.
Back on Hauptstrasse, I saw people going into the post office. Was it possible that it stayed open later on Saturday’s in Advent? In Germany that would be as much of a miracle as if we saw the star of Bethlehem leading to the East. As I came closer, I noticed that there was no long line leading almost to the front door as there would have been if the post office were open for business. Outside the front door a woman was sitting on the steps holding a paper cup. I started up on the other end of the steps, not to avoid her, but because that way I could hold onto the railing as I climbed one step at a time. There was no one inside except a woman standing by the stamp machine, a cell phone cradled under her chin. I’d forgotten that. Even when the post office was closed you could still buy stamps from the machine.
“Do you know how much a stamp costs to send a letter to England?” I asked the woman.
“I don’t understand you,” the woman said.
There was nothing very complicated about what I said, but I repeated it with elaborately clear pronunciation.
“How much does it cost to send a letter to England?
The woman seemed angry.
“I don’t understand you when you talk,” she said, “And can’t you see I’m busy on the phone?”
The woman did not wait for an answer, took her stamps and turned away, still holding the cell phone against her ear.
“Well, Merry Christmas,” I said.
Another woman who had just come in and heard the exchange asked me if she could mich hilfen.
“Do you know how much a stamp for Europa costs?’ I said.
The woman seemed troubled, and said she knew within Germany it was 70 cents. The next largest slot on the machine was 85 cents, and the one after that was two euros.
“I wonder if it’s 85 cents for the rest of Europe? I said.
The woman didn’t know. Clearly she had never mailed a letter to the rest of Europe, let alone England which was about to stop being a part of Europe.
I wonder what it is about stamps that makes people watch their pennies. If you’d asked me to pay two euros in cash to make sure the letter got there, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But the thought of overpaying the postage in bright visible rows of surplus stamps smacked of reprehensible extravagance. I put a one euro piece into the slot marked 85 cents, and instead of getting 15 cents change, I got an eighty-five cent stamp, a ten cent stamp and a five cent stamp, which after moistening the backs I laid in a festive stripe across the top of the envelope. Outside, I went back to the other side of the steps. A man had just come up and at the top of the steps, in the polite German way, he waited for me to start going down the middle. But as the steps were steep, I motioned to him that I wanted to go down along the bannister which required me passing through the space where he was standing. So he came up first, and I went down next, holding the bannister around a euro coin in my hand.
“Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Won’t you please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a half-penny will do.
If you haven’t got a half-penny God bless you.”
I went down the steps one at a time, then crossing to the woman’s side of the steps, looking at her for the first time, I put the euro in her cup. She was a gypsy woman, with dark hair and red lips and a scarf around her head. She thanked me, and I went down Haupstrasse toward the cheese shop where I bought a piece of stilton and a slice of duck paté to eat with my baguette.
Merry Christmas to all
And to all a goodnight.