The First Snow

As luck would have it, after two years and a half living in Estonia, my only local friend is a ghost.

Her name is Svetlana and she haunts the abandoned house right behind my apartment building. I met her when, out of curiosity, I stepped into the house hoping to find musky photographs and pictures on the walls, yellow books bent and twisted by moisture, maybe a piece of fine jewellery, or any forgotten secret awaiting to be revealed. Instead I found an old lady, floating a full feet above the wooden floor. And the first question I thought of asking was: “Are you a spirit?”. Big mistake. Here’s some advice: if you ever wish to become friends with a phantom, don’t ever ask them if they happen to be one. Sveta looked at me with such spite, it froze my blood more than her sudden apparition. “What a rude young man”, she said. I sincerely apologised for being so uncouth and I introduced myself: “My name is Jorge and I am Mexican”, I said, as if being Mexican served as an explanation for my impertinence. It’s a bad habit I’ve picked up since I moved here: mistaking every person I meet with a customs agent. In any case, announcing my nationality worked; she warmed up and said: “Oh, how exciting. I had never seen a Mexican before”. I was now the wronged one, but kept quiet.

Our friendship is weird; we have almost nothing in common. She is sixty something (I guess, but I have never asked and she has never disclosed how old she was when she passed; she’s vain like that) while I am 27. She keeps assuring me I am at my prime, which never fails to depress me.

An unsurmountable difference between us, is an ideological one. Sveta was brought up in the Soviet Union and she spent her last days dazzled by the wonders arriving from the West, once the Iron Curtain crumbled. There’s not an hour when she doesn’t complain about having died just when she was starting to savour the sweet-juicy fruits of the free market. I, on the other end, identify myself as a communist. I believe. I have read two Slavoj Zizek books and I have watched a video-essay on the Communist Manifesto. In any case, I love to be opposed to something. Whenever I tell her about capitalism’s cruelty, its shining façade hiding a dark oppression machinery, the savage plundering of land and people in the third world which sustains the first, she merely growls: “Bah”, and says: “I don’t need that; I know the verse since pre-school”.

Sveta’s dream is that her house will be torn down and a mall will be built, so she can wonder around linoleum floors during her restless nights, watching cloths she cannot sport, imagining the smell of perfumes she cannot try, fancying herself the owner of jewellery she cannot wear. I tell her that’s more or less my experience every time I enter a mall, since I see everything but can buy nothing with my meagre salary for my mind numbing job. “Bah”, Sveta gripes, and then proceeds to talk about Siberia, the Gulag, the Great Terror. What can I say?

Anyway, we never fight. I am too excited to have a ghost friend and she’s too excited to have a Mexican friend to quarrel about politics and economics.

A week had not yet passed since we’d met when Sveta asked me: “Are you good for anything other than complaining?”

“I like to read and I like to write”, was my answer. “Though even that I doubt now”. I tell her that, sometimes, I’m so anxious I’m forced to re-read a paragraph ten times and even then words slip down the surface of my eyes as if they were waxed. As for writing, I tell her I have forgotten how. I come up with ideas, but I lose them the moment I sit to type them. They leave me. As if they had just approached to tell me: “I am not yours”. I’m forgetting Spanish. I don’t even know what’s the point. I don’t mean only what’s the point with writing, but in general”.

“You’re complaining again”, Sveta pointed out.

This brief exchange got us talking about literature, though not even here do we see eye to eye. Once she asked me who were my favourite Latin American writers. I said: “Borges, Cortázar and Bolaño”. She got excited about the first two but had heard nothing of the third. Either way she asked me to borough something from them. A week after she handed me back the books with her opinion: “Too stiff, too weird and too much sex.” From then on, she stopped trusting me and she would only ask me about the writers she likes (many of whom, I did not know).

One afternoon, while Sveta spoke effusively of Mayakovsky, she paused to ask me: “Is the night in Veracruz, seen through the window of a moving train, really as beautiful as Mayakovsky writes?” I told her I had no idea. I did not know which poem she was referring to, trains haven’t carried people for decades now in Mexico, and the two times I’d been in Veracruz, I didn’t pay much attention to the night sky. She doesn’t let me speak much since then, but that’s fine, I don’t mind being audience. Listening to her speak about Bulgakov, or reciting poems from Anna Akhmatova from memory, is a pleasure.

The greatest difference between us is, after all, material. I am alive and she’s not.

Sometimes we talk about that. Sveta assures me she did not realise when she died. She says she went to sleep one night, specially tired, and the next day she resumed her day as always. Her two sons came later and they looked upset. Police and an ambulance followed. “Why the fuzz?”, Sveta inquired many times without answer. It wasn’t until many days later, when all her stuff was taken and nobody came to visit anymore when she said to herself: “I think I might be dead already”.

What she misses the most, she says, are flavours and smells. She remembers above all the smoky fragrance of the caravan tea her mother used to prepare in the samovar, with a taste too bitter for young Sveta, which she used to mask with too many blueberry jam teaspoons. She also remembers the butter and honey aroma which took over the small apartment for a whole day, whenever her Ukrainian grandmother insisted in making medovik cake all by herself. It was true, in all honesty, that the medovik was better, when grandma cooked alone.

Sveta is sad about being dead. I tried to offer comfort once by saying: “Being alive is not that great”, but she scolded me: “Don’t speak such foolishness”.

In spite of all our disagreements, we have found something that we both love: Christmas.

One December morning, I came to visit and she asked me about the advent candles in every window: “Is it Christmas already.” I said it was still two weeks ahead. “Oh, but it hasn’t snowed”, she replied in surprise. I wanted to explain how the horrid practices inherent to the system she so cherished were causing the world to warm, but I restrained myself. Instead I told her about the tree my girlfriend and I had just bought. “This was my favourite time of the year”, Sveta said, “and we also bought the yolka many days before the celebrations.”

The mentioning of the tree sent Sveta deep into her memories. In the USSR, she explained to me, the tree could clearly not be a Christmas one. For years trees were banned until an emotional politician wrote a sobby article in Pravda, asking how could the Soviet Union deprive their poor proletarian children of the joy of the tree they could once only envy through the windows of bourgeois houses. Other stories assured it was Stalin’s own daughter who, upon seeing a Christmas tree at the British embassy, asked her papa for one. However it might have been, from 1935, the Christmas tree returned, but as the novogodnyaya yolka, or New Year’s tree.

In the third week of December, when fir tree markets appeared all over Saint Petersburg, Sveta’s father bought a small one and took it home, where they put it in a bucket with water and secured it with rope. A dusty box was pulled out from the closet, full of silver tinsel, spheres, pine-cones Sveta had picked and painted herself, a rocket with sickle and hammer in golden, as well as a big red star Sveta, sitting on her father’s shoulders, placed on the tree top.

On New Year’s Eve, the family came together. They had borscht, buckwheat with fried onions and mushrooms, and a great apple-stuffed, slow roasted duck. They drank cognac and, after dinner, hot vzvar. Meanwhile, Sveta’s father and a small aunt would sneak out and appear at the front door, precisely at midnight, dressed as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, carrying a bag of gifts.

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Soviet New Year’s Postcard

Later in life, Sveta married a young Estonian man and she moved to Tallinn. Taavi, her husband, was a member of the ECP, but in private he was a practicing Lutheran who celebrated Christmas. The change from January 1 to December 25, the change from yolka to Christmas tree, and even the change from Ded Moroz to Santa Claus were of minor importance for Sveta. The only thing she cared about was that sweet return to childhood, once a year, reenacting the ritual with her own children.

I pondered for a moment and then said that, for me, it was all a mess; that every year I find it harder to enjoy Christmas; that I love it, but it’s a complicated love.

“I was raised a Catholic, but I haven’t been a believer for a long time. But without religion, what remains? And to top it all off, I’m against capitalism. You cannot be a communist and an atheist and still like Christmas! Oh, Sveta, my incongruity appalls me. I say I hate consumerism, but I’m entranced by the festoons, and the fake snow, and the thousand lights on every store. I remember the morning of Christmas, unwrapping my gifts, and the longing becomes remorse. I’m embarrassed by my petit-bourgeois sensibility. And let’s not even talk about the colonialist stench! What is a Canadian pine doing in a Mexican living-room? And what is an inflatable snow man doing at 86 degrees? Reindeers where even dogs have a hard time? Nothing makes sense. If you think about it, Christmas is an empty signifier.

Sentenced like that last one, I sprinkle on my conversations now and then to compensate the fact my Semiotics MA won’t get me a job. I awaited Sveta’s reaction and finally she said with real surprise: “And you say you have a girlfriend?”

Without the mental energy to take offence, I continued: “This is serious, Sveta. There is no escape. If I had children I could say it’s for them, that I am vicariously living their joy, but I don’t have them. Public opinion has a sound verdict: Any childless adult who enjoys Christmas in earnest is a soft-headed wimp. If anyone reads A Christmas Carol today, he does it ironically and laughing all the way. Or, maybe, fighting down tears, ashamed of being moved by such a corny book.”

“Oh, Dickens”, Sveta interrupted me, ignoring the rest of my cry. “I love Dickens. I remember the moment Bob Cratchit breaks down thinking about Tiny Tim and I also break into.”

John Leech

A Christmas Carol original illustration by John Leech

I confessed that, during most of my life, I knew A Christmas Carol only as a Muppets movie. It wasn’t until this vert year I read the book. I read it during one of my night shifts, in the blue light of the screen. I did have to take deep breaths to avoid crying in front of my coworkers upon reading about poor Bob Cratchit and his lost boy.

“What are Muppets?”, asked Sveta.

I downloaded A Christmas Carol with The Muppets and brought my computer to watch it with Sveta. In the beginning she was slightly put off by the inconsistency: some humans are humans and others are puppets; some animals are real-size and others are blown out or proportion. “My God”, she mumbled when the Cratchit marriage was revealed to be between a frog and a pig. Still, I did caught Sveta taking out her handkerchief to wipe the corner of her eyes a couple times. “It’s not so bad”, she said when the credits rolled: “But Dickens’ is better”.

Talking about A Christmas Carol we got to talk about Hoffmann’s Nutcracker, which I knew from animated movies they used to put on TV around this time of year when I was little, and which Sveta knew from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. From Hoffman we went on to Andersen and his sorrowful Fir Tree, or the even more depressing The Little Match Girl. “Bah”, Sveta said about this last one, “Dostoevsky’s take is so much better”.  

I had no idea Dostoevsky had written holiday stories and Sveta, taking my ignorance as a personal insult, ordered me to look for The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree and A Wedding and a Christmas Tree “in my weird device.”

Indeed, the first one is remarkably similar to The Little Match Girl; equally tear-jerking and both feature passive infanticide, as well as an encounter with a deceased loved one in heaven. Dostoevsky’s, however, has a full city where everyone is hostile or indifferent to the poor child. A Wedding and a Christmas Tree dabbles with child abuse too, but this one, for a reader today, is more disturbing since it includes a fat adult – with a hefty dowry in mind – flirting with an 11 year-old girl who just wants to keep grooming her doll. The miserable child of a governess also makes an appearance and is forced to see all the wealthy boys getting toys for gifts, while he gets an illustration-less book.

“Both stories have class-conflict all over them”, I tell Sveta. “You’re not getting nostalgic, are you?”, I tease. Sveta growled: “Bah”.

My bad jokes did not prevent Sveta from reading more holiday stories from her childhood to me during the following days. We read Chekhov’s The Christmas Tree, where the protagonist is yet another unhappy child (I begin to wonder if there has ever been a happy child in Russia); as well as At Christmas Time, which, in keeping with the general mood, is very gloomy, and which I didn’t understand. My favourite one was The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol; by far the most peculiar. There’s a Moon-stealing demon and a flying witch, and a dark, vodka-fueled night bringing forth both violence and romance.

“And you tell me Cortázar is too weird”, I complained jokingly.

Beyond Dickens, Sveta’s knowledge of English-language literature is sparse, so, in repayment for her many stories, I have read to her O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, whose anecdote she found endearing, but deplorably written; and Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory which made her sob uncontrollably. Having exhausted my inventory with only two short stories, I showed her A Charlie Brown Christmas, which, to my deepest chagrin, bored her, though she conceded Charlie is similar to me: “Another killjoy”, she declared laughing, as her vaporous arm gave me a pat on the back.

December continues and still no snow. Sveta is genuinely mad. “How? Is there going to be no snow for New Year’s Eve?”, she asks me as if I was the weatherman or a seer. I’m not mad; disappointed maybe. “It’s weird”, I tell her. “All my life without snow, and after two winters in Estonia now I demand snow for Christmas”. Sveta tells me what she missed the most about Saint Petersburg after moving to Tallinn was snow. “Snow here”, she says, “seemed always less to me. Clouds in Saint Petersburg, though, there they are generous. Sometimes it seemed as if they all had fell on the city’s squares and parks, on the building tops and the palaces roofs”. I tell her about a morning, when I was six or seven, when I woke up to a snowfall. “Newspaper’s still remember that day every year”, I say. I tell her of Golfo, my Alaskan Malamute, so used to my city’s heat, poor thing, but that day he must have recalled his heritage and recognised in the few falling snowflakes his true nature, because he started howling and jumping, snapping his snout, trying to catch snow.

To take our minds off from the mediocre weather, I have played A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by Dylan Thomas himself, in his deep booming voice. “What a sound, huh?”, I tell Sveta. She replies gloomily: “That’s another thing I miss; the sound of words.” Apparently, language is another thing we lose in death, that’s why I’ve been able to talk with Sveta. Only the skeleton of it remains. But along with the obstacles go the gifts. I tried to explain: “Oh, Sveta, imagine a snowy day, the sound of a creek, the cold water running over pebbles, the wind blowing the foliage of pine trees, and from far away the roaring of the waves crashing on the cliffs. Just like that. A soft and peaceful, yet menacing sound, all intensified by that temple-like silence of the snow.”

I don’t know if she understood, but she smiled.

Yesterday was Christmas Eve and I came to visit Sveta. For days I was thinking of a good gift for her, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Everything she misses is out of her reach.

“Anyway, don’t you have any Mexican short stories?”, she inquired the minute I crossed the door. “I know just one, Christmas in The Mountains”, I replied, and, knowing well how impatient she is, I looked it up and began reading.

At first, Sveta was in awe with that image of Mexico as seen from the eyes of a lone soldier, wondering along hazy mountain tops. The moment the priest appears in the story, though, Sveta was annoyed. “And this is the priest we ought to admire? This obnoxious man?”

She was bothered by the priest arriving in an indigenous village and believing he had rescued them from “idolatry and barbarism”; that he had re-built the town to his liking, with gardens, ornaments and roofs which made it look like “villages in Savoy and the Pyrenees”; that he had forced them to trade tortillas for bread; and that it all was shown as righteous. “You tell me how Christmas is celebrated in Mexico”, she asked me instead.

I explained customs change depending on the region, the social class, the family; but I did my best to paint the picture she wants. I tell her about the posadas; about the decorated churches’ squares and streets; about the steaming ponche pots, the tamales and buñuelos; about the proverbial piñatas with their paper spikes and their clay bellies full of peanuts and sugar cane and tangerines; about the reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s strife to find asylum, during which both children and adults half-heartedly pray and sing, interested only in the party.

I tell her too about the pastorelas, every single year in every pre-school and primary school; I tell her I was both a devil and an angel, a sheep and a shepherd; I tell her my brother was once a star, when he was maybe one year old, and that he hung from the ceiling for an hour, dressed in a makeshift costume made out of cardboard and foil.

I tell her about the nativity, which in our house was ambitious and surreal, and went far beyond the manger of Bethlehem. There were tiny roof tiles and diminutive hay stacks, and a desert with real sand and an oasis where a crocodile lived. There was a huge river where real water ran and a plastic platypus – whose origin we could never explain – swam. There were dozens of shepherds, some of them true veterans with missing limbs. There was a forest and a jungle for the toy tiger and lion and fox we just couldn’t leave out. And there was a Mexican desert, where a lady sold tortillas and a peasant rode a donkey.

I tell her about the fir tree and its fragrance.

And I tell her about how we kept everything: nativity, tree, lights, for too long – the nativity crumbling, the tree branches almost bare and scratching the floor. It wasn’t out of spite or indolence. My dad refused to let this stuff go. He was happy. And I was too.

Sveta listened to me during all this time with her eyes closed and when I finally finished she merely nodded and smiled.

I wished her a merry Christmas, although for her it wouldn’t be Christmas until a couple weeks later. We hugged and said goodbye.

“Write me a Christmas story!”, she shouted when I was stepping out.

My girlfriend and I went to Tartu to spend the holidays with friends, and when we came back we found the abandoned house, along with two empty lots, enclosed by a fence with a construction firm logo on it. I sneaked in, but the doors and windows were secured. I slipped the pages of my story under the door.

I honestly hope Sveta’s dream comes true and they build here a big shopping mall, with a department store of at least two flores, where the shoe shelves, and the clothes racks, and the perfume bottles, and the jewellery cabinets, multiplied in numberless mirrors, will be enough to fill her eternity.

 

In the meantime, we wait for the first snow.

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