I was raised by two beautiful, captivating and gloriously insane Czech women – a mother and a grandmother who my husband affectionately calls “The Gabor Sisters.” As in Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor (who are actually Hungarian and pictured here with their mother). For those of you scratching your heads, Google them. It’s worth it.
As I was growing up, what struck me most about my mother and grandmother – apart from their uber-dramatic lives and their goonishly big-hearted gestures – was that neither of them thought “the rules” applied to them.
My grandmother had come to the USA in the early 1950s – not exactly at the pinnacle of the women’s movement – yet in my more earnest years, when I demanded to know what discrimination she’d suffered as a woman in the workforce, she looked at me quizzically.
I went on to explain what I meant -
“Barely gettin’ by
It’s all taken and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit,
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
-Dolly Parton, from the song 9 to 5
My grandmother still didn’t get it.
Finally, she lost patience with me and said, “Look, wherever I work, within five years I was always the boss of men.”
And it was TRUE!
Even by today’s standards, my grandmother had an amazing career running the business-end of three five-star French restaurants simultaneously. These were places that used to host Studio 54 regulars like Mick Jagger and other people my grandmother wasn’t particularly impressed with.
It’s not that she maintained discrimination against our sex hadn’t existed in her day – she was sure it had. She just didn’t see what that had to do with her.
I really couldn’t tell you why, exactly, the glass ceiling was more of light mist for her. On paper, she was an immigrant woman who came to America at twenty-eight years of age with $10 bucks between her and my grandfather and no English skills.
I can only say that my grandmother carried herself with a dignity and authority that said “watch out.”
Some years ago she even recounted to me a story of a millionaire boss who up and confessed his love for her one day after work and begged her to run away with him. She told him in no uncertain terms that she was a married woman and that if he continued to behave in this way she would be forced to find other employment.
Of course, he apologized profusely, pleaded with her to stay and the incident was never mentioned again. Until my grandfather found out and made her quit that job.
Which she did, moving onward and upward.
But I don’t mean to imply that her rise was always paved with rose petals. My grandmother was once fired for being Czech. She was working at a brokerage firm where she became, characteristically, the “boss of men.”
Until the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
A spontaneous, nation-wide revolt against Soviet policies, it was the first credible threat to the USSR since the end of the Second World War. Thousands of civilians were killed and it was a crushing defeat not only for Hungarians, but for democracy.
And the Czechs hadn’t stood with their Soviet-occupied counterparts. In fact, Czech tanks – on Soviet orders – made their way into Budapest.
When my grandmother went into work after this development, her boss screamed for her to get out and never return.
Devastated, she wandered outside, where she bumped into the owner of a rival brokerage firm and told him what happened. Long story short, she was hired on the spot because that broker had heard stories of how good she was – ironically, from the man who’d fired her.
My mother, on the other hand, has always been the Queen of the get-around.
Though a valued employee, she didn’t have quite the high-falutin’ success my grandmother enjoyed. She did, however, manage to get away with murder in other areas.
To my knowledge, my mother has never parked in a legal parking space. What is extraordinary about her experience isn’t her blatant flouting of the law, but the fact that she has never, ever, not once, paid a parking ticket. The tickets she has accrued have always been dismissed, ignored or torn up on the spot. In one case my mother waltzed out of her workplace to find a police officer actually putting his own money into her meter. Not finding anything in the least bit strange about this, she thanked him cheerfully, then drove away.
My mom can haggle her way into a designer dress at Saks Fifth Avenue that she couldn’t otherwise afford. She can get her hands on a brand new computer for a pitance. Whatever it is, she can find her way to it, around it, on top of it, through it or dig her way to the other side of it.
And though she is charming as h*ll, her way with a smile and a well-placed compliment doesn’t begin to make clear her ability to get what she wants – all the time. If it had merely been good looks and flattery, that wouldn’t explain why, at seventy and up about 40 pounds, she can still get the same results. I’m telling you, after an apocalypse, I’m sticking with her.
As a kid, I thought this Twilight Zone-y mind over matter experience was specific to the women in my family – you know, like having blue eyes or being left-handed. But once I moved to Prague and met other Czech women in their natural habitat I wasn’t so sure…
But I’ll let you decide.
The following are a list of 6 basic traits that have come to my attention over years of observing and interacting with women of the Czech persuasion – including, but not exclusive to the women in my family.
1. Czech Women Are Babes: Don’t take my word for it. Just check any list of supermodels, either from today or yesteryear, and you’ll find a disproportionate number of Czech women on it. Anyone from 80s sensation Paulina Porizkova to more modern day gals like Eva Herzigova, Eva Poloniova, Karolina Kurkova and so on and so on. My own husband can barely breathe when riding the Prague metro because of the bevy of beautiful women around him. Our son is already lobbying for a year abroad at Charles University there – and he’s only twelve.
2. Czech Feminists Look At Things a Little Bit Differently Than Their American (or British) Counterparts: A Czech girlfriend of mine, a passionate feminist with a PhD in biochemistry and a minor degree in Hindi that she got just for fun, I guess, once said to me, “Why do American feminists despise men? Don’t they enjoy making love?”
I nearly choked on my Pilsner.
Consequently, when Czech feminists start talking about, well, feminism – the equality and possibly superiority of women on both an intellectual and sensual level, the need of women to be heard, respected, whispered to, worshiped and given equal pay and a fair representation at the highest levels of industry and government. Well, let’s just say that by the time we get there, even the most hostile-to-the-concept alpha male will lean in and say, “I’m a feminist, too.” And he will mean it.
3. Czech Women (including intellectuals and even women on the mommy track) Are Sexy Dressers: I’ve known quite a few Czech female intellectuals (and they don’t mind calling themselves such), and not a single one of them dresses like a frumpy schoolmarm. Case in point, the above mentioned friend spoke her observation about American feminists with a full mouth of lipstick, a cigarette, a short pencil skirt and a tight shirt that showed-off a fabulous chest. It would never occur to her that such an outfit might render her “less serious” and her many professional accomplishments seem to agree. My fellow Czech mothers are never opposed to short shorts or stiletto heels – sometimes even worn together and while pushing a baby carriage (I kid you not – I’ve actually witnessed this on more than one occasion).
This was my doctor in Prague.
And my lawyer.
Okay, maybe more like this.
4. Czech Women Win Every Argument: And they’ll use any method within their arsenal to secure victory. This, of course, can be an unfortunate trait for those who love them or even cross their paths, but it’s one to be admired nonetheless. They don’t do it by shouting, or brow-beating or God-forbid withholding affection, but through a labyrinthine sequence of manipulations that leave their opponent scratching his (or her) head and wondering what happened. Yes, they are the women literature warned you about.
5. Czech Women Are Natural Athletes: Again – just look look up any old list of Wimbledon Champions, gold-medalist skiers, etc. For such a small country, the amount of World Class female (and male) athletes the Czech Republic produces is pretty amazing. Is anyone reading this old enough to remember how Ivana Trump skied backwards while berating her then-husband, Donald, over his tawdry affairs? You don’t want to mess with that.
6. Despite a Penchant For Six-inch Heels, Czech Women Are Outdoorsy, Even Back-to-Nature Types: A Czech woman will strip naked and dive into any old trout stream, climb a tree or chop one down if she has to. My own aunt can field dress a bear – often while wearing a push-up bra and rhinestone earrings. It may not be blind luck that Czech Supermodel Petra Nemcova survived the Tsunami of 2004 by hanging on for her dear life as a death current of debris rushed by her. Petra’s boyfriend, sadly, did not make it.
Czech women – no matter how pretty – are tough.
Now, I’m not saying that all Czech women have all of these qualities. In my own family – as far as I know – we have no supermodels. And my mom actually hates the outdoors. My grandmother, while she lived, wouldn’t be caught dead in pair of stilettos. But I have noticed a preponderance of these traits in women born in the Czech lands. And you have to admit, if you came across a woman with even some of these attributes, you might just put your arms in the air and back up – your heart pounding – and say, “Easy, lady. I don’t want any trouble. But I wouldn’t mind just a little…kiss.”
My grandparents had close friends – Sonja and Jiri – who high-jacked a plane to escape communist Czechoslovakia. Sonja said her hand was shaking so badly that she couldn’t have hit a target had she tried. Not that she would have tried – she’d never held a gun before let alone shot one. Until that very day she’d been the pampered wife of a diplomat.
To her relief, the other passengers just sat there, bewildered, and not necessarily upset by the turn of events. After all, they were getting a free ride to a free country and that probably weighed more heavily on their minds than the pretty woman with the trembling fingers and fancy handbag. Sonja and Jiri’s defection had forced every person on that flight to make a decision right then and there as to whether they would stay in a new country, leaving their families, their language and their culture behind, or go back to what they knew – even if they didn’t like it.
People often underestimate the kind of determination it takes to give up a homeland. To leave behind a sense of belonging that only comes from being born and raised in a specific place. To know that in many cases returning will never be possible – either for political or financial reasons. Think about that. Never.
It is no wonder that immigrants so often make more valued employees and better citizens than their native-born counterparts. My grandfather had been a famous athlete in Czechoslovakia, but there was no factory job too good for him in the U.S. No floor he wouldn’t stoop to wash.
And to my knowledge he didn’t complain about it either.
In my family a day of work was never missed and a vote was always cast on election day. Like Sonja and Jiri, my kin had risked their lives to come here and felt a tremendous sense of debt to their adopted homeland. President John F. Kennedy had asked them what they could do for their country and they responded by giving generously to veteran organizations even when they had little extra, sending countless telegrams of support or criticism to various sitting politicians, and by forcing (yes, forcing) my brother to join the ROTC in college. Being a girl, I was not encouraged to join the military – my parents were old fashioned that way. But I was routinely harassed about my civic participation. I don’t think I’ve ever missed an election cycle, no matter how hungover I felt. I even cast absentee ballots when I lived abroad in a semi-permanent hungover state. And I’m an easy target for any legitimate charity that supports policemen, firefighters and soldiers. I still reflexively cry when I hear The Star-Spangled Banner.
I think about these things every Fourth of July. How my parent’s immigrant status has effected my life and whether I’m sufficiently passing on the values I was taught to my own children.
As you can imagine, the Fourth of July was a very big holiday at my house when I was growing up. Not bigger than Christmas, but definitely paid more attention than our birthdays.
It was the only time my parents would even attempt to barbecue – they hated barbecue. We ate off of red, white and blue paper plates and sat in traffic for hours to watch some distant fireworks display.
Even whatever bicycle I rode when I was growing up was always required to have some sort of patriotic flair. I remember a bicentennial themed spectacle complete with a banana seat and long, plastic red, white and blue streamers that looked like they’d been shot out of my handlebars. Even in the late seventies, that was extremely uncool.
But I knew complaining about it was useless and I kind of look back fondly on that monstrosity of a bike now. It was so damned earnest and earnest patriotism has gone out of fashion.
But I’m trying to bring it back in my own way.
At our house we don’t barbecue – my husband hates barbecue far more than my parents ever did – but we make fancy-shmancy cheeseburgers on our gas stove complete with homemade french fries. We lift our kids onto the roof of our minivan to watch the local fireworks display, but living in the country, we’re spared of the bumper to bumper. And now that they’re old enough, we’ve started having conversations with them about what good citizenship means and how important it is to think through the political beliefs they are forming and never be a slave to them.
We don’t tell them how we vote and it drives them crazy.
But we think it’s important that they form their own opinions and not reflexively embrace or rebel against ours. We’ve earned ours through trial and error and experience and they’ll have to do the same.
What we do tell them is how important it is to be able to speak freely and make one’s own decisions – even if freedom is a burden. Being born in such a highly functioning democracy is like being born on third base, but it is yours to blow. And you don’t get a home run just for showing up. Our political system allows class mobility and is amenable to change, and our constitution is both an aspirational and spiritual document – designed to help build and sustain a nation and, uniquely, help its citizens evolve into better human beings – a society of equals free to pursue happiness.
But none of these things comes with a guarantee.
As a good citizen, you have to hold up your end of the bargain and behave with courage, dignity and respect for others.
You must actively contribute, or as our friend, General David Bellon, USMC, would point out, “You either leave a legacy or a residue.”
I’m determined to leave the former and do my damnedest to make sure that my children do, too.
At seven, she is dreamy, funny, contemplative and just delighted with herself. Typical of her age cohort, she tore apart her wrapping paper with a fiendish glee, strutted around in her brand new mermaid tail (though she has her doubts that mermaids actually exist, she still holds out hope that she can become one, say, as a career or lifestyle choice), and spent half the day talking to herself in the mirror as she is apt to do.
It was during one of these mirror episodes that she turned to me suddenly and said, “Mom, was the day I was born just the happiest day of your life?”
It was not.
The day of her birth and the subsequent few years were by most standards pretty horrible, in fact. Not post-apocalyptic horrible, but bad enough so that I could strike envy off the list of reasons why people didn’t like me.
Naturally, I wasn’t going to say that. I was also prepared for her question and able to turn to her without missing a beat and say with complete honesty, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
I’ve written about Josephine’s health problems fairly extensively on this blog (see For My Mother, May 6 2014, if you wish), so I won’t belabor that point. This post isn’t about her fight to survive, but something else entirely.
Her question just got me thinking again about how we define our lives, the decisions we make and how they effect our long-term well-being. About the struggle between happiness and meaning – something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Even in those happy-go-lucky years pre-Josephine. The years when our biggest problems revolved around getting a good night’s sleep, whether to buy a fixer-upper or a reasonably renovated home, how to lose that last five pounds that pregnancy had visited upon me. Those were very happy years – when my husband and I mostly chased pleasures.
I don’t regret a single, frivolous moment.
But even when my husband and I were at the apex or our pursuit of happiness period, there was something about our make up that wouldn’t allow us to try and sustain that sense of bliss on a permanent basis. Plenty of people we knew were willing to do so at any cost – avoiding inconveniences and entanglements like the plague, revolving all of their big decisions, like how many children to have or whether to have any at all, whether to marry or continue living together – around lifestyle.
But then, we were living in California at the time. Sort of comes with the territory.
I actually remember the day I realized we’d somehow lost a deeper sense of service to something other than ourselves. One that was encoded in our DNA by years of Catholic school and family stories of hardship (won’t belabor that point either, but it’s a theme here on Cold). The fact is, we were starting to hit the wall on our California experiment.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m sounding like a California hater and that’s just not true. Some of the best times in my life were spent in the Golden State. My husband and I made dear friends and started our family there. Those are very meaningful things.
But happiness and self-fulfillment are as much a part of the culture there as guilt and shame are a part of Catholicism. And there is a pervasive tendency to find beauty only in beauty.
This was driven home to me one day at the spa.
I’d recently given birth to our first child – a healthy son – and that alone does get the heart juices going. My husband, Jack, being the great husband that he is bought me an entire spa day at a very swanky San Francisco spa on my very first Mother’s Day.
I was beside myself. Really. I couldn’t wait to go. I’d given birth, been breast-feeding on what seemed like a round-the-clock basis and had been up all night for weeks. I needed this desperately.
And for the first hour or so, it was so, so nice. Especially since the day began with a full body massage – which is like chemotherapy for a new mother. Without the un-lovely side effects.
But right in the middle of hour two, during a multi-sensation inducing “ultra” facial, my spa day started to turn on me.
Between the fake sounds of a bubbling brook complete with cawing birds and cricket symphonies, the intermittent New Age muzak, wafts of aromatherapy and what was fast becoming a tyranny of pleasures and pleasantries perpetrated by hush-voiced, toned young men with names like Darius, I thought that if I had to stay for the entire gauntlet of treatments – the ensuing mud bath and hot towel mummification – I might go insane.
But I did stay.
I felt too guilty to cut and run after my husband had given me such a wonderful gift. He’d paid a small fortune just to indulge me. He’d also played Mr. Mom all day with our infant son without a complaint, passive aggressive comment or hint about the standing ovation he should receive for his efforts. He is an enormously competent and fully grown-up man, which is one of the many things I love about him.
I also love that he fully understood when I told him about my day.
And that understanding began a discussion that would wrench us from our glamorous city lives in San Francisco and deliver us to a town that wasn’t exactly Mayberry, but was certainly slow, pastoral and grounded in tradition. A place that was more equipped to help us through the hardships we’d be facing in the coming years – when our happy lives would come to a crashing halt. At least for a while.
Because when I elaborated about my dreadful too-much-of-a-good-thing spa experience, my husband got very pensive. He nodded and looked out of our rear window – where the opera singer practiced her arias, gourmet Margaritas were consumed on a nightly basis, and the grass on our tiny patch of backyard was astroturf-perfect and surrounded by bougainvillea. He said, “You know, I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate our lives.”
That spa day was an incredible event of foreshadowing. In the years to come we would be needing much more than happiness if we were going to be happy. Endlessly chasing the dragon of happiness can lead to a great time had, but it can also leave a person ill-prepared to continue to feel well during more profound periods of heartache. If there’s nothing of real meaning under-girding a lifestyle, it becomes all to easy to fall prey to a toxic cocktail of self-pity and depression when the big stuff happens.
We knew on an instinctive level – almost as if we had some inkling that Josephine was headed our way – that it was imperative for us to deepen our faith and find greater purpose – joy even – in something other than a fun, uncomplicated existence.
In our post-fabulous years, we’ve settled in a small college town in central Virginia. We help groom the grounds at the monastery where we go to church, we volunteer at the local hospital – giving speeches about parent perspectives to young nurses and residents, we stay in most nights. We should probably go out more. But we do mix great cocktails that we drink nightly on our porch, we have friends over as often as we can, and we hit the beach every year.
We hardly think about what things were like “before” anymore, although recently I got a little taste.
Last week, I visited San Francisco for a wonderful week of friendship, food and wine in honor of one of my very best friend’s significant birthdays. It was a week of both happiness and meaning as a group of 7 women laughed and talked and shared about both painful and frivolous events.
I walked around San Francisco, which appears to have become decidedly more family-friendly since our time and observed young couples who were just as we had been – a mom pushing a stroller with a sun drunk toddler in it, a dad sporting an infant carrier complete with a hazy-eyed newborn, the color of his irises yet indeterminable.
I admit I felt nostalgic for those times. We were different people then, ones whose peace of mind had yet to be broken not just into shards, but ground to dust. Our younger selves didn’t fully know how good we had it or how bad things could really get.
But at the same time, I felt a profound sense of relief that those footloose days were behind us. Our decrease in happiness has come with an unwavering confidence in ourselves both as individuals and as a couple.
We know what we’re made of now.
And we have some wisdom to impart to our children. Something to give to friends who are struggling. And a list of priorities that doesn’t begin with achievements or desires.
We love more deeply and when we dance, we mean it. Most counter-intuitively, we’ve recaptured a teenage ideal of true love and loyalty while having acquired an adult’s sense of forgiveness and good judgement.
It’s a great life. And it’s a life filled with meaning, if not always happiness. And it’s a fine place to be.
Hi, Coldsters! I want to invite you to tour the blogosphere with me and The Bone Church and the wonderful folks at HF Virtual Book Tours – especially the Grand Dame Amy Bruno. (Thanks, Amy!) I’ll be popping by blogs, giving interviews, writing guest posts and biting my nails as I wait from reviews from folks at the best Historical Fiction blogs out there.
And I need you to join me.
The Bone Church is actively seeking out roadies, fans and groupies for this tour, so pack your hot pants and lighters, your loudest screams and your tight Bone Church T-shirts and come along for Pete’s sake! It’ll be fun and you know it. Just tell your parents you’re going to the library or something. Back in my day, parents would believe anything.
The tour actually kicked off yesterday at the fabulous Flashlight Commentary. I was just bowled over by Erin Davies lovely 4 Star review – least of all because she doesn’t give them willy-nilly.
In case you’re too lazy to click the link below, I’ll even post it here for you:
Victoria Dougherty’s The Bone Church is not an easy read. It hits the ground running and never lets up. Paired with decidedly heavy material and themes, the narrative is more than a little challenging, but that said, it is easily one of the best historical thrillers I’ve had fortune to come across.
Those who follow me know the WWII references in the description are what drew me to this piece, but it was Dougherty’s application of history, how she utilized and built her fiction around it that captivated my attention. Both storylines are sculpted from verified truths making it difficult to determine where fact meets fiction. The resulting seamlessness enhances the tension within the narrative and generates such excitement that the novel is practically impossible to put down.
Dougherty’s treatment of Magdalena and Felix also stood out to me. It would have been easy to paint these characters in bleakly sympathetic tones, but Dougherty didn’t go that route. There is an authenticity to this couple. They are trapped and hunted, but there is a tenacious intensity in their make-up that draws admiration rather than pity. An edginess in their story that plays on the reader’s emotions in a way that is both inspired and unexpected.
A deliciously dark and addicting foray into a world of mistrust, betrayal, paranoia and deceit, The Bone Church was a wholly unexpected pleasure. Yes, I had to work for it and familiarize myself with previously unknown chapters of historic detail, but when push comes to shove, I can’t say I regret a moment spent with this piece.
Many, many thanks, Erin.
And please go follow Erin’s wonderful blog, Flashlight Commentary (for those of you who didn’t catch the name the first time). She writes thoughtful and real literary reviews – earning her a spot at the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads. Her blog is beautiful, too, and feels like a destination.
You know, these images really struck me and I just had to reblog this. There’s a homespun beauty to these paintings that remind me of Norman Rockwell with a touch of Thomas Hart Benton – Soviet style, of course. Hope you enjoy.
My home office is, I suppose, a bundle of contradictions.
First of all, it is small.
It’s only half the size of my husband’s home office. I’m kind of like the wife who drives a Chevy while her husband gets the Cadillac.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s cozy in there and I feel safe.
Its walls are red – hardly a safe color, but it keeps me alert. My desk is a granite slab that used to serve as a bar in our old place, and there’s a fireplace with an antique wooden mantel showcasing two Byzantine icons (one of Christ, the other of Mary), a matching rosary, four family photos, a clay ballerina my middle daughter sculpted for me, an Indian flag (we’re not Indian, don’t ask), one dragon-themed baby shoe from Hong Kong, and a signed, framed World War II cartoon featuring Mussolini being led around on a leash by the Axis powers.
On this framed cartoon hangs an authentic Mother’s Cross – a ribbon necklace with a metal Reich symbol that was given to women who’d born children for Nazi Germany. Nobody in my family did – we’re both Catholic and Jewish, so we wouldn’t have volunteered for such an honor (nor would we have been asked).
The thing is I like to surround myself with objects that inspire my work, and for good or ill, Nazi’s and Communists are part of my fiction universe.
Most of the mementos in my office are gifts, except for the Mother’s Cross. I bought that from a collector of Nazi memorabilia. He was selling his collection because he felt people wrongly assumed that he liked Nazis, when in fact, he was just a history buff. It had caused some uncomfortable moments at a few of his wife’s dinner parties.
That, in and of itself, could inspire a couple of novels.
My desk, the former bar, sits on an old, Oriental rug fouled by various pet stains. My dog’s ashes (the dog responsible for most of the pet stains) sit in a wooden box on a little table in the corner next to my bookshelves. This box is lorded over by a framed faux New York Times obituary for the late canine (written by my husband) and titled, Milo Steven Dougherty, Asexual Glutton Canine, Is Dead. It goes on to describe our late beagle mix as “a single-minded ‘perfect eating machine’ who loved Snickers cheesecake, tacos, hollandaise sauce, White Castle microwaveable cheeseburgers, shrimp risotto, anything on the McDonalds breakfast menu and fecal-caked baby diapers.” Rest in Peace, my friend.
Being writers, we have a predictable quantity of books in our house – about 7 floor-to-ceiling shelves’ worth, but the bookshelves in my office are mostly filled with my children’s various pictures and art projects: my daughter’s soccer team photo, my son’s first short story (about the Civil War), and my youngest child’s Kindergarten scrapbook.
There’s also a taxidermied baby alligator among my kids’ artifacts, but I can’t for the life of me tell you how it got there.
On the wall at my left hangs a framed photo of my wedding, a large black and white print of an old woman walking through the streets of Prague, another old black and white – this one of the Tower of Silence in old Bombay, a newspaper clipping of my grandfather’s performance in the 1936 Winter Olympics – he played on the Czech National Hockey Team, a portrait taken of my husband on his first birthday and one taken of me and my first child, my son, when he was one. The rest of the walls are bare.
But there are two hand-made Czech marionettes that flank my one picture window. This is my favorite of the two. I call him Vladimir the Great. He holds a violin in one hand and a beer in the other, and reminds me so much of my grandfather, Dede, who could play any instrument by ear. He could also drink you under the table, although Dede would have never, ever tolerated a five o’clock shadow like this fellow.
Essentially, my home office holds my life. I care little for jewelry and other fancy things (don’t get me wrong, I don’t knock them and like a fine bauble as much as the next girl) so, if I had to flee my house in the middle of the night, the way my grandparents did, the only things I would take as I rushed my family out the door are in my office. Deeply personal relics that tell the story of my life and fill my imagination.
I welcome once again my friend Christoph Fischer, who writes some of the loveliest family stories I’ve ever read. He first came to my attention when a mutual friend of ours took note of our similar Central European backgrounds and thought we should get to know one another. I’m so glad she did. I loved his Three Nations Trilogy, historical fiction inspired by his own complicated family stories – ones of war and displacement and love. Conflict, faith and collective shame. They are spectacular.
Now Christoph has set his sights on another kind of family drama. One more contemporary, but just as harrowing. He tackles Alzheimer’s disease and the resulting challenges and revelations that a family is faced with when watching a loved one slip away memory by memory.
But let’s not get our hankies out just yet.
Christoph, despite his penchant for writing engrossing dramas, has a fantastic sense of humor. Neither of us wanted to do the typical author interview about what motivated him to write about dementia or war or death, blah, blah, blah. I want to know what really makes Christoph tick and I figure the way to do that is to set up a WORST CASE SCENARIO interview.
Now for those of you who are thinking “That’s not funny young lady!” And thanks for calling me “young lady,” I ask you to keep an open mind.
Humor has pulled me through some of my darkest hours. Sometimes over broken glass, mind you. So, Christoph and I present to you the ultimate politically incorrect and horribly insensitive interview about the worst possible things that can happen in life, and hopefully, how to make them a little brighter.
First of all, Christoph, welcome. I hate that you live all the way in England and that we can’t do this over a glass of wine and a plate of vegetarian sauerbraten. As you know, I have a few questions for you, and truly can’t wait to hear your answers. Are you ready?
Christoph: I am a teetotaler, so it would not be wine. I would love to spend a day in the kitchen with you and recreate all of those Slavic dishes, though, stuffing ourselves and who knows? Maybe getting drunk with Slivovitz after all. But, yes, I am ready – hit me.
Me: Describe your ideal day in a gulag – as an inmate, not a guard.
Christoph: The guards have just given me the big bunk in the room – the guy who used to get preferential treatment from them (for fixing the odd sexual encounter) mysteriously froze to death last night. They don’t even know why he was outside. They found him soon after he didn’t show for the morning rapport. I was already sleeping in his bunk last night. I get to keep his coat, too. A great start to a winter’s day. I stay inside reading Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn novels while the others are busy shoveling snow. In the evening I play chess with a guy from Lithuania. He is good and it is a tough game but he knows when to back down and to lose gracefully. I don’t like the guards and they don’t like me, but I trade in secrets and nobody can afford to get on the wrong side of me. I am lazy and I love my privileges. I could get used to this life here.
Me: Mass grave or lost at sea?
Christoph: Mass grave. There is safety by numbers. And who knows, maybe a bunch of us are still alive and can share a last cigarette or joke? I’d hate to be bitten by a shark while I am drowning.
Me: If you absolutely had to choose a method of torture for your worst enemy and could not pardon them under any circumstances (I say this because I know how innately kind you are and that you’d probably forgive and forget), what would it be?
Christoph: I have been binge-watching “DEXTER” of late so I have a pretty violent imagination. Slicing of all kinds seems very effective and the blood makes for a great dramatic effect. Having said that, the gore is a bit unimaginative. I am a big fan of Sartre’s “Hell” and being locked in a room with my busy body neighbour would drive me absolutely insane. So now I am thinking sleep deprivation combined with heavy metal music and finger nails on a chalk board etc. Dehydration and slow freezing on the side…
Me: Assume you’re in hospice and could select one person – alive or dead – to administer your daily sponge bath, who would that be? I’d want it with Steve McQueen and rough.
Christoph: Darn you, you got there first. Ok, well if Steve is already taken then Bradley Cooper will have to be my second best, unless it has to be someone really old. Then I would try Tony Curtis.
Me: You’ve just died and find yourself in hell of all places. What do you suppose you’d find most surprising about eternal damnation? Any benefits?
Christoph: I won’t be surprised to find myself there. I have been warned all of my life and have plenty of friends waiting for me. The club of clergy, politicians and misguided do-gooders should be an interesting corner of hell. I am sure that I’ll be surprised by the number of great people (with naughty secrets maybe) who are here and whom I always wanted to meet. Since we are here for eternity, I will know I will get around to speaking to them.
Me: What if you had to drive cross-country (meaning America-sized country, not one of these small Euro numbers) with an angry neo-Nazi who loves to lecture you about his strong opinions. You are not allowed to yell at, insult or contradict him. But you are allowed to be passive-aggressive. What would you do?
Christoph: I’d hope that my off key singing of Barbara Streisand songs or reciting of explicit gay adult stories may be retaliation enough.
Christoph, that was a great interview! If there is anyone with whom I’d want to be stuck in a gulag, it would be you. Thanks so much for coming by. And please, Coldsters, have a go at Christoph’s new novel, Time To Let Go.
On Amazon: http://bookShow.me/B00K9G8M8W
Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German
father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers he developed an
ambiguous sense of belonging and home in Bavaria. He moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies
and to lead a life of literary indulgence. After a few years he moved on to the UK where he now lives
in a small hamlet, not far from Bath. He and his partner have three Labradoodles to complete their
Christoph worked for the British Film Institute, in Libraries, Museums and for an airline.. ‘The Luck of
The Weissensteiners’ was published in November 2012; ‘Sebastian’ in May 2013 and The Black Eagle
Inn in October 2013. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and