A Czech Grandmother is Better Than a Valentine (With Christoph Fischer)
In honor of Valentine’s Day this year, I’d like to celebrate love in a slightly unconventional way if you don’t mind. Instead of waxing poetic about how my love is like a pair of cashmere socks, a 25 year-old single malt whiskey, the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever tasted, I’d like to pay tribute to a great Slavic love story that blooms not like a rose, but a fistful of perfect daisies: the love between a grandmother and her grandchildren.
Enter my friend Christoph Fischer.
Christoph and I have a lot in common. We’re both writers, for one. We share a Slavic ancestry, for another. And we know what it’s like to hail from crazy Eastern European families where the solution to grudges, disagreements and soul-sucking entanglements is to have everyone move in together.
We remember the smells of garlic and marjoram in our kitchens, we regard spaetzle as far superior to pasta, and we used to eat chicken skins fried in butter as our afternoon snack (my kids still don’t quite believe me on this one). As children, our storybooks were by Božena Nemcova and Josef Lada. As we got older, we read Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal, then immersed ourselves in Czechoslovak New Wave films like Closely Watched Trains and Loves of a Blonde. These were the Czech versions of books like Green Eggs and Ham and Where The Wild Things Are, of the novels of William Faulkner and John Irving, and of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Graduate.
Despite our mixed heritage (all Czechs are “little Germans” as they will admit only in private) we have complicated relationships with both Germans and Czechs. And even more complicated relationships with Russians. In short, we know what complicated means and have had the distance, the good fortune, and the luxury in our lives to be able to try and make sense of it all – in our books, our stories, and on our blogs.
Our parents and grandparents were just trying to make it through the day.
Christoph recently made my day by sending me the story below. He was feeling nostalgic and a little blue. It was the anniversary of his father’s death and that’ll do it to you.
He got to thinking that day not just about his dad, but his wonderful grandmother, or “Babička” as we say in Czech. Please sit back and savor it. Then, if you’re so inclined, read Christoph’s wonderful Three Nations Trilogy.
My “Babička” and her Ćevapčići by Christoph Fischer
Like some of the characters in my book, THE LUCK OF THE WEISSENSTEINERS, my babička found herself in a new world after WW2. Sudeten-Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and she was forced to live with Bavarians with whom she had little in common and who were not exactly keen on her either.
She brought my father and us grandchildren up with a sense of nostalgia for anything Czech, Bohemian and Eastern European. On Sundays, she spoke the Czech language with my father and often cooked our favourite dish, her delicious Ćevapčići – a skinless sausage made with three kinds of meat (pork, beef, and lamb) and plenty of garlic.
As a vegetarian, it is one of the few meat dishes I truly miss.
In 1976 I went to school and was amazed that outside of our home people thought little of the East. The Cold War was ramping and “East” was a dirty word. I found it hard to reconcile those two impressions.
I assumed our logical allies in that sentiment would have been the members of the Bund der Vertriebenen, the Association of expelled Germans and I was surprised when I learned that my grandmother and father distanced themselves from this group. Little did I know the Bund blatantly lobbied to reclaim territories and properties for Germany and they had no interest in the Czech culture or people. They wanted back what they had lost when they either fled the Red Army or were forcefully expelled by the people they had formerly oppressed.
My grandmother and my father made enemies by not joining those associations and by refusing to socialise with their members.
“You can’t live in the past,” my father used to say. He was living proof because in 1945 when he was only 12 years old, he got beaten up by Czechs just for being German. However, he learned to get past this event, saw it for what it was and continued to love the land and the people regardless. In the 1970s he organised “art historic and cultural study” trips to Prague from our home is Rosenheim and somehow managed to get approval from the Visa Offices in Czechoslovakia almost every year. He got to see his former home country frequently – despite the iron curtain – and was warmly welcomed as a Czecho-phile visitor.
Even though we were Germans living in Germany, our childhood was filled with music by Bedřich Smetana, with whimsical phrases from Czech fairy tales and children’s books, TV programmes like Pan Tau and even folk and pop music. My father directed amateur theatre and his favourite play was “The Good Soldier Švejk”. My father had a lot of friends who were painters and their work was everywhere in our flat, only I cannot remember their names. It’s a pity. Very few made it big, but their art felt so alive and beautiful to me.
Even my first music cassette was of Karel Gott, a Czech singer who was popular in Austria and Germany. His biggest hit was “Babička”, an homage to his wonderful Czech grandmother, which I could relate to because his lyrics conveyed exactly what my grandmother was to me.
Gott sang, “Stealing horses, peeling apples and telling stories, that was Babicka. She held us in the middle of the night and trucked us in well and tight…All her life she never gave in, only one was stronger than her, and He took our Babicka.”
My babička lived in an apartment building full of Sudeten Germans. Less diplomatic than my father, she would frequently get into rows over the rigid and bureaucratic cleaning and washing schedule: NO WASHING AFTER 7PM! (Which was almost impossible to adhere to for a single mother with a full time job.)
She lived her own daily cold war.
Every time we visited our grandmother, we had to go up three flights of stairs and get embroiled in her wars. When buzzed into the building, we children ran up as fast as we possibly could to get past one particularly vicious neighbour. The mere sound of the buzzer alarmed this woman and she would try to corner us every time – telling us off for being too noisy and rattling off one complaint or another. “Tell your grandmother to wash during the day like everyone else in this house!” or “Look, you didn’t wipe your shoes properly when you came in. I just cleaned the staircase, and now I can start again. You filthy lot you!”
One day, my grandmother heard the shouting and hurried down a flight of stairs with her apron on and a pan full of Ćevapčići still in her hand.
“Get away from me with that disgusting smell,” the neighbour screamed.
“Don’t drop the Ćevapčići!” my sister and I shrieked as my babička was getting more and more agitated and moving towards this nasty woman. My brother tried to wrestle the frying pan with its precious cargo out of my grandmother’s hand and in the heat of the action, the Ćevapčićis went flying!
One of them landed with a loud slap on the hated neighbours face.
“You and your damned Ćevapčići! I am getting the police!” the neighbour hissed, holding her cheek as if it was bleeding.
My sister and I were anxious and retreated into a corner while my peckish brother took the opportunity presented in the stunned silent seconds that followed to collect the precious Ćevapčići from the floor.
“You just wait,” the neighbour threatened.
“No, you just wait,” my grandmother said coolly. “You leave those children alone. And beware of my Ćevapčići, because next time they won’t be cold!”
The neighbour gasped for air.
But my grandmother smiled with bold triumph and we followed her up to her flat, where she put the pan back on the stove. When the Ćevapčići were good and hot, she let us devour our spicy, Cold War ammunition.
They never tasted better.
1 1/2 lbs ground pork
1 lb lean ground beef
1/2 lb ground lamb
1 egg white
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 onion, finely chopped
4 pita bread or 4 white bread or 4 roll
1. In a large bowl, combine the ground pork, ground beef, ground lamb and egg white. Add the garlic, salt, baking soda, black pepper, cayenne pepper and paprika. Mix well using your hands.
2. Form into finger length sausages about 3/4 inch thick. Arrange on a plate.
3. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for one hour to one day, to let the flavors settle and the mixture become firm.
4. Preheat the grill, medium-low heat. Lightly oil the grilling surface.
5. Grill Ćevapčići until cooked through, turning as needed. The grilling usually takes about 30 minutes.
Serve with potatoes (mashed or fried), bread, sliced onion, chopped tomatoes and sour cream.
* Ćevapčići are for consumption only and not to be used as ammunition. Cold is not responsible for injuries resulting from the hurling, slapping, tossing or catapulting of Ćevapčići.
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 is still resident today. ‘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 finalisation.
Christoph’s Three Nations Trilogy is available on Amazon at these links: