All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?  Was this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war?

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; for that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; at that point, it all makes more sense.  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page

Update to “Moon Pies and Moon Landings”

DSC_0960This may come as a shock, but apparently my Moon Pie post was not as loopy as it sounded to many of you. Turns out Moon Pies (or Orion Choco-Pies, their Russian/Asian doppelganger) really are a propaganda piece in the machine of Cold War.  The present tensions between North and South Korea, that is.

My sister sent me a link to this very interesting article from The Daily Mail (UK)–looks like it was published today.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3119500/Chocs-away-North-Korea-unleashes-latest-weapon-against-rivals-South-counterfeit-Choco-Pie-cakes-rival-delicacy-available-border.html

The opening lines of John Hall’s article read like this:

Chocs away! North Korea unleashes latest weapon against its rivals in the South – counterfeit Choco Pie cakes to rival delicacy available over the border

  • North Korea has a roaring black market in the popular Choco Pie snack
  • Sweet treats change hands for £3.60 in Pyongyang, but only 17p in Seoul 
  • So popular they are even used as alternative payment by some employers 
  • But Kim Jong-un is angry at the North’s love of a South Korean product 
  • He is now making his own Choco Pies in order to bring down their value 

Well, Mr. Kim Jong-un, the joke is on you.  You are just putty in the hands of the universal Moon Pie awakening.

 

 

 

Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)

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I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.”  However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.

The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War.  (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.)  It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space.   However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka.  And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.

For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener.  Who knew?  Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks.  My clothes were so fragrant and soft!  But were they clean?  Well, they weren’t not clean.

These things happen when you shop abroad.

But great things happen too.  This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf.  Moon Pies!   moon pie real Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies!    Eureka!   For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson:  Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee.  Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie.  Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies.  (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.)   They were iconic.  And delicious.

And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger!  At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart!  I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure.  But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune.  I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double.  The American Pie/the Russian Pie:  forever locked in a shadowy dance.

For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately.  But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama  and finding it fascinating.

By the time I got home, I was mad to know more.  I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic  (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher.  Original since 1974.  Ha!  It wasn’t the original then–we got there first.  Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first.  I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart.  Well, what did I expect?

But then I took a bite.  Oh my.  I took another bite.  They were delicious.  So fresh, so chocolaty.  I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul.  There had to be an explanation for this;  no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple.  Think, think!  (Take another bite.)  Think some more!   Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops.  Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime?  That’s it.  That must be it.

 

Tang ad, 1966
Tang ad, 1966

I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang.   In my mind, that era will always be  about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts.  I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.

I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was  a product of a culture and a time.   I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race.  The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival.   And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie  or  Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.

Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.

Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.

Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.

 

*Sort of.  We put a man on the moon first.  But before that, the  Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.

Time Magazine cover, Dec. 6, 1968
Time Magazine cover, Dec. 6, 1968

 

Sunday Morning Photo Musings

 Petite Promenade, Grand Voyage

Yesterday, in Bitche, France/Hier, a Bitche/ Gestern in  Bitche

 

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Click on the photo if you wish to expand it.

I stopped to look out over the rooftops of Bitche–which were so beautiful, serene, and orderly in a charming, hodge-podge way.  (Like all the most beautiful things–with just a hint of asymmetry to keep the eye interested.)   It took me a few moments to realize that I was standing by a simple wooden cross, and I wondered how long it had been standing there, keeping its own unwavering  watch over the rooftops of the citizens of Bitche.  And if those citizens had, like me, been largely oblivious to its presence.

At the center of town, the church steeple kept peeping through the rooftops to note our progress through the streets.

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But the watchers in Bitche were not only of a religous ilk:  along many rows of old houses, the iron shutter stops (“shutter dogs”) were decorative women’s heads…some still distinct, others weathered or rusted to a ghostly decay.  Charming, haunting, and resiliently  functional. The story of life,  n’est-ce  pas?

 

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And when all of the watching eyes had seen our small procession of four through the streets of the city, here is where we popped out on the other side:       (The small photo doesn’t do it justice; click on the photo to expand it to a larger size.)

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Hotel de Ville, Bitche, France

 

A day of small wanderings, but a fabulous journey.    Surely the French have a phrase that captures this.  Perhaps, “petite promenade, grand voyage”?

 

 A few notes on Bitche:  

*It’s located in Northeastern France, on the German border

*From the 17th century on, Bitche was a stronghold and much of the old citadel still stands

*If you are a  modern history buff, Bitche sits very close to sections of the Maginot Line