All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost*

(*Originally posted December 17, 2015)

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

 

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

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.

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.

dsc_0113

“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–an 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; 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 the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already 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 (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point).  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).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days.  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 then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.

chistms carol page

 

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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

Creative Commons licensing

 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

All Hallows Week: The Ghosts of Wartimes Past

creepy halloweenThe pumpkin sits, uncarved, on the front steps, and the massive bowl of Halloween candy sits undisturbed near the door–so, surely, it’s too early in the season to invoke Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

But here I go–because it’s never wrong to call on  Dickens (!), and because Europe is a haunted continent.  At Halloween, on Christmas, or any given day, its history is rich and messy, and its ghosts,  like Jacob Marley, won’t be silenced.  In our experience, these specters whisper at you from around each corner.

DSC_0925

In a nearby town  there is an odd sign designating a speed limit for tanks.  I occasionally pass this, and I always laugh and cringe at the same time.   I assume it is a remnant of  Cold War times, although this is just a guess. Maybe troop movements around here are frequent enough that this is still warranted?  Either way, I find the sign both amusing and jarring.  Do I need to be worried about tanks rolling through the city center?  Probably not, but it does make me think of the citizens of Ukraine, where the everyday reality is more raw; and it also conjures a not so distant past in this historically complicated country.

DSC_0787

 

In Metz, France–the city that brought us a war hero in the unlikely guise of the baker Harelle (see post “The Bread is Mightier than the Sword”)–you can’t help but see the ghosts of the past on each block, beginning with the chapel  of the Knights Templar (to the right)DSC_0775 and running up through the Second World War and the present day streets honoring the likes of Winston Churchill.

I’m always stunned by my ability in Europe to walk a city block in space  and feel that I’ve walked a thousand years through time and history.   William Faulkner may have had the American South in mind when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but his words seem to reverberate off the stone streets of Europe.  We tread on hallowed ground and haunted ground–and I couldn’t tell you were the one starts and the other stops.   Especially regarding the somber ghosts of the Second World War.

I find myself pulling against visiting the concentration camps, at the same time that my conscience keeps telling me that this is something I need to do.  I can’t imagine setting foot on those grounds and not feeling physically ill,  possessed of the anguish of the souls who were tortured there. But those anguished souls need us to remember, don’t they?  We owe it to them.   I can tell you, my own Marley-esque specters are visiting me on this one.

Not all ghosts are war-torn and tortured souls, however.   Our historical imps deserve to be noticed too.

So, as a sidenote on Dickens and his ghosts, here’s a travel tip for London:  The George Inn in Southwick.  It sits on the south bank of the Thames, is an old (400 years old, give or take) pub that’s been in business all these long years.

The George Inn, Southwark London
The George Inn, Southwark London

We stumbled on this pub in 2010.  Although we didn’t stumble, really–I dragged my family out of their way to have lunch here, and it was a very good call.

Why make a grand effort to eat at this pub in a city full of pubs?  Partly because of its general history–in business since the 1600’s; still boasting a gallery of balconies where plays and concerts used to take place, it is reported to be the last remaining galleried inn in London; and (here’s the kicker) an old favorite of Charles Dickens.  The food here was great; I had a grilled goat cheese salad that I remember 4 years later! Granted, our waitress was less “waitress” and more “table wench” in attitude–but, if nothing else, it added a Dickensian touch to the meal.  And our inquiries about the history of the inn and its famous patrons lead to a journey behind the bar, where there is a framed document bearing Charles Dickens’s signature.  If my rusty memory serves, it was a copy of his Last Will that he gave to the Inn owner (knowing it would have some value), in lieu of actually paying his bar tab.

In the style of a worthy “old haunt,” this speaks of both mischief and misfortune.  Our Charles Dickens was both debtor and darling, making him the perfect drinking buddy for anyone who might find themselves at the bar here and lifting a glass to old Charlie’s Last Will.  Talented as he was, his life wasn’t perfect.  Nor was it infinite:  so raise a pint and lean in toward the framed document, and I’ll wager that you’ll hear him whispering, “Cheers and carpe diem!”

(Lore has it that Shakespeare may also have been a customer–his Globe theater was close by–but the veracity of this is lost to the haze of time gone by.)

Some ghosts loom large (the scars of a world war);  some ghosts are more personal (unpaid debts).  But in this season of hauntings, it’s best to give them all their due.

Happy Halloween!

Boo!