On Christmas Day I received an email from a legal group that claims to fight for the religious rights of all faiths but proclaims itself Christian. The message did wish me Merry Christmas and said that on Christmas “we celebrate the birth of the One who makes our spiritual freedom possible.” I don’t understand that phrase, but I expected what was coming. Jesus may make spiritual freedom possible, but He could be helped along if I would forward some money to this organization. Is this what the Christmas spirit now means–fundraising for your own organization on the day to celebrate the birth of Christ? I don’t think being nummamorous ???, especially on Christmas, seems very Christian. Luckily for me, however, my Christmas spirit was not affected because I did not read the email until Boxing Day.

Old joke: The sailor, when asked what he did with his money, replied, “Part went for liquor, part went for women, and the rest I spent foolishly.”

Christmas Day is over, but we are in the twelve days of Christmas leading up to the Epiphany on January 6, which is a big holiday in some cultures. However, while perhaps it should be sung now, the song The Twelve Days of Christmas seems to be heard before Christmas Day, not after. I like Christmas carols, but I would be happy if I heard The Twelve Days only once in a season, or perhaps not at all. And doesn’t it contravene the Christmas spirit to give someone 78 gifts?

Those who worship the version of the Second Amendment the Supreme Court created) a decade or two ago should send their true loves a cartridge in a pear tree.

Who for twelve consecutive winter days sends over a pear tree? And where do they get all those partridges?

The young woman next to me pointed to the book I had placed on the bar and said that she was trying to see what I was reading. I held it up to display the cover and said, “It’s a fictionalized biography of Thomas Mann.” She looked as if I had not uttered an English sentence. I added, “He has also written a fictionalized biography of Henry James.” She still looked blank. I decided that,  despite this evidence, she must be a reader. Did she have any recommendations? She could not come up with one. She told me that she was there to meet someone she had only just met from an online writing course. We did not speak much after that.

“It is a common failing of an ambitious mind to overrate itself.” Lady Caroline Smith.

Browsing in a library, I pulled out a collection of three short novels that had been reissued in a single volume a couple decades after their initial publications. The back cover had paragraphs from two noted (that means I recognized the names) literary critics. One stated, “Whoever she is, she is the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” The other began, “She has cut to roundness and smoothed to convexity a little crystal of literary form that concentrates the light like a burning glass.” WOW. I grabbed the book and looked forward to reading it, only partly because I anticipated the pleasure of commenting on it (in a superior fashion) to others “What? You’ve never read so-and-so?!” I gave up after thirty-seven pages. I concluded that just because you have read Henry James, that does not mean you should try to write like him.

Romanian Venice

          We stayed on the Lido across the lagoon from Venice. The spouse was attending a scientific conference there. I would ride the vaporetto to Venice and take long walks through the city while she was at her meetings. I went to the lesser squares and on one of them heard from a church a soloist rehearsing for an evening concert. I stopped at markets and, being without Italian, pointed to foods to try. I saw apparent immigrants selling apparent knock-off goods outside fancy shops. It was late September, and the weather was generally beautiful, but on a few days, I saw some of the rising water which is common in autumn, and it was interesting to see how the Venetians coped. A movie scene with Heath Ledger was being shot next to San Marco, and it was fun to watch it–a rescue from a hanging for the movie Casanova.

          Other times I walked throughout the Lido that was simultaneously part of Venice and separate from it. Here there were cars and buses, a bit of a shock. I went to the aristocratic, but aging hotel of Death in Venice and tried to picture the beach, empty at that time of year, as it was a century ago when Thomas Mann must have studied it.

          Our hotel made good recommendations for restaurants in what were said to be the non-tourist parts of Venice. I doubted non-tourist places existed, but since we often appeared to be the only non-Italians in the restaurants, or at least we heard no English or German, we weren’t in the usual Venetian places.

          But most memorable was a dinner at the end of our stay with other scientists from the conference. My job had been to scout up a restaurant, and I picked a place on a small canal on the Lido. It definitely was not a tourist place. The staff did not speak English. We were outside on a beautiful night and through nods and pointing and much laughter and wine, we selected local fish, which was wonderfully prepared. This was a night for Venetian memories, but the night became more memorable because of the stories of D and M.

          D was a colleague of the spouse and M her husband. M and D were born, raised, and wed in Romania. Romania was still a communist dictatorship when they tried to leave some thirty years before, but permission was denied. They protested; they cited the Helsinki Accords; they spoke on a pirate radio station. The Romanian response was to imprison M. D, now alone with a new baby, had no idea what to do. She did not know how M was being treated or when or whether she would ever see him again. Out of desperation, D contacted the American embassy, and some official there got word back that D should visit the embassy. D was afraid to do that. The embassy was ringed with Romanian security, and she expected to be arrested if seen approaching it. She called the embassy and told an official, whom she had never met, of her fears. The disembodied voice on the phone told her, “Meet me under the street lamp at this intersection at this time. I will be wearing such and such, and I will take you into the embassy. The Romanian military will not arrest you if you are with an American from the embassy.” Not knowing what else to do, D took the leap of faith and did as the voice instructed. The man was there at the appointed place and time. With an American at her side, she walked into the embassy and told her story of how she and her young family just wanted to leave Romania. Apparently American diplomats worked behind the scenes, and after a few months, M was released. Permission to leave, however, was not granted; instead, the Romanians “punished” the couple by expelling them from the country. No punishment was more gladly received.

          It all sounded like cloak and dagger out of a modern Alan Furst novel, but not the way they told it. They wove it into an amusing story, concentrating on how naïve they were and how lucky. They elicited much laughter under the stars by the Lido canal. But surely anyone in a Ceausescu jail had to wonder about the possible fate that awaited the prisoner.

          I thought, once again, whatever my country’s flaws, how lucky I am to be an American. And I wondered how harrowing times should best be preserved. In their memories, was it as humorous as they presented it?

          Their story, of course, had a happy ending. Not only did they get to leave the country as they desired, M made a lifelong friend while in jail. After the conference, he and D were driving up to Austria to see again his cell mate.