Sunday, December 18, 2016

Attack of the Gingerbread Men!

I find I am a bit nicer to people (especially myself) when I write, and I noticed the sign in our staff room Friday stating that I said I would do that (be nice to myself and write) here we go again. This morning I had another topic in mind, a good one, one that makes me laugh until I can't breathe, but since I am having respiratory distress already in the form of a slight cough, I do not want to risk it. Take heart, today's topic is still funny, in my opinion, but it only makes me cry a little at the corners of my eyes. I will have no need to contact my niece Danielle, the respiratory therapist.

It was so long ago that I think I may have been carrying Jacob in a backpack during this particular trip down memory lane. Since he stopped allowing me to do that just after he got out of high school (kidding) I'm going to say that this was about 17 years ago. Both the kids were little. Kristiana was about 3 and Jake was around 1 when we scooped up Sylvia's mom and went to Octoberfest. Before you inform the authorities that I am a bad parent because I would subject my kids to so much beer and OomPaPa music at such an impressionable age, I should let you know that this was not the stein-laden celebration in Munich. This was in an old folk's home. I know there are more politically correct terms to describe establishments such as these but this place was named, "Altenheim" and that translates almost literally to "old people home" so I feel justified.

Ruth, Sylvia's mom, has gotten the German paper for the bay area for years and she saw an ad for this event. We were off. Being married to a woman  (for 22 years yesterday) who's first generation American and whose parents both came here straight from Germany, I have been to my share of American Octoberfests. There is always food. There is always dancing. There is always a lot of German being spoken. There are a lot of wooden tables end to end where you just sit your group next to the other groups until it looks like there are two, maybe three families at the event when in actuality there are dozens. And there is always a lot of beer. I was sure today would be no different.

Today was different.

We went in to the facility and there was no music, dancing, or beer. I'm pretty sure there were German sausages and pretzels being sold off to the side which you ate while walking around. In the interest of brevity I will refrain from telling you my German sausage joke.'s the wurst.

Anyway....we realized immediately that this was not so much an Octoberfest as it was a fest that happened to take place in October. The truth was that this was a fundraiser for the facility and the funds were being generated by the selling of crafts and food that the residents had made. It was not noisy. It was not crowded. In fact, it was downright serene. No problem. Gears were shifted. Purpose was redirected. I cinched up my big boy backpack and started to look at crocheted ornaments and dish towels with buttons and loops sewn on so they could be hung on the handle of the oven. We were having a grand time. The kids were having an ok time since everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to say hi to, play with, and smile at our kids. We felt a bit like celebrities. (Don't worry...since it was a fundraiser I only charged five dollars for my autograph instead of my usual ten.)

One of the administrators noticed us and quickly found out that a) we were not ready to become residents any time soon, and b) that we hadn't come because we knew someone who lived there. She was thankful that we had taken the time to come to their event. She walked us around the building giving us a tour and a sense of her passion for her line of work. It really was a nice time. When we had seen much of the building and most of the crafts we said goodbye to our tour guide and made an appearance in the last room of goodies. Sylvia whispered, "It's a fundraiser. We really should buy something." We started the search.

It was difficult since we really didn't need doilies made from bottle caps or a ballerina whose handmade dress covered the extra roll of toilet paper that stands on the back of the tank. We did decide to buy some food that was being sold from a cafeteria window. Because, really, you can explain how the pretzels in the United States really aren't as good as the ones in Germany without actually buying one....but it's more convincing when you are holding an American one. Ruth bought a cup of hot apple cider in an official Altenheim commemorative mug. But mostly we were feeling cheap for not locating something to walk away with.

And then I saw it. The table with the sweet elderly woman selling gingerbread.

At this point I should point out to people who have never traveled to Germany that there is a special place in the hearts of Germans for their gingerbread. It is an art form all its own. There are even shops in some of the more touristy towns where they sell nothing but gingerbread. Thirty eight percent of the homes in Germany are even made of Gingerbread! (kidding) I didn't know this before Sylvia. I was young and foolish. When we were dating, Sylvia and her mom went to Germany over the summer. When they returned, and I picked them up at he airport, I was greeted by Sylvia actually wearing a decorated heart made of gingerbread around her neck. There are many sizes available in these shops ranging from gigantic to tiny and they are all decorated in a similar style...and all of the decorations are done in frosting! People give them as gifts and many of them last for years and years. The one Sylvia wore home, in my honor, said "du und mich" the German equivalent of "you and me" written in white frosting that was frozen in time and preserved in a plastic shrink wrapped cover. The only exposure to air was through the two holes poked in the cookie to house the red ribbon that would eventually hold it to the wall (after I got Sylvia to stop wearing it).

Now I say that I saw the table of the gingerbread...and it brought flooding back the memory of someone who loved me so much that she would wear a cookie on a 14 hour flight because she didn't want it to get broken in her luggage...but more importantly the kids saw the table and the cookies! We wanted to help the facility. The cookies brought back memories. The lady seemed nice. It was authentically German. The kids loved cookies. It was the perfect storm of consumerism! We let the kids pick their gingerbread and we walked away feeling better about ourselves.

And then one of the kids did the unthinkable. They asked if they could eat their cookie. What?!? Eat it? Don't you see that this is Santa Claus and it is supposed to hang on the wall forever? Don't you know that mommy wore a cookie home for daddy and that very same cookie is hanging on the corner of the cabinet next to our closet?! You remember it says "Du und Mich"...well it used to say that. All the frosting dried up years ago and now it looks like a heart shaped bowl of alphabet soup since the letters fell to the bottom of the plastic shroud that is protecting it! But that's not important right now. Eat it? You must be mad! Mad I tell you! Then Sylvia looked to me for back-up.

I try to support her in all things. I really really do. I explained that at this time, in the hallway of the Altenheim, after what was essentially a snooze fest of a day as far as the kids were concerned, I could give in to my Americanist ways. I said I thought it would be ok for the kids to eat their cookies. They weren't covered in plastic. It would be ok.

So the kids each bit off Santa's head. They were as happy as kids with a cookie as we continued to walk down the corridor toward the exit when Sylvia asked for a bite of the cookie. From behind me I hear, "Spit it out! Spit it out!" I looked in time to see Sylvia spitting her bite onto the floor. Then she knocked the cookies out of the kids' hands. Then she went digging in their mouths like she was expertly sweeping their mouths for Legos or broken glass or poisonous insects and dropping almost all of the offending cookie pieces onto the floor! I was shocked. I was confused. I think I said something stunning like, "....wha?....who...?....why....?....huh?" My noteworthy investigation was met with, "They're bad! The cookies are bad! They're rancid or something!" So I did what any red-blooded American man would do in the face of certain death. I tasted it for myself. It seemed fine to me. In fact, it tasted like the gingerbread cookies that Mom used to make. As we stood, stunned, over the mess we discussed the fact that Sylvia didn't really like the taste of ginger in anything so maybe that was what caused her reaction. Ya think?

And then, in middle of hallway of the Altenheim, in the hills of Oakland, amid the broken decapitated remains of pastry Saint Nick I made some revelations. First, Sylvia would step into the fray to save our children. Second, the rules of decorum, including the one about not spitting, yelling, and knocking cookies out of the hands of children go out the window if she thinks she'll have to clean up barf in the near future. And most important, Sylvia had used gingerbread as decorations, building material, and even jewelry...but she had never, not ever in her entire life, eaten a single piece of American gingerbread. 

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