Beyond Money

We completely wore out the fun Grinch story. I’m happy not to hear it for another year. So I chose to read Tolstoy’s “Papa Panov’s Christmas” to one student on Saturday. The story about the shoemaker expecting to see Jesus has many versions and translations, and this one was abbreviated, but even so there were some phrases and words that challenged my high intermediate level student.

To help her be able to take it in more easily, I read slowly, deliberately. When the cobbler kept watching the window for Jesus, I suddenly felt my throat constricting and slowed my words even more so I could control my shaking voice. Maybe he had missed his visitor? I felt his ache of disappointment. When the cold girl came with her hungry baby, my student’s eyes brightened and she interrupted: “I think she is Jesus!”

When we finished the story, she said she’s going to find it in Polish so she can read it to her children. No one ever said that about the Grinch story, even though we got lots of class mileage out of it.  In his simple story, Tolstoy encapsulates the deepest longings and satisfaction of the human experience, and I felt honored to share it with my student and see her understanding.

Outside our apartment block is an outdoor market. At any time, I love shopping there, but these days leading up to the holiday season, it’s an Experience. I stood in line at the little old lady’s stand with the big blue barrels of sour kraut and pickles (the best in the town, everyone agrees). Beside us was another stand with three enormous square tubs that held maybe a foot of water crowded with dozens of fat, gasping carp. I tried to watch discreetly and not be too slack-jawed but all I wanted to do was stare and shake my head.

Older people stood in line at the tubs (my observation is that no one younger than 40 is willing to buy live carp and kill them) and carefully pointed to the fish they’d chosen. The beefy men selling them would scoop out the carp, weigh them, and pop them into trash bags. It was serious business. I couldn’t decide if the men were so serious because they were opportunists taking advantage of the tradition and the old people, or if this is simply the way things are done. I’ve been told that carp is the high point of the Christmas eve meal, so clearly buying, killing, or selling it is not a joking matter.

In other parts of the market, people were laughing and talking and exchanging wishes. I bought half a meter of beautiful lace for some presents sometime, and the ladies were so relaxed and positive and pleasant and wished me a merry Christmas as I left. Celebrating this season in a Polish town is so rich that I think everyone should be jealous of me.

This morning I had my last session of the year. My student is 71 or so, a retired Russian language teacher, and she had asked that this lesson would be Christmas carols. So I prepared music and lyrics for my favorites, “Lo How a Rose” and “O Holy Night.” She came with an elegant centerpiece she’d made with greenery from her garden, plus a box of butter cookies she’d made, plus 2 CD’s so we could listen to her favorite Polish carols. I made green tea for us, and we listened to the songs and sang along as we wanted, and drank tea and I munched her cookies and chatted in Polish because, well, it’s easier for her than English.

At the end of the hour, she was preparing to pay for the lesson, and I put my hand on hers to refuse it, saying today wasn’t a lesson, only pleasure, and I can’t take money for it. It wasn’t an English lesson, any way you look at it. “No, Anita, I beg you” she said, “You’re young and you need things. Please take this to buy what you need–maybe carp, or some meat?” She was dead serious.

The weather outside is frightful –driving rain coming horizontally in strong wind. No snow in sight. I hang onto my hood, walking home, and I’m sooooooooo glad vacation has started, and there are a million things I’m happy about, but something more than rain is making my cheeks wet.

The things I need are beyond money. What I have is more than I can hold.

10 thoughts on “Beyond Money

  1. Your writing is so beautiful…the descriptions awake an aching sense of nostalgia for the months I spent overseas teaching and traveling…something so rich about another culture taking you in and sharing of themselves that leaves you never quite the same….Bless you this Holiday season!

  2. Oh, I am jealous of you. I get more homesick for Romania around Christmas than any other time of the year. The carols are richer in other languages. We all had a good after dinner laugh about your carp. Isn’t that a close substitute for shrimp?! 🙂

  3. You say it well. This post made me smile and made me cry. Little details of Christmas in Minsk that I recall so well. The thought of cold carp in gelatin still makes me shudder a little. 🙂

  4. As always, well said, Anita! Reading this, I feel quite homesick for Poland. I am so, so glad you can have such good experiences your last year in Poland!

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