Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Christmas Tree

This was inspired by my time on a kibbutz in Israel.  It was there I met my wife.  I was young and found myself running a bar in a shack that once served as the pottery work shop.

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Copyright 2012 kevin r. hill

"You can't use the tap water to make drinks!  Didn't you hear?  They found a dead bird in the water tank.  Cholera, Philip!" said Robbie, leaning through the curtained doorway so the crowd at the bar wouldn't hear, his voice all high-pitched like some pome school teacher's.
"And what the hell am I supposed to do with these bottles of booze?" I asked, turning the spigot, glancing past Robbie toward the crowded dance floor.
"Dear me!" he giggled. 
"Look, the pipe is full from the tank to here. That's probably forty or fifty gallons before there's any danger.  I'll just mix a few drinks so every one can have a nice time, and I can make some money.  No one ever knows, right Robbie?"
"My lips are sealed," he said, drawing a thin hand across his lips, as though closing a zipper.
"Good, now bring these screw drivers to the Dutch couple at the bar."
Robbie flapped his hand at me. 
"Would you stop that fag shit," I said, stepping through the curtain.  "What would you like," I asked two Finnish girls at the bar.
"Two Gold Stars, please; in brown bottles."
"Brown bottles," I repeated, nodding.  Our beer, Gold Star, came in brown and green bottles.  Suddenly the volunteers decided the beer in brown bottles tasted better, and I couldn't give away the green ones.  That had baffled me for a day.  Now I just wait until everyone is sailing along, and shout, 'all I have left are green bottles.'  For a split second a decision races through my customers’ minds: stop drinking or go green. The threat of sobriety changes everyone's opinion. 
"Is thes water from the tap?" asked a Dutch man, tapping his glass, waiting for Robbie to answer. 
Robbie's mouth dropped open and his face flushed red.  His brow crinkled and his scalp shifted back an inch as he turned right and left.  I knew he would burst into tears if he had to lie, so I intervened. 
"Don't worry, I made the drinks a couple of days ago."
"Oh, wery good."
"Get two browns for the Finns there," I told Robbie, pulling him away from the bar.  "And keep that curtain closed!  If someone sees us using tap water we'll get lynched."
Music pounded as I looked across the bar room.  Most of the volunteers were doing the bump to the Police.  Tal, the Israeli beauty who works in Citrus, was dancing in a corner with the new German kid.  She always went after new guys before they learned better.  The Danish girls were dancing in a circle, holding hands and laughing.  Two of them smiled at me, but Maibrit, the one I hadn't visited for a week, turned away.  Old Charles, one of last surviving English hippies, was over beside the loud speaker as usual, dancing slow and probing his deaf ear with a finger, leaning close to the blaring music, his long hair swaying from side to side.  Akkad, an Arab I had invited from a neighboring village in hopes of making a hash deal, had already propositioned nearly every woman in the bar, and I was getting annoyed.  I watched him watching a Danish woman.  Three times he reached for her bare shoulder, and each time she pushed his hand away.  Then crack! She slapped him.  
Akkad jumped back and squared his shoulders like an angry baseball player ejected from a game.  He looked at the dancers around him and walked toward the bar.  Something caught my eye on the opposite side of the dance floor and I turned to see Moshe, the Volunteer organizer, coming toward me, shoving people aside.
"Oh no, here comes World War Three," I said, leaning across the bar in front of Vince and Paul, two Aussies. "Moshe and that Arab are coming over here.  Look, tell Moshe I haven't been here."  I grabbed the money box and pulled the curtain aside.
"You ain't gunna squeeze out o’ this one, mate," said Vince.
"Hey, you guys owe me."
"Owe you?  Not since we helped you swap toilets with the ceramic shop--at two in the morning--we don't.  If it weren't for us, your customers would still be queuing up at the bush out back."  They laughed and left the bar.
Moshe and Akkad rested their hands on the bar and leaned forward to speak.  Before a word escaped from either man, they glanced at each other and drew back, as though from a snarling dog
"Philip! Do you have permission for him to be here?" asked Moshe.  "Yes, of course you do.  You never miss a trick! You promised to keep the music turned down tonight!"  He pounded a fist on the bar and pounded me with a look.  "Half the kibbutz can't sleep!"  He rushed across the sagging floor, tore the speaker from the wall and ripped out the wire while glaring at my customers, daring them to take the speaker. 
"Hey!" shouted one of English lads, as Moshe left the bar. “Do we work in their bleeding fields all day so they can ruin our piss-up?"
"That's all right," I shouted, jumping over the bar.  "Let's sing a song for Moshe, come on!"  I hurried to the door and looked out at Moshe who was crossing a field with the speaker in his arms.  "I ain't gunna work on Maggie’s farm no more," I sang.  "Come on, every body." 
Volunteers joined in, singing the same line over and over until we had a chorus roaring into the night.  "Yeah, free beer for every body," I shouted, pumping a fist in the air. I was nearly trampled to death before I managed to escape over the bar.  When I had thinned out the thirsty masses by handing out half the contents of the refrigerator, I turned to Akkad who stood pawing a German woman.  She pushed him away and shouted, but that wasn't enough.  He just wiped his mouth, looked the woman over, and reached for her again.
"Hey Akkad!" I shouted.  "Come on,  I'll buy you a drink."
He staggered to the bar and stood looking at me with a drunken, proud smile. "Now the men will drink together," I said, shaking his hand.
"The men."  He smiled and nodded.
I stepped behind the curtain and filled a glass three quarters full of what the Israelis call vodka, adding just enough juice to color it.  In my glass I poured a splash of liquor and filled it with orange juice.
"Here you go," I said, stepping through the curtain.  "All of it."  I tilted my glass back and drank it without stopping, so he would get the idea. 
Akkad's eyes widened as he drank.
"Ah!" I exclaimed, slapping my glass on the bar and moving toward customers, secretly watching Akkad as I carried beers and counted change.  He sat his empty glass down and grabbed the bar with both hands.  His head wobbled and his eyes rolled back in their sockets as a peaceful smile came to his mouth.  Gradually, as if his legs were melting, Akkad sank to the floor.
"Robbie!  Help me carry him outside," I called, pointing over the bar.
"Oh dear.  Philip, I suspect foul play, you brute," he said with his angry mother's voice, lowering his head toward me.
I jumped over the bar, but Robbie walked out the back door, past the bathroom, and came hurrying across the dance floor. 
"You take his feet," I said.  "We'll lay him on the back patio until he sobers up.  Don't worry," I told customers as I staggered with Akkad's weight, "he's just drunk, that's all."
"Yeah," shouted one of the Aussies, "that's what the greenies'll do to you."
We sat Akkad on the patio and walked to the front of the bar.  I hopped up on the porch and was about to enter when the bathroom door opened.  The same moonlight which touches the olive trees and makes them shimmer at night as though draped with silk, this light touched Maibrit's blonde hair as she stepped out of the bathroom, struggling with her zipper, hair trailing across her face as she looked at me.
Her presence engulfed me like the fragrance from a newly opened bottle of perfume.  I thought of my other lovers and my seesaw conscience spoke of sin and satisfaction, as though I had a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each whispering what I should do.  Well, the demon won that one.  I rushed forward and kissed her, squeezing her against me, licking her teeth and lips, my hand sliding across her belly, touching her panties.  Once I was so close there was no turning back, so I pushed her into the bathroom and closed the door.  When I went back to work Robbie was rushing about behind the bar, handing out beers and stuffing shekels into the money case.
“Philip says he made the drinks two days ago," he kept telling customers."
"How's it going?"
"Oh, Philip, is your midnight rendezvous finished so soon, you nasty pervert?"
"Some people do have sex lives, Robbie."
"It's disgusting if you ask me," he said, looking at me as he passed. "Disgusting ... like your after shave."
"I washed."
"Sure you did.  I'll bet you wiped it all over yourself like head hunters do with victim's blood.  Philip, the great hunter!"  Robbie went through the curtain in a huff, saying, "Number two is looking for you ... at the end of the bar."
A relaxed, calm feeling swept over me when I saw her leaning on the bar, looking at me with that sly little smile, shaking her head as though trying to look stern for a naughty but amusing child.
Her name was Katy, but everyone called her Corner.  Once, during a rainy afternoon's lovemaking session, her kerosene heater turned on high, cardboard pulled off a broken window pane, letting fumes seep outside, rain tapping on the tin roof with rapid flurries, she told me how her mother used to call her a tomboy.  'You're as hard to keep clean as the corner behind the stove,' her mother had shouted when she came home from romping in a muddy creek. Corner's brothers and sisters overheard, and the nickname was born.
She moved with such feminine grace that it was difficult to imagine her a tomboy.  Although her Eurasian features contrasted with a harsh Australian accent, her mannerisms and movements were purely feminine.  During my first months on the kibbutz I wondered what made her sad, for the dark shading around her eyes gave her a mournful look, as though she had recently been crying.  People often mistook that look for one of vulnerability, but I knew better.  One night when a Kibbutznik's hand mistakenly got under her dress, I saw Corner put a shoulder behind a snappy little punch that broke the man's nose.
Having been raised in an Australian family with nine other children taught her to fight.  Was it this tough femininity which attracted me?  During months shared on the kibbutz we developed a relaxing understanding.  We experimented upon each other sexually without the confines of a 'normal' relationship, satisfying needs other partners couldn't.  As the months passed I began to enjoy the tender moments after our sexual lessons as much as the sex itself.  The insights and stories we shared during those times--our bodies tingling--became the power which held us together.  I didn't feel the need to escape as I did with other women after the sex question was answered.  There were no expectations to live up to, no perceived responsibilities from family.  We met as equals, asking for nothing but passion, and because our feelings were not weighted down with a web of needs and wants, they slowly grew.  Now, looking back, it seems strange we never spoke of our feelings or relationship.  Maybe we sensed that defining it would establish limitations and perimeters, as it had so many times before.
"Hello Corner," I said, sitting on my stool before her, popping open a beer with my Sikh bracelet.
"How bloody smug you look; the lion surveying his domain.  I saw your little scene on the porch."
"I was going to resist, but I got a hard-on and my controls switched to manual."
She laughed and brushed her shiny black hair.  "I'll stay and help you close.  I have a surprise.  Do you have any ... energy left?"
"A surprise?  I'm looking forward to it."
"You're not really making drinks with the bad water, are you?"
"Robbie's lips are sealed, uh?"
"You're a real piece of work, you are.  Cholera water.  You better watch your step, Phil.  They're just looking for an excuse to throw you off the kibbutz."
"Nah, they need me here. I supply morale.  Where else can they get enough of what makes them happy?  Hell, half the kibbutzniks sneak in here to get lucky, men and women!"
"Maybe that's why they want you to leave.  A lot of husbands and wives wouldn't like what you've seen." She looked around the bar room.  "It just dawned on me, Philip. This bar is the real you, isn't it?  I mean look at it; pieced together with scraps from everywhere.  This place makes you thrive ... what with your little network of black marketers, and your schemes."
"Are you seeing what you want to see, Corner?"
"Too soon, aye?" she asked, lowering her head.
I drank half my beer at once and stared at the ceiling.
"You know what," she said after a few moments. "You need a Chrisy tree, brighten the place up a bit.  It's not far off, you know,  a couple of weeks.  A tree would make a lot of volunteers feel less homesick."
"A big Christmas party ... invite the neighboring kibbutzim, sell twice the booze."
"Not for the money, to make people happy."
"Of course ... happiness."
"By the way, I have some sad news for you.  They have you down to work in the factory tomorrow?"
"Oh no, you're joking."
"I just read the work assignments."
"I'll have to change my name with one of the new guys again. That white-out is worth its weight in gold."
"You just can't keep to the rules, can you?"
"I told them I wouldn't work in the factory when I first arrived.  I didn't come to Israel to punch a time clock."
      It was after two in the morning when I pushed the last drinker outside.  Corner, pulling off clothing as she worked, dropping each piece to the floor without a second thought, helped me round up empty bottles, sweep the floor, and blow out candles.  She smiled when I approached, took my hand and stroked it, never raising her eyes to mine.  We climbed over the bar and walked through the curtain to the pealing, wrought-iron bed in the back room.  Lying on the lumpy mattress, the bed rocking to and fro with our movements like a bed of kelp on the sea, Corner finished undressing and took out the surprise: a bottle of Tiger balm.  She dabbed it in secret places and told me to describe the sensations as she sat atop me, massaging my shoulders, her lips trembling as she whispered in my ear.  In the morning my body ached wonderfully.  Her nail marks stung beneath my shirt, and I didn't have any skin on vital parts of my anatomy.  If I became excited the pain would surely kill me, and I loved it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Danish Laughter and Castles

Photos and text copyright 2013

From the castle wall I stare down on Vordingborg harbor.  This town was the capital of Denmark when Shakespeare wrote of a Danish Prince named Hamlet.  And so like Denmark, defined by history, by the past, my life, my past, is entangled in this town's net.
Built without cement, the Goose Tower stands today.
As I walk among the castle ruins, the sun warming my face, the scent of spring crops and wild flowers carried on a breeze, it is hard to imagine the bloody battles that occurred here. Attacked by Swedes and Germans, occupied by the Nazis, all that now stands of the nine towers and 800 meters of wall is a remnant of the outer wall, the moat where ducks paddle about, and the Goose Tower, a medieval tower with a huge goose atop.  Legend says the goose was put there by King Valdemar Atterdag (I have to admire anyone known as ‘Valdemar tomorrow is another day.’) to taunt the Hanseatic League to the south, around 1360.  But the truth is the goose first flew above the tower in 1871. It takes years before the locals will admit the Hanseatic league, who the goose was meant to taunt, came and plundered the golden goose.
So like the battles I imagine here, catapults flinging diseased animal carcasses over the walls, soldiers screaming and fighting with swords and bleeding into muddy puddles, my own memories hack at me with a sword dulled by time. Undoubtedly, as with the battles of old, a woman stood in the eye of my hurricane. And yes, like the castle around me, the battles waged here tore down my defenses, my towers of pride.  Without the battles peace would not taste as sweet.
Scandinavian churches have seen bloody battles.
It is difficult to imagine a more ideal setting, and that is why we chose Vordingborg as a base for our vacation, from which to see the sights.  There is something joyful about diving into the tourist throngs, knowing an island of peace awaits you later in the day.  And that is how we used Vordingborg.  Being refugees from Big City, USA, we wanted to relax and walk along forest paths, sit on quiet beaches not packed with tourists like Disneyland.  We wanted to check our city stress for country simplicity, taking measured day trips to see the sights.  This village was ideal with its little cheese shop and sidewalk cafes, not to mention the fish market at the harbor and walking paths through the forest, where dashing peasant often startled us, and, on pristine mornings, still silent and covered with dew, we were lucky to see a doe leading her foes into the brush.
This is more than a dream vacation.  In my twenties I had been world traveler, living to travel and roaming the world, my playground, picking apples in Switzerland, grapes in France, wintering on a kibbutz.  I sewed my jeans up with dental floss. My back pack became part of me. I could hitch hike across Europe faster than trains could carry me. 
When I met her I tried to change.  You can’t imagine how difficult it was to go from hitch hiking Europe and experiencing new places and people daily, singing at the cars on a Paris onramp, laughing with Ethiopians in an African bar in Cologne, to finding myself in a provincial Danish town, the only foreigner there, working in a factory on a tiny island, staring out at the world through a one foot square window, watching snow cover the fields.  My life, my heart, withered.  Inside I cried to be accepted, to be able to speak to people without a look of amazement coming over their face when they heard their language spoken with an American accent. My Saturday-morning-cartoon-Danish startled so many.
After a few days of seeing the sights in Copenhagen, a city where we found it difficult to find anyone who spoke Danish, we were happy to head south, away from the big city.  Through an online service we rented a little cottage beside Freden’s Skov (Peaceful forest), a short, barefoot walk from the beach. Evenings were spent on a mattress, sipping red wine before the wood-burning stove while shifting out of the corporate office mindset, pretending we could stay forever.

Rhunes for Harold Bluetooth 
Denmark is a small nation of islands. Jutland, the large peninsula that sticks
into the Baltic North of Germany, is the largest land mass. Copenhagen, the capital, is on Zealand, a large island to the east of Jutland, between Germany and Sweden.  On the Southern tip of that island sits Vordingborg. The Danish royal family can trace their blood line back to about the year 1,000 A.D., to Gorm the Old, who sat king over England.  Probably the most famous Danish king is often mentioned today: Harold Blue Tooth.  That’s right; Blue Tooth technology is named after Harold, who united the warring tribes into a kingdom, because of his ability to make diverse factions communicate.  The Blue Tooth logo is the Nordic runes for Harold’s initials.
During long evenings spent laughing and eating with Danish friends, drinking ice cold Aquavit (water of life), called ‘snaps,’ a drink that dates, like so many things in Denmark, back hundreds of years, it often occurred to me how charming and fun loving the Danes are, yet when I looked on a map, I laughed because I could not find a neighboring country they had not fought or conquered.  Was my country now doing the
Generals plan the invasion.
same thing?  Was the U.S.A. still in its angry, rebellious teenager years, as yet innocent of the horrors of war on its own soil? I wondered. Was my country going through the same maturation process I had been through with love?  Did the U.S.A. need to experience the horror of war on its own soil to value peace?  Is that what Denmark had gone through?
Prehistoric burial mound near Vord.
Such thoughts are why I enjoy travel.  It allows me to lift the ‘sunglasses’ of culture and upbringing, and peer at life anew, to perceive new ideas and mentalities, to shake free of the heavy weights that seem to pull me down in the waters of judgment, and rise to the surface for a breath of new thought, new air.  
Although Vordingborg seems a sleepy village drifting away in the mist of glories past, it is the home to a tremendous festival every spring.  From the ninth to the fourteenth of July is festuge, party week.  Music groups from all over Europe fill the stage beside castle walls.  Mimes and comedy acts perform on Algade (the walking street) to laughing crowds. Sidewalk beer stands keep everyone happy as families carry silver-haired children on their shoulders.  For a short few months their world is warm, and the Danes get out and shake it.  They laugh and dance.  During festuge Vordingborg is a living country fair.
It always cracked me up to see how quickly the Danes would grab the kitchen table at the first sign of
Rented summer house beside forest.
spring sunshine, and carry it outside to sit with friends and drink cold Tuborg and discuss the good weather.  It was during one such patio gathering with family, the conversation turned to circumcision. Finding out that I was circumcised, the family demanded I show them!  Yep, right at the table. But alas, some things are best left a mystery.    
No matter how hectic our day of sightseeing, upon return to our little cottage, hidden behind a green hedge, we pulled off our socks and slipped on sandals and walked to the beach so we could sit with wind song, sigh, open a cold Tuborg and watch sailboats, and cars as colored dots traveling over Faro brogen (Faro Bridge).
Street and castle wall on Mon.
Lise-Lundslot, Mon.
A day trip we had to take several times was along the coast of rolling fields and white-washed churches, through the village of Kalvehave, on the southern tip of Zealand, and over the bridge to the island of Mon.  (The name has a diagonal line through the letter o, from one o’clock to seven o’clock. It is one of three vowels found in the Danish language, and not in English, creating sounds only made by English speakers by sticking out the tongue, to the amusement of many a Dane). 
This side trip is comprised of three stages.  The first is a visit to Mon’s Klint
Mon's klint: Cliffs of Mon.
(Cliff), the most dramatic landscape in Denmark, and the highest point in the country.  Standing here with the white cliffs below, the Baltic imitating the Caribbean, sparkling with a lovely turquoise color, I remember a house not far from here, where a woman set her hand on my leg beneath the table.  It changed my marriage.  I was young and hadn’t experienced how that type of deception lays waste everyone involved.  I had not drawn the line in the sand of my life and said I would not cross, no matter how green the grass of a friend’s woman. 
Another plus to an excursion to Mon is a visit to Lise-Lundslot.  If ever there was an estate to inspire a fairy tale, it is Lise-Lund.  So apart from the world, it should have its own time zone.  I compare it to the Taj Mahal.  Not for grandeur, but because both were built out of love for a woman. How inspiring to lie on the grass and watch swans and ducks in the pond, and lovers stroll the grounds.  And I think of the girl in the butcher’s shop who packed the picnic lunch for us, so shocked that we would eat Frikededelle (Danish meat balls) without slicing them on bread. Very unDanish, you know.
Country road 'self serve' veggie stand
By the time we reach Stege, the main town on the island and our
'Put coins in milk container.'
final stop, the sun is coloring the clouds with crimson highlights. We sit at a harbor table beside the water and sip white wine while trying to devise a scheme to buy Lise-Lund. But as our glasses become empty we realize that hunger beckons, so we abandon our high finance scheme as folly, and walk to the brewery on the main street for fresh baked bread, home-made salad and soup, and a berry flavored ale that makes me laugh with pleasure. For dessert, pastries equal those of Paris and Vienna can be purchased in either bakery found on the main street, and should not be missed.
Castle wall of Stege, Mon
Built with the wealth of a long past Herring industry, this beautiful port
A two faced king, really?
town, with some of its fortress wall still standing, is a simple jewel.  Shopkeepers lament how Copenhagen takes their children with its schools, pubs and nightlife. They do not listen as I explain with awkward Danish, that Stege itself is a treasure: its peace, charm and simplicity coveted by city dwellers.  Yes, for pilgrims like myself who have traveled for years and been herded through the world’s attractions like Chartres, Chichen Itza, the Pyramids of Giza, the simple, quiet charm of Stege is comfortable and healing.
Broken up for building stones.
A wonderful surprise we found near our summer house was something very rare.  While on a magical country walk along a winding road bordered with fields, I spied something strange: A rise in the middle of a field, covered with huge boulders.  These rocks were not piled about by nature.  There were standing in a circle and supporting a tremendous slab above them, forming a Stone Age burial chamber, or Dolmen, dating to about 3,500 B.C.  It was a rare experience to sit atop the structure and imagine the burial ceremony taking place. Only about 10% of Danish Dolmen survive today.  Most were used for building supplies.  Even Ornehoj (eagle high), as this Dolmen is called, shows scars from a mason’s drill. I wonder how many of the old stone houses nearby are built with Dolmen fragments.
Sausage stand in the square.
The final day trip is to Nykobbing, Falster.  On the island of
Small square on walking street.
Falster and nearly four times the size of Stege at 16,394 inhabitants, Nykobbing is a beautiful, charming old city that Danish royalty used to frequent.  Peter the Great once stayed here as well!  Its walking street is filled with great clothing stores pubs.  We even stumbled across a jazz club and enjoyed a few songs at a sidewalk table, along with a mug of Carlsberg Klassic. 
For those of you interested in the middle ages, close to Nykobbing you’ll find the Medieval Centre theme park.  (  Here you and the family can enjoy a medieval town, jousting, dining, etc. 
The morning of our last full day we watched a doe and her two foes nibble the dew covered grass beside our house.  One generation was aiding another, strengthening it, teaching it so that the trial to come would be surmountable. 
      How like parents are memories.