European Yuletide

by Daniel Ayers

Just before Christmas, I made my way across the pond for the second time in as many months. Destination: Germany, Austria, and Poland—specifically, Munich, Vienna, and Gdansk. Officially, this was a business trip. Last summer, I retired from my career as a middle school history teacher. Since then I have been working as a caretaker and personal assistant for a family of extraordinary repute. It’s a job with many perks, including travel. I was invited to join the family on their holiday trip to Europe under the dubious pretense that my presence would enhance the trip by bringing the child-to-adult ratio to a manageable 1:1.

That was the idea, at least.

In practice, I spent two weeks stumbling from one snowy Christmas Market to the next with a six-year-old on my shoulders and a BAC equivalent to the interest rate on a 30-year mortgage, sliding along icy cobblestone streets trying not to spill my mug of gluhwein or drop my stein of peppermint schnapps. ‘Twas the season.

Highlights from my time in Europe include:

Being dazzled by the spectacular snow-frosted Christmas markets. We were greeted in Munich by a fresh snowfall, which made the trip at least a million times better. For most of our trip, the temperature hovered in the mid-teens and low-twenties, a far cry from the balmy fifties we left behind in North Carolina. There were icicles on the jetway if that tells you anything. I still distinctly remember my first thought as I stepped off the plane in Munich: “Holy fuck, it’s fucking cold as fuck.” 

If I’m being honest, the trip was really just one giant excuse for me to show off my feeble attempt at Soviet Union cosplay. My unofficial uniform on the trip consisted of an olive-drab wool trenchcoat with leather boots, quilted tan denim, a flannel shirt, and a Ushaka Mom found at the Burlington hospice flea market for $3. Accessorized with my brown and tan sunglasses (technically the pattern is “Sahara Sunset”), I curated a sartorial homage to the KGB, a look I call “Eastern Bloc Party.”

Had great fun visiting numerous historical sites including but not limited to: the Odeonsplatz, Dachau Concentration Camp (not fun so much as indescribably haunting, but an absolute must-see), the old Hapsburg armory in Vienna, and historic Gdansk (of Danzig Corridor infamy).

And of course, there was the food, which was cheap, abundant, and delicious. The best meal I had on the entire trip was at a restaurant in Gdansk serving what was advertised as “finely vegan fair” (sic). I had a foie gras (the base was pureed navy beans with truffle oil), a lard pate (garbanzo bean base), and a beet tartar—an absolute home run of a meal made a Grand Slam thanks to the killer exchange rate. I paid $14 for the whole sha-bang, tip included. Frankly, it felt morally wrong to enjoy such a decadent meal at such a low price, but as an American, I am entitled to what Charles DeGualle called, “the exorbitant privilege of the Dollar.” Très bien.

* * *

In Vienna, I spent a measly seven Euros to tour the world’s oldest military history museum. Here I saw the most infamous automobile in world history (apologies to JFK’s convertible, which takes a close second): the sedan in which the Archduke and his wife were assassinated back in that fateful summer of 1914. Check out the photo of the bullet hole in the car’s rear passenger-side door, a product of the bullet that killed Princess Sophie. Also look at the photos of the Archduke’s bloodstained uniform, as well as the couch on which he drew his final breaths. Undoubtedly the most consequential artifact I’ve ever seen.

At the museum, I crossed paths with a group of Slovakian high school students on a field trip from Bratislava, which is apparently only a couple of hours by bus from Vienna. These students were precocious as hell and loved asking me questions about life in America while indulging my own inquiries into Slovakian life and culture. We ended up spending over an hour shooting the breeze while obstructing foot traffic into an exhibit on the Franco-Prussian War. One thing I learned from the students is that if you want to have a memorable childhood, be born in Slovakia, but if you want to reduce your odds of developing early-onset alcoholism and crippling seasonal depression, be born in America. Other lessons I learned from my new Slovakian comrades:

a. The Slavic equivalent of hiring a babysitter is locking your kids inside the house with a space heater and enough food to last a weekend and telling them not to open the door for anyone, especially not the police.

b. Cigarettes are big in Slovakia. Slovakian youth typically take up the habit around their twelfth birthday. The kids I spoke with said that all of their friends smoke, even the ones who say they don’t. I asked one girl if she has been smoking since she was twelve and she said, “Yes, but only socially.”

c. The kids encouraged me to visit Slovakia. “Come for the cigarettes, stay for the absinthe,” they said. They were big on absinthe, arguing that it is delicious and doesn’t actually make you hallucinate. Apparently, that’s just a myth.

d. The students asked about the suicide rate in the USA, which I honestly didn’t know off the top of my head. According to them, Slovakia has a notoriously high rate of self-slaughter, with most of the contributing statistics resulting from drunk people throwing themselves in front of commuter trains. “Honestly, it’s really annoying,” one girl said. “You’re trying to get to school on time and then suddenly your train is delayed 30 minutes while they mop up a body.” The students then discussed more convenient alternatives, such as jumping off a building or taking a bath with a car battery and jumper cables.

e. Once I felt that I’d established a good rapport with the students, I asked how many of them had seen a dead body on their way to school. Of the eleven in the group, eight raised their hands. “Homeless people. Usually frozen,” they said. One girl said she once saw a dead man with his head bashed in while walking to the grocery store. I was dumbfounded and, if I’m being totally honest, a little emasculated. The most exciting thing I ever saw on my way to school was that one time the Alamance County sheriff’s department raided the Paradise Club. I remember driving by and seeing all the strippers huddled outside their pimp-provided single-wides, shivering in their panties while sheriff’s deputies in SWAT gear corralled them for questioning. I always thought it was a pretty good story, and by local standards, I guess it is. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the frozen hobos of Bratislava.