by Rob Marshall, native New Yorker and Czech resident for twenty years
“My favorite thing about New York is the people, because I think they’re misunderstood. I don’t think people realize how kind New York people are.” Bill Murray
The Big Apple was slowly rising back from the ashes of crack addiction and the HIV epidemic, which left the “city that never sleeps” in a profound, decade-long slumber. It was 1998 and, although the self-inflicted devastation of drugs and promiscuity in a foreign country would normally be further down the list of things I concern myself with, it was during this time and in this place that I met my next lover. Although I refused to make this trip in body, this most certainly qualified as an occasion that called for my spiritual presence. Yes, upstate New York is loaded with natural lakes where a freshwater Cyprinid could have plenty fun, but I’d have to get there by ocean. And have you seen the shores of the Atlantic recently? So full of garbage, plastic, old tires, the occasional hypodermic needle and even a human finger here and there? No, it’s no place for a pure being like myself so I opted for overseeing mode in this case and decided against travelling to the world’s favorite city where too many of my Czech lovers had recently relocated.
As has been the case many times in history, one country’s hardships translated into opportunity for other countries that were in a position to capitalize. No sooner had the Iron Curtain fallen, then Eastern Europeans started flooding the arrival gates of Newark and JFK looking for their piece of the American dream. And boy was there a niche for their brand of affordable labor. Post-Soviet Bloc workers were in high demand stateside; not only were they skilled but they were also willing to work for peanuts just to get their foot in the door. With the Cold War finally fading in their rear-view mirrors, they migrated in droves to a country they knew little about and into a culture they could hardly relate to. Sure, this would be the fourth such wave of migration to the United States in the past century plus, but the America their forefathers had emigrated to was a different place; before the drug wars and oil wars and during a time when global warming and terrorist attacks weren’t dominating the nightly news. Still, those borders hadn’t seen this many Slavs cross over since before the First World War. My, how times had changed. Or had they? It depends on how you look at it. Sure, opportunity was abundant. But so was prejudice and there was also plenty of discrimination to go around. Trust me, I’ve tried it myself many times and it’s never easy picking up and starting fresh in a new land. Do you know why? Well, mankind’s inability to fully accept change is deeply ingrained. By change I mean the arrival of people of a different color, race, gender, nationality, creed, or tradition. You’ll never see us underwater creatures judging a new arrival to the habitat because they look or act different. Sure, we protect our territories, but most of our conflicts are over much simpler issues like personal space or food. You also won’t see us segregating other species due to their color or beliefs as you humans are so apt to do. There was never private real estate underwater until someone struck oil there and it used to be that you could move around as freely as you liked with only the occasional predator lurking around in the depths.
If you are ever to discover the level of harmony that exists in the underworld, you must re-discover the kind of unconditional love which hasn’t been practiced by humanity since you first decided to give up your nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and started settling down in one place. It seems to me that the more adamantly you people justify your need to migrate, the less tolerant of one another you become. Spear me if I’m wrong, but that’s just the way I see it.
It was during this post-Communist golden era that around 10,000 of my lovers took their stabs at the New World. Among the new arrivals was Eve, a starry-eyed, blonde beauty from the former Czechoslovakia who would unknowingly help to co-inspire the telling of this story by committing the unoriginal sin of serving a half-fried carp with watery potato salad, following bowls of the most utterly bland fish soup ever set on a Christmas table. Eve wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill immigrant. She was already independent, college-educated and liberated; the type you see gracing successful women’s magazine covers these days. And, in her defense, the poor girl was in uncharted waters as she had never before actually fried a carp. (It was, as with most of my lover’s families, her father’s job and she had always been too busy making cookies to learn how it’s done), and she was never much of a chef to begin with. But in spite of her lack of expertise in cooking in general, her baking skills ranked up there with the best. But if you’ve ever experienced a bona fide Czech Christmas, then you know it is really all about the carp, right?
And Adam? Well he’s the main inspiration of this story. Not for his central European background or ineptitude as a partner for women of this region, but for the fact that, by his 28th birthday, he still had no idea what carp even was. As much as it pains me to admit, he heard of the Cukrovi (Czech Christmas cookies) first. Eve, his new live-in girlfriend, had started baking them sometime around the end of November and offered them to him. What ensued was a four-week bakeathon that saw Adam selling over $500 worth of cookies to his co-workers. And he would have sold a lot more if Eve had been able to bake them fast enough. It was a tremendous amount of work for her; she remained in the kitchen virtually non-stop until just days before Christmas, her face perpetually spattered with white from the flour. Suffice it to say, we had never crossed paths before Adam met Eve. Eve was like a goddess to Adam; smart with a knowing smile that made his knees quiver. Adam was a tall, dark, burly, half-Italian, half-Polish native New Yorker, whose sense of humor and hypnotic blue eyes captured her heart.
They met in the summer and, by the time Christmas rolled around, Adam was head-over-heels in love for the first time in his life. To be honest, if she had she offered him pooh-on-a-stick, he would have gobbled it up quicker than those hot dog kings scarfed down Nathan’s Franks every 4th of July at Coney Island.
Adam’s first Czech Christmas was about the cookies. And, regretfully, that is where I must start, with my nemesis, those sweets that Adam has been trying to make famous for too many years now.
“Hi babe, I’m home,” Adam shouted, running into the apartment like he had just won the lottery. “You’re not going to believe this, but I got ten more orders for your cookies at work today. Everyone down at the restaurant says you should patent those sweets of yours and open up shop. I bet you’d make a killing!”
“That’s great, babe,” was Eve’s somewhat half-hearted reply, which was twanged in that Czech accent that Adam found so cute. “But I can’t make them so fast. That’s not so easy, babe.”
“But I crunched the numbers, and after all expenses you’ll make about 500 bucks clean, babe. That’s a lot of money for Christmas presents, huh? Look, here’s the cash from today’s sales.”
“That’s super, but I still don’t know where I’m gonna buy a carp for dinner. Every shop I checked haven’t carp. Did you already ask your mom and grandma if they’re coming for Christmas dinner?” Eve was in love, too, and similarly would have done anything for Adam. She had already overstayed her visa despite feeling like an outcast in a society where she constantly felt judged. At first, she had stayed for the money she wanted to earn, to secure respectable status back home in the form of her own apartment. Now, it was for Adam, who she couldn’t imagine being apart from. But it was getting more and more tedious with each passing day. Living in a foreign land away from one’s family is enough to weigh anybody down, never mind living in a foreign land with an expired visa and an overzealous cookie salesman. But that was the all-too-common reality for the breed of immigrant Eve belonged to.
“Oops, not yet baby. I’ll call first thing tomorrow and…”
“Baaaby, you promise you ask yesterday. You can’t wait on last minute,” she pleaded. “You know how important is Christmas for me. Call them today, pleeease!”
Now, this was all very new to Adam, it being his first “Czech” Christmas and first Christmas with Eve. As I mentioned, he was deeply in love and still in the eager-to-please phase of their relationship, so when she had suggested he invite his family all the way from Yonkers over to their modest, basement apartment in Bay Ridge for Christmas, love had won out over any concerns he might have had in his right mind. So, he answered with an overly jovial “Sure! What a great idea, babe. I’ll call Mom right now!” In retrospect, it had probably been the most foolish thing he had ever let a woman talk him into, and there were plenty to choose from.
Don’t get me wrong. The gesture, in and of itself, was sweet and innocent and Adam’s mom was actually more curious than usual about the beautiful Czech girl he had recently moved in with. She had rarely shown an interest in meeting any of her son’s previous girlfriends and had never had a problem sharing her opinion on what she referred to as “dips”. Maybe it was because she just wanted the best for her only child, or maybe because none of Adam’s girlfriends ever lasted long enough for her to get to know them or like them. Whatever the reason he feared that Eve would most likely be no exception. A five-Michelin-star-rated dinner wouldn’t win Adam’s mom over so soon, much less the concept of fried carp and potato salad on Christmas Day.
“You seriously want your elderly grandmother and me to travel all the way out to Brooklyn to celebrate Christmas with this girl we haven’t even met yet? Have you lost your mind?” was her reply when he finally called. Eve was sitting next to him, excited and giddy with curiosity. “No way. I’m not even going to call your grandmother. You know her. She won’t…”
“Great, ma. I’ll call Grandma and ask her myself. Love you,” he said, hanging up, not having the heart to reveal the fierce rejection in his mom’s tone to Eve.
“What she say, babe?” Eve asked as soon as he hung up. “Your mother coming for Christmas?” she smiled.
“Yeah, babe. She can’t wait,” he lied. He still had a couple of weeks and was confident that, in the end, her desire to spend Christmas with her son would prevail over her innate distaste for his relations with the opposite sex. “All I have to do is convince my grandmother. I have to warn you, though, babe. She’s not really the type to let anyone cook Christmas dinner for her,” he explained. It must have been the understatement of the year.
The truth was, Grandma had never spent Christmas away from her own kitchen, at least until the previous year, which was spent at her eldest son’s house, and that had only been after he had begged her for years. Grandma was happiest doing the cooking and serving and Adam couldn’t remember her even sitting at the table for dinner. She was content to slave over the stove and dote on the entire family, only to complain that she was getting old and none of her seven children were capable of preparing Christmas dinner themselves. His ace in the hole, however, was that he, her first grandchild, the one who called and visited the most, had already been talking about moving to Europe with Eve. There was a big soft spot in her heart for Adam and he knew it. Even so, the chances were slim.
“Hi Grandma,” he yelled into the receiver, as if she were going deaf.
“Oh, hello, my sweetheart.” That was her greeting every time he called. No matter what was ailing her, no matter what mood Grandma was in, it was always ‘Oh, hello, my sweetheart’.
“Grandma, you wanna come to our house for Christmas this year?” he asked. Eve was sitting in the same place with the same look of anticipation. “Eve wants to prepare a traditional Czech Christmas dinner for you and my mom and we would really love to have you guys over.”
“Eve? Is that your new girlfriend?” Like his mom, Grandma had lost count of the girls, and her faith in any of them lasting long enough for her to meet. “Well, sweetheart, you know I don’t go anywhere for Christmas,” she stated, in a matter of fact voice.
“Yes, I told you all about Eve. She is the best girl and a great cook,” he said. Eve had no illusions about her cooking, but how could anyone mess up fried fish and potato salad, right? More importantly, she wanted to make this gesture to Adam’s family to prove that she was the real deal, and that she was in his life to stay. “You have to come Grandma,” he insisted, preparing to play his ace. “You know I may be leaving for Czech Republic soon and this might be our last Christmas together, right? And my mom is coming, too. So, it’s really important Grandma.” He was lying through his teeth to his unsuspecting grandmother.
“I don’t know, my sweetheart. Your mother told you she is coming? Strange, she didn’t mention anything to me.”
“That’s because we just got off the phone. C’mon, Grandma. We would love to have you here. I’ll tell Judy to pick you and my mom up and you can all come to Brooklyn together.” Aunt Judy had no idea either, yet. But if he could just get Grandma and Mom to agree, he was sure she would come too.
“Well… OK. If this could be your last Christmas in New York for a while. If that’s what you really want, sweetheart. And if your mom and Judy are going, who am I to spoil the parade? But are you sure you and your girlfriend wouldn’t like to come to my house for Christmas? You know how much I love to cook for you all…”
“Thanks so much Grandma! You’re the only Christmas present I want this year. I love you so much. Bye!” He hung up and took in Eve’s beautiful smile, kissed her for a long time, then returned to pondering the almost impossible task of convincing his mom and, finally, Aunt Judy. Now that he had managed to persuade his grandmother, his other oblivious relatives were bound to follow suit.
Had he known what he was getting himself, and Eve, into, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to the idea to begin with…
* * *
Christmas Day was approaching faster than they could prepare for it. Adam was busy packaging and selling cookies, and all the baking really kept Eve busy. When she finally found a live carp on the 23rd of December at a Polish deli in Greenpoint, it was the scrawniest, most lifeless thing you’ve ever seen; the sad look in its’ eyes betrayed an obvious lack of that luster that is so prominent in my countrymen back home. Still, stubborn go-getter that she was, Eve had insisted on carp for dinner, at all costs. To say that she was not ready when the doorbell rang would not accurately describe the situation. The potato salad, which would traditionally have been prepared the night before, still needed to be made and its ingredients were strewn across the dinner table an hour before dinner was to be served. And you wonder why I’m losing my patience?
Adam went to the door to let his family in. “Hi everyone! Merry Christmas! Come on in,” he greeted them with a singsong voice, a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was so ecstatic that they all made the trip from Yonkers that the fact that nothing was ready didn’t faze him. He took their coats and directed them to the kitchen where Eve was swamped, pun intended, and the first piece of fish was about to enter the frying pan and stink up the entire, unventilated kitchen. In her rush, she hadn’t even properly heated the oil, so the first batch just sucked it up like a sponge and lay heavily in the pan, slow to begin frying. But it was time for greetings and introductions so at least the fish had a few minutes to warm.
“Mom, Grandma, Judy, this is Eve. Baby, meet the Ant family.”
“Merry Christmas and welcome!” Eve offered, shaking hands with each and trading warm holiday smiles before sitting at the table full of cooked vegetables.
Mrs. Ant was first to break the moment of uncomfortable silence that followed. “So, Eve, what are all these veggies doing on the table. Is this our appetizer?” she asked with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Oh, no. That’s for potato salad,” Eve explained, somewhat surprised that she hadn’t figured that out herself. “I just didn’t have time to make it yet because we baking cookies every day. Potatoes finish cooling now then I will mix all together and make the delicious potato salad,” she explained, smiling, apparently fully satisfied with both her cooking prowess and her English.
“Yeah, Adam told us about those cookies, Eve,” Judy jumped in to break the ice. “He said they were selling like hotcakes at work. Hope you saved some for us, dear.”
“Oh, of course. But only after dinner. First soup, then fish and salad. Did you ever try carp before?” She posed the question openly and to no one in particular. Judy stepped in, promptly cutting the building tension.
“No, I don’t think so. But if we’re supposed to have salad with the fish, we better help you, huh?”
At this, Grandma took her cue. “Yes, I can make salad, too.”
“No, no. You are our guests. Please just relax and I make everything,” Eve pleaded, gathering the vegetables into a bowl and moving into the living room to proceed on her own. “Babe, can you watch the fish don’t burn, please? I go make salad. And soup is ready. Who is hungry?”
“Adam, I’ll have some soup, if you don’t mind. I’m famished from the long ride. Want some soup, ma?” Judy asked Grandma, who still had a look of discomfort on her face, most likely due to her displeasure with the fact that she was not doing the cooking herself.
“Ok, but just a little.”
“How about you, sis? Soup?”
“No, I’m fine. I think my carp quota will be adequately met with dinner…”
Adam poured three bowls; one for Judy, one for Grandma, and one for himself, and sat down to eat. His mother, after her less than gracious refusal of the soup, had one suspicious eye on him and his soup, and the other watching Eve in the other room sweating over the salad.
“So, what’s this about you moving to the Czech Republic?” she asked. “You’re just picking up and moving to a new country where you don’t even speak the language? And what about work?” Her irritation with her son’s plans superseded the fact that it was Christmas and any of the futile effort he was making to fry that smelly fish.
“Not now, Mom. Please, let’s just enjoy dinner and we can talk all about our plans later, over coffee, if you don’t mind?” Though he posed it as a question, the sentiment was more stated than asked.
“Whatever. OK, give me a little soup, too, then.” Just then Judy looked up from her bowl with an expression of disgust on her face and just shook her head. It tasted as if someone had just poured water over mud and heated it for a while. In fact, the fishy water had to be the worst thing her palate had ever incurred. Grandma had stopped eating hers, as well; they all just stared at one another now with a look of shared wonder.
“OK, babe. I think everyone is done with their soup and the fish is almost done, too. Can you come check it?” Adam asked.
“Sure, baby. You set the table and start serving salad and I go check the fish.”
Adam wasn’t sure how Czech potato salad was supposed to look, but at first sight it seemed a bit thin to him. ‘Maybe too much mayo,’ he must have been thinking to himself, but said nothing, opting to just stir it up a bit more and hoping it would look better on the plates. But it didn’t. And by the time Eve added a strip of fried fish to each, the mayo was running all over the plate so that Eve had to partially place the fish in puddles, as there was no dry space left on the plates to place it on. His family, still exchanging those same looks of amazement, waited patiently for Eve to sit and join them.
“OK,” Eve smiled and sat at the table. “I hope you enjoy traditional Czech dinner. I’m happy you all come today. Let’s eat before carp is cold. Many people in my country eat cold next day but I like only warm,” she offered, at an attempt to lighten the air, noticing the looks on their faces. Adam’s mom had already cut into her slice of fish and, having realized that it wasn’t cooked all the way through, didn’t mince her words.
“My fish isn’t done, Adam. Look, it’s still raw in the middle! I’m not eating this. Are you trying to kill your poor mother, or what?”
Adam, caught off guard, thought better than to look at Eve with any blame, even though he had asked her to finish the fish while he got the salad, and just offered to put it back in the pan.
“No, that’s OK,” she insisted, grabbing his wrist as he tried to pick up her plate. “Actually, I’m not even hungry anymore. I’ll just wait for coffee and those cookies we’ve been hearing about.”
“Here, Adam,” Judy chimed in, offering her plate for Adam to take. “I’m still starving, so if you don’t mind doing mine for me. I would love to just finish our meals first.” Grandma played along and also reluctantly handed her plate to Adam, saying nothing.
They waited for Adam and the carp to come back, re-fried and this time a little on the burned side. Grandma and Judy ate theirs slowly, careful of the all the sharp bones they had to pile on the sides of their plates. When they were done, more out of courtesy than appreciation, they thanked Eve graciously and helped clear the table.
Once they moved to the living room, Eve started placing the cookies on small saucers, ever so delicately to ensure none broke or even crumbled, and handed a healthy serving to all. Adam had just started making the coffee when the move came up again.
“So, tell us Adam. What the hell are you gonna do in the Czech Republic? How long are you planning to stay there? And what about your job here, and…”
“Oh – My – God!” Judy interrupted, having taken her first bite into a Vanilkové Rohlíček (vanilla crescent cookie). Those are the simple ones that everybody knows how to make, nothing special, in fact. “This is the best cookie I’ve ever tasted!” she exclaimed, pausing after each word for effect. “What do you call this, Eve?”
Eve, beaming as if the whole carp thing had never happened, replied, “Oh, those are rohlíčky. They’re my favorite. Try the other ones, too.”
Grandma grabbed a Košíček; these are mini chocolate cakes with walnut filling and topped with a walnut. Have you ever heard of anything so dumb? She was immediately won over.
“Wow, Eve! These really are good. With sweets like these, why do Czech people even bother with the carp? You should just make Christmas cookies and forget the fish!”
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Ant! I’m happy you like cookies,” Eve replied, still beaming.
“Why don’t you just call me ‘Mom’, Eve honey?” The lady’s tone had changed from bitter to extremely sweet in a matter of minutes.
Why don’t you just call me Mom, honey. How sickening. Can you believe how fast those stupid cookies just turned around an entire fiasco of a fish dinner? I still can’t wrap my freshwater head around it. Just like that and the whole despicable dining disaster was forgiven and forgotten.
“Just promise me the wedding will be on this side of the pond, OK honey?” she continued, turning to her flabbergasted son.
“Sure Mom, whatever you say,” was all he could muster.
“Who cares where they get married,” chimed in Judy for good measure. “As long as these cookies are on the wedding menu, I’ll pay for the flights to Europe!”
With that they all started chuckling loudly and making travel plans. Merry Christmas!
And there you have it – the beginning of the end. There would be more Czech Christmases to follow for Adam and Eve. And, none of them, being built on this shaky foundation, ever had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding, either, as we will see shortly.
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Ask most Czech people why they eat carp for Christmas and they would be hard-pressed to give you a straightforward answer. That is not to say that no one in the country knows. On the contrary, most people will have at least something to say about me. And if you search long enough, ask enough people or just google it yourself, you will certainly find a myriad of opinions. These opinions, however, vary as much as the weather, and still only few of my lovers really know for sure. But they wouldn’t change this habit because it just seems right to them.
Some are aware that the habit of eating fish on holidays is historically intertwined with the story of Jesus, as he is said to have fed the multitudes from what had been considered a dried-up sea. Though I’ve been around since long before that miracle is said to have taken place, I wasn’t there and so I can neither support nor dispute the authenticity of the event. Nor can I vouch for claims of fish with religious words spelled out on their bodies like that specimen named Oscar from England, whose scales were said to mimic the Arabic script for Allah. I can say that, though I do not pay homage to any one doctrine, my path has flowed through several religions, for each of which I am equally revered. Mainly, I consider myself a spiritual being of tolerance who would never fault a man for his beliefs. It just so happens that the Czech celebration revolves around me, so it is only natural that I have a special soft spot in my heart for those lovers I call true. Other than that, it is of little importance to me what deity, if any, other beings choose to pledge their faith to. One thing is certain – the type of love I have experienced here in Czech is a rarity, and a phenomenon not easily explained in words.
They line up in the freezing cold to buy us, crowding around an endless number of carp “pools”; these are ever present in major cities, small towns and villages all around the country in the days leading up to Christmas. Opinions about “just the right size, the “best way to prep” and the “only way to fry” mingle in the air just as the smell of fried fish lingers in the air long after it is eaten. Yes, prepping carp is an art form. First, there is selection. The ideal size is a matter of opinion but the fact remains that the larger the choice, the fattier the fish. As a general rule, brothers and sisters weighing over six pounds are left behind and I won’t trouble you with the details of what happens to those plumper relations, as it is not relevant to our story. The point is, my lovers are very technically minded by nature and, as with most everything they do, they take the selection process seriously.
This process may require viewing up to three tanks at three different vendors at opposite ends of the city to be certain they’ve chosen the right one: still alive but not too lively; not too old but not too young; eyes that look, but not too sadly; tails that wag, but not too waggy; plump around the ribs but not too fatty. It’s the kind of checklist someone might use when buying a new car. Cukrový are just mixed flour, water, sugar, nuts, and a pinch of rum here and there. That’s all. And certainly, no extensive selection process. Walnuts are walnuts and Czech rum is Czech rum. There are only a few brands on the market and my lovers usually just buy whatever is on sale. In most cases they don’t even check expiration dates. Sure, there are family recipes handed down from generation to generation like some sort of heirloom and, yes, when prepared in painstaking detail they can provide an interesting gastronomical illusion. Lots of colors, shapes, sizes, forms, blah blah blah. You get the picture. When these cookies mind their place as a fine dessert and decent addition to the old, Christmas tradition, all is well that ends well. It’s when they try to steal the show that it gets my fins all twisted…
* * *
The Brooklyn fiasco would have been a harmless enough faux-pas, a one-off, had it not started what now seemed an irreversible trend that has extended to several other blown Christmases; all in one way or another, dominated by those lifeless sweets, overshadowing my very essence every single time. Yes, Adam is an exception and, no, I do not feel threatened as a result of his lack of respect. However, as humans now have a habit of sharing their stupidity on all kinds of social media and smart devices, something like this could very well go viral and then where would we be? In the midst of a catastrophe of global proportions, that’s where!
Adam and Eve’s next Christmas was spent in the Czech Republic, in her hometown of Ostrava. They had finally decided to make the move because Eve’s dad, Eduard, had fallen ill and his health was deteriorating quickly. Now married and approaching their second Christmas together, neither had learned their lesson from the year before, and the cookies would eventually end up in the spotlight again. This time it wouldn’t be because the people concerned had never seen or tried them before, but due to circumstances that are hard for even me to comprehend. The whole mess could have been easily avoided had Adam at least consulted Wikipedia before making his first, official kill. But, before we get to the botched slaying, as I mentioned, there is the selection process. It was Adam’s first and, thank goodness, Eduard was there to assist lest Adam come home with an even poorer specimen than Eve had the year before.
“Why do we have to wait here so long?” Adam moaned. Imagine that. This poor old man, well into his seventies and terminally ill with cancer, out in the cold, was only trying his best to pass down the tradition to his new, ungrateful son-in-law. What a lack of appreciation! Sure, it was a particularly cold winter in Ostrava that year and on carp selection day, the temperature was well below freezing. And they had already been standing in a line that hadn’t moved for the past fifteen minutes. But still, my true lovers don’t mind the cold and they understand the importance of the selection. Adam? Hah!
“I look for exact right one,” the elderly gentleman explained in his broken English. He may as well have been speaking Chinese, though, as Adam would never have understood what all the fuss was about, no matter what language it was explained to him in. “You see that one,” Eduard offered, waving a frail finger at one that was slightly overweight.
“Yeah, it looks perfect!” Adam exclaimed, with confident enthusiasm. Back home he had always possessed the gift of persuasion, but his efforts on foreign soil often seemed to be falling miserably short.
“No, no. Too fat! We can’t take that one. We try different place. There has nicer fish.”
‘Are you kidding me?’ Adam thought to himself. Instead of saying it aloud, he said “But I’m freezing already and you must be cold, too.”
“Oh, I am fine. I visit many tanks every year for perfect carp on Christmas table every time.”
Adam rolled his eyes and wished he was back in New York. Once Eduard had finally chosen a specimen at the third vendor, a full three hours after they had set out, he was sure his hands and feet had succumbed to frostbite and he couldn’t have cared less what the damned fish weighed or looked like. Back at the apartment, they were due to begin the task of killing, scaling and portioning. As we’ll see, they never even made it through step one of the process thanks to Adam’s heavy hand. Usually, we are soaked in the tub for up to three days, depending on when I am brought home. This tradition, however, is sometimes skipped when there are no small children involved or when my lovers are too busy with shopping to buy me in time. Yes, my lovers have become quite the gift buyers in recent years and sometimes the gifts are higher priority, which is another fact of life I will never understand. I’m sure you can understand how this angers me but that conversation is for another time and place. Che sera sera.
Adam was about to destroy the perfectly selected carp. Eve was at work and had warned him earlier in the day that Eduard, in his increasingly feeble state, was not to handle any knives or hammers, leaving him with the honor of doing the deed himself.
“So, what am I supposed to do?” he had asked, before she left on the morning of what I now refer to as doomsday.
“You must hit with hammer on head. Just, please, don’t let my father do anything. He will want do all, but his hands shake too much from the medicine. Please, baby, promise me you do it.”
“Oh, alright,” Adam conceded, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘How did I ever get myself into this?’ But he could never turn Eve down, especially when she called him baby in that oh-so-cute accent. “I’ll do it, but only because I love you,” he said, kissing her in the doorway on her way out.
* * *
Picture this: Adam had my poor countryman laid out on the cold counter, with nothing underneath its body to keep it from sliding, and Eduard was approaching, hammer in hand.
“Oh, please, can I do it,” Adam pleaded. I’ve never killed a fish before and I really want to live the experience,” he lied. Truth be told, the moron had barely ever even held a hammer in his hand but he had made a promise and now had no way out.
“Well, OK. But you must hit good. Must be dead before we clean with knife,” Eduard said.
The bloodbath that followed brought back memories of the Thirty Years’ War. With Eduard holding it upright so that he had a clear shot at the head (he really couldn’t make it any easier), Adam hit the poor thing hard. A total of twelve times! Yes, twelve. Can you believe this fool’s incompetence? There was blood everywhere; it was splattered on the walls and ceiling, and all over the kitchen floor. And poor Eduard, covered in bits of fish and guts and still holding what was now an unrecognizable pile of pulp in his shaking hands, was so mortified by witnessing this act of violence, that all he could muster was a feeble, “Co deláááš? Už dávno mrtvý!” He wasn’t even able to form the words in English, so I’ll translate for you. “What are you dooooing? It’s long dead!”
Adam, with the crazed look of a serial killer on his face, not realizing that the fish was only still moving because of Eduard’s jittery hands and whatever nerves were still connected in the mashed-up fish’s body, said: “What kind of supercarp was that? The more I hit it, the more it moved. It just kept moving and I thought it was still alive. That bastard is dead now, though, isn’t it?” he said with an unabashed smirk. Eduard, weary from the excitement, had to go and sit down to compose himself. It was at about this moment that Eve came home and saw the mess in the kitchen. When she saw her father sitting in the living room, still covered in blood, grey in the face and speechless, tears of despair streamed down her face. Adam, finally drained of the adrenaline rush of his first kill and realizing that he had ruined Christmas dinner, decided to try and console his sad wife with a few kind words.
“It’s OK, baby. Who needs fish? We still have your delicious cookies for Christmas. You know, they’re the best in the world. And I’ll just bake a turkey, or something. Yeah, turkey and your cookies. It’ll be the best Christmas meal ever!”
I hope you are gaining an understanding of what I have been forced to deal with over the years. I wish I could lie to you and say it gets better, but it doesn’t. In fact, believe it or not, it actually gets worse and worse…
Author: Rob Marshall, native New Yorker and Czech resident for twenty years, has written Fishy Times; a story about some things that really happened here in Ostrava. Since one of the main themes of the book is how to celebrate a true Czech Christmas, the writer wishes to share this gift with his fellow ex-pats through the holiday season.
Roberto has a special gist for you! You can get the whole book on Amazon Kindle until the 25th of December for free!
Download it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/