Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Birthday Story

Life Begins at 40...
Mine almost stopped!

Oh, what I would give to be 40 again! This I wrote in an email to a friend who, only recently, turned 40 years old himself.  He wished he were 20 again prompting me to ponder the seriousness of my own wish given the highlights of the day when I hit the big 40. Remembering that day still makes me shiver!
many birthdays later...
Walter –my Viennese friend –surprised me with a train ticket to Prague where I needed a tourist visa to visit. The Czech visa was not stamped on my passport; it was a document on a separate piece of paper. I had never been to Prague, and Walter thought it would be a nice birthday treat to take me there. That was long, long time ago. I try to forget but in vain.

...and still counting
I remember the day we arrived in Prague. It was wet, cold and grey – quite depressing I must say. Our hotel was ostensibly one of the best in town but do not be impressed as this was during the time when the east was still red. We were required to leave our passports and visa document at the reception until our departure –standard hotel procedure, we’ve been told.

While walking down the streets of Prague I noticed a large number of Asians selling paintings. Most of them were from Vietnam on an exchange student programme. I did not encounter any Filipino whose presence at even the most obscure places on earth (I bet) was quite phenomenal – thanks to our own Diaspora of Filipino domestic helpers. Czechoslovakia at that time was still a communist country and was not a possible market for our labour export. But that was long ago. Times are better now and to find Filipinos living and working in Prague should not really come as a surprise.

It was drizzling the next day, and still grey when we went out to lunch. Still not a single Filipino in sight but the Vietnamese students in their army-surplus jackets were there where we last saw them selling paintings. A long queue of people caught my attention – the soup line, my friend Walter told me. I was shocked to know that this was really happening, especially in Europe, never mind that this was in a communist country. The scenario reminded me of the movie Oliver Twist –in black and white. My sympathy went out especially to those very young children freezing in the cold, waiting patiently for perhaps their first meal of the day.

At the train station on the way back to Vienna, Walter asked if I got my visa back. I got my passport, I said, but not the visa. It did not occur to me that I would need it for the return trip since the hotel reception did not give it back to me. The train was about to leave – the last trip for Vienna that day. Walter was worried but he said that hopefully the Czech inspector would not ask. He was wrong. At the Austrian and Czech border the train stopped for passport control. Three border policemen with fierce-looking German shepherds in a leash asked where my visa was. Walter explained for me the situation but they would not listen. I was told to gather my luggage and to get off the train. Walter tried to assure me that everything would be fine. I felt like a criminal being escorted to jail while passengers were looking at me from their windows. I looked back when the train started to move. I could see Austria from a short distance. Freedom was just a glimpse away; so near and yet so far. Suddenly I was afraid.

They interrogated me for one hour at the train station. They screamed at me and treated me like a real con. I tried to explain in English and in German but they just refused to speak in a language I could understand. They gave me a form with instructions in their language they expected me to figure out. I did not have a pen with me and they would not give me one. I was getting frustrated, tired and edgy. I exploded. I was no longer afraid. I told them in German that it was not my fault that I did not have my visa, and that I would appreciate it very much if they could show some compassion and tell me what to do. One of the officers who had been flipping my passport stood up, and in fluent German told me that since it was my birthday that day my wish would be granted. He said that they would call the hotel to verify if my visa was there. Otherwise I would need to go back to Prague and go to the police headquarters and explain how I lost my visa. I was hoping against hope that the hotel would have my visa. Of course it wasn’t there, I’ve been told after the police made the call. It was only 4 pm and the next train to Prague was not due until 6 pm. After buying my train ticket I asked the police officers for any place where I could get a drink. They gestured to this pub at the train station. The pub was crowded with the locals and cloudy with cigarette smoke that I had to stand for a while to get a clearer view of the surroundings. Everybody’s gaze was directed towards the door – with me standing still in a long winter coat, Stetson hat, a Loui Vuitton travel bag (of course, made in China) in hand. Despite of the situation I was tempted to laugh because, again, the scene could easily be coming from one of those old black and white silent movies. Or better still from Casablanca – with Bogart in his classic raincoat, hat tilted on one side of his head, cigarette dangling leisurely between his lips, entering a bar lounge. Of course I couldn’t pass for Bogart but Charlie Chan will do.

Once my view of the room cleared up I walked to an empty table covered with a cloth filthy with cigarette ashes and what to me looked like soil. I hesitated to sit down until the waitress came up and with one swift stroke, lifted and flogged the tablecloth creating a swishing sound. Now free of dirt, she put it back on the table, stretched it flat – upside down.

Sitting at the next table were the three border police officers who had just interrogated me, drinking beer. They appeared to be friendlier this time as they smiled and raised their glasses to me, proposing a toast. I gestured if they would like to join me at my table, which they did. I said that it was my birthday and would like to buy them a drink (hoping against hope that they would just let me go back to Austria). I felt embarrassed when they admired my suit and my necktie, which they said must be expensive. Western cut may be, but no, it was not expensive I said. They asked me about the places stamped on my passport, which they only knew by names, and told me how lucky I was to have a good job that enabled me to travel to far away countries. It got melodramatic when they confided to me that their meagre salaries could not provide a comfortable life to their families, and that their children could not have nice clothes and toys children from my side of the world might have. Since it was my birthday I told them I would like to do something good, offering them 100 Austrian Schillings each (about 7 Euro, which at that time was already a big sum to them). For the children, I said. They refused the offer, telling me that it was nice of me, but buying them a glass of beer was kind enough. Oh, no! You have no idea! Get the money and let me free, I wanted to say.

They kept me company until it was time for me to go. They volunteered to carry my bag to the train station. Hmm, they were in fact friendly, I told myself. One of the officers helped me find a vacant seat while the other two stayed on the ground – with their German shepherds. When I shook his hand to say goodbye he asked me shyly, and in a whisper, if the money offer was still valid. He could not accept it, he said, in the presence of his colleagues as it would look like he was accepting a bribe. And with that he wished me good luck in Prague and hoped to see me again some time. It never happened.

I arrived in Prague very late in the evening and went straight to the reception and asked about my visa. They have it! You’re kidding me? I called earlier to ask and you said you didn’t have it? I wanted to scream at him, which I didn’t, of course, knowing they could make my life miserable than it had already been since being detained at the border. I thanked him and booked a room for the night but sleep eluded me. It must be the ordeal of the day. I went to the bar and ordered a glass of beer. I noticed the presence of several sweet-painted ladies –seated at one corner of the lounge; some of them giggling excitedly while comparing notes, I presumed. I saw one looking with contempt at the lady who didn’t waste much time approaching me, grabbed a stool, and asked in English if I was Japanese, to which I said, Yes! I lied. She told me that she was a student at the university, 18 years old, and wanted to know if I would buy her a drink. Beer would be fine, she said, and thanked me with a wet peck on the cheek for my kindness when the beer arrived. She wanted to know about my room. Search me, but I really had no idea why she cared to know!

Single bed, and very narrow, indeed! I tried to discourage her if she had no place to spend the night over. I was sure that was her intention. That I snore would be a good alibi had she insisted. After a second beer she said she needed to go to the powder room and would be back soon. Once she was gone the lady with a sneer came up to me and asked how old my guest relations officer told me she was. Eighteen, I replied. Eighteen? She lied! As if I cared! She’s old, she’s in fact 28! She was full of contempt.

Oh, dear, that’s disgusting! I gasped, mocking surprise while struggling to stifle a burst of laughter. This was getting amusing, I thought. Will you save me from her, please?

I bought her a drink. She was thirsty she said. That I am Japanese was a good guess, I told her, when she asked if I were one. Might as well be consistent with my lying. This only made her more interested in me. Tokyo, she heard, was a very crowded and expensive city. I heard the same, I said, explaining further that I come though from a small village, which is miles away from Tokyo, so I’ve never been there. If only my mom could hear me! She would pray the rosary to save my soul from eternal damnation. For lying too much!

Meanwhile a group of five young men arrived, probably in their 30s, and sat opposite us on the other side of the bar. They spoke Swiss German and were there on business, as I had to learn later. Seeing my company they immediately dabbled in excited conversation exchanging naughty remarks –I could tell by their boisterous laughter, just like the boys in my class in high school would, every time the new young teacher would enter our classroom in her mini-skirt. I turned my head when I noticed them looking past over my shoulder. My original GRO had just came back from her trip to the powder room –her cheek bones suddenly made more prominent by a generous dab of blush-on powder in terracotta shade; lips in fiery red. She was standing behind me and was not amused to see that I was not alone. I could easily tell Three’s Company was not her favourite TV sitcom. An argument ensued immediately between her and my redeemer.

I speak German and can understand some Swiss German, I said when it dawned on our Swiss audience that I understood them because I laughed over a particularly hilarious remark they made referring to the escalating catfight.  I didn’t want to lie to them when they asked where I come from. Hearing what I just said that I was from the Philippines, the girls, as if on cue, stopped bickering. The one with the sneer looked at me like she was sizing me up, left in haste while mumbling some incoherent words –expletives I bet you –but I caught some that sounded like Philippines… Marcos! Huh? The other one was at least honest enough to tell me what she thought of the Philippines: A country of poor people living in the slums. That having said, she offered a handshake, thanked me for the beer, and wished me a nice stay in Prague. For the kind treatment I received, I felt very much indebted to the mass media, especially to television, for an excellent job of producing –time and again –documentaries showcasing the only interesting subject one easily identifies my country with: Poverty.

Oh, look who’s talking! I felt the urge to retaliate. I have yet to see a soup line in Manila! But that would not change the image of the Philippines that was planted in her brain. I needed a stronger drink to calm me down. A shot of vodka did it. I raised my glass to the Swiss and greeted them the Swiss way –Gute mitenand’. They, too, were having vodka. They asked me to join them and we ordered more vodka. We were getting louder and our speech slurred as we emptied one bottle after another. The episode of the poor people living in the slums was soon forgotten. The vodka was chilled to perfection, and cheap, too, that we were drinking it like it was water. The last bottle though tasted like water. Of course, it was water! The barman insisted that it was indeed vodka what he served us but later relented he made a mistake when prodded to taste it himself. He feigned surprise and immediately dashed into the backroom where he presumably stored his supplies. We could hear him and his staff laughing hysterically, even bent up probably. They must had been thinking that we were too intoxicated to notice the difference. He was back in no time to tell us that there was no more vodka left, and apologized for giving us the bottle of water they kept in the same fridge along with the bottles of vodka. Hello! They were still laughing when we left.

I woke up the next day shortly before lunch, with a light headache, and starving not having had any food the previous night. I went to the restaurant and ordered steak with French fries on the side from a boy who could not even be older than thirteen I thought. He was so tiny. He was doing his internship as a waiter in the hotel. When he came back with the food he was with an elderly guy in the hotel uniform. He was the headwaiter and was there to watch if the intern was doing his job according to his – the headwaiter’s –expectations. He told his ward to serve me some fries from a serving plate down to mine. The intern was having difficulties keeping the serving spoon and fork clamped together in his delicate little hand to catch the fries. The headwaiter took over and demonstrated to the embarrassed little intern how.

Now, do it yourself, he barked at the boy. The scared little intern looked at me with an impish smile before giving it another try. His upper lip was by then glistening with tiny pearls of sweat, his hand noticeably unsteady. A few pieces of fries skipped the grip of the serving spoon and fork, some landing on my plate, the rest on the table. Furious now, the headwaiter grabbed the silver metals from the hand of his poor intern, scooped the fries from my dinner plate back to the serving plate and told him to do it again. Both of them froze when I pulled the plate away from the hand of the young fellow and slammed it on the table. I did not care anymore if he could do it. I did not care for French fries either. I was starving and worried I might miss my train if this went on forever! Meanwhile my steak was getting cold –the sauce turning into lard!

I finally made it to Vienna. I did not see my captors at the border. They may not be on duty that day but I wasn’t really keen on seeing them again. Nineteen years later, the memory of them dragging me out of the train with their evil-looking German shepherds still haunts me. I still wonder what happened to that tiny hotel restaurant intern. I wonder if he survived the ordeal, or ever recovered from the horror, of serving French fries ever.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Bitches of Bukid-non*

Walter's strange bed fellows: Princess, Tucchi and Greta
I was on Skype with Marilyn - a very dear friend and neighbor in Vienna - who later dropped me a line to say that I look haggard and thought it could only be my house in Bukid-non. She was quite familiar, too familiar in fact, with the never-ending-story of the house construction since Day One when architect/carpenter wannabes dug a hole in my bukid (farm) which would be the foundation of my dream-house. The dream became a nightmare! I was having trouble sleeping thereafter.

This time it was my dogs! Two dogs, chained on the concrete wall that surrounds my property. They sleep in a makeshift teeny-weeny, sides-open doghouse, with a likewise teeny-weeny-roof. Joseph - my nephew, and another farm help made the chain short apparently to prevent the dogs from attacking the chickens that would sometimes venture bravely, and too close, as if in a dare, to the doghouse in search of feeds. Apparently the dogs also have a penchant for destroying banana trees that provide shades to their territory. The problem was that (still is) the dog collar was so tight the poor animals have problems breathing. When it rains - and it has been raining incessantly since arriving in town from Vienna for my annual-6-month stay at home - they get wet and cold, no doubt they get crazy and wail all the time.

Walter and his bitches
 It was pouring rain the first night Walter** - my Viennese friend - and I slept in the new house - alone! Well, almost alone. I should not forget to mention that Walter owns three dwarf dogs who share the bed with him. The chained dogs were just behind our respective bedrooms and one must be deaf and blind not to see or hear how they suffer. And when Walter's strange bed fellows see the chained canines through the French glass bedroom windows, they get excited and bark like mad. Shortly before midnight I let the dogs free from agony, but knowing how wild they could get I stayed till late to watch over them. Free again, the dogs were celebrating. Intoxicated with regained freedom that may have tasted like sweet wine to them, the dogs were running all over the garden, stopping briefly to take a quick sniff of unfamiliar grounds, toppling potted plants and everything in their way! I was worried they would trample the ground orchids my nephew planted the previous summer. They were now in full bloom but with just one giant dog-sprint, I was dead sure they would look lonelier than the proverbial party wall-flower. And then of course, there were these free-range chickens in the backyard to worry about. My dogs love chicken meat, any way served!

Millie: the backyard dog with pneumonia unleashed
So I let the dogs stay in the house but the dog with pneumonia was more than I could take! From my bedroom I could hear the bitch clearing its throat like it was suffocating.Walter believed it caught pneumonia. Talk of overnight vets! Earlier, before going to bed, I asked him to make a choice: free the dogs or let the chickens die! Let the chickens die, his prompt reply!  He was the one who wanted to grow chickens because he said he would need at least 20 eggs a day for his baking! I told him it would be best if I send the dogs away, like donate them the next day to the dog-eaters, and in my village they come by the dozens they need to get a number! He thought I was serious with my threat he was quiet the whole night! Case closed or so I thought!

I was dead tired having had too little sleep the previous nights but sleep was elusive. I was also worried that when I was not looking, the mad dogs could ruin my treasures from the flea markets of Vienna. My treasures were safe! Walter's scattered all over the floor: his cigarettes which he left on a chair chewed beyond smoking possibility, try as he might; reading glasses; shiny splinters of shattered glass ashtray dotted the living room floor. Looking closer I found my latest copy of a magazine on interior designs shredded into pieces you could use them as confetti for the New Year. I almost tripped stepping on a heap of something sticky. And before the roosters could crow announcing the break of dawn, I was already washing and mopping the floor, mouthing expletives I could dethrone Leona Helmsley - the Queen of Mean!

The haggard look? Yes, Virginia, err...Marylin! The bitches! Can anyone get me an appointment with the Belos or the Cayanans***, please?

* Bukid-non: refers to my house on a former bukid (Tagalog for farm)
in my hometown in the Philippines. A friend coined the word after a town in Southern Philippines called Bukidnon.
** Walter: hibernates in the Philippines during winter time in Europe
*** Belos and Cayanans: two famous Philippine rival cosmetologists 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My New Driver's License

I renewed my Philippine driver's license last time I was home and paid a penalty of 75 pesos for not doing it on time. I was one week late! And I had to go through again the usual procedures. Drug test and medical exam. For the drug test I was asked to pee in a small jar,  the size of a small pomade jar. For those not familiar with the word, pomade was a grooming-must for men (brands like Emilia,Tancho Tique and so on) years long before hair gel and  hair spray came into fashion. Talk of antiquities!
While doing my business, someone knocked on the toilet door. "Jez' a minute!" I screamed. It was the clinic's secretary telling me to leave the door open. When I reappeared in the room I said in a loud voice for everybody to hear that I wasn't doing anything that wouldn't qualify as pissing only! Ostensibly, the door was to be left wide open to ensure that you don't dilute the urine with something forbidden. And that there were times when applicants have to be accompanied by a clinic personnel, apparently to watch, what else, to which I said pissing was for me not an easy thing to do especially in the presence of a voyeur.

The waiting room was small and crowded and on the wall facing the toilet hangs a mirror so that everybody could see you standing there squeezing your crown jewel when your were done. After me was a woman who had to do the same procedure. How she did it with that tiny pomade jar I had no idea! I didn't look at her reflection in the mirror. I couldn't care less. While I was generous with my specimen, the lady was Modesty personified. Boy, her jar was almost empty! I knew because everybody had to put the jar on top of the secretary's desk where everybody could see whose urine specimen was clear, hazy, or golden. And the desk was located right in front of the entrance door, where the gap between the door and desk was not even half a meter.

The secretary would then write down your name on the application form and ask you about your civil status. I said divorced when it was my turn. Everybody in the room looked at me like it was the most obscene word they ever heard. You were supposed to tell her if you had taken any medication during the last month. I was curious how those in the room would have reacted had I said I took viagra several times during the last month.

The application forms piling up on the secretary's desk were then collected by another personnel - a woman - who would then disappear in another room but only to reappear again with one application form in hand. She would ask the owner of the form about his/her highest educational attainment, the name of the parents, and if they were still alive. An applicant who appeared to be as ancient as any ancient Chinese secret cooking recipe could be  (you will wonder why he needed a driving license at this stage) was asked the same questions. I think I choked when he was asked if his parents were still alive. I got a dagger look from the lady asking the questions, as if telling me not to mess up with her because she was just doing her job. You bet!

At long last, my name was called - by someone else inside the clinic who turned out to be the chief medical technologist. He took my fingerprints and when done asked about my civil status. I thought it was already mentioned in my application form. Divorced, I said. The woman who wanted to know if your parents were still alive was by now in the same room, heard the question, and without batting an eyelash interpreted my reply. Separated! This finally convinced me that the word divorce was not only obscene; it was also filthy you don't mention it when in the Philippines.

How the clinic could determine in a short span of time - from pee collection to lab analysis - that I was clean was beyond me. I passed the drug test based on the urine specimen which I suspect didn't even get analyzed. After paying the 300-peso fee I was sent to another clinic for further medical examinations. Further medical examinations meant taking your height and weight measurements, and then eye test. Eye test was  mainly identifying the smallest letters on the optical chart. Getting your weight was another.

The weighing scale showed I was 70 kg. that morning; clothes and all. I pointed out that the scale showed 69 kg. to which the person taking note said Ok, if I insist. Of course I insist, a kilo matters! Last time I left Vienna, and it was just a couple of days ago, I measured 1 m and 70 cm tall. Here I was, standing 1 m and 63 cm short! I protested so I was asked to stand once more against the printed height measuring scale hanging on the wall. Naturally I measured 1.63 because the printed paper scale was hanging half a meter high from the floor! According to my old Philippine DL I was 1.70 so I wouldn't relent to this idiot who insisted that I might have shrunk since the last time I got my driver's license. That was in Dec. 2008 and we were now in Dec.of 2011! In the end they put me back to 1.70 and was asked to pay 100 pesos. That was for telling me that people do shrink - especially difficult old people like me!

Having done that I was instructed to return to another office to submit the results of my medical exam. I was asked to sit down and wait until my name was called. There were several counters identified numerically and each counter had a microphone to address you by name - made you feel good that you were being treated as a  human being, not just a number. A feeling that lasted for a fleeting second when your name was called and you didn't know which counter to approach because each counter was calling someone for something else. Didn't I say the counters were identified by numbers and not by the name it was supposed to represent? Sure, you were sitting there facing the counters but not everybody was that lucky to be sitting where you could see which counter was calling you. There was this counter where you submit your medical exams, then a counter where they take your picture, you pay the bill at another counter, then finally a counter where they issue your driver's license.

Sitting there listening to the fee-collection counter, I counted the times when each applicant would be asked if he/she had 18 pesos. You see, the fee was 518 pesos but it was most likely that the applicant would fish out 520 pesos. And each time the woman behind the counter would ask if she could just keep the change because she ran out of small change. What was 2 pesos anyways, you said. Come on, how many applicants were there the whole day, Monday to Friday with no exact 18 pesos in his/her pocket?

I was no exception. But I was  just too happy to get my brand new DL valid for 3 years to care if I left the place 2 pesos poorer!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Surviving November 27

My Day. The day friends and family are one in reminding me in a very refine way that I am a year older. Of course they don't say that. Instead they say I'm a year wiser and wish me all the best, old boy. Right, old boy! Rub it in.

You say it's only a number -Age. But, boy, what a number! You have no idea. It's only a number, bah! It's a Big Deal to me, this number. You may not have a problem with that, fine. I have. It's depressing, I'm telling you the truth. Don't ask me why. I think you know why. No need sending me those electronic inspirational messages that supposed to uplift my sagging spirits. They don't work with me so pallllease, spare me! Especially when you ask me to share them with ten other people I care about. You don't only depress me, you're killing me. Yes, I get very edgy. Do that to me any other day but on my Day and I am your convert. You see I have those birthday blues.
Seems like only yesterday when a bus attendant, before issuing me my ticket, asked "Totoy, saan?" (Child, where to?). I was red in the face. There I was -all of sixteen, acting all grown-up and responsible as I could, already conscious of how I dress up, and yet still very much a totoy to a bus attendant. Can't you see, I 'm wearing long trousers? Totoys those days wore cortos (shorts) so just imagine the envy I felt when when my elder brother entered high school and wore his first pantaloon. For me it was a privilege. A symbol of manhood and all the things it stood for, for having finally arrived. Naive -cute you say- associations quickly shattered by a cruel bus attendant or kunduktor if you like.

Oh, what I would give now to hear that kunduktor address me totoy once more. Dream on! Tatang is perhaps the kindest words I could only hope for to hear from him while waiting patiently for me to fish out from my wallet that all precious Senior Citizen Card which would entitle me to a discounted fare. I'd consider myself lucky if he would not roll up his eyes.

No reason to celebrate, I told my friends. Why celebrate the day your sales value diminished in the job market? There were other reasons, they said, and began enumerating all the craps I didn't want to hear. They won. I was willing to lose the battle though. I gave a party and found comfort in the company of more sympathetic friends like Gruener Veltliner, Junger Wiener and Junker from Steiermarkt. All white and dry, absolutely, no doubt. But never mind, that's why I like them: young and fresh -Austria's early wines.

I should not wonder if I had put on weight. I don't dare step on the weighing scale -am not eager to know what it might tell me. I did well on the pre- and post-birthday celebs so just imagine how I fared on The Day itself. Friends who couldn't make it to my dinner party invited me to lunch the week before and after. I was depressed but did not show it. They could tell but were kind enough to keep mum about it, especially when I took The Day off and the day after.

Birthday dinner was on Nov. 26. Austrians celebrate on their birthday eve and, the copycat that I am, quickly adapted to the custom and have been doing it since. And that was many, many years ago, when I was still fresh and juicy like the butterball turkey we had the last time.

I said I was depressed but the celebration was made particularly happy and significant by the presence of two people I've met and made friends with when I was just starting out in Vienna. While I opted for single-blessedness, the two of them got married to their respective Viennese boyfriends and raised a family. Somehow I lost touch with them but would meet from time to time which was rare, like during birthday parties (their kids') which I tried to avoid the best I could like the plague but in vain. (Oh, I have nothing against kids. I like them as long as they are not mine. I love them from a distance. Am not good at baby talk, you see.) While my two friends remained loyal to our friendship, I drifted apart -for as long as I can remember. That was crying time.

But fate was kind, to me at least. We are together again. My friends' personal tragedies brought us back to each other. This year, one of them got separated from her husband. The husband of the other died of cancer middle of this year; their kids living separate lives. Suddenly it was only Us again. Crying time again for them but this time we have each other's shoulders to cry on. Together, it's going to be easy. We will survive, the way I always survive birthday blues I get on November 27.

Photos: Butterball turkey; friends proposing a toast to my being wiser; cutting bday cake with Adele and Bai - two friends from way back when

Monday, November 20, 2006

Martini Gans

November 11 is Goose Day. Goose what? Goose Day, you heard it right. There is Labour Day, Independence Day, All Saints Day, and so on, so why not Goose Day?

In Austria, at least, when St. Martin with the Goose (or better of the Goose?) becomes once more the saint of the day. The day when you get Martini Gans (Martini Goose) for lunch or dinner, served with red cabbage, potato dumplings, and best consumed with the young wine produced the same year.

Legend has it that the Holy Martin hid himself in a goose stall when he was summoned by the church to become a bishop. Ostensibly he didn't apply for the new job and was quite happy and contented with the old one he had been doing so far. Not willing to learn new tricks, eh? I could perfectly understand the feeling. Eventually he was found and proclaimed a saint later and went down in church history as a saint featured with a goose -the same way that other saints are fondly associated with something that distinguish them from the other holy men...and holy women, as well. I am just being politically correct, lest I find myself suddenly confronted with hate mails (and femails, most likely) for being such a sexist pig, so there. Anyway, think of St. Francis of Assisi, what does he remind you of? What do you associate him with? Birds, what else! Talk of a more fitting association!

There's this one legend I like best about St. Martin and the goose. It has been told time and again that he hid himself from the Roman soldiers pursuing him -for some reason beyond me, so don't ask. The place he chose to run for cover was a goose stall - of all places! Very clever! Need I say that the birds gave him away? No goose and gander was spared that day. Not by the soldiers but by the village people who were loyal to the holy man. I can just imagine the violence and blood shed that ensued later, when the poor birds were beheaded and sent straight to the kitchen oven. Too vivid for my imagination -they give me goose bumps...

And goose down -precious fluppy stuff in my winter blankets and pillows that keep me warm and cozy all night long. Hey, this could be the reason why Martini Gans is available only during the cold season, in November when the weather temperature could suddenly drop to minus! Goose meat is heavy in fat so you don't really go for it in the summer. You don't mind it in winter, when you're freezing, when you couldn't care less if it's the goose that lays golden eggs.

I was invited to a Martini Gans dinner that Saturday -the 11th of November. Waiting for us was a 5-kg goose -stuffed with apples and red onions- still roasting in the oven. I had with me three bottles of freshly minted white Jungwein (young or early wine) from Burgenland. A wine aficionado advised me to get those. The new wine -launched in autumn- goes very well, he said, with the rich flavour of Martini Gans. Thanks and kudos to him for this valuable piece of advice. Our dinner host and the other guests were delighted with the young wine I got for dinner. The aroma resembles apples and pears freshly picked from the garden -a perfect match indeed to the crispy goose and side dish of red cabbage and potato dumplings.

Burgenland is one wine country of Austria that is famous also for its migratory storks with nests ensconced on chimney tops of rustic houses. In mid-autumn, locals and visitors alike celebrate harvest with a festival that begins with "baptism" (wein-taufe in German) of the early wine by a Catholic priest -a tradition that is also shared and practised by other wine producing regions in Austria. I dare to say that this is one tradition that goes back perhaps to the day a holy man called Martin was betrayed by his flock. His flock of geese I mean. It is only after the wine has been purified through some kind of baptism (remember Austria's wine scandal of the '80s when wine producers diluted their wines with glycol?) that one is allowed to say Prost (cheers) when proposing a toast to health...or to the Jungwein. Or to the goose? Hick!

photos: Martini Gans; Potato dumplings and red cabbage