That Christmas Eve they had brought a tall fir tree to school’s gym, and decorated it together: Alexandra, her cousins Adelin and Cosmin, Lucian and Lotte, and a bunch of other young people who were eager to bask in the glow of an attractive teenage girl from abroad who looked around herself with a perpetual smile on her face, and accepted gracefully the shot glasses of plum brandy directed her way.
“How’s life in Germany? Do you guys party like we do?” asked one freckled seventeen-year-old, approaching eighteen-year-old Lotte. His voice was barely audible over the loud music blaring from a boombox.
“Well, life in Germany . . .” Lotte started, talking in a smooth tone of voice.
Florin’s glance traveled from her green eyes to her lips. He found he couldn’t concentrate on lipreading her words.
“I like it,” continued Lotte, shouting this time.
“You like it here?” asked Freckles, apparently forgetting his previous question.
“I do. I like it here too,” Lotte said, shouting again.
Florin rushed to a table to pour himself and Lotte some plum brandy. They hadn’t bothered to bring any food, since they counted on eating well later in the night.
“Another one for you,” Freckles said, handing Lotte another shot glass filled to the brim.
Lotte laughed and stretched out her hand. “For me? Thank you!” She then took a big gulp. “Ah, it burns,” she said, smiling.
“Warms up your throat for later,” said Adelin, who had been standing behind her, drink in hand, watching her long black sheet of hair and her figure below. She turned to look at him. He then downed his drink, smiled at her, and then walked to the table to dispose of his glass. “Ready for caroling?” he said, looping an arm around her shoulders.
“We’re going caroling?” Lotte asked. “Let me ask my cousin,” she added.
“He’s coming with us,” said Adelin, loudly. “We’re all going!” Then he gestured to his brother Cosmin to turn off the music.
“Time to go visit some friends,” Adelin said to Lotte. “Cosmin, turn off the Christmas lights.”
“Do we take the bottle with us for the road?” asked Freckles.
“No, leave it there. There’ll be plenty of booze where we’re going,” he said, turning to smirk at Lotte.
“Aren’t we a bit too tired already?” asked Lotte, with a giggle, as she made to put on her coat.
“You think you’re tired now?” he asked, a serious smile playing about his lips. “You know, Florin’s grandfather, fighting in WWII . . . they slept while they walked. Held arms together, three-four people, and took turns sleeping. Although I wouldn’t recommend it on these gelled streets. But you can take my arm,” Adelin said, and offered her his arm with a flourish. “Should we go?”
Lotte smiled and gave him his arm, as if invited to dance in a ballroom.
They headed out of the gym into the night, joining other small groups of people who wondered from house to house raising their voices in harmony in the crisp air of winter, along icy roads, streets, and alleys leading to friends and neighbors who welcomed them with appetizers and sweets.
“Meat, fat, pigskin, pig liver, and lungs,” said Mrs. Ioan, their first host of the night, marveling over Lotte who sat at the end of the kitchen table eating a type of sausage called sângerete -- or sânzărete, in the regional variant. Seeing how Lotte was seemingly trying to identify in her mouth the various ingredients, Mrs. Ioan chuckled. “Do you like it?” she asked. “It’s called sânzărete,” she said.
“Yes, I do, actually. It’s called sân . . .?” started Lotte, puzzled as to how the word went.
“Sânzărete,” repeated Mrs. Ioan, with a lopsided smile. “From sânge, blood,” she added.
Lotte stopped chewing, a big chunk of sausage still in her mouth.
Mrs. Ioan was ever so amused. “You can relax, there’s no blood in ours. We don’t like it either,” she said, resting a hand on Lotte’s arm, a friendly glint in her eyes.
“Oh, good!” gasped Lotte. “No pig’s blood for me,” she said with a giggle, looking up at Mrs. Ioan hopefully, and then her gaze shifted back to her plate where more unknown food items were waiting to be sampled.
“Now try our cocioane!” said Mrs. Ioan, tirelessly.
“Cocioane . . .?” Lotte asked, unsure what it meant.
“Aspic,” said Mrs. Ioan.
Lotte heaved a sigh of relief. She knew about aspic. She looked over the table at Lucian, and noticed he was smiling at her. She smiled back and cut a bite.
“We ate at the school,” said Lucian, loudly, so that the others who had been at the gym could hear him.
“Did you have sweets there, too?” asked Mrs. Ioan, reaching enthusiastically for a plate with loaves of sponge cake with swirls of poppy seeds or ground nuts, and placing it next to Lotte’s dish.
“I love sponge cake!” Lotte said. “My mom makes it too,” she added.
“Does she make poppy seed cake too?” Mrs. Ioan asked.
“No, only the one with ground nuts,” Lotte said.
“Well, have some then. See how you like it,” said Mrs. Ioan.
“It looks good,” said Lotte, and dove into the cake with her hands.
“She seems to have quite an appetite for a girl her size,” said Mrs. Ioan, looking at Lucian.
“Must be the plum brandy,” said Freckles, who had been munching on tobă, a pork offal, tongue and pigskin pudding, made with garlic and pepper.
“Must be,” said Mrs. Ioan, chuckling at Freckles.
“Guys, finish there quickly. We kinda need to hit the road,” said Adelin, rising to his feet, quaffing the last of his drink, and placing his empty glass on the table.
“Stay some more,” pleaded Mrs. Ioan. “Let the girl eat.” She smiled at Lotte, who had just finished the last of her sponge cake slice, and was now wiping her mouth with a napkin.
“Yes, let her finish her sponge cake,” said Florin. “The night is young.”
“I’m ready,” said Lotte, feeling guilty of holding back the revelers.
“Good,” said Adelin, encouragingly. “Thank you very much, Mrs. Ioan.”
“Thank you for the caroling,” she said.
The carolers’ visits to other houses meant more of the same, starting with the carols -- O ce veste minunată (“Oh What Wonderful News”), Trei păstori (“Three Shepherds”), Noapte de vis (“Silent Night”), and others -- which they sang outside in the front yards and inside in people’s kitchens, and ending with the invitation to sit down, eat and drink.
When they arrived at Freckles’ house at 1pm, they were welcomed by his mother, Mrs. Matei, her husband, and Freckles’ ninety-year-old grandfather.
“He’s been waiting for you,” said Mrs. Matei to her son, when he stepped in accompanied by his friends and a bunch of other neighbors who joined them on the road.
The ninety-year-old man, seated at the head of the kitchen table, on a semicircular couch, smiled at the group with his one remaining tooth.
Lucian turned to Freckles. “We should have come here first; the poor man’s been waiting for us.”
“Ah, don’t worry,” said Freckles. “He’s tough.” He waved everybody in, gesturing to them to sit down as his mother was bringing fresh shot glasses and filling them up.
“Grandpa, tell them how you ate dog food in the war!”
Grandpa laughed, then dismissed the suggestion with his right hand. “It’s Christmas Eve. Let me tell you a poem!” And he started on a long poem by George Coșbuc, about a man who loses all of his three sons in World War I. It wasn’t very festive, but, in its own sad way, and with Grandpa reciting stanza after stanza with heartfelt emotion, which he somehow managed to do time after time, it fit with the spirit of celebrating life at Christmas: Christ’s and everyone else’s.
“Bravo! Bravo!” said Florin’s mother to her father-in-law. She started applauding and looked at the others meaningfully, to invite the same gesture on their part. Then she turned her back to the old man and addressed the guests. “We have interrupted what you were singing outside. Please, sing some more,” she said. “Grandpa doesn’t hear very well, but he likes it when people visit him.”
Adelin turned to the others. “ ‘Good Morning Christmas Eve.’ One, two, three!” And they started on that short carol, their voices layering it beautifully, followed by “Oh What Wonderful News.” Singing in that makeshift choir, Alexandra thought back to the Christmas of 1989, when the newly-minted free newspaper Libertatea printed a series of Christmas carols, the first time a newspaper did so in decades.