Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve in Vienna: Cathedrals, Texas Hold 'Em, and Getting Left at the Altar

Bad renditions of Christmas carols play at the hostel bar as we drink on Christmas Eve.  I meet Francesco, half Italian, half Colombian, with a giving smile and sparkling eyes.  You can tell he is on fire.  I meet Eric, a tall American man who is drunk from chugs of beer and too much time in the war.  He talks about death like it is nothing, the flip of a coin.  His hands move quickly and his mouth is over-exaggerated twists, working overtime to get words out.  I listen with eyes growing watery, listen about Afghanistan and tanks of natural gas and the "bdmm-bdmm-bdmm-bdmm-bdmm" sound he makes to mimic an automatic weapon as he tells stories of death, over and over.  Suddenly I cannot listen anymore, and I excuse myself to the bathroom, needing space from hearing about war I know exists, but I don't want to hear about it tonight, not on Christmas Eve, not in Vienna.  I want to talk to the Brazilian boys, I want to make youtube requests to the bar tender, I want to drink more red wine and sing terrible Christmas carols by the piano.

We go back and forth about whether or not to attend midnight mass.  Barry, an older Irish man who is here because "I knew there would be nothing to do" so he can study for his second major: environmental engineering, leads the crew -- me, Francesco, and the drunken Eric, but the church around the corner is closed.  I am dreading walking into a church with Eric, this drunken obnoxious man who is swearing every three words, and Barry makes an executive decision.  He grabs my hand and we run for a taxi.  I am defeated, not drunk enough or maybe too drunk, past the point of caring -- "I'm over it," I tell him, but he insists.  I'm in Vienna, it's Christmas Eve, and he's taking me to the cathedral.

Side streets in a smooth taxi, we talk.  He pats my head, which I don't appreciate, and somehow, the subject of veganism comes up.  He tells me he is vegan a few months out of each year.  I ask him why.  With a smile he says he can't tell me now, he'll tell me in the morning.  There is something strange about this.  He says it like it is a card he has been saving to use at the right moment.  Is this supposed to be so mysterious that it woos me into sticking around long enough to find out the reasons behind his sometimes-veganism?

We arrive at the cathedral, which is an open vaulted space.  I smell sage and the cool backs of rocks.  It is a cave, and I hear the clicking of shoes, the rubbing of coats against jackets as we humans weave quietly in and out of the mass.  I can't see anything, I can't understand anything, but I am drawn closer, filling up the space other bodies leave for me as they exit.  I am tired and I am wondering how people belonging to a religion that claims to love God and love their brothers and neighbors can take part in the Holocaust.  I think, how many people in this church believe that they are saying?  How many of us are blindly following without knowing or caring where we are going?  How many of us are living that truth of 'when you pray, move your feet.'?  My mind wanders to cynicism, and it doesn't have to travel very far to get there.  People shake one another's hand, saying "Peace be with you" in German I believe, and one man turns to me, pauses a breath of a second as if to register that I do not quite belong but here I am anyway, and shakes mine.

Near the end of the service, they play 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming' and I am thinking about my grandfather.  This is the song he, my aunt, my mom, and my grandma always struggled through on Christmas Eve, after too much egg nog, and it seems fitting that it plays.  He is here, in this church, in this instant.  He is the hum of singing, the notes swooping like birds.  The service closes with Silent Night, just as our Christmas Eve always ends, and I sing quietly in English, harmonizing with everything around me -- the cool air and the warm breath, the sage smoking and the sounds of coughing, voices in German, the muddy organ, and the promise of God.  

One by one, the lamps above are turned off, and the purple glow of lights come on in their place.  I wait while families and tourists with cameras file out and take pictures, cameras tilting up to the ceiling.  I walk up to the front of the church.  I don't know what I am looking for, but there is no time to find it.  We are being ushered out of the cathedral.  I dip two fingers in the holy water and cross myself.  It seems right, a blessing of dewy hands over my heart as I head out into the night, which is gray and quiet.

There is more to the story, less poetry and more re-tellings.  Barry is nowhere to be found, I am alone in the middle of the night in the middle of Vienna, waiting outside of the cathedral.  He doesn't come and I curse him under my breath.  I find a metro, the right metro, and I am reminded yet again of what this Christmas trip means for me: my independence.  With leaps of brave independence come small gifts: I see Rafael, the Brazilian music-journalist who writes for Brazil's Rolling Stone, on the metro.  We sit together and walk back to the hostel.

I am disillusioned and ready for bed, but M (the English hostel bartender) and S (the Austrian front desk man) are playing Texas Hold 'Em (in this moment, I am missing Elena), and the invite me to join them.  We are shits and giggles, betting with shelled peanuts and wasabi nuts (these are worth 5 euro).  They give me the bag of peanuts and I lose terribly; my nickname is Greece but the boys bail me out.  The material for jokes about nuts is endless.  "Nuts up!"  "Let me just reach into my nutsack here..."  I drink more wine and learn a few words in German.  We talk about everything, we stay up 'til the morning in the hostel lobby, and I work on my poker face.

I love my life.  I love my life.  I love my life.  Even though I often feel some sort of variation of getting left at a cathedral, I am finding more and more that I know how to get home, and the thing about that is, my home is always changing and I never know what will be waiting for me.

This is my new mantra: I am home.  I am home in every moment, no matter the geographical location, because I am living in my heart, which is full like peals of belly-deep laughter.  When we let go, and when we trust that there will be somewhere soft for us to land, we can just be in that woosh of falling.  Falling deeper into self and out of ego, every moment and every day is a new beginning for us.  And maybe this is a broken record, the same old song and dance of getting lost and getting found, and maybe there is no succinct way for me to end this, to connect all the dots.  I am flushed, and this year, no matter if my hand is winning or losing, I am reaching into my nutsack and going all in.

So on that note, Boldog Karácsonyt! Frohe Weihnachten! Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas!  Whatever you celebrate, may you celebrate peace and love.

Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen

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