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Bitter-sweet memories August 9, 2017

Posted by globejam in Denmark, Uncategorized.
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cranberry juiceWhen Matt moved to Denmark, the thing he pined for most was his church. It had been the centre of his social life back in Madras and he missed the weekly sermons, the choir practice and the company of his friends. A devout catholic, he appeared to suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms every Sunday.

After watching him fidget around for a couple of weeks, I suggested he find a local church he could attend instead. I also helpfully pointed to a church close to our house, observing how it was empty all the time and should provide him with all the peace and quiet he required. Matt however, was not looking for peace and quiet. He was not interested in just any old catholic church either. He wanted an Orthodox Syrian Catholic church, preferably filled with Orthodox Syrian Malayalees, or at least, a congregation that he could identify with.

My suggestion to look for a substitute church was, however, not entirely lost on him. So, over the next month or so, Matt left home Sunday mornings to check out churches around Copenhagen looking for people he could gel with. Thankfully for him, quite soon, he found a Russian Orthodox church which he felt was very similar to his church back home. He told me that he did not understand the sermon as it was mostly delivered in Russian or Danish, neither language he could understand, but nevertheless, he felt connected and that made him happy.

A new routine set in after that. Every Sunday, Matt would get up early, dress up in his finest and go to his church. He would return in the afternoon in time for lunch, most often with a fellow congregation member in tow. Over the next few months, I met a steady stream of colourful characters from all walks of life, whom I would never have crossed paths with if not for Matt. One such fine character was Mr Beraki who eventually became a regular visitor until one fateful day.

Mr Beraki was an Ethiopian. Unable to take the long and protracted civil war in his home country, he had somehow wound up in Denmark where he had been welcomed as a refugee and given asylum. At one of the transition camps, he had met and married a fellow refugee from Russia. At the time he first came to our house, they were waiting to get their permanent residence permit in Denmark. While that process was going on, Mr B made himself useful by teaching engineering drawing at a school nearby.

Most Sundays, he would accompany Matt to our house. Like Matt, he was also a man of few words and they would just sit together in companionable silence for a couple of hours before he said his goodbye and left. We would, of course, invite him to join us for lunch, but he always politely refused. Each time he came home, he would come with one of his children, every time a different one, and each one cuter than the previous. I lost count of how many children he had, but I am sure it was somewhere between quite a few and far too many. The typical, impolite, insensitive Indian that I was, I asked him once how they managed to afford looking after so many children given his meagre refugee support payments. He politely answered, in a disarmingly candid and surprisingly dignified way, that more children meant more allowance from the Danish Government and so having more children actually helped them! I wondered aloud how the Danish government felt about that point of view, to which he nodded sagely as though he was ready to consider their opinion too.

Since he became a regular fixture who consistently refrained from sharing our lunch, we made it a point to buy different fruit drinks and punches to serve him and such of his children old enough to drink them. Some of the juices we liked ourselves, but there were quite a few that were always too sweet for us. Having tasted rye bread¬† and gammel dansk, both unpalatable to the unaccustomed, we just decided there was no accounting for taste and left it at that. One drink that we found too sweet even by “Danish” standards was the cranberry juice. That tetra pack had languished in the fridge for a few days untouched after the first syrupy sip.

When Mr B came next with his eldest, a boy of about 12, Matt must have thought that was a good time to reopen the cranberry juice. He filled two tall glasses for them while the two of us had our lunch, all sitting around the table. Mr B took one sip and then did not touch his glass again, while his son smacked his lips and emptied the entire glass in one long slurp. Matt, the attentive host, refilled his glass with more juice which also disappeared just as quickly. In retrospect, I don’t quite know what was going on in Mr B’s mind, but after a while he obligingly nudged his full glass towards his son. Not requiring another invitation, the kid finished that drink too.

Only after the kid had polished off the last drop of his third full glass did Mr B casually remark that the pack had the word “Koncentret” written on it. Matt, despite not understanding a word of Danish, very dismissively responded, saying “That’s just Danish for juice. It says the same on the pack of orange juice I have for breakfast”. Not wanting to argue, Mr B nodded his head noncommittally and gently also pointed to the small print below and said “It also says here to mix one part of the concentrate with 5 parts of water”.

The import of that statement struck us simultaneously. No wonder the drink had been so cloyingly sweet! Matt burst out laughing while I turned to look at Mr B’s son who had finished nearly a liter of concentrated cranberry juice under the watchful gaze of his father. There he was, sitting rigidly upright, his eyes glassy and his lips smudged a bright scarlet. Combined with his porcelain skin and mop of black curly hair, he looked like a doll on which a child had liberally smeared lipstick.

Matt reined in his laughter quickly while I struggled to put on an expression of adequate remorse. Mr B’s expression, however, never changed. He got up languidly, bid us adieu, took hold of his son’s hand gently and left.

We never saw them again.

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