Sunday, January 28, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 338: Biomythography - Note 82, Die Metzgerei

Die Metzgerei

This is a fragment of a memory. 

Walking as a toddler was exhausting. When I recall details from incidents like this one, though, I'm surprised to rediscover my child-like sense of how difficult it was to move at the pace of grown-ups. In the last half of toddler-hood, it did get easier. Early on, when this takes place, my exhaustion was a burden on everyone, including my parents.

My understanding that I was a burden was limited. I had a vague sense I should be faster. I should walk for longer without needing picked up or getting to rest on a bench. 

I may have been two, about to turn three.

"Look, I'll give you a treat," my mother promised. 

We stood on the street, blocks from home. My legs ached. My eyes had fallen half shut. I'd missed my usual nap time an hour before. I had burst into tears twice on the shopping trip. But my mother needed to visit what locals called der metzger, the butcher. 
"Lollipop?" I asked. I knew the butcher kept a jar of them on the counter next to his cash register. My father had refused to get me one, last time.

My mother nodded. I stifled my sobs and accepted her hand over mine. She guided me into the shop. A bell on the door rang. I shivered at the noise. 

Immediately, the scents of disinfectants and raw, red cuts of meat wafted over me. From experience, I knew parts of the butcher shop smelled weird and other parts were good, especially when I was hungry. Bright red cuts of meat lay behind glass cases. Most of them shone, they were so vivid, dramatic, and neatly done. The fat around the edges glistened white. Below the cases, the floor looked dull. It smelled of leaf dust and concrete grit tracked in from the sidewalk. The stone tiles of the shop looked clean, I knew, but I could smell the detritus from shoes. More, I felt the mustiness of centuries. This building had been around for hundreds of years. And as we passed near the register, I smelled sugar. 

The lollipops sat like a bouquet of perfect flowers in a brownish, clay jar. The jar rested on the counter. My mother let me gape at the arrangement for a few seconds, those yellow circles atop white sticks, each in a cellophane wrapper. Then she took a number from a machine that dispensed customer numbers and we waited. 

Rationally, I'm aware it must have taken time to get a cut of meat. It always did. But I don't remember waiting. I have a vague sense of dialogue above me. It took place in a mix of English and German. I may have fallen asleep on my feet for a while. I may have talked with another child in the line. None of it made an impression.

I don't remember getting the lollipop. Suddenly, I had one in my right hand. That part is clear.

I gaped in wonder. I raised it to my mouth. When it hit my tongue, I shuddered. I was startled by the lemon, sour taste. A moment later, I slurped on it again, drawn to the sugar. I suppose I would have eaten anything mixed with enough sweetener. Above me, the conversations continued in English and in German. After a while, I got the impression that the butcher thought my mother and I were cute. Or maybe he was just being nice. He was a large, scary man. He had a dark shirt and a white apron, smeared with blood stains. Usually, his demeanor was stern and demanding. This time, he had decided to not to charge us for my treat. 

"Say thank you," my mother whispered down to me. Suddenly, she seemed embarrassed. It was certainly true that, by the rules of our house, I hadn't been polite.

I took the treat out of my mouth. But the sight of the butcher, even when he was smiling, intimidated me. He put his hands on his hips. He tapped his foot once as he waited. Before I could speak, I had to step behind my mother's leg. I paused, trying to remember how best to be polite.

"Danke shoen," I said. I'm not sure why I answered in German. It seemed the thing to do.

The huge man could not have been more delighted. He must have expected an American toddler in his shop to issue a grudging word of thanks in miserable English. Instead he got a formal, extremely polite 'thank you' from me and it was in German. Startled, he roared with a laugh. His voice was so loud, it frightened me all over again.

"Bitte!" he shouted.

I burst into tears. 


As usual, even this brief memory is more fragmented in my mind than it appears on a page. I'm guessing at some of the dialogue and inferring a sense of continuity for the event. Internally, the aspect of this that stands out most in my recollection is the deep voice behind the word 'bitte.' It frightened me so much, it made me remember some of the details leading up to it, I suppose. 

I notice in my description of the butcher shop and elsewhere, too, how the smells from my childhood seem exaggerated as I write about them. But I'm being true to my memories. 

Before we learn to make sense of the world visually and to describe it to others, again mostly visually, the rest of our senses may loom a bit larger. 

When I first saw spaghetti on my plate, I was five years old. The sauce-soaked pasta looked disgusting. I refused to eat it. I was risking a spanking when I said no. My parents weren't patient about food, usually. This time they were, at least a little. They waited. As the lump of leaking stuff sat in front of me, smelling better and better, I gained a different understanding of food. I learned the sight of spaghetti didn't have to be associated with the disgust reserved for entrails. 

Sense of smell won again.

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