Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate
The city’s Christmas Eve bells were chiming five o’clock as he stood in ankle deep snow looking towards Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Its magnificent 30 foot tall Christmas tree adorned with thousands of white lights sparkled in the cold dark unforgiving evening German air.
A dusting of winter powder slightly covered the uniforms of the regimentally marching soldiers guarding the perimeter of the Russian Embassy which straddled the former eastern sector of this once divided city.
Immediately facing them on the western side, the equally snow-covered uniformed American soldiers outside the U.S. Embassy. This was another lonely Christmas Eve for Jack, much like the past seven years since the death of his beautiful Laura.
With meaningful memories too painful to bear, consumed with grief and unable to face each Christmas season on his own, Jack sought a temporary refuge of sorts with his worldwide travels, spending another Christmas Eve in another foreign city.
Over the previous years he had quietly marvelled at the huge Christmas tree outside Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace and the dancing fountains of the Bellagio Hotel.
Walked the road over the Boulder Dam and sat on an outcrop reminiscing, over the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon.
He watched the ice rink skaters in New York’s Rockerfeller Centre and sat in silent prayer in St Patrick’s Cathedral, as the quiet vagrants sat in pews sheltering from the city streets and the cold night air.
He saw the homeless bed down outside Washington’s ‘Union Station’, in inclement weather, some finding temporary shelter in doorways of Pennsylvania Avenue, sleeping over warm sidewalk vents, until moved on by security.
One Christmas Eve at 9pm he even found himself stranded at a quiet Charlotte airport in North Carolina, his only company, several other travellers and a group of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq, all standing around the airport piano tearfully singing ‘Silent Night’.
Stood on Rome’s St Peter’s Square to the sounds of the Vatican’s chiming bells and joined with the hundreds of carol singers as they welcomed in another Christmas.
Mingled with thousands of midnight revellers on Hong Kong’s Nathan Road as street choirs welcomed Christian worshippers to ‘Midnight Services’.
But however wondrous these sights were, they were unable to fill the void of the once happy family memories in his hometown at this time of year.Leaving Donegal the previous day, on his journey to Berlin, Jack thought on Christmas and what the lead up to it then meant to him.
As a young boy his mind wandered to sleighing with boyhood friends on Castle Street, Marian Villas and sitting on the front swing seat of the notorious turntable, as it skimmed with its eight passengers down the snow covered ‘Miller’s Hill’.
He remembered the local elderly characters, the well known Christmas Eve ‘Mummers’ whose sometimes inebriated antics were hilarious for just a ‘donation’ of a ‘thrupenny’ bit.
The sight of ‘Big’ Christy Gallagher’s lorries pulling up at Bridge Street loaded with turkeys to be thrown down the chute on their way to the ‘condemned’ chamber.
The vast families of turkey pluckers who duly received their sixpence a ‘burd’ and also received a vast assortment of lice in the process.
The expectation of ‘Santy’ and presents on Christmas morning and in the evening the family sitting around the dinner table decorated with goose, ham and turkey.
In later years from October to Christmas Eve, the characters and camaraderie at work, the December Friday evening gatherings in either McGroarty’s, McCafferty’s or the Olde Castle Bar, where the lighthearted singsongs ‘deafened the ears’ of many and lightened the pockets of few.
On Christmas morning watching the eyes of children light up when they discovered that expectant Han Solo or Princess Leia toy, and later visiting old friends for a celebratory drink.
But as the joys of life looked never ending, the years flew by,and our Creator seemed to have other plans in His mind for Jack.
All those happy times seemed to disappear in an unexpected cruel flash and suddenly he was left alone and heartbroken.
When Jack’s plane landed at Berlin’s Schonefeld Airport, the winter weather of 2010 was exacting its hard vengeance. There were freezing temperatures and piled high snowdrifts everywhere as he walked through the former Eastern communist bloc to his plain but comfortable hotel.
And so it was here on Christmas Eve, after seeking solace for two hours in a small, almost empty Irish pub, that Jack eventually arrived at the Brandenburg Gate.
With the crowds of tourists making their way back to their abodes for the night, he made his way through the Unter den Linden. This area , apart from the on-duty soldiers, was deserted.
The reflections of the snow covered trees mirrored brightly in the adjacent shop windows, reminiscent of a scene from a Grimm’s fairytale. The city bells now chimed seven o’clock, snow was falling heavier as the strains of ‘Stille Nacht’ from a lone violinist, floated on the crisp night air.
A homeless old man wrapped in several layers of clothing was covering himself in plastic sheeting, bedding down to greet Christmas morning in the doorway of a deserted ‘McDonald’s’.
Jack wandered on. Suddenly in the distance he heard the faint strains of music, not of the seasonal kind but more a tango style.
Reaching the Frederichstrasse, the music grew louder and then he saw her in the enclave of the deserted Galleria department store, like a scene from a 1930’s Friedrichstadt Palast tragic opera.
The badly coloured half blonde/ginger hair, flaming red lipstick on a pale wrinkled haggard face, the once expensive clothes and old tattered fur coat that had seen better days, told the tale.
On her head, a petite red and green satin ribbon was tenderly placed. The ankle deep snow had covered her flimsy footwear, torn pieces of blanket wrapped around her thin legs to ward off the freezing night air as she meekly danced around an old battery operated recorder to the sounds of Latin American tango music.
“Frohes Fest Mein Herr” she uttered, suddenly reverting to English “Buy lovely ribbon for your loved one, dear Herr this happy evening?
“I am not begging, just to live. Do you like tango?”
Laid out on a mat, reds, orange and purples in homemade satin ribbons, half heartedly ‘guarded’ by a sleeping grey mongrel terrier. By now it was eight o’clock and all stores had closed and Berliners gone home to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Suddenly she stopped the dance and gently leaned towards Jack. “This unforgiving city is not for you my poor liebchen, go back to your own home in Ireland” she whispered.
“Someone is waiting for you there, you will find happiness, love and contentment”.
Dropping several coins onto the ribbon mat, Jack began to leave. As he glanced back, she looked after him, smiling and consoled in her mind still a 20 year old blonde Berliner, still living out the grandeur of bygone times, gaily dancing away the night with her young lover to the romantic pulsating strains of composer Astor Piazolla.
Snow was by now falling heavily as he passed the merry smiling patrons exiting the Berlin Opera House and soon it would be morning and another year almost gone.
His heart went out to this old lady. What was to become of her on this freezing Christmas Eve night?
For the next three days he was in Berlin, each evening Jack hopefully searched the streets of the Frederichstrasse but there was no sign of the old lady.
He did return to Donegal, he did find his new love and happiness and his life turned around. Every Christmas Eve, Jack now glances to the night sky stars and often thinks of the old Berlin lady selling satin ribbons ‘to survive’.
Or maybe, just maybe, perhaps a ‘Christmas Eve Angel’ sent to help a lonely heartbroken Irishman to again find that long lost inner happiness in himself.
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