Sunday, 5 October 2008

Carving pumpkins in Strasbourg

The secondary advantage of having Canadian friends, alongside the primary one of the pleasure of enjoying their company, is that it enables us to experience North American traditions without any sense of unease. There is in most Europeans, or at least certain Europeans, or at any rate this particular European, something that one might think of as a residual sneer towards the United States. However hard one may combat one’s anti-Americanism, there remains a little voice inside us saying ‘It’s what the Yanks do’, a judgement which by itself makes the thing seem somehow less sophisticated, more infantile, less meaningful.

Of course, the sneer is entirely reciprocated. A couple of days ago, I heard Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, at a meeting of the Christian right, describing a view put to him by a BBC correspondent as ‘very European’. I don’t think he used the phrase to communicate admiration or even tolerance. In Casablanca, Peter Lorre asks Humphrey Bogart ‘You despise me, don’t you?’ Bogart replies ‘If I gave you any thought, I probably would.’ Gingrich’s comment had the same cordiality without the wit.

This is strange. I mean this is the same Gingrich who became speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994 on the back of his ‘Contract with America’ and the Republican Revolution it embodied, and stepped down four years later when the Republicans lost five seats and the ‘Contract’ sank without a trace. He’s also the man who waited till she was recovering in a hospital bed from cancer surgery to tell his wife of eighteen years that he was divorcing her. Presumably it’s the scale of his achievements and the depth of his Christian convictions that entitle him to look down on others from so high.

Be that as it may, friendship between the US and Europeans is sometimes tinged by a little mockery. Not so with Canadians: they’re civilised. We seek their approval, we’re not indifferent to their estimate of us. So when some Canadian friends in Strasbourg say to us ‘come and carve some pumpkins’ we go, with joy in our hearts, to carve pumpkins.

And what a source of unbounded good cheer it was! The invitation suggested we bring our own pumpkin. Our flat is in Kehl, in Germany but next to Strasbourg. There was some kind of festival in the morning. There seem to be festivals most weekends, ever since the Kehlers discovered that the Strasbourgers are more than happy to travel across to buy goods of the same quality – sometimes the same goods – as they get in Strasbourg at reduced prices. Since then, excuses seem to be found for getting a lot of stalls into and around the market place on an increasingly frequent basis, to tempt Strasbourg Euros into more welcoming homes in Germany.

To my amazement, one of the stalls was selling nothing but pumpkins. Big ones, little ones, pointed ones, flat ones, orange ones, grey ones. I suggested to my wife that we pick one up to take with us. ‘Picking it up’ was the start of the problem. The Germans are sharp on quality but that doesn’t mean sacrificing quantity. My wife was soon back home without the pumpkin, saying that even the moderate sized one she’d bought was too heavy to carry and could we stop on the way to Strasbourg to pick it up. When I could carry it.

Once in Strasbourg, we set out for our friends’ new address. They live in Mill Square. We headed for where we thought it was but once there realised we were in Millers Square. We found Mill Street and Mill Embankment but it took a while and two passers-by to get us to Mill Square. By this time the pumpkin which started out weighing down my shoulder had reached a psychological weight of some 30 kilos.

We got into our friends’ new and lovely apartment. We were greeted with great warmth and kindness by them and the others already there – less chronologically challenged than we, they had been there for up to two hours by then. Our enormous pumpkin went under the table.

Now I have to make a confession. I am gifted with the same sureness of touch in matters of plastic art, whether carving, modelling or painting, as Newt Gingrich in following through social transformation or in inter-personal relationships. It had been my unstated hope that my wife would at some time be the centre of an admiring and cheerful circle watching her convert our pumpkin into some wonderful artwork. It seems, unfortunately, that she was nurturing a similar belief about me, though presumably without the same expectations of wonder.
Our pumpkin remained untouched under the table. We had chosen one that was particularly good for turning into pumpkin soup and was distinguished by its green colour, so there was no way we could pass it off as anyone else’s in among all the orange ones. I could feel its baleful presence boring into my mind and casting a pall over my enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant evening.

Our hostess started with cheerful and infrequent suggestions that we should carve our pumpkin. As time wore on, the repetitions came increasingly often and with increasing firmness. My wife’s expectations and mine were diametrically opposed but it didn’t take me long to work out whose were going to have to give way to the other’s.
So I stood knife in hand facing up to my vegetable adversary. How complicated can it be to carve a pumpkin? Even kids do it. You just have to make a hole in the top in order to scoop out the insides and then various holes to suggest a face. There’s no technique to it.

Well, actually, there is. Cut the top out with the knife angled the wrong way and you can force the top into the body of the pumpkin, but you can’t get it out. A conundrum. In the end we had to cut a second line around the top and make eyeholes big enough to push a hand through to force the extended top up out of the pumpkin. This left little room to make what might be thought of as a truly artistic face. But in the end something was done. And with the help of four people, we were able to scoop out the inside and make space for a candle. Which is now burning attractively within the pumpkin on our terrace back in Kehl.

Yes, in Kehl. Just as it was made clear that we weren’t going to get away with not carving the pumpkin, it was made clear that we were not going to get away with leaving it behind either. So it had to be lugged back to the car and then into our flat. And there it mocks us, Gingrich style, with staring eyes and sardonic grin.

A fitting tribute to a North American pastime which is a source of unadulterated joy to all.


Awoogamuffin said...

Great stuff! Pumpkin story's my favourite. You're quite the blogger now! You are now officially bookmarked.

Mark Reynolds said...

It would be too easy to point out that Gringrich and your pumpkin also share a distinct similarity vis a vis cranial content.

David Beeson said...

Of course, you didn't say it because you knew it would be unfair: our attempts to empty our pumpkin of contents were far from effective enough to support the comparison.