By Sara (Susan) Avitzour
Rachel inched along the Gare de Lyon platform, lugging a bulging suitcase in her right hand, struggling to keep her purse from falling off her left shoulder, and shoving her other baggage—an oversized carton she was to deliver in Athens—with her feet. She’d been pushing this carton practically nonstop since landing in Paris that night, and for the past quarter of an hour had been working her way alongside the packed train, looking for a carriage with an empty seat. Finally, one of the conductors motioned her aboard the next-to-last car and directed her to the middle compartment.
A muscular young man with thick eyebrows, bronzed skin, and a black curly ponytail looked up as she opened the sliding door, his green eyes lingering for a few seconds on the patterned pantyhose that emerged from beneath her miniskirt and disappeared into her soft leather boots. She looked back.
“Cette place est-elle occupée?” she asked, pointing at the worn leatherette window seat beside him.
“No, no, do come in.” His French was accented; Greek, she thought. Seeing her difficulty with the carton, he got up and took it, staggering a little as he carried it in. “What’s this?” he asked. “A cannon ball?”
She laughed. “I have no idea.”
Rachel was eagerly looking forward to her junior year in Paris, where her university ran a popular program for American students. In order to save money for extra time in Europe, she’d taken the past semester off to live at home and work as a waitress. She’d already rented a “maid’s room” on the seventh floor of a prewar building on the Left Bank, to which she’d made a quick visit and left most of her luggage before heading out to the train station. Now she was on her way to visit Danae, her closest friend, who’d moved back to Greece with her mother and sister right after graduating from high school. Danae’s father, who’d stayed behind in New York to work, had asked Rachel to bring the carton to his family. Good manners had kept her from asking what was inside, even though it was quite a bit larger and heavier than she had expected.
Mid-April was perfect for starting out on her trip—in time for Easter, after which she’d have a nice long visit with the Roussos family. And then the entire summer would be hers to enjoy in Paris, before she would put her nose to the academic grindstone.
No less important—for the first time ever, she’d be liberated from Passover with her own family. That her parents were not crazy about the idea was putting it mildly. They were aware (though they preferred to deny the knowledge) that she’d recently begun to eat non-kosher food outside their home. The Seder, though?
“At least, try to find some Jews in Athens,” her mother had practically begged her. “Just go to the local synagogue. I’m sure they’ll invite you.”
But the standard Passover narrative of the Jew as perpetual victim (“in every generation they rise up to destroy us”) was beginning to tire her. Three-quarters through the twentieth century, she felt, it was more appropriate to apply that special Jewish sensitivity to other oppressed peoples – to the Vietnamese, for example, or to black people right here in the U.S. of A. – than to her own well-fed, privileged community.
And besides, she’d had enough matzo balls for a lifetime, thank you, and could easily make do without the jokes she’d heard every single Seder night for the past nineteen years. (What do you call someone who enjoys eating the bread of affliction? A Matzochist!) True, Danae and her family had loved the Seder the year they’d come as special guests, but they didn’t have to do it every year. For herself, Rachel had more interesting (non-gefilte) fish to fry.
A suitcase, box, or bundle was sticking out of every corner of the small train compartment, but by miracle or magic the young man managed to fit Rachel's things inside, though her carton partially blocked the doorway. Exhausted, she took the seat beside him and offered her hand. “I’m Renée,” she said, having decided to leave “Rachel” back home with the matzo balls.
They exchanged travelers’ details, and when she learned he was a street portraitist on his way home for the holiday, her eyes were drawn to his hands with their long, strong fingers. An artist! She was virtually on the Left Bank even before moving into her Parisian atelier.
Opposite them sat two young Yugoslavian workers. “Renée,” she repeated, loving the sound of it. They responded with “Filip” and “Janko.”
Introductions completed, Alexio returned to his sketchbook and pencil, and the young workers to the murmured conversation her entrance had interrupted. As the train left the station, she leaned back and closed her eyes. Her thoughts turned to the coming festival, as Danae had described it during one of the conversations they liked to call their Cultural Exchange Talks. For Easter, Athens—true to its ancient tradition—went all out when it came to aesthetic and sensual pleasures: thousands of flowers decorating its churches and public spaces, crowds of worshippers lighting intricately decorated candles with Holy Fire flown all the way from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Byzantine chants of “Christos Anesti” ringing in the air together with every church bell in the city. Rachel could practically taste the Resurrection Soup that would be served after the midnight service, and the Easter Sunday dinner feast of spit-roasted lamb.
Dinner! Her eyes snapped open as she realized she hadn’t eaten anything since picking at the anemic chicken and overcooked vegetables she had been served on the plane the evening before. “I'll be back soon,” she said, banging her shin on the Roussos’ carton in her haste to enjoy her first meal of Continental cuisine.
She walked the entire length of the train, finally popping her head into a compartment in the last carriage.
“Excuse me,” she said, “where is the dining car?”
The passengers looked at her wordlessly; switching to English produced the same response. She tried another two compartments, fruitlessly, then returned to her seat.
“Alexio,” she said, “do you know where the dining car is?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Dining car?”
“You know, where I can buy a meal.”
“But Renée,” he said, “this is not America.” With a little laugh, he fished in his bag and offered her one of his apples, which she accepted as gracefully as she could.
A short time later, they stopped at a small village station. She scanned the place for a restaurant or even a food stand. Nothing. Then she caught sight of a vendor stomping alongside the train, carrying a large straw basket full of small sandwiches. She leaned out the window and pointed.
“What kind is it?”
He replied with a blank stare.
“Oh, just give me—” She held up three fingers. Alexio edged in beside her at the window and bought a few as well.
She sat back and tore open the wax paper. On the roll sat one slice of pinkish-grey meat, consisting mainly of nickel-sized blobs of fat.
Seeing the look on her face, Alexio said, “Go on, it won’t bite you.” He laughed and bit into his own sandwich.
“I think I’ll wait till I get to Athens.” She rewrapped it as best she could.
“Athens? We haven’t even arrived in Milan.”
“Milan? But . . . ”
Danae’s father had told her the trip would take twelve hours. She dug out the schedule she’d grabbed in Paris, and looked at it for the first time.
On the page lay a grid of what looked like a hundred boxes filled with abbreviations, dashes, symbols and numbers in the tiniest print she’d ever seen. She could recognize a few, such as Dep., Arr., 14:27 (she took pride in having learned the 24-hour clock), Par., and Ath. Everything else was more or less a hopeless jumble. She looked again at the Athens arrival box; it read “17:00(l.).” Oh. That “l.” could only mean one thing. They were to arrive the next day – lendemain. She’d have to provision herself well in Milan.
Rachel kept her mind off her stomach by asking Alexio about his life in the French capital. Her heart picked up when she learned he was based in Montmartre. At home in Brooklyn, she’d pored for hours over pictures and stories of the epicenter of bohemian Paris. She flashed on a vision of the two of them sitting hand-in-hand at the Moulin Rouge, watching a can-can and savoring that Parisian blend of pleasure and beauty.
When she ran out of questions about Montmartre’s artists and cabarets, she asked what kind of literature he liked, but quickly discovered that pictures interested him far more than words, and the conversation stalled. He picked up his sketch pad, and she opened Le Rouge et le Noir which she was reading for the third time. With no conversation to distract her, her thoughts wandered off to the Resurrection Soup recipe she’d looked up in a Greek cookbook. The train wheels’ clacking blended into a rhythmic chant that wouldn’t leave her head: Chop the onion, Melt the butter, Add the lamb, Break the eggs.
She felt a frisson of slightly guilty pleasure at the thought of butter and lamb.
In Milan, Rachel quickly changed some dollars into lira, waited her turn at the row of public phones, and called the Roussos' home to let them know she’d still be arriving only not until the next day. Danae wasn’t home, and her mother’s English was far from fluent. By the time she managed to make herself understood, only a few minutes were left until the train was due to leave.
She looked around frantically for a place to buy something to eat. The lines at the prepared food stands were impossibly long, but near her platform she caught sight of a stall selling small packages, each containing three eggs. Perfect! Just to make sure, she asked the vendor, “Are these eggs cooked?” She added, in what she thought might be Italian, “Mangeri?” She pointed to her mouth.
“Si, si, cook, mangiare,” he responded with a broad smile.
She paid for three packages, and quickly bought some drinking water at another stand, together with an inviting-looking bottle of deep purple grape juice. Italian grape juice, she thought happily.
Back in her seat, she eagerly removed one of the eggs from its little box and looked around for a surface on which to break the shell before peeling it. The Roussos’ carton was too far away, and everything else seemed too grimy, so she brought the egg down hard onto her kneecap—and gasped as its contents splattered, then made their slow, gluey way down her leg toward her boot.
Alexio didn’t laugh this time, but immediately took a clean cloth from his duffle bag and got her a cup of water from the lavatory. “Do you need anything else?” he asked.
Shaking her head, she reflected that Continental men really knew how to treat a woman. Mediterranean men, she knew from talks with Danae, were especially solicitous. Macho, her mother called them. But compared to the soft, pale, Nice Jewish Boys she’d dated back in New York—destined for medicine, law, or accountancy, every one, with not an artist among them—she could live with Alexio’s brand of macho. She preferred to think of it as gallantry.
He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a slight squeeze. She froze for a second; he was a stranger, after all. But when he whispered, “Never mind,” his lips brushing her ear, it felt good. Very good, actually, and she flushed.
Avoiding his eyes, she turned to her sandwiches, held her breath and bit in, hardly tasting the first as it went down. But she couldn’t get herself to eat more than a few bites of the second. At the next village, she dumped the rest in a garbage bin when Alexio wasn't watching. The “juice” turned out to be a colored water-and-glucose drink of indeterminate flavor. But it did keep her energy at a more or less reasonable level until nightfall.
No one spoke much that evening. Rachel’s buzzing head was empty, save for that stubborn chant: Chop the onion, Melt the butter, Add the lamb. . . . When she did manage to put together a coherent thought, it was to wonder if her body’s hollow, aching center would allow her to sleep. Suddenly her mind snapped into focus as she realized that this night there would be nowhere for her to lie down. But Alexio explained the protocol: each pair of seat-mates would take turns sleeping for two-hour shifts.
Rachel volunteered to get up for the first shift. Alexio’s hand brushed the backs of her legs right below her skirt hem as she moved past his knees on her way out. Was that on purpose? Probably. She knew she should say something about keeping his hands to himself, but a sharp flutter in her lower belly silenced her. She stumbled a little, scraping her shin on the corner of the Roussos’ carton, and limped out, closing the compartment door behind her with as much dignity as she could muster.
Many more passengers had boarded in Milan. The corridors smelled faintly of stale sweat and were packed with exhausted-looking travelers who, apparently, had paid a lower fare and weren’t entitled to seats. Most were young men. Some wore threadbare jackets and covered their blond hair with workers’ caps, but others were swarthy and bareheaded, with tight shirts, and kerchiefs around their necks. Gypsies, Rachel thought instinctively, then immediately corrected herself. They referred to themselves as “Roma”, she'd read; “Gypsies” was a racist epithet. But whatever one called them, these men scared her. During her family’s childhood excursions to Coney Island, her parents had warned her to stay away from the battered trailers that littered the amusement park’s outskirts. “They’ll knife you as soon as look at you,” they had said more than once. She’d keep her distance here, too.
She picked her way between rope-bound suitcases and large cloth bundles, almost tripping over the legs of travelers sitting with their backs against doors, poles, or their own luggage. All she could find were small clearings, where she leaned against a window or a door until the ache in her spine and joints got her walking again. And again. And again.
She woke after the last of her turns sleeping to find that Janko and Filip had set out their breakfast—bread, yellow cheese, and dark red sausages—on the carton. Trying not to stare at the food, she wondered for the hundredth time what was inside. For Mr. Roussos to be sending it all this way, it had to be impossibly expensive—or even unattainable—in Greece. Danae had written that kitchen appliances cost five times as much in Athens as in New York. A mixer? A blender? Together with some kind of luxury, perhaps—perfume? Or even—she thought about her own new, private extravagance—silk underwear? She slid her bottom against the seat just for the feel of it, and blushed when she noticed Alexio watching her as if he knew exactly what she was doing.
This morning it was harder to stave off her hunger. She accepted some fruit and feta cheese from Alexio, but as the day wore on what she now thought of as the Resurrection Recipe (Melt the butter, Add the lamb . . .) took up more and more space in her head. Stop it, she told herself, when she realized she was repeating the words out loud, you’ll find something to eat in Belgrade.
Belgrade . . . a vague unease made her look at her watch. Almost one o’clock. She shifted uncomfortably and took out her schedule again. It still looked like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but she made herself find the “Bel.” column and follow it down the page. “15:57(l.).” Oh. Oh dear. The Belgrade stop was lendemain because they would arrive there the day after the train left Paris. And Athens was lendemain because they would arrive there the day after Belgrade—on the first day of Passover, no less. In any event, she was in for another twenty-six-hour fast if she didn’t stock up seriously.
But Belgrade turned out to be a reprise of Milan, and by the time her call to Danae went through, barely five minutes remained before her train was due to leave. She made a dash for the platform, passing the busy food stands and pausing only to buy water and another two bottles of grape juice to sustain her a little longer.
She opened her compartment’s sliding door to find Alexio alone—Janko and Filip had gotten off in Belgrade. Hmm. He looked up from his sketch pad and patted the seat beside him—a bit peremptorily, she thought. She hesitated; the empty double seat opposite beckoned.
But what had she come for if not adventure?
Alexio amused them both by drawing her for the rest of the day, until the light began to fade. He arranged her in this position and that; dressed her now with her fringed shawl and now without; left her boots on at first, then had her take them off. It unsettled her, this being manipulated like a mannequin, but it also excited her, and produced some interesting internal butterfly effects. The adrenaline rush, together with the grape juice—which turned out, thankfully, to have been squeezed from real fruit—sustained her until evening.
At about nine—Mediterranean supper time, she was proud to know—Alexio gave her half the sausage sandwich he’d picked up in Belgrade, but it was so spicy she could do no more than nibble until the barest edge was off her hunger. He took it back, looked at her sardonically, and wolfed it down in three bites.
Then he smiled. “I’m bringing my family some wine from Paris. Why don’t we open a bottle now?”
There was no way she was saying no to French wine, empty stomach or no. Her head began to lighten after a few sips, but it was so delicious—bubbly, fruity, and slightly sweet—that she finished what Alexio had poured. She declined his offer of more, though. “We don’t want me to pass out, do we?”
He put the bottle away and turned out the light.
“Are we going to sleep now?” she asked with a giggle.
His reply was to nibble her burning ear, then turn her face to his, parting her lips with his own. His tongue held a tang of wine and of meat sandwiches—which, she noticed now, didn’t taste half bad this way.
They spent a few minutes kissing. Then those strong fingers slid round her back and began undoing her blouse. His mouth moved to the base of her throat and, one button at a time, slowly licked and nipped its way down.
Suddenly he stood up.
Hmmm, she thought, he’s probably right. It’s good his brain at least is working clearly—yes, we’d better stop here, or I won’t be able to stop at all. She moved to pull herself up.
Then he unzipped his jeans.
Before she could react, he was pushing her skirt up to her belly. Still disoriented from the wine, she found herself unable to move when he slid her panties and tights down to her ankles. But when he leaned over her, bracing his arms on the seat, she snapped out of it and pushed against his chest. “What’re you . . . doing?” she gasped. “What are you thinking?”
He stopped and looked down in amazement. “What are you thinking?” He continued staring for a moment, then pressed against her shoulders and straightened himself.
She stared back. “What am I . . . ?”
“Traveling alone,” he said harshly as he zipped his pants. “In that—that skirt.”
She quickly smoothed the offending mini over her nether parts.
“Staying here with me. Letting me . . .” He swallowed. “What the hell am I supposed to think?”
Incapable of uttering a word, she bent over to pull up her undergarments. When she finally looked at him again, his face was dark with fury.
Suddenly another fact she’d learned from Danae came back to her, the one she should have remembered but had preferred to ignore, the one about the flip side of Mediterranean male gallantry. Greek men, Danae had told her—like Italians and Spaniards—could be incredibly charming to women, especially young women, whom they might meet. But their own wives and daughters were to be jealously guarded. While most of her other friends practiced “serial monogamy” (sex with one boy at a time, and, of course, only after falling in love), Rachel had embraced the sexual revolution rather slowly, contenting herself so far with deep kissing and, well, pretty comprehensive touching. But for Danae, even that had been out of the question, as her reputation was at stake. In Greek eyes, any girl who would allow herself to remain, unaccompanied, with a man in a private space, let alone do what Rachel had so enthusiastically been engaged in with Alexio, was clearly . . . well, was a—
“Whore,” he said.
Cheeks burning, she lowered her eyes and gathered her things. With some effort, she piled her suitcase and shoulder bag on the carton and shoved it all out the door. He slammed it shut behind her.
The fair-haired, broad-faced Slavs who’d filled the corridor were gone. Legs shaking, Rachel kept her eyes on her feet as she navigated her slow way past one group of dark men after another, before finally finding a large group of women and children camped several cars down. A thin woman looked up as she readjusted her red-and-yellow kerchief, which her over-excited toddler kept pulling to one side. On each of her thighs rested a little head. It looked like the last thing she needed was another body squeezing in next to her but, seeing Rachel’s face, she shifted the smaller of her sleeping girls to make room against the wall.
“Renée,” Rachel said, as she slid down.
“Mirela,” said her wall-mate, and closed her eyes.
Rachel’s cheeks warmed again and her heart picked up speed as her mind replayed her last scene with Alexio. “You’re a true idiot,” she muttered. There was only so long she could flog herself, however. She had misread the man drastically, but not dangerously; after all, when push came to shove (she winced at her own choice of words), she’d suffered nothing more than embarrassment. A leaden weight coursed through her limbs as the fight-or-flight energy drained out, and she quickly dropped off.
She jerked awake when the train came to a sudden halt. She had barely enough time to remember where she was or how she’d gotten there, when two soldiers with black leather straps crossed at the chest, truncheons hanging from their belts, and grim looks on their faces, burst into the carriage. Contempt twisted their features as they stared at the jumble of people and possessions covering the floor. One muttered something like “Seeganin.” When he shoved a small child out of his way with the toe of his boot, it was clear enough he was referring to the Roma.. The little boy started screaming. Other children joined in, hiding their heads in their mothers’ laps as the soldiers worked their rough way down the car.
One of the pair caught sight of Rachel and barked out something like “Putnsprva!” Taking her cue from the others, she dug her passport out of her purse. The soldier perused it, then began to methodically go through every item in her suitcase.
Rachel couldn’t understand. Were they looking for something important they thought was being smuggled out of the country? Did they suspect her of gun-running, or worse?
Then it hit her—the train had reached the border between Communist Yugoslavia and Fascist Greece. She remembered now reading that tension between the two countries was running high. Did they even have diplomatic relations?
The soldier pointed at the Roussos’ carton.
Rachel tried to undo the package, but couldn’t loosen the knot.
The soldier made an impatient movement, a vein throbbing at his temple.
She redoubled her efforts, but the knot fought back, its coarse rope stinging her trembling fingers.
By now all eyes were on her little drama. What if she couldn’t get it open? Worse, what if she did succeed and there was something forbidden inside? She could rot forever in a Communist prison. . . .
Whoa! She nearly jumped out of her skin when someone tapped her shoulder. She looked behind her and saw a large man holding a pocket knife. She hesitated for a second, then leaned back and let him cut the rope.
The brown paper made a ri-i-i-ip, then the masking tape popped as the man slashed it and opened the flaps.
Rachel’s jaw dropped. The carton held several boxes of—none other than!—Manischewitz matzos. The soldier looked at her sharply; she made haste to slit one open and pull out a packet for him to inspect. He grunted. As he rifled through, she saw the carton also contained a few bottles of that sugary Jewish ritual libation called Concord Grape Wine – also of the Manischewitz persuasion. Finally satisfied, they moved on to the next carriage.
What the . . . ? Rachel stared dumbly at the cellophane packet that lay in her hands. Her mind would not take this in. She knew, she remembered that Danae and her family thought of these unleavened boards and—well, syrup—as a treat, but to send this huge carton all the way ? These were the provisions Mr. Roussos found it so urgent to send his family from big, rich America? Matzos?
Suddenly, a word popped into her head. She began to giggle. She tried to control herself, but it was stronger than she was. Her shoulders shook; tears rolled down her cheeks. The Roussos were . . . they were . . . Matzochists! Gasping for breath, she doubled over. She laughed herself into a state of relaxation she hadn’t felt since Alexio turned the lights out a century ago.
But when her laughter subsided, the car still echoed with the wails of still-frightened children and the shushing of mothers trying to quiet them. Mirela’s three girls were clinging to their mother. Calmly, she guided her toddler’s head under her loose blouse, and gulping sounds immediately replaced one set of sobs. She then opened a red cloth bundle, extracted and expertly peeled a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and offered them to her older girls. But they refused to be comforted.
An idea hit Rachel. She pulled out a board of matzo and showed it to Mirela’s eldest, who opened her glistening eyes wide at this strange object. Remembering how her mother had always calmed her over-excited younger siblings when they stayed up late for the Seder, she cast about for a song. Only one came to mind.
“Ha lachma,” she started. “Ha lachma Aniya. . . .” This is the bread of affliction, which our forefathers ate as they fled Egypt.
One by one, the children left off crying and turned their tear-streaked faces toward Rachel. Finishing the song, she broke off a piece of matzo and held it out to Mirela’s older daughter, who raised one shoulder and peeked out at her from the safety of her mother’s arm. Rachel offered it to the others, who reacted the same way. Finally, she put it in her own mouth.
Perhaps it was the ecstatic expression that lit up her face when her body realized it was finally taking in recognizable food, or perhaps simply the loud crunch as she bit down, but the children burst out laughing. Mirela smiled and nodded at her daughter, who stretched out her hand for the exotic delicacy, and the other children immediately followed suit. Rachel noticed other mothers looking on with interest, and passed around more for them to share with their children.
Mirela offered Rachel the eggs she’d peeled. She was doing her best not to gobble them down too quickly, when a small hand tapped her shoulder. An especially thin boy was shyly holding out a handful of walnuts; his sister proffered a leaf of bitter-looking lettuce.
The group finished two of the ten boxes. Rachel considered opening the wine. It occurred to her that this perennial butt of American Jewish jokes would make up her fourth cup, after the Italian, Yugoslavian and French fruits of the vine she’d drunk on this journey. But enough Manischewitz for this night—which, she reflected, was as different from all other nights as a night could be. All that was missing was for the Prophet Elijah to get on at the next stop. Rachel figured she and her new friends could make room for him in their circle—and there would certainly be plenty of wine were he to ask for his cup.
One by one, the sated children slid back into their dreams. But the women were too keyed up to sleep. So Rachel sat with Mirela, together with her friends Esmeralda, Jaelle, Aishe, and Talaitha, and they talked until dawn. Rachel asked about their travels, and learned that while Greece was their home, they spent most of the year in France or Italy, returning every year for Easter. Where in those countries did they live? They moved from city to city, staying in any one place only until the police came and forced them to move on. How, then, did their children go to school? Mirela shrugged. The Wandering Roma, Rachel thought. And tonight I’m joining them on their way—well, maybe not to the Promised Land, but, still, home from their diaspora.
As the first light filtered through dusty windows, Mirela took Rachel’s hand and scrutinized her palm. “You will go on a long journey,” she said. Rachel laughed at the B-movie line, but was grateful for the woman’s kindness.
She was standing on the platform with Mirela, exchanging goodbye pecks, when she heard a happy shout of “Rachel!” Danae was walking quickly toward her, together with Mrs. Roussos, who furrowed her brow at this intimacy with a Roma woman, but smiled when Rachel caught her eye. She looked back one last time at her fellow travelers as they streamed out into the Athenian sunshine, and reflected that Mirela was right, after all. Rachel had arrived at her destination, and would soon be partaking of that lamb perhaps, she thought with a smile, together with matzo and sweet wine—but this journey was only her first. At the very least, it still remained to book her passage home.
Copyright © Sara Avitzour 2014
Sara (Susan) Avitzour was born in 1955 in Brooklyn. She moved to Israel in 1980 and settled in Jerusalem, where she and her husband raised seven children. She worked as a lawyer, mediator, grant-writer, and translator before returning to school in 2005 to study clinical social work. She currently practices as a psychotherapist. Sara’s memoir, And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, chronicles her daughter Timora’s struggle to lead a normal life as she battled leukemia, and her own journey first with, then without her daughter after Timora died at the age of eighteen. She has also published stories online and in Israel Short Stories, an anthology of short fiction in English by writers living in Israel.