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The City Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky Called Paradise | Travel | Smithsonian

In a tiny street near the church lived the shoe-maker who had an enormous goiter, which even his long black beard could not cover. The second treasure was a little wooden flask on which was carved the martyrdom of Christ โ€” the scourge, the crown of thorns, the vinegar sop, the cross, and the spear. This marvel had come from a convict. The shoe-maker was always glad to talk at length about these two precious objects, and I was always delighted when I got to hold them in my own hands.

The glove-maker was a friendly old man who always spoke with great pride of the distinguished ladies for whom he had made gloves. The gloves were tried on like clothes. They had to fit without a wrinkle, as though they had been poured on. It was as though they had always been there. It did happen once that a young stationer opened a new shop, but as he was the son of the old stationer, it was not an act of disloyalty to buy from him.

But then a brand-new shop opened, an elegant shop that sold blouses and underclothing, hats and lace collars. The owners were foreigners โ€” as the inhabitants of G. This first Jewish shop gave rise to all sorts of discussions. Most of the ladies declared that they would never, in any circumstances, buy from the Sonnenscheins, that one should not take the trade away from the old-established Christian shopkeepers.

We had gone to them from the beginning, and grandmother had more than once held little, mobile, dark-eyed Frau Sonnenschein up to me as an example of amiability and kindness. I can still see the thin little woman now; she never seemed to be still for an instant; her hands were busy, her big black eyes moved continually, she talked incessantly, and always found the right thing to say.


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Within six months she knew what all her customers were interested in, asked this one about her roses, that one about her dogs, and chatted about swimming, bicycling, or the latest fashions, while she pulled out different articles in order to show them and sent Herr Sonnenschein, who was slow and deaf, to fetch this and that. Within a year the most Catholic ladies bought only from Frau Sonnenschein, the shop became bigger and bigger, business got better and better, and everyone loved the little Jewess. When she died a few years later and very soon afterwards Herr Sonnenschein married one of his Gentile salesgirls, everyone was in a state of righteous indignation: how upset the poor little woman would have been had she known that her husband would marry a Christian!

The new Frau Sonnenschein was regarded with hostility, the customers stayed away, the shop began going down, and the Christian tradespeople got their old clients back again. Then came a pause, one took another breath, and the maid gathered new strength.


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  • Then the procedure was repeated, and finally, after that, the dress, plentifully equipped with whale-bones, was put on. At the waist there was a strong band with hooks and eyes. Most of the time the ends of the band did not meet, so another tug had to be given to the corset, until at last the dress could be fastened.

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    Countless small and large hairpins held together real and false switches and curls. Then the enormous hat was set in place and hatpins were stuck in. Frequently the hat was trimmed with birds and flowers only on one side, so that all the weight pulled at one spot. So, heroically smiling, women went out to promenade holding up their skirts with hands that were soon weary from the weight. The clothes had a slit in back, a dangerous thing because it came open so easily. If one wanted to reach into the pocket, one had first to open the slit and then begin to feel around for the pocket.

    I cannot explain how the pocket managed never to be where one expected to find it โ€” but it did.

    One constantly saw women on the streets with anxious expressions, searching behind, frantic, desperate. Once the purse was found, they would forget to close the slit, or would be unable to locate the hooks and eyes. A man at that time had to precede a woman when going upstairs so as not to fall under suspicion of wanting to see her legs. From the moment a young girl put on her first long dress โ€” and how proud we were of those dresses, and how often we tripped over them โ€” no one was even to suspect that she was supported on anything more than ankles and even ankles were not supposed to be seen.

    On the street one wore laced boots; for some reason open shoes were not respectable outside the house.

    The boots had a long row of buttons, and if one was in a hurry, a button would inevitably come off. The same thing happened with the gloves worn at balls; they came almost all the way up to the shoulder, were always too tight, pinched, and stretched, and were very expensive. But they were. Yes, they even managed to be graceful and to move elegantly. To be sure, one was in training for it from childhood.

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    I still remember with horror the board with two diverging rods, which, held in place under the armpits and stretched across the back, was intended to develop an erect carriage. One also learned how to sit down, how to rise, and how to enter a room. Young girls were never supposed to sit in easy chairs. What kind of a position is that? And how many angry glances were directed at my feet, because the forbidden ankles were showing. I loved our spacious garden with the old chestnut trees. In the spring we had breakfast under their white candles, and the hum of the bees mingled with that of the old silver teapot that had been handed down from my beautiful English great-grandmother.

    Flecks of light played on the blue Wedgwood china; in the tall pines which shaded the gentle slope, squirrels hopped from branch to branch, and blackbirds sang. In autumn the old chestnut trees glowed yellow and filled the dining-room with a warm gold colour. The big green tile stove roared happily, and I ate as slowly as possible, because after breakfast I had to go to my lessons. On fine summer evenings the whole mass of stone turned pink, like the finest marble, and then, when it was already dusk all around, the Traunstein as our mountain was called shone forth out of the shadows like an undying flame.

    Gradually, however, it paled and turned cold and dead, and everything lost life and became suddenly old and joyless. At that moment, without knowing why, I felt a deep sadness.

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    A day was dead, a day of childhood was irrevocably gone. Jerome, Swift, Tennyson. The little snow-covered town looked like a picture on the Christmas cards we received from English cousins and friends. I especially liked the little church that stood on an island in the lake and was linked to the mainland by a long bridge. Entirely surrounded by white, it seemed to be floating in the clouds. I gladly sacrificed the pleasure of sleeping late on a Sunday in order to attend early mass in the island church.

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    One stepped from the soft white dawn into the dark building. On the pews, spiral-shaped, faintly-smelling yellow wax lights burned with slender flickering flames, the reddish vestments of the ministrants glowed dully, the figure of the priest moved indistinctly in the chancel, and the little asthmatic organ gave forth its best.

    It was Advent, the moment of expectancy; the Messiah will soon be born. We all know this, and we cry to heaven that it might open up and send down the saviour of the world: rorate coeli. And afterwards, when we walked back across the bridge, the heavens had truly opened, the sun streamed down, the blue sky made the snow seem even whiter, the air was cold, and we were filled with good resolutions โ€” and terribly hungry.

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    If I was alone with grandmother it was marvellous. I was allowed to prepare a Christmas tree for the poor children, buy things for them, and order vast quantities of chocolate and cakes from the cook. They sat anxious and unsure of themselves on the edge of their seats, continually making little bows, would neither eat nor drink chocolate, and kept saying thank you over and over again, which annoyed and embarrassed me. Another point of the social code required that if a person has once been a guest in a house, the mistress of that house should remember for all time thereafter whether or not the person takes milk in his tea as well as how many lumps of sugar he takes.

    Never take up more than half a page at most to tell about your own affairs; more than that would almost certainly be of no interest. It was only much later that I discovered the profound significance of this precept and found out how easy it is to give the impression that one is extremely intelligent. All the women whom history and literature present as uncommonly gifted were, above all else, good listeners, which, when you think of it, requires no special art, since in the end every human being is interesting when speaking of what is closest to his or her heart, whether that be politics, literature or something absolutely inconsequential.

    When a gardener speaks of flowers or a tailor of clothes, his whole person is transformed; everything good and beautiful about roses or clothing is transferred, as it were, to him, while he in turn invests material things with the interest that inheres in any living human being. As I have said, however, I did not discover this truth until much later; in youth one feels so rich that one thinks only of giving out, not of taking in.

    First, there was the traditional three-week stop in Vienna to visit the dentist and various relatives. Going to the dentist was not entirely awful; for one thing it provided an opportunity for heroic behaviour, something I always enjoyed very much; in addition, that heroic behaviour was always rewarded in one way or another. The relatives were a more difficult matter; here one demonstrated heroism by enduring boredom, and that was a good deal harder. She wore a faded yellow wig, and I think that, except for her chambermaid, no one ever saw her hands.

    Her rooms were dark and smelled strangely of a mixture of roseleaves and medicines. Aunt Maria had only one lung though, for all that, she lived to be seventy ; as a result, she kept out of the fresh air and almost never allowed her windows to be opened. Every afternoon at three, her old landau would drive up, drawn by her old horses and with her old coachman on the box, and Aunt Maria would go for a drive in the Prater 31 with both carriage windows shut tight. She talked a great deal about music and inquired regularly about my progress with the piano โ€” a painful topic. Aunt Maria would talk with grandmother while I ate bonbons.

    Once old Johann brought in two little plates from which I ate alternately โ€” with none too happy results, for on one of the plates had been placed not bonbons but sugarcoated laxative pills. I was delighted with the pearls although I was not yet allowed to wear them. But this was in no way the fault of my piano teacher. Poor Herr Habert 32 with his tired, sorrowful face went to inconceivable pains with me โ€” but all in vain.

    Still, I did learn something else, when still quite young, from my music teacher: the tragedy of the unsuccessful artist. Herr Habert was an extremely gifted man; he had composed oratorios and masses, but he had never managed to establish himself as a composer. Finally โ€” he must have been about fifty-seven at the time, which of course seemed utterly ancient to me โ€” one of his oratorios was accepted for performance.

    Herr Habert was so happy that the piano lessons even became a pleasure.

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    He played phrases and motifs from the oratorio for me, explained them, and no longer noticed when my timing was off. Herr Habert came a few more times to give me lessons, then excused himself saying he was very tired, and never came back. When I went to see him, he was lying in bed in his โ€” to me โ€” miserable three-room dwelling, his face completely grey, and his body small and shrunken.

    He did not complain; he only said that he was tired, very tired. A fat ugly wife and three unattractive grown-up daughters said he had to pull himself together. But he was too weary, and shortly after that he went to sleep forever. She would look at you with a frozen face, as though it had been carved out of wood, in which only her little dark eyes seemed to be alive, and would bend down toward you with her huge ear-trumpet in her ear.

    Walking into her old-fashioned drawing-room with its stiff black ebony furniture was not without its perils. As soon as the door opened four yellow pugs would spring at you, yapping wildly and snapping at your legs. The pugs were old and peevish.