Buying Baklava

The woman in the shop turned to me while I was looking at the counter where the cakes are on display in a glass case. She was organising things on the shelves, I didn’t notice what.

‘Do you want something darling’, she asked demurely. She turned her head and looked at me with her black eyes surrounded by black eyeliner and mascara. Her black hair sleek and tied up tight so that strands hung down behind her neck.

‘Some baklava please’. I studied the trays intently trying to decide what to have. On the way into the shop I’d already made my mind up that the number of pieces had to be divisible by a possible number of days. And 12 pieces would be better than nine. That would either be four pieces over three days or three pieces over four days.

‘It’s all fresh today’, she said slowly. It was the voice over for an advertisement of tremendous luxury.

I don’t know the names of all the different types. I must learn them. A previous shop assistant had pointed out one particular type and said ‘this one is the baklava classic’.

She held up two trays. A large one and what might be described as medium.

‘Large’, I said, ‘I’m going to have 12 pieces’. I pointed to the trays of what I wanted.

She took each piece carefully with a pair of tongs and gently placed them in the box. When the box was full she slowly tucked the lid into the sides and carefully added sellotape to hold it all in place.

The shop had disappeared during this encounter. It was no longer a shop but like being in the house of a favourite aunt. I remember once visiting my aunt in Germany. She made a delicious cool and creamy strawberry milkshake with real strawberries and fresh milk. It was all whisked up in a blender.

She was born in the Weimar Republic, lived through the Nazi regime as a child and experienced the war in the East, the Russian invasion and the aftermath. Her boyfriend had been a Luftwaffe pilot and killed on the Eastern Front. It must have been the early stages because I was once shown a photograph of his funeral with a guard of honour. I don’t think such rituals survived the horrors of the later battles, scorched earth and genocide. In the chaos following the end of the war she caught typhoid and disappeared, eventually found wandering dazed and confused in a wood. The simple fact of being found saved her life. She was deported from Silesia along with ten million other Germans around 1947. She wasn’t yet 20 years old.

‘Here you are darling’, she said handing me the baklava over the glass counter. She looked at me and smiled. We know so little of the lives of those around us and what stories they grew up with and what memories they have.

I went to pay and waited until the man at the till finished a conversation with a man who was standing near the check out. He was wearing shabby shapeless trousers, a shabby shapeless jacket, a shabby shapeless stomach hanging over his belt. His face was so old, at least 100 years. The face of poverty and work, of someone who never sleeps, always lifting, carrying, digging, driving.

The conversation finished. He went further into the shop. And then he would be driving once again, out into the motorways and autobahns driving across Europe into the night, through the neon lights and the flashing headlights of the oncoming traffic. He would drive to Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Gdansk, Minsk, all the way to Moscow. But that wasn’t far enough and he would not be allowed to stop but must drive back again once more. Sometimes the lorry was empty and it swayed in the wind but other times it was carrying crates and boxes, machine guns and mortar bombs, gas masks and hand grenades. War’s coming but all war is predicated by cheap and sweated labour.

The man at the counter took the baklava.

‘Do you need a bag?’ he asked in a musical lilting voice.
‘No I have a bag’, and placed it on the counter.
He went to put the baklava in the bag but I handed him my money and suggested that he sort the change out and I would pack the bag.

‘You must keep the tray flat’ he said, showing me how to do it. He handed over the change.
‘Would you like a receipt?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it’s useful to keep a track on how much I spend on baklava each week’.

He laughed and it made me laugh too.
‘Have a good weekend my friend’.
‘You have a good weekend too’.

War is all around us once again. But I don’t see any war between the people here. Who wants this war and why?

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