Mushrooms

My hosts in Běleč, M and A, are crazy about collecting mushrooms. Day in and day out, all they think about are mushrooms. Every spare inch of their house is filled with mushrooms laid out in various stages of cleaning or drying. The green of the Billiard table is barely visible beneath all the mushrooms: chanterelles, oyster, porcini. A baking sheet is propped up precariously between the wood stove and the chairs, so that you have to tip toe everywhere. The cats are shooed off whenever they come too near.

When I meet A out in the forest in her red raincoat, she smiles like a child caught doing something it shouldn’t.

‘I promised I’d be quick today,’ she tells me.

‘Why do you have to be quick?’ I ask.  

‘We’ll, because yesterday I was out in the forest for six hours. Today I said I’d be back after two hours.’

She can’t help herself. Even as we talk, her eyes move over the ground. She knows exactly where to look.  Hřib Smrkový like the roots of silver birches, Liška Obecná prefer ditches. There is no need to be stingy with insider information, there’s more than enough to go around.

Like all addicts, she is quick to point out anyone who’s got it worse. She tells me about cars that she sees which are positively sagging with mushrooms. Cars so full that their driver is no longer visible. She holds each mushroom to my nose so I can smell it’s delicate perfume.

When I wake up in the morning, the wood stove in the corner of my room has gone out, and sun shines into the room through the small window. Beyond the fields, tall, red pines bend cheerfully with every gust of wind. The clouds move by quickly. Rain falls for a few minutes at a time, then stops again. When I go downstairs, I find a bowl of mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and butter on the table.

I make breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and walk down to the old Jewish cemetery. Ancient graves with Hebrew letters stick out of the ground like a mouth of crooked teeth. Many trees have grown into and around the graves. On the edges of the cemetery, near the low walls, wild strawberries grow. Between the graves, mushrooms.

Leaving

I leave a few weeks later than I planned, just as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

In Munich, driving rain. As I head east, it clears, but remains grey. Every car on the Autobahn overtakes me. Even the starlings, in their nervous way, are faster than me.

Near Wallersdorf, brown foals stand placidly next to bare fields of purple earth. In Deggendorf, every other store stands empty. No one is out. I head up the mountain toward the Czech border, through Regen and Zwiesel. I’d like to park somewhere and take one last look down at Germany, but there’s too much fog, it’s impossible to see anything.

Želená Ruda is the Czech border town. There are hand painted signs advertising cigarettes. There are two gas stations and two casinos. There are four nail salons and wood smoke rising from tiny brown houses. To the left and right of the street, shacks are propped up, haphazardly, like theatre sets. Outside of them walls of glittering Christmas ornaments bird houses and woven baskets dangle. From the road, it’s impossible to see into the shacks but given the amount of stuff out on the street, it’s easy to imagine that inside they are empty. Their owners sit outside, as immobile as their wares, wrapped from head to toe against the damp cold.

I drive through Harmanice, past wet fields ringed with birches. The birches here are straighter, prettier (it seems to me), and farther along in their change of colour. I follow a winding road that traces the black, narrow Otava river. I drive through Střelské Hoštice, Předotice, Zvíkovské Podhradi. Towns pass by in an instant and are gone forever. Apple trees heavy with fruit line the roads. Apples roll into the street and under my tires.

I stop to eat in Jistebnice. It’s evening now, and the town is pitch black, except for the blue glow of a bank machine, and the tiny yellow windows of a tavern. A group of teenagers lean against a wall near my car. One of them sees my foreign license plate, and asks with a smile, what the hell I’m doing in Jistebnice. I’m on vacation, I say. He looks confused and shakes his head apologetically. Sorry, he says, my English very few. I ask him what he recommends at the tavern and he tells me to get the fish.

The tavern is a small room with six tables and an unlit fireplace in the corner. Five tables are full. People shout and laugh. Children swing between the tables and run behind the bar. I sit down at the sixth table and order a small beer and fish. The waitress laughs and tenderly tells me that at this tavern they serve only fish, so I’ll have to be more specific. She passes a menu, all in Czech, and patiently tries to translate it for me.  I order fried trout with potato salad and mayonnaise, eat quickly and leave. Voices and laughter follow me out into the street, then the door swings shut and they are gone. The teenagers have left and the night is cold and quiet. I drive through the dark, and turn on the radio to keep from nodding off. The sky is as black as the Otava. No moon, no stars.

 

 

By Way of Introduction

‘The joyful anticipation before a journey is always outweighed by the irritation of actually going,’ writes Joseph Roth, but for once I have to disagree. The weeks before I’m due to leave for a trip, I feel nothing short of domestic bliss. Neighbours who once petty are suddenly charming, chores which once seemed tiresome are suddenly effortless, my belongings, normally forgotten about, seem suddenly precious. Familiarity, modesty and comfort become virtues as alluring as any garden variety vice.

There is so much to do. We forgot to take the winter tires off the car. I need to order a road atlas. Oh, and go down into the cellar and dust off my tent. What about a language guide? A backpack for my camera?  And my sleeping medication, or will it be fine? Should the shoes I bring along be elegant or practical? Perhaps I’ll bring one pair of each, and another two pairs just to be safe. Will it be warm? Will I go swimming? What if there is a cold snap?

All of this to distract, perhaps, from the fact that leaving on a journey is a terrifying thing. So much could go sideways. Or go wonderfully. But if it goes wonderfully then we probably have to change our minds about something or other and that is about as uncomfortable as things going sideways.

There is absolutely nothing to be done. Preparations will continue to be made. The car will get new tires. The tent has a hole in it, but it can be patched up. And I’ll do well to remember the words of the editor who published Roth’s tirade: ‘We assure our readers that in spite of everything he says… our author spends very little time at home.’

That all being said, I’ll take the liberty of adjusting Roth’s words for my own purposes: The irritating anticipation before a journey is always outweighed by the joy of actually going.