Sample translation from Mazzel Tov by Margot Vanderstraeten, Chapters 4 and 5
translated by Anna Asbury
For the first half hour I sat opposite Mr Schneider in a room referred to as the ‘office’, located at the back on the ground floor, just past the lift.
The lift! I had no idea such madness existed; that there were people living in the city, people without physical disabilities, who had lifts installed in their houses.
I was particularly impressed by the thick white carpet which seemed to submerge my feet. My mother preferred tiles: just pour a bucket of detergent over them and you could scrub them clean in no time. The entrances to this house were covered in deep-pile white carpet.
Images flickered on a corridor wall: the street from different angles. A hazy figure passed by. Someone stuffed advertising leaflets into the letterboxes.
The office contained a desk and a bookcase with just one shelf filled. I recognised the backs of the Bescherelle brothers and Le Petit Robert right away. The other books were Hebrew works, holy books I suspected, at least that’s what they looked like, thick tomes with leather backs covered in gilded letters and flourishes.
The windows reached from floor to ceiling and opened onto an enclosed garden, whose main ingredient – in the middle of the city! – was a pond with a footbridge. On the edge of the expansive marble patio stood a basketball pole with goal net and further on in the garden a swing hung on a scarlet-painted metal frame. The lawn was perfectly manicured: bright green grass, freshly mown.
Mr Schneider turned out to be a tall, slim man. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt and dark blue yarmulke. He did not have corkscrew curls and his black beard, speckled with grey, was fluffy and did not hang like a slab from chin to chest, but stuck close to the skin.
Mr Schneider had a powerful voice and his Dutch was adorned with a lighter French accent than that of his wife. He looked a bit like my father, but a Jewish version and with deeper grooves in his forehead and around his eyes. There are people who never have red cheeks. Mr Schneider struck me as one of them. His skin seemed to possess a permanent dull grey sheen. His moustache and beard framed his mouth and coloured his face.
‘Shall we make that the only time we do that?’ asked Mr Schneider after we had shaken hands. I didn’t know what he meant. He removed his jacket and hung it slowly over his chair, making sure that the shoulders fell precisely on the corners of the back, then invited me to sit down.
‘If you offer your hand, Miss Vanderstraeten, I will shake it,’ he said, having evidently read the confusion in my face. ‘Because I respect you and your customs, don’t you know. But to be on the safe side we Orthodox Jews do not shake hands with women. It has to do with cleanliness and so on, but we won’t get into that now. It would be appreciated if you were to respect our custom.’
I smiled at him. Idiotically, I suspect. I looked at my right hand and wondered what could be unclean about it. There was Tipp-Ex on my fingers, I’d give him that.
On a wide shelf of the bookcase, surrounded by three round cardboard boxes, lay a black hat with a broad, stiff rim. I had recently picked up a similar Borsalino box from a jumble sale: I placed all the personal letters I’d received in my life inside.
Mr Schneider delivered a monologue, leaving no space for interruption, and when I attempted to ask a question, he allowed the intervention to take place just as politicians do in talk shows, continuing unmoved as soon as the intermezzo was over.
‘I have four wonderful children,’ he said, ‘two exemplary sons and two equally exemplary daughters. All four are different; that’s logical and I will attempt to elucidate that logic a little.’
I thought, Oh no please, I can’t stand exemplary children, I could never be their friend, could always spot them a mile off, recognise their exemplariness in their shoes and their manner of walking and facial expressions; the degree of obedience shone out in the tilt of their chin.
‘Simon is our eldest,’ Mr Schneider began. ‘He is now sixteen. He resembles his mother, my spouse, in character I mean. He is mild and tough at the same time, do you understand? You’ll understand when you meet my spouse. A hard worker who prefers silence to talk, that’s him, but you mustn’t underestimate him, he is well cut in heart and tongue.’ That’s how he said it. I couldn’t help smiling.
‘When Simon opens his mouth, Miss Vanderstraeten, it is not for chitchat, but because he has something to say, you know what I mean. N’importe: you won’t have much to do with him; he does maths and sciences. Simon’s studies are too difficult and specialised for you. You have a knack for languages I understand, you have a different brain, don’t you know; you can only help our Simon with French and Dutch, perhaps history and geography. Our eldest son will let you know when he wishes to call on your services. But if he needs you, we want him to be able to count on you, don’t we.’
‘Certainly,’ I said.
‘Jakov is our second,’ he continued. ‘We had two boys one after another, then two girls, you know. It could not have turned out better. First the sons, then the daughters. We are blessed, my spouse and I. Jakov is thirteen, he will be fourteen next month. He is the spitting image of me: a daring boy and very popular at school. I was once just like him, if I do say so myself. Jakov has lots of friends, as I did once. He’s quick to establish a connection with people. A sociable boy. We have to watch out that he’s not too quick to establish connections, especially with girls, you know what I mean. I used to bide my time. But my spouse and I were married in the seventies. Since then everything has changed; the world moves too fast, and Jakov loves speed. He’s very bright. He always wants to try out new things and loves excitement. So he will test out boundaries, challenge life. I don’t know whether Jakov will need you. He’s headstrong. Nevertheless, we would like you to question regularly him about his school work. He needs lessons in discipline. You must be strict with him, but not too strict, you will have to find a happy medium.’
I nodded emphatically, a little bored. I would have preferred to meet his sons, those exemplary boys, rather than listening to his praise, but I didn’t dare say so.
‘You have already seen Elzira and Sara,’ Mr Schneider continued.
I became aware that I was nodding again.
‘Elzira is our eldest daughter, Sara our youngest little rascal. Elzira turned twelve in August. She is just two years younger than Jakov. And I would never say it in their presence, but Elzira is cleverer than her two brothers put together. The only thing is she cannot concentrate for long, she quickly becomes nervous and that worries us.’
He stopped for a moment. A tall boy was walking across the garden.
‘At school they advised us to have psychological tests done, and we did. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just a bit different.’
Once again he stopped for a moment.
‘You will primarily need to spend time on Elzira; our daughter lacks self-confidence, you know, like all teenaged girls, of course. She is very unsure of herself, and Simon and Jakov undermine her shaky confidence, although we try to tell our garçons that they are not to, don’t you know. I can give you an example: Jakov refuses to play chess with Elzira, although she is not a bad opponent. He will not play with her because he knows in advance that she will knock over half the pieces…’ He stared ahead of him for at least half a minute. It was a long thirty seconds.
‘I will tell you in strict confidence: the diagnosis is official, Elzira has dyspraxia. I don’t know if you are familiar with this condition. Her handicap – although we never refer to her condition that way in her presence – has nothing to do with her intellect, don’t you know. Her motor control regularly crashes, c’est tout. She cannot make any fine movements and experiences balance and coordination problems. She has a tremor, like people with Parkinson’s disease, don’t you know. Her hands sometimes tremble, she cannot control her muscles, she often drops things and can therefore come across as bumbling; one area of her brain does not always communicate equally fluently with another, you should think of it that way, as a short circuit, but that clumsiness has nothing to do with her intelligence, don’t you know; I’ll say it again, I’d like to say it all the time, there’s nothing wrong with her intelligence.’
I’d straightened up in my seat because Mr Schneider had been talking faster and faster and saying ‘don’t you know’ more and more frequently.
‘Of course, Miss Vanderstraeten, you know that a person, if he wishes to develop, cannot do without self-confidence, motivation and ambition. Well now, we are afraid that our daughter, due to that so-called flaw, is becoming withdrawn and anxious. She cannot be allowed to limp along behind the other students in her class. That would do her an injustice. We do not want her to suffer. We don’t want her to become a talking point. That is your primary task: be patient with Elzira, get her to excel.’
His eyes had grown moist and he coughed twice between his sentences, but without slowing down.
‘And last but not least, Sara, without an h. Sara is still only eight. She is a champion gymnast, as supple as a snake. We don’t know who she inherited that bizarre and useless talent from; not me in any case, and my spouse has many talents, but suppleness of body is not one of them. If it were up to Sara she would only ever do sports. Of course that’s not acceptable, not in our family. We absolutely do not want to encourage her in that direction, even if she had the potential to become a world champion in gymnastics. We want her to train her head. Now she is only eight, but soon she will be eighteen, you understand, I assume you understand me.’
‘Yes,’ I heard myself say.
‘Miss Vanderstraeten, to be on the safe side, let me just summarise our expectations of one another: ours of you, our children’s of you, all of us of one another,’ he continued. ‘We give you our sons and daughters. You give them attention. You help them with their schoolwork. You are their tutor. You follow their timetable and stick to it. You ensure that they succeed with gusto, don’t you know. And we compensate you for all your efforts. You keep a list, noting the hours you have worked along with a description, en mots clés, keywords, of how you have filled those hours, agreed? Can my spouse and I count on you?’
My mind went blank. I sat listening to Mr Schneider’s litany and longed for the fresh air outside. The little room had grown stuffy. On the broad balcony diagonally above me a woman shook out a tea towel. It occurred to me that Mr Schneider had kept on saying ‘my spouse’ and never ‘my wife’.
I shuffled on my chair. I was keen to meet the four of them, talk to Mini and Maxi, and see those fantastic sons in the flesh. I also wished that Mr Schneider would ask me something. I had not rehearsed a series of answers to imagined questions for nothing: what are your views on your pay, what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses, how good are your language skills, and tell us why you think you’re the right person to look after our children…
Mr Schneider started talking again. He acted like I already had the job and could start right away. This attitude, already having made his decision without asking me whether I wanted the job, brought out my rebellious side. I decided it was time to go home. Before I had so much as motioned to stand up, there was a knock on the door. A woman with an apron tied around her plump middle and her hair hidden under a check cap entered the room carrying a tray. She set two steaming cups of coffee and two wedges of cheesecake before us and disappeared again without a word.
‘Do you know the joke about Moses, who lay on his deathbed and summoned his business partner Amos?’ asked Mr Schneider then. And he began to tell the story of the dying Moses who didn’t want to perish without asking Amos, his business partner, for forgiveness for certain transgressions.
‘Remember when our first business went bankrupt? That was my fault, Amos, and I’m sorry. I tinkered with the accounts. I cheated and concealed money.’
‘I forgive you, Moses,’ Amos placated him.
Moses: ‘And that car that got smashed up in the night. That was me, Amos, I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and I’d had too much to drink…’
‘Let’s forget it,’ said Amos.
‘That time a hundred thousand francs went missing from the safe: I’m the one who took that money. I had to pay off my son’s debts.’
‘Ach,’ said Amos, ‘calm down, Moses, I forgive you all of it. Because you know, the arsenic you’ll die of in an hour, I put that in your coffee.’
After the joke Mr Schneider burst out laughing. He continued to look expectantly at me, so I pretended to laugh along with him.
‘I’ll leave you now,’ he said, just as abruptly as he had started to tell the joke. He hadn’t touched his cake.
He stood up, straightened his yarmulke, which was held in place in his wavy hair by a hairclip, and put his jacket back on. Fresh circles of sweat had emerged through his shirt under his armpits. ‘My spouse will come and talk to you directly. I wish you the utmost success.’
Automatically I offered my hand, which he shook warmly.
I could have kicked myself.
Mrs Schneider, whose first name turned out to be Moriel, was younger than I am today. When I first made her acquaintance she had just celebrated her fortieth birthday. At that point she was precisely twice my age.
My grandmother had once pointed it out to me and it took me a week to work out that she was right: you can only be double another person’s age for one single year of your life. Once past this date, in the best case, the years creep closer together; people shift towards one another, as if, like trees, the rings of the years gather, making them stronger, standing them more firmly in the ground, broadening their crowns so that others can more easily shelter under them. The twenty years dividing a fifty-year-old from a seventy-year-old are nothing in comparison with those gaping between a ten-year-old and a thirty-year-old.
Mrs Schneider was medium height and between fat and thin. She looked chic, almost intimidatingly so. You could see, even feel, that she set high standards for herself and others. Her movements, her voice, her jewellery, her clothes – her entire presence – exuded class.
She wore a classic dark-blue suit, discrete with a modern touch. Her hairdo was reminiscent of Pamela from Dallas, shoulder-length and blow-dried all puffed up. When she moved, her skirt, which fell below the knee, rustled.
She looked more ladylike than motherly. Like her husband she had pale skin, in her case with a light-blue sheen, the colour of her blouse.
Again I offered my hand. Again it was shaken. Again I kicked myself for this reflex, which was more ingrained than I had ever suspected. Although I wasn’t sure: perhaps women could touch one another, perhaps the rule only applied to interaction with the opposite sex.
‘You are studying,’ she said as she sat down, having first smoothed the back of her skirt several times, taking the same chair her husband had occupied just before.
‘To be a translator.’
‘You have your exam results with you, n’est-ce pas?’
‘No… you didn’t ask me to bring…’
‘We cannot know if you would be a good student if you do not have your results with you. Aaron says that you are speaking French.’
I replied that my passive knowledge of the language was greater than my active knowledge. ‘Dutch is and will always be my mother tongue. I only translate from French to Dutch, never vice versa; that would be a disaster.’
‘Then this means you are not knowing the language.’
‘I do. I understand the language, its structure. I’ve immersed myself in the literature. And I really like grammar,’ I said. It was no lie: the more exceptions, the greater my pleasure.
‘You can help our children with their French homework.’
She was measuring me up, just as an insurance agent assesses the damage after a disaster: a hole here, a scratch there, a crack or two that cannot be ignored. All her sentences sounded like statements, with no rising intonation, not a trace of a question. I didn’t know whether her manner of speaking was intentional, or rather a symptom of linguistic uncertainty or laziness. On the phone this lack of fluency had not struck me as it did here. Perhaps she was unfamiliar with the inversion, and didn’t dare use it in Dutch, which clearly was not her mother tongue. Although it was possible that she, like many members of the French-speaking bourgeoisie in Flanders, was quite indifferent to the inaccuracy of her manner of expression. I’d happily have given her lessons too.
‘Of course I can help them with their homework.’
‘You speak beautiful Dutch.’
‘You have a beautiful name.’
‘So do you.’
‘Thank you. I can’t take credit for my name, Moriel; I have my parents to thank for that.’ She smiled, carefully. ‘Lots of people assume my name is Murielle, but it’s Moriel, with an o and without a double l or an e on the end.’
Now I smiled carefully.
‘During the weekdays you will be coming at five o’clock or half past five and you will be staying at least until eight o’clock. And on Sundays you will be coming at ten o’clock and leaving when our daughters have been helped. You do not need to help our sons then, on Sundays they go to Bible class. My husband, Aaron, or I, we will pay you each week.’
So she did refer to her husband by his first name. And like her husband, she had decided, without asking for my consent, that I would take up the appointment.
‘You have hobbies, n’est-ce pas.’
‘Reading. Going to the cinema or theatre. Travelling as much as possible to countries whose languages I’m learning. Having friends around.’
‘You have many hobbies but none of them relate to children.’
‘I love children.’
‘You have no experience with children.’
‘I’ve done lots of babysitting. I’d read the children stories, and then we would act them out, or make up a sequel, or add a character to the story.’
‘That won’t be required here.’
‘Making up stories. We don’t want you doing that. School is not a game. Tutoring is not the same thing as babysitting. Do you know how to keep quiet?’
‘We don’t want you talking with the children about your private life, your world, I mean to say. The intention is for you to work with the teaching materials.’
‘That doesn’t sound like a problem.’
‘Your life is and remains your life. You are seule, single?’
‘I’m a student.’
‘You’re not married.’
‘I live with my boyfriend.’
‘Your parents are happy with that.’
I nodded and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying that my parents had given up worrying about my choices and were therefore happy with everything I did. I had received a laissez-passer from them, a kind of pass which gave certain opera-goers – the VIPs – access to the entire building and all performances.
I had a cushy job working evenings and weekends in season as a cloakroom attendant at the Opera in Antwerp. The tips made it worth the effort and since every cloakroom was manned by two people and there was only work to be done at the start and end of the performance, one person could quietly read a book while the other attended the opera for free. People with a laissez-passer didn’t need to have their tickets checked. They didn’t have to rummage for their tickets in the dark. They had fixed seats. By giving them that kind of pass, as an organisation you avoided any confrontation and, out of a certain kind of faith that was so murky it could probably be better termed hope, obviated any possible discussion in advance.
‘Your parents are still together?’
‘Are they divorced, do you mean? No.’
‘How many children do they have?’
‘All three healthy?’
‘As far as I know, yes.’
‘Your husband works.’
‘He’s looking for work.’
‘He has graduated, n’est-ce pas.’
‘He’s done a year of a law degree.’
‘So he’s younger than you…’ Now her voice did rise a couple of centimetres at the end of the sentence.
‘No, he’s seven years older than me. My boyfriend is a political refugee. He fled from Iran because he would have been persecuted there. He might continue studying, to become an industrial engineer, he’s not sure yet, it depends on other factors and his language knowledge. Dutch isn’t an easy language to…’
There I went again. When I felt I’d been backed into a corner due to a condescending attitude – intentional or not – towards Nima, I always emphasised that he was a political, not an economic, refugee. As if I needed the confirmation myself that those who fled for politics were better, more valuable people than those who fled poverty and lack of prospects.
‘Donc he no longer studies law.’
‘If he were to study law he would need to do so in a language which he has mastered to an optimal standard. That’s difficult here.’
‘Your husband, he comes from a different country.’
‘From Iran,’ I said, already accustomed to the reactions that answer could arouse.
‘Iraaaannn,’ she repeated, as if she needed to ruminate on the country.
‘Teheran,’ I added.
‘Your husband is Muslim, n’est-ce pas,’ she said.
‘He’s not my husband, he’s my boyfriend. And he’s not a practising Muslim,’ I said. Another thing I had learnt in the time I had shared my life with Nima was that it could be useful to say as soon as possible that my boyfriend, although he was Muslim, did not actively practise Islam: he didn’t pray three to five times a day, he didn’t participate in Ramadan and he didn’t see any problem, on the contrary, with sharing his life with a non-Muslim. In short, he was much too left-wing to be religious. The label non-practising Muslim, like political refugee, was generally seen as a virtue, a medal on his lapel, a laissez-passer in circles of friends and acquaintances.
Sometimes I would pretend that his parents were supporters of Zoroastrianism, the teachings of Zarathustra, but not now. Nima had friends who were Zoroastrians. I knew a very little bit about the religion, which was not based on the Bible or Koran but on the Avesta. But the main thing was that I knew Zoroastrians could expect sympathy, especially if you specified that the term came from Zarathustra. You could link the religion to Nietzsche and in certain circles Nietzsche inspired more authority than any God.
‘You are a young and wise woman. And your husband lives in the land of the Ayatollahs…’
That was another tune I was fed up with hearing. I gave it short shrift: ‘Mrs Schneider, my boyfriend lives in Belgium, and he lives here precisely because he fled Khomeini and his people.’
I didn’t tell her that Nima, who had come to Belgium with his sister, two years older, came from a well-to-do family, nor did I mention that his resistance to the Islamic regime had remained limited; having left the country very quickly, he had little more than a couple of nights in prison and an entry on the blacklist to show for his ideological battle, unlike many of his friends.
His parents had not wanted him conscripted for the war with Iraq. Partly for that reason, like many other middle-class Iranian families, they had not hesitated to send their son to the West, and their daughter as well. During the regime of the Shah they had benefited from freedom, both in trade and in thinking. To them Teheran was the Paris of the Middle East. They were horrified by the authoritarian, dictatorial Shah, but all the more by an extremely conservative religious state. They wanted their children to taste the flavour of Paris rather than the bitterness of a Shia dictatorship, and in another country if necessary.
Mrs Schneider didn’t ask my boyfriend’s name.
‘You live with someone of a different religion.’
‘You’re not Muslim.’
‘I was brought up Catholic.’
‘You’re not planning to convert.’
‘I’m not religious. Not anymore. If I ever was…’
‘And your parents…’
‘My parents used to be church-goers. They lived according to the main Catholic traditions: Easter, All Saints’ Day, Christmas. Now we, the children, are more or less grown up, they consider church attendance and the faith less essential…’
She played with her bracelet, which was very delicate, like the two rings she wore, thin silver with a minuscule stone. There is jewellery that whispers and jewellery that screams. Mrs Schneider’s jewellery whispered so clearly that it drowned out every scream.
‘Your husband fled the religion.’
‘He fled a religious state.’
‘And his parents?’
‘They’re still there.’
‘Your husband, he’s an Arab.’
Oh no, I thought, so I need to repeat this for the umpteenth time too. ‘In Iran the people are not Arabs, but Persians. He speaks Persian, not Arabic.’ The magic word, ‘Persian’, worked almost every time, thanks to the handmade carpets which were seen as a good investment, especially in Belgium, where the appetite for property ownership prevailed above all.
‘Aaron has told you about our children.’
‘Yes, all four.’
‘My husband didn’t ask you any questions.’
‘He talked the entire time,’ I said, relieved that I could mention it.
‘I thank you,’ she said then, out of the blue. ‘I will call the maid. Krystina will show you out again. I wish you a pleasant Sunday. Merci et bonne journée.’
She pressed a little buzzer which appeared to be located under the desktop and with a brief nod left me alone in the room, where I remained, somewhat disconcerted, in a delicate cloud of her perfume, the scent of which I was unable to place. I was only familiar with the sweet trace of Anaïs Anaïs which I sometimes dabbed on my throat and wrists, not so much because I liked the heavy odour of white flowers as because I wanted to spread the spirit of the writer Nin.
Krystina was not the woman who had served me the delicious cheesecake.