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December 2020 Issue [Readings]

Christmas in Cochinchina


From the anthology A Very German Christmas: The Greatest Austrian, Swiss and German Holiday Stories of All Time, which was published in September by New Vessel Press. Translated from the German.

It occurred on one of those wonderful days, while eagerly awaiting the start of the Christmas holidays and the school break, much as I now anticipate a long journey, that the teacher said, “Students, whoever has five pfennigs will join the class this afternoon on a trip to the World Panorama!”

I stuck two fingers up in the air and said, “I don’t have five pfennigs!”

Silence reigned for a moment, as if the principal had come to inspect the class. The teacher turned around, with his back toward the class and his face toward the board, as if he believed that an invisible angel with white chalk would inscribe some good advice there. Something of the sort probably happened. Because after about a minute the teacher turned his face back toward the class and told me, as I remained standing, “Sit down for now!”

During recess, a school aide came to the courtyard and took me to the principal’s office.

“Let’s see your dirty finger!” shouted the principal. I raised both hands into the air, horizontally, in front of me.

The principal leaned down a bit to examine them. But he wasn’t wearing the gold-rimmed pince-nez he usually had on when determined to conduct a serious investigation. I knew already that this involved something other than my dirty finger.

“You’ll go to the World Panorama today without having to pay!” said the principal. Perhaps he had something else to communicate. But since the bell rang, he just muttered, “Go back to class!”

I rubbed the floorboards with my foot and left.

That afternoon at three, with dusk already looming outside the windows, we left for the World Panorama.

It was situated on a quiet, small lane and from the outside looked like an ordinary shop. A red-and-white flag hung over the glass door; when you opened it, a bell rang in greeting. At the entry sat a woman like a gray-haired queen selling tickets of admission. It was dark inside, warm and very still. As soon as your eyes adjusted to the darkness, you could see a cabinet curved like a carousel and placed in the middle of the wall with viewing holes situated some eight inches apart at adult height all the way around. The viewing holes in the cabinet glimmered like cat eyes in the darkness. One sensed that the cabinet was hollow and illuminated. From within it cast a faint, mysterious shimmer that fell hazily upon the floor below. A round stool stood in front of each pair of viewing holes.

“Sit down,” said the teacher, sounding as he did in the classroom, though in the darkness it was not an order, but rather a sort of gentle invitation. We moved toward the stools. I couldn’t quite reach because I was too short, and slightly raised the round seat to press my nose against the cabinet, my eyes against the viewing holes that were rimmed in metal.

Inside there were pictures of Cochinchina. The sky was blue, infinite, radiant. It was a kind of summery blue that looked as if it had absorbed a large portion of the shining sun, blurred it, pulverized it, and transformed it into something even more blue. One had the sense that this blue sky had to radiate, even when there was no sun. The sun itself seemed superfluous. After the second picture I no longer knew that it was December outside and that the air was filled with rainy haze. The sun blazed from the cabinet through my eyes, into my heart, and at the same time into the world. Huge palm trees stood like motionless natural towers and cast short, midday shadows that fell in dark contrast against the yellow earth. White men in pith helmets stood as if stuck, suspended in midmotion, one foot still hovering in the air so that one thought it would touch the ground once the next picture appeared. You could see half-naked native women with arousing breasts, beautiful bronze cones that disappeared too quickly, and wearing blue loincloths that certainly would have fallen off if one could have stopped the pictures. An open-air school with a fully buttoned-up teacher from Europe teaching completely naked children. They were all squatting on the ground, each holding slate tablets in their laps. Only the teacher sat upright on a bare tree that served as a rudimentary podium. You saw fishermen and swimmers, a bicycle rider in a straw-brimmed hat and a woman in a fluttering white veil that floated horizontally in the air, like smoke wafting behind a steamship. As soon as a new picture appeared, something rattled inside the cabinet like in an old clock when it strikes the hour. Then a gentle, bright, lovely gong sounded. Then there was a slight tremor; the structure of the round apparatus shook as if groaning under the effort of summoning up so many foreign, distant worlds. The blue grew ever deeper, the white more radiant, the sun more golden, the green more azure, the motionless women’s bodies more exciting, the naked children more graceful.

After half an hour, the first picture reappeared.

Then the voice of the teacher rang out like December: “Stand up!”

Stunned, I hurried home. It was as if December was a dream that would soon come to an end and Cochinchina was the reality into which I soon had to awaken. It remained like that for many years. Cochinchina stayed within me, as did that cabinet.

A year ago, around Christmastime, I arrived in a small town. In a meager, narrow lane I spotted a sign. world panorama was written on it. “Cochinchina!” My memory rejoiced. I went inside—no longer without paying—it cost fifty pfennigs for adults, among whom I was now oddly counted. It was almost empty. The cabinet rattled, the gong struck, just as before. But Cochinchina was no longer to be seen among the pictures. Instead, you saw Switzerland. Unfortunately. In the middle of winter. Snowcapped mountain peaks. A hotel with modern comforts, with a reading room.

I leaned back. Two seats away from me sat a man. He peered, it seemed to me, with intense interest into the viewing holes. “What a boring fellow!” I thought, full of hatred, in the midst of the Christmas season.

When I got back outside, I became calm and reasonable. I thought that perhaps in his boyhood he had had the chance to see this very Switzerland. Without having to pay anything, before Christmas. And that, in the end, each of us has our own Cochinchina.

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