[Away from] Home for the Holidays: Reflections on Christmases Spent Across Oceans

Some memories, in pictures and words, from Christmases spent in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France; Fez, Morocco; and Kisumu, Kenya. One month past Christmas isn’t too late for a Christmas post, is it? 🙂

As countless Christmas songs and Hallmark movies remind us, home is the place to be for the holidays. “For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.” And yeah, you kind of can’t. Without baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother at her house, without hanging stockings over my parents’ fireplace, and without my mother’s Christmas Eve beef wellington feast or our annual Christmas morning family brunch after transforming the living room into a sea of wrapping paper, Christmas just doesn’t feel quite like Christmas. But we all grow up, and maybe we live overseas for a time, or we get married and have a whole new second family to split holiday time with. I’ve spent three out of the past nine Christmases far, far away from my home town. Something felt a little off about those three Christmases… and yet, not in a bad way, for they have remained my most memorable Christmases. There’s no place like home for the holidays, and there’s also no place like not home for the holidays.

Christmas 2009 in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France

There was a frosty train ride north from Paris. There was a buche de Noel cake, log shaped and hiding tiny treasures, and festive table settings made by my host family’s kids. Their grandmother cooked all day and we ate like kings, and the kids put their shoes out at night to be filled with candy and gifts by morning. We made a snowman and came inside and the grandmother made us the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. It tasted like a scrumptious Swiss chocolate bar melted straight into a cup of hot cream, and maybe that’s what it was. There was a walk through a grove of snow-decked pine trees to midnight mass at a tiny old stone church. And there were World War I monuments rising out of fields still pockmarked with the craters of century-old shells.

Christmas 2014 in Fez, Morocco

There were twinkling strings of lights on orange trees across the border in Ceuta, Spain. There was a university strike in Tetouan, doors barricaded and guarded by students, classes cancelled, and a sudden day off on December 25th. There was a bus ride through rolling mountains, through blue Chefchaouen, to Fez, where the air was icy cold but indoors it was toasty warm and we cooked pasta and exchanged gifts while Handel’s Messiah played in the background. There’s no Christmas in Morocco, but there was for the six or seven of us in that dar in the Fez Medina. There were roof terrace views, mountains in the distance, walks through winding medina paths dodging donkey carts and tea kettles and leather goods, and a cozy fire in the Ruined Garden Cafe.

Christmas 2017 in Kisumu, Kenya

There was a road trip from Eldoret to Kericho to Kisumu, big family piled into two cars, stopping for tea and mandazi and scenic overlooks along the way. Family outings are a common way of celebrating Christmas in Kenya. “Like the first Christmas,” my grandfather, a pastor, said. “Think about it. Everyone was on the road.” The national park was full to capacity, with lines stretching far out the gate, so we skipped it. We took a boat ride on Lake Victoria and ate whole grilled tilapia with ugali and sukumawiki on a hilltop overlooking the lake. It was eighty plus degrees and felt like July. On the drive home, everyone was out, happy people walking along the side of the road, kids in fancy new Christmas outfits, young men who’d done a little too much partying, and families like ours heading home. Everyone outside on the road under the moon on that warm, warm Christmas night.


Story time! Weirdest moments on public transit around the world

Yesterday, I was on my way to work as usual, standing idly next to a Dunkin Donuts kiosk in North Station, waiting for my train. An elderly lady sporting headphones and cigarette breath approached me and screamed hoarsely, “I’m gonna put your friend IN A BOX! TODAY!” When I looked around, startled, wondering who she meant by “your friend,” she leaned in close and yelled in my face, “THAT’S A COFFIN!” Then she walked away. Now, I don’t consider myself a superstitious person by any means, but not gonna lie, that one kind of freaked me out. I am happy to report that a full day has gone by and my friends are all still kicking.

Just a day in the life of an American public transit commuter.

I’ve had some rather weird experiences on buses and trains in other countries as well, and I think being outside my geographical and cultural comfort zone just added a whole other level to the strangeness. This isn’t a post about things that just seemed odd because I was a clueless foreigner and didn’t get it. This is a post about moments where I felt like okaythis is REALLY bizarre and I’m PRETTY SURE it’s not just bizarre to me.

Taghazout, Morocco, June 2015

After a day by the beach in the sunny hippy Moroccan surf town of Taghazout, three friends and I boarded a crowded bus for a half hour ride to Agadir. It was hard to see what with all the people packed on the bus, and hard to hear what with my Darija level being pretty basic, but there seemed to be some sort of altercation going on at the front of the bus between two teenage boys and the driver. One of them must have not paid his fare, or for whatever reason the driver did not want him on the bus.

Then a man in a neon vest that said “Agent de Controle” appeared on the scene. (This doesn’t exactly translate as “Agent of Control,” but that’s what my brain spontaneously registered it as, and I think this story’s a little funnier if you translate it that way.) He argued loudly with the two teenagers, and they stepped off the bus but kept shouting at him. A small crowd of young men had gathered outside the bus by this time, bickering loudly. Some of them seemed to be on the side of the driver and the Agent of Control and some were on the side of the fare-hopping teen.

Then the Agent of Control took off his jacket and handed it to the bus driver. An internationally recognized signal that this ish is about to get REAL.

Outside the bus, the bickering had degenerated into a giant shouting match, and the Agent of Control flung himself enthusiastically into it. And then it was a full on brawl. They were all shoving each other- the Agent of Control and the young men on his side versus the troublemaking teenager and his sidekicks. No one was actually hurting each other. No punches were thrown. There was just a lot of shoving and shouting.

Then they were all running, in a pack, shoving and shouting while running. They disappeared behind a building and reappeared a few minutes later, still shoving and shouting. They made a few laps around the building. Shoving and shouting. While the bus driver and all of the approximately fifty million sardine-packed passengers silently, calmly watched.

And then the brawl died down as quickly and mysteriously as it had started. The Agent of Control stepped back onto the bus, a little sweaty and out of breath, got his jacket back, waved goodbye to the bus driver, walked away, and we were on the road. A row of teenage boys in the back of the bus drummed and sang us all the way to Agadir. All in all, not a bad day trip. But seriously… what just happened?? What was that?

Paris, France, February 2012

When the man got on my metro car at Chatelet, he looked like any other Parisian commuter at rush hour. Thirties, short brown hair, glasses, nondescript clothes. He was holding a book. He did not sit down.

He opened the book, delicately cleared his throat, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am going to deliver a poetry reading.”

That’s so nice, I thought. On the Paris metro, it’s not uncommon to hear a musical performance in your subway car, a hat always passed quickly around the car before the next stop. So why not a poetry reading? How artsy and sophisticated. How French. I caught a glimpse of the book’s title. Poesie. Poetry.

The man cleared his throat again and began to read. A few lines in, I wrinkled my brow. What? Did he really just say what I think he just said? He kept reading. Yes he did, he sure did. Ouch, my ears, my ears! This was the dirtiest, most vulgar poem I had ever heard in my life. Thank goodness it was not a long poem.

He looked up. “Which shall I read next, ladies and gentlemen? Page 18 or 43?” He looked around expectantly. I did too, to see everyone else’s reactions. The tourists were chatting with each other in their languages and tuning him out. The French people were pretending he wasn’t there. They didn’t look shocked or offended. Just bored and mildly annoyed. Suddenly he was looking straight at me. “Mademoiselle, what will it be? Page 18 or 43?”

“Euhh… euhh… quarante-trois,” I stammered. What else could I say? Maybe page forty-three would be a poem about, I don’t know, daffodils. But his smile slowly spread into a wicked grin. “Page 43! Excellent choice. Excellent choice.” He flipped the pages. Well, merde.

This poem was, if possible, even more offensive than the last one. And keep in mind I wasn’t even understanding more than half of it because it’s not like they put words like that in high school French textbooks.

“Palais Royal, Musee du Louvre,” announced a female voice over the intercom, and the train slowed to a stop. “Have a lovely evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the man said, and he was gone. But not before I caught another glimpse of the book’s title. Not “poesie.” Pornesie.

Paris, France, January 2010

This one isn’t so much weird as scary. You know how that announcer voice in train stations always tells you to mind the gap between the train and the platform? Well, I was at Gare du Nord and there was a big gap and I didn’t mind it. And I actually fell in. I was carrying heavy suitcases and I lost my balance trying to lift them on the train and… actually, never mind how it happened. I fell in the gap, you guys. This is a real thing that actually happens to people. So, yeah, mind the gap.