The yule log sports a cabbage-shaped crater, the result of an impromptu collision during transport. Adults and kids stand around the table, staring at the aberration, and holding their stomach because we cannot stop laughing. Next to the log is the offending vegetable, an enormous cabbage lovingly grown by my auntie. She also spent hours making the traditional Christmas French cake and yet she too is amused by what happened.
She, her husband, and their three children live in the countryside and have traveled two hours to have Christmas lunch with us in Paris. As befits French tradition, they’ve turned up with festive food plus some homegrown produce to share. More than likely, my uncle had to brake unexpectedly because Parisians are notoriously bad drivers. That’s when the cabbage flew and landed on my auntie’s pastry creation and gave it this very unexpected and memorable look.
To make a yule log, you have to bake a Swiss roll then slather it in buttercream before rolling it, hoping it won’t fall apart as you do so. For pastry chefs, it’s a doddle; for home cooks who make it once a year, not so much and many will have go through several tries before getting it right. Into the fridge it goes for a few hours before you decorate it, which also takes some time and creativity; cabbage isn’t generally used.
I have few childhood memories but this is one of my favorite ones, back when our families were unbroken and untouched by tragedy. My uncle would die suddenly a couple of years later, leaving my stay-at-home auntie to raise three young children alone. And then my parents would divorce soon afterward, turning what was already a difficult childhood into hell.
Half a winter coat. All I know is that my mother has decided she will buy exactly half a new winter coat, demanding my father funds the rest. Being a literally-minded kid, I try to imagine what that might look like and who will purchase the left side and who will purchase the right. And what if the coat has only got one pocket, who buys the pocket? Or does one parent buy the hood and sleeves and the other parent the rest of the coat?
Turning this into ridicule and laughing about it quietly in my head is all I can do not to let the toxic pettiness of my parents’ divorce get to me. Or rather, my mother’s resentment toward the man whom she decided to leave, much his combined shock and dismay. There are talks of changing my last name so it’s no longer my father’s, there are talks of preventing him from seeing me, too.
He is persona non grata in our home but today my mother has made an exception. Although Dad is staying in a hotel downtown, he’s having Christmas lunch with us but the atmosphere is strained and uncomfortable. My amusing thoughts only distract me for a few minutes before I burst into tears again. If she could cut me in half and have my father take his half back to Paris, my mother likely would.
In the blink of an eye, the Christmas tree I spent hours decorating takes becomes airborne and comes crashing down in the corner of the room. My husband, it seems, is a first class tosser and this is the penultimate time he will set eyes on me. I’m in tears but I dust myself off, grab the phone, call his parents, and tell them their son will be on his way shortly to join them for Christmas lunch without me.
The moment he leaves, I sit in the corner where the tree isn’t and contemplate the scene; my marriage has just come to an end. And then I call my best friend Anthony to come and get me; he tells me he’ll be there within the hour and he is, forever my guardian angel.
This is the day I move out, only returning to get books, clothes, and a colander several days or perhaps weeks later. I don’t even remember and it no longer matters.
Iam feasting on curious canned fish sandwiches left behind on my friend’s fishing boat by some Scandinavian tourists. Initially objects of curiosity I put into the cupboard with bemusement and forgot about them. I came back from London the day before, I’ve only been living in the Azores for a couple of weeks, my Portuguese is non-existent, and Iforgot to buy groceries because I landed late.
There’s no cable TV so the only channel we get is the local public service one, presciently the news organization I’ll end up working for but I don’t know it yet. For now, I try and focus on the regional president’s Christmas speech and all I can think is how he vaguely resembles a toad. Full of fishy canned rye bread, I’m starting to doze off when a key in the lock startles me, the front door opens, and my landlord appears.
This Mr Burns lookalike rented out the apartment to my housemate Katia and I without ever mentioning he’d be coming by whenever it takes his fancy. His unannounced presence brings out the hostess in me so I make him a cup of tea and offers him a mince pie brought back from England. And then I watch him trying to overcome his disgust and eat it, trying to be gracious yet lascivious at the same time, and failing.
As I place the bottle of homemade plum schnapps in the freezer, I notice with amusement there’s a small fly in it; Petra’s dad distilled it. Petra and I work together for an IT company, as does Mischa, my German boyfriend, and another friend, Rolf, who is coming by later for Christmas lunch. Anthony has driven up from London and is helping me trying to cram a goose into a tiny oven as well as the many side dishes that go with it. I’m not sanguine about the quality of the food but it doesn’t matter; there’s plenty of it and lots of good company so that’s all we need.
Apart from Mischa, Anthony, and I, we don’t really know one another but when I heard Petra and Rolf had nowhere to go, I invited them along. Some presents I had intended for my family whom I won’t see until New Year hastily get rewrapped so everyone receives a little something.
As befits Scotland, we all go down the pub in the evening and have a few pints, more giggles, a bit of a boogie, and we end the days with hugs. Mischa and I break up a few weeks later and Petra moves into the little house above a butcher’s shop across from the ferry terminal with me. The late 90s are a bit of a blur; I relocate from Scotland to Switzerland, Petra goes back to Austria, we meet in London, and then she writes me from California. No idea what happened to Rolf; he’s likely retired by now. Mischa lives in Ireland and has two kids.
Unwrapping the squishy present my friend Alex gave me, I discover a cat-shaped oven mitt with an individual bottle of champagne inside. Only a few hours ago, I was standing in the kitchen of a Lucerne hotel with the chef, briefing him on how to prepare and plate Christmas pudding. The travel company gave every tour director a cardboard box with those plus mince pies inside so our passengers would enjoy a touch of home at Christmas.
Swiss hospitality is second to none; Chef takes it upon himself to make the unsightly dessert look good. “Don’t worry, leave it with me,” he says. When the plates arrive, everyone gasps as the kitchen plated the pudding with great care and creativity. Afterward, it’s time for Secret Santa; we stopped at the famous Christmas market in Strasbourg on the way. I put all our names into a hat including the driver’s and mine after we all agree to get a small present for one random person in the group.
It is Charlotte, our youngest passenger, who delivers the gifts; her grandparents brought her and her dad on the trip so they would be away from home. As her grandmother tells me apologetically when she notices Charlotte holding my hand everywhere, her mom passed away a year ago.
The slap is so strong I flinch; days later, there’s still a huge bruise on my arm, a sign of enthusiasm from my then boyfriend’s mom. I’m the first woman he ever brought home for Christmas and his mother takes it as a sure sign that he’s resolutely heterosexual. For a while, I too buy into the illusion his family has co-opted, with his older sister already hinting at marriage when I already know it will never happen.
Something is amiss and I eventually realize it’s because someone is missing, namely José, my boyfriend’s sidekick. Wherever we go, he comes along; he’s divorced and has no one else to hang out with, or so I’m told and because I’m not at home with island culture, I don’t understand.
And yet, the jokes at work get more and more explicit, with colleagues dropping the word “gay” into conversation more and more often with a wink. My boyfriend is a staunch homophobe with whom I argue endlessly about his habit of disparaging gay folks. “I know my son isn’t a faggot,” his mother will yell at me in public a few weeks after I leave him; I was the last one to find out what everyone knew.
To deal with it, I write a heartfelt newspaper column calling out homophobia; what happens behind closed doors is no one else’s business.
It has been eleven days since Buddy choked on a drop of water, and twelve since I placed the cardboard box containing his lifeless body onto the vet’s slab. Buddy, the cat who vouched for my husband’s heart, had been his feline companion of 21 years; illness denied him death with dignity. My illness that is, not Buddy’s. We’ve been surviving on a single income that never stretches far enough in one of the most expensive cities in the US for a while now. Depression felled me over a year ago; co-pays and deductibles are beyond our means although I have insurance so I cannot get the therapy I need.
My husband is never not overworked or overwhelmed, and pride precludes asking anyone for help; I am never not floundering. Together, we fail Buddy, his demise the harbinger of a future where death will encroach upon my every thought and try to claim me for years, too.
Neither of us has anything to celebrate that year; we sign up Nuna the tabby for pet insurance and treat her to a celebration can of something juicy. Guilt is catnip to depression.
My coffee exits the paper cup that contains it and flies upward into a straight line before crashing against the side of the plane. It splashes the lady sitting in front of me and drenches my sleeve; the purser struggles to wheel the drink cart back to the galley and secure it. Turbulences have everyone hanging on to the armrests and one another, I am traveling alone and have no seat mate.
The short island hop is interminable, deafening, and punctuated by the sound of people being sick into paper bags. For two hours after landing in St Johns, Newfoundland, I will not be able to walk straight as my shaken up brain struggles to readjust to land.
Christmas and Boxing Day are a small hotel room, Scrabble games, naps, cup noodles, and vegan chocolate chip cookies flown in from Seattle, WA. Blizzards make walking around town perilous and painful, and my winter jacket is much, much too short. I can’t afford another.
I look askance at everyone gathered around this makeshift festive table in a garage on the Mountain Island, as Azoreans call Pico. Much to my surprise, they’re all biting into small soft shell crabs, chewing away with delight, and swallowing the lot, claws and all.
Gingerly, I grab the smallest specimen I can find and bring it up to my lips, Frenchly determined to honor the work Lina put into preparing this feast. Like many Azoreans, she is a formidable cook and it is also how she makes a living, as a café owner and caterer serving up Portuguese and Azorean classics.
All eyes are on me, the foreigner with green-blue eyes and a curious accent who fell in love with one of Europe’s most remote outposts and decided to stay. I can feel the corners of my mouth lifting up because the crab is delicious but an unexpected Portuguese family Christmas is even more so.
Crying tears of mirth as I watch a movie while flying between London and Vancouver on Christmas Day, I look around and see all other passengers are still asleep. My cackles haven’t woken them. Quebec has always held a special place in my heart and I’ve just discovered the comic genius of Patrick Huard in Starbuck courtesy of the inflight entertainment system.
By the time I land in Seattle, WA, my suitcase has decided to go on an impromptu holiday without me and I’m so giddy with joy I don’t even care. Plus I packed clean underwear and other essentials in my carry-on anyway, taking my own advice as a former tour director.
The lady behind the airline counter is a little confused by my joyful demeanor but relieved I’m not yet another yeller. “Don’t worry,” I tell her, “I trust the airline will deliver my suitcase when they find it and you have all my details now so it’s all good, really.”
And it is. That Christmas Day in 2011, it is.
Transport strikes have been paralyzing France for the last 13 days now at the time of writing and I’ve been stuck in Picardy since coming back from the Netherlands. I’m staying with my mother. Although my visit was overdue and I kept putting it off, I never intended to stay this long; the impact on my psyche is becoming a little harder to handle by the day.
Days invite random complaining and confrontation; at night, she becomes the plaything of her subconscious. It is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying and there’s nothing I can do but wait for it to pass or put my headphones on and try to placate my brain with music.
I cling to rare and intermittent crumbs of gentleness in pixel and data packets format and spend my days looking forward to a nightly phone call. Portuguese music and words carry me through the day; despite all my efforts and taking on more editorial work, the financials still don’t add up.
Christmas isn’t happening, my family’s only focus being my stepmom’s oncology consultation and chemo treatment on Dec 23. We’re bracing ourselves for an update; whatever happens, life and love will take precedence over everything else.
They always do, even against all odds. Every day with my stepmom since her stage 4 cancer diagnosis last September has been a gift. In our family, it is Christmas every day, no frills necessary.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.