Family Lines

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Month: December 2012

Happy New Year’s from Germany

The view from the Freiburger Münster, a big medieval church, in Freiburg, Germany.

The view from the Freiburger Münster, a big medieval church, in Freiburg, Germany.

In 1993 I spent part of New Year’s Eve in a small mountain town near the Black Forest in Germany. The other part of the night I spent in a hospital. It was an evening to remember although not one of revelry.

I was in Germany for two weeks visiting my friend who was attending the University of Freiburg on an exchange program through Acadia University. I was in my fourth year at Acadia and feeling rather provincial so I went to visit Digger.

My flight to Europe left Halifax on Christmas Day (flights were cheaper on December 25.) The plane went from Nova Scotia to Amsterdam, where I waited in the airport for seven hours because I was afraid if I went sightseeing I would miss my connection. That flight was on to Mulhouse, France, the closet airport to Freiburg. After landing and picking up my baggage at the terminal I was given the option of entering either France or Switzerland. Oh oh. Which country did Digger say she was going to meet me?

This was before 9/11 so security was rather lax and I had no trouble walking into Switzerland. When I looked over to France, there was Digger waiting for me. I just had to walk back through to the other side.

Once we got to Germany we did a lot sightseeing around Freiburg, a beautiful town that had white Christmas lights and other elegant festive ornaments all over the streets and houses. We also climbed the many icy stone steps of the Freiburger Münster (a big medieval church) and ate lots of pretzels and Berliners, the jelly donut John F Kennedy made famous. The highlight of the week was going to be a rocking New Year’s Eve party where Klaus, Digger’s German boyfriend, would be playing with his band.

On Dec. 29 we got all dressed up and climbed in Klaus’ shaky olive green car for the ride to the party. I was excited to be going to an event with new people. Maybe some cute guys would be there too.

It was dark out during the drive so I didn’t get to see any of the German countryside. I knew we were going up and up in elevation though. In about an hour we arrived at a small community hall not unlike ones in Canada.

While Klaus set up his drum kit Digger and I got a glass of wine and some snacks. However, not even 15 minutes later Digger started to feel sick. Sick enough we had to leave the party filled with interesting looking people (cute guys) and drive straight to a hospital.

As soon as we walked into the hospital I started to feel ill too. I had drunk only one small glass of wine but it really affected me. Maybe it was the altitude but I felt like I had finished off the whole bottle.

“Excuse me,” I muttered, putting my hand over my mouth while I ran around searching for the first bathroom I could find. Man, I was not feeling well.

I threw up all over the restroom. All over it. I painted the town red but in a different way. When I emerged from the toilet I felt a lot better but Digger and Klaus were nowhere to be found

I attempted my poor German on hospital staff but no one knew what I was talking about. So what do you do when you’re half cut and lost in a foreign country? Call your parents.

“Are you drunk?” they asked.


They advised me to sit down and stay in one spot. To wait. I followed their instructions and slumped down by the hospital door. It was an entertaining place to be.

I watched a steady stream of people come in with all sorts of injures. Cuts, scrapes, bruises – one young man was clutching his blood-covered head and moaning. Wonder what happened to him?

When midnight chimed the only way I knew it was the new year was because all the nurses and doctors came out into the hall with champagne (or sparkling juice?) and said “Happy Silvester!”

Happy New Year to you too.

I’m not sure how long after that, maybe five minutes, maybe longer, Digger and Klaus popped out of one of the rooms. She had had an allergic reaction to something but was fine now. It was 1994 and time to go home.

Searching for Santa Claus

Family_Lines_SantaSanta Claus was not part of my family’s Christmas. My parents decided they wanted the birth of Christ as the main focus of the holiday and not Jolly Old Saint Nick. Which was fine by me until I went to school.

When the festive season rolled around all the kids started talking about Santa Claus. Of course I knew who he was but still, I couldn’t believe that my classmates believed in such a thing. And I told one or two so. Yes, yes I did kill Santa for them I do hope they don’t hold any resentment towards six-year-old me. Because even I thought maybe, just maybe, my parents might be wrong and Santa might actually exist.

On Christmas morning I still got presents under the tree, lots of them. But they were signed “Love mum and dad.” Although I knew who had given me the gifts, there was an inkling of doubt. Maybe there really was a man who went around the world delivering presents via shooting down a chimney. We did have a chimney. Santa could use it to get to our tree. I had seen Santa at the mall before. He seemed ok with his big bushy white beard and comfy cozy looking red suit. Perhaps I should leave out some cookies and milk for this guy.

One Christmas eve I did wait up for Santa. I stayed awake so long my parents went to sleep. Then I quietly got my of bed and softly put one foot in front of the other and walked down the hardwood stairs to the landing. Here there was a small window that I could reach.

I can’t remember what I saw when I looked outside but it wasn’t Santa Claus.

I went back to bed and woke up Christmas morning. It was still a magical and majestic day despite the absence of Mr. Claus. Besides, he had too many kids to worry about anyway. I was one less.

Christmas in South Korea

 A student of  my in Korea.

Hans, one of my students in Puyo, South Korea.

One of my first Christmases away from my family was when I was teaching English in South Korea. It was 1997 and the Korean currency, the won, had fallen. I wasn’t making any money, but I was getting rich in experiences.

I was living on my own in Puyo, a rural town. I didn’t know many people and had been only there just over a month and a half. It was a lonely time and one I wouldn’t wish to relive but glad I went through it.

The lead-up to Christmas in Puyo wasn’t too bad. They didn’t go all out with decorations and blasting carols in shops. There were a few festive baubles hanging from a supermarket window but that was it. I also had to work during the day on Christmas Eve, which was different from what I was used to in Canada. However, this made things easier: I didn’t miss my family so much when it didn’t feel like Christmas.

But on Christmas Eve there was no escaping it. I love December 24 because it’s low-key and family-centred. No opening gifts, no gorging on a lavish feast – yet early enough that no feelings of sadness that Christmas was coming to an end. Christmas Eve is special to me because it’s the day before the flurry of activities. The 24th is for taking in everything and relaxing with loved ones.

We always head to church for the Christmas Eve service. Dad always makes us go super early so we have seats together. Then we sing carols and afterwards eat perogies, cabbage rolls and chicken wings and play board games.

I was missing this in Korea. But I could at least go to church. I did and sang many of the same Christmas hymns we sing in Canada. (Except I have trouble remembering lyrics so I sang the same line over and over again.)

After church I went out for a drink with my fellow teacher and roommate, Sun-yee. We had the best octopus ever that night too. It was so spicy I could hardly eat it but I kept putting it into my burning mouth. I went to bed trying not to think when I woke up it would be Christmas.

Christmas dawned and I slowly got up. Korea is 12 hours ahead of Nova Scotia so I called my parents on their Christmas Eve. It made me sad I wasn’t at home but I knew they were missing me too.

I had the day off from school and not much to do. I chose to go exploring. That’s what I did most weekends in Korea. I walked and walked and walked and walked. Covering many kilometres, discovering back roads leading to beautiful temples, acres of rice fields and a bridge over a quiet stream with a black goat tied under it. (There were no trolls).

I took lots of photos that day. None of anyone opening presents or stockings. I was OK — until I went into a favourite shop to get a treat. The store was playing Christmas music and the song bore a hole into my heart. I was going to cry if I didn’t get out of there.

I paid for my treat (probably a sweet bean bun) and left. When I called my parents again that evening it was their Christmas morning. I think I cried this time.

This would be the Christmas that lasted three days for me. The next morning, Boxing Day, was Christmas night at home. I didn’t feel too terrible that morning since it was back to work for me. Phew. Finally, something to take my mind off Christmas.

Oh ugly Christmas tree

Christmas tree.

My current Calgary Christmas tree, which is artificial. No tromping through the forests to find this one.

Since my husband and I live in a smaller apartment in Calgary we don’t have room for a large Christmas tree. Instead, we have a tiny artificial one that we hang lights on and a few decorations that will suffice for now. Still, I can’t help but remember the “grand” trees my family put up during the festive season in Nova Scotia.

Grand doesn’t connote beautiful or even nice. To me, the grandness of our tree came from how we festooned it with holiday trimmings from years gone past and adorned it with a mixture of handmade and store bought items. Grandness means how we picked it to have the place of honour in our home.

Living in the country we had tons of firs to choose from to chop down. But we never did find a tree on our own land. My mother would stay home to keep our wood stove burning while me, my father and two sisters drove up the road about 10 minutes to a neighbour’s to tromp through his property. One winter there was lots of snow and we hiked up to our knees looking for the perfect tree.

We never could find the unblemished, lush and full, fit for a king one. Trees were either too tall or too small or too wide or too narrow. My father and I would always feel sorry for the uglier trees, the ones who had a few branches sticking out here and there and not much else. My sisters always wanted the prettier trees, the ones that were shaped most like a Christmas tree and the best choice out of the bunch. Often we went with something in between.

Once the tree was hewed we put it on the toboggan and dragged it from its forest home and into ours. Once it was standing tall and proud in the living room the lights were hung on it. That was me and my dad’s job. Forget the posh all white lights, we’re an inclusive all-colours family. Then came the decorations.

We all had a hand in hanging the ornaments. My sisters and I each have our own box of decorations containing Christmas crafts we made back in elementary school. One of my chef d’oeuvre is a white cardboard stocking wrapped in green and red yarn. The glue has come off after many, many years and it looks nothing like a wool sock now. Still, this youthful expression of a Christmas craft still hung on the poor tree like a masterpiece. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.



Clichés and stereotypes

Wedding dress.I’ve been teaching a short story life writing workshop at the Kerby Centre, an older adults’ activity hub. For our sixth class, we talked about avoiding  clichés and stereotypes in our memoirs. So instead of using a banal phrase such as “calm before the storm” or “crazy as a loon” — force your mind into different ways of describing  things.

We each got a cliché and had 15 minutes to write something new. Guess this cliché:

She never had THE ring. She never had a proposal. She never had a man bend down on one knee and ask if she wanted to be his wife.

She never had the joy of picking out a beautiful lace white dress with fancy bows on it. She never had a chance to be a Mrs.

But she did have the chance to help her sister Jill, her friends Delilah and Beth and even her fat cousin Tamara make their journey down the aisle. All the while she was stuffed into the ugliest, most uncomfortable dresses. She felt so unattractive next to those blushing brides and wondered if she would ever be one too.

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