Not Being Home for Christmas – Remembrances of Celebrating Abroad
Being home for Christmas can’t be beat, but there is something to be said about experiencing the holidays in other places as well. Don and I had a last minute opportunity this year to spend Christmas week in Whistler, BC, so instead of shorts and slippers, we were tromping around in puffy mounds of newly fallen snow, and though living in Hawaii is a blessing, a white Christmas is a dream come true. There’s just something about twinkling lights and snow covered trees that turns your thoughts to flying reindeer and portly men in red suits.
Most of our traveling has been during this time of year, which was entirely due to the nature of our business. In the early years we were working ridiculously long and stressful hours, and had come to a point where we knew we needed to do something to decompress. We had two choices, either to check ourselves into the “ funny farm“, or go on vacation. Since it was considerably cheaper to travel, it was pretty much a no brainer. The only time we could afford to be away from the business was the last 2 weeks of the year, so it quickly became a tradition to shut the business down during that period every year, and head out on an adventure. The customer base came to expect it, and planned accordingly, and our employees were home for Christmas with their families, so it actually worked out quite well.
As we were playing in the snow the last few days, we started reminiscing about a few of the really special Christmas’s we’ve had the good fortune to experience, and thought it might be fun to share them. So, if you’re up for a little more holiday fluff, here you go.
Our first far away from home Christmas came as a bit of a surprise. We had spent a little time with a couple that loved to travel, and had learned the in’s and out’s of TWA’s very generous Frequent Flyer program. They both had a 2 for 1 coupon that had to be used by the end of the year, and were looking for two people willing to share the cost to Frankfurt. Needless to say, that was an offer we couldn’t refuse, so we were quickly on our way to Zermatt, Switzerland, Munich, Germany, and Salzburg, Austria, which is where we would be over Christmas. This was back before the Internet, so finding special places to stay was considerably more difficult than it is now, but that was right up Don’s alley. He scoured through travel magazines, searching for those hidden gems, and almost always found them. In Salzburg he had discovered a 19th century mansion that had been converted to a B & B by a local family. We arrived on December 24th, and were escorted to a large ornate room that had a bed as soft as a cloud, and an even larger bathroom with a claw foot bathtub. We were also invited to have dinner with the family as they celebrated on the Eve of Christmas rather than the day. To our amazement, dinner consisted of a 7-course meal with the appropriate spirits between courses, followed by the lighting of the Christmas Trees’ real candles, and the giving of gifts. We were completely overwhelmed, and any loneliness we had been feeling being away from home, was replaced with a sense of gratitude, and the contentment that comes with new found friendships. It was an experience that we’ll never forget.
The next notable Christmas trip was to Italy, and specifically Florence. We arrived in Florence mid-afternoon on the 24th, and had the most incredible lunch you could ever imagine. We then took to the city streets to enjoy the last minute hubbub of holiday shopping, which ended promptly at 6pm. The next morning we had a small continental breakfast at our modest hotel, and excitedly headed out to experience this beautiful city on Christmas. We quickly discovered we were apparently not in Florence, we were in Florenceville, because the streets were bare, and other than an occasional Gypsy, the city seemed abandoned. All doors to stores, restaurants, museums, and even the Duomo were locked tight. As the day wore on and our hunger increased, we looked everywhere for someone serving food, and fortunately fell on a little gelato shop that opened for about 2 hours in the afternoon. Fabulous gelato, by the way, not the best for satisfying a lunch and dinner meal, but it was Christmas, so we knew we could hold out for a day. The next morning after our little breakfast, we headed out again with all the excitement of a dream delayed, and uh oh, we were still in Florenceville. Different day, same deal, nada. At the appropriate time, we headed back to our gelato shop in hopes that we could again count on them to help assuage the hunger pangs, and thankfully they were there. Waking the next morning felt a little like the movie Groundhog Day as we had no idea what was in store, and so for the 3rd day in a row, we crossed our fingers and carefully stepped outside our little hotel hoping we would have finally found our way out of Florenceville. No such luck, and we were scheduled to depart on the train to Venice later that afternoon. Extremely disappointed and with nothing else to do, we walked the streets, as we had the previous days, imagining what wonders lay behind all the locked doors. As it got closer to mid-day, we noticed stirrings in the city, we heard voices, then saw faces, and before long, Florence appeared in all her glory. We had made it back to the light, and with a few hours of discovery left before we had to leave. The first stop was the museum that held Michelangelo’s David (wow was that worth the wait ), and then just enough time for a quick visit to The Uffizi. As we waved goodbye from the train that afternoon, we promised our stomachs that we’d take much better care of them in the future.
It was hard to pick just 3 special Christmas’s, out of a lot of years of travel, but this last one definitely had to make the cut. Don has always been an adventurer, and had decided that he wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Originally, I had no intention of going with him, but as he started finalizing his plans, I started worrying about the potential dangers of him going alone, and so I reluctantly signed on. Getting there was a story in itself, and included, planes, city buses, tour buses, and jeeps. When we finally arrived at the small hotel run by the tour company we had commissioned, we were more than a little concerned with what we had gotten ourselves into. We had one night in the hotel, and then were scheduled to begin the climb first thing the next morning. During the day, it looked like just an old, worn building with sparse furnishings, but at night, hoo boy, there were bugs everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Big bugs, little bugs, flying bugs, crawling bugs, and bugs in every color imaginable. Needless to say, sleep didn’t come easy. Thankful for the morning, we were packed and ready to hit the mountain at the scheduled time, and then we waited, and waited and waited. The man that would end up being our guide came into the company office mid morning in a 3 piece suit and dress shoes, obviously there to collect his pay from a previous trip. As the owner pulled him aside for a quick chat, it soon became evident she was twisting his arm into leading us up the mountain, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. A few minutes later, we were in the jeep with this unfortunate overly dressed man, headed for the local market to pick up the food we’d need for our 5 day climb. We finally reached our starting point well after lunch, and in the pouring rain. It was just a little after dark when we arrived at the first campsite, drenched, cold and starving. Our first dinner consisted of a butter sandwich, watered down broth, and the smallest chicken leg on the face of the planet. The next 4 days included dysentery, kidney issues, major hunger, and really lousy weather, but Don was able to summit, and I made it to the highest camp, so despite everything, we considered the climb a success. When we reached the end of the trail, it was Christmas Day, and the sun had finally come out. There was a small village close by and the children were all dressed in their best clothes for Church, the boys in suits and ties, and the girls in dresses. It was an amazing site to see in an area so remote and so poor. As is customary, we gave away the extra’s we wouldn’t need such as toilet paper, soap, and pens (which we brought especially for the children), and felt like we were giving Santa a hand. It was such a marvelous way to celebrate Christmas, and though I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, I also wouldn’t take anything for it.
Though traveling, especially during the holidays, can be unpredictable, it can also be extremely rewarding. Christmas seems to bring out the best in all of us, and that opens the door for some really special encounters. Maybe next year we’ll stay home for Christmas, but then again, probably not.
Heather M. Spencer
Mission Positive Films