It didn't make sense for me to spend the time and money necessary to go home to my family in Arizona this Christmas, so I stayed in England. Although, of course, I've missed seeing my family (especially the charming 20-month-old, curly-haired nephew who is the natural centerpiece of such occasions), this meant I had the chance to experience a real English Christmas.
Most of my friends are away visiting their own families during the holidays, but my good friend Kristen is from Nottingham so she and I made firm plans to hang out together on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve usually means traveling home for me, and also going to church, having a family meal and playing some fun board games, along the lines of Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico. But Christmas Eve this year meant sleeping in and having a quiet morning to myself, happily watching "Miracle on 34th Street" (the old one) on telly, and then meeting up with Kristen in the early evening. We'd planned to go to the cinema to see a Christmas movie--I'd heard "Four Christmases" was funny, but we decided first to go out to dinner.
So we headed out to Nando's, a tasty little Portuguese chicken restaurant chain that I particularly adore because it has adopted the American tradition of bottomless soft drinks that you help yourself to from a drink dispense in the lobby. That's right, it's just like an American McDonalds...as much Diet Coke as I want, not a little 12-ounce cup, and, more importantly, as much ICE as I want! I am an ice fiend. If I'm going to drink pop (or fizzy drinks, as they call it here), I want a 3/4 ice ratio to 1/4 pop. It just tastes better when it's super cold and filled with clinking ice cubes. I have certainly gotten used to having room-temperature drinks in Europe, even room-temperature sodas, but it doesn't mean I don't prefer the ice when I can get it. So, as a Christmas Eve treat, I heartily enjoyed 2 tall glasses of Diet Coke simply stuffed with ice, as Kristen rolled her eyes and smiled amusedly as one might smile at a small child.
After this rather unorthodox Christmas Eve meal (and my goodness it was tasty), we walked over to the cinema. When we arrived, it turned out that "Four Christmases" had sold out, something I've never seen happen before in England. The only other option was James Bond's "Quantum of Solace," and I love the Bond films, though Kristen's not very keen on them. I begged and pleaded and finally she agreed, so we got our tickets for James Bond. On the way in we passed the very American Ben & Jerry's ice cream stand, and decided that our tummies needed another Christmas Eve treat. I have to admit, though, that "Quantum of Solace" was exceedingly violent (and without the intricate storyline that made "Casino Royale" so fascinating), and that I didn't much want ice cream after a few minutes of blood and car crashes and shots ringing out. "It's a Wonderful Life" it wasn't. However, we still enjoyed ourselves and left the theatre discussing the finer points of the plot, which, admittedly, didn't take very long.
Once we returned to my house, we encountered English Mum and Dad, who were just heading out to sing at the midnight carol service at a local high Anglican church. Kristen asked if I wanted to go and I said, "Well, maybe. What do you normally do on Christmas Eve, though?"
"Me?" she said. "I normally go down to the pub! But maybe we should go to church."
"Nah, let's go to the pub," I said. "We're at church all of the time, including tomorrow, but if I go to the pub on Christmas Eve then that would be a truly English experience."
Who was she to argue with this logic? And so we walked the few blocks to the local pub, a fine establishment packed with neighbors and friends. After greeting the folks we knew (Kristen said occasions like Christmas Eve are always when she catches up with her old school friends, as the best locals still do act as gathering places for the community) we settled ourselves in the corner with a drink each and chatted. After talking for awhile I said, "You know, I've had a lot of fun tonight but it just doesn't feel like Christmas Eve, without stockings and my family and games and stuff. Why don't we tell each other Christmas Eve stories?"
I was sure Kristen would say no, but she quickly launched into a very amusing, spontaneous tale of an English red robin who was stuck in a South American jungle and who needed to find his way back to an English garden so he could be there for all of the Christmas card photo shoots. I was very impressed by her ingenuity and responded with my own inspired tale of Blinky the Christmas Ornament, who was a defective bauble that didn't glow like his other brothers and sisters in the ornament factory--or at least not until he got swept out to sea, swallowed by a fish, and caught by a kind fisherman and son who found him inside the fish, fixed his wiring, and hung him on the little tree in their windswept cottage.
We walked back home through the neighborhood streets slowly, pausing to look at all of the Christmas trees shining through the big windows. Then she said goodnight and headed back to her own family, and I crawled into bed, with visions of James Bond and Top Model Red Robins dancing in my head.
My British friends and I stayed in a seaside hotel in the city's European quarter, which sounds very grand and was still nice, despite the fact that the hotel was getting run down, the beach was covered in rubbish and broken glass, and there was no hot water. But it was just an easy walk down the pier out into the Sea of Marmara to see this everyday:
Or, I could look out my hotel window every morning and see this (or be awakened by the 6.15 am call to prayer!):
Of course, it wasn't all scenic sites. There were plenty of reminders that we were staying in a country that's less developed than many of its Western neighbors, like this road outside the hotel:
and also the sewage treatment plant across the street from our hotel, which not only smelled but featured the strange and amusing sight of these tractors lined up by size order:
My tourism highlight was probably visiting the Hagia Sophia, one of the world's first churches that then served for 500 years as a mosque before being turned into a museum. Not only is the history fascinating (the original building was erected by Emperor Constantine after he made Christianity the state religion in 312 AD), but the third and current Hagia Sophia, dating to the 6th century, is a stunning example of Byzantium architecture. I found it particularly fascinating to note how Arabic and European design dovetailed in its construction, noticing themes similar to Arabic palaces I visited in Spain, as well as themes that turn up in Western Europe's great cathedrals.
It was difficult, of course, to take good photos inside the building, but here is a shot from the second floor that demonstrates some of the architecture and fresco work. More follow, and I also recommend visiting the Web site linked to above for a better look at the building.
I returned late Saturday night from a weeklong holiday to Istanbul, Turkey, where I headed with several friends. It was a busy and crazy week, as we were looking after other friends' children as well as touring the city ourselves, but we had a fantastic time.
We flew from Birmingham, England to Zurich, and then from Zurich on to Istanbul, and flying over the snowy Swiss and Italian Alps was simply stunning. So was looking down on Croatia and other far Eastern European countries. As we neared Istanbul we were covered in cloud, but as soon as the plane dipped below the clouds all of us gasped--we were hovering above a shimmering sea that was illuminated by the setting sun and punctuated with very Middle Eastern-looking islands jutting out into it. We were over the Sea of Marmara, or Marble Sea (so named for the marble deposits within it) and that sense of having magically entered another land stayed with us all week.
It stayed with us when we arrived at the very nice looking but not quite Western hotel, where the hot water never worked and where the Turkish staff seemed less than thrilled by our presence. It stayed when we were awoken at 6.15 each morning by the recorded muezzin, a voice singing a call to prayer from the mosque on the hill across the road from the hotel (and just beyond the sewage treatment plant whose fumes emanated unpleasantly with that of other guests' cigarette smoke). It stayed during our hard but fun work of hanging out with kids and eating elaborate meals of salads, olives, fresh breads, soups and stews in the hotel dining room, and when we toured Old Istanbul, seeing sights like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar. We even felt it when we ventured down the road our hotel was on, searching for fun but encountering nothing more exciting than a pack of wild dogs who were hiding in the bushes next to the sidewalk. (They just stuck their heads up out of the leaves and looked at us, nothing too frightening, though a few of my friends were terrified--I have run across far more people in England who are scared of dogs than I ever knew in America. I don't know why).
The whole week was like being in a truly exotic land. At the moment I'm a coughing, snivelling, sore-throateded mess--the victim of too much excitement and not enough rest over the last few weeks, I fear, but tomorrow I'll post photos and stories. It was a fantastic experience.
Despite the lack of hot water and other difficulties, nobody wanted to come home. On our return flight we stopped again in Zurich, and were charmed by the newly snow-covered Alpine villages we flew over. There was some talk about "accidentally" missing our connecting flight and renting an Alpine cabin through Christmas, but in the end we resignedly boarded our plane back to England and landed in foggy, rain-soaked Birmingham a few hours later. It was quite a come down, I must admit, but our Istanbul journey made even the anti-climactic return home worth it.
I felt that after waxing eloquent in my last post about the way Brits do up Christmas, I had to follow up by posting a few photos from the church party. It was quite the festive affair with 700 guests, a flame thrower stationed at the entrance next to the fake snow machine, a hog roast, 2 "snow princesses" walking around on stilts and dressed in long silvery gowns, a live band and party games.
Yesterday afternoon I had several appointments in the city centre and enjoyed walking constantly through Market Square and enjoying the glitter of the lights, the giant tree, the ice skating rink and the pervasive festive atmosphere.
Tomorrow I head off to Istanbul for a week--we'll see if there's a Christmas spirit there! Somehow I don't think it'll be quite the same as in this Christmas-mad land.
Volunteers spent dozens of hours cutting out and crafting the paper stars. Imagine that tree behind it with the lights turned on, as well. (This was taken a few hours before the party started).
My "English sister" Julia and I are quite happy to dance the night away. It was all preparation for the next night, when I threw her an American-style bachelorette party, complete with silly bridal shower games like dressing up girls in wedding dresses made from toilet paper. The night ended with dancing and singing along to the film version of "Mamma Mia!" They loved it! (Around here a "hen do" generally involves dressing in silly costumes and going out for a night or even a weekend on the town, but Julia's guests were charmed by this simple but very fun party at the house).
One thing I noticed last year was that the Brits love Christmas. And notice I wrote "Christmas," not "the holidays" or "this festive season."
Despite the fact that less than 10 percent of Britons regularly attend church, the country is still culturally tied to its religious heritage, even as minority religions like Islam and Hinduism rapidly increase along with the immigrant population. It was a British monarch who invented Protestantism, after all, even if Henry VIII had less-than-pious reasons for doing so. It's a land where Christian presentations are welcomed and even encouraged in most state schools, and where one of the year's biggest holidays, the 5th of November (or Bonfire Night), came about because of religious tensions, albeit religious tensions deeply intertwined with politics. Therefore the British aren't at all shy about wishing one another a hearty "Merry Christmas!" at the shop or referring blithely to their children's "upcoming Christmas holidays." There's none of that Happy Holidays or Winter Break business here.
Although I am a Christian who celebrates Christmas instead of one of the other winter holidays, I was a bit taken aback last year when I first experienced these full-on Christmas celebrations. The Christmas preparations actually start in early autumn, when pubs and restaurants begin advertising their premises as places to host the office Christmas party. I clearly remember taking a bus trip to the Peak District with two friends on Nov. 3, 2007, and how one of them whiled away the hours by asking, "So, what is your favorite Christmas tradition?" As it happened, I spent last Christmas with my family in Arizona and the New Year in Chicago, where I was in a friend's wedding. This year, however, I'm spending Christmas Eve and Day with my "English family" before heading off to visit friends in Northamptonshire, London and possibly even Cambridge the rest of the holiday.
This year I was more prepared, and I am happy to embrace the Christmas spirit that seems to have danced right off the pages of a Dickens novel. Allright, I thought it a bit ridiculous when the hardware/drug store Wilkinson's started playing the National British Christmas Anthem "All I Want for Christmas is You," by Mariah Carey (I'm telling you, they adore this song with a burning passion), on Nov. 1. And that was the same week they hung the Christmas lights in Nottingham's Market Square, but I guess since that was when Starbucks started offering their Christmas drinks specials that it was all justified, really. However, I've found myself throughly in the Christmas spirit already. After doing my expat duty by tucking into two Thanksgiving dinners, I was ready to play the Chrismtas music, think about shopping, and visit the very charming German Christkindel market in Market Square, which isn't quite as slick as Chicago's version but seems to have more real Germans in attendance.
The festive spirit has been flowing more and more freely around Trent Vineyard, the Nottingham church I serve at, this week, and it's all culminating into an apex of Christmas joy right about now. That's because a dedicated crew of about 50 has spent two days transforming our main meeting area/auditorium into a winter wonderland in preparation for this evening's annual Christmas party.
700 people have bought tickets for the big event, which features a hog roast, bar, live soul/funk band, games, dancing and festive fun. For days my friends Jen and Ruth, who are running the affair, have been making elaborate paper snowflakes to hang from the ceiling, and this morning a group of 10 spent over an hour stacking hundreds of mini chocolate yule logs and tiny mince pies on platters. Right now I'm sitting at my desk working on plans for next week's trip to Istanbul so I can't join in the decorating fun, but frequent snatches of Christmas music waft in each time a friend opens the door to pay a visit (and when she stays to exclaim in girly fashion over the party dress I hung up next to me as the sole man in the office rolls his eyes). One of our senior pastors just excitedly ran a power cord through the office window near me to an outlet (called a socket here) and attached the other end to the fake snow machine just outside the window. Those of us actually inside the office are having fun playing God by turning the machine on and off at random.
Tomorrow night I'm running an American-style bachelorette party for my housemate and "English sister" Julia, who's having a Christmas wedding, and then on Sunday it's the church's two carol services, with an expected attendance of about 1,600. This is all marvelous fun, but the thing I don't really understand is why it's all happening so soon. It's only the beginning of December, for crying out loud. There are still 20 whole days until Christmas! What are we going to do the rest of the month?
But that's just the American Grinch in me talking, and he's fast being swallowed up by the reborn character of the very-English Mr. Scrooge. Just give me a few days, and I'll be running out onto the street beaming at passersby and shouting, "Merry Christmas, dustman! Merry Christmas, noisy bus driver! Merry Christmas, drunk university student! Merry Christmas, little old lady in a plaid skirt! It's Christmas! Merry Christmas, everyone!"
Of course there's plenty of bad stuff going on in these times--just as there in in all times--but it's a good era to be an American living overseas. I find myself amazed, from time to time, just how simple it is for me to live in England, and I've just had another moment of extreme gratitude for the technology of our age.
Not only can I bank online with the same account I had in Chicago, share photos online, order Christmas presents that are conveniently shipped to family back home online, conduct business through an online (voice over Internet protocol) telephone number, and even read favorite books online that were simply too heavy to carry overseas ... I can see my family online!
For my birthday my parents sent me a Webcam (well, they went online and ordered one from an English Web site that they then had shipped to me). I was initially excited before realizing that it was more a present to them than to me--after all, I pointed out, they'd be able to see me during free online video conversations, but I wouldn't be able to see them. Good point, they agreed, so as an early Christmas present my parents went out and bought a Webcam not only for themselves, but also for my brother and sister-in-law. Yesterday we all installed our Webcams and downloaded Skype and, before I knew it, I was talking to my parents in their Mesa, Arizona home! Or that's how it felt, anyway.
I could see the very familiar house and ask about why the table behind them, for example, was covered with rocks (for one of my mother's art teacher projects). I was able to see the new family puppy, and even hold up my English family's two cats so the three pets could meet (all three quickly wriggled out of our respective arms and ran away for far more interesting pursuits). My grandparents came over to my parents' house during this conversation, so they sat in front of the computer along with my parents and we all chatted. In fact, at one point my scientist grandpa wandered over to the table of rocks and began examining them (he is an amateur geologist) and I was able to interrupt the conversation with the witty observation, "Hey, I see Grandpa is being true to form and looking at rocks." It was almost like being there, to see what was going on behind the conversation. They, in turn, got to meet my "English mum" and "English dad", who joined me in our Nottingham kitchen to chat for a few minutes.
This afternoon I was working away on a newspaper article when all of a sudden my computer started ringing! I clicked on the tab to answer and it was my sister-in-law, who was sitting in front of her computer holding my 16-month-old nephew! It was so fun to catch up with her and also talk to her son, who was very interested in that person on the screen who knew his name. He kept squealing and pointing to me, even waving and showing me (on his mama's cues) his teeth, nose, ears and other intriguing body parts that he's recently learned to identify.
My nephew trots happily from the living room, toys in hand. (What's the point of having a blog if you can't post annoyingly cute kid photos from time to time?)
The little guy got very excited when I held the cats up again (who are beginning to run away from me with more and more alacrity each time I reach for them whilst sitting in front of my computer) and even told me what he'd had for breakfast ("nanana" and "ereal"). He then started bringing his new toys in from the living room to show them to me. After he got bored, my sister-and-law and I enjoyed some girl talk, and while I was telling her about the dress I hoped to wear for an upcoming Christmas party, she said, "Hey, you could try it on right now and show me!" So I ran upstairs, got the dress and wriggled into it, then turned and spun in front of my computer for her opinion. I even took her on a tour of my English house, holding my laptop in one hand and Webcam in the other as I walked around all of the rooms and pointed out favorite features, including my "shrine" to my nephew (really a bedroom windowsill covered with his photos).
This is very fun. Technology like this bridges the thousands of miles between my family and me in a wonderful way. I'll say it again. It's a great time to be alive.