Saturday, 27 December 2008

Have Yourself a Foreign Little Xmas

The period between Christmas and New Year is not necessarily a quiet one for a freelance writer. As newspaper staffers go on leave while there's still a daily newspaper to produce, it can be a good time to pick up work.

In previous years I've written during this period for Melbourne's broadsheet daily, The Age. This year, however, I'm tackling a writing assignment for Lonely Planet.

One perennial of the holiday season is people complaining about the holiday season: its commercialism, its tacky muzak, the pressure to shop with crowds and be cheerful about it.

Which puts me in mind of past Xmases and New Year's Eves when we've been overseas, and how refreshing it was to step outside the usual hectic formula and celebrate year's end in a different way.

Some of the most memorable...

Xmas in Cairo, 1992 & 1993.
Christmas in Egypt is naturally low-key, as it's a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic Christian minority celebrate the day in January. This naturally made it far more attractive, as Xmas commercialism was entirely absent. The only glimpse of the Western-style Santa was in the foyers of five-star hotels.

One year we had friends around for Christmas lunch, including Texan fellow English language teacher James (who we referred to as Mr James, after the style of our students) and Mohamed, a local student. One exotic item on the menu was a taste of the Australian yeast-based spread Vegemite, on a piece of toast. It was universally reviled; though as this is the usual reaction to Vegemite from those not raised on it, we weren't disappointed.

Vegemite was, incidentally, one of the items we required from the decadent West whenever someone came to Egypt to visit us. The others were Twinings Earl Grey Tea and Branston Pickle, proof of our Anglophile tendencies.

New Year's Eve in Cairo, 1993. This remains the most impressive New Year's Eve I've ever had. The party was held on a houseboat on the banks of the Nile, bobbing slowly as the music played loudly and guests clambered above and below deck. It belonged to a friend of a friend, and was also home to two fat cats who seemed oblivious of the commotion.

Xmas in Berlin, 1994. We were living in Poland by this time, still teaching English, and had hopped on the overnight train from Kraków to Berlin. It arrived at Lichtenberg station in the former East Berlin, where trains had pulled in from Poland in the communist era, so it was a less than flash entry.

We were staying with fellow members of the Hospitality Exchange, wherein members trade each other free sleeping space when they travel. Our two German hosts had kindly arranged for us to stay in an empty apartment belonging to a friend of theirs, so we slept on a mattress on the floor and placed a gigantic bottle of cheap French wine on the window ledge to be chilled by the snow outside.

As Germans have their main celebration on Xmas Eve, we shared a salmon with the guys that evening. Back in Kraków, we were startled by fireworks being let off prematurely in anticipation of Sylwester - which Poles call New Year's Eve, it being the feast day of Saint Silvester.

Xmas in Kraków, 1993 & 1994. Although Poland is a deeply Christian country, Christmas there was also surprisingly uncommercial (though this may have changed by now). And very authentic to our Australian eyes, with small wooden stalls selling mulled wine around the edge of the snow-covered market square. The snow itself was something we'd only seen briefly once before, in Vienna.

There were other subtle differences. Poles place more weight on St Nicholas' Day, 6 December, when St Nick appears in the garb of a bishop, distributing treats and rewarding good behaviour. Kraków even had a special Xmas tram running the rails, on which St Nick made appearances.

Another difference was its duration. Not much in the way of Xmas decoration appeared before the first week of December, but the celebratory mood carried on to the end of the Epiphany season in January. As a result, it was not unusual for the concert hall to schedule a performance of Christmas carols well into the New Year.

On reflection, what was most enjoyable about these Xmas and New Year celebrations was the removal of the societal pressure to enjoy them in a set way. It's another reminder of something I'm always banging on about - the power of travel to make you see the world through fresh eyes.

What about you? Any memorable festive events overseas?