‘Twas the night before Christmas

24 12 2008

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds…

Our first Christmas Eve in Spain was a mere five months after arriving.  We had gone to bed at “normal” hour – the just barely one year old and the two and a half year old asleep.  We hadn’t purchased a bed for ourselves yet and were using a two-seater foam couch that flopped down on the floor to make a bed.  

All I remember is being startled awake by an incredible racket at around midnight. The neighbors upstairs were banging on the radiators which sent the sound waves right down the wall to where are heads were.  Then people shouting and the sound of a million fireworks.  “‘Twas the night before Christmas” poem only works in some cultures.  What was going on?

Well, stupid American…it was Christmas.  By the following year, I’d gathered enough cultural cues to understand what surrounded one of the most important nights of the year – Noche Buena.  Families gather around the table starting at 9 p.m. or so for a spectacular feast…eat for two or three hours and wait for the magic hour of midnight.

Many will then gather to go to midnight mass.  The world is awake. There are no children all snug in their beds.  At least not for a couple of more hours.  And you quickly learn that you should not be making much noise on Christmas morning till well into the afternoon.  

It took a number of years for us to be comfortable in our own space where those two cultures collide.  We started doing a rather elaborate fondue soirée gathering a number of ex-pat family and friends to make it “feel” right. Then after a long time of fighting over who’s fork was who’s in the pot, we’d gather to listen to some special books and stories we had collected. Any time we were in the States, more tomes would be hunted for the Christmas collection.  

It all worked there.  Once we got back to the States, it started to feel strange to keep some of these traditions.  There is such a thing as reverse culture shock.  The time to adjust in and out of cultures is in proportion to the time spent in the “new” culture. Maybe because we are in yet another “new” culture that I am struggling.

A culture of a widowed mother, a married daughter who now has to adjust to her own “new” set of in-law traditions and expectations and on and on it goes.  Life is neither static – nor predictable.

Here we are – not even sure we will be able to travel to see my mom tomorrow. They are calling for another 3″ today and another 3″ tonight. Right now there has a been a warm up and it’s raining and everything is all heavy, melty and very slick.

It is a special day but a day nonetheless.  Having a loving family – gathered or not on this day or tomorrow – is enough.  After all, isn’t Christmas really about someone being out of their element?

who doesn’t…?

14 09 2008

It’s early evening on a rainy Sunday and of course, the boy says he needs some chocolate chip cookies and an ounce of guilt goes a long, long way.  When I’m here, it’s good to cook or bake just to re-establish my presence.  In my house, this standard American cookie is loved by one and all.  If ten people were polled – how many do you think would say these are one of their favorites?

As standard as this cookie is – I’m always surprised by the subtle variations in the recipe from house to house.  Some are more perfectly formed.  Some softer, chewier…others crispy and oddly shaped.  But everyone seems to be reading from the back of the same package and putting things together basically in the same order.  Some stay on the cookie sheet to cool, some cool on tin foil, some on wire racks.  How hard can this be?

There have been times in my cookie baking history that I have followed the directions to the letter of the law and they have been a total flop.  Was it the oven?  Was it the flour?  Which was the evil ingredient?  Just as many times as that has happened – they have come out unbelievably delicious while maybe skimping on something that was in short supply.  Maybe its just these magical marvels.

When we lived in Spain, packages of chocolate chips would line empty crevices of any suitcase that was bound for our apartment – our own suitcases, any family members coming to visit, or any friend or acquaintance we had any remote contact with could be talked into being a mule.  We couldn’t buy them in any store.  Most wives there don’t bake things like cookies at home so it was quite the novelty for birthday parties and other social gatherings.

There would always be a critical moment when someone would turn up their nose up at one of our precious cookies.  How could they NOT like a chocolate chip cookie?  It was unheard of  – bizarre – irrational.  Then I’d get some cultural clarity and realize even these little cookies were a totally American taste…and guess what?  The rest of the world is not under obligation to like chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter or blue kool-aid for that matter no matter how much MY kids liked those things or how novel they seemed to us.

Cookie cutter people don’t exist either- nor do perfect chocolate chip cookies that are palate perfect for global consumption.  In our homes little things make us who we are – whether we are extremely active or couch potatoes, book readers or movie watchers, neat freaks or comfortably unconcerned about perfection – they are all the bits and pieces that make us who we are.  And once we’re “formed”- it doesn’t mean that we are going to be loved by everyone either – sometimes it’s an acquired taste. 

Billy always thought that chocolate chip cookies would be the perfect cookie without the chocolate chips.  “Too sweet for me,” he’d say, “too sweet for me.”