Advertisements
Archive | Christmas RSS feed for this section

Christmas memories

18 Dec
18 December 2017
It’s been fully seven years since we last spent Christmas in our own home in the U.S. As I decorated the house, purchased gifts, and wrapped the presents, I have been reflecting on prior Christmases from when I was a child, from young adulthood, and over the 33 Christmases that Ric and I have been together.

My first Christmas, 1953, pictured with my big brother, Rick, and our dachshund, Peter, at Grandma & Grandpa’s house.

My earliest memories of Christmas are from about 1957 or 1958. Before that, I have only photos to tell me a little about our holidays.  What I do remember vividly: tangerines in the toes of our stockings (whoever thought that was what a kid wanted to find?); a flocked tree with silver & gold decorations (very modern! 1960?); tinsel on Grandma’s tree; an eggnog and cookie sugar high on Christmas morning while we opened presents; my parents’ insane tradition of inviting a few dozen friends and neighbors for a Christmas Day breakfast buffet of Swedish pancakes and sausage. I am certain my mother hated that stress and workload, but Dad was a real entertainer. Perhaps one reason their marriage failed eventually.

Also from 1953, my first visit to Santa at about age 10 months with brother Rick.

Swedish traditions ran through our celebrations. Our grandparents were all born in Sweden so their foods were the building blocks of the Christmas Eve feast. Swedish sausage, rutmus (a questionable concoction of rutabagas and mashed potatoes), sometimes the vile lutefisk, always limpa rye bread. And those lovely, delicate Swedish pancakes along with julekaka on Christmas morning.
My mother used to make dozens of complicated and delicate cookies every year. Several nights during the season she would come home from work and spend hours over such delicacies as sandbakkelse, pepparkakor, krumkake, rosettes, fattigman, and spritz, as well as Mexican Wedding cookies. All were stored in boxes in the hall closet which we dared not touch without permission. They were for Christmas, not before! We were only allowed to eat the broken and less-than-perfect specimens.

Classic family picture, probably for the Christmas card, in 1964. Brother Rick, sister Nancy, and me. And another flocked tree!

I cannot make many of these cookies. I never mastered the delicate touch required for Sandbakkelse or pepparkakor and my spritz took on demented forms although I can turn out a decent krumkake. Mom would be appalled to find that IKEA sells a pepparkakor to rival hers, albeit without the tiny almond slivers.
For many years I made limpa and julekaka but that has faded away except for the odd year I make these breads as house gifts. (Invite me over and I just might bless you with one!)
Some years our decorations were extensive and some not. Once I wrapped several large framed pieces of art with Christmas red foil wrap and white ribbon. One year I used fabric as gift wrap. My Martha Stewart moments. By contrast, when we were waiting for our house to be built, living in a temporary apartment with three cats and a gigantic collie, all of our Christmas stuff was in storage as our house was supposed to be ready by early December. Apartment bound, we had an evergreen in a pot on our patio that we strung with lights and a single red candle on the mantle.

That’s me, front-and-center, with the 1970 Santa Lucia candidates at out Swedish Lutheran church, Gustavus Adolphus.

For many years there was a nativity, but eventually, so few pieces remained unbroken it was discarded. When Derek was little he liked to hang “Herk” on the roof of the manger shed. You know, “Herk, the herald angel” from the carol.
The church was a big part of the holidays until we became rather “unchurched” (Lapsed Lutheran here). 11:00 pm services on Christmas Eve, Sunday School pageants, choir concerts, and Advent wreaths. In 1970 I was a candidate for the Lucia Queen at our Swedish Lutheran Church in St. Paul. Didn’t get crowned, though. Mom said, “They gave it to the rich girl.”
Many holiday seasons were spent working in retail, which can ruin Christmas for you if you aren’t careful. My high school and college jobs were in retail but luckily back then stores were not open extended hours like today. We still closed at 21:00 and Sundays were Noon-17:00. When Ric and I had a retail store, it was so overwhelming at Christmas that I barely remember having a tree one year.

Derek, 1977. So sweet!

Then there was the year we almost killed Mom. Our mother worked hard as a nurse for 44 years. Often she was stuck working Christmas Eve or Day. One year she was quite unhappy because my brother and his wife were not going to be able to travel to St. Paul for the holiday. After work on Christmas Eve, she was invited to my house after so she could be a guest and not the hostess. She came in from the cold Minnesota evening, her glasses fogging up, and much to her surprise my brother bellowed out “Merry Christmas.” She dropped everything she had in her hands and burst into tears. I thought she was going to keel over from the surprise. That was a good Christmas.
Our entire family lived in Minnesota when I was a child and young adult but eventually dispersed as careers and marriages took my siblings, cousins, and me to other states. Inevitably we would forget who-was-where for what holiday. My mom and I would argue about where we were the prior Christmas or Thanksgiving, and we would forget who-gave-what-to-whom as a gift. In order to stop the arguments short in 1980 I started keeping a holiday journal with all the relevant details. Many years I have whipped out that journal to solve a dispute or remind myself what had happened.
As youngsters and up until I was 30, we always gathered with our maternal cousins for the big holidays. Some years there were 15-20 people and no one had a very big house. Everyone brought part of the dinner so no one had to do everything. I remember a lot of fun, warm, wonderful gatherings as our cousins were practically siblings to us.

Ric’s sister and her family invaded Omaha for the holiday in 1985. We still talk about how much fun we had!

In the 33 years Ric and I have been together the cast of characters at the table have changed. Parents and my sister have passed away, cousins live far away. Our Oregon years have seen gatherings of friends and neighbors as well as a few holidays we spent alone by choice at the coast.
Our time in Rome was a huge change. We often traveled over Christmas enjoying winter wandern in the mountains or holiday lights in Paris and London. Last year we were freeloading at Derek’s while house hunting but enjoyed a traditional holiday in Durango, CO, with my brother and sister-in-law. A very white and merry holiday indeed!

Christmas Eve 2008, >8 inches of snow kept everyone from leaving the ‘hood.

On the other hand, Christmas 2008 sticks in memory due to the horrific weather we endured for a week. Day-after-day it snowed, cars got stuck, the airport shut down, offices closed. Living at 750 feet above sea level, my car was frozen to the driveway for eight days. I spent six hours getting home from work via public transportation on the 23rd. Our friends could not get to us for Christmas festivities and our neighbors could not leave the ‘hood. We pooled our resources, with Scott bringing 2 magnums of fine Australian Syrah while Ric, Derek, and I cooked a beef short-rib dinner. The weather was awful and inconvenient but we relish the memories of that holiday.
Bone-chilling cold is also a memory of Minnesota Christmases. For several years I held an open house on the Sunday before Christmas and I remember one year that it was so cold that when we got home from church that morning the toilets did not function. I am not certain how I got them working. Luck, I guess, because the party went on. One year I got drunk on Swedish glogg at my own open house. Heating it up does not really kill the alcohol. My sister poured me into bed and did all the cleanup.

Santa takes his dinner break at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milano in 2015.

Bless all of you who plan ahead and send out hand-addressed Christmas cards every year. It is a tradition that I have let slip completely. I have embraced e-cards, which I know do not offer the same personal connection. I remember my mom, when not laboring over her cookie hoard, spending evenings sitting at a card table in the living room writing notes in cards, addressing them by hand, and carefully recording in her book who she had sent a card to and who she received them from. If she did not get a card from someone for two-or-three years, she dropped them from her list. Does anyone do that anymore? Track the giving and receiving of cards?

Ric and I at a mountain rifugio above Italy’s Val Gardena for Christmas Eve lunch.

Oh, so many more things come to mind as I write this! My Barbie Dream House from Santa in 1962; Going to our favorite Grandma’s on Orange Street in St. Paul with all of the cousins (how did we all fit in that tiny one-bathroom house?); Rushing home from church on Christmas Eve 1968 for the Apollo 8 moon orbit; Derek’s delight at receiving a rocking horse when he was a toddler; Traipsing around eastern Nebraska and western Iowa seeking a u-cut Christmas tree, finding none and ultimately buying one at the YMCA in Omaha; Pickled herring, sylta (headcheese), and Bond Öst for our Christmas Eve Swedish antipasto; Walking on an Oregon beach with frost on the sand; An Italian all-fish dinner on La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) at Antica Taverna in Roma; Hiking across the Alpe di Siusi on Christmas Day.

 

Preparing lunch for Epiphany in our embassy-provided apartment in Rome. Epiphany is a BIG DEAL in Italy.

Most of all, I like to remember being surrounded by family and friends, whether as a little tyke in Minnesota, or all those years gathered ‘round the (various) tables we set in Portland. The traditions may change, the location too, but the Christmas feeling is there with the ones we love.
Merry Christmas everybody!

Our 2017 tree in our new home in Lincoln City. Our first big tree since 2010.

 

Advertisements

A day in the Cotswolds

17 Jan
The sun rises late in London just after the Solstice, in fact, a few minutes after 08:00. That didn’t stop us from seizing the day and taking a day in the country, thanks to the generosity of friends Carol and Nigel of the East Midlands.
St. John the Baptist in Burford, a so-called "wool church" as it was funded by wealth from wool.

St. John the Baptist in Burford, a so-called “wool church” as it was funded by wealth from wool.

Carol and Nigel got up before the birds and motored to London on Boxing Day to fetch us for a day in Nigel’s old stomping ground, the darling villages of the Cotswolds. You know you are in the Cotswolds when you start seeing names like Bourton-on-the-Water, Chipping Norton, and Barton-on-the-Heath. Thatch roofs appear and great spires above country churches with picturesque cemeteries and nameless gravestones. It’s like a movie set. No wonder Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, Poldark, The Remains of the Day, Bridget Jones Diary and many British shows have filmed scenes here. Even on a gray winter day (no rain!), it was charming, each village cuter than the last.
On the very edge of The Cotswolds we visited Bladon, where beside the village church, Winston Churchill is buried. Not in a great cathedral, like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, rather this great man is buried in the countryside near his ancestral home, Blenheim Palace.
We toured Burford, Bladon, Bourton-on-the-Water, The Slaughters and more than I can remember. Nigel took us along twisty-turny roads I might not successfully navigate even with left-hand drive. A day is not enough. One only gets a sense of the peace and beauty of the English countryside. Best to come back when one can walk the paths through the green hills.
We wrapped up in Oxford, and while it was quiet on a holiday, it was nice to see the fabulous architecture without tourist hordes. We took so many pictures it has taken considerable time to sort through them. Here I offer you a taste of this gorgeous landscape, although remarkably we did not think to get a group picture of the 4 of us. Click on any picture for a larger view and full caption.

 

This and that

12 Jan
Our trips supply us with anecdotes far beyond the pictures we take, and often provide memories we talk about for years: Our two collie puppies running on moonlit Cannon Beach in Oregon on New Years Day at 6:00-God-help-us-AM; A priest roller-blading, cassock flying, on Via Arenula; A beautifully dressed, kind Italian businessman personally guiding us when we were lost in Spoleto;  Running into a pack of Portlanders on a mountain ridge in Italy on Christmas Eve. Here are a few more tidbits from our trip to London, Paris and Switzerland.

Italian moments

I was amazed at how often we encountered the Italian language and Italians outside of Italy. I heard Italian every single day, whether in the street, on a train, or in a restaurant or a shop. It made me miss Italy.
Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

Parisians can find panettone, pandoro and other Italian treats, too.

On Christmas Eve at Dean Street Townhouse our waitress was from Italy. It felt like home to order and chat in Italian.
Even in the north of Switzerland, we heard Italian daily. Our waiter at Punctum, where we found an amazingly good pizza, was Italian. You can read about it on my other blog, Our Weekly Pizza.

That small town feel

Many years ago, we traveled to my adopted hometown of Lindstrom, MN for my mother’s 80th birthday. The day we arrived there was a huge snowstorm and we were going to be very late getting from MSP to little Lindstrom. We called the motel and we were told they’d leave the key under the mat for us.  How cute is that?
No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

No picture of Hotel Chur, so here is a serene little alley in the Alt Stadt, on our way to Punctum for pizza.

We had a similar experience in Chur, Switzerland. Coming all the way from London, we knew we would not arrive until at least 10:00 PM, so I contacted the hotel. As the front desk staff goes home at 8:00 PM – odd in a hotel with 58 rooms – we received instructions via email including a code to a box that would release a door entry key. Our room key would be laying on the front desk (along with many others, we saw upon arrival). We had a moment of panic when the entry key did not release easily and I had to use a nail file to finagle it, but it all worked out quite well.

Fabled names

Drury Lane, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Square, Baker Street, Covent Garden, Whitehall. How often we have come across these names in literature and history and there we were in the midst of them! London Bridge, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace: fabled landmarks in a literary town. I have to say as much as I like speaking Italian, it was fun to understand every damn word whether spoken or written. No menu translation challenges. 
'Do you know the muffin man who lives in Dury Lane?' There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

‘Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane?’ There really is a Drury Lane. Now try to get that tune out of your head for the rest of the day.

Melting pot

After dinner on Christmas Day, we ventured to the Odeon at Marble Arch to See “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” With reserved seats, there was no need to arrive super early to stand in line, although we milled around in the lobby for a while before the theatre was clear. We heard very little English being spoken among the various family groups waiting. Predominant language? Arabic.
Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Carnaby was well decorated for the holiday.

Thanks to the former British Empire, London is truly home to many cultures. As a result, ethnic food is widely available. We love Italian food, but it was a real treat to eat good Indian food in a London restaurant.

Hailo

Hailo is the Uber for legal cabs. I am not a fan of Uber. I think the drivers who are licensed and who have spent years studying their cities should get my transportation Euro, Pound, or Dollar. London’s answer is Hailo.  In about 5 minutes, I installed the app, signed up, and had a cab scheduled for 06:30 the next morning. The driver was a gem, arrived early, helped with bags, and spoke with the most amazing Cockney accent. Luckily he could understand me better than I understood him. Hailo is also available outside the U.K. It worked great and I wish it would come to Rome. Thanks to Nigel for the recommendation!

Pedestrians & parking

As a pedestrian in Roma, one watches traffic ever-so-carefully. People wear headsets listening to music when they drive, they talk on cell phones even though it is illegal, and generally pedestrian crossings are used for parking so they get little respect as pedestrian zones.  
Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women areallowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in teh crosswalk. Heaven!

Orderly, I tell you! Look how the women are allowed to cross the street without a motorino shooting past. And no one is parked in the crosswalk. Heaven!

In Switzerland, cars screech to a halt before you even know you want to cross the street. I almost felt obligated to cross the drivers were so polite and accommodating. Reminded me of Portland.
I love that in London and Paris drivers park where they are supposed to, inside the parking zones, not on sidewalks or within the zebra stripes. It makes for such an orderly city! Most of you take this for granted, but if you’ve ever been to Roma, you know that creative acts of parking make rough going for those on foot.

Crypt café

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Cafe in the Crypt. Notice the tombstones on the lower left.

Eating in a mausoleum? Why not? At the famous St. Martin-in-the-Field there is a cafeteria in the crypt. It’s far from the Lutheran Church basements of our youth in the Upper Midwest. This is a true crypt with ancient tombs underfoot. The food was simple, of good quality and, for London, inexpensive. (One sandwich, 2 bottles of water, coffee and tea for GBP 9.85.) It was warm, with low-lighting, a polite crowd, decorated for Christmas.
We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

We ate our light lunch with the Baythorns.

St. Paul’s Cathedral also has a café in their crypt. Not as big, but great for coffee and cake.
I don’t see this trend coming to St. Peter’s anytime soon. Can you imagine the crowds if you could have lunch at the tomb of a deceased pope?

Ahhh, Paris!

23 Dec
The City of Light certainly enhances its reputation at Christmas. Unabashedly celebrating the season, the city is bedecked with myriad trees, dangling lights, kitschy windows and shooting stars. Shopping bags and parcels adorn the arms of many as they hurry to prepare for the coming days of merrymaking.
Hardly needs a caption, does it?

Hardly needs a caption, does it?

We took a 3-night stop on our way to London, indulging in a few fine meals and thankfully about 37 kilometers (22 miles) of walking to atone for the excesses. We were also fortunate to meet Portland friends who know Paris well for lunch one day at the elegant and festive Vagenende on Boulevard St. Germain. If you get to Paris and want a romantic splurge, skip the places you find in the tour books and go here. If you want a fine meal in a low-key bistrot, dark and romantic yet casual, the best Boeuf Bourguignon ever is served at La Cave Gourmande in Montmartre. (During our last trip, we had a lot of marginal meals and only a couple of really good ones. This time we had several winners, I am happy to say.)
I am told the after effects of the terrorist events are being felt in some quarters. I understand some of the clubs and fancier places are not very well attended. There are announcements on French TV with actors telling people to join them and go out, as people are apparently staying home in fear. But we saw young people out enjoying the terraces even in the cool weather of December (which for December was not too cold) and the bistrots we ate in were busy, although skewing to the younger market (30-to-40-year-olds). The streets on Saturday were chockablock with shoppers. Security is high and omnipresent.
Three nights and two days is not enough to “do” Paris, but as we spent a week there last March, we did not feel we had to cram in a dozen museums. Instead, we took long walks through the city, two escorted Paris Walks tours (fabulous!), and simply soaked up the atmosphere, viewed the lights, and enjoyed the city. We treated ourselves to a nice boutique hotel in the 7th, and from our room could see the top bit of the Eiffel Tower. As we usually stay in apartments or little B&Bs, this we a holiday treat with daily maid service, a lovely breakfast, and top notch service in a convenient neighborhood.
We are now in London, also unusually warm, but buzzing with holiday activity. More to come, but probably after Christmas. So for now, let us wish you a simple but heartfelt Happy Christmas! 

The wonder of Christmas lights

18 Dec
When we were kids, our parents used to take us out at least once every Christmas season to look at the lights in various neighborhoods of St. Paul, Minnesota. We so looked forward to those drives, wondering if the house on Snelling Avenue had the Santa, sleigh and reindeer up again this year (very special in the late 1950s/early 1960s) and marveling at the “rich people’s” houses where there were so many lights you knew they did not have any concerns about electrical bills. Our house always had a few strings of lights, but somehow the other neighborhoods seemed more exotic.
Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

Ahhh, the Milano Duomo and its magnificent tree!

When my son was small I’d do the same thing with him although eventually these viewings became what he called forced marches through neighborhoods in Omaha and Portland as we took to our feet instead of the car. Ric and I have continued the tradition everywhere we’ve lived and traveled, with fond memories of wandering down Peacock Lane & strolling through the Grotto in Portland. In Italy the private dwellings are not the focus, it is the public lighting.
Wednesday night we traveled through Milano, stopping for one night on our way to Paris, and made a point of taking a Christmas Lights Walk. Subtle, like Roma, nothing really garish, but people were out in droves enjoying a crisp-but-not-cold night, taking the kids to see Santa, shopping, and gawking at the tree in Piazza del Duomo.
Adding to the festiveness, a live orchestra was performing in a building overlooking the Piazza del Duomo. Christmas songs done in a swing style with a proper chanteuse singing in slightly accented English (‘Ave you-self a merrrrry little Chris-mas.…) blared out through open windows and over a magnificent sound system. People were paying rapt attention even though one could not see the musicians. It truly was festive!
Click on any photo for a slide show.
I am looking forward to the French experience in Paris where I understand the lighting is far less subtle.
%d bloggers like this: