Christmas Eve: I’m awake enough to make the half-hour drive back with holiday tunes from the Ventures and Elvis to keep me company. The crew of three men I came with is asleep, full of turkey, contraband ham, mulled cider, and wine. Eleven expats, mostly British, gathered together to feast on a traditional meal; there was even plum cake for dessert. It was easy to forget that we were thousands of miles away from home and any land that recognizes this holiday season.
I feel content to be able to get us all home safely. When we pull into the apartment complex where two live they rouse, surprised that they are home. I wish them a Merry Christmas and drive home.
The next morning is Christmas Day. No presents are exchanged and that’s OK. Instead, we open a bottle of sparkling wine and pour ourselves glasses, adding a few shots of bitters to each. This creates a beverage friends of mine back home refer to as “Shut Up,” for it pleasantly quiets the mind either from the effects of the night before, or just closes off the world in preparation for a day of nothing. We toast each other in celebration of a Christian holiday that we don’t really follow in a country that follows it even less. To the world outside, it’s just another day; yet somehow we are blessed with the absence of the construction crew normally outside our windows. The silence is appreciated.
My intentions to try out our oven for the first time are quickly foiled. As I open its greasy door, I discover where the rat that lived in our apartment for a few weeks a month back made its nest. Disgusted, I begin the process of cleaning and disinfecting. Satisfied that I rinsed everything thoroughly enough, I turned up the gas oven as high as it would go, and left the room. When I returned an hour later, the chemical fumes in the kitchen were so strong that my throat burned and eyes watered. I ran out of the room (but not before rescuing the rest of our morning beverage). We turned on all the fans in the house, opened the windows, and declared the house unfit for habitants until it aired out properly. It was time for a leisurely drive to pick up Plan B for Christmas brunch – a pizza from a coffee shop nearby.
Not in a hurry to return home, we took a gravel road up a hill to get our food. We stop to admire the view, amazed we had not explored this route before. We aren’t even five minutes away, and yet somehow this location has remained a secret to us – when we reach the top, we can see the whole village, including our house, a date farm, and the mountains in front of us. Another easy place to retreat to for sunset viewing. We get out of the car and stare silently in appreciation of the scenery and the day.
We pick up our pizza — really, just round cheese bread topped with frozen vegetables. The concept of sauce sadly escapes people in this country. Luckily, we are prepared for this. The air of the kitchen now almost breathable, we quickly grab a jar of sauce for dipping from the cupboard, along with oregano and red pepper flakes. Dave puts Airplane on his computer and we sit down to an afternoon of laziness. Naps follow.
It’s almost dark when we finally wake up. Our next round of holiday socialization will get a late start, but that’s OK. This country, with its heat and general lifestyle, does not lend itself to a culture of punctuality. After quick showers, we get back into the car and drive to a local Yemeni restaurant and tell the purveyors to give us enough food for six. They invite us to sip tea and watch a Premier League game they have projected onto a screen outside. Many restaurants engage in the practice of either playing football matches or Bollywood films for those who wish to sit outdoors or even stay in their cars as they eat. It’s a bummer this doesn’t happen more in the US.
The spread is amazing – an assortment of grilled meats, several types of bread, some salad, hummus and something like hummus (not baba ganoush, so I have no idea what it was, but it was delicious), and pickled vegetables. Christmas feast take two, this one more reflective of where we live.
Our gathering tonight is at a friend’s place, although he isn’t there; he elected to go back home to visit his grandchildren in Europe. Instead, another teacher is house-sitting and we are taking advantage of the courtyard with its projection area (one wall painted white). We watch a pirated version of The Interview, the movie making all the news in the US, yet hardly worth the buzz. It was silly enough but nothing special (I mean, the entire movie was a slow build up to a climactic fart joke); the movie choice even more surreal given that I become one of the first of my friends to watch the movie in a land where very little is cutting edge.
For intermission, we break for a fire and conversation, and then go back to the screen to watch Die Hard – the ultimate Christmas movie, at least to this unsentimental crowd. I miss my usual Christmas ritual of Chinese food and karaoke with my friends back home. I miss my family and an easy-going dinner on the 24th, but I truly appreciate the make-shift family I have found here. A family of brothers that I feel comfortable enough with to wear the tiger-print track suit I bought for my Halloween costume earlier this year. With my limited wardrobe, it’s the most comfortable thing I own.
My first Christmas as an expat. I hope everyone had a memorable holiday season. Nothing that special has to happen in order for the days to be good ones.