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Diary of an Expat Lady: Winter Edition

A few years ago I discovered E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and various sequels.  With its whimsical epistolary style underscored by deeper ruminations on feminist social themes of the 1930s and 40s, Delafield’s writing is a clear forebear to Bridget Jones’s Diary and similar works.  Her influence is also the reason that I occasionally write in Completely Unnecessary Capital Letters.  With every little adventure that’s happened in the past few months, a nod to Delafieldian diarizing seemed like an ideal way to catch up.

Thurs 20 Nov 2014.

Hosting Early Expat Thanksgiving on Saturday @ our house.  Preparing self w/long list of purchases, timetables & guests.  Housemate looks at my colour-coded Gannt chart and asks if I think That Is Really Necessary.  Have press-ganged Housemate & Swiss Barrister Girlfriend (his, not mine) into arranging the table in my best Tom Sawyer fence-painting fashion.  SBG arrives from Swiss bearing frozen homemade pumpkin mix for pies.  Inconclusive discussion on airport security & whether frozen homemade pumpkin mix Counts as a Liquid.  Approx 1 ton groceries delivered & I rush about madly trying to store everything in our mini-kitchen before they get back from dinner.  Send photos of grocerypocalypse to demonstrate my hard work & vigour.

Friday 21 Nov.

Make pies & assorted prepare-ahead sundries.  Storage situation v. dire.

Saturday 22 Nov.

Arrayed out in kitchen like Boadicea armed for battle (though doubtless she’d scorn the comparison, esp coming from a person of Italian heritage.)  Military precision of Gannt charts breaks down under usual last minute cancellations and waffling timetables of arrivals.  SBG rallies as invaluable sous-chef & Housemate is jovial host as guests arrive, with self making occasional appearances in living room to demand wine glass refills.  Main problem, as usual, is counter space for storing all dishes while re-heating other dishes.  Begin to slide pans Tetris-like hither and thither with limited effect.

Eventually all is ready and we serve buffet-style, self imploring guests under no circumstances to look at the kitchen sink (catastrophe zone to be addressed later on.)

Supply of bubbly lasts a remarkably long time given the crowd.  Self foremost consumer, naturally.

Between old friends and new around the table the atmosphere is joyous and genuinely comforting.  Gratified that people like the food and, apart from slight tendency to become maudlin at thought of absent friends and family, there is no more perfect way I can imagine spending Thanksgiving.

Sunday 23 Nov.

Turkey sandwiches.

Turkey soup.

Turkey pizza.

Turkey tetrazini.


Thursday 4 Dec.

Mad rush of packing after work for long-planned trip to Strasbourg Christmas markets tomorrow with Glamorous American Friends.  Right rear molar, which has been troubling for some time, finally requires attention but it seems there’s no one to do it in time before many planned winter holidays.  Dentist prescribes antibiotics, over the counter painkillers, and prayer.  Agitation whilst packing exacerbated by discovery of hitherto unperceived damage to winter coat from the Moth Debacle earlier in the year.  Make note to sit on coat to hide damage near hem.

Friday 5 Dec.

Rise at unnatural hour to meet friends at St Pancras Sation for Eurostar departure.  Visions of tiny winding streets hung with Christmas lights dance in my head.  Become overawed by romantic notions of travel & for one minute fancy myself a jet-setting citizen of the world before the man in front of me in the queue gets into an argument with the security guard over how to correctly present his ticket to the barrier gate infrared scanner & I begin to panic about missing the train. This turns into full-blown extravagant fantasy about what I would do if I fail to connect with Glamorous American Friends @ St P but get on the train anyway & find self alone, friendless & without lodgings in France.  Should probably find this rather exciting, actually.

Get through security & immigration & immediately find friends without incident, of course.

Arrive at seat to find the man next to me has only seconds before spilled the entire contents of his blue sports drink onto my seat.  As I’d already decided to sit on coat due to Moth Debacle I magnanimously declare it is Of No Matter, though of course it is.  Fervour & pitch of conversation by passing travellers increases in fluster as departure time approaches; much frantic rushing up and down the aisle to find the right carriage.  Chaos still reigns as we steam out into cold but sunny morning.  Seats around are rapidly claimed by a party of salespeople on their annual work jolly.  Silver-haired Australian opposite me appears to be The Boss.  Remainder of party makes jolly references to strawpedoing tiny bottles of champagne obtained from dining car.  Caught between envy & disgust.

In Paris we change stations for remainder of journey.  There is a small Alsatian-themed market outside Gare de l’Est where we try to buy sandwiches & get in the spirit of the journey but no sandwiches are forthcoming & we end up getting them from the station food court instead.  We’re all impressed by the swanky double-decker French TGV, with plenty of luggage room and comfortable, recently decorated interiors.  Quite a contrast to the Eurostar, which always sounds romantic yet feels so shabby in reality.

Arrive in Alsace ready for hot wine & audaciously bad-for-you Christmas market food.  But first, the flat.  We’ve hired an AirBnB suitable for four but there are five of us, Glamorous American Friends having graciously towed an air mattress for me all the way from London.  Fearing that the landlord will become obstreperous if we show up with more than the allocated number of persons, we draw straws to determine who needs to skulk about outside while we check in.  In the end S. & her sister C. disappear for a hiatus to the grocery store.  Confused-looking host lets the remaining three of us, hauling a disproportionate amount of luggage, into the flat & beats a hasty retreat.

Urgency of need for hot wine now reaches fever pitch & we make for the nearest Christmas market, just outside Strasbourg cathedral.  Wending our way through town we arrive at the gaudiest Christmas market just as dusk is falling.  This is where they sell the shiniest ornaments, blinkiest lights, and most heart-attack inducing food.  S. introduces all to Mousse Balls, the type of confection which causes my intestines to cringe when I look at it.  Eat one anyway.

S. and husband of S. find the stall where last year they dithered over a glittery Krampus-shaped ornament & decided not to buy it.  Krampus is displayed in exactly the same place next to exactly the same festive Alsatian crane hats as last time.  Having found in the intervening year that they couldn’t do without a shiny snippet of the sinister underbelly of Christmas traditions, Krampus is duly purchased & is soon jostling in a bag alongside a glittery hedgehog & a futuristic glass spaceman.  I search for a new Virgin Mary for our creche back at home with less success.

We toddle back to the flat through streets bedecked with Christmas bunting, fairy lights, and teddy bears.  Some of these, looked at for too long, suddenly & alarmingly begin to move in jerky clockwork arcs.  Discussion of the impending robot apocalypse ensues.  Cue dark internal thought chain about Roko’s Basilisk which only ends when we enter a French discount chain called Norma & I find a can of pate de foie gras for 2 which I decide to buy for my father’s comedy Christmas gift.

Sunday 7 Dec.

Blissful haze of hot wine, cheese, & sundry Alsatian delicacies comes to an end when we arrive in perpetually rainy London having eaten the last of the mousse balls on the train.  Work tomorrow.  Prepare Work Face.

Wednesday 10 Dec.

Emergency tooth extraction.  The less said, the better.

Friday 12 Dec.

Determined not to miss work on account of Office Christmas Party (& also urgent necessity of tying up loose ends before extended visit to family in America…but mainly the party) but in mind’s eye face still looks like I’m a half-chipmunk.  Nobody else seems to notice.  Spend the day very carefully chewing Christmas cookies on left side only.  Gap where tooth was feels progressively worse throughout the day & even prosecco @ party seems to bring no relief.  Finally sneak home without even doing a tiny bit of dancing, which shows the extent of my distress.

Saturday 13 Dec.

Once again in a rush of trying to pack, but proving v difficult on account of distracting jaw pain.  Read online that the best way to ice a jaw is to use a gel-style ice pack in a pair of socks or pantyhose tied above the head & under the chin.  DIY gel-style ice packs can be fashioned out of a mixture of strong alcohol & water in plastic baggies.  We don’t have any rubbing alcohol, but we do have some grappa de prosecco I brought back from Venice & which nobody likes.  Make requisite mixture, seal bag & place in freezer, precariously fixing more traditional ice pack to jaw in the meantime with series of scarves & elastic bands.  Ineffective.

Later, open freezer drawer to find frozen grappa de prosecco all over the bottom, sharp smell reeking up through bags of frozen vegetables.  Face hurts.

Monday 15 Dec.

Successfully make trip home Sunday without incident, except that my can of pate de foie gras is taken away from me by hipster airport security officer because That is a Liquid.  Decide 2 foie gras probably not worth checking suitcase for because story is just as funny without the actual foie.  Manage to find instant cool-packs at a pharmacy in the terminal so I can ice my face mid-flight if necessary.  Meet young graduate who I instantly assume to be an aspiring music journalist but who transpires to be aspiring political journalist on flight & feel impelled to give Important Life Advice, despite not being a journalist nor au fait with either current musical or political trends.  Grad is w/family for extended Christmas vacation in FL & asks for recommendations for Things to Do.  Find self recommending trip to Weeki Watchee to see the mermaids @ Weeki Watchee springs, which is definitely one of FL’s more unusual state attractions.  Grad lets conversation drop after this revelation.

Joyous greetings of parents, dear family friends and aunts visiting from out of town only slightly marred by face pain.  All well until this morning, when it suddenly begins to feel as though some unpleasant person is trying to peel my face off.  Decide only explanation is that the infection is spreading through my jaw & up into my skull & probably into my brain & I am definitely dying.  See dentist.

Cheer self up following dentist by decorating the creche that my grandfather built.  Place new baby Jesus procured in Strasbourg in place of honor; argument with father ensues about whether the baby Jesus is allowed to be in the creche before Christmas Eve.  Father attempts to steal new baby Jesus & hide Him until he deems that the time to place Him is appropriate.  Thwart this & put baby Jesus back in creche.  Consult with mother about what to do with the old baby Jesus.  Wordlessly she takes Him and places Him in the kitchen garbage can.  We say no more about this.

Tuesday 16 Dec.

Seen by local orthodontic surgeon who explains that I am NOT dying, but have a complication called dry socket.  Miracle dry socket paste, once applied, provides instant relief & I feel like a new person.  Christmas party for local arts group & fancy dinner w/aunts @ local restaurant ensues.

Wednesday 17 Dec.

Face-peeling sensation resurges w/vengance.  Orthodontic surgeon not open.  Call dentist husband of family friend; obtain more paste & advised to look after myself & instructed to call any time, day or night, if pain ensues.  Feel overwhelmed by gratitude that we have such good friends.

Aunts find out that we have thrown out the old baby Jesus.  Much speculation as to What Grandma Would Have Said.

Thursday 18 Dec.

Aunts leave; British friend A who has been Living In New York arrives for some real Florida family time w/us.  Take pictures of selves standing in front of incredibly camp pirate statue in Treasure Island on way home from airport.  All FL vacations should start this way.

Family friend has invited us to a boat parade party @ her condo, which has a splendid view of the Intracoastal Waterway where all the boats will pass by.  Officer in little gated security hut can’t find our name on the list but lets us in anyway, leading to speculation that a) someone else has got in using our name, b) the security office isn’t very well organized or c) actually we haven’t been invited after all.  We sally forth nonetheless.

As the boats line up in the distance some jolly canoers are tootling around the Intracoastal with lights on their paddles.  Effect is beautiful but probably hazardous.  Across the way we can see houses all along the waterway lit up & full of people having parties.  Someone on a neighboring balcony has a cowbell, which they deploy frequently even before the parade has started.

Eventually the boats begin to sedately process toward us, lit up from stem to stern & generally blaring music.  Cacophony of light & colour reigns with snowmen, Santas, assorted tiki sundries, & flamingos present in equal measure.  It is generally agreed that the best light effect is a tall sailboat with a large bottle pouring into a martini glass, even though the bottle bit isn’t working by the time it reaches us.  I’m also rather fond of a boat towing a large rubber duckie, but for sheer effort the martini wins.

Remind everyone the story of That Time the Pass-a-Grille Boat Parade Started Going the Wrong Way And Got Stuck, And They Had to Send the Police Boat To Sort It Out.  General laughter.

Friday 26 Dec.

The days wheel by in a blur of relaxed holiday activities & eating.  Get to cook with Mom, which is a rare treat.  We make stuffed shells from scratch & I wear the apron my grandmother made.  Now the entertaining is over, friends are all home, food has been packed away and we’re facing the tail end of the Christmas cookies.

Hard to believe it’s just a few short days away from my return to the life I’ve built in London, so vastly different from this one.  But, comfortable as it’s been, I know that this is only a visit.  It is not a terminus.  I shall have to pack away the memory of the sun warming my toes, tiny lizards battling on blades of grass, green parakeets squawking overhead and endless, endless, endless hours for reading.  I can feel time snapping back into place like a rubber band; the regular bumps and hollows of my weekly schedule in London coming back into focus.  That too has its joys.  But for now, the sacred feeling of having slipped outside time pervades.  For now, I still have a few hours.