It wasn't that Christmas as a small child wasn't magical. The thrill of selecting our Christmas tree, bringing the decorations down from the attic, wrapping presents and waiting for Santa are still some of the high points in my life, but 1973 stands out as my favorite. I was a 20 year old college student spending a semester abroad in London. Most of my family's Christmas traditions had their roots in the British Isles and there I was at the heart of it. Charles Dickens' home was open for tour that time of year. His classic, A Christmas Carole inspired us to try "figgy pudding", a steamed concoction of fruits that wouldn't find much popularity today. I loved to stroll the vibrant streets in the afternoon shopping for Christmas surprises. At Fortnum and Mason's I found sheets of the most exotically beautiful jewel colored and flocked wrapping paper I'd ever seen (or still ever seen). Nothing like the cheap tacky wrapping paper I ripped through on Christmas morning. I splurged on several sheets to make presents under the tree almost too beautiful to unwrap, something memorable I could bring to the occasion. We reused those sheets for several years until they where small scraps or too worn to salvage any longer but beautiful to the end.
I didn't exactly starve during that semester but I definitely wasn't well nourished. I lived on eggs and porridge at breakfast, then odds and ends during the day. I was on my own. Real meals were infrequent and I came back home months later with dull skin and hair, split nails and a few extra pounds (why didn't I buy some vitamins). I might dine on a box of chocolates washed down by a pint of beer at the theater in the evening. There was no Thanksgiving feast but we did muster up an event at "Ye Old Cheshire Cheese", a famous haunt of Samuel Johnson, and we ate something extravagant like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. We bought tickets for The Nutcracker at Covent Garden and took high tea at the Savoy before the performance. I think we stood out as blatantly American in our blue jeans but we enjoyed the moment and the assortment of little sandwiches and sweets. I attended Julie Andrew's Christmas concert with the London Symphony at The Royal Albert Hall. I can only remember the first song now, Jingle Bells! She was perfect and in her prime!
Some of us took a detour to Rome for a few days. Rome was preparing for Christmas in a less secular way. We arrived on the day when the Pope annually comes to the Spanish Steps and blesses the crowd. I think we decided we needed to be blessed considering our moral decline while away from home or maybe we where just curious. Big mistake, it was bedlam. I was literally lifted off my feet and pushed further and further back in the crowd. I was separated from my friends and had to hold on to my purse for dear life. Finally, I escaped the madness and headed for the Piazza Narvona. It was decorated with cheerful strings of lights and street vendors. I bought a bag of roasted chestnuts which often passed for a cheap meal on my meager budget. Italy certainly had better food in quality and quantity than England but there was something about that moment of eating roast chestnuts in the Piazza Narvona that was a blessing in its own way.
Samuel Johnson's famous quote, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" is certainly true and I wasn't tired of London. You could never get to the end of exploration but my time was up and I headed home just as the first snow fell on December 22nd. I ditched most of my clothes and filled my luggage with Christmas gifts. Nobody was checking your bag for bombs back then. The idea of going home did have its appeal. I'd written my mother I was in desperate need of some vegetables. What was so English about peas and where were they, for heaven sakes? Squash and string beans where waiting when I walked in the door; vegetables I used to get bored with but ate with relish that night.
As a child, it was all about me, what was Santa going to bring me, but that Christmas in 1973, I was more on the giving end than the receiving for the first time. My presents to family and friends, from far away, wrapped in elegant paper, thrilled and delighted those I loved. It was their turn to be children again and I was Santa. London had expanded my horizons and my heart. 1973 was a good year and it ended just as I met my future husband. Not a bad way to end the year.
The world's a smaller place now. London's too easy to get to and cell phones keep us in touch so my son went to the other side of the planet for his abroad experience. He stopped in Fiji on his way home and said he thought about bringing home a shrunken head for Christmas but didn't think he'd get it through customs.
- Recipes & Random Thoughts
- I have been cooking my way through life for over 50 years, beginning with mud pies as a child. I've turned a corner now and feel a Renaissance in my life. Recipes and Random Thoughts is my personal spin in a blog about how to prepare good food and how it prepares you for life. I want to share with you, honest to goodness food punctuated with perspective from the special memories and moments that have marked my journey.