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Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2015

In March we took an opportunity to return to Berlin from California for my work—by which I mean to keep my job we moved. We told ourselves it was a chance to travel, and it was. We visited various outposts of Berlin, touring Frederick the Great’s summer palace in Potsdam, the churches where Bach conducted choirs in Leipzig, and nearly capsizing in a car-battery-powered houseboat on a storm-ravaged Müggelsee, whose shores are lined with DDR-era dachas.

Elbe-side garden of Hotel Helvetia

Farther afield we stayed at an eco-hotel (as far as I could tell this meant light wood furniture and guests wearing Birkenstocks) in Saxony Switzerland, a national park between Dresden and the Czech Republic border that I’ve wanted to visit since I saw a TV show about it years ago on the BBC. This is the landscape of sandstone mountains that German romantic painter Casper David Friedrich made famous in his painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, but we mostly clung to an earthbound bike path between towns and villages along the wide river Elbe. Here kelly-green buoys strained against the current like giant waterskiing gnomes. It was spargel (asparagus) season and we ate well.

Post-Hebdo and pre-Bataclan, we had Paris. We walked from our Berlin apartment to the Hauptbahnhof and, two trains later, stepped on to the platform at Gare du Nord and flâneused and flâneured to Île Saint-Louis, which I like to think gives us bragging rights to say we walked to Paris. That evening in the Marais we drank enough wine that it seemed like a good idea to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, which is to say just the right amount of wine for a Thursday evening in spring in Paris. The next day we rented a tandem bike that we pushed more than we rode along the traffic-clogged left bank before returning to the Marais for an encore of the night before.
In Belgium we regretted spending only one night in Antwerp in favor of two in Bruges, regrets that we soothed with local brews and plans to return. I have a rain check for a date with some of Rubens’ fat ladies at the cathedral.

View from the Alsatian village of Itterswiller

In September we cycled around Alsace for a week and ate one of those lunches that can make a vacation, at the kind of place you decide to stop at only to get out of the rain that turns out to be full of charm at every turn. Le Pressoir de Bacchus is run by a husband (front of house) and wife (chef) team who will let you park your bikes in their covered private courtyard, assist you in translating the menu with a French-English dictionary they keep behind the bar since there’s no cell phone signal and therefore no Google Translate, and all the while pretend not to notice you’re dressed in appalling stretchy cycle clothes that the local French patrons wouldn’t be caught mort in. Oh and you eat a crayfish and mussel risotto that makes your very picky husband realize he does in fact like mussels, to say nothing of the Baba au Rhum for dessert. Long live Baba au Rhum. (It will not surprise you to learn that this year I was one of those insufferable people that takes pictures of their food, all cataloged here rieslingdiaries.tumblr.com.)

The Guvnors’ Assembly assembles at The Royal Oak in Tetbury

In October I took an unplanned trip to NYC to see my niece and her parents. We took selfies on top the Empire State Building, saw Matilda on Broadway, and brunched with an old college friend, but I suspect if you ask my niece her highlight was the hour she spent with my college friend’s daughter digging mica out of the boulders near the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.

In a year of travel luxuries, the biggest luxury was that we were able to take monthly return visits to our beloved Cotswolds. It’s a destination that needs no embellishment, but visits to the old-timey Giffords Circus with husband’s aunt and uncle and a vintage-themed cycle outing with the jauntily-attired Guvnors’ Assembly were highlights.

Paris from Pont Louis Philippe

While humble brags are the bread and butter of a Christmas round-up letter, it seems strange not to mention the two defining news events of a year living in Europe, the attacks in Paris and the ongoing refugee crisis that will see up to a million people arriving in Germany before the year is out. Since the attacks in Paris I’ve found myself making silent and foolish-in-their-perceived-logic calculations about mundane choices in daily life—is this restaurant or airplane route or Christmas market more or less likely to be a target—and still, like everyone I know, I’ve gone on doing all of these things. Life is anything but business as usual for the tens of thousands of refugees that arrived in Berlin this year, their presence largely shielded from view by the urban spread of the city. Like Los Angeles it’s a city whose sprawl makes it perhaps too easy to remain in your own enclave.

Back in America for the holidays we’re looking forward to hanging out with my niece in Florida. I have high expectations for the Christmas present I’ve bought her, a jumpsuit with a navy-blue top and gold-sequin shorts that looks like something you could wear to tap dance your way undetected into the chorus line of 42nd Street. I suspect she will be more impressed by some iridescent shrapnel of a shell she scavenges from the beach. And this, I think, is a humble yet hopeful wish to leave you with. May we all scavenge something shiny from this holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letter 2011: A Tale of Two Cities

This year’s Christmas letter is being written later than usual. I blame Facebook. After a year of prolific posting, I am frankly bored of myself. (I can only imagine how my Facebook friends feel.) Still, despite the never-ending status updates featuring snapshots of husband drinking Riesling, there are a few things left to say about our year.

River Spree, Berlin

2011 is a tale of two cities, one I will tell here in the type of revisionist history that befits a Christmas letter. In other words I will highlight all the best bits and skim over the seething underbelly of marital discontent I provoked by our move to the first of those two cities, Berlin. It was not exactly a life of hardship, what with the company-sponsored Mercedes and apartment, not to mention all that two-euro-a-glass Riesling. And yet while I revelled in nostalgia from my childhood time there in the eighties (courtesy of my father’s employment flying shuttles with Pan Am), husband felt like he had gone back in time to the grim environs of northwest England circa 1976.

To cheer him up we made frequent visits back to the Cotswolds, like the time we went back to celebrate a little local wedding. We watched from the wine bar — where else? — as Kate and Wills tied the knot, then celebrated our own tenth wedding anniversary a few months later in Paris. But returning to Berlin did not get any easier for husband, although it was lightened by a few welcome visits from friends and family. Late in the summer my personal best interest aligned with my professional best interest when I finagled a new job opportunity at my company into a move stateside, where husband was yearning to return. And so in October I bid my goodbyes to Berlin—her golden Lizzy, her Käsespätzle, her nudist Tiergarten sunbathers.

Elterwater, Lake District

We returned to England where we were treated to a special melodrama facilitated by the US embassy in
London. Husband went in for what should have been a routine visa interview, and yet somehow my plans for post-interview celebratory champagne at Claridge’s turned into manic taxi rides around London securing missing paperwork before degenerating into a week of obsessive waiting for his visa to arrive. When it did we finally felt secure enough to start saying our goodbyes to those places and people we had grown to love most over the past six and a half years, up in the Lakes then back down in the Cotswolds where our last stop before Heathrow was, naturally, the wine bar.

Boston Common

In November we arrived in the second city of our tale of two: Boston. We quickly felt at home — it’s not called New England for nothing. (Husband was, I daresay, a bit miffed to find that his collection of cravats, bow ties, and tweeds would fail to achieve the desired effect of standing out as English in this town.) After skirting our way around “hills” in Europe — the still-waiting-for-gentrification perimeter of Notting Hill, the ‘wolds, and atop an old rubble heap that comprises one of the few rises in Berlin — we have settled on Beacon Hill, complete with views of the Common and Public Garden. Sure being above one of the busiest crossroads in the city means it sometimes sound like we are sitting track-side at Nascar, but never mind for now. We are told that soon enough the snow will come, nature’s welcome muffler.

The year has ended on a sad note. My grandmother, Willie Pearl, passed away at the age of ninety-two. (I wrote a little about her here.) There is nothing nice about death, but the fact that this one happened so close to Christmas forced my family to let go of any expectation about the holiday. There are fewer presents under the tree and no turkey in the freezer. This is all fine with me. At the risk of having an expectation, I’d be happy with scrambled eggs for Christmas dinner.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, whatever your table holds!