Saturday, December 19, 2015—Budapest

“Hi, there. Could you tell me where the check-in counter for easyJet is, please?” I said nonchalantly with a smile to the young lady at the information desk.

She looked up at me, then at her watch, and said, “The check-in is over.”

“Oh, that’s odd,” I replied, seemingly unaware of the grave meaning behind her blunt, four-word sentence. “But luggage drop-off ends half an hour before take-off, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir, it does.”

Bemused, I gestured to my timepiece—it showed 6:25pm. I reasoned, “And the flight is at 7:55pm, no?” Her reply made my heart sink.

“No, sir…take-off is at 6:55pm.”

My panic-o-meter exploded, and my heart rate shot up to triple figures, higher than during an intense CrossFit session. (OK, I’ve never done CrossFit—you caught me.) My usually stoic self was at a loss; I was all over the place, overcome with fear-inducing chemicals inside my brain.

“What should I do with my luggage, then?” I pleaded desperately.

She told me I could bring the suitcase onto my flight to Paris, but I would have to remove all liquids inside—and that, of course, I would have to run.

I didn’t dare glance at my watch, but the masochist in me gave in to temptation, and I lifted the sleeve of my pullover to reveal the small, silver watch face. My heart was now in my mouth as I realised I would have less then 20 minutes to get through rigorous security and reach gate A17 at Terminal 2B of Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport, which, if you know budget airline boarding gates, may as well have been in Moscow.

But there was a more immediate problem: the liquids in my suitcase.

I unclipped my backpack and shoved my hand inside like Hermione Granger does with her bag bewitched with the undetectable extension charm. I was hoping to pull out a miracle, but instead my shaky hands found the next best thing: the tiny keys to the shitty lock on my suitcase. I’ll take it. Thanks, Baby Jesus.

It was so typically me in that moment of sheer horror to only have one thing on my mind: the bloody wine. Since I was to be hosted in Caen by Tom’s (my flatmate) family, and later by another friend across the channel in London, I had prepared for them as gifts three bottles of Tokaji—a simply remarkable Hungarian dessert wine that is sweat to the taste and surprisingly kind to the wallet. In other words, I had in my possession three perfect presents which I now could not give. Damn it. Now what do I give them? 

I begrudgingly pulled them out from between my poorly folded clothes and put them on the counter, listening to the delighted sighs of the information desk staff as I lined them up in order of their year—2004, 2009, 2013. That, mind you, was merely a coincidence. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Even in those few minutes of dread, as my hands shook and my heart paced, I still found the time to give the bottles one last loving stare, as if to beg them for forgiveness, urging them to overlook my massive cock-up.

“You don’t mind if I leave the wine here, do you?” I asked, cursing myself quietly.

“Of course not,” she replied, smilingly.

“Do enjoy the wine,” I added, almost sobbing. “Please, don’t throw it away.”

I shouted “Merry Christmas” as I bolted towards the baggage inspection.

Let me tell you, there is nothing worse than passing security when you’re in a rush.

“Laptop out, watch off, shoes off, belt off, jacket off, small liquids separated, pockets empty,” a young woman at the conveyer belt barked.

I couldn’t believe I had to open my suitcase again just to remove a bottle of eye drops, but I did as I was told.

After collecting my things and putting on my boots in record time, I ran like Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” to the boarding gate and managed not to look at the time on my wrist—because I had shoved my watch into my bag to save time. (Funny, that.) As the unromantic wind blew through my very cliché hair, I for once in my life did not care about all the staring people.

You don’t know the day I’ve had, mate. 

Perhaps it was the lucky Dollar in my wallet, or perhaps I just have long legs; whatever it was, I made it on time, panting like an overweight British Bulldog named Churchill after a brisk walk. I stood last in the queue of passenger waiting to board the flight to Charles de Gaulle, three bottles of fine Tokaji less, but nevertheless happy to have made my flight.

Cruising now over the outskirts of Paris as we prepare for our descent, I see the Eiffel Tower’s spotlight spinning, searching, and welcoming. The city’s lights are golden in the nighttime, like glowing embers on a warm fire. I assure myself with the knowledge that I cannot get any clumsier, any stupider, and any more idiotic than today—and that much awaits me in the crowded French capital tomorrow.

Vive la France. 

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Sunday, December 20, 2015—Paris

My feet ached after “accidentally” walking further than I had originally planned. After heading north along Rue Monge, I picked up a sandwich from a bakery and soon came face to face with the ancient Notre-Dame de Paris, the 670-year-old cathedral immortalised in Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic (and later in an adaptation by Disney), “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”

Unfortunately, the bell-ringer wasn’t home, but throngs of tourists were. So after a few customary photos of the historical Notre-Dame, I scampered away along the Seine.

My fondness for rivers and waters in general surprises me. Perhaps because my hometown in Johannesburg is so properly inland that the idea of oceans, lakes, and rivers always fascinated me. Having been fortunate enough to have seen some of the truly iconic rivers of the world in the Orange River, the Yangtze, the Volga, the Mur, the Danube, and now the Seine, it has only served to highlight my odd habit of standing on the river bank and staring at the slow-moving water.

Along the two banks of La Seine are some of Paris’ most notable and well-documented landmarks. The sites are so famous, in fact, that seeing them in person can be somewhat underwhelming, until you slap yourself in the face and tell yourself that you’re quite literally staring at ancient history.

Before arriving in Paris, I wondered why paintings such as the idolised “Mona Lisa” or “Madonna of the Rocks” hung in the Louvre and not in Florentine galleries from where their creator originated. But one look at the Louvre Museum complex and its sheer, domineering size answered all the questions.

The various buildings that make up the Louvre are a sight to behold in themselves, taking up about two or three city blocks. The beautiful glass pyramid at the entrance of the Louvre, completed in 1989, is also the most pompous way of confirming it as the world’s foremost centre for fine arts collection, and the reason why Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings are housed there—and that’s not even considering its subterranean levels.

Crowds are unavoidable in most big cities these days, and Paris being the most touristic city in the world means that it is, of course, no exception. Having decided not to enter the Louvre, I continued towards the Tuileries Gardens, which is fronted by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

Designed in the same year as the French capital’s most famous “arch of the star”,  this smaller monument stands west of the Louvre and bears special significance to me because of one very interesting piece of trivia I mentioned during my trip to Venice which is to do with the four-horse carriage standing atop it.

Ready? The bronze horses, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, are replicas of the ones found atop Saint Mark’s Basilica today, which are replicas of the ones currently conserved inside… which were looted during the 1204 sack of Constantinople and later taken by Napoleon’s forces and brought back to France to commemorate his war victories (and placed atop the arch)… until they were once again returned to Italy following the defeat of the French generalissimo.

It’s quite a mouthful, but it just goes to show the nature of the spoils of war. The arch is significantly smaller than its more famous cousin, which stands on the western end of les Champs-Élysées—the self-proclaimed “most beautiful avenue in the world”. I’ll leave that title open for debate.

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The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, with its replica Triumphal Quadriga.

The avenue is, because of the season, currently lined on both sides with Christmas markets and temporary skating rinks. But I bypassed all the jingle bells and made a beeline straight for the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile.

I had been looking forward to viewing this historical monument ever since I knew I would be travelling to France, for the sole purpose of saying “I’ve been there”, and also to soak up a bit of the history surrounding this 179-year-old masterpiece of the Napoleonic era, which is easy to understand and not requiring too abstract a mind to appreciate the reasons behind its erection.

Its name—“Triumphal Arch of the Star”—derives from the star-shaped roads that shoot out from its location. The circus around the arch is one of the most chaotic I have ever seen, too. It baffles me how Parisians are able to understand the workings of the roundabout, with vehicles from a dozen avenues joining and leaving it at any one time. I’m perfectly happy watching from the arch’s terrace, and I wish to play no part in the frenzy below.

I must admit that a trip to see the Eiffel Tower is almost mandatory when visiting Paris for the first time, but that says nothing about whether the monument itself is worth a visit.

From afar, the structure originally created for the 1889 World’s Fair resembles a cell tower; up close the landmark looks like a well-assembled Meccano model. My observations are, of course, completely unfair to the Eiffel Tower and tainted by years of mainstream films, music videos, books, and posters whose creators chose to set the scene in the French capital of 2.2 million. The season was perhaps not idea either, as autumn is really sometimes an awkward season between vivid summers and snowy winters.

That said, I suppose it is easy to see the appeal of something like the Eiffel Tower—a must-see landmark in the most touristic city in the world, touted as one of the most beautiful, most romantic locations on planet Earth. How can you not want to go to Paris? And once there, how can you not want to visit the Eiffel Tower? Well, easily, but in this case, why not?

Upon my return to Paris after Christmas I plan to view the Eiffel Tower at night, when I expect to be in for a proper light show.

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The Eiffel Tower.

Monday, December 21, 2015—Caen

I write from a crowded living room in Caen, the capital of France’s Lower Normandy region, where I have been invited for Christmas at the home of Tom’s mother, a pint-sized overly French woman who wins the hearts of children on a daily basis as a paediatrician.

The tiny city has an incredible recent history of its own, ever since its days as an important strategic location for both Nazi Germany and the Allied Forces during World War II. The family tells me that much of the 300,000-strong commune was destroyed during bombings during the 1940s, and that most of the infrastructure was rebuilt immediately after, giving Caen a rather “new” look in a region which, in fact, has a legacy of several millennia.

The two-storey house in evergreen Lower Normandy, the rainy region officially created in 1956 and known for its particularly savoury brand of cheese, Camembert, borders the English Channel, and, from its capital, is only about an hour’s drive to Omaha Beach—one of five well-documented beachheads assigned for the Allied invasion of German-occupied northern France on that faithful day some 71 years ago.

Together with “Utah Beach”, the codename “Omaha” was used by the United States army during Operation Neptune, the history-making charge to liberate of France on June 6, 1944—D-Day.

Strolling along the coastline on a rare day of sunshine, it was hard to image the carnage that must have ensued all those years ago, when the now golden beach was nothing less than the location of a bloodbath caused by tyranny and the justice which opposed it.

Those who sacrificed their lives in the conflict, and in firefights before and up to the Normandy landings, are now buried in more than a dozen cemeteries belonging to Great Britain, the United States, and Canada. But perhaps the most poignant of reminders of humanity during peacetime is the fact that the largest military cemetery of them all currently holds in excess of 21,000 German war dead.

A brief walk through the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was enough to make me shudder with disbelief at the consequences of the bloodiest conflict in human history.

White marble crosses, each bearing the name of a fallen war hero, stretch across the fresh cemetery lawn, forming a sight I can only describe as being solemn and ever so serious. The hushed cemetery sits on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, the epic battleground which set the stage for the longest period of peacetime man has ever known.

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Omaha Beach as viewed from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Of course, the main reason I was invited to Caen was to expunge my loneliness and to spend the holiday season with Tom and his family, which was this year coming together for the big feast—Christmas.

Christmas. What can I say about Christmas? South Africa is a Catholic country, but growing up in the quiet suburbs of Edenvale, where I could walk to my local primary school in 15 minutes, I didn’t feel like we were particularly big fans of the Pagan–I mean Christian, of course—holiday.

Understandably, coming from a Taiwanese family, Christmas was not first on the agenda; that honour belonged to Chinese New Year, which is actually just three days away on February 8. (The date actually changes from year to year because of the lunar cycle, but I won’t bore you—or myself—with the details.)

I feel like my parents viewed Christmas as an entirely Christian holiday, which, despite it no doubt having its roots in the religion, is today not entirely the case. There are atheists and agnostics aplenty who celebrate Christmas for the occasion and for “Christmas spirit”, just like there are “gentiles” (to use an overly religious term) who regularly exclaim such phrases as “Oh, my God!” or “Jesus Christ!” without actually believing in the entities whom they so passionately invoke.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, where 53 per cent of respondents in a 2015 survey said they were “not religious”, Christmas get-togethers are an annual custom filled with all the tea and biscuits and mince pies one can eat—you know I love a cliché.

In reality, Christmas might just be to Europe what Chinese New Year is to the Chinese: a week off from school and work which allows ample time to visit family, exchange gifts, and get fat. And so since we already have the “Spring Festival”, I guess there was really no room for Christmas (sorry, Baby Jesus). But that’s not to say we don’t recognise the holiday. We still see it as a reason to meet friends, but it just doesn’t bear the same significance.

(Also, it is interesting to compare the Christmas mentioned above with the Orthodox Christmas—January 7—celebrated in Russia, where I find it is observed mostly by religious folk, who also like to take a dip in ice-cold rivers for something called Epiphany.)

In contrast, Christmas in Tom’s family (and I suppose in most of France and Western Europe) is the occasion to attend, a ritualistic gathering of immediate and extended family, marred by La Biseand other such time-consuming customs which the French would defend with their dying breath.

Christmases are really observed on December 24, when it is the eve rather than the day that is celebrated. My experience began with a hearty lunch, which was followed by a relieving walk through the city. Then, just as I could breath again, I was treated to a meal with more courses than I have fingers and toes.

L’apéro with the sumptuous starters and aperitifs would have been more than enough on another day, but it was followed by oysters, foie gras, red wine, and… OK, now I’m just bragging.

The most magical part about Christmas Eve dinner, I think, is that just when you thought it was over, there was more—and more and more and more. It was almost as if Tom’s mom managed to summon the spirit of Jesus to conjured up more food for the table. Did I mention the Sauternes and the Tokaji?

It’s been one and a half months since I sat at that extended kitchen table in Caen, stuffing myself with cured ham, unpronounceable cheeses, and, of course, too much bread. But I can safely say that I am ready for round two, if not in Caen, then perhaps somewhere else where I can experience a different, unique European Christmas.

Truth be told, I really only have one French Christmas under my belt, but I imagine the occasion to be not too dissimilar across the board.

After Caen, I spent one last day in Paris, where I had become accustomed to being harassed and bumped into by all manner of people. The weather had cleared up compared to the grey and gloomy days before Christmas, and I also managed to find some mouthwatering Chinese and Japanese cuisine around Place d’Italie (thanks, 湯姆).

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La Basilique du Sacré Cœur, which offers possibly one of the best views of suburban Paris.

Leaving the French capital at the end of 2015, I then ventured across the channel, over the White Cliffs of Dover, to visit a land filled with hardy Chinese immigrants, sneaky Russian oligarchs, wealthy Middle-Eastern oil sheikhs, and…

I kid, I kid. I, of course, mean double-decker buses, red telephone booths, the Underground, fish & chips, and Guinness—because who doesn’t love a cliché?

That adventure, however, is for another day, when I’ve recovered from my travel hangover. Good night, children. JSF.

A small collection of photos from my visit can be found here.

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