A Kiwi acquaintance likes to say that summer cookouts make her think of Christmas. Well, I can’t claim that same association — but here it is August and I am thinking about Christmas. Guess that means I’m just that behind on blogging!
Way back last September I booked (incredibly cheap) tickets from Austria to the U.S. for Christmas, in hopes that Covid might be more or less “over” by then. (What optimism!) Initially, I halfway deluded myself that I wasn’t going to stress about whether the trip would be possible or not. Celebrating the holidays in Vienna instead of with family would also be nice, right? And, after all, the airlines were promising full reimbursements for canceled trips, no questions asked.
However, as the date of departure approached (and both departure date and airport of arrival shifted, due to airline-initiated cancelations), I had to admit to myself that my heart was set on spending the holidays with Hannah and Peter. So, when I developed very strange throat issues a week or so before I was to fly, I became intensely anxious. (It seemed like any symptom could be Covid, which would keep you off a plane. But no, apparently it wasn’t that – and also wasn’t major thyroid issues, which the doctor has me scurrying to get tested before being gone for a month.)
In the end, after all the worry about whether the flight would really take off and whether I would really be on it, it did and I was. And once past all the pre-boarding stress, flying felt rather normal. Sure they’d added a few lines to the safety measures spiel, and we were all wearing masks (except when we weren’t: the irony of most of us gladly relinquishing our masks to enjoy dinner still amuses me). But maybe it just felt “normal” because hurtling through the stratosphere while watching a string of movies and going backward in time (traveling west, that is!) is already weird enough!
Arriving in Philly, I discovered that the health declaration form I’d filled out on the plane was apparently of no interest to anyone — unless I deemed it to hold souvenir value (I decided it didn’t).
I also discovered a WhatsApp message from Hannah, clarifying who was picking me up from the airport. I should start by backing up to say that a few days prior Peter had come down with a “cold” or “sinus infection,” which proceeded to suspiciously rob him of his sense of taste and smell; so I was already prepared to spend a couple days at his sister Margrethe’s place, in case he tested positive for Covid and they were quarantining. But, I wasn’t quite expecting Hannah’s message at the airport, apologetically explaining that, well, she didn’t feel so good that day…. Turns out they both had Covid — mercifully, mild cases.
As disappointing as the change in plans was, I was so thankful to be greeted with a big hug by Margrethe, and she proceeded to host me at her place in the most gracious manner possible for the next week plus. Since Hannah and Peter felt more like they had a cold rather than something more threatening, I admit that we did some just-squeaking-by-the-letter-of-the-law quarantine maneuvers, featuring visiting through the front door at their place or Margrethe’s back door. In our defense, it was hard to be in neighboring towns, rather than on different continents, and not be allowed to be in the same room!
That first week or so turned out to be a great chance to get better acquainted with my brother-in-law’s sister — or should I say my sister’s sister-in-law? Both terms are rather cumbersome, so I am happy to report that in this case the German language (or at least Austrian dialect) offers a shorter word for something than English does, and you can colloquially refer to your sister’s sister-in-law as your “Schwippschwägerin.” (Admittedly, also a bit of a mouthful.)
At first, we had to sort of feel each other out about shared space, meals, etc., but we conveniently share a love for coffee, for long morning chats over said coffee while standing in the kitchen, for enormous amounts of popcorn with a movie, for quiet to do our own thing (for me, reading and doing a bit of work for university), for cooking creatively…. I guess the food theme is kind of obvious, but Margrethe is a great cook (it seems to run in the family), and we had a lot of good conversation in and around Indian butter chicken and zucchini soup in homemade bread bowls, and (did I already mention?) mugs of coffee.
For Christmas Eve, I joined Peter’s two sisters and their dad for a very low-key celebration — everyone was more than willing to postpone the “real” Christmas celebration till the rest of the family could be there. But we still enjoyed a festive evening, and I felt very grateful to be welcomed in so warmly!
Christmas Day Margrethe made the two of us French toast for breakfast, and I spent a lot of time reading by the Christmas tree. Hannah and Peter dropped by for a through-the-closed-back-door visit (where we all tried hard to be cheerful and make the most of the situation), and I ate yummy Indian leftovers for dinner. Margrethe returned from her dad’s in time for us to enjoy watching a movie together. Probably the strangest 25 December I have every had — at least rivaling Christmas 2005, when we Holders were in New Zealand for a summertime Christmas with our aunt and uncle and cousins there.
Finally, the day after Christmas, Hannah and Peter were both finished with their quarantine, and I got to step inside their front door! When I was there last, it was still a massive pre-move project — in Summer 2019 we spent many (happy!) hours painting walls and ceilings. So, one of the first things I had to do upon arriving at Christmastime was to take a grand tour — appreciating the artistic style with which they have together crafted a home from the attic on down! Quite the show-and-tell session. And then the evening proceeded with decorating the Christmas tree together (yes, on 26 December!) while listening to Christmas music and grazing on a splendid charcuterie and opening our Christmas stockings and ending up rather giddy with laughter.
Sunday started off with the oddly named “Dutch baby” for breakfast (half the fun is watching it rise magically in the oven).
Then we headed off to church (rather a novel experience for me, since we were only having livestream services at the time at my church in Vienna), followed by a leisurely afternoon with Peter’s sisters and dad. Again good food, plus a fire in the fireplace, and the pleasure of being able to gather after the strange semi-isolation of the preceding days.
Monday Peter and Hannah and I determined was our “Christmas Day.” We started off with the Holder traditional breakfast, followed by opening gifts.
The best gift was Hannah’s replicating Mom’s loose-leaf recipe collection — complete with a less-faded version of Mom’s cloth-covered binder (and the revised edition adorned with Hannah’s embroidery) and copies of dozens upon dozens of recipes Mom either cut from magazines or copied from friends or received as part of a family letter or otherwise collected over 35-plus years of cooking for the family.
After opening gifts, the traditional Christmas Day trajectory took a novel turn: Instead of a big company dinner in the afternoon, the three of us spent the rest of the day taking a beautiful country drive, spontaneously stopping for ice cream, and sharing what was, growing up, our favorite birthday dinner menu.
The following days I won’t try to describe is great detail. But common themes were games (Hand and Foot, Zilch, Ingenious, Dutch Blitz), walks (in town and on nearby rail trails), a whole array of delightful meals and interesting drinks (whipped coffee, anyone?), visits with friends from the neighborhood or from church (it’s so nice to like your sibling’s friends!), snatches of work and study (one morning involving getting up for an online lecture at 3:30 a.m. EST!), movie nights, and a trip to the festively decorated Longwood Gardens.
Another highlight was the multiple country drives we took together (Amish farms, buggies, bald eagles, miniature horses, big skies).
New Year’s Eve we gathered with Peter’s side of the family, including his brother and family in from D.C., for a combined Christmas and New Year’s celebration. The family’s Scandinavian roots became freshly apparent by the amount of pickled fish that appeared on the table — oddly tasty, but very foreign to the Holder palate! Definitely also not a Holder tradition — but seems like it wouldn’t be so bad to institute — were the midnight ice cream sundaes.
The following weekend my former flatmate in Vienna drove up from D.C. for a visit. Jessica is an avid conversationalist, game-player, and partaker in outdoor activities. So, we did some exploring of the area together, including a walk near the Susquehanna River. It was also quite handy to have a fourth person for the team version of Hand and Foot!
…Back in the fall, I had booked plane tickets for a whole month’s visit, the plan being to stay just long enough to be able to celebrate Hannah’s birthday on 14 January. (The last time we celebrated a birthday together would have been hers in 2012.) Peter and I had a lot of fun planning and executed surprises that lasted all day!
For starters, I got up early to make a three-course breakfast: 1) yogurt parfait with (H and P’s homemade) tomato preserves and topped with caramel-pecan crisps, followed by 2) mini sweet potato and bacon quiches, and ending with 3) lemon-blueberry gingersnap tartlets.
Afterwards, Hannah and I attended a C. S. Lewis reading club she has been part of for quite some time — a diverse group of women, ranging in age from 30-something to around 80, and coming from quite a spectrum of Christian backgrounds. It was great to be able to meet those attending that day and to be able to picture the group and discussion style.
In the afternoon, H and P and I enjoyed some frisbee-playing in a nearby park, as well as multiple rounds of Ingenious (nice when the birthday gift is an instant success).
In the evening, we enjoyed take-out from a favorite Nepalese restaurant in Lancaster, followed by the surprise of their pastor and his wife showing up for dessert and conversation and laughter!
Well, all trips do come to an end at some point. In this case, British Airways canceled my flight, so I rebooked with another airline and stayed an extra week. The last days were pretty low-key, partly because we were waiting to see if I had caught Covid from the friends who came for Peter’s signature New Year Day’s pork and sauerkraut. Thankfully not, and I headed back across the Atlantic on the emptiest flight I’d ever seen. (Only in the middle of a pandemic can you find affordable, one-way, non-stop tickets from Newark to Vienna, get from baggage drop-off and through security in less than 20 minutes, and have only one other passenger sharing a row of seven seats.)
Having arrived in my tale back in Vienna, I’ll conclude for now!