Holidays from Hell
Be careful what you plan for
As we move into the Season of the Grinch, the days grow shorter and I grow ever more churlish. “The Little Drummer Boy” countdown begins as I am driving—how many more on the radio before the blessed day arrives, a-rumpumpumpum! How many unwanted calendars will come my way before we ring in the new year? How many unwelcome gifts will I unwrap this year, and how many from last year can I, in good conscience, unload on others?
I wasn’t always this crabby about the holidays, but after nearly seven decades on the planet, the whole thing really does get to be a bit tedious, and it becomes harder and harder to remember the magic of Christmas. Because, for sure, it was magical once. When my brother and I were children, my parents read the story of the Nativity to us on Christmas Eve, I baked cookies with my mom, we tore open presents on Christmas Day, there was always a splendid tree….
And then one grows up and wants to establish one’s own customs and perhaps that’s when things start to go haywire. For several years after we were married, the ex and I divided our yuletide favors between our two families of origin: Christmas Eve with his mom and siblings, Christmas Day with my parents. Or the other way around. And then when we were in our thirties we finally decided we’d had enough and I engineered what I hoped would be a cozy and romantic Christmas Eve for just the two of us. First we would attend the eight p.m. service at All Souls Unitarian, the church where we were married. Then we would have dinner in the Oak Room, the stately landmark restaurant in the pre-Trump Plaza Hotel. Next, weather permitting, would be a hansom cab ride through Central Park. And then home to our skyline-view Brooklyn Heights apartment, perhaps for some heavy-duty action under the mistletoe.
The service was lovely until we stood for the first carol and noticed ahead of us a former close friend of my ex’s, with whom he’d had a falling out a couple of years earlier (largely over me, much to my chagrin, though I’m a little blurry on the details). There was no way to avoid bumping into Bob as we exited the pew, and my then-husband demanded abruptly and without prelude: “What are you doing here?”
“Picking up women!” was his retort.
Really? In church? On Christmas Eve?
He grabbed my arm to push me toward the door. “Well, this one’s taken.”
For a moment, I feared a serious scuffle in the aisle of the venerable old church, but we made it safely to the street and even snagged a cab downtown.
The Oak Room, when we arrived on the dot for a 9:45 reservation, was awash in late-eighties money and waiters in overdrive. The maître d’ informed us that there would be at least a 30-minute wait. I protested that I’d confirmed the reservation that morning. “I’m sorry, Madam,” he shrugged, without a glimmer of real apology. Seated finally, we then waited what felt like an eternity for a drink and were told by the waiter that about five of the items on the menu were no longer available. I scarcely remember what we ate, but I have a vivid recollection of the dessert cart: it looked like it had been attacked by a Boy Scout troop.
On the way out, we were accosted by a freezing rain. No hansom cab ride that night; no cabs, period. I recall a grim subway trip back to Brooklyn and absolutely no rockin’ around the Christmas tree.
A few years later, after the ex’s fortunes had improved almost embarrassingly, we decided to spend Christmas week in Paris, our first trip ever to the City of Light. We flew first class; we stayed at the Plaza Athenée on the Avenue de Montaigne. Our room overlooked a courtyard with a twinkling tree. So far, so good. We found a bistro within walking distance, open late and gleaming with brass and polished wood. We were almost the only diners but for an elderly couple, both wearing impeccably tailored gray suits. The woman dipped her head toward her companion, presumably her spouse, whispering into his ear, and he in response smiled broadly.
“What do you suppose they’re talking about?” asked my then husband.
“She ees saying, ‘How come you nevair eat me anymore?”
It was possibly our last laugh in Paris.
For a couple of months before the trip, I studied up on the city by reading as many histories and guides as possible, including John Russell’s mighty tome, published 30 years earlier and still a delight. “Paris would be great, some people say, if it weren’t for Parisians,” he wrote. “Parisians…are abrupt, edgy, rapacious, egoistic, and smug.” A friend reported that Parisians had made fun of her clumsy accent. So I listened to language tapes in an effort to resuscitate four years of drill under the abrupt, edgy, and smug tutelage of my high school French teacher. The next day I marched confidently to the phone and called a restaurant at the top of our list, asking for a table à vingt heures et demie. And was met with a stream of such abrupt, edgy, and incomprehensible French that I dropped the receiver.
Much of the trip is a miserable blur until New Year’s. Somehow we wound up at the Musée de l’Armée twice. Every day brought a thin fine needling drizzle. A mysterious leak from the plumbing left puddles in the bathroom and housekeeping dutifully appeared to mop them up; the front desk insisted an engineer would make the necessary repairs but none ever arrived and we simply got tired of dealing with the concierge and threw towels on the floor. My ex did not like the idea of braving the métro, which I insisted was easy to figure out, and so we tried to take taxis everywhere, and these were as scarce in bad weather in Paris as in New York. The one time we did manage to board a bus, the vehicle ended up blocked by a poorly parked Citroën. We enjoyed a brief moment of triumph over the snooty French when my husband joined the bus driver in simply lifting the tiny car off its wheels and shifting it back toward the curb. The other passengers applauded.
We had plans to meet up with business colleagues of my husband’s for a New Year’s celebration at a private club that advertised a five-course, five-star dinner and dancing. I was smart enough to know that there was no point in trying to find an outfit sufficiently chic to compete with Frenchwomen, and so I settled on snazzy pantyhose and a new bag to wear with a three-year-old basic black dress. On New Year’s Eve, I struggled into the tights, duplicitously packaged as extra-long, only to discover that the crotch rode just a few inches above my knees. They were, of course, the only clean and runless pair on hand. So I decided I would brave out the evening by taking small steps and sitting a lot.
I left the hotel room ahead of my husband to ring for the elevator. Halfway down the hallway—where, in six days, I had never encountered another guest—I leaned over and reached up to give the whole business a not-so-discreet hoist. Then furtively looked behind me…at a trio of leggy, glamorous, criminally young, and mini-skirted Parisiennes approaching arm in arm with their tuxedoed escorts, all six pairs of eyes trained on the middle-aged broad hiking up her hose in the plushly carpeted corridor of one of Paris’s finest hotels. “J’ai perdu ma clef,” I mumbled as I slithered back into our room for a stiff scotch and a pair of slacks.
When we returned to the States, not at all rested or culturally enlightened by our experiences, I announced that it might be a good idea for us to go into couples counseling. The trip had brought out some very bad moments in our union, and we were both left feeling raw and confused. “I’m sorry,” said my then-husband, “but after that trip I don’t think we can afford therapy.”
In the years since, there have been many many other Christmases—with the ex, my parents, boyfriends, and friends—but none as damply miserable as that Yuletide season in Paris. It set the tone for future visits to the great city, and like the marriage itself, those trips never got much better, no matter who I traveled with or even if I traveled alone.
I offer you these tales of holiday disappointment as cautionary accounts of all that could go wrong during this season of unreasonably high expectations.
Take my advice: Stay home. Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 23rd time. Just say no to any expensive enticements. And if visions of sugarplums dance through your head, make a new year’s resolution to drink less and get more exercise.
I will be taking a break from Substack for the holidays, while I decide what to bring you in 2022. Perhaps I’ll revive “Eat My Memoir” or try more short stories. For sure, something will be coming your way. Falalalalalalalalala!
Top: Brassaï, In the Bistro, 1930s