Locked up Abroad: It’s only Christmas, why are the shops closed?

I’d never seen such a long line at a supermarket in my life. It was December 22, 2006 and I was hoping to buy a few items at a chain supermarket in Vienna, Austria. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes, it was almost my turn. But then an announcement was made, in German, the lights were dimmed and the people behind me in line dispersed- some left their items in their baskets, others took the time to replace their groceries on the shelves.

“Veer closed now,” said the cashier, in English, sensing my confusion.

“But can’t I pay for my things?” I asked, hopefully.

“We close at six,” she said, pointing to a clock which proved that it was exactly six o’clock.

“Do you know if there are any other grocery stores in the area that are open?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “Everything will be closed until Wednesday.”

My wife and I had just arrived in Vienna for a four day weekend, and it was only Friday night. We assumed that the shops and museums would be open on Saturday and again on Tuesday. It turned out that the city was practically sealed shut for four full days. Some shops had limited hours on Saturday, December 23, but all were closed on Sunday and Monday, and again on Tuesday for St. Stephen’s Day.

Some restaurants remained open, but all the museums and other tourist attractions were closed. I didn’t actually mind that, but the real kicker was the fact that the streets were so eerily empty. Part of the joy of walking a great city like Vienna is the people watching, and the site of empty streets and shuttered storefronts was depressing. As Morrissey once crooned, “I want to see people and I want to see life.”

Fast forward to Christmas Day, 2011 in Falls Church, Virginia. I was about to make a sandwich from some leftover ham from our Christmas Eve meal and decided that some Swiss cheese would be the perfect complement to my lunch. I drove up the street from my house and found that both supermarkets we frequent were open. Not only that, but there were plenty of shoppers out and about. If the woman at the deli counter hadn’t wished me a Merry Christmas, it might have been just any other day.

I couldn’t help but think back to the four day lockdown in Vienna five years ago. Americans aren’t used to going even a full day with the shops closed, how would they cope with a four consecutive day shutdown? On Friday night, impatient shoppers hoping to buy Air Jordan sneakers were so eager to get into the shops that many rioted in cities across the country. Imagine the mayhem if the U.S. were to suddenly adopt European-style labor laws which mandated store closings for public holidays.

As a traveler, public holidays can be both a blessing and a curse. Having an opportunity to see how people celebrate various holidays in other parts of the world can be priceless, but walking empty streets for days on end is obviously a drag. As Americans, we’re used to being able to satisfy almost any passing fancy, even if it strikes us on Christmas day. That impulse is very hard to shake, no matter how long you live outside the U.S.

How do Americans cope with holiday shopping hours in other less consumer driven parts of the world? Some choose to bitch; others slow down and figure out how to go native. I’m caught somewhere in between, but I have to admit, my ham and Swiss cheese sandwich tasted awfully good.

[flickr image via Kevin Dooley]

Feliz Navidad: More Christmas traditions from Spain

Christmas, christmas, Navidad, navidad, Spain, MadridMerry Christmas from Madrid! Last year I covered some of the big Spanish Christmas traditions. This year I’d like to talk on a more personal level about how I and my in-laws celebrate. I’m married to a Spaniard. A Castilian to be precise, as regional identity is important here. Living in Madrid we have a very Castilian Christmas. My five-year-old son is pretty much Castilian too, although he’s got a Canadian dad and speaks English as fluently as his public school English teacher.

Being a good little Spanish kid, he’s written out his letter to the Three Kings about what he wants: The Lego Tech crane, a parking garage for his cars, “everything about Real Madrid” (the city football team), and “La Casa de los Gormitis”. The Gormitis don’t seem to have made it across the Atlantic but they’re the big thing for European boys right now. It’s a cartoon where children have a secret base under their parents’ house and turn into monsters to fight the bad monsters in the fantasy world of the Gormitis. Yeah, it hits all the buttons.

Of course the Three Kings came to visit his school, but my son wasn’t fooled. He immediately recognized that the African king Baltasar was played by his English teacher, a black guy from London. Reminds me of that Jesse James story I wrote about earlier today. Since the Kings don’t show up at our home to put gifts in our shoes until January 6, we still haven’t done our shopping. It always feels like the Spanish Christmas gives you more time to shop, even though it’s still exactly a year between gift-giving.

The season is in full swing, however. Everyone has been buying tickets for El Gordo, the national lottery. Personally I think gambling is a stupid waste of money, but I’ll be checking out the numbers this year because my optometrist gave me two tickets! This is a common way for businesses to reward regular customers.

This week my family set up two Bethlehem scenes. My mother-in-law has an old one of lead figures that goes on a side table in the dining room. It has the Kings, buildings, stream, bridge, the manger, and lots of villagers. Over it all Herod looks down from his castle with a rather grumpy expression. This diorama is far bigger and more elaborate than the diminutive Christmas tree we put in the hall. We also have a Playmobil Bethlehem scene (called Los Clicks in Spanish) that my son sets up in his room.

Last night we chowed down on lombarda (red cabbage with pine nuts), langostinos (king prawns), and heaps of nuts, candies, polvorones, and turrón. Polvorón is my favorite. These are crumbly little shortbreads made with flour, nuts, sugar, and milk. Like with Oreos, there’s more than one way to eat them. Some people just bite down and let the whole thing crumble in a tasty, dusty mess. Others squeeze them into a compact bit of tidy sweetness. I’m more of a crumbler than a squeezer. Turrón is an Arabic confection made of almonds, sugar, honey, and egg white. Other ingredients such as chocolate are added to create an endless variety of flavors.

Just before dinner we heard King Juan Carlos I’s annual Christmas Eve speech. Keeping with tradition, my family completely ignored him, even though they made sure the TV was on. I watched it more for the sake of this article than to actually hear what he had to say. Sitting in his palace with a Nativity scene to one side and a photo of Spain’s victorious football team to the other, El Rey talked about the economic crisis, the threat of terrorism, and the drug problem. Pretty much the same issues as last year. There was also a Christmas message from Spanish soldiers serving in overseas operations such as the Indian Ocean, Antarctica, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.

Got to run. Soon my 99 year-old neighbor will show up. She’s become my son’s de facto great-grandmother. It’s nice to see someone born in 1911 interacting with someone born in 2005. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is cooking up a giant Christmas lunch. Yeah, I lucked out in the mother-in-law department.

SkyMall Monday: It’s my first Christmas tree, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree SkyMallToday is Cyber Monday. It’s the internet version of Black Friday. What does all this retail marketing speak mean? Well, it’s officially the holiday shopping season (with a special emphasis on the shopping). By now, your Thanksgiving leftovers have begun to spoil and your mind has replaced thoughts of turkey with lists of gifts for family, friends and coworkers. With so much emphasis on shopping, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are really about: togetherness, appreciation and, of course, fruit cake. You might find it odd for a snarky, sarcastic travel writer who was raised Jewish and then became agnostic to wax poetic about the holiday season when he’s supposed to be writing about SkyMall, but hear me out. Here in the SkyMall Monday headquarters, we just set up our Christmas tree. I love this tree. It has its origins in all the things that make this time of year so special: family, SkyMall and Charlie Brown. This week is a little bit different for SkyMall Monday. Rather than simply reviewing a product, I’d like to share with you my story of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.As I mentioned above, I was raised Jewish. We were not a very observant family. Bacon cheeseburgers were enjoyed often and we only saw the inside of a synagogue when we were summoned to attend a bar mitzvah (including, oddly, my own) or a wedding. Sure, we’d light the menorah on Chanukah, but my extended family would gather at my aunt and uncle’s house for their annual holiday party on Christmas Eve. My aunt was Catholic, so it made sense. Also, no one had work the next day. Few offices tend to close for Chanukah and the adults usually enjoyed a fair amount of eggnog wine. My sister and I would receive our gifts on Christmas morning. Why? Well, probably so we could experience that special joy along with all the other kids around the world.

Over the years, my family evolved. My parents divorced, my father remarried and we all stopped attending my aunt and uncle’s holiday party because, well, that’s what happens with families. The holidays became far less formal. Now, I visit with my mother to exchange gifts and spoil my nieces with toys. I go to my father and stepmother’s home for dinner and exchange more gifts. All of these gatherings are done on arbitrary days selected only because everyone’s schedule is free. There’s no dressing up. No huge gatherings. Just immediate family, a new generation of children and lots of laughter. In my mind, things have improved. I’m with the people I love the most and get to spend Christmas Day in Chinatown stuffing my face.

My stepmother was raised Catholic and, as such, she and my father have a Christmas tree every year. She’s about as Catholic as we are Jewish, though, so there’s no nativity scene to be found in their house. Just plenty of holiday music and that great big tree. I’ve always cherished having that tree there. Not because it’s a symbol of Christmas or houses all of our gifts. I enjoy it simply because it means, after another long year, the people I love are together again.

Bigfoot Yeti Holiday Ornament SkyMall Christmas TreeLast year, under that very tree, was an oddly shaped, awkwardly wrapped box bearing my name. It was long, three-sided and strangely light for its size. When the time came to open our gifts, I immediately attacked that mystery package. Upon opening it, I was delighted. I was 30-years-old at the time, but easily could have been three based on my reaction. There, in my very secular hands, was a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

That’s the very same tree that I set up this morning. The picture you see above? I took that five minutes before sitting down to write this. It’s not the musical version sold on SkyMall. The catalog used to sell the silent model that my father and stepmother bought for me but, like all things these days, even the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree has received a technological upgrade. I, however, prefer my simple tree.

It’s not really a celebration of Christmas. It’s certainly not a rejection of Chanukah or Judaism. It’s a reminder of what’s important. As you begin your holiday shopping, try to maintain some perspective about why this time of year is so special. Whatever your traditions may be, no matter how annoying your holiday travels are and regardless of your religious affiliation (including those who don’t have one at all), remember that this time of year is about family, giving thanks and Bigfoot Holiday Yeti Ornaments.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Christmas in Spain

¡Feliz Navidad!

Spaniards are big into Christmas. The eating, the gift giving, the shopping craziness, it’s all here with a distinctly Spanish twist.

Hold off on the presents

The day for gift giving isn’t Christmas, but Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Eve isn’t a time for anticipating what’s under the tree but for sitting with the family chowing down heaps of good food while ignoring the king’s annual speech on television. Epiphany is the chance for another Big Feed. Spaniards don’t really need an excuse to have a giant dinner with all the family!
Shopping continues right into early January. After Epiphany there are Las Rebajas (“The Sales”) when stores try to get rid of their excess stock. Spaniards wanting to save money can give a notice that they’re going to buy someone something, and then buy it when the big sales come. This year many shops have started Las Rebajas early because of La Crisis. I’ll let you translate that one for yourself.

Los Reyes Magos, not Santa

Santa is known here, of course, and you see lots of inflatable Santas hanging from people’s windows, but he takes second place to the The Three Kings or Wise Men. Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltasar showed up on Epiphany to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Every year they fly into Madrid and other cities to much pomp and ceremony and go on a big parade through town.
Baltasar, the African king, is the kid’s favorite. You see him and his buddies hanging out in department stores taking requests from excited children, and kids send lists of toys to them like American kids do with Santa. Baltasar used to be played by Spaniards in blackface, something that doesn’t have the cultural baggage here that it does in the United States, although I still haven’t gotten used to seeing it! Luckily the influx of African immigrants in the past few years has provided a ready supply of real Africans to play the favorite Wise Man.
On the night of January 5 people put one of their shoes in the living room for the kings to place presents next to. It’s also nice to leave out some milk and cookies for the Kings’ camels. They have to walk all around Spain in one night and they get hungry.

%Gallery-80910%Bethlehem, not Christmas trees

Because the Wise Men are so popular there’s a long tradition of making dioramas showing them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, Belén in Spanish. They’re called Belénes and can get quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. Check out the gallery for some examples. Many private homes have a Belén and shops often put them in their windows. A pharmacy near my apartment has the best in my barrio. It fills the entire front window and takes a couple of days to set up.
Christmas trees, originally a German tradition, have never been big here. Considering the size of most Spanish apartments you couldn’t have a very impressive tree anyway! Besides, if you had a big tree there would be no room for a Belén.
Check out the gallery for some fine examples of Spanish Belénes and others from around the world, featured in an exhibition by Caja Duero on until January 10 in Madrid.

El Gordo

There’s also the big national Christmas lottery called “El Gordo”. The grand prize always runs into the millions of euros and there are lots of smaller prizes to tempt people who don’t understand statistics into playing again and again. There are so many winning numbers that the drawing takes most of the day. The numbers are sung out by schoolchildren on TV and radio and their high-pitched sing-song recitation of the numbers is one of the sounds of Christmas here.

So what about Spanish New Year? One distinct custom is that as the clock starts striking twelve you have to eat a dozen grapes before it finishes. That’s harder than you think. Other than that people hit the town, drink a lot, and make out with people they probably shouldn’t. Some traditions are universal.

7 reasons to spend the holidays away from home

Christmas is traditionally a time for family, but it can also be the ideal time to travel. Who says you have to stay home for the holidays? Here are seven reasons to spend the holidays traveling.

Travel deals

While the holiday season can be one of the most expensive times to travel (especially with those annoying extra fees), it can also be a time of great deals to certain destinations. Especially when you compare what it might cost to fly home to visit family within the US, the price for flying to an international destination may seem downright cheap. Last year, it would have cost my husband and I $400 each to fly to Florida to spend time with my family. For $200 more per person, we opted to go to Spain for 10 days instead.

Check out last-minute flights both on and around the holiday and you might be surprised at what you find. And don’t be afraid to fly on Christmas Eve/Day or New Year’s Eve/Day. This year, I saved $400 on my ticket to South Africa by flying back at 11:30pm on New Year’s Eve.Experience Christmas in another culture
Stockings hung by the fire, leaving cookies out for Santa – these are great traditions to enjoy with your family, but why not try something new this year. So how Christmas is celebrated in Italy, or Mexico, or Russia. Spending time around the holidays in another country can provide you with a unique look at another culture as you see how those people celebrate this special time of year.

Free days off
Many companies shut down for a few days over the holidays, which means you can use a few extra free days to pad your supply of vacation days. A trip that may have used up seven days will only require four if you schedule it from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.

The end of December is often a better time to request time off as well. Many offices that do stay open operate on only a skeleton crew due to slower business around the holidays.

No taking sides
For children of divorced parents, the holidays can be an exercise in juggling. Add in two sets of in-laws, and you’re looking at four holiday commitments over 48 hours. The rushing and clock-watching is enough to drive you straight into a vat of eggnog. And if you put your foot down and say you can only commit to one family per day, well then you’re playing favorites about the different families.

Instead of rushing from house to house, giving each party just a few hours, schedule a special day with different branches of your family tree before Christmas and then spend the holiday stress free.

Two words: Christmas bonus
If your office still gives out a holiday bonus (lucky you!), what better way to spend it than on an unforgettable trip. Before you have a chance to be “practical” and put the cash towards home improvements, or to slowly spend it on meals out and new clothes over the next few months, take that chunk of change and put it towards a trip you’ve been dreaming of.

Give back
The holidays are a time of giving, so why not use this time to take part in a voluntourism group. Spread your charity work around the globe by heading off a volunteer vacation.

Escape the commercialism
Christmas should have more meaning than presents and parties, but it’s hard to separate the meaning of the holiday from the commercialism that threatens to overtake it, especially when you are bombarded by ads reminding you daily just how many shopping days are left. Escape the onslaught and head to your version of paradise. Lounge on a deserted beach, go mountain climbing, trek through the dessert or just retreat to a little cabin in the woods.

And as a bonus, if you are traveling with a companion, you’ll now have one less person to buy gifts for. Just consider the trip a present to the both of you.