24 December 2003

Farflung Christmas Memories

1971 - I was only weeks away from my Army ETS date at Ft. Gordon, GA. My brother had just finished his first semester at Berea College, KY. The rest of the family was across the Pacific, so I took the Greyhound bus up to Berea so we could have our own minireunion. The transfer terminal at Corbin, KY, still sold the old small bottles of Coke for 5 cents. The few Berea students who hadn't been able to go home for the holidays were consolidated into one dorm to save on heating. Most seemed to be Asian students living on ramen noodles, but I was determined to take my brother to the nicest (well, the only nice) place in town, Boone Tavern Hotel, where he worked as a bellhop, using up far more Brasso in one day on the old elevator cage doors than I used up in my entire 996 days in the Army. Berea College, which U.S. News ranked #1 in the South for 2004, charges no tuition but requires 100% of its students to work for the college and its assorted enterprises (for rather meager wages, it's true). Unfortunately for us that Christmas Day, Boone Tavern required not only a coat-and-tie, but advance reservations. Nowhere else within walking distance was open, so our elegant Christmas dinner turned out to be individual-sized frozen pizzas from 7-Eleven.

1976 - I was nearing the end of my language fieldwork in a tiny village on the north coast of New Guinea between Salamaua and Morobe Patrol Post. There was a special Christmas service. Most of the village kids were home from their boarding schools. (The village was too small to have its own school.) A young pastor from the village had returned. Most of the church services--and all of the hymns--were in JabĂȘm, the church language of the German Lutheran mission from Neuendettelsau in Bavaria, but this pastor was determined to reach the younger audience by translating the sermon into Tok Pisin, the English-based pidgin that is the de facto national language of Papua New Guinea. Like so many Christmas services, this one had a children's pageant. But, unlike most, this one featured swineherds guarding their swine by night rather than shepherds guarding their sheep. When the kids who played the swine began snorting and squealing like real pigs, the village hunting dogs went berserk.

1983 - After a rather grim autumn in Bucharest, Romania, Mrs. Far Outlier and I bought roundtrip train tickets to Budapest and Vienna for Christmas. Unfortunately, the CFR (Cai Ferate Romaniei [= Chemin de fer de la Roumanie]) foreign exchange cashier had sold us only one ticket for the two berths in our sleeping compartment. When the car attendant discovered this, he was very distressed until I paid him in Romanian lei for the second berth and threw in a complimentary pack of Kent cigarettes, the universal foreign exchange medium bribe in Romania (the universal cue being Avets Kents 'Do you have Kents?'). At the first stop, in Ploiesti, a passenger got on, schlepped his luggage down the hallway, looked into our compartment, saw two people occupying it, and uttered, in English, "Oh, shit." The car attendant no doubt earned a second pack of Kents that night. Compared to Bucharest, Budapest seemed like heaven--clean and orderly, with real coffee, well-stocked store shelves, and even pedestrian-crossing buttons at intersections. But, compared to Budapest, Vienna was even more heavenly, but also more expensive. We sampled mulled wine at the Kristkindelmarkt, saw Die Fledermaus at the Staatsoper on Christmas Eve, and heard (but couldn't really see) the Wiener Singer Knaves on Christmas Day.

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