West Europe struggles with a cold winter. There is traffic chaos. There’ll be a white Christmas.
We were fortunate over the Christmas period of 1989. It was a relatively mild winter there then. I had finished my 18 month stint in the Beehive. Anne had never been to Italy and so we planned an Italian holiday as rest and relaxation for me and excitement for her (and me). We took a gamble on the weather. We had only one really strong storm.
In late November we were staying in London with friends before crossing the Channel, shops already decorated for Christmas. We were in Harrods – gaping mainly – though in the Christmas nick-nacks Anne stopped to buy a small owl for her sister Susan who collects them.
The pimply, toffee-voiced youth serving asked rather condescendingly as he wrapped up her meagre purchase ‘And where will Madam be spending Christmas?’
Inwardly I applauded her assured reply. ‘Lake Como’. Thereafter, he treated us with more respect. Eccentric, wealthy colonials?
It is 21 years to the day when we arrived at Como. We’d pre-booked a lakeside hotel. But when the taxi pulled up there were big signs it was closed and was obviously being renovated. All was well. Panic was unnecessary. We were re-directed to a hotel high in the hills above Cernobbio further up the lake. Its panoramic view included the renowned Villa d Este hotel on the waterfront directly below. A steep footpath took us down to the bus station or ferry into Como city.
We got fit as we used the path to catch the ferry back and forth daily and explored the city. In the industrial area we found an old church with ancient wall paintings. The Madonna had just given birth. There were blood-splattered sheets everywhere and a few women comforting the mother. It is the only painting I’ve seen which accepted the animal act of birth of Christ.
Christmas day arrived clear, bright and cold. I’d carried a good suit all the way from New Zealand, lugged it the bag through Paris, Nice, Venice, Ferrara, Florence and Siena. Just for this one day. Anne had bought a silk tie in Como for my present. I wore it. I could tell the proprietor approved. Anne was also dressed in her best. My present to her, leather gloves had been admired but they were for outdoors and today was an indoor day. We rang New Zealand mid-morning. Mid-evening here.
Lunch was twelve courses. The dining room was full of Italian family groups. There were prim aunts and grim uncles, there were jovial aunts and mischievous uncles, children in their Sunday best, well-behaved, polite and courteous, though I noticed a sulkiness in several. There was one solitary couple, both sagged with age and care but obviously still content in each other’s company. We were the only non-Italians there.
Evidentially, as part of the job, the chief waiter's wife and two teen-age children had a table. He looked harassed. Every time he went near she laid down the law. From her gestures and tone I gathered she considered their seating and service was not to her satisfaction. I could see him pleading with her to speak more softly and to let him get on with his duties. The man who imperiously had ruled the dining room all our stay revealed to have feet of clay. I felt sympathy for him. That was the only unhappy table in the room. He deserved better.
The food was delectable. The noise was loud but bearable,but it was part of an atmsphere of happiness and celebration. The view was superb. And as Anne said, we had to do nothing but eat. I gave up on the ninth course. I was replete. Christmas ‘89 was over, ahead lay Basel, Amsterdam, Vancouver and home. Chrsitmas 1990 was a long way ahead. Christmas 2010 unforseeable at that stage.
WORDS with Douglas McLennan
14 hours ago