Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Bah, Humbug! What Happened to My Christmas Spirit This Year?

The question in the title of this post is a rhetorical one. My Christmas spirit is exactly where it's been for the last eight holiday seasons, since I've been spending them fanning myself and wiping the sweat from my forehead in the Southern Hemisphere (2006-2010 and 2013) and in Bangkok (2011-2012). It's hard to conjure up images of Santa and snow under the red-hot summer sun. My Christmas spirit is miles away (to the north, to the north) and many years ago (decades, to be exact, somewhere around Christmas of 1983, which was the last one that really mattered to me).

With the exception of the random lady on the street who walked up to me and gave me a big hug a few Christmases into my stint in Buenos Aires, my favorite Christmas memory of the last eight years didn't even happen during the holiday season. It was July of 2008, and I was in New York City for my friend Amy's wedding. Some of us were staying at Moby's penthouse on the Upper West Side (he was on tour somewhere, I believe), and we had just gotten back from the reception. We were sitting on the terrace, looking down at the streets below, wondering who would deliver food to us in the wee hours.

I don't know what got into me, but suddenly the Christmas spirit hit me. "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." I was singing "The Christmas Song" as sung my Nat King Cole on a vinyl LP that my mother had when I was a kid, aping his immaculate phrasing and dramatic over-enunciation of words like "tiny tots." My friend Zena looked at me like she was witnessing the birth of Jesus himself. I don't know if it was the booze or hunger hallucinations, but we all thought me doing Cole was the funniest thing ever. I sang it over and over, until we fell asleep surrounded by pizza boxes and hamburger wrappers. (Yes, someone delivered!)


Now that I look back on this story, it makes sense that the Christmas spirit would hit me in the middle of July. For the previous few years, and for the ones to come, Christmas Day felt like a day in July. In Buenos Aires, although it was hot as hell, Christmas was a huge deal for everyone but me, unlike in Bangkok, where, aside from a few Christmas decorations scattered around town, Christmas came and went with very little fanfare, which makes sense when you consider that Thailand is primarily Buddhist. Last year, it fell on a Tuesday, and it was business as usual: Everything was up and running, from public transportation to the workers in the supermarket where I bought my groceries.

I couldn't have been more thrilled. The one thing I've hated most about Christmas as an adult is how everything shuts down, and for once, I didn't feel like I was in a ghost town on Christmas Day. (The previous year, it had fallen on a Sunday, so the city was as dead as it usually was on Sundays.) In Bangkok, Christmas was like any other day. And since Thais are friendly and helpful seven days a week, if you were a snow bunny missing your white Christmases, you could at least pretend that their disposition was Christmas cheer.

Christmas in Cape Town this year feels even less like Christmas than it did in Bangkok. It's a major holiday season where tourists from all over the world descend on the City Bowl to enjoy the warm weather and gorgeous natural scenery, but it's more about summer than Santa. Perhaps I just haven't been paying attention, but I haven't zeroed in on a single holiday decoration all season, and I don't believe I've heard "Happy holidays" or "We wish you a merry Christmas" more than twice. The mall that's adjacent to the apartment complex where I'm living wasn't much busier today or yesterday than any other day since I moved in last week.

I spent several hours of my Christmas Eve morning at Mediclinic Cape Town -- which I suppose is Cape Town's version of Bangkok's BNH Hospital, only the Mediclinic patient rooms must have stunning views of Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill -- for a painful ear disturbance that came on late last night. There was no Christmas cheer going around Mediclinic either, and unlike, BNH, no custom bottled water or sweet smiling nurses wearing those body-clinging uniforms and pointy hats from the 1950s. The nurse who took my blood pressure and asked me what was ailing me was dressed like she'd just stepped off the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, and she was all business, not cracking a smile nor regaling me with any perfunctory small talk. Lieutenant Uhura she was not.

I explained my ear symptoms and also told her about the recurring lower abdominal pain that I have been experiencing for the last few months, since I was in Tel Aviv. It comes and goes, usually coming when I go running or when I do abdominal exercises. She asked me how much the pain was on a scale from one to 10, the ear pain, not the abdominal one. "A five," I answered, reconsidering. "Make that a six."

After she did her bit, looking into my ears, giving me a urine test (which came back normal), and otherwise ignoring what I told her about my abdominal issues, and following a long waiting period that felt like forever, the doctor came in. I'm pretty sure he growled his first words to me. He was so gruff and impatient that I began to wish Nurse Starship Enterprise would return.

He asked me the same questions she had asked (clearly he hadn't bothered to read the notes that she'd spent five minutes writing down), and repeated all the steps she had (minus the blood pressure check) as if he were auditioning for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the hospital's production of A Christmas Carol. He pressed the area around my groin a few times, then my stomach and asked if I had any pain there. I told him no, and it was the last thing anybody said about my lower abdominal issues.

"Someone will come in and do an ear syringe - in both ears," he said as he was walking out. He never looked back, and he never returned. The nurse did, though, and after 30 uncomfortable minutes of having water pumped into both ears, only one, the one that hadn't been bothering me when I came in, was clear. The irrigation only half worked!

The nurse wrote down the name of ear drops for me to buy at any local pharmacy. They'd loosen up the wax over the course of two days and 20 drops, after which I could return for them to try again. "That'll be five hundred sixty-two rand [roughly $55]," the cashier announced on my way out. For what, I wasn't sure.

As I walked to the pharmacy, I prayed for a Christmas miracle for the first time this season: Please let the Waxsol ear drops work and clear out whatever is stuck in my right ear so that I won't have to go back to Mediclinic. That would be the best Christmas present since my 1984 subscription to Billboard magazine.

Now is that asking for too much?
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