Monday, December 26, 2011

By the Way, Merry Christmas

I'm always suspicious of people who rattle on about how much they hate celebrating Christmas. It's like sitting in the Barcalounger and grumbling about how you stubbed your toe the last time you walked across the living room floor.  Move the ottoman, for God's sake. Rerrange the area rug.  It's your house.

I've had more than the average share of truly miserable Christmases, but I've found, as I advance in age, that it's possible to wrest the holiday away from the past and turn it into something else entirely, without tradition or expectations. Sometimes, it can even be fun. Last year, for example, we lolled around Leah's apartment in Chicago all Christmas Day, went to the movies and then ordered in Chinese. It was a nearly perfect holiday, in my estimation. And this year, while it was nip and tuck there for a while, all turned out well, with a genuine Sam Goldwyn touch.

The Christmas surprise this year was not that we celebrated the holiday in a faux-European cafe in a Beijing hutong, watching Guys and Dolls being projected on a blank wall to a crowd of appreciative expats.  The absolute miracle was that all of us had arrived, together and in one piece, and had managed to find the place.

One stray listing in a Beijing City Weekend magazine had led us to this Christmas Day Folly. It had all seemed like a good idea until we were forced to take two cabs, agreeing to meet Emma and Olivia on a designated street corner in a neighborhood called Gulou Dong Dajie, in the Dongcheng district,which is roughly about the size and population of Iowa.
If I had somehow thought the street corner would look like the corner of Lyndale and Diamond Lake, I was soon disabused of the notion. As Dick, Mary and I skittered out of the taxi and began to look around, it was clear that the scene was more like the opening of a James Bond movie than a starting point for a family outing.  All that was missing was a motorcycle making its getaway and upending a few vegetable stands, and we were ready for Central Casting.

I scanned the crowd in vain, frustrated by Emma's refusal to answer her cell phone, and hearing my mother's voice in my head, muttering something about "white slavery." It would certainly be a challenge to explain Olivia's disappearance to her parents, I realized. I began to form a bit of a spin for them:  "The trip was going really well, right up until then..."

Thank God for O's height, and her hat, because she stood out of the crowd much more than Emma, who has a way of blending in here a lot more than she ever did in Minneapolis. In the fifteen minutes our poky cab driver had lagged behind them, they'd already been accosted by beggars and saved by an English-speaking resident. Olivia had had her picture taken "by someone with a huge Nikkon," she reported, smugly.  I felt as if I could cry with relief.

The trek through the narrow alleyway in search of 44 Baochao Hutong (宝钞胡同44号) seemed minor after that scare. We found it in no time, and while the rest of the gang went off in search of dumplings, I chatted with the owner, a Kurkistani who had partnered in the business with friends from Hong Kong, Spain and Italy. The Italian's grandma, here on a visit, was in the kitchen making gnocchi. Hot wine in hand (thank God; it was about fifty degrees in the place), I chatted with a girl from Ukraine and waited for the movie to start.

There was Nathan Detroit, setting up the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. There was Miss Adelaide and her chronic cold. Nicely Nicely was told to sit down, he was rocking the boat. And, as I glanced out the uninsulated window at the curved tile roofs, the red lanterns and the occasional passing scooter, there was old Beijing, still looking like a James Bond movie, but a little less overwhelming now that we were all together.

A few hours earlier, as we'd been making our way to the cafe, a young man had approached Emma and asked if he could have a picture taken with us. He needed it for his English class, he explained. I suspected that he just wanted a record of these incredibly pasty and puffy humanish specimens who had wandered into his ancient alleyway. After the photo was snapped and we started to walk away, he hurried behind us, remembering something.  "By the way," he said, "Merry Christmas."

You're not kidding, pal.

Here's a link to the cafe, the next time you're in town. Wear a sweater, order the hot wine and tell them that the puffy white family sent you.

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