What if you were truly haunted by the ghost of Christmas past?
Sometimes I think I might be.
That First Christmas
We spent our first Christmas as a married couple in a fairy tale setting. It was crisp and cold that year in Vienna, Austria. We strolled through the market in front of the Rathaus. Recalling my love of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, I fell in love with the nutcrackers of every shape and size.
Jumping into the local culture with the appetites of youth, we sampled gluhwein (hot spiced whte wine), ate wurst larded with cheese from sidewalk stands, and found a charming pub-style restaurant at the end of the tram line that specialized in groestl, a hash made with potatoes and ham. When we had enough local food we visited the 2-story McDonald’s.
The trip was an introduction to eiderdown comforters. We snuggled in a double bed slightly larger than a twin, and watched German television piped in from Bonn. For some reason old American sci-fi movies dubbed in German were popular. The 50’s flicks were campy, with specific effects depending on aluminum foil and string. The spacecraft looked like flying yams.
The commercials were the best part, especially the English language ad touting Spandau Ballet, “the band that styled the 80’s.” We recognized the song “True,” which had gotten decent air time in the US, but fell over ourselves with laughter at the tag line. Even today, one of us will suddenly come out with it, and for some reason it is still as funny as it was then. I mean, come on.
The Band That Styled the 80’s.
You had to have been there, I think.
End of an Era
While we were in Vienna, the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to a gruesome end in neighboring Romania. He was the last Communist leader in Eastern Europe to fall. I saved the edition of the International Herald Tribune with the story of the Christmas day execution of Ceaușescu and his wife. You can read this Huffington Post article about it.
Suddenly, there was another tear in the Iron Curtain. Romanians came flooding across the border into Vienna, stuffed into tiny cars or by the busload to see what the free world looked like. They were slightly shell-shocked in their drab, poorly made clothes, as they took in Vienna’s magnificent architecture, restaurants, and pastry shops loaded with food. They gawked at the markets loaded with high quality Christmas decorations.
A McDonald’s Moment
The McDonald’s was a magnet for the Romanians, although they couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were in the restaurant at one point, eating our way through a sizeable meal. A Romanian couple sat nearby, sharing a single Happy Meal. They ate slowly and with great wonder.
Related post: What I Learned at McDonald’s and it isn’t about the food
That meal was a gift in many ways. It made me realize the joy there is in freedom and to never take it for granted. I recognized how lucky I was to be able to watch the awakening of a nation, yet not have to carry the burden of the past or the fear of change.
Ghost of Christmas Past
That couple in the McDonald’s in Vienna is my ghost. But in a good way. Rarely does a year go by that I don’t think of them. They were about our age, amazed at what the world outside Romania was like.
I hope things worked out for them and that they are prosperous now. Maybe getting ready to enjoy Christmas, laughing about how naive they were that first time out of Romania. Thinking about the American couple they saw in McDonald’s and how they looked like freedom.
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I'm author Carmen Amato.
I used to work for the CIA, now I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco.
Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.