Not home for the Holidays

Pere Noel, Daddai Na nollaig, Sinter Klaas, Papa Noel. The magic of Santa Claus is that he is everywhere in all different countries and all different languages and is known by many names. In fact, with the mileage he covers in a single night he just might be considered the very first frequent traveler. Imagine the amount of points he accrues in just one journey. I too like to travel during December, although usually in the earlier part of the month. Those last bitter days of Fall as it slides into Winter are still considered “low season” in the travel industry. That means the rates are favorable and there are fewer people travelling. Both of which appeal to me and probably to Santa too.  The downside is that you have to be very organized with regards to your holiday preparations such as card writing, decorating, wrapping presents and so on. If not, you return from a relaxing trip and jump head first into a veritable holiday windstorm of activity.  Then again, there are those who decide to throw tradition to the wind and completely abandon the seasonal obligations in favor of taking a vacation during the holidays. Imagine not having to clean and cook in anticipation of the arrival of family. Imagine not only having your holiday dinner prepared for you but also served in a relaxed environment with someone to clean up after you. I know it’s not for everyone and certainly not for me because I do enjoy all the fuss that goes into making the holidays so special. But, I will travel in early December when given the chance. The time of year ensures that it’s post tropical storm season which usually results in great weather wherever I go. Of course, there’s the bonus of getting better rates since it’s not yet high season in the Caribbean or ski areas.  By the time I return from these jaunts, the holidays are in full swing. There’s nothing like sitting on a beach at a resort to get you in the mood to write holiday cards. You might be sending good wishes to those friends and family members who could possibly be shoveling snow. If that sounds appealing, here’s a handy tip: since most people who receive holiday cards from exotic locales consider it to be a form of bragging, I strongly suggest that you delay posting your mail until you can obtain a local postmark. In other words, wait until you return home to mail them. No one needs to know that they were composed in a lounge chair by the beach. Unless of course, you want them to know. In my travels I have found that there are many similarities in the way we all celebrate, but there can also be distinctly local touches. Nothing evokes the romance of a classic holiday celebration quite like Merry Olde England. Visiting London and its surrounding areas during the holiday season is a bit like stepping back in time. I almost expected to see Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim coming down a local lane. There’s such a familiarity with English customs, Welsh carols and the classic tale of Scrooge that we associate the holidays most strongly with London in the 1800’s. Add a cup of Wassail and a roaring fireplace and now you’ve got a storybook holiday.  If the idea of warm weather is more appealing to you, you probably haven’t really experienced the variety of Christmas until you’ve seen Santa in shorts and flip flops. I had the pleasure of watching St. Nick arriving on the back of a moped as the star of a colorful street parade to honor his arrival. I assume that since reindeer are cold weather beasts the decision was made to let them remain in the North Pole during Santa’s tropical excursion. Sitting on a sandy beach and listening to familiar holiday carols albeit with a distinctly tropical sound thanks to Caribbean steel drums can put a lot more HoHoHo into your holidays. Especially if the weather is frightful back in New York.  A white Christmas is just as pleasant when the white stuff is the sand between your toes.  One memorable year I had the experience of visiting Israel during the holy season.  Being in Jerusalem during the time of Chanukah and Christmas does add a much deeper meaning to the holidays. However, Chanukah is a bit more like a festival than a high Holy day. Children receive Chaunkah coins called gelt and traditional foods are prepared and enjoyed. Christmas is a bit more solemn and reverent. Christ’s Mass is celebrated with the depiction and recreation of Joseph and Mary’s journey in search of an Inn. That journey seems even more poignant when you understand how tough the travel and how long the journey would have been in those historic days. My visit to Israel occurred prior to the expected pilgrimage of tens of thousands of believers who arrive annually for the celebration. Yet, for all of its current day commercialism of the holiday, being in the Holy City strips away all that is crass and simplifies the singular goal of all who visit. To quote Linus VanPelt in the classic Peanuts cartoon “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown”, celebrating where it all started “really brings Christmas close to a person”. If you’re looking for something a bit more meaningful than just a holiday break and to celebrate a tad closer to home, Rome would be the choice. You would need a special invitation to attend the Papal Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica but you are welcome to join the crowds attending the Papal blessing in St. Peters Square on Christmas Day. I’m confident that the toy industry would take umbrage with my suggestion of eschewing a toy laden holiday in favor of bringing yourself face to face with the source of our seasonal celebrations. But, to again quote the ever wise Peanuts crew “that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

May all your Witzels be bright

I attended the inaugural Polish Festival event held at St. Joseph’s Church in Poughkeepsie in 2013. I think that it can safely be said that it was definitely a big hit. You may have seen some of the road side signs and thought “gee, I didn’t know that Poughkeepsie had a Polish Festival” and perhaps, like me, you didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a lively atmosphere that had an energy that comes from success. They did experience some minor issues, because clearly, no one anticipated the huge turn out that the event attracted. Yet, everyone was happy.  Traditional music played as long married couples danced familiar and traditional dances. People caught up with friends they hadn’t seen in a while and enjoyed the company of others who shared their heritage. There were games for children, craft displays and ladies in regional costumes. They also had a tag sale/flea market/craft display area. It caught my attention and I wandered over to view the goods. I wasn’t really interested in bringing home any tchochkes but there was something that seemed oddly familiar. Was it the atmosphere or the items on the tables? It was as if I’d had this experience once before and in a moment of international déjà’vu, I realized that I had. More than two decades earlier I had visited Germany for the first time. My host decided that we should visit The Polish Flea Market. It may have had an actual name, but that’s how the locals referred to the market, so that’s how I still refer to it. At the time, I didn’t realize the historical significance of being able to go to the Polish Flea Market. We crossed the border from Germany and truth be told, I can’t even remember what town I was in or where the Polish Flea Market was actually held but looking at the tables here in Poughkeepsie was like taking a step back in time. Poland was and still is a young country with an old and noble history. Despite being targeted for “termination” by the Nazi regime, the Poles assisted the allies, helping to achieve an Allied victory. After almost 45 years the country emerged from Communism in the 1980’s to a democracy and created the country that exists today. Today, as with any flea market you scan the tables hoping to find an undiscovered treasure. Perhaps you’ll find something that the previous owner wasn’t wise enough to keep or astute enough to recognize its value. I believe that some shoppers enjoy the search more than the actual purchase. As I perused the tables I noticed that the items seemed more personal in nature and unlike the plethora of collectibles and used tools and clothing that seem to dominate American flea markets. The condition of the item didn’t seem to matter either. If it was broken and they didn’t fix it, surely someone else would. However, I wanted something unique, something that would remind me of my short visit with the people of Poland. And then, I found it! I’d never seen anything like it before. “It” was made of wood and shaped like a Christmas tree. There were miniature figures depicting the nativity and the animals and the Wise Men. It had a central metal rod that allowed me to twirl the circular platforms. The metal rod appeared to me to be missing a knob but still, it was obviously a “find.” Figuring that I surely could manage to find a replacement knob, I made my deal and left with what I thought was the best souvenir find ever.  I began to refer to my prize as a “Witzel”. The name seemed to fit and Witzel somehow seemed more appropriate than thing-a-ma-bob. I proudly displayed my Witzel for many Christmas seasons but somehow never got around to finding a suitable handle to complete the item. Every year I unpacked it and recounted the story of how I found it at the Polish Flea Market and how wonderful it was. It wasn’t until years later that I asked a co-worker of German decent if she might know what the actual name of my item was. She asked to see my Witzel in hopes of helping me finally learn its true identity.   I brought it to the office where my co-worker laughed and then informed me that the handle wasn’t the only thing missing. It turns out that I had purchased a fairly dilapidated Christmas Pyramid also known as a Weihnachtspyramide. It’s a multi tiered miniature carousel that spins carved figures, usually depicting the Nativity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a “handle” that was missing but also the propeller that turns the carved figurines like a carousel. In addition, it was also missing the means to deliver the power source of the wind beneath those missing Polish wings.  The candleholders which supplied the heat to spin the tiers were absent, as well, which roughly translated to: batteries not included! At first I was annoyed for buying something so broken down that it wasn’t able to be used as originally intended. Then I realized that I had enjoyed this treasure for many years without expecting it to do anything but sit beside my tree and remind me of that long ago visit to a Polish Flea Market. As always, I plan to display it at home this year as I have done for the previous 20 plus holiday seasons. I’ll also remember both the Polish Flea Market and the Flea Market at our local Polish Festival. I hope that you get to attend next year’s Polish Festival where perhaps you can find your own Witzel.  Lastly, I wish that you too will find joy in your traditions. May your days be merry and all your Witzels be bright.


The Elephant in the Room

Someone recently asked me if I was afraid to fly. I assume they were referring to the state of the world and the unrest in the Middle East. I hesitated at first, unsure as to whether or not to tell the truth and then was forced to admit that I have fears just like everyone else. Being in the travel industry doesn’t make me immune to the current worries about travelling. Quite the opposite. I am barraged, on a daily basis, with news of any travel related incident, no matter how small or how true. If a piece of luggage hits someone on the head in Akron, Ohio, I read about it. If an airplane chute accidentally deploys in Australia, I receive a notice. I also hear about the belligerent frequent flyer who continued to raise a ruckus even after he got his requested upgrade and know exactly where he was forced to deplane. I get this steady stream of “information” because I have to be able to correctly advise or sometimes even share a warning with the travelers who book their trips with my travel agency. In addition to the common and expected concerns of whether my own travel arrangements will go smoothly, if the weather will cooperate, did I pack correctly or even if I will awaken on time to ensure that I don’t miss my flight, I now have to worry about world safety. It has become the elephant in the front room of my office, and a rather large elephant at that. I can’t publicly admit that I’m afraid to travel during a time of turmoil because I am supposed to instill confidence and a sense of adventure in those whose arrangements I handle. But yet, I do have concerns. It wouldn’t be natural if I didn’t. I watch the news, I look for trends and I purchase additional insurance that pays out in case I don’t return. The preparation for the incredibly slim chance that I might not ever come home again, rattles me. I worry about my family, about who will care for my animals, what will become of the travel agency and my house. Of course there’s insurance and a will, but travel is supposed to be exciting, in a good way. It’s supposed to be fun, damn it! But the game has changed from the days of stewardesses bringing you drinks and pillows when all you needed to worry about was whether or not you left the iron plugged in at home. So, why then do I proceed with my plans? Besides the obvious positive results of taking a vacation, having an adventure and seeing a new destination? For one thing, if I don’t travel, “they” win, whoever “they” are.  And here’s something that surprised even me: It turns out that I’m actually more afraid of regret or a missed opportunity by not taking a chance. I know the odds and fortunately the odds are overwhelmingly in my favor that I will return safely home so it’s a calculated chance. But somewhere between knowing the odds and trusting them to be accurate is a huge leap of faith. I have a very clear recollection of my first trip to Asia. It was at a time when the Middle East was in incredible turmoil. Journalist Daniel Pearl had been murdered in the most barbaric fashion. My fears disrupted my sleep and I was truly terrified to leave the country. However, I was even more afraid of a missed opportunity. I forced logic to prevail over my fears and made the journey. It was a magnificent and memorable experience, for all the right reasons and the world cooperated and was quiet for a while. Statistics tell me that air travel is incredibly safe these days, much safer than my daily drive to work and I make that trip 6 days a week. According to the Washington Post, the odds of my being harmed in a terrorist attack are 1 in 20 million while the odds of my dying in an alcohol related instance are 1 in 150,000. If you compare that to say riding on a public bus or getting on a train or crossing a street, I’d say that you could make a case that safer conditions are found in the air. But, you never know so, I prepare. There is a will, there are instructions on how and who would be best to care for my animals. Despite the self-imposed drama,  I still travel. Possibly because I wonder what good is a life if it is lived in constant fear? Career wise, what good is a Travel Agent who won’t travel or help to inspire others to travel?  The travel industry in the United States is the 2nd highest revenue producer. Any decline in the travel industry contributes to the overall financial decline of the country. Travel not only brings welcome revenue to our country but also to those underprivileged nations who often serve as hosts to the wandering American public. Travel bonds families, broadens our minds, celebrates new marital unions, educates students and in general helps us develop a deeper appreciation for our own country. That experience comes from visiting our national parks or having seen, first hand, the lack of bounty in other countries that we as Americans take for granted in our own home towns. I also believe that it makes us better citizens. Citizens who might become a bit more tolerant of visitors to our country because they too have once been strangers in a strange land. A land with a different language, currency, dietary options and customs. Travel changes us as humans. The change might be as subtle as assisting someone with directions because once, you too had lost your way. It might be as simple as preparing a dish you had sampled during your travels and sharing it with a friend or neighbor.  You might be bold enough to spurn racism and prejudice, confident that, though different, we’re all human, taking us 1 millimeter closer to world peace.