In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.
I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.
“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.
I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.
Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”
Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”
At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World. My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria. Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats. Everyone was very earnest.
To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.
But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.
They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.
There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”
And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.
The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.