A Tale of Christmas’ spent away from home

I love Christmas , always have , the lights , the present buying , the kids excitement and anticipation ,  the christmas playlist all around the house and the non stop blasting out of umpteen versions of Mary’s Boy Child , I love it all even the tacky elements and the plastic Santas !

While working abroad for fifteen years with the EU I missed spending Christmas at home because of work commitments for many years . The first was in Skopje , Macedonia in 1994 , a mainly Orthodox country so their Christmas is on January 6th and our day of the 25th December went largely unnoticed and it was work as usual . I remember it as a miserable time , my first christmas away from home and family and not being there when they opened their presents that morning . The MacSam Mission in Skopje was run by the Canadians , lovely people and they tried their best to cheer everybody up but those of us on duty especially those with kids like myself were walking around missing home . One Canadian officer , Claude Lussier , who sadly left this life last year , was passing by a large toy shop in downtown Skopje on Christmas Day where he saw a little 6 year old Roma child with her nose against the window looking in at a life size china doll she would never have and thinking of his own kids at home went in to the store and bought the doll and brought it out and gave it to the little girl , Claude said the look on her face made his Christmas .

Snezana & I on duty near Bihac , NW Bosnia December 1996

I spent my first Christmas in a Muslim country in Sarajevo in 1996 where there was no mention of Christmas and not a piece of tinsel paper in a shop window which somehow made it easier to forget that it was Christmas at home . These were the days before internet , mobile phones , Skype or WhatsApp and phone calls home were always breaking down as Bosnia’s telephone system was trying to recover after four years of war .

It is a bit crass and up yourself to be complaining about the lack of Christmas in Sarajevo in 1996 as the people had just come out of four years under siege from Serb forces with 7000 dead in the city and where trying to find food and water and avoid being shot by snipers was the main worry .

This is my Diary extract in early March 1996 after my first few days in Sarajevo just as the war ended

Sarajevo is a City which has just come out of a siege that has lasted four years and that is exactly what it looks like — not a house that doesent have shell holes , bullet holes , office blocks completely destroyed only shells remaining. Evidence of war everywhere, steel containers lined up side by side along exposed roads ,to protect passers -by from sniper fire. Yesterday I drove up to the Muslim area ,passing the sports stadium which has been dug up and turned into a cemetary, already overflowing with new graves. I saw the Serb families pulling out and leaving the City , all their belongings on the back of a lorry and as they passed us ,they had to run the gauntlet of Muslim children throwing stones and rocks. To balance this picture , when we drove over from Belgrade , we drove through the Muslim areas ,none of the villages had a house with a roof , they had been totally burnt out by the Serbs so it is tit for tat here in Bosnia.

I spent Christmas 1996 in Montenegro stationed in Niksic on the Bosnian border , a real bandit town , the centre of all war time smuggling with 20 gang related murders every WEEK .

The IGFY Mission insisted we all stay in a local hotel for security reasons where the hotel staff and in fact the entire town hated us as we were trying to stop the smuggling . The Hotel was called the Onogast but we all referred to it as the Holocaust and most of my international colleagues cooked in their rooms as quite a few had got sick from the hotel food and believed we were being slowly poisoned – I have to say I never got sick but if I tell you that half board cost 25 euros a day while full board cost an extra euro that says it all about the quality of the food and it was also noticeable that none of our local staff would eat with us and had their own special table where they ate together with presumably better food .

Diary Sunday 07/01/96   Niksic , Montenegro

My first feelings are what have I left myself in for ?! Niksic sounds like a BAD town and this is before you hear all the firing of AK47’s, pistols, shotguns etc. as the locals celebrate Orthodox Christmas and New Year. Apparently two occupations which are highly respected around these parts are smuggling and being a warrior — and the two fit like a glove here which can make it dangerous for Customs Officers ! Veteran staff here are telling me all sorts of horror stories which I never heard in Belgrade, shots being fired at the caravan during the night ( entire wall raked by automatic fire ), threatened with pistols by drunken Police ( observer had a gun held to his head but as it was badly cocked, the pistol did not go off ). As I write it is Christmas night, and the guns are constantly firing outside, perhaps I am being like a nervous American !

The flight from Belgrade airport at night was unusual – it was snowing heavily and my nervousness at the conditions was not helped by the fact that looking out before take off I saw four guys walking up and down each wing sweeping the snow off with brushes – the plane was full , all seats taken when suddenly the doors opened and a stream of local traders struggled in clutching bags of cabbages, long sausages , tins of feta cheese , the usual Balkan domestic products while some in addition to that were balancing chicken cages ( full of squaking chickens ) on their shoulders –  they took all the standing room down the center aisle hanging on to straps like on a bus — bad enough to die in a plane crash with all these mad Slav fuckers but with chicken shit all over my shoulders –  beam me up Scottie time ! The plane took an age on the take off but finally made it off the tarmac where immediately all the airport lights went out just like a sudden power cut – apparently EU sanctions ensured that the power could only be kept on for limited periods – no great consolation to me the only European on the flight and a Sanctions Officer as well .

The plane circled for a long time over Tivat in Montenegro until the lights down below went on and we swooped suddenly and yes as soon as we landed all the lights went out and everybody else on the plane apart from me was equipped for this and produced torches and we stumbled off to be surrounded by these great big hairy guys with macho mustaches – we had to carry the luggage off ourselves and I found myself in this long unlit customs hall at 1 am no clue what to do except that I was supposed to be met by a driver – among all the hairy types I saw one with a stick with a name in cyrllic on it – I made up my mind there and then whose ever name was on that stick , OSCE, UN – he was my driver and he was !

We arrived outside Onogast Hotel in Niksic at around 3 am after a scary drive on snow and ice over the mountains – no lights on at the hotel of course , the usual power cuts and it took an age  and lots of kicking at the door accompanied by loud swearing in Serbian for the driver who didn’t have a word of English  to alert the night clerk – who promptly lost interest in me when I didn’t take up his offer to change euros for dinars . Eventually after a lot of swearing , this time from me , I was assigned what was euphemistically referred to as a room and I staggered in the dark up four flights of stairs with my bags , backed into the room which from what I could see was about the size of the single bed  — then the shooting and rocket launchers outside the window began – Serb Christmas – I sat on the edge of the bed thinking it cannot get any worse than this and asking myself in a whining way what the fuck are you doing here when the bed collapsed  — I made an executive decision , wrapped my mission duffle coat tightly around me and rolled into the bed half of which was sticking up in the air and thought FUCK IT !

Another memorable  Christmas abroad was in the Seychelles in 2006 where I spent two years with the Seychelles Customs Service and where Christmas day was spent on the beach in sweltering heat with almost 100 % humidity !

Christmas Day 2006 on the beach at La Dique , Seychelles

Now that I am retired I enjoy Christmas in Clonmel , my home town and while the street decorations are not up to 5th Avenue or Oxford Street  standard they are wonderful .

Two years ago when Snezana retired also from overseas work and had her first Christmas at home  and after all the christmas’s we spent abroad I thought great she can share the enjoyment of decorating the Christmas Tree … here I have to explain that I have a doctorate in Christmas tree decorating and absolutely love the preparation which can take all day … so I assembled all the boxes and explained that the tree lights went on first then the first choice decorations went on followed by the second choice ones BUT each decoration had to be positioned just right  then balanced with a similar type on the other side of the tree and THEN you build the tree until all the decorations were just RIGHT … and then dear reader … then the unsentimental Dane grabbed the box and said just throw them at the tree and if they fall they fall … almost no room at the inn for her that night !!

Christmas Tree at Old Spa Road 2020

December 24th 2020

Happy Christmas from both of us !

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