I write this, cozy in the glow of the Christmas tree in its traditional corner spot of my childhood Florida home, surrounded by dipped shortbread cookies, and sweating in my holiday dress thanks to the warm weather as I have done for many years. Such familiarity is welcome comfort after so much travel and tumult. Yet I find myself thinking of last Christmas, spent in a small seaside village in Portugal…
It was my first Christmas and New Year’s spent abroad and it certainly didn’t disappoint for cultural flavour. I mean this both figuratively and literally. The Portuguese know how to eat any time of the year, and they certainly don’t hold out on Christmas. Roasted chestnuts, king cake, phallic cookies (evidently it’s a symbol of yuletide fertility) and more egg yolks than you can shake a whisk at are the standard order. But the shining jewel in the Christmas menu is, of course, bacalhau, rehydrated slabs of salted cod that form a national culinary creed. There are famously hundreds of ways to prepare it, some unique to December, like the molten mountain cheese-filled pasteis de bacalhau served piping hot from street vendors. On Christmas Eve, my boyfriend Pedro made some for me and my mother, whom he invited to stay for the holidays. His version was boiled in olive oil, then mixed with broccoli, more eggs, breaded and baked. I’m not really doing a great job of selling it with that description, but that’s alright – more for me.
One of my favourite parts about December in Portugal was rehearsing the holiday play at the international school where I volunteered. The theme, appropriately, was Christmas traditions from all over the world. I helped choreograph the dance for the class assigned Australia; it was all surfboards and barbecues. Their sketch was about spending Christmas on the beach – something both I, who had spent all but one Christmas in Hawaii or Florida, and the children living on the coast of Portugal knew a lot about. And indeed, though I have yet to have a white Christmas, I’ve taken my share of Christmas swims. Last year, while others unwrapped presents, Ped and I wrapped ourselves in towels, plunged into the icy ocean at the village’s beach and were warmed back up by the temperate Iberian winter sun.
The other common denominator has been my mom – I’m lucky enough to have never spent a Christmas without her. Coming to Portugal was a first for her too, her first international Christmas and her first time meeting Pedro – a brave move for them both, and a huge gift to me.
And as we all stood watching New Year’s Eve fireworks in the teeming village square, facing the dark, thrashing curtain of the Atlantic, out toward America and home and a different life, I had the sensation, that has before and since sometimes eluded me, of being in exactly the right place.