Christmas Downunder…

For the second time since my youngest daughter (hereinafter called dd2) moved to Australia a few years ago, my eldest daughter (dd1) and I made the trek downunder for a golden – as in bright sunshine and sandy beaches – rather than a white Christmas. Not a hardship really. Aside from the wonderful event of having the whole family together again, which in itself would negate any possible nostalgia, dd1 and I live in Canada, it is true, but we live in Vancouver, where precipitation is ninety nine percent more likely to fall as bleak rain rather than the pristine glittering white snow depicted on Christmas cards.

So we set out with joy in our hearts and no regrets at all. Though there were reservations. Dd1 has kidney failure and is on dialysis which she does at home. This requires a machine personally programmed for her, which must be taken with her. Further, it must be allowed in the cabin area as one cannot take the chance of it being lost or damaged. When I planned this blog I had no intention of mentioning any of this. But it became integral to the story and a big part of the adventure.

Before we left we had word that the supplies she would need were safely stored in dd2’s new home through the magic of delivery of same throughout the world. Dd1 was concerned that it might create a space problem, as there were something like forty boxes the size of a case of wine for her four week stay. We needn’t have worried, as we soon found out. The new home, which took dd2 and her dh several years to find in the seller’s market that is Ozz, has plenty enough space, with a separate wing for the two children as well as an in-law suite.

We were well assured by the renal folks and flight center we would have no problem with any airline bringing the wheeled hard case with the machine (which weighs 20 lbs and is the size of a medium suitcase) on board. We had the necessary machine specs which showed there were no toxic chemicals or any other dangerous goods within, we had the letter from the Nephrologist which stated dd1 was in fine health to travel, and the airline had been duly advised of our ‘special need’.

However, we had booked the flight with China Eastern Air, as it offered one of the few flights which would not require a stop in the US. We knew from experience this was to be avoided at all costs. Checked baggage cannot be sent straight through if a stop is being made in the US. It must be picked up at the baggage area and gone through customs as if one were actually entering the country for a visit. This is an experience beyond daunting. Once the baggage is picked up one must shuffle along in line for up to four or more hours pushing the luggage along without benefit of a cart. This would likely do dd1 in: it is barely tolerated by someone in perfect health without collapse.

We got through check-in with no problem at Vancouver Airport. The nice attendant, who spoke decent English, tagged the case with a bright yellow sticker marked ‘Approved Cabin Baggage’ in English and Chinese. We had gone extra early because we were concerned we might have problems and because we could not check in on-line as their self-check system was down, so it would be first come first served for seats. We got a luggage cart and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then made our way to the waiting area. Upon arrival there we made sure to check in with the staff. What a flurry that caused. ‘Too big’, a phrase we came to know all too well, was uttered by at least three staff. When we pointed out the sticker, too big! was shouted. A very sweet, very gentle attendant explained to us that the case could not be taken aboard in the cabin but would be placed in the same plane ‘right below’ it and ‘safe’. My limited knowledge of jets is that the luggage storage area is below, and never to be considered ‘safe’. We ‘discussed’ it for a few more minutes, and when they continued to dig their heels in, mom simply looked the attendant in the eye and said, in that tone that broached no argument, “The machine must go into the cabin with her and never leave her sight. If she does not have it she will die.” (this is not altogether true, there are alternatives such as her going to hospital and having dialysis there, but one uses the card when they need it). That got their attention and required another several minutes of assuring the poor sweet thing, who was only spouting the company directives she’d been taught, that dd1 did not need to use the machine while on board, but would need it upon landing. Finally the original check-in attendant and a more senior attendant came to assist and it was agreed that the offending machine would be stowed in the cabin, and that we would be the first to board.

The Airbus A340-300 jet turned out to be very small, very old, very rattly, and very slow. The flight started out promising. About an hour into it we were issued a hot wet finger cloth from silver tongs and served a meal (which thankfully came with wine or beer) after which the lights were darkened. We had left at one pm our time so we were not tired enough to sleep. The attendants disappeared and were quite cross when anyone hit the call button. There were no extra pillows or blankets, no drinks trays came around to quench our thirst, though occasionally an attendant came down the aisle with a large bottle of water and cups and one was allowed a sip or two. Hours went by, books were read, aisles were walked. About seven hours into the flight the guests were getting restless, eyes were met across aisles, shoulders were shrugged, hands were thrown in the air. Was that it? Only the one meal? That leg of our flight, which ended in Shanghai, was almost thirteen hours. Fortunately I had brought some cheese and crackers and other snackies as I run on protein and always have some with me. Others were not so fortunate. Questions of the attendants were met with glassy eyes. We hunkered down as best we could and napped for about twenty minutes. An hour or so later we were brought individually wrapped checkered sandwiches of the type served at weddings and funerals. Dd1 was still hungry and I asked the attendant if she could have another. She held her index finger in the air and mouthed, only one. We discussed the cultural differences and our wisdom in choosing this airline, chuckled, and dug into another snack. Later dd1 went for a loo break and discovered a tray of sandwiches sitting at the back with a different attendant. When she asked if she could have one she was told, of course!, was handed two, and offered a drink to boot. Imagine our surprise when the lights were turned back on and a hot meal was brought out shortly before hour twelve. We had a choice of omelet or fried rice, both adequate, and no alcohol was offered this time.

We wondered what kind of gong show we were going to encounter for the next leg, Shanghai to Melbourne, which was to be about eleven hours. Many attendants stood in a row and waved us in the proper direction as we disembarked in Shanghai through immigration and customs toward the transfer area. For some reason we had to go down a floor and then up two floors with no stop in between, but like lemmings we followed the crowd. Then we suddenly hit a gate and many shouts of too big! rang out. Dd1 thought fast and showed the first couple of guards the yellow sticker which thankfully had remained intact, and after a few minutes of discussion we were let through, only to encounter ever more, even sterner looking guards and the ubiquitous too bigs! I came chest to belly with a tall, erect, immovable guard carrying a gun. Dd1 had simply had enough and taking a cue from the earlier no-broach of her mom, simply kept pointing to the yellow sticker and marched right on through, lugging the twenty pound case and her carry-on as if they all weighed nothing. I followed suit, in hot pursuit by the tall guard and his partner. We got through the turnstiles and laughed as the guards argued amongst themselves behind us. Though we did feel bad when we wondered later if any of them may have gotten in trouble. There was one more heart-stopping blip when a woman guard at customs took my passport and those of a few others, along with the forms we’d filled out and trounced off with a ‘follow me’. With one eye on the woman and one on dd1, whose passport the woman also snatched as we passed, we arrived at a wicket where she gave the lot to the customs agent. The agent held the passports up at the photo page and one by one we were identified. Thankfully this agent was one of very few who had a smile for us as he checked our photos against the face in the monitor and stamped our customs slips and passports, accepting our silly attempts at humour when every second person made mention of the mug shot and how it did not look like us. Welcome to China!

We’d been issued boarding passes straight through in Vancouver so luckily could bypass check-in. When we arrived at the proper departure gate, dd1 approached the first attendant to arrive for our flight. Well-seasoned now, we stood our ground whenever we heard any of the many more too-big! shouts. More attendants were called and finally it was agreed that we could go down the loading ramp, with the warning, delivered eye to eye with me, twice, that when we got there if the case was too big we could be turned away and the attendant was not to be held responsible. We laughed all the way down and were met with three or four attendants now insisting that if the case could not go into the overhead luggage bin we could not board. A male attendant looked at our boarding passes and said, follow me, a tiny woman took hold of the case and struggled with it through first class, the first person who actually acknowledged that perhaps the individual who required the case might need some assistance. This leg of the flight was a delight compared to the first. We were now on a Boeing 767-300, about the same size plane but with more spacious seating. Where the Airbus had two, four, and two seats across, the Boeing had three seats in the middle. The staff was friendly and well-trained, food was timely and we slept through five or so hours of it. Most importantly, the Boeing’s overhead storage was big enough to accommodate the machine and its case. Two beefy male attendants shoved it in, slammed down the door until its hinges bulged, and beamed at us.

Somewhat seasoned in Australian customs, we breezed through with a few leftover cheeses in  my pack (individually wrapped but probably verboten), a second checked piece of luggage each full of goodies from Canada not available in their new country (including, and I kid you not, packages of Kraft dinner, which had never graced my table when my own kids had been growing up and which I picked up with two fingers and an urggh every time I had to handle them) , and a sheepish smile accompanied by a statement of ‘lollies for the kiddies’.

Welcome to Australia!

We left around noon the Tuesday before Christmas and arrived in Ozz on Thursday at ten am, after losing a day crossing the International Date Line somewhere near the Arctic Circle. I never think of Aussie time as seventeen or nineteen hours ahead of us, but rather five or seven hours behind us, plus one day. Since we were off daylight saving and they were on, the difference was only five hours, so we would normally just stay up until their bedtime, but as we had arrived so early, we reckoned a nap would not do us any harm. After a viewing of the house, which was delightfully decorated in every nook and cranny, a good visit and some pre-Christmas chores, dd1 and I slept for about two hours in the late afternoon and were still plenty tired enough in the evening to hit the sack at a normal ten pm their time.

Dd2 has, as she has always done, formed a wide circle of friends in her new country, and Friday marked the beginning of a round of events which were hectic and wonderful – with the odd monkey wrench thrown into the mix. During the day dsil (darling son-in-law) and the kids put up a marquee on the bricked patio in preparation for the decorating that was to be done the next day, Christmas Eve. A marquee is what Aussie’s call the kind of tent often erected for weddings and such. This was no small affair, measuring about fifteen by twenty four feet; twenty two guests were expected for a traditional Christmas ‘lunch’. The rest of us continued with a flurry of chores enjoyed in the warmth and sunshine of the day. In the evening we all tripped over to a friend’s for a fondue/raclette party. The house was more formally decorated than dd2’s, and equally delightful. A raclette is a kind of double-decker grill with little flat metal pots with handles arranged on the first level and often a granite top. Special (and wonderful) cheeses and such are grilled in the pots while meats and vegetables sizzle on the top. It must be experienced to be appreciated, but suffice to say this party consisted of scallops fresh-caught that very morning in the bay by the host, meatballs, fresh kangaroo (very much like the dark bits of chicken), lamb chunks, giant prawns, cheeses, bread, and an assortment of vegetables, all cooked in broth in the fondue pots or grilled upon the raclette at the choice of the guest, of whom there were eight adults and about as many children. Much wine and other drinks were poured and there was laughter and joy aplenty.

Though it pains me to do so, here I must mention the worst monkey-wrench thrown in by yours truly, as it is a big part of the adventure. We arrived home about eleven pm. I washed up and got ready for bed. As dd1 had missed a dialysis run entirely while travelling and had not had a good run the first night and it was much later than usual, I decided I would go downstairs to check and see how the run was going this time. She’d been ensconced in the in-law suite in order to give her the privacy to rest or give herself treatment at her own leisure. Everyone else was already in bed and the house was pitch black. I knew the light switch for the stairs was at the bottom, so I cautiously made my way through the kitchen and felt along the inner and outer walls for the light switch for the hall. Not finding any, I made my way by feel to the stair railing and stepped cautiously along to the top post, thinking to step sideways from there and to the wall I thought I remembered which would probably house a switch.

I stepped down into thin air. It seemed to go on forever and I remember trying to recall the configuration and if there was perhaps an empty space beside the stairway into which I’d somehow stepped. Before I fully completed the thought I found myself tumbling down the flight of some fifteen stairs to the stone-tiled landing. That part went exceedingly fast with no memory of thought at all. When I reached the bottom, face-first, blood was spurting everywhere and I was sprawled on the tiles. I tried to move but somehow could not figure out a way to untangle myself. I called out to dd1, which was a silly thing to do as she was tethered to her machine and could not reach me, but I wanted to assure her I was okay and would make my way to her. Soon I heard thundering steps and my dsil was beside me, followed closely on his heels by dd2 at about the same time dd1 reached the end of her tether and was staring at me and the blood wide-eyed. Dsil and dd2 helped me off the tiles into the next room, asking over and over if I was okay. I was, but kept apologizing about the blood, which was also splattered on the last few treads, which were thankfully carpeted. Leaning on a counter with dd2’s help, and shaking with shock, I watched as dsil calmly got out a mop and mopped up the blood as best he could, then with help from both of them while dd1 returned to her bed terrified by what she’d seen but unable to do anything, we made our way upstairs to one of their many bathrooms where I looked in the mirror and saw a small vertical wound about an inch long beside my right eye and wondered how it could produce so much blood. I sat on the edge of the tub and, still violently trembling, washed off the blood that covered my arms, legs and chest and kept insisting I was fine. At this point I thought I had the one small wound, a very sore tailbone and no doubt dozens of other bruises, and a giant wound to the ego. However, as I was washing my neck, blood kept trickling down (well, perhaps it was more like streaming, but I’m a stubborn old coot), as dd2 (who has a medical background) washed and treated the right-eye wound with supplies from her handy first-aid kid. A very large cut was apparently found in the scalp. I kept insisting I was okay and did not need to go to the ER. It was now nearing midnight.

I resisted, they insisted it was an open wound and needed attention, so I was dressed into clean sweats and a t-shirt and trundled off to the nearest hospital triage. After a wait of about an hour I was seen by a triage nurse and told to go back to the waiting room. About a half hour later a second nurse came and asked the same questions all over again. She then led me to a bed where a third, very busy nurse, asked the questions yet again. Had I fainted they kept asking, or blacked out, not believing for a moment anyone could be so stupid as to fall as I had. So, the nurse asked rhetorically for the final time, it was a mechanical fall. Yep, afraid so. Would have been much more glamourous to agree I had lost consciousness, rather than the silliness of losing my head and not going back to the other side of the kitchen to turn on some lights so I could see the hallway because I did not wish to disturb anyone. By this time all had agreed I would need stitches in the scalp. Even though during the five additional hours of waiting (it was a Friday night, during the holiday season), I threatened to bolt several times, cooler heads (dd2 and the nurses) prevailed and truthfully I did wish to have a Doctor check out my spine and tailbone just to confirm I was unhurt there beyond the pain. The nurse gave me a pain pill and when I began to get restless legs, I eased my way off the gurney as dd2 closed her eyes, and began to walk the halls. That got their attention. It was now about six in the morning and the Doc had seen me two hours before that and stated he would come back and stitch me up but was nowhere to be seen, except for two times when he came into the room which happened to contain the materials with which to stitch, smiled a reassurance and walked out again to fix up someone else. That was beyond excruciating. The nurse said she thought I was next (I wasn’t, I went through the same optimistic expectation of being treated one additional time, like a dog who thinks his master is taking him for a walk when he pats his head on the way out the door only to be left behind dejectedly) and asked if she could bring me a cup of tea and a sandwich. That did the trick. When she got back with the goodies I let them help me back on the gurney and there I stayed until I got the seven stitches to the scalp required to fix me up, the new steri-strip plastered on the cut by the right eye with the observation that dd2 had done an admirable job with the one she put on, and a tetanus shot for good measure.

In the ensuing days at least fifty people, many of them complete strangers to me, have come up and asked if I am okay, admiring the black eye (oddly on the left side and deep purple and red) that sprang up the next day and the various scratches, bruises and abrasions that adorn my body. I always shoot my dd2 and dsil a black look, as it now appears their friends consider me a silly LOL (Lee Sinclair’s ‘original’ edition: Little Old Lady), whereas – partly because I had my first dd at age nineteen and am mostly younger than their own parents – I like to think of myself as a cool mom.

But what of Christmas Downunder – one might be wondering if they should happen to still be reading this long shaggy-dog story – the topic of which I was originally intending this blog to be.

Well, I wasn’t much use, crawling into bed in what was now Christmas Eve day and sleeping for about four hours and feeling jet-lagged all over again, along with some pain that I could never pinpoint as it seemed to move from hour to hour, and stiffness. I watched as dd1 and dd2, who had stayed with me throughout the seven or so hours against all protestations that she go home to her bed and come back when I was finally done and had even less sleep than I did, as well as her friend from the night before who happens to be a whiz at parties, decorated the new marquee. Dsil, a handy man if I’ve ever seen one, finished it off with blue fairy lights which twinkle spectacularly, and swept and generally did the tidy-up one does for such affairs. I did, however, insist on making my famous rum cake with the assistance of my granddaughter as promised the day before. The rest of the food pre-preparation was left to dd1 and dd2.

Christmas morning I heard scurrying footsteps from the grandchildren, who had been admonished to not get up before six thirty. They are extraordinarily sweet and well-behaved (but then we grandparents all think that don’t we), and I knew it must be about that time. Sure enough 6:31 on the dot said the clock. Opening gifts is about the same in Ozz as at home. Though this family works admirably hard to keep things at a reasonable consumer level, it was wonderful to see their faces as each opened their presents. We had indeed brought many lollies, as claimed at customs, most of which were given upon arrival and placed into a big bowl as compensation for the ‘pathetic’ Hallowe’en  they have downunder, but we’d saved a few extra special tidbits and their eyes still alighted when they pulled them out of their stockings.

Christmas ‘lunch’ was quite the soiree. Though I’d been told by dsil that Christmas was a much more laid-back affair than in Canada, with a ‘barbie’ lunch and to the beach afterward, I knew by now he was remembering it from the eyes of a young person. Melbourne is perhaps the most Victorian city in the world outside the British Isles, and Christmas is a very proper, fairly formal affair (at least it is in his family) considering most of it was indeed cooked on the barbie and we ate it al fresco. The two ‘picnic’ tables which dsil had made by hand with stainless steel frames and beautifully stained and rubbed hardwood slat tops, were covered with commercial grade pristine white cloths and decorated with candles and other twinkling Christmas ornaments. Each table was perhaps ten feet long and the two laid end to end sat the twenty two guests most comfortably. The first course was a cocktail of shrimp individually served. After that the food was laid out buffet-style inside on the big wooden dining table brought from Canada and now used in the kitchen eating area leading to the veranda and patio. Two turkeys done on the barbie, a big ham, yams and other vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, all graced the table as they might do at home in Canada. We sat down around the tables about three pm and were still there past ten, now eating cheeses and tasting local fortified wines, enjoying a cool fragrant breeze under a panoply of sparkling stars and laughing and singing along to the two or three guitars being played.

On Boxing Day Monday several families gathered up their leftovers and headed to the beach club where dd2’s family has a membership. There we sat around a plastic picnic table and frolicked on the sand and in the bay for several hours.

The rest of the week was spent in the same kind of social whirl, with people and children coming and going, trips to the shopping area so the children could spend their ‘Crissy’ money, a lovely lunch at a local winery with the extended family that segued into dinner at the house, another visit to the beach which ended in yet another family being invited back for a barbie, and so on and so forth…

As I write this it is New Year’s Day here in Australia. Last night we were invited to a New Year’s Eve party. The temperature had been in excess of 32 C (+/- 90 F) in the day as we sat around the pool and had some family time. The Eve party was held entirely outdoors in a lovely modern extended veranda with tile flooring and glass railings overlooking a big pool in which the kiddies frolicked while we adults overindulged in food and drink and laughter, just as individuals will everywhere in the world tonight on the other side of the Date Line, in warmth or around a cozy fire.

Just before midnight an entirely too handsome and sweet young man, the son of a guest from chilly England, began bringing out glasses of champagne on a tray. As the kiddies sat on chairs and watched a movie on a screen set up outdoors like a drive-in theatre off the other end of the veranda, the adults kissed and toasted the New Year and reflected upon the past and the future.

Going to be a good one, methinks.

And yes, we have now determined that if the jet is a comfortable Boeing 737-300, we would fly China Eastern Air – and come fully prepared. In the meantime dd1 is flying home on Qantas and I am travelling a few weeks later on Cathay Pacific, which we pray will be the usual uneventful let’s-just- get- through-this flight and get home…

4 responses to “Christmas Downunder…

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your Australian adventure. Your holiday has truly been a Christmas with a little bit of everything–family, fun, and plenty of drama. Here’s hoping the rest of your visit is joyful and full of only happy surprises.

  2. Yowser! Glad you survived your trips–both of them. And other than that, it sounds like you’re having a lovely time. I hope you’re taking lots of pictures (because that’s what boomers do, you know).

  3. Oh, dear, that is the one thing for which this family is remiss. I brought with me a camera and have a pretty good one on my iphone. Finally made my girls stand in front of the Christmas tree with me on New Year’s Eve to prove we were here. Did we take any pix of the big marquee and the 22 folks sitting around those fabulous tables? Not one of us did! Gonna have to get better at that, sigh…

    Thanks for reading the blog. Longest one I’ve ever posted and ever hope to post again.