By Suzy Beal
This is the 12th episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
Grandma and Jack made preparations to return to the States. They wanted to be home for the Christmas holiday. Dad wanted to take Grandma back to visit Hyeres, France where they had lived when he was just a child of seven. Brother Tom and I went on this trip. I think Dad took me along so I could accompany Grandma.
We flew to Marseille, where Dad rented a car and drove to Hyeres on the Mediterranean Coast. On arriving in Hyeres, Dad purchased sweet dried fruits for Grandma, something they had treasured years ago. He found the house where they lived and parked the car so Grandma could just look at it and eat her candies. I looked over at her and she had tears streaming down her cheeks. She said, “Oh Tom, Oh Tom,” and I knew her words were for Grandpa, who had died five years ago. A sadness came over her that afternoon and even being in Paris the next day didn’t relieve her pain. Dad stayed with her in the room during the days so Tom, Jack, and I could see Paris. I stayed with her in the evenings and at night when Tom, Jack, and Dad went bar hopping.
Tom’s idea of seeing Paris was to head down into the subway system and pop up where ever he chose. Once we came up and spied the Eiffel Tower and Tom headed for it. I hated heights and feared going up, but Tom insisted. I stepped into the elevator, but huddled in fear on the floor. We got out at the first stage. Tom thought if I looked at the view I might change my mind about being up there. I passed out and everything was a blank for a few seconds. Jack came to my rescue and took me back down in the elevator.
Dad had purchased tickets for us to see “La Boheme” in the Paris Opera House the night before we were to leave, but Grandma’s depression and sadness was still keeping her to her room. She just wanted to go home. We took them to the airport a day earlier than their planned departure and parted with them. Dad, Tom, and I changed our tickets to fly back to Mallorca, giving up our La Boheme Opera tickets.
Our first Christmas on Mallorca was approaching. We had a tree, but most other families didn’t. In Spain, the Three Kings bring all the presents for the children on King’s day, January 6th. They celebrate Christmas Eve with everyone going to midnight Mass. There was only one church in Puerto. It was Catholic and everyone attended. They held Sunday services, weddings, and special services such as Easter and midnight Mass on Christmas Eve here. We kids wanted to go to midnight Mass because all our friends would be there. Mom came with us. Dad was an atheist and wouldn’t have put his foot in a Catholic Church for anyone. Dad had never prevented us from going to church, but he had no place for organized religion in his life.
Noche Buena – Christmas Eve
Here we were, at midnight Mass, in a little country church in the town of Puerto Pollensa on the Island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain. All the Christmas carols were familiar because they were the same Christmas carols we sang back home, but we couldn’t sing them in Spanish. Into the crowded church filed the little Spanish boys and girls, dressed as shepherds leading real sheep. The three kings came in on real donkeys and Joseph and Mary carried a real baby. They formed a picture of the manger scene in real life. The musicians played Silent Night, “Noche de Paz.” I sang, under my breath, in English. Tears welled up in my eyes. I looked over at Mom and she, too, was crying and singing in English. I wondered who and what she was thinking about.
The evening ended with us all going to Brisas Bar for a Spanish tradition called Chocolate y Churros. They piped the churro dough through a tube into circles in a big vat of oil then cut it into pieces and sprinkled them with sugar. It seemed like the entire crowd from the church walked into Brisas Bar with us, although I know Iru and Cactus bars were full, too. We scurried to find a table and ordered our Chocolate y Churros. It was a special evening because Mom joined us. The waiters hurried from table to table with trays of steaming chocolate and plates piled high with churros. I heard the swishing sound of the coffee machine heating the milk for the chocolate. It was so thick when you dipped the pieces of churro in it, it came out almost like pudding. Sweet and warm, it filled us with a sense of solace in this new environment. Elbow to elbow in Brisas Bar we celebrated Christmas Eve, our first in Spain.
Feliz Año Nuevo – Happy New Year 1962!
The New Year’s celebrations included everyone going to a local bar or restaurant for dinner. Then on to dancing in the streets, going from Brisas Bar to Iru Bar and Cactus Bar. Young and old alike attended these festivities. It was cold outside, but the hot Spanish chocolate and churros, which were available throughout the Christmas holidays, warmed us to the core. Since there was no age limit for drinking we even tried hot cognac that came flaming to our table.
El Dia de los Reyes – King’s Day
On King’s Day, the families wrapped and addressed the presents with the children’s names, then rushed them to the church where they loaded them into a truck. On the evening of January 6th, the packages rode to the top of Formentor hill outside Puerto where the truck turned around and headed back to town with the torch lit. The procession made its way slowly down the hill with the Three Kings on horseback, trucks full of presents, and dozens of people dressed as Arab “slaves” to deliver the presents. The children of Puerto could see the Three Kings coming from far away and their excitement grew as the Kings descended the long road and approached Puerto. Conrad and Frank got caught up in the drama unfolding in the streets. When the trucks passed our street, several “slaves” delivered packages to our house. Conrad and Frank could hardly contain themselves with excitement. It was such a wonderful way for the children to receive their gifts. It seemed real, compared to the way we did it back home, believing Santa Claus came down the chimney.
© 2019 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.