On Christmas Eve, Sarah and Marc (American and Spaniard, respectively, with whom we celebrated Thanksgiving) invited me to their apartment for raclette. After I admitted that I didn’t really know what that meant, Sarah explained, “it’s basically an excuse to eat really, really slowly.”

A raclette grill.

It was just them, me, two of their German friends, and some improbably large bottles of beer, which I’m coming to see as par for the course at Marc and Sarah’s. Oh, and pounds and pounds of cheese, some of which got baked, some of which got roasted, and some of which (halloumi!) got fried. Unfortunately, I had to leave early to make it to midnight church on time, which I didn’t, because on Christmas the trains run either twice an hour or every time Santa Claus is spotted, which is never. Fortunately, people can’t give nasty looks on Christmas, so the consequences for arriving when the sermon was almost over were solely musical in nature.

The next evening, Olga invited me to (I thought) her friend’s house for Christmas dinner. We met at the station and got lost on the way, which gave us plenty of time to talk about Christmas songs that we hate. Olga’s friend wasn’t there, and the apartment belonged to friends of friends of Olga’s roommate’s friend. In attendance were 2 Mexicans, 1 Pakistani, 2 Indians, 1 Singaporean, 1 Malaysian, 1 Colombian, 1 Spaniard, 1 Russian (that’s Olga), 1 American (that’s me), and 2 Germans, one of whom inexplicably thought that this dinner was an appropriate time to preach about how all the non-Berliners coming into Berlin are ruining it for the “real residents.” I guess it’s not a holiday dinner if no one gets offended.

It turns out all these people know each other either from a Baha’i prayer group that meets weekly in this apartment, or from a Baha’i university program somewhere in central Germany. The party was awkward for me because I knew no one except Olga (we’d arrived in a flurry of burning cakes and simmering sauces), so if someone asked me how I knew the host, it turned into a long story designed to hide the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure who that was. The party was awkward for Olga because she was the only person in attendance who didn’t speak fluent English. The party was awkward for both of us because the go-to icebreaker was “so have you been to the Baha’i devotionals?” For me, the answer was a simple “no,” which put a quick end to the conversation; for Olga, however, that sentence turned the whole conversation into a confusing and terrifying experience, which she felt ill-equipped to navigate.

The feeling of otherness did not diminish when we presented the bottle of wine Olga had brought to the host, only afterwards discovering that that Baha’i as a rule do not drink. Fortunately, one of the Indians was not Baha’i, so the three of us took one for the team and, in Russian fashion, did our best to finish the bottle.

At some point in the Soviet years, three rubles would buy a bottle of vodka and a snack. So three people, each with a ruble, was all you needed to have a little party. And if (in the good old days, in Mayberrygrad) two people wanted to have a drink, they’d stop you on the street to ask, “will you be our third?”

Fortunately, daal, kabsa, some Indian thing, oliv’e, and a really confusing cake (chocolate chips AND blueberries? Can we really handle it?) prevented us from making ourselves ridiculous.

Once we had eaten far more than we’d intended, Husam fetched a guitar from the bedroom and suggested that we have a sing-along. Because we’re that hippie. When Olga got an evil gleam in her eye, I remembered with horror our conversation about Christmas songs on the way. With a smile that probably seemed innocent to anyone but me, she suggested, “Last Christmas I gave you my heart!” And damned if they didn’t sing the whole entire thing.

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