Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Christmas Coma

“Oh, I love it in England,” the woman at the party enthused. “I think you will, too.”

She was Canadian and I, a U.S. American. Though we probably would not recognize each other as quasi fellow citizens, were we to meet in our homelands, I’ve found that here in the U.K., Canadians and Americans do acknowledge a bond.

My new Canadian acquaintance had lived in Durham for almost a decade and couldn’t, she said, imagine going “back there” to live anymore. Back there, we both understood, meant North America.

This was a year ago, at a mutual friend’s Christmas party. I’d been living in England for just a few months and was eager to hear how a fellow North American viewed the culture, after having been immersed in it much longer than I.

Christmas decorations in London, this year

“Say what you will about the English,” my new acquaintance remarked, “but their pace of life is healthier than any I’ve encountered before. There’s a real, humane balance between ‘on’ time and down time, between work and play. And people here take their downtime to heart. They know how to hang out and just be with each other. When you go to a dinner party, no one brings their phone to the table. People here don’t live to work. It’s not that they don’t work when it’s time, but I don’t get the cutthroat, competitive vibe here nearly as much as at home. The English seem much more laidback.”

“I always thought of Canada that way,” I said.

She nodded sagely, as most Canadians do when you tell them that you, as a U.S. American, have long admired their culture. Yes, she admitted, but England was another step forward. “In terms of a slower, healthier pace of life,” she said, “England is to Canada as Canada is to the U.S.”

“Wow,” I said. “I think you’re right. I am gonna like it here.”

While this has generally turned out to be true, I made this proclamation last year without having yet experienced what another friend of mine – an Englishwoman – refers to as the Christmas coma. I’m not sure how widely used the term “Christmas coma” is, but having lived through it once and preparing to survive it again very soon, I now know the phenomenon it describes: a period starting around Christmas Eve and extending past New Year’s Day, in which the country of England, for all intents and purposes, shuts down. Most people hibernate for the duration with their families; they eat, drink, and are merry. Meanwhile most places of business are shuttered, or open for quite limited hours.

Before I experienced the English holiday season for myself, this Christmas coma thing was hard to imagine. Our last Christmas in the U.S., Dave and I spent in Chicago, as we’d done for the most of our 10 years there. I went to a 2-hour yoga class on Christmas morning, and that yoga studio was packed. In the afternoon Dave and I walked through Millennium Park -- where the new skating rink was a veritable sea of flashing skate blades and puffy-coat-clad people, elbow to elbow, zipping by to the loudly piped-in tune of “Silver Bells.” When we reached the movie theater where we were headed, the lines were so long, we gave up and walked home again down the chock-a-block
Cloud Gate -- otherwise known as the Bean --
a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, in Chicago's Millennium Park

Last December, however – our first in England – a friend of Dave’s issued a warning upon hearing that we planned to spend the week of Christmas at home, in Durham. “Make sure you get to the grocery store before Christmas Eve,” he told Dave, “and get enough food to last through the week.”  

At first this sounded a bit melodramatic, like we were stocking up our supplies before a great blizzard, or a siege. But Christmas in England is not nearly so violent, nor dramatic – nor active as that.

In fact, it’s just very still. Very quiet.

The entire railway system shuts down on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and does not resume running until the morning of December 27. Here in Durham, the university library closes today -- December 22 -- and does not crack its doors again until January 3. That’s 11 days, y’all. My dry cleaner’s and my hair stylist’s are closed just as long. (11 days! I have to say it again.) And yoga classes during the latter half of December? The Christmas coma lasts even longer. There’s not a yoga class to be had in Durham for 2 solid weeks, from December 20 till January 3: a situation with the potential to incite panic in me.

Another feature of the UK holidays
which does not, in my opinion, get
enough international press:
the ubiquity of the Brussels sprout!
As U.S. American, I am used to things moving fast. I want what I want when I want it, and I expect to get it then, too. This need for speed manifests itself in my inner life as well. I think I should be doing more than I already am, or doing it faster, doing it better. Part of me loves this drive, this derring-do, which I associate with the American way of life. Part of me is bolstered -- even cheered -- by this love of movement, this border-line frenzy of action, that until lately I have considered my birthright.  

But part of me too, as I live in England and begin to appreciate a slightly different pace,  has learned to see the value in slowing down. By accepting slowness -- rather than pushing against it -- I may be making room for more grace. Grace for myself, grace for others.  

Last night, Dave and I were on a train home from London. We’d spent 4 days, walking an average of 10 miles a day (it’s how we see the sights), and while we had a lovely vacation, I was tired as we boarded the train. It being a few days before Christmas and the Great Railway Shut-down, the train was full to capacity, and then some. People stood in the vestibules and in the aisles. The overhead racks, jammed with boxes and shopping bags and suitcases, looked like train-sized replicas of a hoarder’s attic. The train was so crowded, neither the conductor nor the food cart ever made it into our car.  

Not ideal conditions, and to make matters worse, the train started out of Kings Cross Station 20 minutes late; it ran later and later as we headed north. By the time we reached Durham, our 3-hour train ride had been dragged out to 4 hours. I have rarely been so ready to get off a train. Dave and I walked to the vestibule early and loaded up with our backpacks and bags. We were in the car at the front of the train, just behind the engine, and we went to the exit at that far end; as the train entered the station, other people who planned to deboard with us in Durham (or “alight,” as they say here) clustered in that vestibule, too.

The Durham train viaduct

The exit doors should have opened once the train stopped, but they wouldn’t. I pushed the “open” button again and again. Nothing happened. I peered out the window to see if the other train exits were working -- if passengers on the other cars had deboarded -- but our car was so far at the front of the train, we’d stopped at one distant, dark end of the platform. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. Dave finally said, “We’ll have to turn around and go out by the other exit.”

By this point, 10 or so other people had crowded into the train vestibule just behind us; as a group, we had to pivot and traverse the whole length of the car, which was still quite full of people. Some of these people, once those of us deboarding in Durham had gotten up and walked to the exit, had gotten up also -- to change seats or to stand in the passageway, stretching their legs. They did not know what to think when all of us bag-laden, anxious-faced people turned around and tried to walk back the way we had come.   

My new home, with the cities of London,
Durham, and Newcastle
oh-so-artfully circled.
A few of the people still hoping to exit at Durham began to say very politely, “Can we get by?  Can you please let us through?”

But nobody did for awhile. They wouldn’t get out of our way. So it seemed to me, as I stood at the end of the line farthest away from the blockage. I heard scraps of discussion between the people still standing up in the aisle and the people at the front of my pack.   

“But I don’t want to get off quite yet,” an older woman said. I recognized her voice from having ridden across the aisle from her all afternoon. “My stop’s in Newcastle.”

My fellow trapped riders tried to explain. “Yes, yes, but our door wouldn’t open. We want to get off here, in Durham.”

But the woman remained in the passageway, struggling with a large suitcase she’d just had someone lift down from the luggage racks for her. She looked this way and that, up and down the thronged aisle, insisting that we weren’t yet in Newcastle. And still the dozen of us who wanted off of that train couldn’t move. It was like a new, British rendition of “Who’s on first?”

I said quite loudly, “Come on, come on! Just sit down!”

A few people in the Durham crowd with me – who, I can only assume, wanted her to sit down and let us pass just as badly as I did – said to me, “Shh, now. She’s just an old lady.”

And the train rolled forward again, a huge brainless beast that had no conception of us or our plight. We watched helplessly out the dark windows as the Durham train platform slid by us; the lights of Durham grew smaller and vanished beyond the black hills, and we had, all 10 or 12 of us, missed our stop. Onward to Newcastle, 15 minutes away, home of my new nemesis, the aisle-blocking, suitcase-dragging old lady.

There was nothing for it, as the British say, but to sit down again in the seats we had vacated minutes before and ride onward into the north. To remain on this damnable train. To wait around in Newcastle, tired and cold, once we’d reached it, for another train back to Durham. Going around your elbow to get to your ass, as they sometimes say where I come from.

Since it happened, I’ve been thinking quite steadily of those few minutes last night on the train. We all knew, by the time we failed to alight in Durham, that it would take an  hour at least to return. An hour’s delay, on top of the other hour by which our train was already delayed. I heard myself saying quite loudly, “We’d better not have to pay for the ride back here. It’s not our fault that we couldn’t get off when we wanted. I mean, if those doors weren’t going to open at the far end, they should have freaking announced it.”  

But no one else in our group of 12 was making much of a fuss. No one shouted or cursed. Nobody once raised their voice except me – and when I had, the other people who shared the predicament with me were willing to honor the old woman and her obvious confusion above their own imminent inconvenience. I heard one man, on his phone, explain to whomever he’d just missed meeting in Durham: “There was some sort of malfunction with the door. I’ll just turn right around in Newcastle. I’m sorry to make you wait.”

Such a mundane moment, such a dry exchange, and yet the very tone of his voice slowed my heart rate. He could not have sounded calmer or more at ease in this world than if he’d been lying on an inflatable raft in the middle of sunlit swimming pool. In the end, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that extra hour out of our way a pretty minor nuisance at best?

His response – and the response of the others who got stuck on that train with me – seems like a classic enactment of the British stiff upper lip. But it was also, I think, an act of compassion. Of patience. Of letting go of the need to control every minute -- or the need for speed, as it were.

A saying I’ve thrown around a lot in my life is that the “joy is in the journey.” Or, to quote Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.” And I do see the value in this worldview. But how much do I actually live by it? How much am I actually consumed by the need to arrive, to achieve? How often do I just want to get where I’m going, to have already learned what I need to know?

We are about to enter 2017, a year which in the UK will involve more political wrangling over how and when to implement Brexit, and which in the US will see the inauguration of a president whose style of governing (or not governing) -- from his Twitter feed to his cabinet picks -- clearly demands our action: our resistance, any form of constructive and nonviolent revolution that we can imagine. It is not a time for passiveness or acquiescence. There is much work for people of conscience to do. But as we do it, I want to think about how to cultivate an inner patience, an inner stillness.

Happy holidays, y'all!

I want to think about how to live without getting what I want, right when I want it. To learn how to live in the midst of chaos and noise and things that don’t work as I think they should work without screaming all of the time.

Not to hold still. Not to freeze, or give up. (Not, in fact, to go into a coma – Christmas-related or otherwise!) But to be alive, rather, to the process – to the one-foot-after-the-other quality of creating change. To accept slowness when it happens, as it will happen. To give grace to myself and to others.


  1. I love encountering British culture through your experiences so vividly portrayed, Patricia.

    "Christmas coma" could fit the opposite kind of slowdown. The kind that comes from satiation, over consumption, and exhaustion.

    Let's hope for lots of the first kind and little of the second.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you, Shirley. I had not thought of the other definition of "Christmas coma," but you're right: THAT is the kind to avoid! I hope for you, too, a restful and peaceful holidays season.

  2. Loved this entry - and really needed to hear it today! Love you also. Merry Christmas!

    1. Ha - Ann Schaeffer here, not "unknown." :)

    2. Ann Schaeffer! Thank you. I send you a lot of love right back.

  3. Wow! I share in your annoyance of being trapped in a train like that! I do believe I may have resorted to physically "helping" that lady to her seat and throwing her bag back up on the rack. I feel a sense of panic when you realize that you might be stuck on the train for another hour. In 'Merica she would have been trampled! 😜

    1. Wally King, I'm afraid you may be right about that!

  4. What a lovely post Patricia! Wishing you much happiness in this season and the coming year!

    1. Thank you, Dipika! Much happiness to you and yours, also.

  5. Wow, love this entry. Just imagine if your ride had gone smoothly, you would have arrived home and written a different post that may or may not have included learning something different about yourself and the world. I really enjoy reading these types of stories, where fate, destiny, or whatever you want to call it, steps in and makes the decision. I believe when this happens, it marks the beginning of a significant moment in your life. Many wishes that all goes well. :)

    1. Thank you, Rafini. I agree: there is something magical about these unexpected (sometimes, at first, undesired!) moments of revelation. Sometimes you can see the revelation only in retrospect. But perhaps that, too, is part of the magic.

  6. I know we in America can learn a better way or go back to a slower time. Remember when businesses were closed on Sunday for example? I also love this post, and brussel sprouts ❤

    1. Kristin, I do remember that -- the slower paced Sundays. I still think it's a good idea, for many of the reasons I was thinking about in this post. Thank you for your kind feedback, and I'm with you re: the Brussels sprouts. (So long as they're roasted, not boiled.) ;-)

  7. Hi Patricia, once again our paths pass. I have just returned from Basingstoke, via London, and been crammed on a similar train, getting off at Newcastle rather than Durham. I recognise that sense of ennui, when you've had to give up on any ability to control events and just have to let whatever sit. I subjected my North American character, Fenella Morningstar, to it in my novel.


    1. Janeites and Bromantic Comparative Studies, oh my! Bruce, your novel looks like such fun. (Not being able to get off the train when one wants to, however: different story!)