Deck the Halls

There was something incredibly endearing about the cow bells and yodelling echoing in stereo around the shuttle train at Zurich airport. With images seemingly lifted straight from the pages of Heidi flashing past the windows, it was a fitting farewell from Europe, and I loved it. I almost shed a tear in fact.

At Vienna airport it was all about the opera. The first thing I saw when walking towards the baggage collection area was a section of the libretto of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus stencilled (or copied – I am not sure of the medium) across the walls. Only in Vienna, I thought.

I’ve been back in Melbourne nearly three weeks now but my head is still full of Europe. I left Zurich on 18th November, just two days before the Christmas lights in the Bahnhofstrasse were officially switched on. How tantalising is that?! I could see long threads of lights hanging overhead and could only imagine how dazzling they would look on a cold winter’s night.

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

And that’s the problem you see. It’s too light and warm over here for Christmas to feel like Christmas. It’s all wrong, upside down, topsy-turvy and back to front – at least, for those of us brought up in the Northern Hemisphere. When I first moved to Australia, I suffered acute homesickness at Christmas time. I struggled to adjust to fir trees and tinsel glittering in the sun (I was amused to see Christmas trees and mounds of look-alike snow in Federation Square this year) and days spent feasting on seafood or lying on the beach. Because I love the Christmas traditions, just as I love antique bone china cups. It’s the classicist in me.

My idea of listening to Christmas carols is not joining in a bun fight in the park with big screens beaming pictures of Dolly Parton-like singers blasting out American carols all about Santa and jingling bells. It’s about going to a church or cathedral and listening to an angelic-voiced choir boy leading in with the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, preferably by candle light. Last night I drove past my local park and the carol fest was in full swing complete with B-list celebrities, lots of hype and pizzazz, hordes of people, food stalls, and very noisy fireworks at the end. Baby Jesus didn’t get a look in…

I read something in Time Out suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t lean so much towards the European-inspired traditions (as in when in Rome…) and instead of fir trees have sand sculptures and other Aussie-centric decorations. Hmm, perhaps. Anything would be better than the pitiful and cheap-looking decorations installed by my local council this year. I thought it was perhaps just me with my snobbish European thing going on but, according to my local paper, ratepayers are up in arms at the cost of this year’s embarrassing effort. “The council has attempted to spruce up shopping strips with gold ribbon wrapped around trees and secured with cable ties, and stars stuck to fences and bins.”

From being in denial one year about Christmas – I simply edited it out and focused on the summer holidays instead – this year I am going all out to get into the Christmas spirit. I’ve collected up all my decorations old and new and added bits and bobs from two dollar shops, Target, Op Shops and my local park. Rather than a tree, I’m spraying twigs silver to arrange in a vase including a few gum leaves (my nod towards the ‘When in Rome’ thing). Then I’ve sprayed some fir cones to dot around my book shelves. I’ve got two traditional advent calendars and a Julelysspil, one of those delightful rotary candle holders that I purchased in Copenhagen (see photo), a few reindeer and lots of candles.


It’s easy to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – a time of peace, joy, celebration with family and friends, and an opportunity to rest and renew ourselves for the coming year. Whether it’s baking Christmas cakes and biscuits, singing carols, going to church or putting up the decorations, it’s about tapping into the wonder of the Christmas story and the aged-old Yuletide traditions. The origins of Christmas are actually something of a multi-layered mishmash of Pagan and Christian festivals. Yule was a Pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, an excuse for feasting and revelry to break up the long winter months. Whatever spiritual or religious tradition you belong to – or don’t belong to – it’s definitely the season to be jolly, to be thankful and to have a good knees-up. Go forth and deck the halls. Holly anyone?

‘Christmas… is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.’ Freya Stark

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Stripping off and chilling in Zurich

When I arrived at my Airbnb accommodation in Zürich (my final destination before returning to Melbourne) after three busy days in London, four days of wall to wall museums and sightseeing in Krakow, 22 hours of travelling down memory lane in Vienna, a seven-hour train journey, an 11-minute tram ride (the Swiss are very precise) and a luggage schlepp up 12 stairs (the block of flats was on a slope, dammit!), I was in serious need of some R & R.

Regula, whose stylish flat I was staying in, detected a note of weariness in my voice when she reeled off all the tourist attractions in Zürich. So when she suggested a walk into the city along the lake followed by a visit to a sauna, I perked up. But, hang on, I hadn’t packed a swimming costume and could hardly go in my underwear. Needless to say the Swiss and all those Germanic and Nordic birch-slapping types are very uninhibited; no clothes needed.

The walk along the lake in the soft autumn sunshine was glorious. I strolled past copper beech trees, couples out walking, families with kids, dog walkers, roasted chestnut stalls and various sculptures including a Henry Moore.

Zurich lake 1

Everything is shut on a Sunday so I window-shopped my way through the narrow alleyways of the old town, stopping off to admire the Chagall stained-glass windows at the Fraumünster church and those by Augusto Giacometti (a relative of the famous sculptor Alberto) in the Grossmünster. Lunch was in Cafe Odeon, an art deco (Jugendstil) hangout favoured by exiled artists, writers and thinkers during the Second World War.

In the afternoon it was back to the Fraumünster to listen to an a capella concert of early choral music (Tallis, Byrd, Purcell etc). The singing was sublime and the acoustics spot on. I shut my eyes and let the music envelop me. I could have sworn I heard an organ playing such was the resonance and swell of the voices.

Then, saving the best for last, I headed off to the sauna in the early evening. Right on the lake with wooden decking, sun loungers and steps into the water, it was a bit like being on a boat. It even creaked.


I duly stripped off, deposited my things in a locker, wrapped myself in a towel and went into one of several sauna cabins leading off a relaxation room furnished with reclining chairs and blankets. “It is gemischt (mixed) on Sundays?” I asked rather apprehensively on walking into a wall of heat and sweaty men. After a bit of good-natured teasing, I established that it was indeed a combined male and female evening, and I was not the only woman for long. It was all very relaxed and bodies were just bodies. More challenging was the recommendation that I cool down afterwards in the lake (I had had my eye on the shower on the deck). They assured me that, at 12 degrees, the water was mild for November. Mild for winter, maybe, but I wouldn’t call it mild as such! I did plunge in and it was exhilarating but a very brief immersion was all I needed to bring my body temperature down.


Back on the deck – everyone clad in towels at this point – the tealights were flickering and the brazier roaring. I chatted to a lively bunch of 30- and 40-somethings about life and the universe. If we’d just had a few sausages and some prawns, we could have got a barbeque going.

Opposite the relaxation room was a quiet room with a row of futon-like single mattresses on a raised platform. The idea is to go in there, switch off, slow down and snooze in a talk-free zone. Bliss! The next day I read a fabulous quote in the German edition of Vogue – see below. Translated, it means: I don’t have time to rush. I love that even though I rushed around Europe like a mad thing!


Postscript – those who read my last blog will be happy to know that Regula was happy to keep that well-travelled piece of cheese and use it in soup!!