Christmas in Kathmandu

To be young again.

This is what adulthood tells us. Youth with its privelige and abandon is an ideal that we can never realistically revert to. Although where youth starts and finishes is measured differently for everyone. Being a precocious child myself, raised by somewhat hands-off adults, I began the process of putting away my childish things well before adolescence. In retrospect, this was the starting line for a lifetime filled with depressive episodes, which in turn led to an endless cascade of recklessly made decisions. Perhaps it is why, as a man now approaching middle-age, my interest in the juvenile entertainment of pop culture has been rekindled. When one is desperately seeking the nostalgic glow of times gone by, one does not first reach for hoary volumes more closely associated with grey wisdom than the freedom of childhood.

My long hours of solitude of recent years have led me to settle on one memory as being the last day when everything felt right. Unsurprisingly it belongs to that most hallowed of childhood experiences — Christmastime.

When I was a very young boy, my father took it upon himself to uproot our family from a very stable life in the south of England to a place which fell on the opposite end of the scale of developedness — Kathmandu, Nepal.

The name of this capital city alone is still enough to conjure wonderment in the eyes of the hordes of twenty-somethings afflicted by the growing concern known as wanderlust. I suspect when those feet start to itch at the prospect of visiting such a far-flung and exotic destination their mental imagery doesn’t include one of my most vivid recollections of the place — small children defecating in the streets.

And yet for all its squalour, I remember Kathmandu as being a happy place. The locals were incredibly friendly, and spoke fluent English for the most part. I was on good terms with the shopkeeper who did business five minutes away from our house, and would often spend my rupees on the garishly coloured confections designed to exploit eight-year-old boys. We also had a small staff of servants, one of whom would regularly call upon me to help put her newborn baby to sleep. Apparently, my small arms were possessed of exactly the right amount of strength needed to rock a baby to sleep in its cradle. Another man we employed to guard our house (mainly opening and closing the front gate for cars) was not the sturdiest. I later learned that he had been slowly dying from tuberculosis, having been properly diagnosed, but given incomplete instructions by the local doctors on how to take his meds.

I never wanted for friends. The small expatriate community was mostly made up of foreign aid workers. Perhaps they shared a comity which extended naturally to their children; nurturing a frendly social atmosphere which most people happily partook in. Our parents held dinner parties for one another, and we ourselves gathered for birthday parties and sleepovers.

One little footnote in all of this was that my family didn’t own a television for the duration of our stay. So instead of coming home from school to watch a few hours of children’s television, I would lie on the couch for hours, mostly staying abreast of the exploits of The Hardy Boys — I always marvelled at how fast the Americans of popular fiction managed to grow up. It is probably better for the young brain to engage in the more participatory activity of reading; but the couch potato aspect would seem to have been unavoidable.

As they came while living amongst a people for whom loss was so common, some of my own early lessons in the fragility of human emotion now seem insignificant by comparison. One being the loss of a pet; a Tibetan lhasa apso named Kunsang. One day a playfully hyperactive puppy, then after what seemed like an interminably drawn out bout of illness, dead from distemper. I retreated to the bedroom I shared with brother and spent many hours sobbing with the lights off.

It was here that I first learned how merciless the expatriate lifestyle is when it comes to building long-lasting relationships. The last days of school were filled with children of every age crying with the knowledge that this was to their very last day of school, as one or both of their parents had accepted a new post in a different country. I don’t think I’m misremembering when I say that much of the sorrow emanated from the teachers themselves.

I remember my own last days in Kathmandu. The country had been plunged into a fuel crisis, and the shortage of petrol meant it had become incredibly difficult to get a lift to a friend’s house. So instead of in-person meetings, many of my hours were spent on long phone calls with one girl and one boy in particular. As well as, for some reason, hours spent sat in front of the garage wall with a softball and mitt, in imitation of Steve McQueen’s solitary confinement in The Great Escape. I hadn’t actually watched the movie myself, but my brother had, and in a bit of cosmic foreshadowing, had taught me how to play this one-person game of catch.

A few years later, I met with both the boy and the girl from Kathmandu separately. It was another child’s lesson in adult emotion — that it’s never quite the same.

It wasn’t our last Christmas in Nepal that I’m thinking of. It must have been our first or second year there. In retrospect the eagerness of my parents to go all out on Christmas then was a sign that they too were happier than they later became. I cannot for the life of me remember what presents I received that year. Though I’m sure we were still keeping up the traditions of putting up stockings and leaving out mince pies and a glass of liquer on Christmas Eve. The stockings would always be full the next day, containing oranges, apples, and an assortment of treats and trinkets. The victuals were replaced with a thank you note recognizable as having been written in my father’s hand. The stocking presents were fair game and I would always have at them before my older brother and sister had woken up, long before dawn’s first light. However, the presents under the tree were not to be touched until after Christmas mass and Christmas lunch. Flashing forward to the present day and it pains me that the last vestiges of our once festive, yet intimate celebration, are reduced to waiting for some members of the family to come back from mass, eat a comparatively ordinary lunch, and sit around awkwardly sorting through token offerings from the tree. Not to mention the fact that while Christmas was once truly a family affair, it has now become one where extended family crash the proceedings, along with a random assortment of sycophants from my mother’s parish. It hasn’t been a sudden upsetting change, but a slow erosion of once cherished traditions. It wasn’t the gifts themselves which became less valuable, but that old chestnut, “it’s the thought that counts”, revealing itself to be more than the hackneyed wisdom of spendthrifts.

I am an unusual Christmas devotee in that I have never believed in Santa Claus. It all seemed vastly suspect, even in my earliest memories of the occasion. The first house we lived in having had a bricked-up fireplace may have also had something to do with it.

Despite this early skepticism, now as good memories start to seem more like faded Polaroids piled on top of one another untidily in the attic of my mind, I cling to that day spent at the top of the world. It never snowed in the valley, but there was always frost on the grass at that time of year. It wasn’t cold enough for central heating, but it was cold enough to notice. We huddled inside wearing warm clothing. My parents, my brother, sister and I. We behaved like a family unit, forgetting any troubles that might have plagued us in the year just gone past. The material gifts were not important, but all the others were.