Each year, on the 22nd or 23rd of December, I stand on the platform with my husband and wait for the Piccadilly line to Heathrow. Beside him is our largest suitcase, stuffed with gifts of clothing, fancy shampoos and a few carefully hidden rounds of the Stilton his family have developed a taste for. As the train approaches he kisses my hand, the only affection he is comfortable showing me in public, then he boards the train leaving me behind.
My own journey will follow a few days later. It also requires me to pack, but my own bag is roughly one third the size. I take little more than my best chef’s knife and a few cookbooks. Maybe a pepper mill and a bag of good coffee. I won’t be going out anywhere fancy—perhaps the local bistro or family-run trattoria—so jeans and shoes suited to walking on cobblestones will work well.
Each year my husband and I have an unconventional family Christmas. We spend the holidays apart. It has always been this way. An kind of unspoken, but obvious pact. Since the day he left Iran five years ago, we’ve understood that each December, for a few weeks, we will release and hand each other back. Christmas is the gravitational pull that brings us to our mothers.
His journey to the small Iranian city where he grew up will take no less than eighteen hours: two flight connections and a train journey across the desert. I have tried to prepare him by packing his favourite mozzarella sandwich, along with the clementines and deck of playing cards that will serve him well. For Iranian flights are like nothing else I’ve seen: passengers—strangers until boarding the flight—standing huddled in conversation, sharing food and family photos, swapping addresses and inviting each other over for lunch. He’ll need something to pass around as well so he doesn’t appear rude. He is leaving the land of tidy queues and talk about the weather for a world where such boundaries do not exist.
I cannot imagine a Christmas without my mother. Though we exchange no gifts, we begin planning as early as June, exchanging photos and links from Airbnb. After years of Christmases in Canada where I grew up, we still marvel at the prospect of a Christmas lunch in the garden. The possibility of a Boxing Day walk without snow.
Each year I’ll travel to France, Italy or Spain where I’ll meet my mother and her small Maltese dog and spend three weeks in a rented house. We’ll drive around windy lanes in a tiny Peugeot, buying unpasteurised milk at the barn doors of farmers. The market days of each village will become memorised. We’ll quickly learn who sells the nicest eggs, or the best oranges for juicing at breakfast. We’ll listen intently as wives explain how to cook cardoons or crosnes or some other vegetable we’ve never seen before. We’ll taste wine or sherry carefully before committing to the 10 litre boxes we’ll pile in the trunk.
Though we always choose a house with a smart kitchen and rows of gleaming utensils, our Christmas meal is usually cooked outside, on little more than a crude fire of olive or apple branches. Last year it was steaks grilled over coals and a cauldron of Polenta.
I expect to hear little from my husband during our weeks apart. He’ll put a reminder in his calendar for December 25th for a crackly Skype phone call to wish me a Merry Christmas. I’ll receive emails with photos of the epic six hour meals he’ll share daily with dozens of relatives, culminating in going down to their garden and spreading blankets, to eat a watermelon under the stars.
I’ll smile imagining him in the places where I first met him, the pomegranate-lined gardens we used to sit in, always a cautious half metre apart. The cafe selling sheep head and foot soup where we’d meet at a hidden corner table for breakfast. Even the parks where we’d inevitably be accosted by the morality police for being an unmarried couple out alone. The spots where I got to know him, secretly, and where we fell in love.
In mid-January, we’ll meet again in our apartment in London. He is always a few kilos heavier. I usually have a smattering of freckles. We’ll empty the presents we have brought for each other—from me: a black truffle or a bar of goat milk soap. From him: a scarf knitted by one of his aunts and a tin of my favourite coconut-rosewater sweets. We share a few stories, but most of our memories will be quiet and unshared. After long, separate travels home, it is enough to know we have returned from the families and the ceremonies we love. We have found our way back to each other.