It has always been a dream of mine to one day have a family home equal to my grandfather’s, where Christmas would bring friends and family in from the cold and close to the fireside.
He taught me how to love Christmas. Almost every room in my grandparent’s house had a tree or a homemade nativity crib, strings of coloured lights across the ceiling, sweets, sacks of presents, clove decorated oranges and strange parlour games handed down from his Victorian grandparents.
Unfortunately, this Christmas wasn’t going to be a classic of old. The trouble can be traced back to last April when my partner and I agreed it was time to return to France.
It was always on the cards. My fiancée was never willing to live permanently on my side of the English channel. So after almost two years of long hours, for low pay, it became apparent that she missed her family too much; the birth of her nephew made the pull all the more acute.
The winter in England had been long and unusually cold. Her homeland is on the Cote d’Azur and she is used to a climate of palm trees and up to 35-degree heat in the summer — last March it was still a toe-curling minus 5 in Britain.
So the gears were set in motion. Our adventures had taken us back and forth between the two countries before. I buoyed myself up with fresh optimism and set about putting my shoulder behind the idea.
I can’t deny that privately my gut warned that it might be a mistake to leave—the primary reason being that my French language skills were comparable to a Parisian pre-schooler. I didn’t have good enough French to find a decent job or thrive there yet. It would be a close run thing for sure, but I bet the house on success and showed doubt to la porte de derrière. I convinced myself that in grand British fashion we’d muddle through like always.
Arriving in early June. The first month or so were beautiful. We explored Provence and feathered our new nest. After that, I started to feel the twinge of something not right inside me. I was beginning to avoid social situations, primarily because they were so hard. I couldn’t follow what was being said and would frantically try to piece together some meaning from the snippets I could decode.
It’s so far from the man I am in England that it became embarrassing to be the bumbling idiot with a “what the heck is happening smile” fixed across my face.
By the autumn—despite making progress with my French—I got seriously “Ex-pat depressed,” a term I had never heard until recently; G.P Google tells me it is quite common amongst emigres and develops a few months after starting a new life abroad. The person sinks into a melancholy, surrounded by a language and culture different from there own, far from the support networks of family and friends.
Not being able to communicate with the locals felt like I had a disability. It was especially present when sat around the table with the extended family. I could only speak naturally to my fiancée and my French teacher, both of whom tried to encourage me as best they could. My partner did everything in her power and remained invariably positive. She searched for some solution, but I had become possessed by the thought of home.
While Sam worked long hours, I concealed a bout of homesickness that only seemed to grow each day. My mindset was wrong, very different from when we had conquered England together a year or two earlier.
Eventually, we both came to a heartbreaking impasse, and I suppose we knew deep down that something drastic had to change. Sam couldn’t continue hearing that her future and happiness were on the line. I couldn’t keep being up and then down. It was exhausting for us both. After months of trying to fix it, my fiancée and I have reluctantly separated. What a sentence to write, inconceivable a few months ago.
I was due to fly back to the UK on the 20th of December. However, I never made it to the airport, as on the day I was to leave, Easyjet cancelled the flight, due to “an unauthorised drone” over Gatwick airport.
I had to remain in France for Christmas. Given the circumstance, it seemed a bad idea, but I had missed my opportunity to fly and would, therefore, go to my fiancée’s family get together on the 24th. I had already said my goodbyes and staying meant I had to see everyone again, with all the awkwardness that it was sure to entail.
Christmas Eve is far more important on the continent. The meal lasts all evening and up past midnight. It was beautiful, the food, and the love amid Sam’s family. It was as hard for myself as you would imagine. Everyone knew I was about to leave or had been about to go.
My partner could no longer show me the same affection, my former brother in law was polite but sat with his back to me on the sofa at the start, only speaking when his parent in laws arrived.
What’s harder is to know what good people they are. A strong loving family. Typically when someone goes through a break up it is a private affair, rarely is it exposed as ours has been over the communal Christmas dinner coals.
With appalling French, I have always relied on the goodwill of those present to include me, but understandably it didn’t happen at the meal. I felt like an intruder in a private affair.
After the final gathering on Christmas Eve, I went back to our apartment alone. She stayed the night at her mum’s house, sending a text that read, I love you so much, but that evening I had felt left out in the cold. I couldn’t put myself through more episodes where the only person that wanted me there was my partner. It’s no way to live.
I feel ashamed that I didn’t embrace the opportunity to save our relationship earlier. We had our chances, and the cancellation felt like some force of fate was with us, willing the future we had dreamed of to survive the storm homesickness had stirred. But like a hand slipping out of my grasp, I couldn’t do what I needed in order to save it in time.
I’ve promised myself that I will never criticise Sam’s family. They have shown me a lot of patience and respect over the years, and I was a guest in their home on countless happier occasions. It has been a privilege to be brought into their flock even for a short few years.
After Christmas Eve I stayed at the apartment alone, spending the next few days waiting for my rebooked flight. I spent the 25th itself there with nothing to do but look at Facebook. I put a Christmas playlist on youtube in the background—yep, it was that grim!—flicking through social media. Normally such activities bring me out in a rash, but it was quite cathartic, reminding me of all the people I miss. I saw friends with their children, and old couples sharing another turkey dinner.
It also reinforced the affection I guard for this time of year. It’s bigger than me, more significant than what is happening in one person’s life – it is about all of us.
As I watched the December sun lower into the still Mediterranean, I took some solace from a surprising place. I could hear Slade’s classic “Merry Christmas Everyone” playing from a neighbours balcony, the final line of Noddy Holder’s hopeful anthem bringing a lump to my throat.
So here it is Merry Christmas.
Everybody’s having fun,
Look to the future now. It’s only just begun.
I don’t regret anything. How can I? We tried, we really tried, and I still love my former fiancèe as strongly now as I did six months ago. I’m not even sure why I’m going anymore. In the sum of things I know I would be happier not to, but this is one knot that can’t be undone easily.
There will be times when things are better. Soon I hope to feel satisfaction for all the good times we shared. Sure the end is crushing, but some relationships are gifts, even if they don’t last forever – none do. Christmas lasts a few days but those days tend to outshine all that comes before and all that follows after.