It’s really not a huge secret. I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. To say that the holiday spirit is lost on me is kind of an understatement. I tolerate the holidays, I go through some awkward outsider’s version of the motions, but I don’t really carry with me the same kind of sentimental attachment most people have with this time of year.
I’m from a really small family. I’m an only child, and the only cousins that I have are quite far from me in age and geography, so we didn’t grow up together. My parents are of mixed religious background, so I observe Hannukah out of tradition from when I was younger, and a bizarre version of Christmas that only a kid who knew there was no Santa Claus’ could celebrate. Our tiny plastic tree was about a foot high and had a tin foil star of David on it. This isn’t to rag on my family, but it does explain why I have a blank apathy towards Christmas at best.
Then 2006 rolled around. Ah, 2006. I graduated university up to my eyeballs in student loan debt. I went through a very painful breakup with my sweetheart of 5 years. After 5 years of Christmases by a roaring fire in his parents living room, I was trying to define myself as an adult on my own for the first time, and without a strong sense of family tradition to draw upon.
This story has a happy ending, I promise.
This is the story of the first time I left North America, the story of my Christmas in a hostel in Toronto, and the story of how my sense of curiosity and adventure finally found their way back to me at age 23. It is the story of a newfound freedom. It is the story of the rest of my life.
I somehow ended up going to Israel for free through the Canada Israel Experience people. They send 18-26 year-old Jewish youth from around the world to Israel for free as part of a program to develop a Jewish identity. I gave it a shot. I was 23, I had an identity crisis as deep as the ocean, and empty pockets. It sounded like a winning combination at the time. Would I go again? Probably not, although a free trip is a free trip. Did it answer my religious identity crisis? No, it only served to broaden it, and not in the way that the organization had hoped. But I had been bitten by the travel bug, and that was the most beautiful gift anyone could have given me.
And so that is how I came to spend Christmas 2006 in a hostel in Toronto. Our flight to Tel Aviv was out of Toronto on Christmas Day, but I got a super awesome flight deal for the 23rd to get me out of Montreal. I could have called upon distant cousins that I’ve met a handful of times in my life, or some friends who lived way out in suburbia land. Instead, I stretched my wandering muscle, booked myself a dorm at the HI Toronto Hostel on Church St., and spent the next couple of days exploring.
There were other travellers in the hostel that weekend. Some of them world weary, and had been at that hostel for weeks. Some were flying home on Christmas Day since flights were cheaper. All were wanderers, but none were lost.
The reception put up signs early in the morning on Christmas Eve. WINE AND CHEESE! The signs invited us lost souls to the dining room that evening, reminded us that the liquor store would close at 5 p.m. should we need to make provisions, and the address of a few suggested local cheese shops. I returned from the St. Lawrence Market giggling, having purchased the last sprig of mistletoe for a smooth $1. I had a Tetra pack of the classiest cheap wine the LCBO could offer, and an assortment of cheeses and crackers in my bag.
I can’t for the life of me remember anyone’s name, 4 years later. It doesn’t matter. I remember that amazing Christmas Eve in an unseasonably warm December 4 years ago, in a city that would later become my home. And more importantly, I learned that the holidays are what you make of them.
So this year, we’re loading the rats into a rental car, and heading east on the 401 for a few hours, and deep into the Ottawa valley. We’re going to see both of our families, I’m going to sneak turkey sandwiches when no one is looking (and some bones for the rats, of course), and possibly tell tales of my last adventure.
And look forward to the next one. Because after you’ve spent your first Christmas alone in a youth hostel, and it turned out to be an amazing time, your life is forever changed.
Until we meet in the next hostel down the road…