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My Messed-Up Family Drove Me to the Other Side of the World for Christmas

This dude who’s supposed to be picking me up here at the Buenos Aires Airport is already 45 minutes late. I know nothing about him other than the fact he calls himself Juan but is actually an American named John and is nice enough to let me crash in his spare room for as long as I want.

My comedy buddy back in NYC who connected us on Facebook swears he’s cool. “Juan” has seen my profile pic, but I can’t look for a palm tree or bird or whatever inanimate object he used as his, though, so I trust this faceless man will show up at some point.

For the first time since booking this ticket six months ago, I’m starting to wonder… what the fuck am I doing here anyway?

It’s two weeks before Christmas in 2011, I’m here on a one-way ticket, I definitely don’t have enough money saved up, and I have no plan other than to WOOFF on farms at some point in Patagonia like every 32-year-old woman does. The only person I know on this entire continent is my old coworker buddy, Bill, who’s on a climbing expedition somewhere in Argentina. While it’s not all that weird for me to be spending Christmas away from family (ski instructors and waitresses rarely get holidays off), it is a bit strange for me to purposely be doing so.

Christmas has always been complicated. I come from one of the many divorced families whose parents try but fail to hide their deep regret for ever saying, “I do.” My mom’s side is pretty normal, but the Hamlett side has always lived up to its name, full of drama and tragedy. In fact, Christmas Eve was indefinitely cancelled long ago, so my sister, dad, stepmom and I usually share a honey baked ham out in bumfuck Tennessee with a gracious distant relative of my stepmom.

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The only way I’ve been able to navigate all the turbulent Hamlett waters has been with the help of my North Star, big sis, co-conspirator, body guard, and partner for life, Shannon. This year, however, everything will be different, as she’s legally replaced me with a man.

I really like my new brother in law and am genuinely happy for my sister, but I can’t handle the idea of her kicking someone else under the table when my dad hits on the waitress, jokingly calls us hookers, or brags about his one granny who was always flipping biscuits over that “fingerless nub of hers.” I guess it’s not a coincidence then, that I booked a one way ticket to South America mere weeks after my sister broke the news to me of her engagement. Or that just before this trip, I hooked up in the parking lot with a guy I met at her wedding right after the reception.

Whenever I’m feeling lost, my go-to coping mechanism has always been to physically get myself even more lost.

“You must be Mel-nay,” says a gray haired fella with old person glasses and no other defining attributes other than a slight Southern accent and cheap ass cologne.

“Yes!”

He struggles to pick up my ginormous pack, which has what could be a year’s worth of stuff in it including climbing gear (remember, no real plan!). Even though I used to lead backpacking expeditions in the wilderness for a living and am no baby bird here, I let him play dad and think he’s helping.

“Uh, where’s my room?” I ask with a nervous laugh as I realize his flat is more of a studio than a 2-bedroom like I’d assumed.

“Oh I’m giving you my bed!” he says pointing to one in the middle of the living room/kitchen/dining room. “I’m gonna sleep on the ole couch.” Right behind the bed is a sofa with piles of clothes on it. How silly of me to assume the “spare bed” he’d offered me on FB messenger meant anything but this exact scenario. Man, I seriously need to learn how to ask more questions before I agree to free stuff.

As I settle in, piling my gear into the corner, he plops down at the kitchen table, which is only a cartwheel away from my bed, then opens up his laptop, lights a smoke, and starts scrolling.

I haven’t slept in two days because I bought the absolute cheapest flight possible from NYC, which included a 17-hour layover in Rio, so I’m eager to wash the shared air of two planes off of me. Later, over lunch, Juan tells me his many dating problems and I give him solicited advice in my overly blunt style which he loves. When I head off to explore Buenos Aires alone, like I prefer, he follows me out the door, insistent on being my tour guide for the day.

It really is true, that saying about free lunch. By the end of day one, I’ve already calculated the hidden cost of crashing here for free—to keep an old man with a vodka problem company. Oh how childhood patterns repeat themselves! Shannon reads my FB post about sharing a bedroom with this old man and reaches out on messenger. “I thought you had your own room!” Me too! She’s now justifiably worried but also finds it as hilarious as I do. “Just don’t stay long enough to find out how weird it could really get.” I assure her he’s just needy and a bit inappropriate, but relatively harmless. “A lot like our dad, lol.”

Every time I leave the flat, my now surrogate daddy with serious boundaries issues asks where I’m going, when I’m coming back, what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with.

I’m already annoyed with all his questions after a couple days though. I evade the ones about my relationships the way big sis taught me to do with insistent men, but the daily ones are harder to dodge.

Every time I leave the flat, my now surrogate daddy with serious boundaries issues asks where I’m going, when I’m coming back, what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with. He texts me several times a day “You OK?” while I’m out exploring the town, then drills me about my day from behind the glow of his laptop and a cloud of smoke the minute I walk through the door. Being a codependent at heart who often mistakes pity for fondness, I let him guilt me into hanging out way more than I want to and even become his new (unpaid) therapist, helping him decipher texts from his girlfriend, Maria.

It’s exhausting, really, but since I am staying here for free and am super overwhelmed by a new city and language I now realize I can’t speak well, I accept my debt like someone who’s accidentally written a blank check for time and energy from an account with insufficient funds.

The only alone time I get is wandering around the city, as Juan only leaves the flat to buy us groceries or to see Maria. The rest of the time he’s on his laptop, chatting with some ex back home, then complaining to me endlessly about how she only resurfaces when she needs a few thousand bucks “again.” While I almost pride myself on seeing the best in weirdos most people won’t even give a chance, goddamn, I’m tired of hearing about this lady. “She doesn’t like you, okay!” I finally snap at him. He thanks me for being the only person in his life who will be honest with him. Besides, Maria is his one true love anyways.

“But she is a hooker,” he adds nonchalantly.

I often ask myself “What Would Shannon Do?” in scenarios like this, as she’s a master at setting boundaries and taking care of herself. I’m pretty sure she would have left this bananas situation long ago. But I don’t want to bug her on her Hawaiian honeymoon with stupid little sister problems. So when Juan tells me Maria is jealous and says the three of us need to have dinner that night so she can see I’m just a friend, I agree to this totally normal thing. I even go on and on about my fake boyfriend “Bill” until she warms up to me and we become buddies over empanadas. I really like Maria. And I’m relieved now because this means Juan definitely won’t try anything on me. The next morning, as soon as I roll over, he pops his head up over his laptop. “You’re such a weird sleeper. On your back all night like a goddamn corpse!”

I start looking for a new place to stay immediately. I’ve never couchsurfed before (through a website that is), but I love the concept. And it’s free! But I struggle to find anyone not too sketchy to host me because I don’t have any references yet.

I get a break from Juan when the brother of a different NYC comedy friend reaches out and asks if I want to join him and his friends on a gay pub crawl that night. I go bar-hopping with a dozen men then dance to techno in a club that has a room full of bubbles up to my shoulders. God I love my life. It feels so good to be with people in my age bracket finally. My new friend and his boyfriend invite me to crash at their place for a night, which has the coziest bed in a room with a door and no grandpa vampire chain-smoking at a kitchen table nearby.

Over lunch, I read aloud to them a half a dozen new texts from Juan wondering if I made it home from the club OK, if I slept well, what I want for dinner, do I have plans for Christmas yet. It’s not until I’m explaining my housing situation out loud that I realize just how fucking weird it is. My stand-in big sister finally confirms it, “This old dude sounds so sketch. Get out of there!”

Later that day, as I’m looking online desperately for a host on couchsurfing or, worst case scenario, an available bunk bed at a loud ass hostel full of 22-year olds, I get a text from Bill. He’ll be in Mendoza with his climbing buddies on the 25th and I should totally come over for Christmas dinner with them. Hell yeah I will. As much as I live for escapism, I’d underestimated how strongly the holidays tether you to this deep-rooted need for home or at the very least, familiar.

I book a 14-hour bus ticket and head out the next morning. Juan is, of course, super bummed. “Who’s gonna keep me company now?” I do feel bad for Juan.

Mendoza is known for its wine, which I don’t drink, so I’m not sure what to do here. Bill’s not free until Christmas and I need not-creepy people to talk to, so I keep putting out couch requests and stay at a hostel in the meantime.

When my sister sees on FB that I’m staying in a room with 13 other men in their 20’s, she messages me. “You should ask for a women’s dorm!” They don’t have one. Besides, I remind her, I worked outdoor adventure. This is a very familiar scenario for me. As she predicted, though, I barely get much sleep here because drunk men snore way louder than even grandpa vampire did. When she reads my posts on FB the next day complaining about how much all these guys scrutinize women’s bodies in front of me, she messages me again. “Melanie, PAY for a private room already.” But I end up not having to because later that day my couch request is accepted.

Fabian actually has a life, thank god, and goes out with friends on my first night, which is fine by me. I’m exhausted and just want to enjoy a night alone.

A sweet Brazilian named Fabian who speaks almost no English and doesn’t seem to want to bone me gives me his spare set of keys then shows me my new tiny room with two single beds and an actual door. Hallelujah, privacy! We speak toddler-level Spanish to each other (I don’t know Portugese and he doesn’t know English) then finally resort to pictionary and pantomiming to communicate most things.

From what I gather, he moved here for work, is proud of the tattoos covering both of his massive arms, and is bummed about this shoulder injury of his. Thankfully, Fabian doesn’t seem to need anything from me except a little help getting his shirt on and off because of the sling. Now I know that seems a bit creepy, but he’s got solid reviews on the Couchsurfing site, is responding well to my “not gonna fuck you” vibes, and has only one functioning arm. I ain’t scared.

Fabian actually has a life, thank god, and goes out with friends on my first night, which is fine by me. I’m exhausted and just want to enjoy a night alone. On Christmas Eve he invites me to a couchsurfing party being thrown by an American expat here. Hell yeah I’ll go, I pantomime. My only other option is to spend Christmas Eve all alone on my twin bed with its pillow shaped like a soccer ball. All we need to bring is ourselves, 25 pesos, and a wrapped present fitting for any gender.

Fifteen people, mostly strangers from Couchsurfing, meet at 10 p.m. for dinner on the patio of a new restaurant the American girl is opening with her family. We are a mix of nationalities and ages, from all over Europe, Ecuador, Australia, other parts of Argentina, and a few from the U.S. We gorge on empanadas, salad, a roasted pig (the Aussies fight over the tail), wine, beer, and some liquorice-smelling drink called fernet that everyone seems to like here. As seasoned travelers and expats do so well, we share stories and relax around each other like friends from college.

Until White Elephant/Dirty Santa/Yankee Swap/Whatever You Call It.

I never realized just how twisted this White Elephant game is until the other Americans and I try to explain it to everyone. “But Christmas is about giving, not taking. What is the point of this game!?” the table keeps asking. “It’s fun!” we assure them. But things don’t go so well. The older Argentinian lady who’s a tango dancer cries when someone tries to pry her cherished matte right out of her hands. The Australian guy shakes his head. “You Americans are a bit fucked in the head, no?” Indeed we are! But part of me does wish I was with my fucked in the head people back home nonetheless.

This is the shortest, most boring game of White Elephant I’ve ever played. Maybe six gifts are stolen, all those because of the Americans. The concept is still just too foreign for people who come from social democracies, not the kind of hyper-capitalistic, overly individualistic, dog eat dog country that would give its people 600 bucks to survive a pandemic. Basically everyone at that table hates this game except us Yankees in this Swap.

After the game, I end up bonding with the Belgian couple and the Swedish girl traveling together for months. “But.. isn’t that, like, weird… traveling with a couple?” I ask. “Not at all!” the guy assures me. “We have rules. No walking around in your underwear, take alone time when you need it.” The couple actually prefers having a third person around because it’s impossible to meet people otherwise. “No one ever comes up to us without Vanka here. People think all couples want to be alone doing couple things all the time for some reason.”

The girlfriend chimes in and says Vanka is her surrogate sister now. How she’d feel lost without a woman to talk to. The way these three describe their dynamic sounds like so much fun. The best of both worlds. And here I always assumed that women disappear once they get married. Some do, sure. But this Belgian girl isn’t like that. And Vanka isn’t a burden, like I’d assumed. She’s a treasure. Maybe I’ve completely made up this story that my sister won’t need me anymore once she starts making her own little family.

As much as I’ve enjoyed this random Christmas adventure down here, I probably would have cried myself to sleep on my little soccer pillow if I hadn’t heard the voices of the one group of people I will always belong to.

I hang out with the threesome the rest of the night, dancing at different bars until 7 a.m. with the whole damn country it seems. Turns out, Christmas Eve is one of the biggest party nights of the year here. I spend the next day on rented bikes with Bill and his friends then watch Law and Order in Spanish after a home cooked Christmas dinner. Familiar is all I want today.

Before bedtime I Skype with my parents and even my sister. I’d assumed she’d be too busy doing whatever married people do on their honeymoon, but she insisted we chat. After an hour on the phone, her telling me about all their adventures and getting food poisoning from the seafood buffet, I realize she’s the one who just keeps talking, stalling the goodbyes. Maybe I am her Vanka, some sort of lifeline to a part of herself and the world outside their relationship that she will always need. As much as I’ve enjoyed this random Christmas adventure down here, I probably would have cried myself to sleep on my little soccer pillow if I hadn’t heard the voices of the one group of people I will always belong to.

After nearly 8 months of wandering all over South America trying to avoid the grief of losing my sister and proving to myself I’ll be OK on my own, I return home to a family I’m desperate to see again. Even though I haven’t lived within 2,000 miles of them since I was 18 years old, Christmas is the one time of year that I simply cannot stand being gone anymore. I guess that absent heart saying is as true as the free lunch one. Being away from loved ones is sometimes the only thing that makes you truly understand the pain of what not having them around feels like.

Now, nine years later, I’m living over here in France, away from the Hamletts again on Christmas, only this time because of a global pandemic. It’s especially hard this year because they also had to miss my tiny wedding this summer due to COVID border closures and still haven’t been able to meet my husband in person. But my sister asks about Anthony all the time and eats crepes when she’s missing me. Unlike her little sis, she won’t have to travel halfway across the world and sleep on a creepy old man’s bed to understand she’ll always be my co-conspirator and North Star.

#MessedUp #Family #Drove #Side #World #Christmas

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