For travelers, there is inevitably a moment when the exhilaration of discovery gives way to an acute sense of being a stranger in a very foreign place. As soldiers, diplomats and foreign correspondents know, that sense of displacement may be keenest at times of traditional togetherness and homecoming. Here, Los Angeles Times foreign correspondents share some of their most memorable holidays away from home.
ROMANIA, 1989Last year, after dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was unexpectedly overthrown and forced to flee, I was asked by my editors to try to get into Romania as quickly as possible. That was Dec. 22, three days before Christmas.
I decided to fly to Belgrade, cross the Romanian border in eastern Yugoslavia and make my way to Timisoara by car. As I packed my bag that night, my wife slipped in four small gift-wrapped Christmas presents. Two slim, soft packages from my 3-year-old daughter obviously contained some kind of clothing. A fancy gold cellophane bag from a chocolatier in our Paris neighborhood promised me something sweet. The fourth gift, a small, rather heavy box, was more of a mystery.
I teamed up with French journalist Philippe Chatenay in Belgrade. We rented a car together at the Belgrade airport and began our drive toward Romania Saturday evening, Dec. 23, under a pall of encroaching darkness and drizzling rain. The Romanian border guards were drunk but still demanded money for visas. A large billboard at the border post advertised the Hotel Continental in Timisoara, which it claimed was a true luxury hotel with all imaginable amenities. The picture of the hotel on the billboard showed a solid, Stalinist-style building several stories high. Lacking knowledge of anything better, we made the Continental our destination.
Getting there, however, was not easy. On the drive into Timisoara we were repeatedly stopped at roadblocks manned by gun-and club-toting "citizens" of the New Romania. They frisked us, inspected our bags, asked for cigarettes and warned us about shooting ahead. Sure enough, as we approached Timisoara we could see the glowing trails of tracer bullets above the city's modest skyline.
After becoming separated from Chatenay during a burst of gunfire near the train station, I spent most of the night crouched in the stairwell of an office building. Occasionally, the citizens' patrols would come, point guns and flashlights in my face and ask me questions. They said they were looking for Libyan terrorists. Wild rumors about specially trained Libyan assassins, masters of disguise, coursed the Timisoara streets.
Chatenay and I found each other early the next morning. We made it to the Continental Hotel, or what was left of it, on Christmas Eve. Hotel staffers crouched low and sprinted when they passed windows that opened onto the street. A self-appointed press spokesman for the Romanian revolution warned us to be careful. The night before, he said, eight foreign reporters had been wounded in Timisoara. We soon learned that two Americans were among them.
Christmas morning I awoke in my room at the Continental to a deafening exchange of gunfire and the sound of glass shattering in nearby rooms. I rolled off my bed and over against the wall. The gunfire continued unabated. I found myself crouched next to the bag containing my Christmas packages from home. Not knowing when I would get another chance, I decided to open them.
The soft packages contained two T-shirts that had been decorated by my children. My 3-year-old had painted a Christmas tree on one of the shirts. She and my 1-year-old son, obviously assisted by my wife, had decorated the other with hand- and footprints made with different colors of paint. I could make out their marvelously tiny fingers and toes. I held the shirts close to my chest and wept.
The cellophane bag contained hand-dipped chocolates. The heavy little box held a very expensive tin of foie gras from Petrossian, a famous Paris caviar and delicacy shop. The irony of receiving such a gift at such a time made me smile. The gunfire stopped.
I managed to cadge some hard, stale rolls from the hotel. Later that night, two other American correspondents and I shared the rolls and the foie gras as we rode on a train bound for Bucharest. We sliced the rolls and the foie gras with our pocket knives to make a kind of open-faced sandwich. It was Christmas dinner. When we finished, we took turns talking about the best Christmas meals we had ever had. Shortly before midnight, the train conductor came into our compartment. Had we heard the news? he asked. Ceausescu was dead. Holding his index finger as though it were a knife, he made a slashing motion across his neck and smiled. - RONE TEMPEST
Tempest has been the Los Angeles Times' bureau chief in Paris since1988. Before that he was Times South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi.
With a long-time foreign correspondent for a father, our three daughters used to say that the toughest question they ever had to answer was: What's your home address?
We spent Christmas in Moscow in 1977 when our friend Yuri Bessenov, much the worse for liquid holiday cheer, solved the problem of a tree that was too tall for our apartment by lopping three feet off the wrong end. We hung our decorations that year from something that looked more like an evergreen pillar in the corner of the living room.
And we were in Jerusalem in 1986 when our Orthodox Jewish friends, the Landaus, brought their 12-year-old son to our house for his first look at a real Christmas tree. He seemed more impressed with the presents underneath.
In fact, only once in 12 years abroad did the Grinch actually steal a Fisher Christmas. That was in Poland in 1981 when our Grinch was a Polish general named Wojciech Jaruzelski who declared martial law on Dec. 13 in order to stop a political steamroller called Solidarity.
Our daughters were all in a boarding school in Rome that year, and with Poland's borders closed by the state of emergency they couldn't have come "home" even if we had felt it safe. Their mother was eventually able to leave Poland in time to join the girls and old friends in Los Angeles for Christmas. I stayed in Warsaw dodging police barricades, water cannon, and truncheon charges, inhaling tear gas, and trying to avoid being caught out after curfew while smuggling news stories out of a country cut off from all normal international communication.
Even though they were even more depressed than I, Polish friends did their best to make my Christmas less lonely. Andrzej Wiecko, a Polish journalist who had been helping me ever since we got to the country the previous summer, had invited me to share a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with his family, for which I was most grateful. His wife, Kristina, apologized several times that food shortages prevented her from serving all the 12 dishes on the traditional menu for the evening. Presents were sparse - calendars, ballpoint pens, souvenirs. A tiny table-top tree was decorated with real candles which had to be tended closely to prevent a fire.
We broke a traditional Christmas wafer in turn with each other person in the room in a symbolic burying of the hatchet for any bad feelings left over from the previous year. Then we embraced and wished each other not a Merry, but a Peaceful Christmas before sitting down to dinner.
There was, as is customary at a Polish Christmas Eve, an extra place set at the table. Usually it's for an unexpected guest. But this night, in homes throughout the country, it was symbolically set for the 5,000 Poles who had been interned by the martial law authorities. Among those detained that night was Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who will be celebrating this Christmas as his country's president. -DAN FISHER