An increasing lament about modern America is that the country is going to wrack and ruin as it turns into a godless land of decadence. That’s not for me to debate here — but what’s a guy got to do to find a simple Advent calendar in Austin?
Last weekend, I optimistically hopped on my bike anticipating a quick ride to buy a nice calendar for a friend’s daughter and, yes, one for myself. Opening a tiny paper door each morning to reveal a surprise token of festive delight — what’s more to like?
But thirty minutes after confidently sauntering into an H-E-B and scouring multiple aisles related to Christmas, I was back on my bike with no calendar, drumming the handlebar in thought.
Fiesta is the sort of diverse retailer that will have them, I reasoned, peddling toward the beckoning wings of the giant parrot.
On the shop floor, I asked a member of staff if she knew where the Advent calendars were. A long pause followed. She looked pretty confused.
Now at this point, having been a Brit in America for some time, I’ve learned a couple of things may have gotten lost in translation. Yes, it's possible that she might simply not have heard of an Advent calendar before. But (and this usually is the cause) she might equally well not have deciphered my plummy British accent.
Then, in this type of situation I’ve oft encountered, it gets delicate. I have to ask the question again, slower, enunciating more clearly and raising the pitch of my voice a little — higher pitch is easier to understand, hence why most recorded messages are female voices — while also not coming across like I’m speaking to her as if she’s an imbecile.
No calendars, again. Next on my list? Target, source of everything under the sun, surely. Well, nearly. What I found was a meager selection of ridiculously expensive toy calendars with little Christmas vibe. I agonized over whether to accept a half victory. No. Christmas matters, man, I told myself. It’s got to be a proper Christmas-y Advent calendar. Hurrying out, conscious of the mushrooming timescale of all this, I managed to pick up a set of $5 fairy lights to twinkle back home.
Sweating more profusely now, I was back onto my bike threading through the traffic and back over I-35.
“Do you mean those religious things?” said the man sitting at the Half Price Books' information desk. “Well, sort of,” I replied. “I mean, historically they have a religious background, I guess, but, um, it’s a Christmas tradition, right…”
A shop assistant was dispatched but, again, no calendar. I did, however, pick up an interesting book on America’s moral crisis.
Onward to another realm of the city, where perhaps the fact I had been cycling for hours sweating in the unseasonably warm weather while trying to find this supremely elusive Advent calendar contributed to me misjudging the one-inch lip where the road met the parking lot and wiping out, my specs flying in one direction as I hit the tarmac.
“Are you all right?” said a lady from her car window as I retrieved my glasses and tenderly stood up, my trousers ripped, knees and knuckles bleeding, before hobbling away to finally find and buy the damned calendars at Terra Toys.
As the pain subsided, I reasoned that the wipe out could have been much worse, and so, inspired by my brush with disaster, I continued my quest for symbols of festive cheer.
A Christmas tree market on the side of Burnet Road had a sign for Christmas wreaths. I reasoned I could just about fit a small one into my backpack.
Inside the wooden hut, however, I was met with a $28 wreath monster as the smallest option. What is it with America and gigantism, I despaired. And yet, come on, I told myself, it’s Christmas, and what a year it’s been for one and all. There’s a real need for some yuletide joy.
So, I brought out the MasterCard deployed only in expensive emergencies. “Oh, your accent,” purred one of the nice ladies working in the hut. “My heart is so in your country.”
Why can’t younger American women my own age be as magnanimous, I mused ruefully, also pondering the enormous expanse of greenery I’d just bought and somehow had to transport home.
The lady directed me to the men outside netting Christmas trees, saying they would sort me and my wreath out.
After much string and wry smiles, the men looked at me in a way that seemed to say, "You quirky Brits, bless your little cotton socks and strange, simple ways." And then I was off, cycling into the Texas sunset with the enormous wreath tied to the outside of my backpack, looking like I was trailing for the U.S. military the latest high-tech festive-inspired camouflage.
Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation would have been proud. And I was proud of myself, feeling I’d measured up to that American yardstick of not giving up in the face of adversity and economic pressure (and relieved — I could have just as easily been in the emergency room).
So in advance: Mele Kalikimaka, that’s the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian (Austin) Christmas day.