by Jeff Nix

Flying 8,000 miles for the fun of having a table dispute with a distant relative may not be worth the trouble

Well, 'tis the season and all that and, as this goes to print, people all over the Western world will be gearing up for that special festive time when we see family, exchange tokens of love, wallow in gluttony and try not to get into any rows over the dinner table. In many families the flow of conversation throughout the big day will be largely affected by the flow of wine. Normal conversation taboos will slowly be eroded.

An innocent trip to the kitchen for a refill can suddenly turn sinister, as that relative with whom you haven't spoken since last year suddenly decides that this is the perfect time to bring up that divorce that has not quite been finalised yet. Single people like myself will be subjected to those always-welcome reminders of the fact that we're not getting any younger and that maybe it\'s time to move gracefully into propriety and normality, meaning of course, property and marriage.

Sons become Freds, and daughters Gingers, side-stepping and twirling away from such holiday classics as: "Whatever happened to so and so? She was such a nice girl." Well, uh, I'm sure she still is.

Now, I don't want to come off as a scrooge or an old holiday cynic. I think I'm just building myself up a bit as I'm going to be returning to Canada for the holidays for the first time in eight years. And I really am looking forward to it. The thing is that I usually return home for the summer. The weather is definitely better and I feel a bit like a college student returning to sun-drenched terraces and hanging out by the lake. This time however, I'll be back at stress time, right on time for a big dose of full on, real life North American consumerism.

This will not be a casual stroll along a quiet European street looking for a little something for a friend who has invited you around for a Christmas meal. Far from it. This month I shall be forced into that most hellish of all shopping experiences: a trip to the mall.

OK, maybe I'm being a bit over-dramatic as I sit here and equate the shiny sliding doors of the shopping centre with the gates of Mordor.

It's just that I've managed to avoid going to a mall for almost a decade and not only am I going to have to do it soon, I'll have to do it at Christmas. Forget being thrown in at the deep end. This is the Mariana Trench!

The mall experience begins with the sprawling parking lot and the mad hunt for a parking spot. The combination of big vehicles, slushy pavements and tight schedules leads to frayed nerves and often turns calm, usually rational, bank tellers and school teachers into raging sociopaths. There is no quarter asked nor given in the parking game.

Once parked and in the mall itself, you are immediately struck by the Christmas carol muzak and the rows of generic shops all boasting "Insane Savings!". This is where having done your homework is vital. You need to get in and get out. If not, you are done for.You will walk around looking in shops. People will bump into you and slowly your will to live will ebb away. There is no little oasis in the form of a cafe or pub into which you can retreat, have a drink and get your wits back. And don't even mention the food court.

Now, let's assume you managed to park, got in, got your gear, and got out with sanity intact. What would be the most logical next step? A celebration drink must surely be in order. Fine, but be careful. Don't even think about having a cigarette as this is banned everywhere. Make sure you have only one drink as there is a very good chance you will be stopped in a random alcohol check and the turkey down the clink is never very good.

Despite all this, I am, in fact, still keen on being back home for the holidays, as much for the test of whether I have been completely, irretrievably Euro-ised, or if it is still possible to feel comfortable, going to the mall and smoking only at home. We shall see. Looking forward to the bacon and poutine after the hockey game though.


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