So let’s first dispense with the obvious—we’re aware that England is not on the way to Morocco.
But a variety of reasons have led us to this drizzly little island, the nation of Canada’s Queen, birthplace of my grandfather Horace Ames and home to many friends. And who wants to be alone for the holidays?
England is also outside the Schengen Area, the customs union that in theory provides hassle-free travel around most of the European Union. In reality, it is extremely confusing.
First, non-EU passport holders like Jo and I are only allowed in the Schengen Area for 90 out of 180 days. So, as we entered Finland (Schengen) on November 30 from Russia (non-Schengen), we can spend up to 90 days in the Schengen until May 28, which is 180 days from November 30. We took the train from Brussels (Schengen) to London (non-Schengen) on December 22, which means we’ve spent 23 days so far in Schengen, with 67 left until the end of May, when the clock starts over again.
The UK, though part of the EU (for now), is not in Schengen, nor is Ireland or a handful of other EU states. So, no Schengen counting there, but we do have to deal with their own systems. However, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein, though not part of the EU, are part of Schengen, and we have to calculate our 90 of 180 days to include them.
We are carrying a map, a calculator, and a great deal of patience trying to figure out where we can travel to and when, while praying we don’t screw up and end up paying a 1,000-euro fine or getting clapped up in a cell at Czech immigration because we couldn’t figure out this monumental clusterfuck of an immigration system.
Speaking of the Czechs, Prague is awesome. We were unable to catch a hockey game but we did get to see the ballet at the city’s National Opera. My 40th Christmas, and I’d never seen The Nutcracker. It was sweet and moving, and even if the story didn’t quite match Wikipedia’s synopsis of it, there’s a magic in seeing these beautiful bird people leaping and spinning across the stage.
At the other end of the cultural spectrum is the city’s Sex Machines Museum. As the promotional materials are keen to tell you, though there are many sex museums in the world, this is the only one dedicated to the sex machine.
Three floors are dedicated to a variety of wood, metal and leather structures, usually with holes for heads, hands and genitalia, which you can enjoy with your spouse, partner or hired help. The machines usually come with a selection of hoods, handcuffs, shackles, whips, oversized dildos, butt plugs and other implements of pleasurable torture for those who enjoy a more European bent to their loveplay.
On the ground floor, they showed a Spanish porn film from 1926, allegedly requisitioned by King Alonso XIII. For those who thought our great-grandparents were prudish, pretty much every search category at Pornhub.com was represented in the first 10 minutes of this flicker pic.
We took the night bus out of Prague to Brussels, through Germany. Prague’s Florenc Bus Terminal at 11:45 p.m. is a terrifying place, occupied by gangs of weirdos yelling at each other, drunk and tweaking homeless people, and the occasional loner whittling away at a Coke bottle with his combat knife.
We figured we were safe when we boarded the Flix Bus to Brussels, but then a very drunk and/or stoned punk got on and spent the first half hour of the trip loudly demanding both cigarettes and revolution. He got away with smoking one cigarette, but when he refused to produce a passport for the German Police, he was placed in a restraining hold and marched off into the snow.
The police told him repeatedly, “We asked you three times to produce your passport,” and the punk told them repeatedly what they could all do to their mothers when they got off duty. I’ll also note that the Indian gentleman behind me was also asked to leave the bus for lack of ID, but it must have all checked out, because he returned to swigging wine straight out of the bottle and drunkenly slurring nonsense to himself.
At least we don’t have to worry about buses anymore—we decided to celebrate the holidays by renting a car in England. Unfortunately, the holiday spirit didn’t spread to the Vauxhall ADAM we rented from Thrifty’s in London. Within 20 minutes we had blown out the clutch and were stuck on the side of the road awaiting road service. I know this doesn’t say much for my abilities with a stick shift, but it also doesn’t say much for the Vauxhall ADAM, which only had 800 miles on it, and should have been able to withstand the occasional grinding of gears.
After two hours waiting for roadside assistance, we were presented with our replacement, a Mini Cooper. We paid an extra 24 pounds a day—nearly CAD$40—for automatic transmission. So far, England has proved itself to be rather expensive.
But we had wonderful holidays regardless. I’m half-Jewish but none of my friends are even that, so the Hanukkah end of it was a write-off. But Christmas, Boxing Week and New Year’s Eve have been filled with old friends, giggling babies, wide-eyed five year olds and mountains of roasted and sugary foods.
In Buckingham, with some of our oldest and best friends, we laid out Santa’s favourites on Christmas Eve—whiskey, peanuts and a carrot for the Rudolph. In the morning, Santa had eaten all his treats, and Rudolph managed to carve his carrot into a bong.