Lost (and Found) in Translation

A Portuguese-Samoan Christmas celebration in Point Loma

 Anne's writing a book about tuna fishermen. I was just thankful she didn't spend her time at the party telling me all about the book.
  • Anne's writing a book about tuna fishermen. I was just thankful she didn't spend her time at the party telling me all about the book.

It was a mellow Christmas season for parties — for me. That was good, considering I was sick for almost two weeks around that time. There was a bris I found out about, but the idea of going to celebrate a baby being circumcised isn't my idea of a party. I cringe even thinking about it. I do laugh thinking about the story where a man sued his mom for having that done to him as a baby.

A woman named Anne called to invite me to her Christmas Eve party. She told me her father was Portuguese and her mom was Samoan, and they combine both traditions when they celebrate and party on Christmas Eve.

Earlier that day, I met a girl named Corinna who was from Germany. I asked her about their traditions on Christmas. She said, "Our entire celebration is on Christmas Eve. Our parents would lock the living room or another room in the house. The kids were in their rooms, and they decorate the tree at that time and set the presents out. In Germany, it's tradition to have a bell that you ring. When it is rung, we can come out of our rooms. We are told that it's the Christ Child who decorated the tree and left the presents. We sing songs and open gifts at that time. Sometimes a child is asked to say a poem. If there is a piano in the house, someone will play that during the carols. We have a big meal, and then families attend midnight Mass. This all happens the day before Christmas, though."

I loved the idea of the bell. Talk about creating a Pavlovian response in children.

I asked her more about Germany. Corinna said, "The most famous market is in Nuremberg. You can buy everything there -- decorations, candles, gingerbread, trees, and all the presents. The kids are told that Christ Child shops here, in case they see a gift they end up getting. The children also send letters to Christ Child or Santa, just like in America. We have some of the same foods we eat during the holidays, but we also have stollen, stuten, hutzelbrot, ginger nuts, marzipan, roast apples, and rum grog."

Ah, sounds delicious...I think.

She ended by telling me, "In Germany, it has moved away from being such a religious holiday. It is more about the time with your family."

I showed up at Anne's brother's place in Point Loma. She told me a lot of the Portuguese tuna fishermen live in this area. Her father is a retired fisherman, but she has a brother in the business. She's writing a book about tuna fishermen. I was just thankful she didn't spend her time at the party telling me all about the book. So often at parties people tell me of a novel, CD, or screenplay they are working on. Sometimes it's interesting, but when people spend an hour telling you details of something that you didn't care about to begin with, you can start to nod off. (Thanks for not doing that, Anne; can't wait for the book.)

The smells from the kitchen were incredible. They were making lasagna, but the smell of the garlic bread and other treats was wonderful. A lot of children were running around, and one lady had the perfect idea. She handed out fun pads (miniature coloring books with puzzles inside) to all the children. That kept 'em busy for about 20 minutes.

It also reminded me of a time when I was five. My mom took my brother and me to see Santa Claus. When my brother sat on Santa's lap, he was given a fun pad and a watch. I was so excited to receive these, I jumped on his lap. And when I was done rattling off the toys I wanted, Santa handed me a fun pad and a toy race car. I asked for a watch and he said, "I just ran out of those." I started to cry and continued sobbing all the way home. My mom said, "Stop being a baby." And my brother, in one of his kinder moments as a big bro, grabbed the race car and said, "Look how cool this is! It has a number on the side, and I bet it can go fast." Through my tears, I wanted to scream, "But it can't tell time, damn it!" Ah, writing this column, it's cheaper than seeing a shrink.

Anne has a brother who is a singer-songwriter. We were talking about his music, and an older woman overheard this. She told me her son was a musician and writer. "He wrote the liner notes for many popular CDs. And he cowrote [San Diegan] Frankie Laine's autobiography."

People at this party were speaking many different languages. Anne's mom was talking to me, at one point, about the importance of pronouncing people's names properly. I was telling her that I find it annoying when somebody is named "Andrea" but she asks that you pronounce it "On-dray-ah." It seems to me that if your name is spelled the way it's usually spelled but you have some funky pronunciation, you seem silly if you are correcting everyone at a party. They really don't care, and it will make them feel uncomfortable for mispronouncing it. Maybe I'll ask Saffron the etiquette behind that.

A tall, good-looking guy named Mark showed up. His mom works with Anne, and Anne joked about trying to seduce him. He was a tow-truck driver in his early 30s. When Anne told him I was doing a story and that he should do something crazy like get naked, he said, "Like I always do?"

The first thing Mark said to me was that he had towed his old girlfriend's car the other day. I immediately thought of the Harry Chapin song where he drives a taxi and picks up an old girlfriend who is now rich and is tipped $20. As I was waiting for him to say how humiliating it was to have an old girlfriend see him towing cars, he told me, "She's ruined every car she's owned." He then told me he and his buddies would fix the cars up a bit, doing a lot of welding, and have rally races in the desert. "You don't care if you roll a car doing 90 if it's a piece of junk. It's so fun. We have to work on them. People often give me their junky cars, but most times they go straight to the junkyard."

He told me I should join him in a rally race and that he'd provide the car for me. But it wasn't damaging the car at 90 mph that I was worried about. It was me going through a windshield at 90 and bleeding to death in a desert.

I asked if he had any other tow-truck stories. He said that on slow nights, he'll go to bars. One insurance company gives you four free tows a year, and he tells the bartender that if anyone has had too much to drink, he'll offer to tow their car. That way, they get home safely with their car. And the insurance company foots the bill.

Mark said, "I showed up at one bar, and this woman had driven 15 feet down this hill in the parking lot. The cops were there looking for the owner. She had gone back into the bar and was afraid to come out and possibly get a DUI. I went in and told her she didn't have anything to worry about. It's a way to get out of a drunk-driving accident. If you have something like this happen and go into a bar, the police can't give you a ticket for being drunk, because you may have gotten drunk after the accident. It will always get thrown out of court. The police knew this woman was drunk, and they lectured her, but she didn't get a ticket. And I towed her home."

Anne has a brother named Steve, whom I had seen taking pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Old Town. And I saw him when we went to the same court reporting school. I quit the school after only being able to type 140 words per minute. (You have to type 225 to be employed.) He told me, "I got up to 200 but quit. I'm working for the D.A.'s office. They pay me the same as a court reporter, so I gave up the school."

We talked about the 90-percent dropout rate of court reporters, the students who went for ten years not realizing they might never get up to that speed. It's a tough thing to learn. And you abbreviate so many words, trying to read your notes sometimes is like trying to figure out a new language.

I heard that Steve got his nephews presents that included the skull-dissecting kit from the TV show CSI and a George Foreman Play-Doh grill set. Wow. And I thought Operation was a cool game!

Anne was given a doll called "Mr. Perfect." It was supposed to be the perfect man. When you squeeze its hand, it says 16 phrases, including "Honey, I hope we can spend the holidays with your family again this year." Another was "I've made you breakfast in bed again." I did wonder why the doll wasn't life-size.

When Anne got some French perfume, she wanted me to smell it. I stuck out my hand and she said, "You won't be able to smell it on your hand." I asked, "What are you talking about?" She said, "You cannot smell perfume on yourself." We argued about this for ten minutes. When she finally sprayed it on my palm, I smelled it. I told her I could smell it fine and she said, "Well, mixed with your body chemistry, you can't smell it properly." Ah, okay. Maybe you're supposed to spray it in the air, walk through it sniffing, and that's the only way to smell it. I'd be willing to bet it smelled exactly the same as it did on my hand.

Another guy was telling me about parties he'd had in college. He said that they'd charge $5 per person, and so many people showed up, they'd make $3000. He said, "We paid for the kegs, paid the band, and had enough money left over to pay the rent. We didn't need to work, just threw parties and it paid the bills."

Anne kept bringing me food and updating me on all the people at the party. She said, "There are Italians here, Jewish friends, Mexicans, as well as all the Samoan and Portuguese. It's several cultures coming together."

Since her mom is Samoan, I asked about their traditions. Anne said, "The Samoan kids are happy and polite and grateful for whatever they get as gifts. They aren't as spoiled as some kids in the U.S. They learn how to share because many Samoan kids are from large families."

She told me, "In Samoa, they have modern things, like video games, and some similar traditions. They start things on Christmas Eve. They sing hymns and pray to thank God. Before midnight, they attend a church service or have a big feast. They seem to value the family more than the actual gifts. When I went there to visit my dad, it was different than I expected. Everything revolves around church. My brother once got in trouble for swimming at my dad's beach in back of his house. It was on a Sunday, something you never do in a Samoan village on a Sunday. Late at night on Christmas, the kids would go from house to house dressed in white as angels. They sang from 2:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. It was beautiful. They are taught harmony from an early age. I've never heard a bad Samoan choir. The language is very melodic, too. And the kids don't get a lot of presents on Christmas. They get their gifts on New Year's Eve."

As I left the party, I thought about my weird family traditions. Having a Jewish mom and a Catholic stepdad, we had a tree and a menorah. Good Fridays for me were just okay Fridays. I went to confession, but I'd bring an attorney with me.

My tradition now, as an adult, is to meet friends at the Casbah to watch the Dragons do their Rolling Stones set, which they've done for the last 15 years on Christmas Eve. As I look around the bar, I wonder why these people aren't home with their families.

Crash your party? Call 619-235-3000 x421 and leave an invitation for Josh Board.

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