Without letting any more time get away from me, here's a snapshot of our Christmas!
On our mission to see the world (which has started slowly this past year but hopefully will gain a little momentum soon!), we have started to collect a small memento from each city that can either hang on the Christmas tree or somehow be turned into an ornament. I have this "thing" with wanting to bring back memories, in decorative form, from every place we visit. I like to show others the special places we've been. I like to decorate. I also like to collect things. Now, this would not be a problem if 1) we had a huge house with lots of empty shelves and dressers to display things, or 2) I wasn't married to a minimalist. Unfortunately, our home is not very big, and I am married to a minimalist, so to avoid having a lot of little chachkis causing our small little home to feel more full than it should (and to avoid forthcoming fights over said number of chachkis in the house), we decided that we would collect mementos that could be displayed on our Christmas tree, and pulling them out each year would allow us to reflect on the past year and all the places we had been.
Without further ado, here are the newest members of our Christmas tree's family:
Castanholas... the small wooden "clackers" that Spanish flamenco dancers "clack" together in their hands while they dance, a souvenir from a trip to Madrid with a few couples from Luis's soccer team:
"A memory from Avila", (though I hate how this is printed on there, I loved the design), a small town in Spain that looks like a castle in itself (hence the castle-like walls on the ornament):
A fuzzy leather mitten from the highest mountain in the chilly northeast of Portugal, Serra de Estrela (Star Mountain):
A sparkly snowflake with a slightly antique feel from Paris, where we had only one afternoon to shop (since we were there for the Power Soccer World Cup!), but even in one afternoon, I accomplished my mission! Much to my husband's dismay, my creative side didn't allow me to put a kitchy Eiffel Tower on the tree... wouldn't you agree that my lovely snowflake just looks so very Parisian??
We also collected a wine barrel from the Douro region of Portugal, where we took a riverboat cruise for our 1st wedding anniversary. Unfortunately in all of our Christmas packing and unpacking and decorating, during which we were also trying to find a screw or hook of some sort to hang it, we misplaced the barrel and he didn't end up on our tree this year. I do, however, have a photo from the trip, so hopefully that will do! (I know, I know... I need to blog about that!)
Thankfully the country that I moved to has random national holidays every once in a while that give us some downtime, so on the last one, we decided to drive to Spain to visit the eclectic city of Toledo! The door to our cute, reasonably-priced hotel (which used to be a palace of some sort) opened into the plaza of the famous cathedral there, which is one of the main tourist attractions! So, of course, we had to bring back one of them for our tree as well. (Note: many of our ornaments are magnets that I have transformed with sparkly thread) :)
There were also a few that were not trip-related, but definitely worth mentioning! This is one of my all-time favorites, given to me as a Christmas present by my friend Jessica last year, but due to crazy post offices, huge snow delays, and the ocean between us, it arrived after my Christmas blog had been written. I did, however, treasure it, and it was such a treat to hang it up again this year! It is a hand-made ceramic ornament from Paloma's Nest that is a perfect replica of the country of Portugal, with a small heart stamped into the area right where we live - Coimbra! So thoughtful and definitely a special ornament that will always remind us of our first Christmas together in Europe!
While visiting our family in the US this summer, we made a stop in Atlanta as well, where I swung by our new friends Jacqui and Stephen's house, where all of my "couldn't bear to sell it but wasn't sure it was worth packing and bringing to Europe" things are graciously being stored free of charge. This couple has not only been a huge financial blessing to us, but have also become our friends! We are so thankful for the burden they have lifted in our lives and the way that they remember us from afar, especially by sending mail. Three cheers for someone else joining my mission to revive the art of the handwritten letter!
That story was included not only to give a virtual high five to our friends, but also to note that I discovered a small bag of mementos that I have saved from our trip to Japan in 2007, where I was there to photograph the inaugural Power Soccer World Cup and Luis was there as the coach of the Portuguese team. As you may have noted last year, I have one special ornament that I have been hanging up since that trip which always reminds me of our time there. I had completely forgotten that I had a few other things saved, so it was a nice little surprise to find while I was going through a box looking for a tablecloth! Inside that bag was this little lady, who I couldn't help but bring back and put on our tree this year. Also, that's not a price tag (though since I don't know how to read Japanese, it very well could be!), but since the lettering is so pretty, I thought it added a little to the whole package, so I left it on!
Along that same line, while we were in Paris for the World Cup I mentioned above, we were reminded of how thoughtful the Japanese are, and how they love to give little gifts and tokens to signify friendship. At the closing banquet of the event, they all had small pouches of individually wrapped gifts to give away to the participants there. One such token was a small pair of sandals/slippers, which are a big part of the Japanese culture. They are super small, maybe the size of a thumb-nail, and too cute to not add to the tree!
True to her gift-loving form and thoughtfulness year-round, my mom still sends a St. Nick package every year, always including a few new ornaments to add some life to our tree. To save you a bit of length on this entry, I'm just including my favorite... a really cute suitcase, complete with a map and travel itinerary!
My grandma also sent a cute little ornament with our Christmas present this year, which made me a little nostalgic for the snow of my hometown!
We got a few more from my mom, and since we are trying to make our tree a place for ornaments that really have a story behind them, I try to find other places in the house that ornaments can find a seasonal home. This year it was "my" bathroom -- we are fortunate enough to have two, and since the master is about twice as small as the guest, I generously "gave" my sweet husband the one closer to the bed and oh-so-sacrificially accepted the larger bathroom. With the tub. I know. Poor me. Since quite a few of the "extras" were white and/or clear, sparkly, etc, they all found a home together on the mirror above the vanity!
(Have you ever tried to take a photo in front of the mirror in your bathroom? Somehow, no matter how many camera settings you change, it always looks dingy... and yes, those are salmon-colored, hand-painted x's all around the mirror and the perimeter of the room. Yeah.)
I also added a free print that I found on my new favorite site, www.pinterest.com... (Seriously, go now. Well, finish reading here. Then go.) I had the frame and black paper, so it was just fitting it in the frame and sticking it on a shelf... perfect!
Additionally, we decorated the mantle, because... isn't that what mantles are for? Anyone who has never had one has always dreamed about decorating one... that's just how it is. And now, I must admit, I broke our deal to not buy anything new for Chrsitmas decor this year, and you can see the evidence standing tall, holding some sparkly silver and gold ornaments from that stash I mentioned above. And at 5.99 a pop, I can't say that they broke the bank... but I can say they almost broke down my creative side. I was so eager to fill them, as I've always wanted to have something like it, but when I realized that there was only one size, my first thought was of immediate doom: They will have to be symmetrical. I usually don't really like symmetry, much to my former engineer roommates' dismay, but I just had to do it this year. Something about this photo will probably calm their spirits, so consider it done, my symmetry-loving friends!
If you are wondering, yes, I do know that I need to blog about our living room decor updates as well. Consider it added to the list. (And no, the red isn't really like a fire engine, but after quite a few attempts to get the right color in the camera while shooting at night, as I always forgot during daylight, I decided to just post it already). I wish I could say that I found the mirror at an antiques sale and that it was naturally distressed due to wear and tear, but in reality, I found it at a home decor store and it was marked down due to some random reason. I thought it might be because of a large gouge out of the wood on one of the points, so I (obviously) asked if it could be discounted more, especially because from the gouge, it could be seen that it wasn't wood, but a fake sort of carboardy wanna-be wood, at least on the the little flowery points. I was denied the discount, so we decided to sleep on it, since I already had an idea for that space with something we already owned. We went back the next night, and... wouldn't ya know... the little frayed edge that was scuffed had been PAINTED... and with a slightly different color white! Obviously in less than 24 hours, the salesgirl spoke with someone up top, who decided that giving discounts was just not an option, so they better cover their mistakes. Just thought it was worth sharing. I was super annoyed, but I bought it anyway, and haven't regretted it since! (Isn't it pretty?)
On to the point of the matter... symmetrical mantle for the first time in my life: check. Now the only thing that was missing was the nativity scene! I never really owned one of my own other than one I had as a child, and I had been looking for one for quite a few years, but never found one that I thought justified the always-expensive price. Finally, as we were visiting Toledo, Spain, we walked through a little outdoor handicraft fair (fairs are my jam!) and couldn't resist checking out a small shop of hand-crafted nativities! We both loved this one and loved even more that it was supporting an artist instead of a big store selling mass-productions. You can see in the photo above that we put it in the center of the mantle more "fit together", but here's a better shot of the details like the old city of Jerusalem that was carved into the bases:
We love it, and not only was it a great memory of our trip, but also a nice reminder of the reason we were celebrating!
As I may have mentioned in an earlier blog, we have made some great American friends here in Coimbra, missionaries who have been here one year longer than I have and have done some great work building community among students and families here. Luis's parents are always asking to meet them, but it hasn't ever worked out until now, when they suggested that they (well, LuLu, Luis's mom) would cook for us if we hosted Christmas here at our house, and we could "invite the Americans over"! We thought it was a fabulous idea, and it turned out to be a wonderful night of fellowship!
The event planner inside of me obviously loves a pretty table...
There aren't many sales in Portugal, just two per year: one after the summer holiday, and one after Christmas. There are rarely Christmas decorations that go on sale, but I happened to snag a big box of various silver ball ornaments after Christmas last year, which was a lovely little surprise for me when we unpacked the Christmas decor this year.... hello centerpiece and mantle decor!
The napkin rings are made of tiny little bells, which actually jingle when you shake them, which just makes everything seem a little more Christmas-y!
Also, with our goal to use the decorations we had and not buy anything more this year, I decided to use 6 more treasures that I happened to find in a storage box in Atlanta as place card holders. These sparkly snowflakes were ornaments that have bells in the middle, so there is a small cutout space that allow the bell to move around.... or, better said, a space that holds place cards! We skipped putting them on the tree and saved them for the table instead. I think my hubs was a little impatient that they didn't have a home, or more that they were sitting on the living room dinner table for 3 weeks, but giving them this space was definitely worth the wait! I had to make some homemade Modge Podge to do a little surgery on them before dinner, as they got sparkles e v e r y w h e r e, but even after they dried they still looked sparkly and beautiful!
For some reason (I'm thinking it was the fabulous time everyone had!), neither Cristi or I got a photo of the food table with entrees, but here is a shot of the appetizers that Luis's mom and aunt made...
The big elephant-ear looking things in the back left are coscureis, which are, as my husband described when as I asked, "It's like bread. Then it's fried." This, though, is not a super accurate description, considering that the french toast-ish things directly to the right of the coscureis are also pieces of bread, also fried, called fritas... which (surprise!) is the Portuguese adjective for anything fried. They are made just like french toast, but more crispy, as the cinnamon and sugar are added at the end, and they are served at room temperature. Rotating clockwise, we have a bread-cake with chocolate swirl inside, and lots of cold, friend fish cakes and octupus, which are traditional Christmas appetizers. To finish, we have queijo da serra, which is translated "mountain cheese", that is from the mountainous area near where Luis grew up. It is "ripened" until it is spreadable, at which point you cut a circle out of the "skin" on the top and eat it on mini cruton-style crunchy "tosta" crackers. Super strong, but really delish! To finish up, the large puffy pastries with the white frosting are cavacas, and are super airy, almost hollow in the middle. Luis's aunt and uncle make them as part of their business, which is providing all the pastries for the cafe inside the hospital in Guarda, the big city outside of Pinhel. One thing you can always count on at an Almeida family gathering is cavacas!
Though it was a little strange to speak Portuguese all night with Americans, we had a great time! Lily and Henry taught Luis how to make "s'mores" over the fire in our fireplace...
When asked to describe his first experience with a s'more, Luis Miguel replied, "Um... sweet?" Not sure he was super impressed with our American treat...
Speaking of being impressed, I really think Calvin was when Luis's dad whipped out some coins and started spinning them on the floor! Love how entranced both he and Henry were, and how Cal started laughing so hard!
And I really couldn't resist shooting a photo of this, as we turned on some cartoons for them near the end of the night...
Precious! Even more so when he realized I was taking photos and started hamming it up for the camera!
This is his most recent expression, which his family has labeled the "pirate face"!
And one more shot full of smiles... Cristi, Lily, and her new baby doll. I think if kids as cute as these three were mine, I might have a little trouble disciplining them... adorable! I also appreciate how Luis and Henry are snuggling on the couch, watching Wipeout. (After all, what else would boys bond over at Christmas?)
To cap off the evening, I attempted a timed group photo by setting my point and shoot camera on the mantle, where I couldn't see the back. After two terribly crooked attempts, this is what we got...
We are so very thankful for these friends who have become so dear to us! So glad we could spend Christmas eve with them!
Not really sure how to move from that sweet sentiment into something slightly trivial but oh-so-practical, so I guess I will just come out and say it...
WE GOT A DRYER!!!!
|please don't mind the slightly grainy photo shot with a point-and-shoot under flourescent lighting at night...|
Since his parents wanted to make things efficient for us (imagine the thought!) they said we could buy it before Christmas to ensure we would be home for the delivery, which we planned for the 26th, knowing we would be home. Contrary to every experience I have had here, the delivery men were EARLY and actually woke us up with their phone call, even though we weren't expecting them until late afternoon at the earliest! You can probably believe that from the minute we ordered the machine until the minute it was delivered, I saved every towel, sheet, and piece of machine-dry-able laundry to wash that very day and dry immediately after! Unfortunately, due to Portuguese houses not having walls situated for dryer vents, we have to open our sliding patio door in order to put the vent outside, which makes the kitchen quite chilly, but it's so worth it!
And that, my friends, was our Portuguese-American Christmas. Here's your token couple-in-front-of-the-tree photo:
the tree in all her evening glory:
and the front of our Christmas card:
|photo courtesy of Christopher Whitten|
"Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord, that ever, ever praise we.
Noël! Noël! Oh night; oh night divine!"
- O Holy Night, traditional Christmas Carol -
lyrics by John Sullivan Dwight