The temperature was below freezing but there I stood at 3:30a.m, on December 13th, in front of the movie theatre in city center, Poltava, Ukraine, waiting patiently for the marshrutka (a small van) that would take me to the airport in Kyiv for my trip home for Christmas. I had been living and working in Ukraine for almost 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer and the anticipation of seeing my friends and family was overwhelming. Being in a foreign land, I had learned to appreciate the United States more than ever before and, when I left, I had no idea how much I would miss my friends and family. The first leg of my journey was Kyiv to New York, a ten hour flight, and then from New York to San Francisco, another 5 hours or so. Due to crossing several time zones, I left Ukraine in the morning and arrived in San Francisco in the evening on the same day but, in actuality, I had been traveling for about 30 hours. But, in spite of the long day, I delighted in not having to concentrate on understanding the language; English was the language being spoken wherever I turned. The town car was on time and took me to my friend Debera’s home where I would be staying the first week of my visit. On the front door hung a beautiful Christmas wreath, which was a surprise as Deb isn’t a big fan of the holiday season. She had decorated her place just especially for me. The next few days were a whirlwind visiting friends, going out to dinner at my favorite restaurants and just enjoying being back in the Bay Area. I absorbed as much as my spirit could hold of the sites and sounds of San Francisco and Oakland; I embraced both physically and emotionally the presence of my friends. I would hold all of the memories close to my heart when I returned to Ukraine for the final 6 months of my Peace Corps assignment. But the best was yet to come; my visit in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, with my sister, her husband and their two wonderful dogs. I still remember vividly all those special moments spending time conversing with Diana and Charlie and walking Amber and Aiko everyday. I didn’t just celebrate Christmas with them; Diana made sure I celebrated all the holidays I had missed in 2008. Every morning, when I awoke, the living area of their home was decorated for a different holiday along with the Christmas decorations. One morning it was Valentine’s and Christmas, the next was the Fourth of July and Christmas. What fun it was and so truly special! My sister is the best sister anyone could possibly have and my best friend, too. I spent everyday with this special family gazing at the beautiful sunrises, sunsets, flowers and trees and inhaling the intoxicating smells of Hawaii. Christmas in Hawaii is a special time. As you walk through the downtown area of Honolulu or on the streets of Waikiki, at every turn, you are greeted with amazingly beautiful decorations. Each governmental department decorates a tree and many of the schools and organizations submit a wreath, all which are displayed in one of the magnificent historic buildings. I returned to the Bay Area after a week in Hawaii and spent New Years in Carmel, my most favorite town on the mainland. Ocean Avenue in Carmel is always picturesque but never better than during the holidays. Walking from the top of the avenue passing all the shops, restaurants and galleries down to the beach during this time of the year is charming and very special. I could spend the rest of my life in Carmel and never tire of the smells of the pine trees and the beach together and the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore. A few days before my return to Ukraine, my good friend Julie gave me a party to welcome me home for the holidays and send me back with lots of cheer. All of my very best friends attended, most of whom I had been in touch with via my bi-monthly newsletter emails. But, being able to hug them and look them in the eye far surpassed any cyberspace correspondence. The food was delicious and great fun was had by all! Since I had to be at the airport waiting to check-in during the wee hours of the morning, I was staying at a hotel near the San Francisco airport the night before my return flight. A few of my close friends from my previous employment arranged a farewell dinner for me at a restaurant nearby. I had not seen most of them since I left the company and it was terrific to reconnect. I don’t remember the food or the wine or much about the restaurant itself. But I still remember who was sitting where at the table and the conversations around the table. A wonderful sendoff indeed!
The next morning’s departure wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. I am sure it is because the memories of this extraordinary holiday season were and still are permanently imprinted in my mind and on my heart. There have been many special Christmases in my life but the Christmas of 2008 will always stand out as the best.