How Santa changed my life

I was never a fan of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a household full of love and festivities during the holiday season – a steady stream of family, friends and neighbours gathering over for food and drink, mixed with traditional choir carolling at church. I just never understood the consumerism, this idea of having to buy gifts for people because it’s Christmas.

From a very young age, I decided that December 25th would be more rewarding volunteering at nursing homes, soup kitchens, a suicide hotline … anything to focus on something other than gifts.

My bah-humbug came to end in 2008 when I was invited to interview Santa at his workshop in Lapland. At the end of November that year, I flew to Helsinki and then, along with a plane full of tiny tots in Santa hats, took the 90-minute flight to Rovaniemi to be there for the official opening of Christmas Village.

Standing in the middle of a crowd (remember those?), I was surrounded by hundreds of screaming children, many perched on their parents’ shoulders, excitedly waiting for the real Santa Claus to come onto the stage as a lightshow and carols on the loudspeakers entertained. And then, the Jolly Man in Red appeared to deafening cheers. I didn’t get it.

The next day, questions in hand, I went to interview Santa. An Elf gave me a press vest to put on before being escorted up to his office. The winding walkway is lined with photos of Santa with politicians, comedians and actors – all of them beaming with joy.

I sat, nonchalantly, next to Santa’s throne and waited. And then a giant of a man appeared – magnificently, majestically and merrily. I remained unaffected, asking him my first question. He looked at me, with a twinkle in his eye and he didn’t answer my question but talked about Mrs Claus and downhill skiing. And as he spoke, something magical transpired. I began to feel hope – that pure non-jaded hope of a child that anything was possible if I believed in it enough.

By the time my visit with Santa ended, I was a giddy kid. I literally ran down to his post office and sent dozens of letters on behalf of friends and family. I jumped on a sleigh ride as reindeer pulled me across the Article Circle (it runs through Santa Claus Village). Huge flakes of snow fell upon me and I whispered out loud, “I believe! I believe.”

When I flew back to Nice, I bought a ticket to Toronto for December 25 to surprise my family by showing up for Christmas dinner. I hadn’t spent Christmas with them in over a decade and the time together was so extraordinary I was convinced that I could carry on the hopeful spirit to make anything possible in the New Year.

In 2009, I reconnected with the love of my life whose proposal I turned down in 1992 because I was too young. In 2009, I said yes. A fellow lover of all things Christmas, we married on December 24 the following year.  Every year, we begin to listen to all-Christmas radio on November 1 and dance around the kitchen. It has nothing to do with gifts.

Even this year, as Covid continues to try and bring us to our knees, the past few days have reminded me that nothing, not even an epidemic, can take away our hope and kindness at Christmas. And in that spirit, I want to say thank you to everyone who has taken the time to reach out this year, with supportive and encouraging comments, especially when delivering the news during coronavirus is not done with joy.

So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Santa & Covid

Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director at Christmas Village in Rovaniemi, tells me that this year there are health measures in place to ensure safety to visitors, Elves and staff working at Santa’s Village and Santa’s Office.

This includes Santa, too,. “Santa is sitting behind Plexiglas and so not wearing a mask but all visitors are advised to wear a mask in the Office and Village,” says Sanna. “The playful Elves show a good example of this.”

Sanna says Covid is impacting tourism in Lapland. “We estimate a loss of around €700 million in tourism revenue with 5000 less people working in Lapland.” (These figures are for the period covering mid-March 2020-mid-March 2021).

“Even though this is dramatic time for local livelihoods, up here in the Arctic we look positively towards this winter,” Sanna shares. “We may be able to still welcome individual travellers to enjoy a beautiful and snowy winter season when the travel restrictions ease – and hopefully, in the end, the Covid-19 vaccination will save tourism.”

The Good News Prince

Prince Albert makes a surprise visit to Alexandre Rinaldi at Les 5 Saveurs yesterday. Photo: Les 5 Saveurs Facebook.

Yesterday, I came across Peter Allen’s article “EXCLUSIVE: Prince Albert of Monaco to appear in court in new year to fight claims he fathered a THIRD love child before marrying wife Charlene.”

It is hardly surprising that a “bombshell” piece would follow the recent photos of Princess Charlene with her partly shaved head. Clearly her unspoken words are manifesting and sending tongues wagging.

In the mid-2000s, I was a stringer for People Magazine (which, I confess led to a life-long habit of reading the Daily Mail as it was available in print along the Riviera while People was not) and part of my stint was being a liaison with the Palace.

In fact, in 2006, I contributed to “Who’s Your Daddy?” – a piece on the Prince and the recognition of his daughter Jazmin Grace. I spoke to his attorney, Thierry Lacoste, who was very down to earth and forthcoming about the situation.

While I am grateful to People and the by-lines, I have never been comfortable trying to get “sources” to diss on friends or employees, and the pressure of being asked to find palace insiders gave me nothing but diarrhoea.

By the way, 2006 was also the year Prince Albert started a more serious relationship with Charlene Wittstock, five years after their first date.

Fourteen years later, I certainly have a deeper understanding of all things Monaco. Sure, even with the cafés closed, gossip is an active sport in the Principality with people carefully whispering and texting in code, but what the outside world will never understand is that the loyalty between the people and the Prince can never be broken – not by headlines, not by illegitimate offspring or by supposed marriage woes. This is not to say that residents are always happy with the quality of life or decisions made by his government, but the Prince’s personal life is his business.

What does matter, especially during trying times of a pandemic, is how Prince Albert supports the community, like making a surprise visit under the radar to a local business, one that has been working non-stop trying to survive and to help others on the Rock survive during the Covid crisis.

Un grand merci a Monseigneur qui est venu au magasin,” Alexandre Rinaldi of Les 5 Saveurs posted on Facebook last night. Alexandre tells me, “The Prince surprised me and I was extremely moved and happy.”

And that is Good News. Just not a headline that sells papers.

Can you shop in Ventimiglia before Christmas?

Photo: Ventimiglia Turismo Facebook

Yesterday, a FB post by Ventimiglia Turismo was brought to my attention. Essentially the post reads:

“Dear French friends, from December 15th to 20th you will finally be able to come to Ventimiglia! To come to Italy, you must respect the health regulations in force in our country. Please wear a mask and obey the safety distances and health laws, inside and outside the stores. We are waiting for you!”

The Italian government has made it very clear that anyone entering the country would have to quarantine for two weeks, even if the traveler provides a negative Covid result within 72 hours. Only people who are traveling for work or medical reasons would be exempt – this does not include anyone hoping to buy cheaper cigarettes across the frontier.

I contacted the Tourist Office in Ventimiglia to see if we can indeed visit without any quarantine or testing restrictions and was given two different answers.

By direct message I was told “the laws are unfortunately not very clear, you should ask the border police or have a negative swab for security (le leggi purtroppo non sono molto chiare, le conviene chiedere alle forze dell’ordine in frontiera o avere un tampone negativo).

By email, I was told “there is no requirement for a swab or quarantine for those returning to France from Italy, even during the Christmas period.”

To clarify on the French side, I reached out to a contact who is in the know about all things police, and this person had just been to Italy the day before yesterday and suggested anyone wanting to visit should go via the highway, and not the coastal road where the border police could turn you back.

Body discovered in Larvotto

On Wednesday evening, a Monaco resident in the Larvotto district looked out from the balcony and made a “gruesome” discovery.

“I saw this white thing with 4 limbs around 5:30 p.m. It did not really look like a body, it was huge but the limbs were moving in the joints in the waves so it reminded me of a body,” the person tells me.

Using a camera with a 500 mm lens to blow up a photo, the person could “identify hands and fingers” and immediately alerted authorities.

The maritime police, who came at approximately 6:30 p.m., confirmed to the person that it was a corpse.

According to sources, a preliminary investigation indicates the corpse was “most likely” from a coffin.

We know that two cemeteries were washed away in storm Alex: In Saint-Dalmas, Tende, 150 bodies were found downstream and in Saint Martin Vésubie coffins have been recovered floating in flood water. Also trying to figure out what happened to the 160 migrants who were at the camp in Roya at the time of the storm.

Yesterday, Port Hercules and Fontvieille were closed due to floating debris but why haven’t French authorities closed access to the sea for swimmers from Menton and to the west?