25 Christmases

Twenty-five years ago today, my 18-year-old self was about to travel home for Christmas from Paris, where I had been working as an au pair since that September. I'd counted down the days since my arrival at Rue de Lorraine in Lagny-sur-Marne, a town in the suburbs of the French capital, to my return trip to England and to my own family.

I'd been miserable, homesick and lonely; unable to communicate properly with the French family, despite having an 'A' Level in the language. This was 1995 - the internet and especially home connections, were still a thing of the future. It was still about snail-mail and trotting down to La Poste for postage stamps. I had been on first-name terms with the postman, eagerly awaiting news and packages from home and looking forward to a 10-minute phone call from mum and dad every Sunday evening. (My excitement was probably considerably more than theirs when they received their monthly phone bill during that year).

Then disaster struck. I really didn't think I'd make it. A not altogether uncommon, but quite untimely, French national strike meant that the newly opened Eurostar was running a reduced service and anyway, my tickets, which were in the post, never arrived in time.

By chance my au-pair 'parents' worked for Air France and managed to secure me a last-minute flight home. However, I woke up on 18 December, unable to open my eyes - it felt like the kids had snuck into my room during the night and stuck my eyelashes together with superglue. I had, in fact, caught conjunctivitis from them instead. I could still blame my 5- and 7-year-old charges for my predicament!

Somehow I navigated my way around Charles de Gaulle airport and onto the right flight, wearing sunglasses on a foggy day in the middle of December in northern Europe. The look was hardly the height of Parisian chic. When I finally got home I learned that my beloved grandfather had died suddenly of heart attack just days before. I was heartbroken, grief-stricken. But I'd made it home. I've always referred to 18 December 1995 as the worst day of my life.

There have been a few other touch-and-go Christmases along the way; the risk of snow, Spanish air traffic controller strikes, volcanic ash. Yet, somehow I have always made it home for Christmas.

This year, after a quarter of a century, it is not to be. It was bound to happen eventually I suppose. But who could have predicted it would be due to a global health pandemic? Now my parents, aunts and uncles are the age my grandfather was in 1995, if not older. It's not worth the risk.

What makes it all less painful is technology. I certainly wouldn't have been able to have a video conference Christmas dinner with my family in 1995 had I not made it home.

Those feelings of misery, grief and loneliness I felt as an 18-year-old in 1995 will be felt by many this year, even though Christmas is often a difficult time for lots of people. This has been the worst year of many people's lives, not just the worst day, but we can at least easily be connected with our loved ones at the touch of a button, or swipe of a screen.