Saturday, 24 December 2016

My FOMO Christmas

Mont-Tremblant was the first Christmas I spent away from home. It also taught me a valuable life lesson: don't go on group holidays. Just don't.

I was working as an English language assistant programme in the province of Quebec. All in all, there were about 30 participants on this programme, most of them like me: fresh from studying French at university and needing to find a way to stave off getting a "proper job" for the next little while.

My home for the next few months was to be a small city on the shore of the St. Lawrence, 500km downstream from Montreal. I arrived with visions of Cape Cod-style houses, azure skies and pine trees. Not the entire truth, as it turns out, but at least those boxes were ticked.

The bittersweet autumn was quickly followed by the first snowfall. By then, I was already feeling burnt out, my social needs unmet. Work managed to be both understimulating and overwhelming, using my French to thrive was an uphill struggle, the activities that normally interested me just didn't exist in that place. I also didn’t have a driving licence, which limited my opportunities in ways I'd been incapable of anticipating back when I had applied to the programme.

Soon, the time came for me to make a decision about how I was going to spend the Christmas break. All I knew was that I couldn’t afford to fly back to the UK - but also, that maybe I wouldn’t want to, anyway.

The assistants shared their common tips, experiences and announcements on a closed Facebook group. Someone pointed out that if there were a few of us who weren’t going back for Christmas, it made sense to spend it together. It felt like a decision had been made for me. A weight off my chest.

It was fear that caused me to say yes - fear of missing out. FOMO.

This acronym, along with YOLO - you only live once - was just starting to fly around in the juvenile parlance. The Wikipedia definition of FOMO, quoted from a study by Andrew K. Przybylski et al, is this: 'A pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.'

In other words, if I were absent from this gathering, it would be my own damn fault if I ended up having a bleak and lonely Christmas. We're so profoundly conditioned to understand Christmas as a time of year all about family and being sociable that spending it alone didn’t seem like an option. The way I saw it, even if you did it voluntarily, as an experiment, you’d only be inviting pity from others.

An assistant named Gemma (*not her real name) took it upon herself to organise the chalet and we voted for the best one. The winner was Mont-Tremblant: Quebec’s premier ski resort.

We all sent our deposits to Gemma. I don’t recall exactly how much this cost. All I remember is repeating to myself that this was an investment.
I was also trying to convince myself that this would be a good learning and growing experience. I was a pretty socially anxious person, but I reasoned that maybe actually getting to know the people who were doing the same thing as me - and at that, in communities even smaller than mine - would help me to get me out of my head a little and be satisfied with what I had.

The school semester finished. Most of my students, from what I gathered, weren’t going to be doing anything special over Christmas. A good few of them had never left the local area, which, despite its natural picturesqueness, was quite socioeconomically depressed. I’d learned not to show dismay when students didn’t really grasp where the UK was, despite my well-intentioned slideshows of maps and photos of British icons (except for the Queen, whom, I had been advised, was a topic best avoided).
Early the next morning, I met my driver and we pulled up in Montreal that afternoon. I would treat myself to a night in the city before catching the train to Saint-Jérôme, then another carpool to Mont-Tremblant. I hadn’t worked out the logistics of getting to the chalet itself after that - I’d had a look on Google Maps and it was pretty isolated - but I tried to relax. I was on holiday, after all!

The driver from Saint-Jérôme dropped me off at a Tim Hortons not quite in Mont-Tremblant. Since communication between us was already quite awkward, I was loathe to introduce the idea of a wild goose chase, trying to find the ecaxt drop-off point.
Good old Tim Hortons. In my dejected moments, I’d found solace in its coffee and even suspended my vegan diet for its doughnuts. As an outsider, the Canadian language question felt like none of my business, but as far as I could tell, whatever shenanigans the anglophones and francophones got themselves into, the language of Tim Hortons was universal.
Once inside, I phoned one of the other assistants, who drove out to pick me up in one of the designated chalet cars. I walked right to the end of the street to find out the name, dragging my two suitcases through the snow, trying really hard to describe my surroundings. I could only discern a school and a gas station.

The chalet was like nothing I had ever seen before. The balcony looked out onto a large, frozen lake that was blanketed in a fresh layer of snowfall daily. At night, the lights from chalets on the other side of the lake were visible, about a kilometre away. It was beautiful, bewitching and probably the trip’s saving grace.

I had never actually been skiing before. For financial reasons, I’d opted out of buying a ski pass in advance, thinking that if the urge did really strike me, I would buy one on the ground.
The Mont-Tremblant ski village was supremely tacky, but I figured may as well not hold back from getting a perverse enjoyment from it. There were a few different themed restaurants, plus some outlets selling ski wear. Kids were walking around, confidently carrying snowboards. I felt suddenly ridiculous, like a big, adult-sized baby.

Without a ski pass, I don’t know how I’d really envisioned myself spending the coming week, but in the end, each day went roughly as follows: get up, get a ride to the ski village, wander around, get some lunch, see if anyone else wanted to go back to the chalet and jump into the car with them, read books on my Kindle, watch movies with the two others who didn’t have a ski pass, sit in the hot tub. I guess we’d subconsciously constructed identities for ourselves: we were the observers, while the others were the doers.
So no, the days weren’t that bad. It was the evenings that were tough. The gregarious crowd would come back from their day of skiing - some with war wounds - and start the drinking as soon as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to hang out with people in the evenings, but having a place to retreat to and decompress in is incredibly important for me. On this holiday, I didn’t have that place as I was sharing a bedroom with three people.

I was in a café in the ski village with a couple of others, eating overpriced nachos and scrolling on my phone just because there was free WiFi, when I found out via Facebook that a crush of mine had just got into a relationship. I felt nauseated and no longer wanted the nachos. I was forced to admit to myself that I’d basically fabricated a profound connection with this person. Yes, there’s a time and a place to learn ugly things about yourself. It turns out this is on Christmas Eve, in the middle of a tourist resort far, far away from home.

There was a casino just outside the village, located at the foot of a mountain. I thought this was a good a moment as any to visit a casino for the first time. At the entrance was a coat-check and a roaring fire. I was asked to verify that I was over 18. I didn’t have a lot of cash on me, which I expected you needed in order to make the most of being at a casino, so instead, I went up the escalator to the bar with a view of the mountain. I sat at a table and ordered some kind of whiskey cocktail with blueberry flavoring, noting that bleuets was the word for blueberries in Quebec, rather than myrtilles like in France. I tried to read, but I couldn’t distract myself from this person. It felt as if part of my inner life and my imagination had died. I still needed to give it a good send-off.

I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. There was no private space.

On Christmas Day, people were trying to Skype their families in the UK. They had to arrange a schedule, as the chalet’s internet connection was so weak, but still couldn’t sustain a quality phone call, causing some to cry. I was asked why I wasn’t trying to call mine. I said that it was okay, there were people who wanted to do it more than me and that anyway, an email would suffice for my family.

We had the meal around 4pm, which always seems to happen with Christmas dinner. In the evening, people got drunk. We had put our beer outside overnight to leave more space in the fridge, but they’d ended up freezing into blocks of tin-coated beer-ice, so we tried to shotgun them.

Hanging around the chalet were a few taxidermied moose heads, which were a bit creepy, but I guess they were there for authenticity’s sake. Someone had brought a fake, adhesive ginger beard with them, for some reason, and they hung it onto a moose head. Everybody found this pant-pissingly hilarious and decided to take a group photo in front of it. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t the only one - one of my fellow observers also thought it was a bad idea - but it still took me back to being 14 at school and not getting a dirty joke somebody had made.

I left the chalet on Boxing Day, a couple of days earlier than planned, because I could foresee only misery. I was flying to Chicago on the 30th and wanted to make sure I had a day or two to recover (and do my washing). I criss-crossed back through the province via carpool and bus. After the last taxi from my city’s bus station to my small, basement home, I collapsed onto my bed in relief and gratitude.

On New Year’s Eve, after the chalet had been vacated, Gemma made a long, worried post on our Facebook group. I distinctly remember reading it on my phone while sitting on the floor of my friend’s apartment in Chicago and feeling like this would now ruin my time there.
The chalet’s owner claimed we had caused a lot of damage and now wanted us to pay reparations, even though he refused to provide photos or bills evidencing this. He’d made a long list of supposed costs, ranging from the feasible (broken glasses) to the absolutely made-up (marks in the floorboards, which he believed to have come from stilettos - the obvious choice of footwear for three feet of snow and -30°C weather!).
Not only those costs, but he also wanted to keep the deposits from each of us. A deposit I’d been counting on so that I could live through the month of January.
It scared me. I thought about the moose head. I hadn’t done anything rowdy while staying there - I’d even left early. Now I had to pay for other people’s thoughtlessness. I wanted to assert the injustice of it all, but I also didn’t want to come off as holier-than-thou, like I was more sensible than those who had dared to enjoy themselves.

I panicked and sent Gemma a long email, saying I thought she should contact our program’s organisers for advice, asking if she really thought getting in touch with a lawyer was a good idea; seeing as we were foreigners, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

Of course I’ve thought about it, she replied. It’s all that’s been on my mind the past couple of weeks.

I’m not sure what exactly happened in the end. I lived in a state of unabating anxiety for a few weeks, lurking on the Facebook group to follow the developments. For the sake of my health, I eventually quit the group, reasoning that if the worst happened and I was needed, someone would contact me.

Spending about $1000 on a holiday I didn’t enjoy that much is now hardly thinkable. Two years later, I live in a big city with lots to do and where one can be easily self-sufficient - meaning FOMO is still part of my life, but in different ways. This is not in the sense that I’ll say yes to everything - an injudicious way to live, in my opinion - but that if I’m sitting home instead of indulging in the wealth of events Berlin offers, I sometimes berate myself.
At the same time, I've cultivated the inner strength and the integrity to be able to know (my limits) and to say no (to myself and to others). I have learnt that part of living in a city isn’t just giving yourself to what’s out there, but also taking the time to seek respite from it, because if you’re not careful, it will sap you away. You have to respect your time, use it wisely.

So, when FOMO comes calling, let it say its piece, but then let it go.

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