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Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person celebrates the fun and frustrating holiday season.

An ideal Christmas includes three essentials: friends, sumptuous food and a live performance of Handel’s Messiah, all of which are not difficult to find in most countries. My most memorable Christmas, however, was an unplanned one under great stress in a foreign country where I knew no one and dinner consisted of flying fish and cou-cou.

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Having grown up on the Atlantic coast, boats have been a passion of mine since childhood. I was in my 40s before I owned my own sailboat, but it was a life changer. I dreamed of spending winters in the Caribbean, but the only way I could accomplish sailing for an entire winter in the Caribbean was to take my own boat south which, of course, was nonsense. Or was it? I made a few phone calls.

Ignoring the naysayers and the worrywarts shrieking about accidents, southern storms, death by drowning, hijackers and thieves (i.e., almost everyone I knew), I negotiated a four-month leave from work and found a freighter willing to transport my boat form Toronto to Barbados.

Nov. 26: In the cold, damp, early morning haze of Toronto’s harbour, I watched as the freighter Joanna headed out to sea, my boat strapped to the deck, resembling an elegant bird perched on the back of a rhinoceros. A week later, I boarded a flight to Barbados to meet the ship, which was scheduled to arrive in Bridgetown on Dec. 10. I checked in at an elegant hotel for the short wait.

Dec. 10: No freighter. The shipping company wasn’t sure where she was, but knew she wasn’t far from Halifax. A few days later, I moved to a less expensive but nice hotel, sat alone on the beach, cracked open my navigation book and stared balefully at every freighter on the horizon.

Dec. 15: Delayed, they said. Somewhere off Cape Hatteras. I discovered the local green coconut juice and made pleading phone calls to my broker in Toronto, accusing him of withholding information, inferring a probable insurance scam.

Dec. 20: Ten days overdue. They reckoned she was off Miami in an unexpected hurricane. I moved to a cheap pension and poured rum into the coconut juice. While the tourists around me basked and swam in holiday abandon, I grew morose. Word of my situation spread throughout the boating community, and total strangers would stop me to ask if I had heard anything yet. My constant worry, however, was no match for the infectious good humour of the people of Bridgetown. The Bajan people are smart, sophisticated and fun to hang out with. Between bouts of despair, I danced to their irresistible music, laughed at their irrepressible humour and fell in love with their accents.

Dec. 24: Yet another phone call. They were sure she would arrive soon, very soon, and would I lay off the people at the Port Authority. Convinced my four-month sabbatical would be spent in litigation on dry land, I searched for some way to relieve my stress and celebrate Christmas. Not surprisingly, on this very British island, I found a performance of the Messiah, Handel’s greatest masterpiece. As a musician, I knew the oratorio through and through, and had heard superb performances in Toronto, Vienna and Munich.

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I arrived at the church half-an-hour early and barely got a seat. About 700 people were packed into the main hall and balcony, all in a festive mood. I surreptitiously attempted to brush the sand off my pants and sandals when I saw everyone dressed formally; the women in hats, gloves and silk stockings, and the men in suits and ties. Despite my tacky appearance, they greeted me warmly and with curiosity. By start time, introductions were complete, everyone around me knew my personal history and I was part of several families.

The audience applauded enthusiastically as the orchestra filed in: four violins, one viola, two cellos, acoustic bass, electric bass, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, electronic keyboard, a drum kit and, of course, the resident pipe organ. The attempt to tune this melange was truly an exercise in Christian goodwill but, undaunted by the resources and the stifling heat, the four soloists, choir and conductor arrived, and the performance began.

The opening Sinfonia was done with great tenderness and yearning, whether toward Godliness or intonation, I could not be sure. Then came the aria: Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted – and exalted it was! The tenor sang with the straight-out conviction of the best amateurs. The pipe organ, victim of the damp salt air, was out of tune in all directions but pumped away, confident it was holding the whole thing together. As indeed it was.

Similar to a steam engine hauling boxcars of clanking bits and parts up a steep grade, the world’s greatest oratorio wobbled and ricocheted its way through Handel’s magnificent musical scenery, and the audience members were all willing and enthusiastic passengers. Odd pieces fell by the wayside, but with no harm and without any real derailment.

It was a singalong Messiah, and the Bajans seemed to know the text by heart. I, to my chagrin, was one of the few glued to the printed handouts. Everyone sang with gusto, not just the choruses, but with the soloists as well; often, it was a helpful addition. Even if the soprano couldn’t reach the high notes, someone in the audience was bound to.

For three hours, everyone participated in the Messiah as I had never heard it before. By the time we reached the Hallelujah Chorus, everyone was ready to rip. I thought the walls might come down. I realized, too, that I would never hear a better performance of the Messiah. In truth, I never have. It was a glorious, grand, rattly, puffing, larger-than-life experience sung, not in praise of art, but in praise of God. George Frederick must have been smiling.

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My boat arrived two days later, and I finally set sail on a wonderful voyage back to Canada. I anchored in magical ports, including St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Lucia and the Grenadines before reaching the Atlantic. As I went, I filled the Caribbean with loud, off-key approximations of Messiah arias and choruses that likely made even God wince.

Jane Forner lives in Victoria.

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