Lessons learned: Don’t listen to poolside philosophers and, for the love of Pete, don’t fat-shame Santa

Where's Santa? Trying to catch a 7:20 flight.
(Kagan McLeod / For The Times)

There are lessons to be learned from holiday travel, lessons deeper, quirkier and more durable than the obvious old advice: Just stay home.

Here are a few drawn from experiences of varying impact.

On Christmas break, my fraternity brother Eddie and I begged, borrowed and (technically) stole to pay for a trip to Puerto Rico. The five days were enlightening: On Day 1, I struck up a conversation with a long, tan girl at the pool of the Americana Hotel.

She asked me to rub Hawaiian Tropic on her back, so I assumed things were going in a spectacular direction. Mid-rub, she said she had to tell me something. Anticipation à la mode!


She rolled over, took my face in her hands and said, “Christmas was invented by capitalist pigs.”

Lesson 1: Holiday travel and holiday spirit occasionally clash.

One goal for the trip was reading three books I should have already read. On Day 2 as I sat on the beach reading Book 1, an old guy — at least 27 — stopped and, unsolicited, said: “Hey man, a little free holiday advice: If you’re over 15 and still think Catcher in the Rye is a good book, you really need to grow up.”

Lesson 2: Ignore literary advice from people on vacation.

Eddie and I returned home two days after Christmas. The San Juan airport was jammed with Puerto Ricans from New York who had visited family for the holiday. The line at the gate was endless, all the chatter in Spanish. The blond ticket agent never looked up as she took boarding passes and mechanically said, “Buenos días. Feliz Navidad.”

When I reached her, I dropped my boarding pass and said, “Oh, sorry. I’m a little disorganized.” Her head snapped up. In a whisper, she said to Eddie and me, “I’m going to change your seating assignments.”

“Why?” I said, “Just because I’m a klutz?”

“No. Just trust me.”

She bumped us up to first class.

Lesson 3: White privilege is real.

On the flight to New York, I got an earache so wicked I could barely open my eyes. A stewardess, as they were then called, asked whether I was OK. Moments later she came back, placed a small white tube in my hand and said, “Here, this should help.”

Without opening my eyes, I inserted the tube in my ear. Laughs from the stewardess and Eddie told me something was wrong. I opened an eye and looked at the tube. It was a Vicks inhaler.

Lesson 4: Karma is also real.

Nine years later, my girlfriend and I sat in the Denver airport at 6 a.m. on Christmas. We had spent the night in an airport hotel and were waiting to board the first flight to Aspen, Colo. She slept in her chair while I sipped coffee in the hushed — and I mean hushed — silence of the terminal.

I started slightly obsessing about going skiing for the first time in my life, which led to majorly obsessing about being a freelance writer with no medical insurance.

Then, as I crested toward maximum discomfort, Santa Claus appeared. Reindeer-less and looking utterly drained, he slogged through the terminal to a bank of pay phones less than 20 feet from me. Santa picked up a phone, punched in a long number, waited a few seconds and said, “Yeah, collect call from Richard.” A beat. Then: “Hi, I’m on the 7:20.”

Lesson 5: Santa Claus flies commercial.

Lesson 6: Think twice the next time you’re about to fat-shame Santa.

Lesson 7: If you’re an aspiring bulimic, take a prop plane from Denver to Aspen.

Lesson 8: Skiing is so much fun.

Seventeen years later, Jaci, a dear friend from Paris, invited me to spend New Year’s with her family and a slew of her French/British/Italian/American friends at a giant château in Normandy.

I politely declined in early December, then decided to go on Dec. 29.

Lesson 9: Purchasing a first-class ticket, L.A. to Paris, the day of the flight can be rationalized if you’ve been grossly overpaid for an entire previous decade.

The flight arrived around noon-ish Dec. 30, followed by a car service to Normandy. My first château experience was amazing. Multilingual people cooked and played games. I felt self-consciously un-exotic but produced Laker jerseys I had bought for Jaci’s two sons, whom I had never met.

I wound up shooting baskets with her 9-year old son, Jamo. It was cold and damp and the ball felt like stone and … I couldn’t miss. Seven time zones away, I was in the zone. Jamo ooh-ed in French and aah-ed in English. Just before dark, I taught him some trash talk.

The next morning, Jaci called me into a room, where she sat with Jamo. His brother had a godfather and he had always wanted one. He asked me if I would be his.

Lesson 10: The obvious lesson of staying home during the holidays has its rare, magical exceptions.

Peter Mehlman is an L.A.-based author and comedian. He was a writer and executive producer on “Seinfeld.”