The best and worst of Christmas: No tree, no cake, just ice in the loo

I MADE the trip to Italy for my first expat Christmas with a hangover so evil that I had to knock back a vodka on the Gatwick Express. Under strict instructions that I was not allowed anywhere near the Tuscan hills unless I had a Marks & Spencer's pudding in my armpit, I finally made it to the half-converted farmhouse late on Christmas Eve.

My mother had left England in the spring because Britain was getting 'too crowded' and she wanted to 'contemplate the view' and 'grow herbs' undisturbed by the rat race. The conversion of the derelict farmhouse was almost completed and it was the first time that the whole family had congregated since the move.

There was a desperate shortage of sleeping space. My sister, my brother's wife and I slept in a dormitory of three narrow beds; my brother slept on the floor in the hall, which doubled as a sitting room, dining room and kitchen. My grandmother slept with her dogs in another room and my mother with her boyfriend.

High in the hills, the wells freeze in winter and so my mother became obsessed with water - a mugful for teeth and the rationing of baths. Washing up was a seriously skilled business requiring a careful balance of water and washing-up liquid, to avert a tirade about the selfishness of the youth of today.

In an area where central heating is only for those who crazy-pave their terrace, keeping warm was a major problem. A dilemma arose about whether to have the door open - destroying the effectiveness of the log fire, the only source of heat - or to have the door closed and ignore the fact that our eyes were watering as the room gradually filled up with smoke.

This was marginally less endurable than the trip to the loo, which required peeling off the thermals and cracking the film of ice that had formed since the last occupant. There was no dallying in front of the mirror to rearrange hair or make-up.

The important goal was to find a smoke-free patch near the fire. To complain was a criminal offence punishable by a forced hike up the hills in search of wood.

And so it was Christmas. There was no tree, no stocking, no cake and no Queen's message. Tempers were short and the presents symbolic. Instead of the lager louts weaving their merry way up the aisle for that holy nightcap at midnight mass, there was a bizarre collection of English expats. Dressed as dandies, with a skinful of Chianti, they lamented the demise of the Empire and extolled the virtues of their newly acquired Italianness.

In the Tuscan hills, kudos is obtained from the obscurity of your previous employment, your knowledge of local customs and the length of your exile from England. So the Egyptologist who moved in 18 years ago and had stuffed pigs' trotters for Christmas dinner was the ultimate drinks-party guest.

Later, after the guests had gone, the dinner had been consumed and the Bailey's had been cracked open, the family settled down to that great contributor to peace, love and harmony, Trivial Pursuit. After three hours of constructive cheating, broken alliances and ego depletion, the board ended up being kicked across the room by a parting player who had failed, yet again, to get that elusive orange cheese. The pink counter was lost for ever.

So I returned to Britain with a Parma ham in my armpit, vowing that I would never spend Christmas in Tuscany again. But of course I have. That's the joy of families, they are something that you love to hate. They are belligerent and argumentative but somehow it's hard to stop going back.

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