Franz called his wife from the Narita Express terminal at Shibuya Station to inform her that he had completely forgotten about his parents coming to visit them over the holidays and that they were already at Narita Airport. Hina took the news unexpectedly well. She only asked, “Why Narita?”
“Because they have to travel by plane? From Germany?”
“But who flies into Narita these days? I barely remember that one,” she replied. Didn’t you tell them Haneda is much closer?”
“I didn’t really tell them anything since I had completely forgotten they were coming.”
“How could you forget? We talked about little else the past couple of months.”
To be fair, there had been other things on Franz’s mind. Moving in with his parents-in-law, preparing for the arrival of his first child early next year, brushing up on his Korean in preparation for translating the soap opera “Spring Flower Rhapsody.” The latter being an assignment he reluctantly accepted after all the shows about Chicago’s first-responders, law-enforcement community and other city-employed professionals were taken by other translators, and no new superhero shows were coming in. Granted, except for getting reacquainted with Korean, these were all things that were also on Hina’s mind, maybe even more so. But she had always been better at keeping track of things.
“I thought those were hypothetical discussions,” he replied, weakly. “I figured they might come next Christmas, when the baby is here. When … we have figured everything out.” Despite having walked the Earth for over 30 years, Franz still believed there might come a time when he would have figured everything out.
“They are coming this Christmas because we can’t go there. I thought you were heading to the airport when you left this morning.”
“I was heading to Shibuya with O.G. to buy a Christmas tree. I’m going to the airport now. I left the choice of tree with O.G., he might bring it by later.”
Hina sighed. “Oh, great,” she muttered. Franz’s wife was by no means a fan of his friend.
“Anyway, I am actually quite glad they are flying into Narita, not Haneda.”
“It gives me about 90 more minutes to find an excuse why I’m about two hours late to pick them up.”
‘I am so sorry!” Franz panted as he came running into the arrival area of Narita Airport Terminal 1. His parents looked well-rested. They would, after lounging there for two hours. It appeared they had already discovered Japan’s vending machines and its strawberry sandwiches. “My train was late,” Franz explained. “Trains in Japan, they’re always so unreliable.”
When they had settled onto the next Narita Express back into town, Franz’s mother checked her watch on departure. “This one seems to be leaving on time,” she observed.
“Beginner’s luck,” Franz replied, authoritatively. He quickly changed the topic to Christmas. Despite everything, Franz was glad to have his parents here and was looking forward to sharing the holiday experience with his in-laws, even though he dreaded to see the tree O.G. would have settled on by now.
As if she could read his thoughts, his mother asked: “So, did you buy a tree yet?”
“I was shopping for one earlier today,” Franz said.
“On a Sunday?!”
It seemed he would have to explain all the basics about Japan once again.
‘Can you please take off your shoes?” he asked when his parents entered the slim two-story house near Franz’s beloved Happy Road Oyamadai that he and Hina had moved into in summer.
“We will,” his mother said. “But first, let’s take a quick tour of the house.”
“No, you have to understand …”
“We do understand it’s a Japanese custom. But I’m sure it can wait. A quick tour before we get all comfortable won’t hurt.”
Franz rolled his eyes. “This is just like back during my vegan phase when you said, ‘Oh, but there is only a little bit of bacon in the salad.'”
“Right. So? As you said, it was just a phase.”
Franz felt an almost uncontrollable urge to raise his voice. “That’s not the point. OK, it was a bad example. I can assure you that taking off your shoes in Japanese homes is not just a phase, it’s what you do. What everybody does, everywhere. Immediately and without any exception, ever.” Though, Franz himself had made an exception or two when nobody was looking and time was of the essence, but it was a secret he would take to his grave.
Franz realized his parents still possessed the power to turn him into an angry 12-year-old in a matter of seconds without really doing anything grotesquely wrong. He knew it was not them, it was him. And still, in the heat of the moment, it felt like them.
Hina came down the stairs to check what all the fuss was about. When his parents saw her, their faces lit up. Much brighter than they lit up when they saw Franz approaching at the airport. “So nice to see you again, dear,” they squealed.
“We are so happy to have you here,” Hina beamed back. “Can you please take off your shoes?”
They did so, instantly and happily.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo. “Christmas on Happy Road” is a work of fiction. Some of the names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.