My FOMO Christmas

10 min readSep 1, 2018

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

I was 22, working on an English language assistant programme in the francophone province of Quebec, Canada. All in all, there were about 30 participants on this programme, most of them like me: fresh from studying French at a UK 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 a small city on the shore of the St Lawrence River, 500 kilometres north of Montreal. I envisioned Cape Cod-style houses, azure skies, and pine trees. Not the entire truth, as it turned out, but at least those particular boxes were ticked some of the time.

The spectacular autumn in Quebec was quickly followed by the first snowfall. By then, I was already feeling burnt out; my needs were unmet and my social resources were depleted. Work managed to be both understimulating and overwhelming, using my French to thrive not survive was an uphill struggle, and the activities that I normally enjoyed just didn’t exist in that place. Also, I didn’t have a driving licence. This limited my mobility, and therefore 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 didn’t want to, anyway.

The assistants shared their 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 online 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 conditioned to understand Christmas as a time of year all about togetherness, so spending it alone didn’t seem like an option. The way I saw it, even if you did voluntarily opt out of Christmas, 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 towns and villages 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 was naturally very picturesque, but quite socioeconomically depressed; you had to drive just an hour or so further east before you’d reach ghost villages, abandoned by their residents in the 1970s because there were simply no jobs. I’d learned not to show dismay when students didn’t really grasp where or what the UK was, despite my meticulously put-together slideshows of maps and photos of British icons (except for the Queen, who, I had been advised, was a topic best avoided).

Early the next morning, I met my Amigo Express carpool driver and we pulled up in Montreal that afternoon. I would treat myself to a night in the city before catching the suburban train to Saint-Jérôme, then another carpool to Mont-Tremblant. I hadn’t yet 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 café that was not quite in Mont-Tremblant, but some other place. Since communication between us was already quite awkward, I was loath to introduce the idea of a wild goose chase to this stranger, trying to locate the exact drop-off point.

Good old Tim Hortons. 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 predictable and 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 its 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 fellow assistant eventually found me and we drove up to the chalet, which was a big wood-panelled castle to me; nothing like 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 aim was to just chill at the chalet and enjoy being in the mountains.

The Mont-Tremblant ski village—different to the actual village of Mont-Tremblant—was supremely tacky, but I figured I 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 their snowboards. I felt suddenly ridiculous, like a big, adult-sized baby.

Without a ski pass, 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 (such as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen), watch movies with the two others who didn’t have a ski pass, sit in the hot tub. I guess we’d 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 the wounds to prove it — 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 vital to my ability to function. On this holiday, I didn’t have that place as I was sharing a bedroom with three people.

I was sitting in a café in the ski village with a couple of others, eating overpriced fries 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. My head started spinning. I felt nauseated and no longer wanted my food. 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 difficult 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 flavouring, noting that bleuets was the word for blueberries in Quebec, rather than myrtilles like in France. I tried to read on my Kindle, but I just couldn’t distract myself from this person who hadn’t quite betrayed me. 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 let my tears out, but I couldn’t. There was no indoor private space, and outside, they would have frozen instantly.

On Christmas Day, people were trying to Skype their families in the UK. The chalet’s internet connection was so brittle that even with a one-at-a-time schedule you 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 big lunch at around 4pm, which always seems to happen at Christmas. 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 (which up until a couple of months prior, I’d thought meant calling dibs on the beer you wanted to have).

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 the similarly uncomfortable feeling of being 14 at school and being the only one to not understand a dirty joke someone had made.

I decided to leave the chalet on Boxing Day, a couple of days earlier than planned—citing sickness—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 at home (and do my washing). I criss-crossed hundreds of kilometres back through the province of Quebec 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 compensation, 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!). Notably, he also wanted us to cough up for the unplugged TV (???).

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 afraid I have to disappoint you: 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 mental health, I eventually quit the group, reasoning that if the worst happened and I was needed, someone would contact me.

Spending what amounted to around $1000 on a holiday I didn’t enjoy that much is now unthinkable. Two years later, I live in a big city with lots to do, and where one can easily be self-sufficient. This means 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 that Berlin offers, I sometimes berate myself.

At the same time, I’ve been cultivating the inner strength and the integrity to be able to both know (my limits) and say no (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 and energy; use it wisely.

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