It's snowing, my wet shoes are threatening to freeze, and my Plus One is already drunk. I dial the wrong call-box number but she lets us up anyway (Ballardites are friendly in the cold), and we arrive at the "Cheesy Sweater Christmas Party" promised by our Evite.

Introductions turn the unwelcoming glares into smiles, and I quickly learn that bad-sweater wearers from Ballard love The Stranger: "It has just the right amount of news!" It won't be easy to fly below the radar here. My Plus One understands that's not the point and commences yelling loudly and eating all the dip.

Our hostess gives us a tour set to *NSYNC Christmas music. She explains that we're too late to witness the cheesy-sweater contest but proudly shows off the winner's ingenuity: a red V-neck with the decapitated head of a Rudolph plush toy brazenly mounted on it. "Samta" is in a red bathrobe and has drunkenly knocked two drinks to the ground in the 10 minutes since we've arrived.

I befriend Mark, who is tall and covered in tattoos of dragons. Two conversations later, it becomes clear that Mark's days as a marine didn't include plaid pants and women's sweaters, but I can see he loves Seattle. His wife, Heather, hangs candy canes from her gauged ears, and we all share the cheer of the Yule-log DVD late into the evening.

The parting words of our gracious hosts, surrounded by friends, booze, a plastic tree, and the gusting ice of the night: "It finally feels like Christmas." Our hearts warm as we venture into the bleak Norwegian wilderness. recommended

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