Wednesday, 17 December 2008

X = Xmas

25 Things about Christmas
Bridgett and Lisa have done this, so having little imagination, I am following suit. I also cringe a little at using X for Xmas but I figure I can have a little leeway with only three letters left.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Wrapping paper, though today I have just bought a gift bag for the first time, largely because I have a pair of murano glass ear-rings from Portofino, which come in their own pink velvet gold-inscribed bags, and would look silly wrapped up!

I like beautiful wrapping paper, but invariably baulk at the price!

2. Real tree or Artificial?
Artificial. I love the smell of real pine, but I have allergies ... sigh.

I’ve had my tree since the 1980s, and not having children it’s still in perfect condition.
I love my tree. It’s the only decoration I put up, and have lots of beloved decorations.

3. When do you put up the tree?
Usually around the second week in December. Whenever I feel the Christmas spirit.

4. When do you take the tree down?
Usually on or after the Twelfth night, when it feels as if the New Year is really starting.

5. Do you like eggnog?
No, I find it a bit sickly. Like mulled wine, it’s never really caught on in NZ, as at Christmas in the summer we tend to drink champagne or other long cool drinks.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?
Goodness, I can’t name one. Any gift was a treat, as we didn’t get things bought for us during the year. My sister and I always used to buy each other a book. A new book is always special.

7. Hardest person to buy for?
No-one really, except perhaps my husband. He’s hinting about a 32” flat screen TV, but he’s not getting it. He’s quite hard to buy for, as we tend to buy things as and when we need/want them (which sounds awfully indulgent).

I occasionally have “shopper’s block” but find I’m more likely to buy too many things for someone than too few. I’m a pretty good gift-buyer I have to say, as long as I’m not under pressure.

8. Easiest person to buy for?
My sister-in-law in Melbourne. We have similar taste, and love buying each other gifts, so I don’t really mind that her birthday is only 5 days before Christmas. She’s already said she’s so excited about the present she’s bought me that I’m feeling a little pressured. Though I think the French ceramic bracelet from Annecy in France will keep her happy!

9. Do you have a nativity scene?
No.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?
Mail. That’s my task this afternoon. Though I do have a group of friends I met through the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust and I always email a Christmas message to them instead of buying and posting cards across the world, and donate the money I’ve saved to the Trust.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?
Hmmm. When I was about six, I got given a cloth doll, the body was an open pocket for putting pyjamas in. I unwrapped it and loudly declared “oh no a DOLL!” That was my most badly behaved reaction to a Christmas gift, the gift itself was sweet.

Otherwise worst gift was probably a piece of clothing from my mother-in-law. Our ideas of taste and style don't come even close to intersecting. Fortunately she doesn't do gifts now, as my husband and I were running out of excuses why things didn't fit etc.

12. Favourite Christmas Movie?
Don’t have one. Couldn't name any I don't think!

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
Depends. Frequently pick up one or two things quite early in the year, but then get swamped with “birthday season” in August and October. Usually start shopping in earnest in mid November.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?
Probably. Can’t recall.

15. Favourite thing to eat at Christmas?
My famous mini-mince pies. Mmmm yummmmm. I bought the ingredients yesterday, baking them tonight.

16. Lights on the tree?
Sometimes. Not this year. Anyway – it’s light until 9-10 pm over Christmas. No point.

17. Favourite Christmas song?
Depends on my mood. Always love Silent Night though – it brought me to tears hearing it sung on my first Christmas away from home, when I was 18 in Bangkok.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?
Varies. Tend to alternate Christmas between husbands' parents who live in the same city as us, and my mother who lives in the South Island.

Although I enjoy Christmas I’m not sentimental, so don’t mind being away from family. On Christmas Days in the past we have
a) spent the day in an aeroplane travelling somewhere far far away,
b) driven around Oahu in a red mustang convertible,
c) in consecutive years explored northern Thailand in a red Jeep with my parents then his parents, and
d) spent Christmas in Bangkok with friends, and
e) celebrated Christmas in Vienna complete with cooked goose.

This year we’re renting a house on a beach “up north” and will have my sister, her partner and niece there in the morning, and will just be the two of us in the afternoon.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer? Nope, not a hope.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star? An angel from the Philippines.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?
The Christmas Eve thing is a northern tradition I think. These days, with few children around us, we quite often wait till the afternoon of Christmas day.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?
Several annoying things.
Writing the Christmas cards and never quite finishing.
Covering work priorities before the summer close-down.
Mr Bean.
No kids or other peoples' kids.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?
I love most of my tree decorations ... with a passion! It's the closest thing I have to a collection. They are all so special to me, having collected most of them on my travels. I have lots from Thailand, where I started my obsession over different Christmas decorations. They include little red felt sequinned elephants – very Christmassy don’t you know? - and my favourite horn playing fat angels, and a Thai script "sawatdee bee mai" or happy new year. From Holland I have a pair of ice-skates – not very NZ Christmassy but so cute) - Vienna (wooden violins), the US (angel), Budapest (a baby in a walnut shell), Italy (cherub who looked remarkably like my best friends’ daughter when she was three), etc etc.





I buy a new decoration every year – I choose very carefully. This year I found a cute silvery bird, for $3.50!

As I said above, they all have special memories. I also have one I bought to remember my lost Christmas babies, but in reality, they all remind me of the children who will never see my beloved decorations.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?
My favourite Christmas dinner was when we had a whole salmon stuffed with herbs, wrapped in newspaper, baked in the oven. (You’re supposed to wet the newspaper before putting it in the oven – what with champagne, and guests, and chatting, I forgot. In the nick of time I remembered and as I pulled it from the oven, a wisp of smoke was rising from the corner of the paper ).

But otherwise I glaze a ham and have lots of yummy vegetables/salads, new potatoes, and always always fresh strawberries or raspberries with dessert, often Christmas pudding made by my mother-in-law.

25. What is your favourite thing about the holidays?
Summer. Knowing that Christmas day starts an 11 day summer break at least, and usually a relaxed and lazy January.

W = Wronged and Windows

I’ve decided to do two Ws today, as once I get to Z I think it will be the end of my A to Z.

W = Wronged

A couple of years ago I was involved in an employment law case. Without going into details, it was a case based on a complete misunderstanding. The other party felt wronged, and would not speak to me at the end of our negotiations. He said essentially although not in quite so many words, that I was lying to him (despite also admitting I had always treated him fairly), and firmly believed his own interpretation of events. There was no convincing him otherwise despite him being terribly wrong. I am very confident in the way I handled this. My conscience is completely clear. There was no other way I could convince him when he had already convinced himself of the exact opposite. But it saddens me. That there is someone in this world who believes I wronged him, and no doubt feels terrible about it. It haunts me, especially over the last few days, for some reason.

On a brighter note ...

W = Windows

A split second glimpse through a window, in the midst of a rushed day, a busy life, stops me. I breathe. And I smile. In all weathers and in all lights, I love the views from my windows. I love the grand old macrocarpa trees from the top of the stairs,
and the cabbage tree which finally appears to be splitting this year (after over 15 years),

the valley, and of course, my cats (even though Gershwin is in my bad books for jumping on my lap as I was typing on my new laptop, and ripping out the F7 key).

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

V = Vintage

Five years ago, I had a doctor who kept referring to “women of your vintage.” I felt like a wine that was souring, turning into vinegar, appropriately barren. He was trying to be considerate, but it would have been kinder if he had just been blunt.

Now, though, I am a very different vintage. Richer in character, able to stand up to time, changing and aging in the best possible way. I like to feel I’m maturing well. I like my vintage. It is one of the best. The kind to be celebrated, treasured, appreciated. So I do.

Vintage. There’s a lot in a word. And in five years.

Monday, 8 December 2008

U = Underwear

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult time, a friend suggested I go out and buy myself some sexy underwear. At the time, sexy was the last thing I felt like. It was feeling sexy that had caused all this trouble, after all!

But one day I did as she suggested. And although it took me a while to feel sexy again, I did feel

a) younger
b) more pert
b) more feminine (which was particularly important at the time)
c) more beautiful, and
d) a wee bit naughty!

Whatever size you are, whatever you might be doing, don’t underestimate the rejuvenating power of some new underwear, a sexy new bra. They can lift your spirits as well as those cheeks and boobs!

Friday, 5 December 2008

T = Trains

I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. To the east my nearest neighbours were in Chile. To the south west, the nearest town was 8 miles (I still work in miles when it comes to distances from the farm) away, and then beyond that were hills, and then snowy mountains. To the north and south, the nearest cities were about 3 hours drive away. The nearest airport was about 30 miles away. And besides, in those days air travel seemed as remote from my life as travel to the moon.

But every day, several times a day, we felt connected to the rest of the world when the trains went by. The tracks were about half a mile from our house, and we had a view up to the railway line. As we got older, we would cycle or walk or run up to the tracks, and wave to the driver. When we were learning to drive we used the rise to the train tracks for practicing hill starts, and later one of our neighbours blabbed to our mother that I had crossed a little too close to an oncoming train. There were regular freight trains and the daily passenger train. The passenger train which used to pass by when I was a teenager is now the Eastern Orient Express, running from Bangkok to Singapore. That’s a trip I would love to do one day.

To this day though, I have never been on a New Zealand passenger train. My first train trips were in Thailand as a student. Overnight third class train, hard wooden benches, lots of people, and the occasional chicken shared the carriage with us. At stations we would purchase food from vendors on the platforms, exchanging change for satay or sticky rice through the windows. We splashed out on second class travel when we went to Chiang Mai, and enjoyed the luxury of a sleeper. Waking up and looking out onto the northern Thailand countryside, steaming and misty as the day began, was magical to me, and was the beginning of my love for train travel.

Since then I have been to Chiang Mai several times since on the train, most notably with my parents. It was their first train trip too, I think. After I had retired for the night, I heard murmuring voices from my parents’ bunks across the aisle, and looked through the curtains. This is what I saw. They were sitting on the lower bunk, looking into the night behind the curtain (better to see without reflections of course), fascinated by being able to see the lives of the Thais who lived near the train tracks, cooking and eating outside. It is one of my favourite shots of my parents, perhaps because it reminds me of the wonder of travel, and gives me joy they were able to experience it.


Most recently I’ve experienced my fastest ever train trips. The first was on the TGV from Geneva to Paris, where a family sat near me and the petit garcon Jacques, about 5 years old, woke me by crying to his mother “maman, maman! Madam. elle dort!” They were going to Paris just for the day it seemed - speed has its advantages - and all were excited about the trip. The boy was most excited about seeing La Tour Eiffel, but papa was reading Rolling Stone magazine and looking forward to “mange sushi.” As we entered the outskirts of Paris, Jacques caught sight of a large power pylon, and leapt up shouting excitedly “La Tour Eiffel! La Tour Eiffel!” until a second then a third pylon came into view and he sat down disappointed and not a little embarrassed.

A few days later I travelled on the Eurostar from Paris to London, through the Chunnel. I would never fly between these two cities now. In the time it would take to get to the airport and wait to board a flight, you travel from the centre of one city to the centre of the other. Brilliant.

My most luxurious train trip was Quebec City overnight to Moncton, New Brunswick. We had booked a sleeper, and were welcomed onto the train by an attendant, shown to our cabin with the beds already made up with crisp white linen and big thick duvets. Bliss. But again, waking is the real pleasure, eating breakfast in the dining car, and seeing the countryside whizz by.

My most harrowing train experience was in India. An Indian colleague of mine was supposed to travel with me from New Delhi to Chandigarh, a few hours north, for a business meeting. But he was unable to come, and so the company in India had arranged for another gentleman to accompany me. But Indian bureaucracy stopped that. The ticket had been purchased for one person, and could not be transferred. ID must be shown, and names, gender and ages were printed on the tickets. Unfortunately my new companion was about 30 years older than my original traveller, and they would not allow him on the train. Despite our arguing and pleading, the guard remained implacable, immovable. So I boarded myself, off into the unknown. I heard later that on leaving the station, my new companion, at 72 years old, was struck by a vehicle, breaking a leg. I always think of him with guilt!

Train travel is so much more relaxing than a bus or a plane. There is more space, and it is easier to get up and walk around. I like sitting facing backwards, seeing the countryside gradually spread out before fading in the distance.

The Budapest to Vienna train took us through a frozen landscape which fascinated us. Even at the towns where we stopped, life seemed frozen, silent, deserted. The Philadelphia to New York train gave us our first sight of the city's skyscrapers from a distance, the best way to see them. On the train from Madrid, we knew we were close to Seville as we passed orange grove after orange grove. The trains in England wend their way through rolling green hills, with hedgerows and familiar looking trees, and past villages where there is always a church spire.

There are still lots of train journeys I would like to do. There is a luxury train in southern Africa which sounds wonderful, and the Orient Express of course. We might venture to Alice Springs via train one day, through the Australian Outback. If I have the stamina in the future I would be interested in the Trans-Siberian, and the trip in Canada through the Rockies to Banff and Lake Louise has been on our “list of things to do” since about 1989. I haven’t even begun to think about the possibilities in South America, or train travel in China yet, but will get there. India ... well ... I might try it again ...

As for New Zealand, we don't have a lot of passenger trains. However there is at least one trip I must do, the TranzAlpine, from the east to west coast of the South Island, through the Southern Alps. It is said to be spectacular. There's no excuse for not doing it.

Monday, 1 December 2008

S = Slice

Just before I got married, the women of the rural district where I grew up threw me a “kitchen tea.” This meant that everyone did some beautiful baking, we all got together for an afternoon, and then I was bestowed with gifts for my forthcoming wedding. These were women I had grown up with, the mothers of my friends and all the children at school, the women I had seen since I was tiny at community events. I knew them as well as I knew my aunts and cousins, in many cases better. They had taught me to sew, knit, play tennis and coached me at netball. They followed my year in Thailand and my university career.

The gifts they gave were small, intended for the kitchen. Tea towels and can openers, cake tins and spatulas. All sorts of gadgets. Mrs C (Peter’s mother) came up to me with her gift, a simple and inexpensive long- bladed vegetable knife. “(Mali),” she said, “I want to explain why I gave you a knife, because you might think it is a silly gift. A good knife is invaluable to a cook. You can’t underestimate the value of a knife that cuts beautifully, and once you find one, you will hang on to it as long as you can.”

I have been married 25 years and that knife is still with me. It sharpens beautifully, cuts through carrots and pumpkin with ease, and moves from my hands to the dishwasher, rarely making its way to the drawer where it should live. I frequently marvel at how much I like using it, especially when I work in other people’s kitchens, struggling with their always inadequate knives. And from time to time, I think of Mrs C and the thought that she put into that gift.

Mrs C’s knife can’t chop herbs though, or cope with meat, and for years I have sought a suitable knife to cope with that. I bought a meat cleaver in a market in Vietnam for US$2. It is good for chopping things, but isn’t as sharp as I would like it to be. From time to time I’ve bought other knives, which have looked good but never passed the carrot or pork test. I’ve coveted some of the beautiful, expensive, high quality chef’s knives which are kept behind glass, in locked cabinets, at the Knife Shop in Petone or at Moore Wilson’s, the store where all the local chefs buy their equipment. But the choice and price range was overwhelming, and so I never got around to getting a new knife.

Till last weekend, when, at the Home and Garden show at the stadium, I came upon the Victorinox stall. Knives, knives, everywhere. I picked up one that looked the size I wanted, and was the Japanese style. I was surprised how light it was, and how comfortable it felt in my hand.
“You don’t have any carrots for me to test this on,” I said to the stall-holder.

“You don’t need to test it with that knife,” he said confidently. “Look how narrow the blade is. Feel how strong it is. This knife will cut anything. In 20 years, I’ve never had any complaints with this one.”

I looked at him suspiciously. Looked at the price. But looked at the fine, strong blade. Then looked at my husband, who said “buy it.” “But what if it won’t cut carrots?” I said pathetically. Then I looked at the price again. “I guess it is only the price of a meal out at a decent restaurant,” I reasoned, feeling silly for having waited so long. “I’ll take it,” I said, and signalled D to get out his wallet.

I couldn’t wait to get home. The stall-holder had promised me it would cut meat beautifully, and that I could carve meat with it.

I cut up Agria potatoes and threw them in the roasting pan. The knife went through so easily the potatoes felt like butter. I took a carrot, with some trepidation, and sliced through it. Perfectly. An hour later, the vegetables were roasted and the peppered fillet of beef was ready. I took up the knife and started carving. The knife slid through the meat, smoothly, allowing thin beautiful slices.

I love my new knife. I can’t wait to chop things for dinner. I’m finding excuses to put finely diced onion in everything I make. I want to slice, dice, chop and carve endlessly.

I feel a little guilty about neglecting Mrs C’s knife. But it will always be there. Like my marriage, it has lasted. But the new knife will be, I hope, a symbol of the next stage of our relationship, our next slice of life. New, strong, fine, and exciting, cutting edge, and of course, long-lasting.