Archived entries for Christmas

Christmas confusion

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas browses the Sunday morning market in Waterloo, Belgium

This Saturday, 6 December, was Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium. This is a tradition where, in the morning, Saint Nicholas visits the houses of children across the country, bringing presents. The idea is that the night before, you leave a beer for the great man himself and a carrot or two for his donkey, in a shoe by the fireplace. In the morning, you’ll find some treats in said shoe. I know, I know – you can’t exactly get an Xbox 360 into one half of a pair of Converses, but there you go.

For children in Belgium, the 6 December is traditionally the big gift-giving day. This is a good 2 weeks earlier that the British tradition, where Father Christmas comes down the chimney to deliver the presents early in the morning of 25 December. Children in Belgium are aware of Father Christmas, known as Père Noël, but the main man (and the Chief Gift-Giver) is Saint Nicholas. Children are always asking questions, so it won’t be long before my children start to ask about the difference.

Which is where it gets confusing. Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are both men, both wear red, sport a white beard and both deliver presents. How they get there (a donkey vs Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and who tags along to help (elves vs a little black boy) are about the only things which mark out the difference between the two of them.

The increasing popularity of Father Christmas in countries like Belgium is seen by many to be just another example of everything that’s wrong with rampant capitalism – at the most basic level, he’s just a fat man concered with getting as many consumer goods into as many houses as fast as possible. It’s not as if the Saint Nicholas tradition is as a shining example either: his personal assistant goes by the name Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) with people playing him putting on blackface make-up for the role. (There are even dedicated online communities trying to change this.)

Christmas was never supposed to be this confusing.

“The next tune to arrive on platform three….”

It’s been great to be back in the UK for a little while over Christmas, catching up with family and friends. A couple of memorable moments included:

Seren being too quick for us and falling down the stairs at my parents’ house. “I’m going downstai-” Thud thud thud crash. Luckily the stairs were carpeted and she was fully dressed with jeans on so she was fine.

From a young Dad and friend of ours, listening to an absolutely hilarious blow-by-blow account of childbirth, told at lightning speed, on the way home from the pub, with both my brothers looking horrified with every extra bit of detail they really didn’t want to hear.

Sharing recommendations about local ales in a tiny pub – I didn’t spend all my time drinking, honest – with a random chap at the bar. “It’s a very consistent ale, that one. You can go anywhere in the country and if they have that ale, it’ll always taste the same.”

Golden Pippin

[Image: http://www.copperdragon.uk.com]

Drinking whisky – honestly, I was sober for some of the time – while watching a fantastic adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless on the BBC.

Zoe and I watching a stunning sunset across a Hampshire field, while getting soaked with rain. Some very impressive dawn skies too.

Hampshire sunset

Hampshire sunrise

Hampshire sunrise

 

Listening to a stranger playing some pieces by Ludovico Einaudi on the free pianos that have been installed in St Pancras station in London. A lad was just walking by with his girlfriend, spotted the piano sitting there and started to play. A beautiful, spontaneous moment which had Seren and I enthralled for a good 20 minutes. Possibly the first and last time I will hear live, classical piano mixed with loudspeaker announcements about the next train.

Christmas List 2050

What’s on your Christmas List for 2050? You know, things you’d like but which have yet to be invented:

Socks which match themselves – everyone’s had mornings have there been where you’re already running late and now you’re cursing the sock drawer like a madman, hopping around with one sock on, throwing clothes everywhere and insisting that your wife/boyfriend/mother/pet dog must have hidden the other sock out of spite…

Intelligent suitcases – it’s Summer, it’s the holidays and you’re just about to leave for that long-awaited break. You’re all packed, when you suddenly remember that you’ve forgotten to include your washbag. Damn. You’d spent all weekend sorting it all, packing and re-packing so that everything you needed fitted into your suitcase perfectly, and now your shaving cream means you can’t close the thing.

Intellicase (TM) would solve all your problems by re-arranging and re-adapting itself using only the power of mathematics and a pre-programmed spatial awareness you can’t even begin to work out. You start the holiday smiling rather than swearing…

Finding a free table – you’ve arrived in a new town or city and you’re starving. where’s good to eat? There are numerous apps out there which will cleverly use your location to find, rate and recommend restaurants in the area. You look inside, people are enjoying what looks like absolutely delicious food. “Great”, you think, stepping inside…only to be told that you should have booked ahead, I’m sorry Madam but we’re full.

What’s need is a restaurant app which also lets you know whether the good restaurants actually have any free tables. Proper tables, too, not the ones that they cram together so close that when you lift up your fork, you accidentally jab your neighbour in the face with your elbow.

What would be on your list?

New Year in London

I spent New Year’s Eve in London this time. Not in some super-expensive, dance-till-collapse club where they charge you loads to get in for the treat of paying £15 a shot (“I’ll have…Christ, give me half a shot of orange juice, please”) but at my girlfriend’s friend’s house party. It was great, an interesting location and a varied mix of people and just the right amount. I met someone who works as an architect specialising in sliding roofs (why not?) and had a chat with a gardener about power tools. I didn’t come close to having to listen to some high-rising financial player bore me to tears about how awfully exciting it was to be finally closing the multi-billion-pound deal with the American firm. I also didn’t expect to find myself within walking distance from the Canary Wharf Tower; Zoe used to live in London and was used to it. I, on the other hand, was stopping every five minutes to proclaim something really touristy: “Hey look! It’s the headquarters of Reuters! No, look, the real thing! It’s even got a…where’s she..? Hey, wait for me!”

london.jpg

London’s an interesting place, for me I never feel like I’m in the heart of the UK because it’s just so different from anywhere else, it’s on another scale altogether in so many ways. Perhaps I felt the difference more this time because as part of my Christmas trip I also visited Hampshire, where Zoe comes from, and that really does feel like proper England. It’s got the rolling hills, the country barns and pubs, and Winchester, especially with its famous catherdral and narrow, cobbled streets, really felt like quite a timeless place (it could have been 1407 if it wasn’t for some of the high street shops) but very English all the same.

winchester.jpg

Maybe international capital cities, such as London, Washington DC, Buenos Aires and so on, should be separate (e.g. London being the “international capital” of the UK, for example) and at the same time perhaps we should establish “national capitals” which better represent the national character. As seems to be the way of things in 2008, to get people interested, a national vote could be held on TV, with people phoning in to nominate different cities; I hope the ideas people at ITV are reading this.

Settling down

brussels-christmas.jpg

Ah, the chaos of Christmas. It’s going to be good to go back to Wales for a short while, though. It’s been an intense couple of months, I’m slowly getting used to the fast-paced and often unpredictable nature of my work (today, for example, I was still in the office at 8pm writing up a press conference on aviation emissions) and I’ve also grown to like Brussels a lot more. Yes, it’s freezing cold here right now and probably will be until late March, I recently had a daunting lecture on the Belgian tax system for freelance journalists and the whole place is currently a bit chaotic as the country’s only just agreed to have an interim government after 192 days of not having one at all. Yet last weekend I was in the Christmas markets at Flagey, they had the brass band playing (see above), and everyone was in good spirits. I had some vin chaud and the Région de Bruxelles-Capitale local authority gave me a free, beautifully made wooden yo-yo. Last night I went to watch a local choir perform some Christmas songs, and it was a very local affair, with a handful of friends and relatives in the audience, babies trying to join in and the odd choir member dashing in at the last minute so as not to be left out. The singing was fantastic, though, and it was a shame that Zoe and I had to leave because they were all really friendly and offered us drinks and snacks after the concert. We met a lad from Nigeria who wanted to play the piano for us, right there and then, and, when we said we couldn’t stay, asked if we’d like to listen to him some other time, let’s keep in touch.
It’ll also be interesting to have a break because this time I’ll be going home from a relatively settled position. The last time I went home for any real length of time, I was in an interim period between work experience and finding a job. This time, I’m more of a resident here. I have a local pub, a local park where I go jogging, a boulangerie for croissants on Sundays and am beginning to get to grips with the merits of the thousands of different beers on offer (Particular favourties which spring to mind are the deceptively strong “Westmalle“, the let’s-have-a-proper-chat “Chimay Bleu” and the delighful innuendo of “Bush“, the latter involving amusing requests towards attractive female bar staff…suggestions on a postcard please). Armed with tales of beer, trips to the boulangerie and le boulot (French slang for work), I’m actually quite excited about seeing old friends again, some of whom I haven’t seen for almost a year, and revealing that there’s actually a lot more to life in Belgium than they might expect.



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