The bagpiper outside of Edinburgh’s Waverley train station dared me to write this post.
Me and my frozen hands, in 2 pair of gloves that weren’t helping and couldn’t even carry my inside-out umbrella properly, to keep the hail off my hat. I could’ve probably managed a brief text with my famous last words (spelled incorrectly), but not much else.
Going from 26C desert wind in Jordan to 6C winter gale in Scotland is not for the weak.
Don’t tell anyone, I was about to say.
Plain as day on the bagpiper’s face that any heartiness my Scottish ancestors might’ve demonstrated had clearly been lost to the generations and if you think this is cold, miss, you’re a bona fide wuss and need to head back to London or wherever you belong, because it’s not here.
Although, mind ya, you’re welcome. It’s a spot uh sumthin’ is called for, miss.
I settled for a spot of caffeine.
You’re going to say ‒ hey, I thought you were in Jordan! I am. There are just so many interesting stories to tell from elsewhere, since I wasn’t celebrating Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice, which would’ve required me to buy a newly headless sheep and take it home and cook mansaf for the whole neighborhood), nor was I doing Hajj, the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca once in a lifetime, nor was my presence required on Islamic New Year 1434 AH…
Instead, I’m eating a full Scottish breakfast ‒ full English breakfast minus the grilled tomatoes, no big loss ‒ at the Slug & Lettuce, overlooking the Firth of Forth, where my forefathers probably didn’t offer daily tourist cruises on the Royal Britannia.
(Firth of Forth, “Linne Foirthe” in Gaelic, is the estuary of the River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea.)
Speaking of family, my dad and I had this discussion once about who was the best James Bond, a subject about which frankly I was surprised he had an opinion…which I immediately disagreed with anyway.
For 3 reasons: Sean Connery Forever.
And coincidentally here I am in Edinburgh, the capital city of Sean-ville, on opening night of Skyfall, the 50th anniversary James Bond film.
With Daniel Craig.
With Scots queued up for 2 city blocks on a if-not-freezing-then-mighty-close Friday night, to see another offering by the Blonde Bond.
Yer brethren ‘r wastin’ no time butrayin’ ya, Sean, jus’so ya know.
The next day I’m at the International Storytelling Festival, at the Tell-a-Story Workshop.
It took me awhile to realize that while some people ‒ even some entire nations of people ‒ have this gift, storytelling is also a learned skill. There’s a structure to it. The trick is letting loose enough within the structure to make it fun to listen to.
More wacky tall tales; fewer Cliffs Notes. Pretend every story is a fish story.
Any storytelling student who laughs at his or her own story while telling it: A+
Storytelling teachers spend their mornings in storytelling seminars, including “The Box of Delights: A Multi-Sensory Workshop,” no doubt writing it off on their taxes as professional development…
…and later sharing the proceeds on stage at Live Storytelling sessions, a welcome break from scaring themselves ‒ and all of us ‒ to death while recounting Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Most of which, I’m tellin’ ya Sean, deserve an R rating for violence.
Note that this event in my case followed the “Double Dead Tour”: the Underground City of the Dead Tour + the Haunted Graveyard Tour, including the Mackenzie poltergeist.
What “Scariest Places on Earth” producers of American TV network Fox called “TERRIFYING” (caps theirs).
NOW who’s the wuss?
Right about when even non-believers would give pretty much anything to hear, in that familiar brogue, “Bond, James Bond.” Coming to save us.
So, that’s why on Skyfall premiere night, I’m just sitting in a nondescript café across the street from the theatre, sipping hot tea, watching the frozen queue inch along Princes Street.
Now, Sean: that’s loyalty.
I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”
When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.
(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)
Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.
Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.
Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.
Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”
The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.
Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.
Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!
Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.
But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.
This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.
Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.
I’ve moved to Philadelphia. Or at least that’s what the Ancient Greeks used to call it.
Today it’s called Amman, Jordan.
Yes, that Jordan: where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth, where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.
Where there’s some of the most scenic hiking, biking, and diving in the world, not to mention archeological exploring. If you secretly wanted to be Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan is the country for you.
Although border configurations in this part of the Middle East have changed several times in the past several decades, the Land of Milk & Honey (or Canaan) was originally Jordanian territory. Nowadays, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan exists east of the Jordan River, in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods, bordering Israel/West Bank, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
That means I’m stuck out in part of the desert where God’s Chosen People wandered for 40 years.
Believe me, you have to put a LOT of effort into wandering for 40 years in deserts this small, even with a million or two travelers on foot. It’s like saying it took you 40 years to get from Rome to Florence.
Or Seattle to Portland.
So, you have to wonder why the Israelites wanted so badly not to arrive in the Promised Land in a timely fashion that they did pretty much everything possible to avoid it!
Even after 4 decades of meandering and backtracking and stalling, they finally arrived on Mount Nebo, where God had told Moses he could view the Promised Land from afar, but would not be allowed to enter. (Read why in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, Book of Numbers, Chapter 20.)
I’ll write a post from Mount Nebo later. And from the Dead Sea. And from Petra, the ancient pink city in the south of Jordan, which isn’t lost at all, contrary to what Indiana Jones keeps telling people.
The Middle East is the happening region on the planet right now and the Arab Spring is changing the political, social, and economic landscape of the 21st century.
Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is calm and it’s no mistake that’s where people in the region run to when there’s trouble. Consequently, of Jordan’s 6 million population, 2 million are Palestinians, who can have Jordanian citizenship if they choose. In fact, Jordan’s Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family.
There are also 500,000 Iraqi refugees, self-professed short-timers awaiting stability back home, whose arrival jacked up all the real estate prices in Amman, as I discovered when I started looking for an apartment.
Then, King Abdullah recently stated in the press that Jordan is hosting 80,000 Syrian refugees so far.
Do the math and imagine for a moment what it would be like if your country, percentage-wise, hosted that many guests at once, predominantly at your expense.
Yes, you: the unemployed or underemployed taxpayer.
(Read one of the few books about the Middle East peace process that you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to relate to, an autobiography of sorts written by a reigning monarch who’s only 50 years old (unlike many of those ancient guys in the region we have no clue about, and vice-versa): King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril.)
This is a real quote from a real person who, when she got hungry in the middle of the night, got up to fix herself a “little plate,” and was a little proud of it, too.
Ask my dad. It was his mother.
My Grandma Bel loved to cook (as I do) and loved to eat (as I do). Too much of either of these 2 hobbies ‒ let alone both together ‒ can get you into too much trouble.
(Don’t try this at home, but she also smoked for 50 years, never exercised a day in her life, typical of women of her generation, and lived to be 87.)
Flax, fiber, and all those other ffffffffoods just make me sad. Same with those grassy drinks that taste like I fell face-down in a putting green.
Then someone sent around this photo and commentary and suddenly I felt a whole lot better.
Now, it’ll be awhile before I’m 51, but who do I want to look like when that time comes? The woman who recommends colonic irrigation, or the woman who recommends passion-fruit mousse?
Everyone in the UK knows Nigella Lawson, but she’s a different kind of food celebrity than the pompous Gordon Ramsay or the breezy Jamie Oliver or the mama’s boy ‒ in his case, that’s a compliment ‒ Raymond Blanc.
(If you don’t think you have the time or the skills to cook a French meal on a weeknight, try Chef Blanc’s Bresse Chicken with Red Wine Vinegar.)
This quote is from the forward to one of Nigella’s books: “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits.”
Now, there are some people for whom limits, however loosely defined, work fine. How lucky is that. Then there are others (of us) who best put our formal training to use mostly by feeding other enthusiastic eaters.
Which I don’t mind at all, so come on over, prepared to eat your peas.
We don’t need to be told by President Obama to eat our peas. It’s all about how they’re prepared. Only in the UK does the waiter give you a choice between “garden peas” and “mushy peas” and people actually order the latter on purpose.
Personally, I like all vegetables, including lima beans, collard greens, and ‒ wait for it ‒ rutabagas. Okra any way but stewed. Cauliflower minus the cheese, cheese sauce, or cheese-flavored bread crumbs. (One chef friend, formerly of the Four Seasons New York, oven-roasts cauliflower and broccoli flowers with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon slices.)
But the world doesn’t come to an end when you eat that hamburger at the summer barbeque. As long as it’s only one ‒ hint: if you’re the BBQ operator, you’re too busy to eat ‒ and you skip the mayonnaise.
The world will, however, come to an end the moment you put one of those egg-less, cheese-less, why-bother meat impersonators on the grill. They sell a scarily similar product in the tile repair department at ACE Hardware.
I completely respect people who avoid meat for religious or health reasons, or out of social conviction. However, even if a veggie burger is labeled “healthy,” please read the ingredients carefully. In addition to vegetables and grains, you may get methylcellulose, also known as food additive E461, a non-digestible chemical emulsifier used in shampoo, toothpaste, and paint.
You may also get evaporated cane juice, which is just sugar. Actually a little sweeter than sugar, but at least it’s a real food…and thus perfectly legal for prepared foods labeled “organic” to contain it.
So, your choice is not only meat vs. vegetables, it’s also meat vs. sugar.
(Aside: I think a great solution to prison overcrowding would be to sentence convicts to being Lifetime Vegans with No Possibility of Parole. Ugh. Send me to a real jail.)
The “all my skinny friends are dead” quote was born when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment caused her to lose a lot of weight…and her trademark fiery red hair, too, which was actually worse. Her theory was that if you have some extra weight to lose, chemotherapy or radiation doesn’t leave you looking like the emaciated woman in the photo above, Scottish TV health guru Gillian McKeith, whose best-selling strategies have been repeatedly debunked by clinical nutritionists and food scientists as phony and dangerous.
On the other hand, if you run ultra-marathons and have 8% body fat, you don’t have much leeway. (My grandma would be ultra-proud of my sister, then, who claims to run only when chased.)
Now, the possibility of getting cancer does NOT excuse any of us from being height-weight proportionate, no matter how much it hurts (and you have no idea). But in Grandma Bel’s case, diverging from the mean hurt less than usual.
And it was incredibly interesting how true her comment was, thinking back on her close circle of friends and what happened to them, versus to her, who had not only beaten back cancer, but also, despite admittedly a few too many of those “little plates…”
…lived for 20 more years afterwards.
Microsoft in the 1990s: more multi-talented people per square inch than should’ve been geometrically possible.
Which was why Microsoft, not Disneyland, was “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (Except for the Internet Explorer team during the Netscape smack-down, which was “Divorce Court.”)
During those years, I worked with a ballerina marketing lead, a city councilman graphic designer, a Special Forces parajumper database admin (who would neither confirm nor deny), and a brass ensemble of program managers.
Not one, but two pro surfer finance analysts.
Channel sales bagpipers, who practiced after work in the parking garage, giving us a sense of what it must’ve felt like being a lowly British soldier hearing that music coming at you from over the next hill and knowing you were done for.
Then there was Dana, DDEE.
Database Darling and Editor Extraordinaire.
If I was writing the potentially Great American Novel, I’d want Dana to be the poor soul poring over my sorry manuscript because she is, hands down, the best editor I’ve ever worked with.
Nowadays she’s Dana, BSRN.
Best-Selling Romance Novelist.
Romance novels just aren’t my thing at all, but it’s a literary fantasy world that’s wildly popular. To the tune of $1.36 billion per year popular.
That’s why some of my first Microsoft friends hatched this grand plan to pay off our student loans by writing romance novels on the side, since girls’ poker night with nickel stakes was going to take forever.
(The guys played with stock, which made them no-fun competitive whiners, so they were banned.)
Problem was, writing compelling, marketable romance novels is part art, part science, part Joy of Sex. There are people in this world who are really, really good at it, and consequently are very, very rich.
Then there’s us.
We just couldn’t figure out how to go about it. (I think the fact that we used a database schematic to map out potential characters and plot lines tells you everything you need to know.) The harder we tried, the more embarrassing it got and the more we laughed until we cried, which apparently with romance novels you’re supposed to do only while you’re reading one.
Eventually, we realized it was hopeless and good thing we had some unromantic skills and day jobs to fall back on.
We also realized why none of us had hot dates for the company Christmas party and that we’d probably have to go together as a group, wearing name tags saying “Romance Writing Failures.”
With the word “Writing” crossed out.
However, I’d heard somewhere that the best way to come up with character names for your romance novel was to pair names of your childhood pets with names of streets where you grew up.
My computation resulted in 4 admittedly promising romance novel personas ‒ Julius Nye, Crispin Victoria, Skipper Melrose, and the one-and-only (thank goodness) Bo Fremont ‒ whose lives ended before they began because I’d learned the hard way to leave fiction writing to the experts.
Allora, cara Dana, whose 4-part romantic suspense series “Blood and Honor” is set in Italy, about which I contributed the tiniest bit of background for book 1, Revenge: it’ll be a pleasure buy the first romance novel of my entire life because you’re a star in anyone’s book and I’d read anything you wrote on the back of a deposit slip.
Like many smart tech-savvy new authors these days, Dana bypassed the world of traditional publishing. Her story is a perfect example of why those dinosaurs are scared to death of self-publishers and e-books, namely the fact that writers aren’t much tempted anymore with measly offers to give them 40% of the profits when they can DIY with equivalent quality ‒ and smarter distribution ‒ and keep 100%!
Also, did you know that if you write a book series you have to sign over the rights to your series story line and characters to the publisher in advance?
According to Dana, let’s say after book #2 of your series goes to print, your publisher decides to dump you. You can’t just take books #3 and #4 to another publisher. The series just dies, unless you go to court to win the rights back…to your own series, which you created!
By the time your case has made its way through the legal system, the only thing you might accomplish after all those attorney fees is to pass those rights onto your novelist grandchildren.
Who, bad luck, might turn out to be commentator types like me and for everyone’s sake should stick with what we know.
Anyway, Dana proves that you don’t need an old-school publisher, who still hasn’t gotten over the Borders Books bankruptcy, to sell your paperbacks and e-books on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, let alone on Smashwords, Kobo, and Sony!
Dear Ms. Delamar, I’m a long-time fan. (20 years long.) Can I get an autographed copy on iTunes?
One was a fixture on France 2 who I’d seen on the news many times. The other I’d never heard of before his tragic but not unexpected death by sniper fire.
One was a prize-winning reporter who’d covered Kosovo, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya…the major conflicts of the past 2 decades. The other was an aluminum factory worker, a carpenter by trade, who filmed events in his home city with his red Samsung camcorder.
Both Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed spoke the truth about the Bashar al-Assad regime’s unspeakable violence against the Syrian people, and both paid for it with their lives.
The activist who broke the news of Basil’s death wrote this tribute:
“Some news is so painful we wish we didn’t have to share it with you. Sometimes we write through our own tears… Basil Al-Sayed, Homsi videographer, has died of his wounds, shot while filming firing from a checkpoint. Rest in Peace. The only thing we won’t miss is the nerves we felt for you so often, as we watched your videos, that so often needed their own health warning… God Bless You, thank you from the revolution for which you gave your life as willingly as you gave your hours.”
Basil, age 24, was a prolific videographer whose work was not for the faint of heart. He captured images from Homs that nobody else could, or would, get. He had a recognizable speaking voice, so everyone knew which videos were his, so before clicking Play on YouTube you braced yourself for a heart attack.
Basil was at a shabiha checkpoint in Baba Amr that day when he saw security forces begin shelling and firing randomly on unarmed citizens out shopping. He moved in closer so he could get definitive proof on film. The sniper on the roof, the one he didn’t see, shot Basil in the head.
Only 3 weeks later, another journalist’s funeral…and activists noting how ironic it was that Gilles Jacquier (obituary in English), after facing 1000s of life-and-death situations over the years, should die on a regime-controlled field trip inside a pro-regime neighborhood, barricaded by troops.
Which no protester could possibly have entered, let alone with a weapon. The safest place you can be is with us, the regime assured, as they gave him no choice.
The French, outraged and demanding a full investigation, are asking themselves aloud: who benefits most from a Western journalist’s death, especially if it just happened to occur in the protest hotbed of Homs?
Basil Al-Sayed’s death, on the other hand, was long-dreaded and sadly predictable: he died of a sniper’s bullet he was always careful to watch for but this once never saw coming…and inadvertently filmed his last moments, as you can see his camera, just as if you were holding it yourself, fall out of his hands and onto the ground.
Showing the Assad regime for what it really is takes everyone: Arab League monitors who quit rather than become tools of the regime. Facebook and Twitter activists who literally never sleep. Escaped military and government officials who help to fill in the blanks for the UN Security Council.
Parents who refuse to lie and say their children were killed by terrorists and then give interviews to the media using their real names. Activists who refuse to give false confessions on Syrian national TV and consequently are never seen again, presumed dead, along with their entire families.
Journalists and videographers from all backgrounds, who report the unvarnished reality in print, in video, in interviews.
In their obituaries.
(Journalists Without Borders reports that 66 journalists worldwide died in the line of duty in 2011.)
Let’s also add 2 names to the Middle East journalism wall of SHAME and kudos to the heroic journalist who outed them.
Mohamad Balout, a member of the Syrian Nationalist Party in Lebanon that supports the Assad regime, was exposed by fellow journalist Khaled Semsom for betraying activists he interviewed for the BBC.
Balout’s day job was with BBC Arabic, but it turns out he moonlights as an agent of Brigadier Ghassan Khalil, head of Syrian Intelligence, to convey information and identities of democracy activists and members of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) throughout Syria.
Four days after he interviewed activists in Daraa-Bibasra in his BBC role, Balout passed along their names to the State Security branch of the Intelligence Services. When he was caught trying to do the same thing in Damascus, the BBC promptly kicked him out of Syria.
Good for them: betraying sources at all, let alone deliberately endangering their lives, goes against every journalistic ethic there is.
“This decision was taken by the prestigious BBC media organization in order to preserve its integrity and objectivity in the Arab world,” wrote an activist who might very well have been on one of Balout’s lists.
The BBC should’ve seen this coming, though, because Balout had written an article for As-Safir about the Syrian opposition meeting in France, about which the newspaper had been forced to publish an apology.
Dima Naseef, Balout’s wife, is his partner in more than marriage. She’s a reporter for the Russian TV station, herself outed as a shill for the Assad regime for reporting “misleading and provocative information” about the well-documented massacre in Kafar Ouide, Jabal Al Zawyiah, in which 110 villagers were trapped by military forces in a valley on the Turkish border and systematically killed.
Khaled Semsom must be looking over his shoulder right now, wondering when Syrian Intelligence is coming after him for exposing these dangerous people.
Gilles Jacquier and Basil Al-Sayed were only 2 deaths out of over 6,000 in the past 10 months, death so sadly commonplace that most Syrian victims’ names, although recorded by the LCCs, are unknown outside the country.
But it’s fitting these 2 dead journalists, and a third still alive who shared their professional ethics, should be called out by name because they took the risk of speaking for the other 6,000 ‒ and 10s of thousands more injured, missing, and running for their lives.
Gilles Jacquier, Basil Al-Sayed, Khaled Semsom: thank you for your brave and generous service.
A pox on you ‒ yes, you up there with the fake snow machine!
Here’s how to lose the Christmas spirit yourself in 1 day, after advocating it to everybody else for 1 month.
Overly warm and windy weather has dogged me this entire 25,000 kilometer journey and caused all kinds of mechanical and morale problems this Christmas season. Strikes didn’t help, either, and elicited a common response from fellow citizens: derision, not sympathy.
(Case in point: London Tube operators who, due to holiday pay grievances, messed with the post-Christmas, annual-for-decades-if-not-centuries football matches. They already get 42 days of paid vacation per year, not counting national holidays, which is exorbitant even for Europe. They’re deservedly on everybody’s black list now, even Santa’s.)
Despite everything, on December 24 we ‒ Team North Pole ‒ were 99% on schedule, subtly delivering a few final gifts around Ireland while families were away from home attending Midnight Mass.
(Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Patrick’s, Dublin’s Anglican cathedral, is earlier, so if you traditionally open your gifts on Christmas Eve, folks, honestly that’s a time crunch for me.)
All in all, it was a stellar holiday season. If my customer satisfaction surveys come back positive, maybe I’ll be asked to reprise my role next year.
So, I rested on Christmas Day and let other people do the driving ‒ and the cooking ‒ for once.
But come December 26, I’m in a really bad mood. Some guy with a sick sense of humor sets up this dry ice machine right off Grafton Street, generating what looked at first glance like real snowflakes!
Except it was 10C and, strangely enough, wasn’t snowing on the next block over.
He was blowing this snow-like substance from this retail store ledge above the street (and was up to no good because when I tried to take his photo later, he ducked behind his truck), which made it seem so real that after-Christmas shoppers were looking up in the sky in confusion, even tasting the flakes to be sure.
Then, frowning, started looking around for the Candid Camera.
That’s aggravated holiday cruelty, getting our White après-Christmas hopes up like that!
Faiche Stiabhna, St. Stephen’s Green, runs along downtown between Grafton Street and Trinity College. St. Stephen’s Day ‒ called the Feast of Stephen in the King Wenceslas carol I wrote about from London ‒ in the Republic of Ireland, Boxing Day in the UK, and Day-After-Christmas in the USA are all the same thing.
And it used to be a day of fasting, although not for religious reasons.
On one unforgettable 1990s family trip around Great Britain over Christmas, we nearly starved to death Christmas Eve onward, not realizing that outside of London not even grocery stores would be open for most of the following week.
(Some Christmases, I give my brother-in-law a package of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a joke that to this day he does not appreciate.)
But times, and economies, are different now. St. Stephen’s Shopping Center’s floor-to-ceiling banner proclaims “OF COURSE we’ll be open!” on our namesake’s day, starting at 11:00am.
Sure doesn’t seem to me like there’s any recession in Ireland…ka-ching, ka-ching…and the newspaper headlines the next day screamed, “Holiday Spending Off The Charts.”
With this much consumer optimism, the Irish economy can’t be as bad off as France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel claim…unless the Irish government itself spends every day like it’s St. Stephen’s Day.
Smiling all the way, because “we’re a happy lot,” says Oliver O’Donoghue.
When I arrive at 15, Merrion Row, I call Carol O’Donoghue, Oliver’s daughter, on my mobile. Wait on the street, I’ll come down to you, she yells over the din. (The family lives in the building.)
I’m staying overnight 2 floors above one of the happening-est (and arguably loudest) pubs in Dublin, in my favorite neighborhood: right down the street from St. Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel, which I didn’t realize was quite so lovely and expensive until Bill G. was no longer paying for me to stay there, with a steep corporate discount.
I’ve parked the sleigh at the airport for 5,50€ a day. Not bad for an “oversize vehicle.”
O’Donoghue’s is open on St. Stephens Day, too, lunchtime onward. Then it’s standing room only ‘til at least 2:00am the next morning, everyone letting their hair down after a day of family Christmas traditions, which I suppose can be heaven or hell, depending on your family.
“Oh, we had a few people ‘round,” says Oliver, 3rd-generation pub owner and master of the understatement.
“You’ll find the Irish don’t take much to pubs and when they do, they don’t stay long,” says a regular, ordering just “a cup of tea, please, and a slice of toast,” having rather over-enjoyed Christmas.
Another name for St. Stephen’s Day: the Morning-After Blues.
So, a little over a month after leaving the North Pole to bring holiday cheer halfway across the globe, I’m at 35,000 feet heading NW, with a tail wind for once.
The reindeer know the way to carry the sleigh, as another carol goes (kind of), and as we pass over Greenland, they pick up speed.
Because it’s starting to look like home.
Thanks for keeping me company during my 2011 Christmas travels. May the New Year 2012 bring you the best of everything!
My invitation must have been lost in the mail.
To Wills and Kate’s first royal Christmas party as a married couple, of course.
This mix-up is understandable, since I haven’t been home, wherever that is, in over a month. But you’d think that Kate’s American Bridesmaid ‒ read my Royal Wedding Week coverage here ‒ deserved at least a follow-up phone call from the Wales’ social secretary!
No worries. Happy Christmas and let’s meet for tea after New Year’s.
So, rather than judging best-dressed royal party guests, I’ve been invited to judge the “Best-Dressed Shop Windows” in Cambridge!
In the categories of Originality, Festivity, Visual Impact, and Coherence, from a field of 8 semi-finalists chosen by “local experts.” So I’m not the only judge with “credentials unspecified.”
Now, I don’t know much about English decorative sensibilities, but it doesn’t take a Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to guess that the top prize is going to a food-related window display.
Bellina Chocolate House has taken 1st or 2nd place every year the contest has been held. Emporium 61 goes for vintage Christmas scenery, which will get the nostalgia vote. Origin8 makes way-out-there gingerbread houses and outdid themselves a few years ago with a…
But my money, in more ways than one, is on last year’s winner: the kitchen store, Clement Joscelyne.
However, it’s time to do some bigger-time holiday shopping and that can only mean Harrods, the London department store so huge that it employs a Chief Giver of Directions.
I did take a taxi home later, but not because I had too many shopping bags to carry. My driver, initials K. L. according to my receipt, is a career military man who went right back to work after retirement to “keep exercising the grey matter” by driving around his home city, talking to “delightful young ladies like yourself.”
Why, thank you! I know this compliment had nothing to do with the orange-praline chocolates I just gave you.
Mr. K. L. and his wife have 5 children ‒ 1 son will be absent this Christmas due to his military service in Afghanistan ‒ and many grandchildren. He’s been married longer than I’ve been alive.
I asked him if he had a secret for a lasting marriage. “No, luv, but my wife does.”
And what might that be?
“On each wedding anniversary, she says to me, ‘It seems like yesterday, but if it were tomorrow, I’d say cancel it.'”
Evening comes early this time of year and, along with London’s non-royal best-dressed, I’m in the first row of the Circle balcony at Royal Albert Hall.
For the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir annual concert of Christmas carols old and new. Serious and secular. European and American. I know for a fact that nobody here was responsible for “Jingle Bell Rock.” (We have country singer Bobby Helms to thank for that holiday gem.)
Much less, “I’ve been an angel all year, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”
Since the Middle East is never far from my mind, I read the following Facebook posts at intermission. About refugees, including children, from the Idleb province (closest to the Turkish border) of Syria, who’d been trapped in valleys, then hunted down and massacred by Assad regime forces.
“OH GOD!!!! Weeping!!!!”
(In the last few days, more than 200 men, women, and children have been killed like this, just in time for Arab League monitors to be told it was the work of “terrorists.”)
“The displaced people who have fled into the mountains from the villages of Jabal Al Zawiyeh district in the fog and rain of yesterday. The little boy laying on the ground was shot… The videographer, God bless him, sharing the danger the displaced are in from Regime forces… he asks the children, “where are your families?” they answer, “we don’t know, but we are very hungry.” Oh God, what will it take for this world to help these people?”
“PLEASE SHARE…PLEASE HELP GET THIS ON EVERY NGO AND GOVERNMENT AND EMBASSY WALL… CHILD REFUGEES, WOMEN AND CHILDREN in the mountains in winter, not even coats”
“In our hearts and in our prayers tonight, the displaced children of Idleb terrified of being found by the Regime soldiers who make no allowance for age or gender…and we just don’t understand how a Regime could be so cruel, and a world so cold hearted that these children have no rescue”
Then, in the first carol in Part 2 of the concert, our cast of 5,000 voices rang out: “Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care…”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly…”
…and Syrians from neighboring districts took Wenceslas at his word.
News unfolding hour by hour on YouTube and Facebook:
“How the gifts of love mounted for the people of Zawiya district as the Christian world prepares for Christmas (which we fear will be used as a time of great massacre by the murderer Assad, who well knows when the people of the west and the media aren’t looking), the people of Jobas and Idleb show us the real meaning of Christmas, giving to those in great need from full hearts, even when their own pockets are empty, and even bread and fuel not in their reach.”
“IDLIB: JOBAS: Gifts and donations from Children and adults for our people of Jabal Al Zawiyeh makes you cry, these dear hearts”
Children gathering donations for other children, knowing that the adults, maybe from their own families, who will make the precarious journey to deliver this lifesaving assistance, will risk all their lives.
Over 4600 kilometers and a world away, we sing with the London Philharmonic what the people of Jobas already know:
“Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
You can file this post in “Jeanette’s Future Careers.”
Under “Least Likely.”
The home of the Polski Balet Narodowy (Polish National Ballet) is the lovely Teatr Wielki, filled with parents, grandparents, and kids, many of whom will be begging for ballet lessons after tonight.
Now, I love kids. I’ve spent the past week with various toddlers, happily attending pre-school Christmas parties and decorating gingerbread people (and animals).
But you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate the value of a good babysitter.
So, it’s date night and the grownups are in Balkon 1, Loźe E for “The Nutcracker.”
This “Nutcracker” version is different than any other I’ve seen before because choreographer Toer van Schayk changed the setting to 19th century Warsaw.
Warsaw being Stop #4 on Santa’s Sub-Contractor’s 2011 route, with the sleigh parked on Wierzbowa Street.
(December in Poland with no snow is all the confirmation I need that global warming is real.)
The night before, we’d been sitting in a 2nd-floor café overlooking the lights of Stare Miasto, drinking winter tea ‒ with mango syrup and slices of citrus fruit, a huge carafe per person ‒ and playing the board game “In the Footsteps of the Pope.”
It’s something like Monopoly, with routes of the pope’s real worldwide travels during his time in office. Whoever travels as much as he did, more than any pope before him, wins (and gets lifetime 1K status on Star Alliance).
We’re talking about Pope Jan Pawel II, of course. John Paul II, the “Polish Pope,” whose influence cannot be overstated in this country.
But imagine my surprise when, here in the “Nutcracker” audience, I look down at the balcony below us and see nuns. Real nuns, wearing habits.
Uh, sisters, should you even BE here? Men in tights and all.
Maybe you took a wrong turn? Archikatedra św. Jana w Warszawie (St. John’s Archcathedral) is a few blocks back.
On a more secular note, as we see dolls, fairies, and tin soldiers flit across the stage, I remember the worst news I’d heard all week:
ToysRUs has arrived in Poland.
To parents at the Sunday brunch: long before next Christmas, you’ll come to regret how excited you are about this.
(I don’t meant to brag, but there’s a reason I got Santa’s sub-contracting job and ToysRUs didn’t.)
OK, part of the deal is that you have to learn the ToysRUs advertising theme song, which is as far from Tchaikovsky as you can get and hasn’t changed since I was a kid.
To prove how catchy that song is, remember that a) I’m writing it from memory, and b) for the majority of my life, my family didn’t even own a television!
“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a ToysRUs kid
They’ve got a million toys at ToysRUs that I can play with!
From bikes to trains to video games,
It’s the biggest toy store there is!
I don’t wanna grow up, ‘cause maybe if I did…
I wouldn’t be a ToysRUs kid!”
So, with a quick stop at the Ostrogski Palace, which houses the new Muzeum Chopina, to listen to timeless music from master pianist Frédéric Chopin and to see some of his instruments and handwritten manuscripts, we travel west to the home of composer Benjamin Britten…
You were just in Germany, they said. Why are those people getting twice as many gifts?
Because they’re 2 years old. TWINS.
Most of us don’t remember being 2, but our parents definitely remember. The “terrible twos,” as that phase of child development is commonly called in English, and most of us lived up to that title pretty spectacularly.
Then imagine if there had been twice as many of you.
Let’s call them Twin A (her real first initial) and Twin B (who’s actually the oldest, and never lets you forget it) ‒ are their grandparents’ only, and long-awaited, grandchildren.
That’s what I call a gift “situation.”
Since 2-year-olds are demanding about everything, especially about doing everything “by myself,” it’s not surprising that they’d be really opinionated about their Christmas lists. While 2-year-olds don’t write lists, they carry them in their heads and point to items as they see them.
“I want that one.” If the answer is no, then we try “Siiiiiiiiii!” or “Jaaaaaaaaaa,” experimenting with the volume.
Fortunately for the twins, but unfortunately for everybody else, they can demand things multiple languages. Their parents come from different countries and up until recently the family lived in yet another country…complete with a local “grandma” who adored the twins and satisfied their every whim.
Then you move home, just in time for Christmas, to twice as many adoring grandparents.
European children don’t typically watch TV, so advertisers don’t have the same opportunity to create demand for everything from ant farms to alien robots. But there are still plenty of temptations in every store, just at 2-year-old eyeball level, where somebody in Marketing got straight As in product placement.
But 2-year-olds have a big weakness that cagey adults can, and do, exploit: they’re very easily distracted.
They’re also easily distracted by things that are FREE, like Christmas lights, trees, and ornaments. (But only from a distance; you break it, you buy it.)
Then there’s chocolate, which has its very own category.
My first afternoon in Stuttgart, the twins came back from the nanny…each carrying a burlap sack, a miniature version of what Santa gave me to deliver gifts, filled with chocolates.
They just weren’t interested in hearing that it was a gift and thus you’re supposed to wait until Christmas to open it. Come on, that makes no sense. Nikolaus would never say something like that.
The burlap sacks mysteriously disappeared after the twins went to bed that night, but the next day, on a completely different topic, the grownups mentioned c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. Immediately, the twins said, ”Schokolade!”
2-year-olds who don’t speak English and can’t spell in any language know exactly what we’re talking about, proving that adults are fooling themselves and should’ve given up on that spelling thing long ago.
We’re careful not to mention our plan to visit the Ritter Sport Schokoladenmuseum in Waldenbuch, at which I bought 4000g of premium chocolate, including 75% Cacao baking chocolate (note to readers who live nearby), for a grant total of 20€.
Well, 20 Euros 54 centimes, to be precise.
There are ever so many sweets in Germany anytime, but especially at Christmastime. You can’t get away from them, even if you tried. The airlines pass out chocolate bars. Twice on every flight. Hotels leave little packages of Gummi bears on your pillow, then ask you if you left them behind on purpose.
And there’s nothing that motivates 2-year-olds more than repetition…and repetitive success.
If it works on Mom & Dad once, great, but it might be a coincidence. If it works twice, the idea has definite promise. If it works on grandparents and honorary aunts, too ‒ ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
The parental decision at hand: do we want a war now or later? Two toddlers amp’d up on sugar and hanging from the chandeliers at 23:00 when you’re dead-tired and will agree to anything, or two toddlers having a daytime screaming fit outdoors, where they have to compete with football fans and accordion music?
We’ll take Option 2, with Glühwein to go. (Since this is probably the last Christmas we might be able to convince the twins that dates are also in fact candy, that’s worth a try, too.)
For Twin A & B’s parents, who didn’t ask for the 2-for-1 family plan but after getting over the shock are really good sports about their double stroller life (and admit to having twice as much fun, on some days anyway), make it “mit Schuss” (with a shot).
So, with a “Vielen Dank” to the pilot of flight LH 1773 from Istanbul, who not only found my Blackberry, but also answered my incoming calls on his way to the airport lost & found, we’re off on the next leg of our journey, 1200 kilometers and 5 degrees Celcius away…