My festive knees

So today is Christmas. Yes, I am writing this on the actual day. I didn’t prepare it in advance and just press send. That’s how much I love you all. All together now – aaaaahhhhh!

In Christmases gone by there was a routine and I think that perhaps this loss of routine this year is what has made me feel so un-festive, except that being totally honest, now the big day is here, I have shaken off all my grinch-like tendencies in favour of having a lovely day with wonderful people.

When I was little, my brother and I would leave out the obligatory treat for Santa, usually a mince pie* or similar, an alcoholic beverage and carrots and water for the reindeer. Then we’d go to bed leaving our stockings at our bedroom doors and, I can’t speak for him, but it would take me hours to go to sleep. That is quite something as I’ve always been a head-hits-the-pillow-and-sleep-comes-in-two-seconds sort of a girl. My father always said I could sleep on a chicken’s lip. In the morning, we’d be awake unfashionably early (remember I’m an owl) and we’d literally run through to our parents’ room with our stockings, now overflowing. We’d all get into bed together and unwrap the stocking presents right there. I believe this was a conventional double bed, not a queen, king or super-king or something even bigger that the likes of Elton John have custom made and yet we’d all be crammed in – and in later years there was our sister as well!

Eventually, my dad would go downstairs, on his own, to check that Father Christmas had been and also that he had left because of course children are not allowed to see him. This was an absolutely critical stage in the proceedings. He’d also put the kettle on of course as neither he nor my mother can properly wake up without a cup of tea. He would then shout up the stairs and it would be safe for us to go down. There were always presents aplenty, arranged in neat piles, my brother’s at one end of the settee and mine at the other. When we had a new sibling, she had the armchair. My mother was always strict that we opened them one at a time so it was not too chaotic and everyone had chance to digest and appreciate what had been bought and received. Then it was breakfast, followed by a visit to one set of grandparents while my mother cooked lunch, possibly calling in on our Auntie Sylvia on the way home. The other set of grandparents joined us for lunch, there’d be more presents and then time to enjoy what had been bought. Of course this all took place in the northern hemisphere. It’s hilarious that here in the south everyone assumes that the UK Christmas is usually, if not always, a white one. They’ve been watching too many movies. I only remember one white Christmas in 48 years and that was only in 2010 when I went back to the UK from New Zealand for Christmas. In reality it would be grey and miserable so Christmas was an indoors activity. People are often quite sentimental about a cold Christmas but I have no desperate yearnings to return to those days. I am perfectly happy to spend the day outside in the sunshine although some stuffing and Christmas pudding remain obligatory and slip down very nicely thank you very much.

This year, things were as far removed from this routine as possible. I woke up home alone, vaguely thinking of shaking my bones to get out of bed and get ready for work when I had a FaceTime call from the UK family. How technology has come on from the Christmases of yesteryear and isn’t it just wonderful that you can now sort of join in the activities on the other side of the world? Even better that my nephews don’t forget what I look like and vice versa.

Then it was off to work which was surprisingly fine. As much as I don’t like working Christmas Day, I have to just remind myself how awful it must be to be a patient in hospital on Christmas Day. When I was a young trainee, I worked for a consultant whom I knew would not come to the ward on Christmas Day and so I felt safe to send one of my favourite patients on leave for the day. He lived locally but had been in hospital for months. Little did I know that one of the other consultants planned to come in especially to see him, with a present, as he was a favourite of hers too. She enquired as to where he was. I very nervously said I’d sent him out for the day. I thought she would be a bit annoyed as it hadn’t exactly been discussed. But no, she was delighted and we sat and mused about how lovely it was that he had been well enough to go. When he returned, he brought me a chocolate bar from his selection box to say thank you. That was one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received but even better that he was beyond happy that he and his family had spent the most wonderful day at home. In the end, he did well and I think about him every Christmas and hope that he is still in good health.

This year, all the patients are too young to know that it is Christmas Day and they won’t remember anything about it so that is something to be truly thankful for. One family had gone all out in bringing Christmas to their child with about 15 relatives, a Christmas tree with presents underneath and a full scale buffet feast in his room. There was barely enough room for him! The weird thing is that these families always go to great trouble to wish the staff a Merry Christmas and they always appear so grateful which just seems wrong.

I was just preparing to leave work when I got wind of the most amazing fact: the coffee cart at work was open! On Christmas Day. I know it’s a special day and all that, but you can’t let the caffeine levels become too depleted or the grinch-like state is totally unshakeable. So, caffeinated and feeling much more lively, I went to visit my friend who has been unwell. I was really pleased for her that her Welsh family have come over for Christmas and that they’ll have a lovely time altogether. She has bought me a present suitable for cycling which I can’t wait to wear. I’ll be sure to take a selfie or make a video when I sport it. I had a day off cycling today but will be back at it tomorrow. My Christmas Eve cycle ride was just lovely. Do watch the video as it explains all about my festive knees, which I got my friend to photograph as I knew they would be appreciated…

I later went to some other friends for lunch. There were 7 adults and 2 children, both of whom love their auntie which is just so sweet. One of them even had his birthday today too! One of the great privileges of being an auntie is being able to spoil the children, not necessarily in a material sense but being able to do things with them that they are not normally allowed to do, even if it is just allowing them to stretch the boundaries a little. So when I was in the toy shop and I had their parents’ voices in my head saying “please don’t get them a drum kit”, I couldn’t resist the temptation to both oblige and be a bit naughty and so it was percussion instruments all round. And what fun we had!

Now I’m waiting for the UK family to FaceTime again with details of the Secret Santa gifts and I am just about to open mine. Even the Queen mentioned the marvels of modern day technology in her Christmas broadcast. I do hope you enjoy my Christmas message. As I am sat here with a very small glass of something nice, I feel I must recommend it to you as it is totally divine. It is Lewis Road Creamery Chocolate Cream Liqueur. Buy it. You will not be disappointed… And anyone coming through Duty Free any time soon, yes please, I need a top up!

The last few days I’ve been trying to think which is my favourite Christmas tune. Due to procrastination, I can’t settle on a single jingle. But, I will leave you with a contender.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad

I want to wish you a Merry Christmas

I want to wish you a Merry Christmas

I want to wish you a Merry Christmas, from the bottom of my heart

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So, from me, Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas, Nadolig Llawen, Meri Kirihimete xx

*In New Zealand, a mince pie would usually be made of mince meat. A mince pie made of dried fruit needs to be prefaced with Christmas to avoid confusion…!

A Beautiful Day

Believe it or not, I once went skydiving. It was circa 2002 and I was travelling around southern Africa in a truck on a small group adventure holiday with a fantastic company called Drifters http://www.drifters.co.za. We’d had a great but tiring time wilderness camping alongside a river where we’d been kayaking and in the desert where we’d hiked sand dunes and spotted dangerous wildlife. Now we were arriving in the Namibian seaside town of Swakopmund renowned for its adventure activities. Drifters owned a number of inns around southern Africa so the grass roots down and dirty experiences of camping were intermittently broken up by a night of relative luxury. A good shower, proper bed and a bar were most definitely the order of the day in Swakopmund. As it turned out, the inn was run by the man who had been the guide on my first Drifters adventure to Botswana some years previously. It was great to see him again and reminisce about our previous capers and the group involved. It is an odd thing, holidaying with a bunch of strangers. You live in such close proximity to them for a few weeks and get to know them well and yet you then part ways and never see each other again, despite promises of reunions. These days there would be Facebook groups and the like of course but it’s still an unusual form of friendship.

Over a few beers that evening, the following day’s activities were planned. The strange German couple decided they could not rest unless they revisited the desert road we had travelled along en route to Swakopmund in search for these weird looking plants called the Welwitschias which are almost unique to Namibia. Seeing these things was almost their raison d’être and they were unamused that the spring-like weather meant that there was greenery in the desert which had hidden them. Everyone else, however, was bound for quad biking the giant sand dunes in the desert just outside the town. This sounded dangerous to me but it also seemed like a prerequisite and the thing you had to do while in town. So it was. In fact, it was brilliant. I really enjoyed it and even had a certificate for a time to prove my bravery.

However, that was not all. I’d managed to be talked into doing a skydive. I think the rest of the group was a bit surprised that when the guide enquired as to who wanted to do it that I was the first volunteer. I’d always wanted to do one and couldn’t imagine that there would be anywhere better than this town where the desert bordered the sea. Up I went at dusk to 12,000 feet in a plane with a man called Michael strapped to my back. He was friendly and had induced confidence in me despite his dodgy moustache. In my opinion moustaches on their own should be relegated to the plughole except, of course, during Movember when they can be justified in the name of charity. I forgave him for this however as he seemed like he knew what he was doing and would make sure I was returned alive and intact to the UK at the end of my trip. I had phoned my mother the night before. I hadn’t spoken to her since the start of the holiday due to us being out in the wilds and it had cost me £16 because I’d stupidly told her about the impending jump and then spent most of the call trying to get her to stop sobbing. I knew this was likely to be a once only experience for me so I’d paid extra to have a videographer jump as well. This was in the days before Go Pros and the like of course and so he literally had a video camera strapped to one side of his helmet and a still camera to the other. He operated these with wires which he bit down upon at the right time. There would be no sound at that height but he would capture plenty of shots and footage. He jumped first then Michael and I shuffled to the open door of the plane. I sat with my legs over the edge and he shoved us through the gap. We were off. It was indescribable as I experienced his massive but momentary lurch of my heart and stomach into my mouth but then we were lying prone, floating through the sky and it was just absolutely incredible. I was thumbs up all the way down, the videographer laughing and giggling, Michael shouting in my ear about how well I was doing and me responding accordingly with big grins and hand gestures. Then Michael pulled the chute and we settled into a seated position, spiralling ever downwards towards the sand-covered earth we call home. It was sunset and a clear day. I could see out to sea but all the time below us was this crinkly sandy surface, each of the teeny tiny imperfections being one of those giant sand dunes which I had ridden up early in the day.

As always for me, the ending was not perfect but rather comical and it turned out to be a befitting way to punctuate the exhilarating yet emotional experience that went before. On hitting the ground, I fell face down and by default Michael ended up spreadeagled on top of me with the chute engulfing the two of us. Safely rescued and back on our feet, we went into the office to watch the video footage and I was asked whether I wanted it set to music. I instantly knew that the only appropriate sound track to this video would be A Beautiful Day by U2. It must have been recently released because we had listened to it endlessly in the truck where the CD collection was somewhat limited. We would be driving along and when it came on we would all sing it at full voice, even the Germans joining in occasionally. In the days and weeks following this holiday, I would watch the video frequently, both in amazement that I had actually done it, in a show off sense to my mates and whenever I felt like I needed a laugh. I haven’t seen it for years as I no longer have a video player and this has been a reminder that I must get it digitised so I can watch it again.

And so it was that yesterday was also A Beautiful Day. Nothing so dramatic happened but every so often you have a perfect day just because the circumstances conspire with you and not against. Black Friday 3 did not happen so I awoke in my own bed in my own house after a short but justifiable lie in. I stepped into the indulgent rainforest shower in my gorgeous new en suite which is now complete with the windows unfrosted so I can stand there looking out at the beauty of this fabulous place where I live. Then a friend came around with a Christmas tree for me as they sell them near her house and she has a car big enough to transport one. She brought her daughter but no amount of manhandling by them and supervision by me was going to make the tree stand upright. Cue a phone call to another friend to come and give us a hand. By the time he arrived we’d got it sorted so then we were free to sit in my lounge and drink café frappés and Lewis Road Creamery chocolate liqueur (just try it!). The doors were open and it was a wonderfully balmy day outside with one of those ink blue skies and just enough breeze to offer relief and to deliver a faint whiff of jasmine.

In the end, we parted ways and I went to visit my friend who has not been well. It is no secret that she is undergoing chemotherapy. As much as she doesn’t like to talk about being brave or of it being a battle or she a victim, it is a deeply unpleasant experience nonetheless and she has impressed us all with her resilience and positive attitude. I like to think about keeping things as normal as possible for her. After all, she is a friend who happens to have cancer, not cancer which happens to have a friend attached to it. She is at the same point in this current chemo cycle as when she was at her worst in the last. I have tried to check in with her daily by text to make sure she is OK and she has seemed fine but it was still a really fabulous surprise to me to find her at home ready to go out as she was feeling as well as she could be. We had a lovely lunch in a trendy cafe overlooking the water and she ate the most she has in ages. I was so pleased as this meant she was up for the truffle fries and I could help her finish them… They just happen to be a weakness for both of us. After that, we mooched around some trendy but expensive shops where I happened upon lots of things I’d buy except for knowing that Christmas sales are just around the corner and I hate buying things that then get reduced! We retired to hers to watch some trashy TV while trying a cocktail of Chambord and sparkling wine to try and re-create a wonderful raspberry drink we’d had in times gone by. Actually, I seem to recall an evening after a day working in Nelson when we had a Chambord cocktail at the Rutherford Hotel followed by a meal including truffle fries at Hopgoods. Or maybe that was the time that Hopgoods had only ordinary fries on the menu and I sulked like a teenager. It was certainly the night that we retired to her room to drink a bottle of champagne and when we phoned a friend to come and join us he showed up in his dressing gown as he’d already gone to bed!

Now, many people have asked me why I’m doing the cycling trek. Well, no one reason really. I like a challenge and I like to do my bit to support charity, especially ones with a focus on children and local ventures. However, more than anything, I’m doing it because my friend suggested it. She supports this particular charity, Variety, but she is obviously not up to a cycle trek at the moment so I thought, why not? Why not do it for her and at the same time for me and the charity. Despite being unwell, she has been so amazingly encouraging and has never wavered in her opinion that I can do it. I know she will wave me off with a variety of crazy face masks, muscle lotions and chocolate just as she did for my last overly ambitious venture. Thats what friends do for each other. So, I set off from her place resolved to have another go on the bike.

So far I have cycled only on a quiet track in the bush near where I live. This time I went along the Auckland harbour water front on a shared cycle path and pavement. It was much busier and being a sunny day, there were people everywhere – walking, skating, cycling, just wandering; locals and tourists, adults and children alike. There were also hazards like pavement works, cars, ramps and so forth. But, it was absolutely fabulous. I loved every minute. Yes, it was flat again, but it was the furthest I’ve been so far at 15.3 kms and there was enough of a breeze to relieve the heat from the sun but also to make it a bit challenging as I had to pedal a bit harder.

Auckland is the most picturesque city and I feel lucky every day to be allowed to stay here. There are those from outside who pour scorn on our city and its inhabitants, referring to us as JAFAs* and criticising our traffic and housing prices. Well, where else could you cycle from one stunning beach to another with the glittering blue waters right next to you, looking out to sail boats and an island volcano and most people giving you a friendly wave or hello? The traffic may be heavy and the housing prices high but show me a city where they aren’t.

After coming home, I put all 150 ornaments on my Christmas tree, each one a reminder of such-and-such a market, holiday, friend or family member. There are Aboriginal baubles from Sydney, reindeer with conical hats from Vietnam, metal hearts from Cardiff Castle, gingerbread men bought by one set of nephews, a shiny silver handbag from my sister and a festive foot made out of flour from another nephew. The whole thing is a construction of sentiment and, in my opinion, this just makes it even more beautiful than it is anyway. Bugger those who have to have a colour scheme or the right shaped baubles. Sod off to those who say my tree isn’t right as it doesn’t have tinsel. Christmas isn’t about trends, design and showing off. Christmas is about family, friends, reflections, memories and looking forward. Yes, this may be soppy and so to lighten the mood, I’d just like to add that if my mate J doesn’t offer to swap his inflatable reindeer costume for the departmental Christmas party for my ever-so-small Little Bo Beep Santa dress, then he may no longer be on the Christmas card list. As he would say, this is no deterrent as I haven’t sent cards for years, preferring to donate the money to the Auckland City Mission! Actually, that’s just a cover up for being hopelessly disorganised but from bad sometimes comes good.

So, I hope you all had A Beautiful Day! Do let me know in the comments what makes a perfect day for you. I’d like to think of the blog as a conversation rather than a diatribe.

xx

PS The Germans never did find the welwitschias but we happened upon one in the car park of a campsite a few days later and they were grudgingly happy

* JAFAs = Just Another F***ing Aucklander (sorry mother but at least I spent another £16 on phoning you to let you know I survived the sky dive!)