Lower Your Expectations still Further

So now all that Christmas malarkey, with its mountains of sprouts, wrapping up, decking the halls, washing the pots, preparing yet another meal, watching tedious re-runs of ancient ‘Christmas specials’ on TV, picking up sweet wrappers, smiling while you unwrap Aunty Mabel’s hand-knitted tea-cosy, being endlessly nice, hoovering up pine needles, opening yet another bottle of fizz, putting on your indulgent face while some teeny tot trashes your tasteful decorations, discovering the dog has eaten your hand-cooked ham with its special glaze you saw on Nigella, clearing up said dog’s vomited up ham….is now done.

You can relax. But what will you be doing to see 2016 through the year’s portals? Set off to sunny climes, smug in the satisfaction of having booked it months ago? Get scrubbed up and enjoy a swish hotel dinner that you cunningly arranged last January? Drink yourself into a post-Christmas trauma-mitigating stupor in front of TV’s Hogmanay offerings? Or will you retire early with a cup of cocoa and any literary offering that was not a] a biography of last year’s winner of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here’ b] the latest ‘must-have’ cookery book or c] some lame attempt at humour?

Or will you, perhaps settle for drinks in the convivial, comfortable company of old friends, those who you’ve chosen to be a part of your life, rather than your relatives, who, whilst having ‘blood thicker than water’ may nevertheless be hard work over a prolonged period. So-friends then. But which friends? Your childhood bosom buddies from the village where you were born? Your uni friends whose lives you’ve followed on Facebook and met at reunions? Those who you met at the ante-natal classes, parent-first-timers like you? Your fellow five-a-side footballers? The blokes down the pub? The neighbours?

Maybe the answer is to host your own New Year’s bash and invite them all. Then the dilemma is solved; or is it? In my experience any kind of celebratory party that includes everyone you’ve ever known is never an unmitigated success. This is because these polarised factions are likely to have very little in common with the exception of YOU. I’d follow the example of Husband’s friend who recently had his 60th bash. He held a different event for each group of friends or relations [a restaurant, drinks at home etc], negating the need to attempt to get strangers to talk to each other-always a soul destroying task.

Perhaps, however you will do what Husband and I have done on occasions, go to your local pub/bar/café and throw yourself into any New Year’s do that’s going, the more 60s hits, karaoke and chronic DJ jokes the more riotous and cheesier the better. Leap about with anyone and everyone. They may not be ‘auld acquaintances’ or even new ones, but who cares? It’s all ‘best forgot’ anyway…

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Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

Are you a hoarder or a shedder?

                Whilst it does not do to become too introspective, from time to time I have been conducting an assessment of such changes as I may be undergoing as I plunge down through the floors in the elevator [de-elevator? Reverse thrust?] of increasing maturity.

                Something I have noticed is the tendency towards minimalism, which is interesting because it appears that many people become more inclined towards clutter as they age. This is true of several friends. They have accumulated ‘stuff’. It is understandable, this acquiring of objects without shedding others. It might perhaps provide a psychological barrier between solid, dependable life and the unknown that is getting snuffed out-especially as the snuffing comes ever closer.

                ‘You can’t take it with you!’ and ‘You don’t want to be the richest person in the graveyard!’ These are often quoted as we age and feel guilty about spending or acquiring. Often, the objects we have surrounded ourselves with, that we feel the most valuable are the very artefacts that will be unceremoniously trashed once we have slipped off the mortal coil. My mother became anxious as her denouement approached, cataloguing various items of furniture even as she lay in her hospital bed, exhorting us to have this table valued or that china figurine taken to a dealer. “We’ll get a skip” interjected my brother, in a bid to inject some levity into the conversation. But in fact, his statement proved almost prophetic, since the ultimate valuation of their house contents barely covered the cost of clearing it. ‘The bottom has fallen out of the antiques market’, we were told, and I believe the ‘bottom’ may still be absent today.

                Whilst nobody likes the idea of contemplating their demise, there is a certain, pleasing purity about leaving the planet with nothing, just as you came. This makes me wonder if that is the very reason why I prefer an uncluttered space. It may be subconscious preparation. Oh not that I’m expecting or planning to expire any time soon [I still have time to be a best-selling novelist!], but the natural progression of ageing is that we ‘downsize’, with the inevitable need to have fewer belongings in the smaller area.

                As regular readers know, we, [that is myself and the significant other known as Husband] spend much of our time in the tiny, cramped space that is our camper van, using a capsule kitchen and living out of luggage. When we return it is to the vast area that is our house. ‘What a long way it is to the toilet!’ I say, and always experience some difficulty in adjusting to sleep in a bedroom that feels enclosed and stuffy.

                As Christmas approaches we deck the halls, filling the house with glittery, sparkly objects, greenery, candles, cards, tinsel. As soon as the revelries have subsided I cannot wait to clear it all out. In fact, so wonderful is the feeling of purging at trashing it all it is almost worth the initial effort of decorating to experience the soothing, peaceful, restorative sensation that is minimalism.