Sunday, 24 March 2013

A UK Xmas - part III

Final stop, North Yorkshire. I'd made it to Harrogate, where I was kindly met by my lovely sister and niece (whose first words, after a hug, were "I like your suitcase". Ahem.).

A quick drive and we arrived at my sister's house in Ripon where my mum and her boyfriend were already waiting for us. More bear hugs ensued, then before I could continue with the business of Xmas drinking, a shower was needed. By the time I got back downstairs, the living room was full of festive boozers - knocking back the champagne no less - who I happily joined in with. Eight years it had taken me to get back at this time of year, so I felt it was more than justified. By this time I was feeling pretty sleepy, and also, oh dear, a bit achy and sniffly. And yes, by the time I hopped into bed, I needed to take a box of tissues with me.

I was sharing my niece's room, and when I awoke at 5 am on Xmas morning she was nowhere to be seen. Feeling pretty grotty though, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. Unfortunately, I was to be granted only two hours more kip. My mum, obviously taking revenge for all those hideously early Xmas get-ups when I was a child, bounded into my room at 7.15 announcing that my niece could await no longer and my presence was needed downstairs for the Grand Opening of the Presents. I staggered down to the living room and curled up on the sofa while gift after gift was enthusiastically opened by all concerned, myself included (my Xmas haul was composed of, amongst other items, a very-gratefully-received box set of Outnumbered, which my sister had introduced me to the previous January, and a tasteful plaque for my wall that stated "Cats are like chocolates, you can never have just one...").

After that it was back to bed to repose for another hour. Feeling I should lend a hand, I decided not lounge in bed for too long and so shuffled down to the kitchen to help prepare the big meal. Fortunately, I was put on veggie duty so had little more to do than peel potatoes, parsnips and carrots, chop Savoy cabbage and prepare Brussels sprouts. I would've been happy with just the veg - you can't get parsnips or Savoy cabbage in Spain, and I adore sprouts - but I'd been bought a nutty, veggie bake too, my mum had made a gluten-free bread sauce and there was also stuffing. This was all served with gravy, apple sauce and cranberry sauce so I felt quite decadent sat there with a plate full of food, and more than a little guilty. Having come from Spain, where I knew thousands of families had trouble making it to the end of each month, where soup kitchens and food banks are nowadays the main source of groceries for many people of all ages, including some with a university education, I was grateful to be in a situation where I could sit down with my family and enjoy a plentiful meal together. I cleaned my plate; when I was little I was fed stories of starving children in Africa, this time I was thinking of hungry families in my adopted country.

I was brought out of my sombre, and sneezy, mood by a post-lunch photo session. It should've been a simple affair - my sister sat at the table next to me and mum played photographer. However, instead of using the zoom, she shoved the camera at us to get us in frame. We both recoiled at exactly the same time, looked at each other and burst out laughing. And we couldn't stop. The cacophony lasted a good twenty minutes, and proved to be contagious as you can see from the photos:

After we'd all calmed down mum declared "I've not laughed like that in years", and I don't think I had either.

One thing I was disappointed by was the momentous occasion of the Xmas day film. Or rather lack of it. When I was little, this was a big event. I remember watching E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on the 25th December - had you not made it to the cinema (a magical occasion in itself back then) this was your first chance to catch the blockbuster and so was a huge occurrence that I looked forward to all through lunch. However, nowadays, with Sky and other channels taking your money and using it to buy up all the best films, we were left with pretty poor showings. In fact, I can't even remember what we ended up watching. A little piece of the magic was lost. Given the state I was in,  though, I didn't last much longer on Xmas day and crawled into bed at an early hour. Boxing day was even worse. I managed a trip out to restock on tissues and that was it. The day was spent feeling sorry for myself and feeling snotty.

However, having been more-or-less force-fed vitamin C and zinc tablets (by my ever-prepared mother) for the previous three days, I was feeling much better by the 27th. Quite fortunately too as it was Panto day.  Harrogate has the best Panto I've ever seen, even though it's performed by the same company every year and contains no B-list, or even C-list, celebs (perhaps that's why it's so good). This year it was Jack and the Beanstalk (with a very believable, moving giant) and, despite my weakened state, I bravely managed to keep up the calls of "Oh, yes it is!" and "It's behind you!" until almost the very end, when I eventually went hoarse.

For my final day in the UK, I went shopping. To the supermarket. I like this type of shopping at all times, but a UK supermarket is, these days, a special treat. I had planned on filling the basket (and my suitcase) with Crabbies and Rekorderlig strawberry and lime cider (see my previous post). However, there was a last-minute change of plan and I ended up with cat treats instead. I have one extremely fussy puss, who will only ever take malt in the form of Whiskas malt bites. These, in Spain, cost me about €2.50. In the UK I got them on a 2 for 2 pound offer. And even without that, it would've cost me only 1 pound twenty per box, or about €1.50. I was furious: not only do Spanish workers earn significantly less than the British (unless you're a top footballer or one of the many corrupt politician, it seems) but we also have to pay more for our goods. And it wasn't just the cat malt, though that was the best (worst) example I found of how we're being swindled over here. There were many, not only in the supermarket, but there had been throughout my trip - the digital camera my sister had bought my niece for Xmas only cost 40 quid, and it was a good make. Something similar in Spain would cost me about 50% more. Had I had more money, I would've bought myself one before I left. I'd never before felt poor in my life, even during the 10 years I spent at university; now I did. So, I filled my trolley with Whiskas malt bites, and also the obligatory, much-missed, gluten-free crumpets (which predictably didn't last very long once I got back home) and that was about it.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I have a rather lovely sister, a fact that was confirmed when I discovered that my train back to the airport had been cancelled due to engineering work. Of course that hadn't stopped them charging me 110 pounds for it then failing to advise that it wouldn't be running. Cue my fantabulous sis, who offered to take me down to Stansted - a journey of 3.5 hours each way - without blinking. In the end, the journey was much more comfortable for me that way. A good thing too, since I arrived back home, exhausted, at about 8pm that evening, much to the delight of six, stroke-starved cats. 

I must admit, all in all, it was fun. I had a great time, despite the sniffles, sometimes unreliable train service and tiring journey to and from Spain. I also learnt to appreciate where I come from and see the many positives of the UK, for perhaps the first time ever. Having said that, thankfully I did make the most of it, because it may take me another nine years before I decide to brave it again at Xmas.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A UK Xmas - part II

So, I’d finally made it up to Macc where my friend Sue was eagerly awaiting my arrival for some fun and frolics, helped along by the odd cocktail, pint or glass of wine, or two. And I must say, the programme she’d come up with for my entertainment passed with flying colours.

Given my late arrival, we only managed the one glass of the old vino before bedtime, but were up and ready to go by a decent hour the following day, which held a trip to Manchester in store. Now, I know that Macclesfield is none too far away from the home of Corrie, Oasis, Aflecks Palace and the Madchester music scene, but, apart from a fleeting visit last year, I hadn’t been there in years. Literally. And yes, it had changed, though the slightly scruffy-with-a-whiff-of-cool Manchester I remembered from my teenage years of Saturday shopping trips was still there too.

Where are George and Bungle?

Anyway, it being the 21st December, we had a wander round the Xmas markets, comsuming some Amaretto-imbued mulled wine, purely to keep the chill out you understand, and then I went to good old M&S to do a bit of knicker shopping – I tell you, you cannot beat the price-quality ratio anywhere in Spain, and I always look forward to a trip to Marks to keep the old underwear draw in good nick whenever I’m back. So, I ran around the lingerie section, eagerly holding up pairs of smalls to ask for Sue’s opinion, oblivious to the funny looks we were getting from some customers. After that, it was time for a drink, so off we headed in search of something tasty, which indeed we found, in the form of a Cliff Richard.

Winter warmer - mulled wine with added Amaretto, hence the grin

How could I not opt for a Cliff Richard when choosing a Christmas cocktail?!

I could’ve happily downed several, but having promised to meet up with some old friends back in Macc for a night out, we caught the train back and continued the drinking there, not before I’d freshened up my journey-weary hair with some spray-in, dry shampoo, which, as far as I know, has yet to make it to Spain, though I hope it does soon - brilliant stuff! After Cliff, anything was going to be a bit of a let down, though I solved the dilemma by opting for a Crabbie's (alcoholic) ginger beer which came with added lime and Tabasco (and I'd thought it couldn't get any tastier!).

The old faithful, with a twist

We were joined in the pub – one of the very few “traditional” ones left, though I'm not sure if a stuffed Crocodile stuck upside down on the ceiling counts as traditional (shucks, why did I not think to take a photo?!)  - by Dee Dee the Jack Russell, making it seem even more typically British and therefore exciting my, now Spanish, cultural tastebuds. Yes, I was in my hometown, but also feeling a little like a tourist.

Traditional pub deco

The next day involved some last-minute Xmas shopping – there’s only a certain amount of presents you can fit into a suitcase – and so it was back to M&S for more knickers (this time for my Mum – hmm, could this be genetic?) and other bits and pieces. After the previous night – I was proud to have managed to stay out until 1 am after an afternoon’s boozing in Manchester and the long journey the previous day, though by Spanish standards it was a pretty poor showing – it was time for a quieter night. We headed to the old Heritage Centre, which I was pleased to see now has a cinema on the top floor, to see The Hobbit. We went for a quiet drink (or two) after and then felt the need to go home (again, not so good by Spanish standards, but I enjoyed myself anyway).

Wanting my last day to live up to the rest of the visit, Sue had organised a plethora of events for the following day, including a walk around Macc Forest. It was windy, cold and even started to rain while we were up there, but I didn't care -  I had forgotten how serene and beautiful it was and was busy taking it all in, as if for the first time. 

Actually, I’m not sure I had forgotten. It dawned on me, while squelching around in the mud, hood up to shelter from the rain, that I’d previously taken the area where I lived somewhat for granted. Being away from it for 8 years and seeing it again was somewhat of an eyeopener. It seems familiarity does indeed breed, if not contempt, then at least a certain lack of appreciation. Anyway, such was the shock, that we had to end the walk with a trip to the pub – this time I decided to try some of the cider on offer – it was certainly different from the stuff you get here in Asturias and tasty too, though it still didn't knock Crabbie's off the top of my Best UK Bevvies list.

Not Crabbies, but not bad at all

Given my lifelong proclamation of never wanting to have children, I seem to have picked up a knack of getting along with them quite well. After the walk it was time to play Santa Claus so we wove our way back down to Macc (getting a fantastic view of the Cheshire Plain – my, I’d never thought that before either!) and went to see some old school friends and their offspring, and drop off presents from “Auntie Rachel”. This was followed by an Indian (also a must on my UK to-do list: #1 knickers, #2 curry) and then the evening’s entertainment consisted of, and wait for this and can I have a drum roll please... a pub quiz! Sue knows me very well indeed – and so she should, we've been friends for about thirty years – and had planned the perfect final evening of my stay in Macc. Even better, it was in a new (for me), low-key bar in the town that I discovered served not only gluten-free lager (gasp!) but also the most delicious cider I had ever tried (sorry Asturias).

Really rather tasty - and much to my delight, available in supermarkets too!

Add this to the pub quiz and I had a spectacular time – if you’re interested, we came third (though the teams coming first and second had five and four members respectively) and would’ve racked up extra points if I only could’ve remembered the name of Santa’s ninth reindeer  - Vixen (I got the other 8) – and the name of the third wise man – Caspar (Melchior and Balthasar are the two others if you’re wondering). I spent the whole of the pub quiz scratching my head on that one and at one point declared that if I’d still been at the academia, I would’ve remembered it, it being the Three Wise Men who traditionally bring presents in Spain and so was a widely talked about subject by my pupils. Sue sagely pointed out that had I still been at the academia, I wouldn’t have been in Macc enjoying myself (and the cider), so that made me feel much better.

The next day I made my way up to Yorkshire, happily recalling events from the previous few days, keeping an eagle-eye on my garish, new suitcase and in slight shock that all of the trains (three in total) had been on time. Now the only challenge I had to face was Xmas with the family.