Friday, 27 December 2013

Christmas with the Old Farts.

When I mention the Old Farts, I am usually referring to my parents. I have called them the Old Farts since they were middle aged, so it has never been a slur but more a family joke and uttered with great affection. This year, I was lucky enough to have a double dose of Old Fartiness, because I was not only with my parents but I also spent half of Christmas Day with 105 genuine old Old Farts.

Two years ago, my sister went to visit her in-laws over Christmas, so my mother, father and I decided we would do something for charity, as it was just the three of us. I say we decided... actually my mother volunteered us and then told us we were all going to help the local Vicar with her Christmas lunch, for the elderly and the lonely. My father, in slightly 'bah humbug' mode, announced he was not at his best making small talk with a large group of strangers, and decided he was much more suited to doing the Meals on Wheels. He would be in his car and not have to talk to anyone for a few hours... perfect. So he was the driver, I was the waitress, and the partnership worked very well. We would find the address of the Meals on Wheels recipient, I would jump out, and as my Father parked the car, I would take the meal inside, have a little or a long chat (depending on the person), run back to the car and we would go to the next person on the list. Dad then drove home whilst I joined my mother back at the Village Hall to help serve drinks and food to the guests. My fathers' only responsibility, once home, was to turn the oven on ready for the turkey and then remember to come back to the Village Hall 3 hours later, to take some of the old folk home. Unfortunately Dad, exhausted from his driving exertions, promptly fell asleep as soon as he sat in his armchair, and not only forgot to turn on the oven but forgot to come back to the Village Hall. Lots of shuffling pensioners waited impatiently for their chauffeur to return, and after a frantic phone call he turned up, irritable and bed-headed from his afternoon nap! But we all agreed that we had really enjoyed it, so when my sister told us she was away again this year, we decided to volunteer anew. Unfortunately, my mother wasn't feeling a 100% on Christmas morning, so my parents stayed at home to prepare lunch whilst I went off in search of the other Old Farts.

We all met at noon in the reception area of some private flats, that had allowed their space to be turned into a 'pop-up' restaurant for the day. Waitrose had very generously donated £1,500 to the Charity and also provided the tree and decorations, so the space looked stunning. We had about 8 volunteers in the kitchen and maybe 12 of us on the floor, each with very specific jobs. Initially, I was given the job of Waitress, but the Vicar soon realised I was better suited to Greeter, Stick and Zimmer frame organiser, Name Tag Writer, Barmaid, Loo Escort, Raffle Ticket Seller, Quiz Master, and basically anything that involved talking. I wonder why? But the old dears, especially the women, love a good natter so it was a good match.

As I poured more and more sherry, things got quite animated and one table of 5 men, all over 80, got so rowdy I labelled them the 'naughty table' (which they loved). But as the day wore on, I began to get a little worried about the amount of alcohol being consumed and asked the Vicar if any of them had driven to the venue. She laughed and said that considering the average age was about 92, she didn't think so. When I then suggested going round the room, asking everyone to put their keys in a bowl just to be on the safe side, she put her arm around me and said, "Juliet, I'm not sure if you were around in the 70's, but asking a group of strangers to put their keys in a bowl, meant something else entirely!" Haha… our very fruity Vicar.

So, apart from the 'naughty table' becoming a little frisky, there was only one man I had to give a slightly wide berth to, and his name was Kevin. Two years ago, Kevin took a bit of a shine to me, and would grab my arm or leg every time I passed his table, quickly becoming a little more amorous than I would have liked. He became so 'touchy feely' that the Vicar refused to let me drive him home on my own, in case he 'tried something'. Haha. Kevin was 70 and in a wheel chair... I'm still not quite sure what the Vicar thought he was going to do!! But this time Kevin wasn't quite so shy with his advances, and after asking all sorts of awkward personal questions, he put his hand on my bottom and demanded that I take him to the bathroom. Um. Now there are rules we have to follow in these situations... the women take the women to the loo and the men take the men, end of discussion. I tried to explain to Kevin that he needed a male helper, but he was having none of it and shouted out quite dramatically that he wanted Juliet, or no one! Why men I've dated can't be quite so loyal, I don't know. It took a quiet word in his ear from the Vicar for him to back down, and the rest of the afternoon he behaved like an angel.

I did make a very special friend during lunch though... the lovely Scott. After giving him a few extra sausages with his meal, he began to follow me around the room, occasionally nudging me and looking at me with the most handsome dark brown eyes. He was a guide dog. A beautiful shiny black labrador who obviously had a thing for chipolatas wrapped in bacon. He was owned by the equally divine David, a blind man in his 50's who was so charming and kind, I was tempted to hang out with him for the rest of the day.

There were some other wonderful characters too; A 90 year old Jamaican woman called Phyllis, who had come over to England almost sixty years ago. She was very shy and softly spoken until she won the raffle an hour later, and leapt out of her seat with a loud whoop, exclaiming “I've won, I've won, I've never won anything before!”; Another lady called Edith was 102 and the best dressed in the house. She sat very demurely, in a beautiful red crepe tea dress, handbag tightly held on her knees, and every time I went over to check on her, she would take a sip of sherry and tell me about another operation she'd had. The elderly do love talking about their health, and I may not have learnt all their names but I certainly knew who'd had what done; There was Doris in her late 80's, who loved to dance and had turned up in a matching sequin shoe and dress ensemble with an elaborate feather fascinator perched on her bouffant. She would disappear every 20 minutes and I got a bit worried, so when she left the room the next time I followed her, finding her happily dancing around outside whilst puffing on a cigarette; Albert was another Centenarian but incredibly grumpy. He complained about everything, from the music to the drinks, and when I put the Christmas pudding down in front of him, he looked at it it with disgust and said, “I hate Christmas pudding, always have... Get me some cheese and biscuits would you?” I laughed and said, “Albert, we aren't in some posh London restaurant where you can order a La Carte. I'm afraid its Christmas pud or nothing”. He harrumphed and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I only just managed to crack a smile from him later on, when I went round doing the raffle tickets and seeing his £5 note on the table, picked it up, put it in my pocket and said, “Oh Albert, you shouldn't have... I know I'm a good waitress but this is just too generous!” I saw a slight quiver of a smile on his lips and then he banged the table and shouted, “Raffle tickets!”.

It was amazingly successful and most of the Old Farts seemed to have a really good time. There were some lovely lovely people there, guests and volunteers both, and I just hope they are all there in two year time when I do it again. From what I gathered, there will be another twenty guests reaching their hundredth year by then, which is just staggering. But if they are reaching that ripe old age by being a little saucy, drinking too much sherry, wearing beautiful dresses, having the odd fag, dancing, and being incredibly grumpy most of the time, then I'm all for it!

Monday, 23 December 2013

A Christmas song.

It was early November, and I was wandering through my local supermarket when my ears pricked up on hearing a rather unusual sound. I stopped in my tracks and gripped my shopping trolley a tad aggressively as I realised the tinny tune playing in the background was Mariah Carey's, “All I Want for Christmas is You”. I'm not sure what was more irritating... the fact that a Christmas song was playing in November, or that it was Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey released that incredibly annoying song nearly 20 years ago and made an absolute fortune from it. But the appeal of a good Christmas song never seems to wane, apparently, because that festive ditty has earned her £455,000 this year, having sold more than one million copies in the UK, in the last month alone!! It seems George Michael and Shane MacGowan never need to work again either, as their respective festive songs, Wham's “Last Christmas” and the Pogues/Kirsty MacColl duet, “Fairytale of New York”, have also made them nearly half a million pounds each this Christmas. Hmm, maybe I need to write a catchy Christmas jingle instead of a blog!

Other than Christmas pop songs blaring out from every shop you step foot in, you also have the traditional carols, of course. Now I love a good carol and I also love a good sing-a-long, so what could be better than a traditional carol service? Several years ago, I went to the 'biggest and best' carol service in London, at St. Paul's Cathedral. I queued up for almost 2 hours and then cried off and on for the next hour because it was probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. Candlelit throughout, the Cathedral simply looked extraordinary, warm twinkling light bouncing off every surface, elaborate flower arrangements trailing into the aisles, while the cherubic faces of the choirboys glowed as their voices reached exquisite levels, soaring though the aisles. Every time I tried to join in the carols I would get choked up, it was ridiculous. I think I managed to croak out the first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City' and then I pretty much gave up and listened. So, this year I thought I would go to a more low-key carol service, one without a choir or flowers or candles, just a simple service where I could sing as loud as I wanted and not get emotional.

I decided to go to a lunchtime service in a small church opposite the design studio where I was working in central London. I thought it would be full of local older residents but was amazed to see the church full of 20 and 30-somethings, people from offices I presumed, having decided that an hour of Christmas cheer was better than a sandwich in front of their computers! We were greeted by a very jovial vicar and his helpers, handing us glasses of mulled wine and mince pies, and even though there weren't any elaborate flower arrangements, candles or decorations, the convivial feeling made up for it. There were no hymn books but a very modern screen at the back of the church with all the words on, and everyone sang loudly and enthusiastically. I may have been singing a little too loudly because I would occasionally get bewildered glances from my neighbours. Or it may be because I was attempting the descant part of the songs, when my voice really isn't made for that kind of soprano.

It's an embarrassing admission. Usually young choirboys sings this part of the carol because, well, they are good at singing and their voices haven't broken yet, but from a very young age my sister and I have always attempted it as well. When we are in church together, we give each other a 'look' just before the last verse, challenging each other to sing the descant. Of course, as soon as one of us can't quite reach the high note, we get the giggles. So when the descant of all descants in the hymn, 'O Come, all ye Faithful', began playing at the lunchtime service, I immediately grinned to myself, knowing full well I was going to give the unbelievably difficult verse a go, and sod my neighbours. It started off well but then went rapidly downhill when I reached the fifth line beginning, 'Gloor-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ooory'. Using the word 'shrill' to describe the noise that came out of my mouth, is an understatement. It sounded like a cross between a screeching cat and that thing you do when you wet the rim of a wine glass and run your finger around it to make a noise. But I persevered. I kept my eyes forward and continued valiantly until the last note, aware but ignoring the nudges and muffled laughs beside me. It's Christmas dammit, and I was going to siiiiing!

If you are wondering what on earth I am going on about, I have attached a link to the Kings College Cambridge choirboys singing the hymn. 

If you play the recording from the 2:14 minute mark, you will hear what it should sound like! Happy Christmas xx

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

To Decorate or not to Decorate.

There are some things that you just don't bother with too much when you live on your own. Even though I love cooking, I don't come back from work and create a gastronomic delight every single night. Even though I love getting dressed up, on the days that I'm working from home or writing, I may spend half the day in my pyjamas (ok, the whole day). And even though I adore Christmas, sometimes I think, is it really worth buying a Christmas tree and putting up decorations when I'm the only one that's going to see them?

Until yesterday, I was content with a poinsettia and a wreath on the door, but after spending the weekend at my parents and my sister's house, and seeing how pretty everything looked and smelled, I've changed my mind. Both houses looked so beautiful, trees twinkling, warm light reflecting off the baubles, the crackle of the fire and the comforting smell of pine, the idea of not having decorations filled me with horror. My mother and I decided on a simple New England theme for the tree at their house... we lived in Massachusetts for nearly 10 years so my Mother has a beautiful collection of handmade wooden decorations. We used those, red apples, a few gold and red baubles, some birds (not real) and strings of white fairy lights. Small pine cones trailed down the staircase and dried red berries and leaves sat atop paintings. My sister, similarly, has gone traditional but with a slight Scandi twist. Red, white and gold on the tree with handmade stockings over the fireplace and rustic wooden decorations. The dining room was lit only with candles and on the table, a beautiful white and red linen tablecloth, glasses and cutlery sparkling in the light and a simple wooden wreath as the centrepiece. Absolutely stunning.

So when I got home last night and looked, forlornly, at my cold dark flat, I decided it desperately needed Christmassing. I woke up this morning at 7am and planned my theme. As I am just a teensy bit infatuated with everything Nordic, from Jo Nesbo books to Borgen, to watching Pilou Asbaek in complex Danish thrillers and planning trips to see the Northern lights, I am feeding my obsession further and going full on Scandi style... simple white lights, white tree decorations and delicate white ornaments, with a minuscule hint of red and maybe some freshly baked Nyakers Pepparkakor (ginger biscuits to you and me) to put on my candlelit wooden table. I might even buy a Sarah Lund Faroe Isle jumper to wear while I look at my beautiful flat and watch the Norwegian film, Headhunters.

Now all I need is a Pilou lookalike to snuggle with on my reindeer skin sofa! Gosh, he even matches my colour scheme, good boy!

Postscript (later that day): If one is going to attempt to decorate in traditional Scandi style, it would help if your flat is white and minimal. It doesn't really work if you have blue walls, lots of paintings and photographs everywhere. I decided also to opt for an alternative Christmas Tree and made my own out of eucalyptus branches, berries and pine twigs. The only thing I managed to make work were my baubles on the curtain rails! Here is the result…

I then got very distracted looking at bearded men online and patterned jumpers… but then I found this which made me smile. Scandi ponies... what could be more adorable?

Friday, 6 December 2013

A very British Thanksgiving

Take an American national holiday, transport it half way across the world to my Aunt and Uncle's house in the English Lake District, add 17 family members, 8 from the States and 9 from the UK, cook a traditional fare of Roast turkey followed by Pumpkin pie, get tipsy, play silly games, and you have all the makings of a very British Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World, in 1621. The feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. Basically, us Brits went over on the Mayflower, landed on the East coast and thought, “Ooh this place looks nice, shall we stay?”, but we hadn't really thought it through because our crops failed, we couldn't feed ourselves and nearly died. If it hadn’t been for the lovely local Indians helping us out, none of our American friends would be here. Phew. When the nice Pilgrims finally had their first decent harvest, they thought, “Oh crap, did anyone remember to invite the neighbours?” and begrudgingly had some of the natives round. Of course, it all went horribly wrong after that... a little bit of land stealing and a teensy bit of row... but hey, let's not worry our little heads about history and just enjoy the holiday. For most people nowadays, Thanksgiving has become a time to celebrate the family and give thanks for what we have, and that is exactly what we did.

As there were so many of us, we couldn't all fit in the family house, so we spread ourselves across the tiny village. Aunts, Uncles and cousins were in the local pub, my parents were in a self-catering cottage, and my friend and I were in a rented attic flat overlooking the lake... in fact, there probably wasn't 50 feet without one of us in it. Of course, all our social stuff and meals happened up at the house, we just used these other accommodations as places to escape for a bit of peace and quiet... I mean sleep. Haha, well you can just imagine what 17 people round a dinner table sound like?

In fact, we never quite managed 17 people round the dinner table, I lied. Every mealtime had one or two people missing, and the reason for their absence, was not getting stuck up a mountain or lying sozzled in a cosy Inn after one too many local brews... what prevented a complete gathering was the onset of the great British cold. It spread through our group like the Black Death imparting its symptoms in various degrees of disgusting. When my friend and I arrived, there were already bottles of cough medicine and cold remedies dotted through the house. Sniffs and coughs could be heard from various rooms as you grabbed handfuls of toilet paper and hacked your way through conversations. My friend and I had arrived with full on chest infections and revolting phlegmmy coughs, and would wheeze ourselves up the hill every day to the house, thinking our lungs would explode. In fact my Doctor, just the day before, had said that the worst thing I could do was stay in a cold damp place and go for long walks. Um

Nights were worse, of course, lying down immediately brought on coughing fits and chest rattles. Thanks God, my friends' room and mine were either ends of the little flat we'd rented because the noise was something else. But as well as all the ailments, for me, being in a strange bed is never conducive to a good nights sleep, unless I'm drunk or in a posh hotel. This bed was absolutely enormous, bigger than a deluxe luxury Kingsize and quite off-putting because I didn't know where to sleep in it. I began by opting for the side nearest the bathroom, so I had immediate access to the loo and in easy reach of my tissues, inhaler, throat lozenges, painkillers and water on the bedside table. But this was obviously the side that most people decided to sleep on as well, and it therefore had a weird incline that was very uncomfortable. There was also too much space behind me... it felt as if someone could sneak in, lie down behind me and I would never even know, which started to give me the creeps a little, so I then tried the middle. I wedged all the pillows either side of me so I was cocooned but because of the fairly frequent peeing and the coughing, I had to excavate myself from this nest and heave myself over to the side of the bed each time I needed something. It was exhausting! Exhausting and painful because by now, I had been coughing so violently and for such a long time that my cousin was sure I had pulled an intercostal chest muscle, and every time I moved in bed I would let out a loud groan. What the owners downstairs must have thought, God only knows!

My cousin had made her diagnosis earlier that evening. We had all been playing this particularly hilarious game of what can only be described as Chinese Whispers with acting (more on this later), when I felt as if I was having a heart attack. My friend had noticed earlier, that whenever I coughed violently I would grab my left breast, not something that's easily ignored. He asked what the hell I was doing and I said, “Oh I occasionally get this thing where it feels like I've trapped my lung in my diaphragm”. I thought this was quite a good description of the sharp pain I was getting but from the look on his face, this was not so. When the pain kept happening, my cousin deduced it was probably a pulled muscle caused by coughing, and she would help fix it. She is a yoga teacher and trained masseur by the way, so I was in good hands. However, when she began massaging my actual breast, digging her fingers deep into the tissue, I realised it might look a bit odd to anyone coming into the kitchen. I apologise now for possibly scarring my two 17 year old male cousins for life, at the vision they saw when they entered the room. Their hasty retreat and eyes on stalks said it all really.

The game I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, was one that was created many years ago at a large family party, when we all lived in America. We have quite a few thespian 'luvvies' among us and a simple game of charades wasn't really challenging enough, so Chinese Whispers with acting was born. Take your group and divide into two teams. One team goes in one room, and the other in another (make sure the rooms are comfortable because the game goes on for some time, in our case 4 hours). One team thinks of a scenario that can be easily acted out, say for instance, changing a babies' nappy. A member of the opposing team is called in to your room and the scenario is acted out to them, silently. Hopefully the acting is of a sufficient standard that the opposing team member understands what it is you're doing, because it is then their job to act out the same thing to the second person in their team, and so on, until the last member of their team has to guess what the scenario is. Hence, Chinese Whispers with acting. Genius. There are only a few things that can go wrong. One – the first team member has no idea what you are acting and simply repeats the movements they have seen with no comprehension, making for a very odd outcome. Or, two – the first team member misunderstands what you are doing but acts it out to their next team mate, fully confident they know what they are doing. When this happens several times in one Chinese Whisper, you can only imagine how funny it is for the original group watching. Such a thing happened with us. The original scenario was someone shearing a sheep, but as it got acted out, each of us thought we were doing different things. The sheep suddenly metamorphosed into a young calf being lassoed by a cowboy. I then interpreted that as a hunter chasing down a wild boar, rolling around the floor and so on, until my aunt came in the room and threw herself across the carpet thinking she had let some wild grouse escape. Madness. But seriously, open some wine and try this game... it is one of the funniest things you will ever do.

The next night was Thanksgiving. 16 of us round the table, one partially alive cousin in a sick bed somewhere, and two dogs. The pub had cooked the main part of the meal for us and as we went to pick it up, we wondered why everything was in army quantities. Maybe the kitchen staff really believed all Americans ate twice their body weight in food every mealtime, because the turkey alone was the size of a large sheep. We had a vat of gravy and an industrial size tray of stuffing. I can honestly say that after serving up the meal, we ventured back into the kitchen and it looked like we hadn't served up yet… the food hadn't reduced in quantity and the prospect of eating turkey for a week didn't fill us with joy especially as it wasn't even Christmas. We had that to come! Thankgiving is a weird holiday, because you eat pretty much the same as you do on Christmas Day, only 3 weeks before! My cousin and I did make a very traditional Pumpkin pie though, but as we weren't entirely confident it would be palatable, we also had back up puddings of Treacle Tart and Mince pies. We realised one of our younger American cousins didn't know what these were and as we began to describe them, we got the giggles, because they sound utterly disgusting. Mince pies… um, sweet mince meat and suet in pastry cases. Treacle Tart… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thick syrup in a pastry case. Then we told him about Bread Sauce… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thickened milk. Bread and Butter pudding… um, stale white bread and butter with hot milk, eggs and raisins. Summer pudding… um, stale white bread filled with fruit. Our cousin looked horrified and he shouted, "Oh my God, all you guys eat is bread and minced meat!". Fair point. 

Apart from the silly games and amazing meals, there were long walks (which unfortunately I couldn't do because I would die), lots of time spent in the kitchen, cooking and chatting and catching up with various new and old family members, and long afternoons dozing, reading and hanging out in front of the fire. And on our last night together, we all trooped down to the pub. Now our family is quite infamous with the villagers. We have been coming up here our whole lives in various sized groups for holidays and celebrations and I guess we have made quite an impression over the years. The get-togethers are always full of interesting and varied characters, and no matter how much we think we're being quiet and laying low, the locals think differently. Some years ago I had about 8 friends up from London, and as we casually walked into the pub in our slightly non-country clothes, the landlord shouted, “Watch out, it's the cast of Big Brother”. Another time I went in with some girlfriends, grinned at the landlord, and he shouted, “Lock up your husbands!” We've had lock-ins, where we've drunk the bar dry and had to go and replace the stock the next morning, and darts matches that have almost come to blows. I've also been propositioned several times by an 90 year old rascal that lives down the road, so you never know where the evening will take you. On this visit, the only slightly unusual things were my cousins boyfriends' rather fine 'Afghany-style' beard and my other male cousins splendid felt poncho. Nothing odd at all. It was simply the perfect place to be, with great food and great company.

The five days spent with the family has been amazing, and gathering in the house that we have all known and loved for years has been very special. The house has changed very little over the years but it's seen new faces and watched the family shift and grow, coming together and going home again. I sit here on my last night, as the house is buffeted by 80 mph winds and the power flickers on and off, and listen as it creaks and groans with the movement. The poor house sounds like it's caught our dreadful cold, it definitely seems to breathe easier when it's full of life and laughter.