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Archive for December, 2008

We started off the year with Fidel Castro’s cigars at the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific, near the Western Gate, windy. I got my university diploma; it was very large. Then it was back to England for an austere few months of late winter cold-ness. I hunted for a job. I got a job. I re-discovered how little I like office work. The Man did research for a BBC 4 radio show, and became a temporary commutor to London. I started cycling everywhere; first shakily, winding my way round the neighborhood for practice. I went to my very first hen-night; I had a fairly significant birthday; my parents came to visit us in Oxford; the Man turned another year older. We tried to handle the cruel transition from winter cold to tempting spring almost-warmth with as much grace as possible, but I still underdressed a lot. In a green silk dress and a kilt, we attended the wedding of two friends deep in love. We celebrated our first year together. I decided once and for all to be a writer, and to go back to school. As summer settled over the city we headed back to California, where we lounged our way through a heat wave, tasted lots of wine, did our best impression of surfers, and got a nice tan. I also applied for a student visa, drove to Burbank and back in one day to ensure that it was received in good time, and, thankfully, was granted one.

Back in England, it was midsummer and beautiful. I hung the washing outside and wore sleeveless dresses, and visited the botanical gardens, and the parks and meadows, often. I went for long walks. I was out of work until September, so I became very, very, very poor. I had to admit that I’ve been foolish with money in the past, and take out a loan for school. We visited Cambridge, and Brighton, and at the end of August, with the barest hint of autumn in the air, we went to Paris, where we watched people unabashedly for several days straight. I started work again. I started school again. The city revealed itself to be beautiful in autumn, too. The days got colder, and shorter. We looked after a veritable menagerie in the countryside, feeding pigs and staying warm by a log fire. We celebrated the election of Barack Obama and I went to my first bonfire night. Several friends moved away, seeking fortune in London. Time began to seem like a blur, like something running towards Christmas full-pelt.

And I didn’t go back to California for Christmas. For the first time ever. We went to carol services and ate mince pies and mulled wine; we bought presents for people and tried to hide what we’d got for each other. We went a few miles out of town for a week, and had Christmas with the Man’s family, and unwrapped gifts and ate lots and lots of turkey, and slept in, and stayed warm, and read books, and when we came back, though we’d had a very nice time, we were also happy to be home again.

There are things I’ve misesd, I’m sure. But for now, we’re off to the Isis for a drink and then to dinner with friends to celebrate the new year.

Best to all, and hope you enjoy this last evening in 2008…

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I think I’ve been dropped into the middle of a circus. We’re making turkey pie. Without a bottom, because it’s hard to make a pie “without a soggy bottom, and we don’t want soggy bottoms.”

This is after my very first English Christmas. We went to church in the morning, which is not something I regularly (or, frankly, ever) do (the Man opted to stay at home and help cook the Christmas lunch). The church was a beautiful English village church, wood-beams, stone walls, but inside, it had been carpeted, which made it feel too soft and comfortable; too much like the modern establishments of my own youth.

A pair of boys handed us a bright leaflet with carols to sing. Scattered amongst the traditional songs were photographs of smiling children from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Middle East. The children were all called things Mohammad or Mehmet or Moshe and in spite of having families from Islamic or Jewish backgrounds every single one was holding a cross, or decorating a Christmas tree, or pointing at a picture-book bible.

The other leaflet, a green folded paper, let us know when we were meant to say things like, “Glory be to God,” and, “Jesus is the truth, allelulia!” Midway through the service a woman stood up to distribute gifts to a few children in the audience, each time asking the child, “and what have you done for me today?” and each time receiving the rueful mumbled response: “Nothing.”

And she would say back, “Nothing, exactly. You’ve done nothing for me, but I’m giving you this gift anyway. So this is a token of my love.” Like most good religious messages, it turned out to be a metaphor: God loves us, the woman was saying, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve it.

“Oh yeah,” said the Man when I returned home, feeling I’d been suitably guilted for the day. “That’s standard C of E. That’s not really considered religious.”
“Have we really done nothing to deserve God’s love?” I said, forgetting, in my religiously-coloured guilt, that I’m not even sure what I believe about God. “And how on earth is that not religious?”

As it turns out the English have just as curious a relationship with religion as the Americans. As far as I can tell, the Church of England is not so much a Church-with-a-capital-c as an establishment with some tenuous and primarily historical links to some tenuous and primarily historical religious beliefs. But it’s pervasive. If you go to a church wedding in England every single member of the audience will know not only the words to all the hymns but, more impressively, will know when to stretch certain words that don’t look like they should be stretched, or when to take a very long pause that isn’t written into the music, or when to forgo breath because everything needs to be squeezed into one beat. They all know this because regardless of whether their education was public or private, they grew up singing these songs in school.

You couldn’t, on the other hand, logically sing a song with the words,

Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray

in any American public school and not risk an uprising of mothers quoting the constitution. We have that famous so-called separation between church and state, you see; but actually, the English are the ones with the real separation. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman (or any other carol) isn’t seen, as the Man so aptly pointed out, as religious–just as traditional. If half the audience on Christmas morning had stood up and pronounced themselves Jews, or Athiests, I don’t think anyone would have blinked–or thought it odd that they were sitting in on a Christian ceremony.

Our relationship with religion in the states, however, is just as bizarre. We claim to have severed the tie between religion and governance, but elect our leaders based on their religious ideals and affiliations (any political pundit will tell you that if you want to be president, you need to seem to have a good Christian family, regardless of how religious you are). We inspire an actual fear in our children that saying the words “Christ our saviour” means that we believe in something that might be objectionable to someone else, but one of our nation’s most impressive artistic legacies, gospel singing, is a form of worship. What we forget, I suppose, is that we founded our country based on having the freedom to worship any way we wish, not on creating a secular society.

***

But regardless of the religiosity, or secularism, of English society, this was Christmas as I have never seen it before. For the first time ever, I set out snacks for Santa before going to bed (a glass of port, a glass of milk, two mince pies, two carrots–“why the milk?” I wanted to know; “in case Santa wants a choice,” the Man informed me). The next day at breakfast we opened our stockings; after church we spent hours (no, I am not exaggerating) opening gifts, adhering to strict rituals of present-distribution. We commented on missing the Queen’s speech. We took a very lenghty nap after a very heavy lunch. We played cards and sipped gin and tonics. We ate crackers and fruit and cheese for supper. We went for a starlit walk, our noses numb from cold.

Today I sit on the sofa in the lounge, South Pacific on the TV in the background. I hear a woman singing: “And they say I’m naive to believe anything from a person in pants…”

And because we are adults, but still not very adult, the Man and I giggle.

So yes, I missed my family this Christmas, and even the incongruous California warmth (when I was a child it angered me that Christmas came every year so hot and sunny); but here we are, and we’re very, very happy, and we’re together, which, as I told the Man when he suggested that Christmas was ruined because he had a cold (only a man would say that) is the most important thing of all.

“Here,” the Man has just said to me. “Taste the beer-and-cheese sauce I’ve just made,” and waved a spoon at me. I think it’s time for me to rejoin the circus.

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For those of you interested in reading me warbling on about living in the UK, check out my expat interview

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The City at Christmas

Back to work today. I can’t say I feel quite human yet, but I’m getting there.

The city feels empty. It’s a gloriously sunny day, warm for December, the sort of day you’d like to enjoy by talking a long walk alongside the river and then warming up with a pint inside some cozy pub. But there’s no one here. On the roads, there are few cars and fewer cyclists; in town, the pedestrians seem sparse, and walk not in groups but alone (hurriedly) or in pairs. The Christmas cheer that came over town a few weeks ago, the lighting of trees, the late-night shopping, the wood-smoke smell, all of that is paling, waning.

Everywhere I ever go I have the sense that at Christmas, things start to implode: slowly the cities lose their people, as if no one lives here, as if this isn’t home, as if we all have to run somewhere else because we live here for 99% of the year and Christmas just isn’t Christmas if there isn’t movement involved, somehow. But the truth is that we do live here, this is home, there’s no need to leave.

Still, I like the emptiness now, the still, the quiet. It lets you see the city, and enjoy it, even. There are patterns to Oxford’s population, I suppose because in essence it’s a university town, at the whim of its flitting students. I’ve never before been here in December but I’ll tell you this: it’s a different place altogether.

The Man is making me a belated lunch in response, I suppose, to my pathetic sniffling. So the house smells warm, and good, and we’ll make our Christmas cheer together. It’s only a bit past three but already that refreshing sunlight is waning into dusk, and schoolchildren are trudging down the street, and evening rituals are being put into play. We let late come early, in this season.

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Still suffering from A Cold. Here’s what I have done today:

  • Slept well past noon;
  • Cycled into town to deliver clean trousers to The Man, who got his muddy this morning whilst chasing a dog (who was chasing a chicken) through a country garden;
  • Cycled home and collapsed on the sofa feeling sorry for myself;
  • Heated up some canned soup for lunch;
  • Watched many episodes of this seasons’ Spooks even though I’ve already seen them because a) I can’t be bothered to find something new on television that actually interests me and because b) as the Guardian’s “Chart of Lust” rightly pointed out recently, women everywhere are developing an obsession with Richard Armitage, and his nose, and the absurdly cool spy he plays. I’ve got a cold and midwinter angst; I’m allowed a small celebrity crush. Deal with it.
  • Realized that the show called MI5 that I used to watch back in the days when my parents had a TV and I was trying to avoid my AP calculus homework is, in fact, simply Spooks re-named for an American audience;
  • Had a long bath whilst listening to Classic FM’s Smooth Classics at 6; “your relaxation station.” Considered being embarrassed by this; thought better of it;
  • Made something that resembled dinner out of pasta, half an onion, a huge clove of garlic, a carrot, and some cheese. Neglected to clear anything up after;
  • Wondered if all this time alone in the house is making me a little crazy;
  • Listened to the same Goo Goo Dolls song about twelve times in a row whilst perusing www.dooce.com
  • Decided that I am definitely going a little crazy.

Note the absence of having got any work done. Or, for that matter, any Christmas shopping. I keep thinking that I’ll start feeling really Christmas-y soon and start looking forward to my favourite holiday with fresh zeal, but for some reason every time I think about it all that happens is that I get unnaturally exited for the fact that I’ll have a whole week off work. I want to be able to sleep in with my love and wake up and have bacon and eggs, and mungle around the house with neither of us having to go to work, or get work done; it’s the prospect of that which excites me.

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I have another cold; it’s bleak midwinter outside, all grey and frost and bare, spindly-limbed trees. It’s Christmas, almost, but it doesn’t feel it: I have the sense of running at full speed towards something that I can’t see, that’s just, perhaps, over-that-hill-there. We were meant to babysit tonight but because I’m feeling so rotten I’m staying home to soak in the bath and drink cup after cup of tea; somehow the prospect of spending the evening without The Man seems dark to me, even though I know I have a lot of work I need to get down to doing, anyway; even though I’m not great company at the moment anyway. I think this is what they call man-flu, maybe–but I’m not officially admitting to it, just throwing it out into the ether as a suggestion.

But in my avoidance of work, which today so far has taken the form of perusing The Guardian’s Books section (a far more highbrow form of avoidance than usual, to be honest), I came across this, which amuses me to consider. But my problem is not so much all the books I’ve bought but refuse, for some reason or other, to read, but all the books I’ve bought and would really really like to read but haven’t yet because other books keep getting in the way.

Take George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books: I’ve been on page three for nearly six months now, because I keep reading other things. Or Oil! by Upton Sinclair, Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, The File on H by Ismail Kadare, all of which are lingering near my pile of “books I’m currently reading,” as if they, too, want to be included; all of which I’ve dipped tentatively into at some point and then withdrawn so that, in their stead, I’ve finished Orlando, The Night Climbers, various novels by Colin Dexter, and an ├╝ber-academic text on Walter Benjamin’s writings on The City (as a literary idea, so therefore, in my mind, it deserves unecessary capitals).

Then again, maybe I’m just in denial. Maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me that actually, I don’t really want to read these books, in spite of the fact that I think I do. Or maybe I should just buckle down, concentrate on one thing for longer than fifteen minutes without finding something else more interesting, and actually read them.

But somehow, I think none of this is going to stop me from buying oodles of books this holiday season.

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Oh! You Pretty Things…

It was a dizzy trip to London (as they all are, maybe); a disjointed evening, so that by the time we were in bed I felt like there had been several days between leaving and returning.

First we are late; then a few drinks at someone else’s expense. We move on to a party at the top of Centrepoint, only we are too late for the party and all that is left is the slop from spilled cocktails and a gathering of ultrahip young things, dancing as only the ultrahip can: without passion, without grace, without movement, almost. They are so cool, these young things, that I think they could kill us with their cool, if only they weren’t too cool to be bothered. They are so cool that they actually make me feel old, and frumpy. They are so cool, and so hip, that they do not even see us. We move through them and they part in beat to the techno music. There is so much cool in the air we can scarcely breath; we do not linger for a drink. We stand at the edge and look out over London.

The one good thing about this party is the view: and the city lit up, so that the stars in the sky seem to be below us, not above. Later we think maybe this view makes the entire misguided trip worth it. From up here it looks like the city runs all the way to the horizon and beyond. London loses its London-ness; it is a City, a gem of human endeavor. We are the only still things here.

Then we are walking on the street again. Towards a dingy underground private member’s club. It’s like descending into a speakeasy. On the stairs we are harassed by staff until it becomes clear that we are, in some way, affiliated with a member; then they are lovely and let us pass. Behind me, a lone drunk, tie askew, whispers, “Dunno what all the fuss is about. It’s just a bloody pub down there.” As we pass into the bar, he begs to be let in.

The light inside is green. There is something of the tikki-bar about the place, and film posters on the wall, and lots of young actor-types. We are no longer in the realm of the ultrahip but now in the realm of the ultracamp. In the back, behind thick tapestry curtains, several anterooms stand like invitations to the illicit. The figures on the wall are often pornographic, but ironically so: large phallic flowers erect in a garden, silhouettes of busty Victorian ladies.

Back on the street. The half-light of late London. We buy chips and a pita wrap from a kebab shop and get on the wrong bus, from which we embark at the wrong stop. We stand in the rain in a posh (and therefore empty) square waiting for another bus; it is nearly December now, and cold, and we huddle together and collectively wish that we had not left the sanctuary of our own small city, where just a few hours ago (or was it days?) we were having a drink with a friend at an uncrowded pub, were just a few minutes walk from our house, our warm, quiet house.

We get off at the right stop. We still have miles to walk, it feels. We skirt Victoria station, trying to find our way. I bump shoulders accidentally with a woman walking very quickly; she turns back, snaps something at me. I snap something back. I do not often feel aggressive, particularly for such a transient reason, but suddenly I think I might feel violent if i don’t move on quickly.

We sleep on the way home. It is nearly five by the time we alight at St. Clements. As always, a hush over the streets; the drunks at home or asleep by now, the workers still yawning their way awake on the fringes of the city. As always, I need a pee, and we are just far enough from home, and it is just bitterly cold enough, that the walk seems impossible. But of course it isn’t; that’s just the night speaking, still.

At home we strip and climb under the duvet. I had been bitter about London before, at the bus stop; I had said, “Who was it who said that you could never be bored in London, or else you were bored with life? He was absolutely right; you can’t be bored in London. You also can’t be fucking happy.” Now I start to soften, as if the warmth from the house has smoothed my edges. I murmur that it wouldn’t be so bad if only we had somewhere to stay the night; or that it’s only the cold, and the rain. I say that maybe next time we’ll do it better; and weren’t all those hip young people funny? And he says how beautiful the city looked from that one clear point, how absolutely beautiful.

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