christmas island

Christmas Eve starts early in the tropics, with a dawn wake-up call from the birds and the ocean. I peer out from the curtains and see wild water and an overcast sky – or is it just that the sun is not properly up yet?

But there is no lounging about today. We have jobs to do. Expecting bad pre-Christmas traffic on the narrow roads we leave the car behind and stand out on the street to hail a ZR.

There are three ways to get around Barbados by public transport: a regular bus, a regular taxi and a ZR (so called for their ZR number plates). These privately owned route taxis ply their trade to and from Bridgetown on pre-determined routes, picking up more passengers than you could expect to fit in such a small mini-van. Technically there are eight seats in the back and two in the front (including driver) but it is not unusual to have fifteen or more paying passengers along with the driver and money man.

ZR drivers are known for their enthusiastic driving styles and loud music, so it’s an entertaining way of getting about. Passengers, on the other hand, sit quietly and politely, squeezing into more and more impossible spaces to let another person sit, all without comment, frown or smile. It’s the Bajan way.

We stand on the roadside beside a young man who greets us politely and formally, like all Bajans do: “Good morning and Merry Christmas”, he smiles. Soon he is picked up by a friend in a new 4×4, leaving us to our fate in the ZR hurtling towards us. I sit between an elderly lady dressed in an impeccable mint-green frock with matching bag, shoes and gloves and a friendly tourist bloke from the north of England who is off to Dover beach for the day. He tells me the most he has seen in a ZR is twenty. I forget to ask him if that includes the driver.

We crawl through unusually busy traffic as the sound system cranks out some excellent soca tunes, all of which are Christmas songs with hilarious storylines. Men complain about being made to clean the house before Christmas and the wife’s family eating him out of house and home. Women sing of a turkey and ham feast, presents under the tree and a home full of happiness. Two sides to every story I suppose.

The bus station is right by the market and we weave through the crowd.  A man sells Christmas CDs out of the boot of his car. A woman around my own age sets up a jewellery stall for all those last-minute boyfriends. The busiest stall is the fresh bread.

Left alone for an hour I wander down into the city centre looking for a pharmacy. Most shops are blaring Christmas music of one type or another (although you won’t hear White Christmas or Winter Wonderland here) and there is plenty of last-minute shopping being done. The venerable Cave Shepherd department store has been doing business on Broad Street in Bridgetown since 1906 and is crowded with locals and tourists. The toys and books department is doing the most business, along with the beauty and perfumes department right inside the door. Down the street I am surprised to see Bridgetown’s new Tiffany’s store in the fancy Colonnades shopping mall, although it doesn’t look too busy.

I turn down the back streets and find my way to Swan Street, a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare crammed with shops, mini-malls, street vendors and shoppers. Think Dublin’s Henry Street or London’s Camden Town. Barbados is the only place I have seen outside Mexico whose stores display female mannequins with the rear end facing out, the better to see how well these trousers/that dress will show off your rear end. A few women sit at stalls shelling peas, selling bags for $8 (US$4) a pop to those too busy to prepare everything from scratch for tomorrow’s feast. The occasional shopper hurries past with a Santa hat at a jaunty angle and a Christmassy brooch on her top.

I take a quick look inside a $3 shop. These everything-at-one-cheap-price shops are fascinating to me, a handy cultural barometer of any town or country I visit. I am always interested in the range (or otherwise) of goods on sale, indicating both availability and demand. Today I find last-chance red Christmas bows for doors and windows, a decent choice of cheerful Christmas crockery, a mundane mix of dried goods from long-grain rice to cake mix, some quite lovely wrapping ribbon and the usual wall of kitchen items you never thought you wanted.

A few doors down in a mini-mall, Warren the roti man shares a shop with a Chinese buffet. It is about a dollar more and 30% bigger than the Chefette all-beef roti, which is my favourite snack here. But he’s a small local business and his food smells good. I get a beef and potato roti with a choice of plain or dhal puri roti. He adds a dollop of chilli sauce before the beef and potato mix goes on. It’s expertly wrapped and handed to me in moments. I peel away the paper and start nibbling carefully lest the bread gives way. The filling is bordering on the wet side for something being held together with a thin piece of pastry, but it’s just delicious. Warren looks over anxiously, gesturing a question: do you like it? Is it ok? I roll my eyes happily, smile and give him a shaky thumbs up. This is really good food.

The ZR trip back to our lodgings is more eventful than usual. One young lady breaks all protocols and attempts a loud and disgruntled conversation with the driver, with whom she appears to be unhappily acquainted. I can feel her fellow passengers stiffen. After a quick survey of the final destination of each passenger, we take a wild detour from the usual route, trying to avoid the Christmas Eve traffic. I enjoy house-watching from my window seat: there are some lovely big houses down these back streets that I hardly ever get to see. When we end up down a cul-de-sac courtesy of another passenger’s directions, our rowdy neighbour laughs raucously. “He tells us to go past his house, but he don’t know where he live!” The other passengers hide their smiles and try to maintain the decorum required of them.

Back on the balcony the sun stays mercifully behind the clouds as I sip a nice cup of tea and dunk a couple of ginger nuts. The waves are still wild but we venture in for a dip as a procession of airplanes descend overhead towards the airport: Virgin, Thomas Cook, American Airlines, Iberia. These people are leaving it a bit late to reach Paradise in time for Christmas.

My candle is lit on the balcony although it is not quite dusk yet. The Irish tradition of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve is one I treasure from my childhood, and one I have upheld in every home I have had. Mary and Joseph will know there is room for them in our two-bedroom apartment if they happen this way and are turned away from the inn.

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Merry Christmas, everybody.

 

waiting to exhale

It might be the longest night for most in the northern hemisphere, but to us it is the shortest night. Determined to wring every last drop out of a brief New York City visit, we book late night tickets at the Blue Note to see Chris Botti, and get back to our hotel less than three hours before our wake-up call is scheduled.

Bleary-eyed at half past four in the morning, we lug our bags downstairs, say goodbye to the night staff and put ourselves in the hands of the limo driver.

An hour later I am sitting in the American Airlines club lounge, Virgin Mary in hand (it’s been an alcohol-laden few days) and a relatively healthy granola breakfast on the way. Orlando has opted for yet more eggs and bacon than you can shake a stick at. At this point it’s a case of whatever will get us on the plane still conscious.

We sit slumped in our exit row seats, ignoring Wolverine on the TV and the wonderful American Airlines in-flight service (a polystyrene cup of luke-warm tea is all we are offered in five hours) and fall into a coma. I wake about three hours into the flight and realise it’s almost time to ditch the fur-lined boots and woolly jumper for rather more tropical sandals and fresh linen.

The azure horizon changes and we can see the northern-most tip of Barbados taking shape.  I peer out and try to identify each beach as it emerges from the haze. Is that Dover? Or Worthing? Orlando doesn’t care: all he sees is an island he calls home.

Stepping out onto the apron at Grantley Adams International, the feeling of warm tropical air on my bare legs and arms is just perfect after two weeks of freezing temperatures, wind chill and thermal underwear. The air is laden with the perfume of the tropics. We scribble our landing cards hurriedly and I follow Orlando to the “Citizens only” booth, avoiding the growing queues of tourists.

The immigration lady gives us a formal “good afternoon” but her eyes are friendly. Minutes later we are in the cleanest taxi cab I have ever been in, diverting off the Tom Adams highway and taking the back roads down to Oistins. Beautifully kept concrete homes make way now and again for older, smaller weatherboard homes and the occasional brightly painted chattel house, all equally well presented. Occasionally a verandah or a front door is festooned with Christmas decorations, the tinsel taking pride of place on this sunny island. An odd snowman or penguin ornament looks out of place but cheerful enough in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Finally checked into our temporary home, we stand on our balcony overlooking a tiny beach, miles away from the main tourist centres, and finally start to relax. All we can hear is the sound of the Caribbean Sea pounding just yards from our door. The turquoise and blue of the water hurts my eyes after two weeks of weak winter daylight.

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A quick visit to the supermarket for some provisions, and just before sunset we finally make it into the water. The day has cooled down somewhat as we dip our feet into what feels like a chilly sea. Orlando dives straight in, whilst I stand and wait for one of the big rumbling waves to envelop me.

We bob up and down chest-deep in water, breathing in the warm evening air and watching the colours change in the sky. As the sun sets, a handful of teenage boys play a rowdy game of football nearby on a postage stamp of white sand as we give ourselves over to the water.

Later on the balcony the rum punch is strong and the fried flying fish going down a treat: that healthy breakfast seems like a long time ago now. The sun sets quickly in the end, leaving us in darkness with only the pounding of the waves and the trilling of the crickets to keep us company.

It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.

deck the halls

Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.

With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.

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In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.

There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.

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We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration.  Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.

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Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.

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The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.

A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.

mystic pizza

The Hyundai Elantra is a decent car, but nobody ever called it exciting. We stand in the Hertz office by New Haven train station, and Orlando looks longingly at pictures of other, sexier, cars.

“I don’t suppose you have anything available in your Adrenalin range?”, he asks hopefully. We’d already tried and failed to book a muscle car online, but New Haven Amtrak Hertz didn’t appear to do anything but nice sedans. The young man shakes his head. “Sorry sir.” Then, “Wait, I think we might have a Mustang. Would that do?” Orlando looks hopefully at me. I nodded.

Ten minutes later we drive away in a dark grey Mustang convertible, Orlando at the wheel, me trying my best to look cool despite my sensible attire. Driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in maybe ten years, Orlando handles the car like a pro as we head towards the freeway sans satnav. How hard can navigating be on decent roads with signs in English?

The I-95 is the main east coast highway, running all the way from Florida to the Canadian border. The Mustang purrs along, eastwards across the great Connecticut River and past the signs for Rocky Neck State Park. An hour later another river, this time the Thames River (as opposed to the River Thames) that flows, predictably, through New London.

Mystic is a pretty old seaport with a huge maritime museum and a pizza place made famous by the 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza. The museum precinct is full of beautiful old houses and military buildings, manicured lawns, centuries-old cannons and more flags than you can shake a stick at. Despite the drizzle, the Christmas lights and decorations and pretty shops make Mystic a welcoming little town. We park the Mighty Mustang (all the while hoping somebody might see us and be impressed by our choice of vehicle) and take a mini-tour of the main drag. Bookstores stand cheek by jowl alongside expensive clothes shops, navy surplus places and surprisingly few eateries.

Near the top of the high street stands Mystic Pizza, the restaurant that inspired the 1980s teenage movie of the same name. Given my obsession with food and specifically pizza, my craving for Christmas-themed spiced milky drinks accompanied by cookies shaped like Christmas trees fly out the window and we walk inside.

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The booths are named for famous roads: Pacific Highway, New Orleans’ French Quarter, even London’s Abbey Road. The blurb on the menu reminisces about hordes of fans lining the streets during the heyday of the movie, but on a cold, raining Monday lunchtime we are almost the only diners. Two mugs of tea are served at less than scalding temperatures, but I suppose we are in America, the Land of the Lukewarm Beverage. I am momentarily distracted by the thought of a nice bowl of New England clam chowder, but let’s face it: in a week’s time will I look back and be happy with this menu choice in this particular restaurant? We order a large Meatza Pizza to share, extra jalapeños, well cooked.

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Back outside in the freezing cold, we take another turn along the high street before retreating to the Mustang for the drive back. I take the wheel this time, heading westwards for a few miles along Route 1, through the pretty villages of Poquonock Bridge and Groton.

Back onto the huge iron bridge across the Thames River, Orlando falls asleep while I put my foot down and get a feel for the Mustang. I turn up the radio. Mariah Carey sings All I Want For Christmas Is You, the first Christmas tune I’ve heard on the trip so far. I sing along as the highway junctions fly past, surprisingly not waking up the sleeping beauty beside me. This is turning into a pretty decent holiday.

the joys of time travel

There is something delicious about that last-minute seat upgrade, right at the departures gate. We’d started our long-distance journey with champagne in the Qantas first class lounge, courtesy of Orlando’s platinum frequent-flyer status. A dismal fifteen hours of cramped coach conditions looks less and less inviting with every sip. Then a flashing red light at the gate as they swipe our boarding passes. The Qantas lady smiles and says “There you are – some nice seats for you.”

We inadvertently do a victory lap of the A380 before finding our new home on the top deck in Premium Economy. It’s not the rarefied atmosphere of Business Class, but we stretch our legs and congratulate ourselves on our last-minute salvation.

We are good travelling companions, Orlando and I: on long-haul flights we rarely speak, communicating silently with the ease of those who have spent many hours in the air together. I always save the chocolate on my meal tray for him, and he knows the only place I drink apple juice is at 35,000 feet. I sleep a lot and later I can recall little of any entertainment I choose; he sits through a movie marathon and remembers every line.

This trip I am so tired I sleep through a good half of the Melbourne to LA leg, waking with just enough time for breakfast and a change of clothes before we land. Before long the LA skyline emerges from the clouds. I wave excitedly at the window. “Hi America! We’re back!”. Orlando shakes his head at my exuberance, but I see the smile in his eyes. He appreciates every milestone of our journey too.

The magic of the International Date Line means we arrive at LAX a good twenty minutes before we left the house in Melbourne. I love time travel. The ground crew hand us a big orange EXPRESS card as we disembark and we are whisked through immigration and customs in less than half an hour. The immigration guy is serious but courteous, and his smile seems genuine as he welcomes me to the USA and wishes me an enjoyable vacation. Seems the US Immigration Service has left behind their aggressive, suspicious and downright rude approach that used to mar every visit to the US in years gone by.

Before long we are sitting by our departure gate waiting for our last leg to JFK, mesmerised by the enormous high-resolution screens in the centre of the duty free mall, displaying a slow-mo wall of water one moment, then transforming into a beautiful clock full of synchronised dancing girls at the top of the hour. I am reminded of times when I was a child and my parents would exclaim at the sight of anything new: “It’s like America at home!”. Orlando, himself not known for his displays of wonder and excitement, nods approvingly. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Three hours later we share a taxi shuttle with three other weary travellers. As we emerge heading east from a spaghetti junction of freeways, the Manhattan skyline appears like a mirage in the distance. I can make out the green and red of the Empire State Building.

Through the country roads around Greenwich, Connecticut, the weatherboard houses look like something from a Christmas movie with their beautiful door wreaths, white garland lights and perfect outdoor Christmas trees. I chat to a fellow traveller, on a flying visit home to family from Tonbridge Wells in Kent. He points out his childhood haunts as we meander towards his home town of Milford, and swap food stories. I feel confident now about finding decent pizza in New Haven.

After what feels like forever we finally park outside our final destination. We are greeted by two small alarmed dogs, a wildly excited Englishwoman and an incredibly gentlemanly American man who hauls my impossibly heavy suitcase up four floors of stairs to a warm and welcoming flat.

The talk doesn’t stop for the next four hours, and neither does the rum or the red wine. Neither of us feel that we have just travelled for 28 hours flat. Until I finally give up and head to bed, that is. I sleep for ten hours straight, my body and mind finally relaxing after a marathon day and a strenuous five months.

Let the holiday commence.

the big barossa

A free hire car upgrade is always a good way to start a weekend away. Satnav on and away we go, out of Adelaide, up the Main North Road to wine country. Shiraz country, to be precise: the Big Barossa.

Once past the outer suburbs the landscape becomes more and more sun-scorched, all browns, ochres and straw-yellows. An hour later we round a bend in the highway and there they are: vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. “Hello vines!”, I call excitedly.

Off the main highway we meander towards the town of Nuriootpa. I welcome each winery sign like an old friend: Torbrecks; Richmond Grove; Peter Lehman. We locate our guesthouse and head straight to the cathedral of wineries. Penfolds seems the perfect place to worship on an Easter weekend.

I queue to buy some tawny, then join the crowd at the tasting bar. Never mind the pinots, or the affordable Koonunga Hill: I ask the pourer to start me on a shiraz-grenache-mourvedre mix. The first sip is divine, and so it begins.

On down the list I go, past an interesting shiraz-mourvedre and a very lovely cool-climate shiraz, but predictably it is the big Bin 28 that has my eyes rolling back in my head as the deep purple liquid hits home.

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The big hitters of 2010 – Bin 408 cabernet sauvignon and Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, the Baby Grange – are tempting. But it’s the last pour, the 2010 Bin 150 Marananga shiraz that is the very best of all. As the last drops trickle down, I thank the lord for those first pioneering Barossa winemakers who made their home here way back in the mid-1800s.

Back in our guesthouse, we open a bottle of the farm’s own 2008 shiraz and lower ourselves into the waiting hot tub on the verandah. We sit and gaze over the vines as the sun sets, moving on to a decent local tawny as we put the world to rights.

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Back inside we curl up on the sofa with a platter of local pates, cheeses and salamis as darkness settles and the countryside falls silent.

Another day in wine paradise.

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washington dc for dummies

Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.

I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.

The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.

Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.

The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.

Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.

Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.

Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.

It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.

Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?