christmas in the city

Part two of my Christmas song odyssey – tunes that are perfect for Christmastime in the city. We have no sleigh-rides and often no snow, even in the northern hemisphere.

  1. Christmas In The City – Mary J. Blige: this reminds me of driving home from Lygon Street on a hot and steamy Christmas Eve night with Mena, the city lights shimmering as we cruise by with all the windows open.
  2. Christmas In Hollis – Run DMC: a classic track from the movie Die Hard. McClane asks Argyle the chauffeur if he has any Christmas music. Argyle replies: “This is Christmas music!”
  3. Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto – James Brown: nuff said.
  4. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues: the ultimate song from New York City. This song reminds me of the my first December away from home after emigrating in the recession of the late 80s. Every time I heard this song I cried.
  5. Driving Home For Christmas – Chris Rea: my strongest memory of this song is driving to Birmingham Airport from Leicester one wintry December evening, to fly home to Dublin for Christmas. Love that M42.

the bay #2

Christmas week, down at Altona beach. I have been avoiding exercise for weeks, but that means no quiet time time by the beach either. It is time to get back into my stride.

I park the car for the second time today under a shady tree, and start walking. Immediately I can feel myself relaxing, my stresses blowing away across the water. The tide is far in, although the water level does not vary much in the bay. The sun is shining through wispy clouds.

I power-walk down the boardwalk with Christmas songs playing in my headphones. Tinsel wreaths hang from balconies and I can see Christmas trees in some windows, but no twinkling lights so early in the day. Despite the heat of the evening sun it does not seem incongruous to my northern-hemisphere mind.

I see an entire family of Pacific Islanders (Tongans? Samoans?) sitting chest-deep in the sea chatting and hanging out. On closer observation many of them are literally picking mussels off the rocks and eating them. Now that’s fresh seafood.

I realise that I have been in Australia so long now that, not only can I differentiate between Greeks and Italians much more quickly, but I can usually identify Sicilians at twenty paces.

An elderly man walks towards me in what was clearly a Groucho Marx face mask of glasses, big nose and hairy moustache…. then as he walked past I realised that was his real face.

Young surf lifesavers are out training on their boogie boards and boats. I know how cold that water is, even in summer. I am glad somebody wants to do it.

I walk past a family about to share a big box of fish and chips from the place across the road. As I pass I get that divine waft of hot potato, vinegar and seaside. There is something perfect about that combination.

The kite surfers don’t have a gale-force wind this evening, but they are skimming along at great speeds, somersaulting and perfecting their jumps. Listening to Aled Jones singing “Walking In The Air” seems completely appropriate as I pass by.

Happy Christmas everybody.

December Dublin

Grafton Street: Wednesday: noon

 The rain has stopped its unremitting misery for a few hours and Dublin is at its wintery best. Despite the wet streets and darkly-clad lunchtime crowd, there is a distinct Christmassy feel. Even in early afternoon the light is dull enough to show off the chandelier-like garlands of silver lights on Grafton Street laneways, twinkling already.

Bewleys pile the mince pies high and the flower ladies on Chatham Street have poinsettias for sale alongside their lilies and roses. In every shop I enter, people are happy and friendly and talk to me as if I were a regular. But this is not Christmas cheer: this is just Dublin.

The southside shopping precincts show little sign of the recession. Marco Pierre White’s restaurant seems busy for a lunchtime and the jewellery stores along Johnson Court appear to be doing well. No 50% off stickers anywhere; no shops closed up. It’s business as usual. Perhaps it is different in the more downmarket Henry Street.

I visit the Government Publications shop and buy a couple of copies of our Constitution. The one I have must be thirty years old and long out of date. I think we still lay claim to the six counties in that version. I flick through the little blue book, with the English words on the left-hand pages mirrored as Gaeilge opposite. It gives me a degree of comfort, of things being as they should be, to hold a copy of the basis of the nation in my hands.

I narrowly avoid purchasing something in Louis Mulcahy’s artisan pottery shop, in the Powerscourt Centre, in Avoca Handweavers, but I capitulate in (of course) Dubray Books. It’s hard to resist a good bookshop.

The old stalwart restaurants of Wicklow Street are still in business. Marco Pierre might be in town but the Trocadero, the Cedar Tree and QV2 remain too. O’Neill’s pub is exactly the same as always but the Old Stand has had a facelift.

A fake O’Donoghue’s pub has appeared at the bottom of Grafton Street to fool the tourists. The real Dubs will know that the original one still packs them in every night on Merrion Row, round the corner from where we went to University.

(can you spot which this is?)

I sip a coffee and contemplate my home town. I have not lived here for over twenty years and many things have changed, but not enough to alienate me. Dublin is what made me. It is still home. But the coffee’s still shite.

and it begins

Adelaide, November. I arrive in the middle of the most severe November heatwave since records began. It’s not that hot when I arrive: only in the mid-thirties.

I move between a severely air-conditioned office and a severely air-conditioned hotel room, hardly noticing the relentless heat. A small army of volunteers in the meeting room below work through three shifts, calling the elderly and vulnerable, checking they are OK and giving them advice about surviving the heat.

The emergency services are called with alarming regularity: we save quite a few lives in the space of ten days, summoning ambulances and police to those whom we fail to contact. It is tedious but rewarding work.

In the evening I stroll through quiet city streets, enjoying the coolness of temperatures down in the low thirties. Christmas street signs still seem out of place to my northern hemisphere head: colourful lamp-post signs of baubles, candy canes and wrapping ribbon seem a little tame but there is no point in twinkling lights when we are approaching the longest day of the year. The odd storefront Christmas tree adds colour but I miss the darkness of Grafton Street turned to Christmas magic by red fairy lights and Georgian garlands.

Rigoni’s is one of my favourite places to eat Italian. I sit at the restaurant bar sipping a local GSM red, until the bar tender confesses she has poured a cabernet sauvignon by accident. Never mind. My bruschetta tastes good until I find one, then a second, human hair amongst the tomatoes. My dish is graciously swept away and replaced quickly, but no apology. A quiet top-up of the incorrect wine in my glass is appreciated as a gesture.

As I walk back to my hotel the beach volleyball place is buzzing. Dozens of people play competitively on the man-made city beach in the fading light, despite the heat. These South Australians are tough.

A day later the fires begin. Many regions across three states are at catastrophic fire danger levels. Temperatures soar into the mid-forties in Adelaide. I sit with my colleagues watching the fire service website and waiting. Every fifteen minutes the radio wails an old-fashioned but attention-grabbing siren. The announcer reads out the fire warnings for the Yorke peninsula. A scrub fire is heading towards a small town and people have been warned to activate their fire plan. Across the south-east of Australia, Red Cross volunteers are on high alert.

In South Australia we turn our focus away from the fire momentarily to watch the dry lightning approaching from the west, threatening more scrub fires where they hit land. Can this be only November? And yet it only seems weeks ago that the last fire season finally ended.

At the airport I sit and wait for my flight, hoping the dry lightning will not delay me. The powerful air-conditioning in the Qantas lounge does not work within a few metres of the plate-glass windows overlooking the tarmac. I sit at a rare empty seat and swelter. The cool change is coming, they swear. I watch a fellow traveller, a youngish man who is not as carefully coiffed and manicured and fashion-obsessed as many city men here. He is very well dressed but there is the air of a young fogey about him, an independence of style, a touch of dishevelment. I have a wave of homesickness for London.

A change of plane and four hours later, I touch down in Melbourne. The air is blessedly cool and smells of India. Must be all the jasmine in the air. Let’s see what the weekend brings.

Mairead’s Christmas Survival Tips

  • Stuck for a present for the man/woman who has everything?
  • Cookery Crisis?
  • Worried how to get through a crucial Christmas visit without offending anyone?

Find all your answers here! This year I am sharing all my Christmas secrets with you, to make sure we all have comfort AND joy!

Christmas Cards
A good way to give to charity easily is to buy charity Christmas cards and gifts. Buy online at:

Cancer Research UK
RSPCA
St. Luke’s Hospital, Dublin
Oxfam

Pressies
If you are truly stuck and can’t think of anything to get the sister/partner/mate who has everything, try some of these life-saving websites:

cd-wow.com – CDs, DVDs etc. at rock-bottom prices
unbeatable.co.uk – TV, hifi, computers and gadgets
photobox.com – make gifts out of digital photos
asos.com – designer fashion, grooming and more
iwantoneofthose.co.uk – when you REALLY need inspiration!
figleaves.com – beautiful undies
lastminute.com – weekends away, flights, interesting “red letter” days

Deck The Halls
These great websites will find you the perfect table settings, Christmas decorations and everything else you need for the best Christmas parties ever:

bonnefete.co.uk – table settings for special occasions
christmastreeland.co.uk – the best trees delivered to your door
confetti.co.uk – gifts and ideas
deliaonline.com – any culinary crisis fixed!
lakelandlimited.com – the best kitchenware website in the world
kelly-turkeys.com – order a fresh turkey online
teddingtoncheese.co.uk – specialist cheeses for home or gifts
majestic.co.uk – good deals on bulk-buying of wine
Borough Market – London’s larder – the very best of British fresh food
NHS Direct – for when it all goes wrong!!!!

Another great number to keep by the phone is the Turkey Hotline – they will help you with all your turkey-roasting problems, right up until 5pm on Christmas Eve. What a great service!!! Call 0800 783 9994.

Entertainment
How come, even when we have all these satellite channels, there is never anything on TV except Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Die Hard 45? Here are some tricks to keep you entertained without leaving the house:

digiguide.com – all your TV listings in the one place
screenselect.co.uk – sign up for their free trial and get your DVDs by post!

Good Manners
There is no excuse for good manners, and Christmas is a great time to dust off your old-fashioned gentility. Why not actually write thank-you notes this Christmas for all your lovely pressies? And don’t forget that Christmas is only one of the feasts of the holiday season – some of your friends will be celebrating Hannukah or Kwanzaa.

Learn how to act appropriately at your office Christmas party, or how to be the perfect houseguest.

Check out www.ehow.com – it will teach you all this and more!

Gold Coast Sunrise

Orlando and I are safely home after a month in Australia, which was fantastic. Well, it was fantastic after we both recovered from a four-day bug which laid Orlando low in Surfers Paradise, and me in Melbourne. Not sure whether to blame the change in climate or the damned air-conditioning on airplanes, but is really is irritating to be sick on vacation!

The Gold Coast was lovely (although with Orlando ill we didn’t get to do any diving). On my first morning I woke up and realised the sun was about to rise, and I was metres from the Pacific Ocean. I ran down to the beach and sat for hour watching the spectacular scene as the sea and sky changed colour every moment. It was so peaceful just sitting there watching as the ocean slowly came to life and the sky brightened to an impossibly azure blue. What a great way to start a holiday!

gold-coast-sunrise

Melbourne was great as usual, we had a really relaxing time with Mena my sister and nieces Lee and Amy. As Melbourne is the gourmet capital of Australia, our bellies are certainly a lot bigger now then when we left though!

Check out the Melbourne Restaurants section in the coming days for a new section on my favourite places to eat and drink in Melbourne.

Christmas Day was pretty hot – it was in the low thirties most of the day. Otherwise the day was a traditional one, with some people going to High Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the morning, while others stayed at home to prepare the platters of food for the present-opening. Delicious tiger prawns and other seafood, lots of different pates and cheeses, dips and veggies, all washed down with plenty of Australian sparkling wine (nobody here drinks champagne when the Australian equivalent is so fantastic).

Opening the gifts took about two hours in the end, between photos, refilling the wine glasses and general distractions.

Of course we had the traditional dinner with all the trimmings before spending the evening chatting.When it got a bit cooler, Orlando and I went out for a stroll before it got too dark (around 9pm folks – don’t you love a long hot summer’s Christmas Day!), wandering through the empty streets where all the houses have Christmas lights outside and a big tree in the window.

Whilst most houses have a discreet string or two of white lights or icicle lights along the veranda, which looks lovely, one house had gone all National Lampoon – it was visible from the other side of the park, with no end to the flashing lights on the palm trees, Santas on the roof, lit-up reindeer in the garden and god knows what else!

But now we are home again to cold wet London. At least we left the house reasonably tidy before we went! Our baggage is lost somewhere between Melbourne, Brisbane, Singapore, Dubai and London, and we are hoping maybe it will turn up today.

Of course, I am writing this at 3 in the morning while the jet lag messe swith my body clock. Tomorrow we will have a Lord of the Rings fest (it only came out in Aus on Boxing Day) right after the laundry fest!!!Oh, it’s great to be home….