Saturday, December 14, 2013

On the Christmas Hunt

DSC02038 (1189x1300)The Tube was packed with brightly-wrapped boxes and tritely-sweatered bodies.  I seldom see a reindeer themed pullover elsewhere, but they are endemic in London.   I joined the crowds (sans sweater), in part,  to dent my get-shopping list for my parents, children, and friends.  But I also wanted to enjoy the Season’s trimmings on a grander scale.

Normally I bring everything out as the gluhwijn and carolling concerts arrive.  The Sandbanks house was grandly decorated, and the party spirit definitely dominated Dorset.  But the Christmas Ball and the Dutch Star stayed dark this year in Maastricht; the ‘living tree’ remained rooted in the frozen earth in Cambridge.

So, it was time to hunt down some Christmas.   And big cities, big stores == big Christmas.

A gigantic snowglobe enveloped the fountain at Picadilly Circle, while antler lights stretched off along every street.  A promising start.

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Fortnum and Mason is always good,this year with a Victorian Christmas glowing from every window.  Inside, the main floor was filled with lights and garland, overflowing with chocolates and candies.   The food court had fare for all five traditional feasts (goose for over 80 gbp!), and lots of interesting niche foods to explore.   I picked up two puddings (brandy, rum, or plum) and some preserves.

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Next was Harrods, with an odd Art Deco Orient Express theme along the street. Most of the Christmas trimmings were in the Food Courts, where extravagantly priced gingerbread houses jostled with traditional meats, mince, and cakes (and goose over 100 gbp!). 

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Christmas should include a festive dinner and drinks, a walk in the lights, and hot chestnuts and  honeyed wine from the streetside stalls.

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The Santa hats outnumbered the sweaters by this time of night: not quite SantaCon, but enough to give the w_wezen and I a superior chuckle.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Planning leisure times

DSC01997 (920x712)Chill, grey weather has settled over Dorset, with mist coating the fields and drizzle frosting the trees. As life settles down, and as I settle in for a few months, I’ve been thinking about getting re-engaged with some leisure activities post-holiday.  Sailing, photography, cooking, art: I have a list, but need to populate it.

I started a month ago with the local sailing companies around the harbour, many of whom have dinghy classes.  Yes, it’s a bit out of season but the weather (and water) is still well above freezing.

The alternative may be ‘supping’ (stand-up-paddleboarding).  It looks a bit like punting without the gunwales, covered transoms, straw hats or champagne.  DSC01994 (620x533)The FT profiled Mary Buchanan, an Olympic-class paddler, and it sounds easier than windsurfing, certainly no colder than dinghy racing.

As luck would have it, a local ‘supper’ paddled past pinkly only yesterday (right), posing for a photographer on shore.  Sup Boards aren’t particularly expensive and it might be something to try if I can find a rental.

Plan B is a photography class.  I was searching back through old blog posts for a couple of recipes and, if I can say so, my photographs are much better than they wee a few years ago.  In part, I’ve got a better camera, and in part I’ve learned from looking at friend’s pictures from sailing and China trips. 

The Arts University in Bournemouth offers evening courses that look really interesting.  They want more background in the interplay of aperture and exposure than I have, so I am thinking I might need a lead-in class before that one.  But it would be great to get more variation, character, and mood into my compositions.

There are also a smattering of watercolour and charcoals classes, sadly no life sessions, but I don’t feel ready to dive back into that yet.  Maybe with a bit more confidence and distance, it will be worth a go in the future.

The days generally are in better balance: I get an hour of reading most DSC01995 (1300x961)days in the quiet pre-dawn, and do writing for myself or socializing with visitors late evenings.  The day is necessarily broken up with cooking, washing, and errands: I have to play every role.  Weekends, there’s always time for coastal travel and seaside walks, city galleries and shared dinners, that I increasingly look forward to during the week.

It won’t last; I’ll likely need to move on in the spring. But, for the moment, it’s a bit of a refuge and a chance to regain some much-needed balance.

Even if taking pictures while ‘supping chilly seas.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wat doe je als….

DSC01990 (1300x976)I have a good friend who has come down with a serious medical condition.  He’s undergoing treatments to try to bring it under control, but short-term side effects, risks that it will be ineffective, and long-term uncertainty about the prognosis. Since we live some distance apart, I mostly keep up with his progress indirectly through mutual friends, but periodically I’ll meet him at a gathering, where we’ll share a drink and catch up.

The first time we met after I heard the news, I briefly said how sorry I was and that I hoped that the treatments would be successful.  On subsequent occasions, if it was just the two of us, I’d ask very simply”How are you feeling ” or ask about the progress of his therapy.  Sometimes he’d say that he’d rather not talk about it, and we’d move on.  On other occasions he would have a few things that I’d listen to.  Either way I don’t press it (but I don’t give advice about life any more, either).

I notice, however, that the only one who ever asks about it.  Others say “It’s good to see you,” and move on to talk about the weather, travel, property values, and what other people have been getting up to..  It’s curious, and at first I wondered if it was part of the general incivility that increasingly afflicts busy people, missing a ‘thank you’ when someone does something nice for them and ’sorry’ when they do something wrong 

But I’ve also wondered if I’m speaking out of turn.  Generally, I do try to watch and mimic the local flow of things, and I certainly don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.   But at the same time, a quiet, well intentioned offer of human connection isn’t out of place among friends?

David Simon wrote a piece in the Guardian this week asking Are we all in this together or are we all not?  I think that people need connection, that there is a social compact, that the Golden Rule matters.  Knowing that people do spare a thought for your suffering, that they are there when you need to talk, but that they will keep a distance when asked, is all important.

Wat moet je zeggen?  What you would want to hear, yourself.  Otherwise, leaving people alone only leads to loneliness in return. And,as David Brookes notes, human beings tragically come to understand things fully only when it is too late.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Winter sunset, Cambridge

DSC01972 (958x1300)A couple of weeks until solstice, the days are short and the nights are cold.  The result is a lot of frosty, twilight pictures.  I came up to Cambridge for a few days to work on my course and company, then onward to site visits and meetings.  There was time though, between meetings, for a stroll through the colleges and along the river, always beautiful no matter the season.

DSC01982 (1218x1236)I reflected on the life monastic yesterday, but perhaps a life scholastic is how I’ll be reincarnated.   Thinking and exploring is great fun, and charter to spend the days in contemplation is tempting.  The FT ran an iconic profile of  Nigel Shadbolt, an AI pioneer who seems to have it all.

I do love the look and feel of the University, especially in orange sunset glow.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Weekend walks, fathers and daughters

DSC01921 (1300x972)It’s the first weekend of a new month, traditionally time to catch up the accounts and send the invoices.  Or to take a crisp walk in winter woods, explore a new town, take in dinner and a movie. 

Okay, its an easier choice than it once was.

The movie was “Saving Mr Banks”, the story behind the making of Mary Poppins.  I enjoyed it thoroughly: the clash of DSC01928 (1300x940)British and American cultures and values, Walt’s enthusiasm for his company, people, and projects, his quiet determination to understand PJ Travers, were fun and mirrored experiences I’ve had. It ended a bit too neatly (in fact, she took small revenge years later by never allowing another movie to be made from her books and by forbidding any American to be associated with the London stage adaptation), but was a thoughtful and well-inhabited drama.

The parallel story about her father’s descent into alcoholism while she was growing up in Australia was very poignant.  I think that Fathers and Daughters have a very deep and special relation to one another: women always speak wistfully, glowingly about the little things that their fathers did with and for them growing up, how he made them feel safe, special, and valued.  It’s double-edged:  especially hard to live up to as a partner, yet especially rewarding in raising a daughter.

DSC01918 (1300x968)Greys Court is a 16th century mansion in the Chiltern woods outside of Henley-on-Thames.  Its out of season for the gardens, but the house was decorated for Christmas (not so lavishly as Andre Rieu’s, but quaintly for the period) and the staff was serving cookies.

DSC01938 (1300x973)The kitchens, bedrooms, and grounds are all basic and arranged around the practicalities of self-sufficient living in the countryside: today it would almost be considered monastic.  And, actually, the expat entrepreneur lifestyle has more than a few things in common with it as well:

  • Dedicating life to a higher calling
  • Retire to a simple life in an isolated location
  • Up before dawn
  • Days spent in arduous labor making things
  • Time set aside throughout the day for quiet reflection
  • Tithe a percentage of your income
  • Periodic feasts and fasting

DSC01920 (1300x975)I tried to get permission for a couple of pictures of the decorations but was politely turned down.  I’m not sure why so many National Trust interiors refuse non-flash photography: most people only want the memory and share with friends.

The w_wenzen and I took the long circle walk though the woods, all yellow light and deep leaves. DSC01945 (1300x975)The path circled the estate widely, I was starting to doubt that it circled at all as the shadows lengthened with no Manor House in sight.  The stillness beneath the branches, the kites circling above, the round sheep and the rolling hills stretching off into the distance: it’s a nice cap to an afternoon.

‘Much better than doing the accounts.