Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

I’ve never really thought of a red London bus as a chariot. But that’s exactly what we travelled in yesterday. Our bus driver told us so. Well, actually, he sang it so.

Travelling back from Greenwich to our home yesterday, our bus driver sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the top of his lungs, with all his heart and to the joy, horror and entertainment of his travelling charges. The cynical commuters wondered if he was p***ed drunk, some didn’t notice, some smiled coyly and two people alighted earlier than planned. The self-confessed “drunken bum” next to my niece and me was endlessly entertained. The proud owner of approximately two teeth, he chattered constantly and laughed like a drain. If he could stand up, he’d have been a stand-up. But his seated banter broadened our smiles all the way home, and the driver’s singing warmed my heart.

“He’s quite religious, I think. He’s trying to save you. Not me; I’m just a drunken bum. But he thinks he can save you. I don’t think he can, but that’s what he’s trying to do.”

Just another day in our joy-filled Christmas season. Here’s a short journey through our past week.

As we were due to leave London on Christmas Eve, we had to amend our tradition and see our Christmas movie a few days earlier. Burlesque proved to be a fun, lively and heart-warming introduction to the season – it totally fit the bill.

On Thursday evening, we went to the South Bank to visit the German market that appears next to the London Eye every Christmas. This is what we saw:

London Eye and the German Market at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Stalls at the South Bank, Christmas 2010
Colourful carousel at the South Bank, Christmas 2010

It was VERY cold and we soon sought shelter and warmth within the hushed walls of the National Theatre, where a ragtime pianist was preparing for a free concert. We sat and listened to him for a while, before getting a call from a friend who was on her way to the Christmas Spectacular at the O2 Arena. She had a few spare tickets and invited us to join her.

What an amazing show – if we hadn’t been in the Christmas spirit already, that would have blasted us into it faster than the speed of light. What a special concert: an audience of 20,000, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Choral Society, the Capital Voices and four, world-class soloists who took us through Christmas song after Christmas song, some of which we were invited to sing along to. The last audience-included number was a rousing version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, complete with actions for each gift! Then the four singers ended the show with a medley of Christmas songs, punctuated with fireworks, exploding glitter balls and a shower of “snow”. What a special and unexpected Christmas gift the show turned out to be.

We left for south London on Christmas Eve to spend Christmas Day with dear friends from our university days. If we couldn’t be with our family, spending the day with wonderful friends that we’ve known pretty much forever was an excellent substitute. We ate well, laughed plenty, toasted our absent family and friends and listened to the Queen’s speech on television. We played games, did hideously badly at an Oxford-devised pub quiz and reminisced up a storm. What more could we ask for? A bit of snow, perhaps? Although we had no fresh snow, everything was covered in white and it felt for all the world that we had our first white Christmas. Close enough to make me happy.

So, in this build up to the end of 2010, may I wish you all much joy, beautiful relationships, happy work, fulfilling spiritual journeys, and may you dream, find or fulfil your dreams in 2011. I feel completely out of touch with my blogging buddies and the cyber world that I inhabit most week days. Please forgive me for not visiting blogs or commenting on all your posts; know that I love you all, my special readers and friends, and I will, like Arnie, be back.

Thank you, Mr Bus Driver, for keeping my Christmas joy alive yesterday with your delight-filled noise and for carrying us home in style. Keep singing and may your musical dreams find their chance to break out of that dreary uniform; you never know who may be listening.

Sunshine signing off for today.


My African Christmas

Today is both the shortest and the longest day of the year, depending on which side of the equator you call home. While I am falling in love with the snow and the wintry charm of short days in London, I try to imagine South African sunshine lasting into long, balmy evenings. Please take up your gingerbread latte or chilled white wine, and join me on a journey through our Saffa Christmas.

My husband and I were both born in Zimbabwe; he to Scottish parents and me to South African parents. His family’s Celtic Christmas in Africa was always festive and loud, with lashings of alcohol, sword-dancing and tearful renditions of “My Ain Folk”. Ours usually involved a journey from Zambia or Zimbabwe to my parents’ home town of Cape Town, and loads of cousins and relatives and beaches and food. Together, we developed a Christmas tradition that merged the best of what we both knew and loved: booze and beaches. Not exclusively. Walk with me…

In our early married years, we would use every free moment, every spare dollar, to go and see a movie. Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to do just that, so that is something that we have done almost every year since we got married: a Christmas Eve movie. We took a break when our boys were small but roped them in as soon as they were old enough to sit through and enjoy a movie. It doesn’t have to be a Christmas movie, a feel-good movie will do, so “Love, Actually”, “The Holiday” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have featured in our ritual on the night before Christmas.

Our drive home from the movie would always include a drive along Adderley Street – the high street through the centre of Cape Town – to see the Christmas lights (illuminations). These always incorporated nativity scenes alongside scenes of Africa. We would go home and sit by the decorated Christmas tree and, sometimes, sing Christmas carols together. We would all retire to bed, and – one by one – each of us would sneak back to the lounge to put Christmas gifts under the tree.

When our boys were small, we would put empty pillowcases at the ends of their beds, and Father Christmas would fill them during the night. Then he would have a mince pie and a cold drink (or a beer) that had been left for him next to the Christmas tree. He would usually leave a lovely letter for the boys too.

On Christmas morning, we would wake with the sparrows and launch into the excitement of wishing each other Merry Christmas and giving each other gifts. With paper and boxes all around, we would have coffee and mince pies for breakfast before either going to church, or preparing for the day ahead.

We always gathered together as family, and would alternate hosting the festivities at our various homes, although we always shared the catering. At our home, we made one long table that extended from one end of our dining room/lounge area to the wide-open French doors on to the swimming pool area on the other. The table would be set for around 20 people or more, depending on which brothers and sisters were in town. We would decorate the table with Christmas crackers and tinsel and bowls of nuts and chocolates along the length of the table. My sister-in-law made beautiful decorative little Christmas trees that would add creative charm to the table.

Everyone would arrive at around noon and share gifts with each other.  Some would have a cup of tea or coffee; others preferred cold drinks, wine or beer. Each person would add their contribution to the meal on to the sideboard, where the bowls of salads would line up under cover from the summer-time flies. Lunch would begin at around 2.30pm with the turkey and ham having been carved, and everyone helping themselves to the meat and salads. Yes, salads – the best thing for mid-summer!

With each person seated at the table, we would put on our paper hats from the Christmas crackers and open the bottles of champagne. With bubbles flowing freely, we would toast Christmas, each other and absent friends before beginning the meal. It was always loud, loads of laughter, the telling of lame Christmas-cracker jokes, the sharing of memories of Christmases gone by, more champagne and more and more and more food. Christmas pudding would make an appearance at the right time – usually flaming and filled with silver coins. I’m the only person in my family who likes Christmas pudding, but my boys always had some just for the coins!

After totally over-indulging at the table, we would all get up, find a comfy seat in which to settle and snooze, go out and laze on the lawn or a garden chair next to the pool, or go and find a bed to sleep off the meal for an hour or so. The afternoon usually flowed into an evening spent outdoors in the creeping, cooling darkness of the setting sun, splashes in the pool, cold drinks a-plenty and an endless supply of food if anyone had room for more.

Sometimes the teenagers of the family would head off to the beach for a while for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The beaches were always busy but always worth it to splash in the crashing, cooling waves of the beautiful Cape Town coastline.

At some stage, a number of us would gather in the kitchen to wash the dishes and put the food away, always accompanied by laughter and hilarity. The food would be shared out to go home again, although someone invariably ended up with lashings of turkey that would appear in various guises in meals for the next week or so! Noisy, laughter-filled farewells would take place in our driveway, as cars pulled away at the end of a perfect day.

Replete with food, love, family, laughter and sunshine, we would retire to our beds and snore before our heads hit the pillow. Although Christmas in Africa is slightly different from the northern hemisphere experience, the love, unique traditions, shared memories and joy at the significance of the celebration, transcend time and geography.

So on this winter solstice, my heart and my thoughts bask in the long day of Cape Town sun and my body shivers and freezes in the bitter cold short day of London. Technology keeps the two hemispheres together, the shrinking world makes contact with my precious family so easy, and I realise that straddling two worlds can be both tender and heartening. And I’m okay with that.

Sunshine signing off for today!


Cold Snow Reality

I’ve just walked in from a morning outing. I’m wearing three pairs of socks. I trudged through the snow and now, despite my layers and coverings, my fingers, toes and face have frozen. Good news is, nothing has fallen off. I don’t think. I can’t feel anything anymore.

Today’s temperatures, according to Google weather, range from a high of -1 degree C to a low of -2 degree C. Sorry to my friends across the pond, I don’t know how to translate those temperatures into F money. What I do know is that this is pretty darn chilly. Ask my face.

According to the Independent online, Britain has just experienced the coldest end to November in about twenty years. And the cold weather is set to continue. Reading that, I realise that since we have been in London, we have experienced a number of records. It makes me question our wisdom to time our London adventure thus, but I guess everything happens for a reason.

Here are the records, and they are pretty big:

  1. January 2010 was the coldest January since 1987, right across the UK. Overall it was the coldest winter since 1978/1979 with a mean temperature of 1.5 degrees C.
  2. In October, the British Chancellor announced the biggest UK spending cuts since World War II, affecting welfare, councils and police budgets. The reverberations and outworkings of the cuts will continue for some time.
  3. Current and future university students have launched a season of – often violent – protest at the coalition government’s plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees. Such demonstrations have caused chaos and disruption in Central London and other cities around the UK, as students voice their opposition to the plan for their future.
  4. The government has chosen to cut by a fifth the number of workers it allows in from non-European Union countries.
  5. With a surge in inflation towards the end of 2009, it was predicted that the cost of living in 2010 in the UK would be the highest since 1997.

My toes are starting to thaw out, and feeling has returned to my face. But the reality check sends fresh shivering chills down my spine. The cost of our London adventure.

Sunshine signing off for today.

My new header picture is a photo I took through our kitchen window this morning.


Let it Snow

I’m feeling a little out of sorts today. I have an annoying cold. It’s stopped me from doing what I had planned to do today, and, with snow forecast for tonight and the rest of the weekend, it had better not stop me from honing my snowman-building skills.

Well, maybe honing is too strong a word.  And it presupposes a skill. Learning would perhaps fit the bill. Meet Snowman Ray.

Snowman Ray. The snowman with a kind heart.

Ok, so he was our first and only attempt last winter. I’m sure he has a very kind heart and a sweet singing voice. Neat handwriting too. And yes, he is a Manchester United fan.

We didn’t have a lot of snow to work with, as you can see, and, well, our hands got cold. The insults that flew through the Facebook world, when we posted photos of Snowman Ray for all to see, were quite voluminous. Poor Ray. I am hoping there won’t be too many less-than-kind-comments in the comments section here.

Before we arrived in London last year, I’d only ever seen snow once before. And that was atop the Alps, in the middle of summer in the mid-1980s. We had taken a cable-car ride up to Mount Titlis and, while the rest of the tourists languished in a heated coffee shop, enjoying hot chocolate and decadent pastries, my husband and I played in the snow. And kept running to thaw out our hands under the hand-driers in the bathroom.

So last December, when the snow fell in London (does it fall or float or both?), I was as excited as a puppy at meal time. The snow continued through January and February. I was working at that time, and I would get so excited when I noticed that snow was falling. I would jump around and say to my colleagues, “Look, look! It’s SNOWING!”

I usually got an indifferent look, an expression of “Whatever,” and was asked if I wanted to lie down until the hysteria passed. It’s a huge novelty for me, you know. Snow, that is. Not hysteria. Although hysteria is too.

So you’re hearing this first: I’m setting myself a challenge  of learning to build a decent-looking snowman. The kind that could feature on a greeting card, rather than be mistaken for a Cape Town taxi guard. Photographs of works in progress coming to a blog near you soon.

Bring on the snow.

Sunshine signing off for today!