Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Irish Christmas Feast

As this was my first holiday away from my own family and home, it was an opportunity for me to realize that though Christmas traditions don't vary too much across the globe, there were definitely some major differences - some cultural, some family - that make my American Christmas traditions actually quite special. And they primarily revolve around food.

First off - no cookies. I am sure that some British and Irish families make Christmas cookies, but the Irishman's family doesn't. Traditional Christmas desserts here are Christmas puddings, Christmas cakes, and mince pies - all boozy, fruity cakes without an inch of chocolate in them. Cheese is also big here (see my previous post), so it's not as if there is nothing to end a meal with. But there aren't the hundreds of cookie varieties I'm used to, or the sweets, or any of the delicious, pop-in-your-mouth seasonal delights.

Foodwise, the other really weird food was an addition to the festive meal - celery. Apparently, it is a traditional Irish side dish to serve boiled celery in cream alongside the Christmas turkey. No way. I tried it - I'll always try everything once - and it was a no-go. But the Irishman's family loves it and to not have it would have been a serious omission. Speaking of the festive meal, in Ireland just like in the UK, turkey is the main course. In my family, turkey is reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas might be roast beef, fish, or ham. The Irishman's mother served both turkey and ham, with stuffing, some amazing roast potatoes and brussel sprouts. It was like having a second Thanksgiving for me!

The other interesting addition for me was smoked salmon. The Irishman's mom loves smoked salmon, and his cousin prepared it three ways for our starter. Smoked salmon is a really traditionally British and Irish holiday dish, and it is really lovely and light for a seasonal meal.

Overall, Christmas in the British and Irish islands isn't too radically different from the holiday in the US. It is a bit more overtly Christmas (no Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings here!), and religious carols are played all over the town, but at the end of the day the holiday is really all about having family and friends gather for a special and delicious meal and to celebrate together.

Nollaig Shona No (Happy Christmas in Irish)

I'm briefly back in London after spending Christmas with the Irishman and his family in Dun Laoghire, Dublin. When I was greeted at Dublin Airport last Wednesday night by carolers in the arrivals hall, I knew it would be special... even though the Irishman himself didn't actually make it! We flew on separate flights because I decided later on that I would go home with him for the holidays, and I found a better deal on bmi out of Heathrow to his Air France flight out of London City. The snow, ice, and freezing fog of the last few weeks resulted in my flight being delayed by 20 minutes - and his being delayed for hours and finally cancelled at midnight! So I hung out with the Irishman's family and the remnants of my illness while he bellied up to the hotel bar at the ExCel Novotel, courtesy of Air France, with his fellow travelers. It's lucky I met them in Cork earlier this year or else it could have been a disaster. But it ended well as Air France put a whole new flight together for the stranded passengers early the next morning, and the Irishman arrived home with only a hangover.

Christmas Eve his family traditionally goes into town for a meal and drinks at a few choice old Dublin pubs with friends and family. It was bitterly cold Christmas eve, and as the sun went down the Irishman and I decided to head back out to the burbs to the village of Dalkey where he and his sailing mates congregate. The Irishman was a champ sailor in his time, and most of his friends harken back to his days on the Irish Sea. Unfortunately they are all also his age (a few years older than my spring chicken self) and they are all having babies. So not many people were there at Finnegans, his local, and that, coupled with the fact that the Irishman was close to sleeping in his pint, meant we were home by 9pm.

But so were the Irishman's family, and they had news for us. Right after we left, they went from one pub to another and found Bono, Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, and some musician named Mumfy busking out on the main pedestrian/shopping street, Grafton Street. I was so annoyed when I found out I missed them! Nothing typifies Dublin and my preconceptions of it as a tiny place where everyone knows everyone else like famous people singing on the street with the hoi polloi. The Irishman felt so bad that we missed it that he took me to see Bono's house a few days later. It sort of helped, but not really.

Christmas Day we drove down to the water (10 minutes away) to the 40 foot where crazy lads and ladies jump into the freezing sea. Itwas absolutely mental and I really wanted to do it, but I was forbidden due to my illness. Next time for sure. Then we popped into Mass, and I was really impressed with the homily; nothing too preachy or guiltridden like in the American Catholic churches, but just nice sentiment for the holiday. Then it was home to help prepare for the 16 person meal that evening (more on that later).

The day after Christmas Day is not Boxing Day in Ireland - it is St Stephen's Day and it is traditional for the Irish to go on a walk. Now. When Americans say "walk" they mean a stroll around the block. In the UK and Ireland, a walk means a hike, usually up a mountain, and in this case it was an icy arctic Everast training walk. We ended up at the top of a mountain overlooking Dublin, the sea, and the countryside, and it was glorious... Until we had to get back down. There were quite a lot of sore bums afterwards, which wasn't helped by the fact that we spent the evening in hard stadium seats watching rugby. I was escorted to my first rugby match, Leinster v Ulster, and also my first Guinness. Both were exciting and actually quite enjoyable!

We spent the rest of the visit with the Irishman's friends and family, seeing the local villages and Dublin proper, and just generally relaxing. I quite enjoy Ireland and my first visit to Dublin just reinforced my high opinion of the country. I realized halfway through my visit that nobody had, up to that point, asked me what I did for a living or anything remotely related to career or status - and no one did for the rest of the trip. No one expected anything from me besides wit and cheeky banter, and it was very refreshing and welcome. What a very merry way to spend Christmas, indeed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My new Christmas favorite

Image courtesy of Long Clawson Cheesemakers

I was home sick today, fighting a bronchitis-like cough and generally shuffling around in a feverish mess, hoping that I will feel better by the time I board a flight to Dublin tomorrow night. The Irishman (whose family I will spend Christmas with this year, in the aforementioned city) stopped by this evening with a bit of Christmas cheer to pick up my spirits: Wensleydale cheese with cranberries. It is creamy, mild, delightfully wonderful cow's milk cheese from the north of England that they produce with cranberries for the festive season. MMMmmm delicious! I don't really CARE that one says dairy isn't good for you when you're sick; for about 10 minutes, it was bliss. I highly recommend that wherever you are in the world, you march down to your local cheesemonger and ask for this wonderfulness - your Christmas will be better with it! Now that I've shared this with you, it's back to the couch with me so I can regain enough strength pack my suitcase. Sneeze cough cough blech.

How the Grinch stole my laptop

So friends, I had big plans to catch up on some Christmassy blogging over the past weekend but they were foiled by some punk who stole my laptop out of my bag at the pub on Friday night. Luckily it is a) my work laptop (which unfortunately doubles as my laptop since I'm not minted enough to have my own), b) all of my photos and music are backed up on my external harddrive here at home, and c) the thief only took my cash out of my wallet as well. It actually was really strange to see my wallet intact - all credit cards there, even all of my £1 coins - and I even questioned whether I had cash in there at all (I definitely did). The Irishman consoled me by reminding me that it could have been SO MUCH WORSE; imagine losing all of your credit cards and ID the weekend before Christmas - what a nightmare that could have been. But it doesn't change the fact that some punk took my stuff. I hope he drops the laptop on his foot, breaking both the laptop and the foot, therefore cannot reap any benefit from his sad behavior.

Spotted: Blue blue Christmas

Tree outside of the Islington Library
St John's Street
December 21, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The joys of international Christmas card mailing

Photo courtesy of incurable_hippie via Flickr

I'm sitting here with my morning coffee, BBC Breakfast, and this year's stack of addressed Christmas cards. Call me an old lady - I am one, it's fine - but I love sending and receiving Christmas cards. I don't really care if it is not "green" or antiquated; I love getting mail and I like sending mail, and the last vestige of my design skills manifest themselves every December when I design my own cards. This year I experimented with a new format – postcards – in the hopes that my postage costs would be less, but I stood in line at the post office yesterday and emerged with £43 worth of stamps of three different kinds. I've got red stamps for the US (good for Canada and Australia, I learned), green stamps for Ireland and continental Europe, blue Air-Mail stickers, and holy mother and child painting stamps for the mainland UK, making signing and stamping my postcards very much like a game of Memory. But that's okay. They are much more exciting - and colorful - than American stamps, although I do miss having a lot of cool holiday stamp designs to choose from. The Queen's head on different colored backgrounds is actually really quite boring!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Festive Season

You can probably tell from all of the posts lately that I'm sort of obsessed by what the British call "Crimbo." Frankly, WHY WOULDN'T YOU BE? My iTunes Holiday Hitz playlist is in heavy rotation, my Cadbury advent calendar is up-to-date, the Irishman and I procured a lovely tree from his local convenience store, I am half-way through designing my yearly holiday cards, all of the streets have their holiday lights up, and the amount of delicious food in the shops is mouthwatering. I am reverting back to a child-like state of excitement, even though there are no presents coming my way this year, which makes me even more sincerely joyful; there are always the cynics that think December is just one wasted month of commercialism, but I really truly believe that there is something absolutely wonderful about a population gathered in happiness and harmony through lovely pine-scented rooms, cookies, and, at least in England, Christmas crackers.

Yes there is religious symbolism, yes Heebs don't believe in the coming of Christ, but you know what? It's all about a tiny thing called Hope. I was at the pub on Friday when the World Cup draw took place; when England and USA were matched together into the first heat, I said to my companions that I would have to get an Obama "Hope" t-shirt to wear during the games. And that sentiment is exactly what Christmas is all about - it's having the opportunity, at the end of 11.75 months of despair and drudgery and the onset of nastily cold weather, having something that buoys the spirits and gives everyone a renewed sense of optimism and joy for the upcoming year. So while you fight the crowds on the sidewalks and in mall parking lots, grumble about the price of milk, and complain about frozen toes, remember that the twinkly lights really do sparkle.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Spotted: The Ghost of Christmas Presents

Shop West End VIP Day (Oxford Street and Regent's Street closed to cars all day)
Regent's Street at Oxford Circus
December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

My new life

I've written in earlier posts about how stressed and crazy I was all year, and now I'm writing about how my life is (slowly) coming back to normality. Over the summer I experienced one of the most trying situations in my career, and it has only recently been remedied. This week was my first week in a saner, more human role and while feeling a bit deflated from the absence of stress, rush, and general intensity, I've been happier than ever. The Irishman is happy that I'm happier, I'm sleeping better, and overall life seems much more - well - normal. I can think about things like designing my Christmas cards, knitting for the sudden explosion of babies soon to be born, enjoying my favorite time of year, and, oh, blogging a bit more than usual.

So even though the most trying time of work-life is done and gone and I'm glad to pack it away in the past, I did learn a lot of valuable lessons from it. So I'll be sharing them here in good time and in a respectful manner, not only to figure out what more I can glean from them but also because they highlight some very real differences between British and American business culture (beyond acceptably drinking at lunch in the pub). So stay tuned, but in the meantime I'm ready for the weekend so bring it on. xx

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Commence Christmas cooking!

It was quite fitting that yesterday, 1 December, was the kickoff of the Christmas cooking season, my favorite part of the British "festive season" – hour-long cookery shows that show us, mere mortals, how to create idyllic Christmas foods like the masters. The BBC started the season with Delia Smith, somewhat of a legend in British home cooking (she told us we can add baking powder to custard because "we're just home cooks"), who was naturally promoting her new Christmas cookbook. I learned just how much booze goes in Christmas pudding, how Delia does a turkey (with sausage and sage stuffing and COVERED IN BACON), and how to make sausage rolls. OMG.

Will I buy Delia's cookbook? Dunno... Christmas cookbooks aren't really my thing. But, I am looking forward to Sunday night when Hugh will do this year's River Cottage Christmas show. Last year he killed a deer on TV; I am excited to see (and dreading) what he will do this time around.