down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

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Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

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Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

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Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

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I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

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Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.

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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.

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.

christmas pudding ice cream

>A colleague of mine at work gave me this recipe because he heard I was a foodie.

Ingredients

375g packet mixed fruit
¼ bottle brandy
2 oz dark chocolate
4 egg whites
150g icing sugar
600ml cream
1 level tbsp mixed spice
1 rounded teaspoon cinnamon
1 level teaspoon nutmeg
2 oz slivered almonds, toasted

Soak the fruit overnight in the brandy. Next day beat the egg whites until stiff, then gradually add sugar into the egg whites, slowly so the mixture holds its air.

Melt the chocolate and fold carefully into the egg white mixture.

Whip the cream until it holds its shape, adding the spices. Fold the egg white and dream and fruit together, adding the almonds at the end.

Freeze in a covered metal or plastic container for at least three hours before serving.

Keeps up to three months in the freezer.