2014 will be a great year for travelling, apparently

Happy New Year! I’m writing this from Norway, where I’ve been for nearly two weeks without my laptop. Frankly, it’s been lovely not trying to keep up with all the blogs, forums, Twitter feeds and catch-up TV that has somehow become a major part of my life over the last few years. Considering how successfully I gave up using Facebook last year, I am thinking about seriously cutting back on the amount I use forums and just generally waste time online this year. It’s not exactly a resolution but more of a continuation of something that’s sort of happened on its own lately.

Anyway, enough of the introspection and onto what you have all been waiting to hear about with bated breath and sparkling eye: the great Norwegian New Year tradition of running around the outside of the house wearing jewellery made of glowsticks and carrying suitcases, in order to ensure lots of safe and exciting travelling for the coming year. OK, let’s be honest here: it’s not a great Norwegian tradition. I haven’t heard of it being done anywhere else, actually. I think it’s just this family. And it works! Of the five people who actually live here and aren’t just occasional holiday interlopers (i.e. the ones who are not me), two are studying abroad and one is planning to. Between the three of us perpetual students, we travelled over four thousand miles to be here for Christmas (mostly because Kris flew in from Glasgow via Seattle).

There were also Christmas traditions which were a little more common to the rest of the country. Naturally we spent most of the Christmas period eating, usually with at least half a dozen members of the extended family. I generally tucked myself into an innocuous corner at these gatherings; as the English-speaking vegan visitor I was welcomed in a warm but possibly slightly bemused manner. I’ve been amazed and gratified by how much effort everyone has made to accomodate my awkward dietary requirements, particularly in a country where the national Christmas dish is decomposed fish. Everyone seems to speak excellent English too; my Norwegian is limited to a very basic written comprehension, some educated guesswork when listening to people speak and a miniscule spoken vocabulary which I apparently speak with a Danish accent, so I am equal parts grateful and embarassed when people talk to me in my own language.

On Christmas Eve, which is the main day for celebrating here, we skipped in a ring round the Christmas tree and sang Norwegian carols. I recognised one of them from the church service earlier that day and managed to join in with the aid of the service sheet, which had the words on. Then we ate, with dessert not being the British norm of fruit-cake based stodge but a sort of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream (for me and Jens, who became vegan out of solidarity for the duration of my stay and has, I suspect, caught it permanently, the cream was made from coconut milk – delicious!) which was itself the leftovers from a traditional meal on the 23rd before we put up thhe tree (chopped down and hauled home from the family cabin). We were all served a bowl of rice pudding, one of which contained a single almond. The person who got the almond won a marzipan pig and was monarch for the evening. It reminded me of the French galette for Epiphany – odd how ideas pop up around the world.

Probably my favourite example of the way things move and adapt is the fact that it is a beloved and apparently universal custom in Norway to sit down on the evening of the 23rd, after the rice pudding, and watch Dinner for One, a 1920s British comedy sketch filmed in Germany in the 60s, and still watched there on New Year’s Eve every Year. I had only seen in by chance in the UK because my stepdad likes old comedy and has Swiss family, so I was pretty much flummoxed to find it is so incredibly popular. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch and I believe is available on YouTube.

In two days, providing the suitcase-running has done the trick, I’ll be heading back home for a few days’ preparation before my Physiology exam on Tuesday, followed by three weeks of lectures. Then I have two reading weeks which will be something of a moveable feast since I’m visiting all my parents and Cambridge during that time, and possibly having visitors myself. Once that’s done, I will start my first proper placement in the hospital, working full time hours and whatever shift pattern my mentor works. I’m a bit concerned about my ability to cope with thirteen hour shifts and night shifts, but now seems like the time to test it!

This will probably be the last time I spend Christmas abroad for a few years. Next year and third year I will be on placement at this time of year and even if I don’t have to work the actual days, I won’t have two weeks to take off to another country. In any case I have found myself missing the trappings of a British Christmas; the mince pies, the carol singing, the bumper Radio Times full of things I want to watch but always manage to miss, the midnight church service and the quaint tackiness of crackers. They aren’t better than Norwegian traditions, but they are familiar. And as my mum said over Skype earlier today, now that I’ve coped with a Christmas surrounded by family members I don’t really know and who speak a foreign language, I can probably cope with my own extended family!

2013 was eventful without being particularly dramatic. It ran basically to plan, and my biggest wish for my own life in the coming months is that they continue to be eventful but undramatic. My appetite for the unexpected was rather exhausted by 2011, to be honest.

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This isn’t quite a real post, sorry

I have been completely hopeless at blogging lately, because I’ve been very busy but not in a particularly bloggable way. I had a nice weekend in Yorkshire with some midwifery friends but otherwise I’ve just been pottering along with my life: studying in university, tagging along after midwives on my placement days, working in the shop, babysitting intermittently, getting elected as one of the course reps for my cohort and a committee member for the community shop, going to various church services around the city and meeting new people at social events organised via the internet – whatever would we do without the internet?! Much less, probably.

It’s probably fairly apparent to anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog for a while that I’m addicted to being busy, so it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I’ve been gradually piling on extra commitments and new things to do. Mostly they’re great fun and not usually totally set in stone which is ideal: I can cancel things if I need an evening in on my own with a book, and if I need company I have always got something to do.

Just two weeks to go until this academic term finishes. It’s staggering to think how much I’ve learnt in the last three months. 99% of my current knowledge of human biology was completely absent when I started the course, and I’m expected to pass a degree-level exam on it next month! Fast-paced isn’t really the word. And in less than three weeks I shall be off to Norway for Christmas again. Here’s hoping it will be a little warmer than the -27 bitterness of my last visit.

Happy New Year!

It feels very odd to be in the new year already. It almost feels as though Christmas didn’t really happen – and at the same time I have done a lot of Christmassy things.

Jens arrived on the 22nd and we were joined by Charles and his brother on Christmas eve for the epic queue at King’s. We got there at 8.15am and were let into the chapel at around 2pm, which on paper sounds like a very long time to be standing in the rain. As soon as we arrived I realised we should have brought things to sit on (even carrier bags would have been better than nothing). Some well-organised people had folding chairs, but I don’t actually own any folding chairs.

The time went more quickly than I would have expected. We chatted to a few people who Charles and Jim knew, talked to each other, ate the picnics we’d packed, made trips to the college cafe to warm up and buy drinks, and at one point were serenaded by members of the chapel choir singing carols. The final twenty minutes, after they had started letting people in but before we reached the front of the queue, were the longest minutes in the whole of the seven-hour wait.

The service itself started a little after 3pm, and we couldn’t see a thing. I actually think we might have heard the choir better had we stayed at home and listened to the radio broadcast, but we’d have missed the spirit of the event. I was amused by the fact that between the four of us, we sang all the different voice parts whenever the congregation were invited to join in with the carols. Jens was a little bemused; not all English carols are well-known in Norway and none of the rest of us were singing the tune…

In the evening we had a nap and then headed out for midnight mass at the church I occasionally attend for morning prayer. It was a really lovely service; it’s difficult to put into words what was so nice about it, but it just was enjoyable all the way through. We sang some of my favourite carols and hymns, the choir was smoked out with incense which actually smelt reasonably nice for once, an amusingly solemn procession placed a plastic baby in a lavishly-decorated stable and the vicar (whose installation service I attended last year) gave a witty and thought-provoking address with his right arm in an elaborate sling which was so liturgically appropriate with the rest of his vestments that Jens hadn’t even noticed it until we were greeted by him on the way out and had to shake hands with our left hands.

Christmas day began late, at around noon, when we had a scratch brunch, opened presents and then headed into the kitchen to start cooking. “Dinner” was ready at around 4pm, and to my amazement was totally fine, with all the components cooked properly at the same time. The Quorn roast was nothing to write home about, and I think I’ll not bother with one again, but the vegetables and sides were all great. I’ve never cooked such an elaborate meal before so I was rather proud.

Delicious Christmas dinner
Delicious Christmas dinner

We didn’t have the space or stamina for Christmas pudding, so we decamped (after some faffing with locked doors, broken television sets and well-hidden light switches) to the college bar to watch the traditional Christmas TV. Then we headed out to the MCR International students’ potluck supper, which was surprisingly good fun. I hadn’t met any of the people who were there, but I got the impression that they hadn’t met each other either so we didn’t feel odd. There were several non-Newnham people there, notably a few men who clearly weren’t students here, and a small male baby who was far too small to be a student anywhere.

We rounded out the day by watching some more Christmas TV, and then did some last-minute laundry. I wouldn’t usually wash clothes on Christmas Day, but the following morning we were heading off for a week and Jens had packed light.

Boxing Day dawned and Charles arrived to pick us up and drive us to stay with his family. We spent two nights there and it was a lot of fun. I’d met his parents and brother before, but we were also introduced to his sister and her boyfriend, and both of his grandmothers who were all very friendly. One grandmother was particularly good fun, joining in with the four-part-harmony carols (it’s rather convenient that I sing alto, since they already had a soprano, a tenor and a bass in the family) and making lots of jokes. The other grandmother is a gentle Irish lady who I enjoyed talking to.

When we weren’t being fed mountains of delicious food, which took up a lot of the time, we went for walks round the town. At one point our attempts to walk around a lake failed as the lake had risen up and taken over the entirety of the path and surrounding fields. Jens bought several books from an excellent little bookshop. In the evenings we watched films and played board games and all in all, it was lovely to have a proper family Christmas. In the last five years or so my family has been too scattered for that sort of thing to happen – although we haven’t done so deliberately, my brother and I have managed to be in different places for Christmas almost every year and we stopped spending the holidays with our similiarly-aged cousins years ago.

After that we headed north to spend a few days with my music friends, some of whom Jens had met before. It was an interesting contrast with the time in the south, and I was reminded of how differently my life could have gone if I had chosen a different university. One particularly notable feature of our visit to Manchester was that I got to hold a snake who coiled around my arms and body and went to sleep with his head tucked into my elbow. I have never considered snakes to be cute before, but this one decidedly is.

Can't quite believe I am actually wearing a snake
Can’t quite believe I am actually wearing a snake

The final leg of our tour was in Aylesbury, for New Year’s Eve. Stumo helpfully offered to pick us up in Milton Keynes, which made the journey both cheaper and quicker, as well as having the dubious benefit of subjecting us to at least fifteen roundabouts in an hour. Most of the people at the party I hadn’t met before, but there were five or six old friends who I don’t see often enough. Jens and I were both fairly well exhausted by this point and went to bed not long after midnight. The following day we helped with the clearup, mostly by eating left-over cake, and then went to meet an internet friend for coffee. Our trip back to Cambridge, again courtesy of Stumo, was heavily delayed by an ultimately futile attempt to find a pub or restaurant which was open and serving food.

And now the festivities are over, and I have started working again. Today we went on a wander round Cambridge, visiting a few of the more famous colleges and delving into the depths of the UL to look for two books, one of which was there and one which was not. I feel rather guilty about the one that was not: I recalled it, which I thought would mean that the person who has taken it out would simply not be able to renew it again when it was due back on the 16th. I checked with the front desk after having done so, and they told me that it actually means that the current user has 7 days to return it to the library or they will start getting fined. My hope is that the fact that they have taken it out during the vacation means they do live in Cambridge, and aren’t undergraduates living in, for instance, northern Scotland. I would have left it until next week had I known… I don’t need it that urgently. But never mind, what is done is done.

College has reopened and there are hoardes of staff members around, which is very odd after such a long time of silence. The winter pool is taking place here, meaning that admissions tutors from all the colleges are milling around reading applications from people who didn’t quite make it into the college they originally chose. We’ve seen more people in the corridors today than in total in the entire college in the past two weeks.

Christmas photos!

Yes, it’s true, I did say that my camera was broken. My camera is broken – the display screen no longer displays properly. If you squint very hard and there isn’t too much light on the screen, it is possible to make out the outlines of objects with lots of contrast… such as, for instance, the wooden lattice on a window. By taking lots of pictures and peering closely I managed to get a reasonable shot of the tiny tree.

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The ornament to branch ratio is roughly 1:1

The star is no longer lopsided; I managed to coax its branch into staying vertical. There are also more presents underneath now, as I finally finish wrapping the gifts for everyone I’m seeing this Christmas. Gifts for people being visited in January will be wrapped after Christmas, because frankly I’ve had enough of wrapping paper for now.

This photo is so bad I almost didn’t add it, but I wanted a shot of the tree with the curtains closed and the improvements to its posture. It is nigh impossible to take a photo without a viewfinder or screen – I had to point and shoot with nothing more than optimism to guide me, hence the terrible focus. Believe me, this was the best of eight attempts.

It’s not blurry, it’s soft-edged…

The table which the tree is on is my desk, normally absolutely covered in paper and books I’m meant to be reading for my degree. The books have migrated to the top of my bureau, which is actually a far more sensible place – right next to my folders, which I need if I’m working anyway. The paper has been shoved into a box which will have to be sorted through before term restarts because I’m fairly certain that essential lecture notes are somewhere in that pile.

Also on the table is my nativity scene, a gift from my grandparents last year and currently constantly in danger of being knocked over whenever I open or close the curtains. I keep shifting them forwards and then needing to move them back again to wrap something or slice pizza or something. Basically I need another table.

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And she laid him in an invisible manger

I have stuck my Christmas cards on the mantlepiece. By some odd chance all the horizontal ones are non-religious and all the religious ones are well-shaped to be hung from the top left corner. I still have space for two more, hint hint… preferably one horizontal secular one and one vertical religious one! Not that I’m picky or anything.

I had quite elaborate plans for today, including vacuuming the floor, going into town for last minute shopping (which will be EVEN WORSE tomorrow), starting to cook, doing all the washing up, putting on two loads of laundry and getting some work done. Well, the laundry is done, and some washing up has been started – all the lids to my plastic storage boxes are clean and dry, as is all my cutlery. And if you count writing two sentences about breach of trust to be “getting some work done” then I have succeeded in at least starting three of my tasks. Which for me is quite an achievement! Tomorrow, however, I will have to finish all of them, even the one that involves braving the centre of town on the last Saturday before Christmas. That’s non-negotiable sadly; I need vegetables for Christmas dinner and an adaptor for the only-suitable-for-cigarette-lighters-in-cars airbed pump, not to mention the Christmas present awaiting collection. I have a small confession to make: I was fully intending to buy another airbed, one which came with a mains pump, for twice the price of the one I already have and the useless pump combined, because I had not thought of buying an adaptor. There are definite advantages to being in a relationship with a scientist and sensible problem-solving is one of them.

Plans for Christmas

I have rattled my way north for a week at my mum’s house, where I mostly sit in front of the fire sneezing from all the cats and warming my toes as I make plans for the coming term, and do a bit of perfunctory work. We have more active plans to dig out the sewing machine and my KitchenAid, which has not yet been used in the 11 months since it was bought,  finish off the skirt I made in America and make something exciting with the mixer. On Monday I’m going into my old sixth form to talk about applying to Oxbridge (they want an interactive powerpoint presentation. Sigh. Of course they do.) and on Tuesday I have an interview at Manchester for midwifery, despite the fact that I’m not sure I could take a place there since I don’t have a car and their placements are not easy to get to.

But today I just planned and organised. I have put in my termly Sainsbury’s order of all the freezable or non-perishable food for next term, and planned what I will cook to pop in the freezer. This system has worked like a charm this term, and meant that I didn’t have to worry about cooking when I got in from choir, tutoring or dance class. Next term will be a little less busy – no tutoring, which frees up two evenings entirely – but I think batch cooking is still the way forward.

Another part of my Sainsbury’s shop was Christmas food. I’m trying to be sensible and not overbuy, but equally I couldn’t convince myself to have Christmas without both a pudding AND a cake. Jens arrives on the 22nd and on the 26th we set off for almost a week of visiting people, so only really four meals to cook – although we will be taking our own food with us on Boxing day to relieve a bit of pressure on a hassled mother who has never had to cook for two vegetarians before!

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone. Over the next few weeks I’ll see a number of friends who I haven’t seen for months (and in some cases, years) and all my parents. I haven’t managed to figure out how to get to see my brother, but at some point I’m sure I’ll go up to see him in his new Grown Up Person flat. My two slight concerns are that I might have overplanned (a Christmas spent on public transport may not be the most peaceful of all) and that I might have missed organising a small but crucial detail, like a single leg of a complicated journey. Touch wood, all is sorted except refunding a hastily-booked and then regretted coach ticket. I’m slightly annoyed that I had to pay an extra £2 to get a refundable ticket, but still have to pay £5 per person to actually refund the ticket! Even with the extra £12 charge, it’s still cheaper to change our plans – but it irks.

Christmas has arrived in my little abode

The Christmas tree goes up on Christmas eve. That’s how it has always been in my life. On Christmas eve, the obligatory excavation of the (almost-as-old-as-I-am) plastic tree from the cellar begins and the inevitable argument over who gets the best tinsel and whether it’s an angel year or a star year and how many baubles should go on the tree and which particular alignment all begin. My childhood was permeated with the certain knowledge that the tree goes up on Christmas eve, and comes down on Twelfth Night, and anything else is excessive and possibly even tacky.

Except that about five years ago Christmas stopped looking like that anyway, because my family reconsituted. Various different things have happened since, depending where I’ve been. One year I was horrified that there was a muttering about not even having a tree at my dad’s house, and I insisted on its presence for the sake of my Norwegian friend Jens, who needed to experience a Proper British Christmas (which apparently requires an appallingly large quantity of food).

Another year we really didn’t have a tree at my mum’s house, because we had kittens instead and they had a tendency to eat anything vaguely feathery, like birds or ferns or strands of tinsel or even branches of plastic trees. I reluctantly conceded that one.

A few years ago I went off to Norway to discover what Christmas is like when celebrated in a country which is colder than a chest freezer (the answer is – wonderful, because such countries have underfloor heating). Christmas felt very different, but also very familiar. I was surrounded by family, albeit not my family, and traditions, albeit not my traditions.

This year for the first time I will be celebrating Christmas without any parents present, mine or anyone else’s. I decided that it was about time to host my own Christmas; Jens is coming over from Norway again and although my attempts to persuade my brother down south failed due to his boringly adult job commitments, Charles will probably join us on Christmas eve for that most Christmassy of activities, spending all day queueing to get into Kings College Chapel for the Nine Lessons and Carols service.

Christmas goes on an awfully long time in Cambridge. It starts about two weeks before term ends, which this year meant the middle of November, and peaks with a flurry of carol services and concerts all over London and Cambridgeshire as soon as the last lecture hall closes its doors. Thanks to this year’s term dates we managed to hold both of our carol services before Advent had actually begun, which was odd. Then everyone went home and I sat in Cambridge for another week feeling rather seasonally muddled.

It does now feel festive, however, because yesterday my friend Amelia arrived to spend the night in order to go to Kate Rusby’s Christmas carol celebration. I met her at the train station in the early afternoon and we went on a mammoth shopping trip. The resultant booty included a staggering quantity of fudge, a variety of gifts large and small for the bulk of both of our recipient lists, and in my case a tiny artificial Christmas tree and accompanying tiny decorations.

We will take a mild interlude here while I tell you about the things I did not buy. You must believe me when I say that resisting the lure of the life-size £400 model polar bear (posed in a manner which suggested constipation) was only slightly easier than resisting the extremely festive half-eaten-orange-with-bluebird statuette, an essential item for every Christmas scene. I was disappointed when my brother rejected all my gift suggestions: a chopping board shaped like a small dog, a Homer Simpson oneside, a collection of decorative macaroons, and an array of similar delights. The fact that I really am no longer a teenager was firmly brought home when I walked into New Look and was horrified by how hideous all the jewellery is, but I don’t think you need to be boringly adult to recognise that there is something wrong with a world in which a jumpsuit patterned with skull-shaped American flags is considered retailable.

Anyway. So this year the tree went up on December 9th. I just couldn’t resist the adorable and faintly hilarious kitchness of a tiny tree. The upside of such a radical break with tradition is that my desk is no longer buried under a sea of papers and books. It is now home to a precariously-balanced stack of papers and books, and a tiny Christmas tree covered in tiny baubles – which, by the way, came without string attached and I frankly consider such an omission to be tantamount to abuse because there is nothing more frustrating than trying to thread brown cotton through the loop on a tiny bauble when your hands are quivering with excitement and mounting irrtation.

I also bought a star made of rainbow-coloured bells, which is hung on my wardrobe doorhandle and makes a pleasant jingling noise whenever I put my coat away – or indeed, get my coat out. I am considering the possibility of stringing tinsel across the walls since I couldn’t find any Christmas lights which weren’t either ludicrously short (30cm is not enough lights to wrap even the smallest of trees sufficiently) or ludicrously long (who needs 5ft of multicoloured bulbs anyway?).

I still have a fair amount of Christmas shopping to do, but I’ve made a dent in the list and most importantly found gifts for the remaining secret santa presents and obligatory gifts for the children I tutor, who are about to move back to Korea and actually are nice kids so I don’t begrudge them a small farewell Christmas present. The rest of the presents are a bit less urgent, although it occurs to me that I do need to get a move on with presents for my mum and stepdad, since I’m going to see them on Thursday… Hm. Perhaps I’m not as organised as I thought.

Vacating

Well, I’ve left you all on that cliffhanger for quite a while! It’s been a busy few weeks. The G&S Ball was great fun, the amount of detail that must have gone into planning it was incredible – everyone had tiny little golden pencils and cute little dance cards with a gold cord to fasten it to your wrist, the food was amazing, the dancing was very cleverly organised (old-world dance names like cotillion and galop, but simple ceilidh dances with a caller) and the orchestra was brilliant, playing magnificently-arranged G&S medleys. My feet were in a total state by the time I got home, I couldn’t walk comfortably for two days (don’t dance in heels, girls) but it was worth it.

After that, the choir tour got going. We had a whole string of 13-hour days with concerts in Kent, London, Lichfield, Cambridgeshire etc. One of the London concerts was an NSPCC Benefit in Southwark Cathedral where I met Floella Benjamin! She was so friendly and lovely, and chatted to me and my friend Emma for ages – we only stopped because we were dragged away to get the coach home. I loved the Hullaballoo videos as a kid which is why I was so desperate to meet her, but she has done all kinds of incredible things as well. It’s been a good year for meeting my heros.

Some other highlights from the choir tour: carol singing in the freezing cold marketplace to raise money for the America tour, lots of giggling with New Kristie, Disney sing-a-long on the coach, hilarity/panic when four people got themselves stuck at Letchworth Garden City, “electrifying” singing in Lichfield Cathedral, amazingly delicious food in Kent… the list could go on for hours.

By last Sunday I was exhausted and had a stinking cold, complete with hacking cough for extra fun. I cleared my washing up cupboard for the first time all term (noteworthy event) and packed probably way too many clothes for seventeen days.

Monday – Friday I was in Manchester, which was bitterly cold and full of excellent people. On Thursday we went to a boatyard and helped steam two planks onto a canal boat, which probably doesn’t sound like much fun to most people but was fantastic. I’ve met a whole bunch of cool people this week.

Now I’m at my dad’s house for a few days, which always means lots of lounging around and watching films and wearing pyjamas. Last night we went to see the new Sherlock Holmes film. I think I remember the old one being rather better, but it was exactly what we were hoping for – totally devoid of plot, full of ridiculously overblown fights and snappy one-liners, and gorgeous costumes. We were at the Rex cinema in Elland, which is one of a handful of cinemas left that still has an Intermission in the middle of the film, and on Tuesday evenings has an organist who plays during silent films. It’s a great place and I was quite sad to see that there were maybe a dozen people there. But it’s still going against all the odds, and its ticket prices are the lowest in the area.

Today I’m off into town to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, and maybe drop in on my foster family on the way back. It’s very odd being back in the town I did most of my growing up in. I feel this way whenever I come back; I never do see anyone from school, and if I did I doubt we’d recognise each other anyway, but I still feel a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand it’s familiar and I already know I’ll end up back here when I’m older. Yorkshire is in my blood, I think.