Merry Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The time that you can’t really miss, especially living in the Western world, where it’s rammed down your throat by the fat-fisted media and advertising pretty much constantly since September. I am of COURSE talking about Christmas!

Hurrah!

Bah Humbug!

Which one are you? As we seem to be told we are one or the other. If you’re not skipping around filling your proverbial cup with festive joy then you MUST be a humbug. And if you’re not grumbling about it, then you must be a buzzing-to-the-eyeballs Christmas fairy ready to shake your tinsel wand at anyone who comes within 2 feet of you. Anyway, regardless of how you feel, there’s no escaping it, it’s only just over a week away. 9 more sleeps* until The Big Day. Not sure how Christmas Day has ended up with the same kudos as someone’s wedding day, but hearing what some people spend on food, presents and all the peripherals, it’s certainly going the same bank-breaking way.

*ah, while we’re here, who the fuck came up with this measure of time? What if I wake up and then go back to sleep? Is that 2 sleeps in one night? In which case it could be 18 more sleeps for me (I never sleep through the night, I’m like a bloody baby). Or more if I drink a cup of tea too late. Or watch a horror film just before going to bed. I have no idea when this became part of the English language, but on Heart (radio station) they even have a song about so many sleeps until Santa. Hmm.

What the chuff IS Christmas anyway? The whole point of where it came from is some Christian story about the Son of God being born to a virgin (more likely Joseph persuaded Mary it wasn’t really ‘doing it’ if he didn’t put it all the way in) in a stable where they then got visitors who had an excellent early-model GPS system and good visitor etiquette to bring gifts for a new baby. Now, if you’re religious, then I’m guessing that’s what your Christmas is going to be centred around, and carols and stuff. All the nice ‘Christmassy’ stuff but if you’re not religious, might not sit well. So then, there’s the other things that have become popular. Trees covered in shiny pretty things, the giving and receiving of presents and spending time with family. Which, for some people will be the best thing ever. And for some, the worst thing ever. There’s something about Christmas that, like weddings, that bring out the worst in people. I’ve heard of tears, manipulation and just general festive craziness. And let’s not forget the parties, the food and the booze. Over indulgence and just general hibernation-inducing activities. Eat more food in one day than you’d eat in a month; all food that should come with a health warning and doesn’t grow on trees or in the ground, then roll around on the floor with a full groaning belly (maybe that’s just me) thinking you’re never going to eat anything ever again, not even a stick of celery.

It doesn’t really matter how you spend Christmas really, as long as you’re doing what YOU want to do. Because really, who needs an excuse to be in massively happy mood, spend time with people you love and drink and eat loads of nice stuff? Let’s just take a minute though, to remember people who won’t be spending time with people they love, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re away from home, or it’s people who are no longer with us, or people who don’t have anyone to spend Christmas with. It can be a hard time for them, so let’s not forget that. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the preparation and parties and stress (yep, all that Big Day good times, like a wedding, take a lot of Organising. People want it to be perfect, and so get stressed out.) that people can forget there are others for whom Christmas isn’t great, it’s actually a bit shit, and they want the whole thing to just be over. As quick as possible. If you know anyone where this might be the case, maybe just take a minute to check if they’re OK. See if they want to join in anything. Just say hello, it will mean something, trust me.

The other big thing about Christmas is Traditions. These are a big thing. For a lot of people, Christmas is Christmas because you do the same things every year. And every family has it’s own things. When you have lunch, or when you open presents, or what you do in the morning, or what you wear when opening presents, or where you open your presents. Or maybe what you leave out for Father Christmas. For me, I haven’t done the same thing each Christmas for years now, and so Christmas doesn’t really FEEL like Christmas any more. I could take or leave it in a way, although of course I love seeing friends and family and all the partying. But it’s not the same as years gone by. When I was little, I loved Christmas. I loved the whole Santa thing, but not necessarily for the presents, just because I loved the fact it was magic. Go to bed, leave a mince pie out and BOOM, stuff appeared in the house in the morning! In our house, me and my brother would always wake up really early and want to get up at about 4am, but we’d never know what time it was as we didn’t have any lights until my dad went to turn the generator on (we lived in the sticks and weren’t connected to mains electric until a few years after we moved in) so the parentals would always persuade us to go back to bed for a while until poor Dad was made to trudge outside across the yard in the cold to the Engine Shed to make electric happen. Then, that’s it, we were awake and no stopping us! Until the 8am slump when all presents were opened and we ran out of energy.

Then came another Papworth tradition which was my utter FAVOURITE. Dad’s infamous Treasure Hunt. I later learnt as an adult this was a cunning plan to keep us kids occupied for a bit and out of the way of the kitchen, but as a kid I didn’t care. In fact, I loved them so much that every year since I’ve looked for the tell tale first clue in an envelope in the Christmas Tree and if I didn’t find one, I’d be disappointed. So much so that Dad actually did a couple about 5 years ago for me, as a late-twentysomething adult. There was much excitement from me then, skipping around the house and outside in all the sheds and my Nan’s house following the trail of clues. They were a bit harder to figure out that first year, Dad had to dumb them down the year after, hahaha! Well, Latin references Dad? COME ON, you know we’re not that clever!!

We used to have everyone over to our house as it was the biggest. Not that we had a massive family though, but more than just the 4 of us. Cousins, Uncle, Grandparents. One year we had to eat around a table tennis table in the junk room that had no carpet and bare plaster walls because there was a big group of us. One year, we had a full house for about a week, and I hated it when everyone went home. Because I loved having so many people to talk to, and play games with. I’m a social, the more-the-merrier creature really.

We never played games that much as a family outside of Christmas, unless I badgered them on a Saturday night sometimes. My dad was normally outside in his workshop working until late so I guess the last thing he wanted to do was play Connect 4 or Kerplunk with me after being on his feet making stuff out of wood all day. Although the board game playing could get out of control sometimes, so maybe I don’t blame him. Like the time we were all playing Monopoly and I got in a mardy and had a massive tantrum and threw the board (and everything on it) in the air/on the floor. And that was only last year. Ha! Joke, I was about 7. And Matthew was cheating. And I was probably on a massive sugar comedown and shattered from waking up at 4am. Mum tells me after I’d thrown the board I crawled behind the sofa and fell asleep and was later taken to bed by Dad. I’m not competitive in the slightest any more.

This year is different again, I’m in a different place (Cheltenham) for the run up, but have kept up my tradition of filling December with partying and drinking, which has been much fun up to now. Just one more weekend of drinking to get through, then I can relax and have a detox (never really drink on The Big Day, surprisingly), starting with my tradition of a Christmas morning run and a day with the family. And then Boxing Day I will spend the day with Best Friend Laura and her family, but instead of getting a bit drunk and being a bit bonkers and entertaining (according to Laura’s sister Holly), I will remain sober as later that night I fly off to South Africa for 3 weeks. It will be different, but kind of the same. Or as they say in SE Asia, same same but different. Still, every year I remind myself just how lucky I am. I’m happy, healthy and have fab friends and family. That’s what matters.

And then, that’s it, Christmas will be over for another year. And then comes New Year. I hate the whole NYE thing (this year will be a quiet affair in a pub in a small South African town), but I do love thinking about what I’ve done this year, and what might be to come next year. That’s another blog post but it’s been a bit of a whirlwind interesting year, and I don’t doubt that next year will be more of the same. I can let one little thing slip though, the Photo A Day Project, made famous in 2012, will be making a reappearance in 2016!

So until then, I’m going to enjoy the rest of the run up in my lovely little flat in Cheltenham, which is probably the cosiest, most ‘Christmassy’ (is that an actual word? Who cares.) place I’ve had. Easily my most favourite pad I’ve lived in so far. Happy happy days.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, whatever you are doing and whoever you are spending it with. And sending big hugs if you are finding it difficult, for whatever reason.

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Australia: the story so far.

I’ve been in Melbourne for a month now. A MONTH. How has that happened?!!

I adore it. I’ve not been doing the normal travelling stuff here. I’ve been staying in one place for a start. I’ve not done a lot of sightseeing stuff. Or any tours. I guess you could say I’ve been living here rather than travelling. Which suits me just fine. I was about ready for a break from all the moving about. It’s been like going home without actually going home.

I’ve been staying with some friends who have just been brilliant. Made me feel right at home and have done so much for me; from giving me a place to stay to taking me out and about, to feeding me copious amounts of amazing food, to buying me a Christmas present and lending me a bike and all the gear so I can get around. Amongst other things. Not sure how I will be able to repay them!

I’ve not just been sat on my bum for a month though. Oh no. I’ve actually been quite busy. It’s hard work this travelling lark. What have I been doing? Read on.

I said I’d be back on the fitness stuff when I got to Australia, and OH YES I HAVE. Just check out my Runkeeper stats for the proof!! I’ve been running, walking, biking and running some more. It’s been GREAT. The weather has been much better for it (cooler, no humidity and a bit unpredictable. Just how I realise I like it!) and there’s so much opportunity for it here; it’s not an abnormal thing. I have to be careful to not do too much too soon though, so I’ve been trying to take it a bit easy but I’ve been so excited to get out there and get moving I’ve probably done a bit more than I should. I have to remember I’m probably not quite at the fitness level I was back in May 2013 before I left! My left knee is a bit whingey at the moment, and I need it to be on top form the next few weeks so I need to keep an eye on that. But most days I’ve done some kind of exercise. Whoop! I’ve biked, ran or walked to and around Westerfolds Park (beautiful) and Bundoora Park, along the Yarra River and Darebin creek. There are hundreds of places to explore here, all along bike and walking trails, so no need to go along any roads really. It’s just wonderful.

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So, what else?

I’ve been into Melbourne city a few times. It’s only 20 minutes on the train so not far away at all. I’ve had a good wander around the streets looking at all the buildings, done a bit of window shopping (I have neither the spare funds, space in my backpack or inclination to do anything more than that to be fair), went to the Botanical Gardens, took the City Circle tram and went up to the top of the Eureka Tower. I ate my lunch in the Carlton Gardens, walked down by the river where I watched people eating and drinking on the outside BBQ’s there (BRILLIANT facility) and marvelled at the Melbourne street art. I watched live music in Federation Square, got lost in the laneways, visited the State Library of Victoria and saw the famous Myer Christmas window display with Bob and La.  Melbourne’s great because the CBD is small enough to wander round really easily, and on a grid system so if you do get a bit lost you just keep walking until you come to a main road and you can soon sort yourself out again.

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I’ve ran in the city too. The first run was with the Run Bird Crew, a running group from a running shop in the city not long after I arrived in Melbourne. A nice bunch of people, I ran around 7km with them, at a pretty fast pace. The guy from the shop (who incidentally was a better looking version of David Beckham – yes, I didn’t know there was such a thing either. Phew.) said it was faster than they normally go. Well, my body definitely felt it. Although, it was good to be pushed, and great to be running with other people again. Even if I didn’t actually run with anyone much, and was last to get back to the shop, haha! I also ran around Albert Park doing my very first parkrun – you can read about that here. Still on the list to do is to run around the Tan – a bit of an icon in Melbourne and something I have to do.

Albert Park, parkrun #110

Bob and La had a Christmas BBQ to celebrate with all their friends before they went on holiday, so I got to eat loads of scrummy food, drink beer, chat with lots of interesting people and make new friends. In the sun. In December. Very cool.

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I went cherry picking near Red Hill, south of Melbourne. It’s is a popular thing here (very similar to strawberry picking in the UK), and one of Bob and La’s Christmas traditions. It was great to see the countryside around the city, as well as have a picnic and eat lots of mage cherries straight off the trees. Yum. On the way back we stopped at Frankston beach which reminded me of South Africa – bright blue sea and golden beaches. Stunning.

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Christmas happened. I’ve already written about that though. And of course, New Year follows Christmas. This year, for New Year’s Eve I got invited by a new friend to join them and their neighbours in a 6 course Japanese banquet and after party. Oh my word. So much food. So much good food. So much amazing food. It was a great atmosphere and I love meeting new people. It was wonderful to see this real life, slightly unconventional, community of family, friends and neighbours in a Melbourne suburb. And I met Australian people! Hurrah!

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I went for a walk with a new friend in Warrandyte which was just stunning. All trees and river and lovely scenery. These places that are technically in the city of Melbourne are just cracking and could have you fooled that you’re out in the countryside. Definitely a green city here.

I went hiking up and around Mount Dandenong with some more new friends. Spectacular views and a bit of a challenging walk. More fresh air, good exercise, one of my favourite things to do and good company. Oh, and we finished with tea and scones. Not bad eh?

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I went to Brighton beach on a hot day, again with some new friends. Lovely to get to know people who live here as I can experience Melbourne like a local. Experience life here. How else will I figure out whether it’s for me or not, long term? 😉 On this day it was supposed to get to about 38 degrees, so what better thing to do than hit the beach in a bikini? We had about an hour and a half of hot weather before I got to witness the famous ‘Melbourne cool change’! Where the wind direction and temperature changes, and the air temperature drops significantly within the space of a few minutes. Cue everyone on the beach trying to hold onto their umbrellas and day tents, avoid being blasted in the face with sand while packing everything up. Beach abandoned, we did what anyone would do and decamped to a nearby trendy pub to drink afternoon cider.

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I’ve watched quite a lot of films. I don’t feel like I’ve seen any for months (apart from the odd one on a plane) so it was nice over Christmas to sit down and watch a few. Especially when they were accompanied by some chocolate. Mmm. Chocolate.

When I was in Zambia last year I made a friend who was from Melbourne. Of course we said we’d have to meet up when I got to Australia. Back then, that seemed like ages away. And all of a sudden it’s here. And we met up. Jenny took me to the Sherlock Holmes Inn. Very English. We had fish & chips. Very English. I had two glasses of rose wine. Not quite so English. They were £5 each. For a small glass. Australia is expensive.

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I went to St Kilda for a walk along the beach and a wander round the streets. It’s a quirky little place, with lots of bakeries (yes, I resisted all those lovely cakes as part of my trying-to-give-up-sugar thing I’ve got going on), cafe and little shops. There’s also an amusement park called Luna Park, which reminded me of the fair at Skegness. It even had a theatre right next to it. just like the Embassy Centre. I had a walk to the end of the pier – there’s a cracking view looking back towards the beach with the city in the background. I love the skyscrapers of Melbourne’s CBD. Hopefully I’ll get to go to a rooftop bar or cinema before I leave Australia.

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I saw kangaroos and koalas at Healsville Sanctuary. I’ve not seen any in the wild yet, so this was the next best thing. It’s not a zoo, more a wildlife sanctuary where native Australian animals are taken to be looked after, rehabilitated and breeding programs are carried out to fight extinction for some of the country’s most endangered animals. I loved seeing all the animals, especially a platypus (which is much smaller than I thought, and very cute), kangaroos, koalas, wombats and tasmanian devils. Mainly because I’ve never seen any of them in real life before. And there were so many amazing birds too. Birds over here are really colourful. Healsville is out in the Yarra Valley, which is a pretty nice part of Australia. Quite quaint, lots of countryside and green stuff and very pretty. A popular place for people to visit and live. It also has a place called Badger Creek. I liked this. I’d move there, just to have an address that had Badger Creek in it. Bob drove back round Mount Donna Buang and through the rainforest so I could stop and see it, which was pretty cool. Not quite like a tropical rainforest; this one was a bit chilly under the tree canopy for a start, and all mossy and damp.

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I went out for Afghan food one night with Bob and La on Brunswick Street. Brunswick Street is a famous trendy street in the Fitzroy suburb filled with bars, restaurants and quirky shops. Luckily since I’ve been in Melbourne I’ve bought some ‘normal’ clothes so I didn’t feel too out of place. Although I’m never going to completely fit in somewhere uber trendy. Because I’m just not, well, trendy enough. But the food here was great. Really great. Not had Afghan food before but now I have. Would recommend.

I went to a BBQ at the next door neighbours. Hosted by Kieran, Anthea and their two kids. Oh, and a visit from Anthea’s mum Lorna who lives the other side. As my Film Club buddies pointed out, this was a real life ‘Neighbours’ situation. They were lovely. The food was great. Their house is beautiful; they built it themselves, so it’s all new, shiny and modern. Their kitchen island is to die for. Want. I’ll hopefully see them again when I get back from Tasmania as they are (or more specifically, Kieran is) convinced that this Pom will end up stranded or dead somewhere.

There’s been more. I’ve walked around the suburb of Ivanhoe and pretty much know where everything is now. I know short cuts to the shops and train station, and recognise where I am on the bike trails near the creek. I’ve taken the dog for many walks to Darebin Parklands where there’s a strange egg shaped sculpture near a hill and free dog poop bags. I’ve fallen asleep on the train but never missed my stop, bought a pear as a snack instead of a chocolate bar (progress) and woken up pretty much every day without an alarm. I’ve got to know my friends here more and have enjoyed seeing them in their everyday family life. I’m so pleased I’ve been able to meet their daughter, who is just the most wonderful little person. I’ve been made to feel so at home and welcome, which, after 6 months on the road, was so needed you have no idea.

My next adventure will hopefully start this weekend. I’m going to fly to Launceston in Tasmania with a bike, some clothes and a tent and spend a few weeks cycling down the east coast of the island. I’ve got a vague route planned out, but nothing booked or set in stone; keeping it flexible, baby. I’ll be covering an average of around 50km a day, which is around 30 miles. So not too far. I’ve got my padded shorts ready to go. I’m looking forward to combining some of my favourite things; a bit of fitness with a bit of adventure and travel. Excited? YOU BET. Bring it ON, mofo.

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My Christmas Day in pictures.

I’d been meaning to do a day in pictures for a while, but not yet got round to it. So I decided, what better day to do it than Christmas Day?

My original idea for a day in pictures was actually to take a picture every hour, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t stick to that. Time kind of ran away with me, and I wasn’t clock watching. So, this is my Christmas Day 2013 in pictures:

Chats with the family first thing (Christmas Eve night UK time):

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My traditional Christmas Day morning run (can’t miss that!):

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Going out for dinner so I decided to glam up a bit when getting ready. Not worn mascara for months!:

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Pre-dinner preparations, including champagne:

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CHRISTMAS DINNER! South African/Aussie mix of turkey, roasties, pumpkin, peach salad, beans, cranberry gravy and christmas pudding. YUM.

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New friends:

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Afternoon champagne after dinner:

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Later on, two bottles of champers down:

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We move onto Moscato. DELICIOUS!:

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Early evening, riding home in the sunshine:

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Chilled out evening watching National Lampoon with the cat and dog, eating pizza and Toblerone:

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Then some Google hangouts with some buddies. Karl wasn’t too keen on having his photo taken:

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Washing up. Got to be done:

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Then a mammoth FaceTime session with the family on their Christmas Morning (late Xmas Day night/early Boxing day morning here). I was in the iPad, propped up on the sofa and it was just like I was in the room for a bit. Lots of laughs and giggles. And I look orange because of THE LIGHT:

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Bedtime. Ok, so this was actually the early hours of Boxing Day morning but it still counts, as it’s the last thing I did:  

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Pretty perfect day.

Christmas from the outside.

This is kind of how I feel the run up to Christmas has been for me. Like I’m outside, looking in through a window. Not taking part, just watching everyone else.

Because obviously I’m not having a normal Christmas this year. I don’t have to do any of the normal festive stuff that I would be doing at this time of year. I’ve not been in the UK where the run up starts ludicrously early, like August. There has been no present shopping, no card sending, no Christmas partying, no food shopping, no need to get a tree. No thinking about to do lists or having a million and one things to get done ‘before Christmas’. Things this year don’t fall in the ‘before Christmas’ or ‘after Christmas’ time frames.

It’s made a nice change.

I’ve enjoyed the last couple of months without all the Christmas run up crap. Enjoyed SE Asia without any Christmas trees, products or adverts for stuff I don’t need. Even when I got to Australia it’s not rammed down your throat like it seems to be in the UK.

I’ve been able to sit back and watch everyone else ‘get ready’. Get ready for this one big day (or a few days if you’re lucky to have some time off work). And blimey, I’m exhausted from watching.

There seems to be this need for perfection. To have the perfect day and nothing can go wrong. A need to over do things. To buy presents that people don’t really want or need, just so they have a present. To buy food like it’s not available for weeks. The stress at trying to make everyone happy. To spend weeks preparing for such a small amount of time. To panic that there’s not enough food, or enough presents, or enough drink. It goes on.

Has the real meaning behind Christmas been forgotten? I guess in some ways it depends what the real meaning behind Christmas is for you. For some, it’s the religious aspect. For others, it’s just getting together with family and friends. For some, it’s a chance to get great presents. And of course for others it’s to eat and drink shit loads of great food and booze. Have all of these been overridden by commercial idealism? Do you feel guilt, pressure or just like there’s too much to do?

Is it really the most wonderful time of year?

For me, it seems to start too early. I’ve always thought this, and I think that’s why this year it’s been nice being away from it for a bit. There seems to be a huge build up for just a few days. It’s a special time of year, but there just seems to be so much…well, guff around it.

For some, it can be a reminder of what’s not great. People that have lost relatives or people dear to them. Missing places at the dinner table. People who feel under pressure to have the ‘perfect’ Christmas when they aren’t able to, for whatever reason. People forced to spend time with people they don’t get on with, just because ‘it’s Christmas’.

I know that soon though, I’ll watch and see all the lovely things. The good stuff about Christmas. The result of the hard work and preparation. People having fun, relaxed and happy. The excitement and joy at getting gifts. Kids excited about Santa Claus. People spending time with their favourite people. All the amazing food being eaten. So is it all worth it? Only you can answer that I guess.

For me, I love Christmas. I like nice food, spending time with some of my favourite people, twinkly lights, trees and Christmas parties. This year is different though, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. That’s because there’s nothing familiar really. I’m on the other side of the world to the people I normally spend it with and it’s warm here. The sun is out and it’s light until well into the evening. Very odd.

I’m not sad though. It’s not the first time I’ve not seen my family on Christmas Day, and I know I’ll speak to them at some point. And I’ll see them soon enough, so although I will miss them a little bit, I know they’ll have a fab time whether I’m there or not, just as I know I’ll have a fab time here. I’m not bothered about not getting any presents; this has never been a big thing for me. I will miss my sister-in-law’s 5 puddings though. They were fab last year.

I wanted to find somewhere to volunteer here in Melbourne, but all the places I contacted were either full or were only taking on regular volunteers. It’s something I want to do next year though, wherever I end up. Helping others who aren’t so fortunate. Those people that won’t have that perfect Christmas, for whatever reason. Those people who get forgotten, in the midst of all the jollity. I’d like to help make someone else’s Christmas just that little bit better. That little bit special.

So this year I’m going to go for my usual Christmas morning run tomorrow as it’s a tradition of mine, then I’ve been invited to a Christmas dinner feast by some friends of Bob and La’s here in Melbourne. The food they’re cooking sounds amazing and it’s a chance to make some new friends. So I’m looking forward to it; new experiences and a chance to see how other people do Christmas. Boxing Day might be spent at the beach, or on the bike. Something outdoors in any case.

So, Merry Christmas to you all. Whatever you do, wherever you are, I hope you have the most wonderful, magical and joyful few days. Don’t stress, enjoy the little moments and eat, drink and be merry.

Oh, and one last thing. The world has this way of making it look like everyone else is having the most perfect, wonderful time. Chances are, they’re all not. My thoughts go out to anyone missing someone this year, or not having a great time. You won’t be alone, even if you feel it. Do your own thing, whatever that is, to make it special for you, or just to be able to get through it. Tomorrow is another day, and 2014 is just round the corner.