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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Christmas you get, you deserve....part 2

Hi and sorry for the delay in part two. One of the obvious things you have to contend with when travelling to and from countries like the UK and Indonesia, is the difference in temperature. This has resulted in a cold that just won't seem to go away but, I've "manned up" and worked through it and here comes part 2...

You left me at the end of part one being picked up at Northallerton train station in the wintery wilds of North Yorkshire. Northallerton is a quaint market town, north of York but south of Darlington and it is on the main east coast rail line between Newcastle and Kings Cross in London. It is home to the Friarage hospital where Dad is having his chemotherapy, has a deli store called Lewis and Coopers with a range of English foodstuffs that are so delicious (and unavailable in Indonesia), I wish I could transport brick-by-brick and bottle-by-bottle to Tangerang with me. It also also has a "Betty's Tearoom", an
English institution. It's worth pointing out that the train station is a good 5 to 10 minutes walk from town and has no indoor waiting room,  but more about Northallerton later.

 Arriving in Leyburn is always something of an experience. It has a nostalgia for me, but not like with most family homes. This hasn't actually been a house I've lived in for any length of time. I was born in Bedford, a town 50 miles or so north of London. Left the two houses we lived in there when I was 7 years old and moved to Catterick Village (coincidentally about 15 miles from where my parents live now). Leaving there when I was 15 to move to Bishopthorpe a village outside York, I eventually left home when I was 19 to strike out on my own. In the following years my parents continued to live in Bishopthorpe before moving to Redmire, a village near Leyburn to run a pub and then, after retiring, settled at 51 Dale Grove, Leyburn.

The nostalgia for me comes from my mothers housekeeping. The house, as far back as I can remember, has always been impeccably decorated, especially at Christmas with all of the extras. I guess my mum always had a talent for interior design. And bugger anyone else doing the decorating, it was always a family thing (I remember as a young teenager getting the job of painting the eaves of the house in Bishopthorpe cause dad wasn't overkeen on heights). So, driving into Dale Grove, facing the house at the far end of the street, I was curious to see what the Christmas decorations would look like and that was the picture at the end of part one. Silver tree, lights, tinsel, baubles.......and meerkat.

Back in my childhood, it was quite common at Christmas to open the fridge door and find a stuffed robin (the bird, not Batman's sidekick) perched on the cheese, or bound to the toilet flush handle, or sat on a picture moved you see (ah, the magic of Christmas). Over the years the concept moved on to the singing Billy Bass fish and other animal oddities. This year has seen dad completely taken over by an advert/tv commercial called "Compare The Market Dot Com" whose USP is a Russian meerkat .......oh look, this is too confusing, just visit compare the meerkat on youtube and you'll see what I mean . At least that explained the meerkat....

My brother Glen had arrived a few days before and tonight, being Christmas Eve, we would head for The Sandpiper Restaurant, a gastro-pub/fine dining restaurant in Leyburn owned and run by family friends the Harrison family. So with just enough time to have a catch-up chat, drink a cup of tea and get a bath, we were on our way out for our 7pm reservation. But not before I had added a jacket, scarf and  thick coat to my evenings clothing ensemble.

A starter of black pudding and belly pork was followed by venison and, forgoing desert, a coffee. The red wine washed down the excellent local beers and we sat and reminisced over just how long it had been since the four of us had been together at Christmas. A great night. Later, back at home, Glen and mum went to bed leaving Dad and I to sit up and chat about life the universe and everything really. To do this we thought it would be a good idea to have a polite "short" while doing so. Dad's choice was an aged port, mine Makers Mark bourbon.........The following morning Dad's scarred nose from where he'd fallen over and stories of my drunken sleepwalking and nonsensical mutterings were proof that we'd probably overdone it. Still, great memories.

Christmas Day has always been a great morning and this year the plan was for a late brunch with champagne and eating the main Christmas dinner at about 5pm. John and Jan Harrison and their three daughters, Chloe, Megan and Rosie had been invited to join us but as the restaurant was open it meant we'd be eating later. So we busied ourselves with opening presents.


I should really have taken photos of the Christmas dinner table as it was so wonderfully set up in the conservatory but let me just tell you that the goose was delicious, the belly pork was a great addition and the array of vegetables, sauces, wine and beer were excellent and, as with all good family Christmases, it was finished by playing games and singing songs to everyone's delight and at times embarrassment

part 3 soon, I promise....

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Christmas you get, you deserve... part 1

“Driving home for Christmas......”, “they said there’ll be snow at Christrmas, they sai.......”, “God rest ye merry gentlem......” “It’s Chrisssssstmaaaaaas!!”....Christmas songs, something we find all over the world. In Indonesia, they’re played because some marketing guy must have decided that if they’re played in other countries, they should be played in Indonesia too. It still seems a trifle odd to hear them blast out in the middle of a supermarket when you’re surrounded by people who generally have no idea what the lyrics any aspect.
I’m writing this in Newcastle Airport at 11.22 am on the 30th December 2011. I’ve just spent the best part of a week with my Mum, Dad and Brother at my parents house in the Yorkshire Dales, having arrived on Christmas Eve.  Here in the airport’s departure lounge, i’m struck by the absence of atmosphere. Twenty minutes previously, I was sat in the check-in area saying an emotional goodbye to Beryl and Geoff. Dad and i were talking as Mum was trying to re-pack my hand luggage for the umpteenth time wile we sat and enjoyed a Starbucks coffee, pepped up with hazlenut syrup. The atmosphere was one of family unity, sadness at a farewell that will not be replaced with a welcoming handshake and hug for another four months and private thoughts to what that means for each of us. A good atmosphere nonetheless.
 So why was the departure lounge different? Well for one thing it was pretty quiet. I’d expected a flurry of people travelling for new year armed, like me, with reminders of the recent Christmas present-giving. Instead, sat enjoying a pint of lager while I write this, I could count the number of people on my body’s digits. 

The second reason was the lack of background/ambient music/muzak. Everywhere you go in the UK these days, it seems you have your own personal soundtrack. For the last 4 months it’s been a mix of Roy Wood, Slade, Mudd, Mel Smith and Kim Wilde and the man, without whom Christmas would have no doubt died off years ago, Cliff Richard. These songs continue to be played post-Christmas as a reminder that in a few short months  we’ll be doing it all again. Or maybe it’s that the marketing team in the shops haven’t remembered to change the disc. What I do know is that this airport was too quiet. (this would be a great intro to a thriller novel)
The barmaid had told me that it had been extremely busy earlier so maybe I’d missed the rush. Another small wierdness was the departure screen. Always full of necessary info, this particular monitor advised that the length of my waiting time for boarding was forty-one “shopping minutes”....maybe time works differently in Newcastle. It was proving  an unusual end to a holiday.

Why had I travelled back to England for a week? Well my reasons for visiting were three-fold. Firstly, Dad has cancer and the thought of a full family christmas for the four of us was too much to miss. Secondly it’s been 3 years since I left the UK to take up my new career in education. Finally, whilst never homesick, the pull of fresh unsweetened milk, sausages available anytime any place, anywhere and a tolerance of people who "take a drink", was just too damn overwhelming!

Christmas Eve saw me arrive in Manchester to a bright, sunny morning. This vision of beauty changed on leaving the airport to get to the train station. The shock of the cold wind that seemed immediately to grip every bone of my body was incredible. It should be mentioned that I have been in some challenging situations in the past. At 10 years old I remember being sat in my then girlfriends house enjoying a youthful kiss and cuddle just as her parent's car pulled unexpectedly early onto the drive. The Ethan Hunt-style response, brought about by the shock of their early return, was to dive out the back door of the house, leap the garden fence into the adjacent sports fild and then casually walk back round to her front door to ask if she was in.
On another memorable occasion, I was trapped in a broken down van with fellow members of the 1st Catterick Village Scout Troop, freezing my nuts off as we waited for the repairman to arrive. That was cold. But, the shock and cold that I felt on leaving Manchester Airport was on a different level entirely. It had been eigteen months since I’d been in the UK and that was in the Summer. This was a different kettle of mince pies altogether. 

Before leaving Indonesia I’d searched in vain for a thick winter coat. Indonesians do feel cold but the noticeable lack of mink or seals to skin and make winter coats with should have led me to realise that most shop assistants would just laugh at me. So it was that I'd packed my trusty fleece, bought for a few quid in Thailand 3 years ago, to go over the top of the two t-shirts I was wearing. (I'd figured more layers would be insulating). Now I'm not saying that i nostalgically remember winters in England as being like Summer, but i seriously wasn't expecting this. To top it off, the queue for train tickets was taking ages to move. I wrapped my hands around the still-warm sausage roll bought on my way out of the airport and waited my turn.
Indonesia, as I may have mentioned, has a lack of trains. What I can guarantee is that if the rail networks keep charging what they are for tickets, I'm not sure the UK will have any left either. I know that buying tickets in advance gets you a reduction in price but really, FORTY FIVE QUID?? ONE-WAY???. Manchester Airport to Northallerton is not a long journey. For that price I can fly to Bali from Jakarta, and back again!

Regardless of price, the train journey was a memorable one due to the places we passed through. Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Leeds and York are places I have spent plenty of time over the years and the lack of outward change (with the exception of the Ferris Wheel in York) was surprising.

I'd used up the last of my Indonesian credit on my phone in calling mum and dad from Manchester, the guy who answered had politely informed me i had the wrong number, so arriving in Northallerton I tried from the (60p per call) payphone. This time I got the number right and Dad told me that my brother Glen was on his way and would be there shortly. Another chance to feel the cold northerly wind chill me to the bone again. Glen duly arrived and whisked us the 25 minutes or so back to Leyburn.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Didn't we have a "loverly" time the day we went to Bogor

Ah yes, Fiddler's Dram and the song "Day Trip to Bangor"(here's the link ), ripe for a parody with the title of this blog entry.

Along with the Christmas Quiz, Ramadan and seeing the Centre Manager in the teachers staffroom, the other anual event is the staff outing. At this time of year, EF Swara pays for all of the teachers and staff from each centre to go away overnight. In my previous years with EF this has seen us go to Puncak, a mountainous, tea growing area outside Jakarta, and last year was a trip to Anyer, a beach resort also near Jakarta. It has to be near Jakarta as we always leave after work on Saturday and have to return early evening Sunday. With traffic that means we can't really get that far at all. Fortunately, there are plenty of amazing places just on the doorstep.

This year, our team from Gading Serpong headed for Bogor.
Bogor is a lush, green area in the foothills of Puncak. Famous for Outlet shops, Bebek Goreng (fried duck) and rain, it is also the weekend retreat of many Jakartans desperate to get out of the smog of the city. Such is their desperation that a journey that normaly takes an hour and a half midweek, can often turn into 4 or 5 hours due to volume of traffic and weather.
As I said, we can’t leave until after work on Saturday (generosity only stretches so far) and, including translation to Indonesian time, meant that the leaving point of 2 – 3pm ended up being 3.40pm

I actually managed to fall asleep shortly after the journey started and woke ninety minutes later to find that we still hadn’t reached Bintaro (usually 20 minutes away). This was going to be a tough journey.
Fortunately everyone else was in good spirits though and having stopped at a service station for a natural break, we arrived at our destination a little after 7.30pm. The journey, once we had left the toll road, took us climbing into the hills which in the daytime affords you a look at the tropical plantations of banana trees, rice and tea amongst others.

Food was already waiting for us but unfortunately wasn’t hot (the noodles were actually stone cold) but i think people were too hungry to worry and tucked into the fayre. As it happened, this was just the appetizer because on the itinerary to follow dinner was a barbecue. Strange I know but I refer you to the standard response of “well, this is Indonesia”.
Earlier in the day Farhan, Alex and I went to the supermarket and bought theingredients for the barbecue which somehow i was encouraged in to organise and prepare. Chicken for sate, two whole Gurame fish, fresh prawns, fresh sweetcorn and minced beef to make homemade burgers with, were backed up by all of the necessary seasonings and sauces. A homemade kecap manis (a sweet, spicy sauce) was made and then i got on with conducting a burger masterclass. I’m not sure but i think the thought of the DoS cooking was amazing many people and many questions were asked as to how i learned to cook, what i like to cook most, the hardest thing i’ve ever cooked and, after eating the burgers, would i cook again please? I actually class cooking as a hobby, i have a few things that i make pretty well and I like to think burgers are one of them.

In the other food preparation corner, led by Nina, chicken was being skewered for the sate, prawns were also being skewered as it’s the easiest way to barbecue them and, as stuff became ready, people devoured it. Nina came across to learn how to cook a burger and once she’d got the hang of not splashing herself with hot grease, did a quite remarkable job. It certainly allowed me to take a breather and enjoy a beer.
Beer, and the consumption of it, is a potential divider at times like this. Western people drink, Indonesian catholics drink a little, muslims generally don’t. It had been agreed that we wouldn’t start into the alcohol too early to reduce any offense but once we started, no-one really cared. It’s worth remembering that tolerance and acceptance of cultures goes both ways, which is nice. In my experience it’s the die-hard Bule (western)  drinkers who are the last to call it a day, but this night it was the Indonesians playing sleepover style games, who outlasted the drinkers and were still up early for prayers and breakfast!
Breakfast was being served between 7 and 9 with our bonding activities (the real reason for this trip) due to start at 9. But, one factor of this weekend is how laid back it’s been. Breakfast was leisurely with people arriving in their own time and once the games started people genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves, particularly with the arrival of small plastic balls which proved ideal for pelting each other with. It would be fair to say that the day collapsed after this though. Later saw another group of residents monopolising the canoeing area and, as lunch didn’t arrive at its due time,  people pretty much did their own thing which is how i can be writing this now.
The afternoon passed with people relaxing and chatting to the point where we were due to leave. I have to admit that it has been a fun trip with people getting to know alot more about one another which, if it was the reason for the trip, makes it a success. Here's looking forward to next year!