The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part III

I tried Castello Coffee this morning. Bathing in the spring sunshine on the south-facing Barclay Terrace, it had been recommended by Kenny Raz as a quirky establishment, during a chance meeting earlier in the week. It had been recommended to him by the baristas at Artisan Roast, on a day when their pavement was being dug up and they had no power. So, a double recommendation.

It was my intention to write this blog there. On entering I couldn’t help but notice the prominent notices explaining that laptops were prohibited at tables with four seats or more. I found a narrow breakfast bar arrangement upstairs. Technically it had four seats. Technically it was one table. I wondered if I would get away with it. The gentleman who brought my coffee and lemon-and-coconut slice didn’t offer a rebuke, so I settled in.

I hung my coat on a nearby hook using its loop. I have always wondered about this. How much of a load are those coat-loops rated for? They seem so thin and fragile and stretched to their limit. Are they rated for winter coats loaded down with wallet, gloves and hat? But, for now, it was holding.

Day 4 in the Dolomites was also bright and sunny, and that’s how it would be for the remainder of the week. Ten of us set off around the Sella Ronda again.

Through Val Gardena, up a chairlift over a fun park which included a car half-buried in the snow (anyone want to try jumping over a car? Anyone?), and on round as far as Corvara.

Here we cut off the circuit, taking a lift eastwards and up to Rifugio Col Alt for elevenses in the sunshine. If I’d realised we were going to miss lunch, I might have had more than a double espresso at this point. But I didn’t.

So, reasonably caffeinated but not much else, we decided to embark on our monastic pilgrimage to La Crusc. After some wonderful red runs, and a lot of lifts, we arrived at the little church, nestled in the shadow of a mighty rockface. It was a perfect time for lunch, and there was, somewhat inevitably, a rifugio on site. However, having been tipped off by an earlier pilgrim Richard that the service was a little on the “Italian” side, and aware that we were now against the clock to get home in time, we strapped the skis back on and headed back. 

Skipping lunch is not something I like to make a habit of, especially not on holiday, most especially not on a skiing holiday, but the prospect of missing that last lift, and the corresponding eye-watering taxi fare that would ensue, galvanised us into putting the hammer down.

On and on we went, passing rifugio after rifugio. Inevitably, when you’re up against it, unusual things happen. And so it was that Ruth, one of our happy (but gradually becoming hangry) throng, for reasons which remain hazy, failed to exit a particularly unusual chairlift and stayed on it for another go round.

This chairlift was unusual in that it required you to leave it halfway along its journey.  Which, even with multiple warning signs explaining this, still somehow came as a surprise. It was one of those situations where the signs were particularly large and shouty. The text was large, and bold, and repeated in various languages. 

The conclusion I usually arrive at, on reading such signs, is that they are for someone else. Signs aimed at me would be much more subtle and suggest things rather than screaming them at me. So, engaged in conversation as I was, I nearly failed to leave the chair, but mercifully my fellow travellers were eminently more sensible, and all was well.

On this holiday we were a sizeable group of 24, and we therefore, through a natural selection process based mainly on how often – and for how long – one aimed to stop for coffee and cake, subdivided into different groups. 

Accordingly there are many stories from the trip which describe events that I was unable to witness in person, and thus can’t recount with the unerring accuracy and objectivity for which I am renowned. 

However… this same unusual chairlift, reputedly, had been the scene of some drama only the day before. Richard and his band of merry adventurers, returning from their own pilgrimage to La Crusc, and also against the clock, had a whole chairful that missed the halfway drop-off point. 

Perhaps they also expected the warning signs to be a touch more subtle. Whatever, the Lift Attendant was not content, on this occasion, to wave them around for another go, and stopped the lift, with our dear friends’ chair suspended six feet above the ground.

“You must jump off!” he instructed. 

At this point our friends faced a dilemma. The prospect of jumping off, on skis, onto an uneven, slightly sloping surface of snow six feet below, was not an appealing one. But the clock was ticking, and the final lift they needed to make was still some way in the distance. And that taxi would be expensive.

And so they all jumped, one by one, landing in a variety of creative ways, losing various items of ski equipment and much of their dignity in the process. Even Shikha, for whom six feet is a taller order than for most of us, jumped.

Until only Julia was left.

Julia, being a lady of resolute and steadfast will, and having watched all her fellow travellers wipe out in spectacular fashion, declared that she was not for jumping.

“You must jump!” repeated the Lift Attendant. 

“I will not!” reiterated Julia, who was, of course, six feet above contradiction.

The driver of the expensive taxi began to think about warming up his engine.

In a process mildly reminiscent of a certain current political process, Julia, a British lady of determined will, engaged her European counterpart in strongly worded dialogue. Back and forth the negotiations went. 

Quite possibly she petitioned for a delay, but in any case it became increasingly clear that Julia was not going to embrace a hard chair exit. Or Hard Chexit, one might say.

In due course, the Lift Attendant eventually relented and provided a softer exit option, helping her to the ground, and our friends were able to continue on their journey, sneaking onto the final lift moments before it closed for the evening.

Perhaps this is why, on the following day, when the Lift Attendant saw another British lady stranded on the chairlift, he elected to not stop the lift, and allowed her to continue for another time around.

Having skied somewhere in the order of 50km that day, with only a couple of Twix and some espresso for sustenance, the 5pm pizza-and-pasta “lunch” that I shared with Emma at the bottom of the Belvedere gondola, with the accompanying cold beer (large), will go down as one of my favourite meals of all time.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part II

On Day 3 the sun was out from early morning. With a large and very attractive white bandage on my face, I joined forces with Steve, Doug and Fiona. Fiona had a lovely green ski jacket.

“It’s pistachio,” she pointed out.

We started out clockwise on the Sella Ronda, heading for Val Gardena. Our progress could best be described as halting. 

At the top of every lift we paused in wonder, breath visible, hanging in the crisp mountain air. The fresh covering of new snow had added a layer of further splendour to mountains that were already the most startling and majestic I’d ever seen.

Thus we proceeded, slowly, interrupted regularly by the scenery, eventually arriving at the top of a massive bowl which, further down, gave way to the top of the Saslong World Cup run. But in the middle of the bowl, irresistibly alluring, lay a short parallel giant slalom race course, complete with start hut, and a timing wand to push through. Like real ski-racers do.

Doug and Fiona – who in due course would become known as the Flying Pistachio – raced each other, and the result has been lost in the mists of time, obscured by a difference-of-marital-opinion and a steward’s enquiry. Which left me to race against Steve.

Steve, in his youth, had raced competitively three of the four race disciplines (Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G and Downhill). 

I, on the other hand, had watched all four on TV. Many times. Accordingly I felt I had an even chance, if not a slight edge.

Technology is such these days that one can scan one’s ski pass at a handy nearby electronic kiosk and watch a video of any of these kind of races one has taken part in. As both of my regular readers will know, I am not always a fan of technological advances. However, coming across such a kiosk later in the day, I saw that the automatic camera had successfully captured the first few seconds of the ‘contest’, and then – gamely – had swung through a random arc and focussed on a nearby metal pole instead. I was grateful.

The ‘racing’ complete, we joined the Saslong and made it down safely. I remain in awe of the skill, but mostly the courage, of World Cup downhillers who straight-line it down black runs like that.

At the après-ski bar at the foot of the race piste, there was a goat on the roof. Of course there was. We took pictures.

After a funicular train journey through the heart of a mountain, and another gondola ride upwards, we stopped for lunch at the top. I went inside the Rifugio to order.

“Bitte?” asked the server.

Many moons ago, in Edinburgh, I had an Italian neighbour whose first language – I discovered – was German, and thus I was educated in the fact that a region of Italy is primarily German-speaking. And it appeared that we had skied into it.

I later discovered that this part of the Dolomites had originally belonged to Austria, until relatively recently, when it had been transferred to Italian ownership through a series of circumstances that I am still a little fuzzy on.

However the Austrian-German-sounding placenames live on, and German remains the first language in certain parts.

We skied the lovely 10.5km La Longia run down into Ortisei, and caught the cable car back up again.  

One of the distinct pleasures of skiing in this area is that all the villages were real villages, not purpose-built ski resorts. Thus one had a definite sense of touring around the area, rather than simply skiing up and down runs. The differing languages across the region only added to the sense of travel.

That evening we had dinner out at the Kaiserstube. Having been in Italy for three full days at this point, and not having had pizza, I decided to put that right. There’s something about Italian pizza, eaten in Italy. It’s apparently simple and uncomplicated, and yet profoundly tasty.

My first and, prior to this trip, only visit to Italy was a week’s holiday in Milan, during a hot and sticky June, nineteen years ago. I and my travelling companion Stephen arrived at our small city hotel after a series of delays due to striking baggage-handlers. We were ravenous.

I approached the hotel receptionist – a youngish, bespectacled gentleman.

“Is there anywhere around here we could get a pizza?” I enquired. This remains, I believe, the most stupid question I have asked in any country at any time.

He smiled, and with a benevolent and gracious air, produced a local map and with a pen circled the location of a backstreet pizzeria nearby. I believe it was called Grog. It was family-run, and the pizza was simply outstanding.

Kaiserstube’s pizza reminded me very much of this. It was an excellent evening, to round off a great day.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part I

It’s April, dear reader, Yesterday’s watery sunshine, luring us briefly into thoughts of balmier weather, has given way to today’s endearingly British rain-hail-sleet combo. Or “April showers” as we like to call them.

But before April came March, which witnessed a couple of important events. Firstly, Britain’s non-exit from the EU on 29 March. Having been guilty in the past of being carelessly ignorant of important goings-on in the nation, I have tried manfully to stay abreast of developments with Brexit. At least every now and then. I have periodically read articles and blog posts by political analysts, which appear to come forth daily. But I find they all follow the same format:

  1. Last night [this thing] happened.
  2. What does [this thing] mean? or occasionally What happens now?
  3. We don’t know

What I deduce from each article is that, really, nothing is happening.

Happily, March also finally witnessed my long-awaited ski trip to the Land of Bialetti, with 23 fellow adventurers. I christened our group the Dolomites Snow Angels, and no-one objected, or at least not too strongly, and so that was that.

On the first or second evening, I can’t quite remember which, Emily – the holiday rep – held court in our neighbouring chalet’s living room. Our chalet was the Traviata, theirs the Violetta. Both named after a Verdi opera. This pleased me.

Every chalet holiday I’ve been on has had one of these introductory chats from the rep. Never have I attended one before.  But this time I was numbered among the crowd that trooped over to the Violetta. And I found myself pondering what my sceptical non-attendance might have cost me all these years, as Emily engaged us in a whistle-stop tour of the area’s skiing highlights.. 

She waxed lyrical about La Longia – the 10.5km red run down into Oritsei, and went on to mention the legendary Saslong men’s World Cup downhill black run in Val Gardena, the La Crusc church in the furthest away corner of the map above the village of Badia, the lovely blue runs of the Alta Badia valley, and the Marmolada Glacier, with its spectacular views from upwards of 3000m, not to mention its WWI museum. 

Clearly all that plus the 1200km of general skiing available wasn’t going to keep us busy, so she was also offering limited places on a trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Hidden Valley on Day 5. Cortina promised yet more stunning and unique Dolomites scenery, a ladies’ World Cup downhill, and a ski run featured in For Your Eyes Only. Meanwhile the Hidden Valley ski run is regularly voted one of the world’s top 10, includes a pub with two resident Alpacas, and the opportunity to be towed the last flat 1km or so by a horse-drawn cart. Oh, and there were tunnels left over from WWI to explore at the top.

Having come to the Dolomites with the express purpose of completing the Sella Ronda, by the time she was done I found myself less invested in that, and much more interested in the variety and quality of the unique skiing experiences to be had here.

Of course, there was no reason why these attractions had to compete, and so on Day 4, ten of us did in fact complete the Sella Ronda, interrupting our clockwise journey at Corvara to head off on a monastic pilgrimage to La Crusc, before rejoining at Corvara and skiing hard all the way home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day 1 was, as it always is, a day for re-acquainting oneself with one’s ski legs and remembering forgotten techniques. Having more or less found my way down the hill safely in the morning, I had decided to have an easy and fun afternoon skiing in the fun park, through ice tunnels and over pianos, but took the wrong lift up and instead found myself skiing black runs and moguls in Arabba with the some of the more adventurous Snow Angels.

But I survived, and on the way home found somewhere selling Baileys, with which we toasted St Paddy that evening.

On Day 2 we awoke to falling snow. It had been falling since the early hours, and so we abandoned any plans we might have had to ski hard and long that day. Truth be told, there probably wasn’t a plan for that day. Most days plans were formed late and on the hoof, which is not a bad way to approach a holiday, I reckon.

We headed away from the crowds of the Sella Ronda, up Val di Fassa, and took a gondola ride into a winter wonderland. Not that we could see all that much of it, initially.

Skiing in the falling snow, provided it’s not being propelled into your face by a Force Nine gale, is a wondrous thing. Sounds from across the mountain are muffled by the ever-deepening snowy blanket, and skiing must be done more by feel than by sight due to the reduced visibility. And everything is soft. Everything, that is, apart from my ski, which came off during a particularly inelegant wipeout at the bottom of a black run, and clattered into my face.

After some slope-side ministrations from the amazing Steve, who – Mary Poppins-style – conjured a host of medical supplies from his bottomless rucksack, I repaired to the nearest Rifugio, whereupon a host of friends patched me up with steri-strips, chocolate cake and espressos. I remained there for many hours, entertained by the inimitable Jamie and Kirsty, until I had recovered my courage sufficiently to ski a blue run a couple of times and then retreat back to the chalet.

Bialetti, oh Bialetti

I reconnected with an old squash foe on Tuesday – Colin Eye. Colin and I have had innumerable court-based battles over the years, and he has often emerged victorious, being younger, fitter and faster.

After a long squash-playing hiatus for both of us, however, the disparity in athleticism is less marked, middle-aged portliness being a great leveller, and movement around the court could best be described as lumbering. I found myself wistfully recalling the days when I was able to change direction swiftly and without the assistance of the momentum gained from having crashed heavily into a wall immediately prior.

The result of the contest shall remain forever shrouded in mystery, as it would be churlish and graceless of me to be anything other than magnanimous in victory. Even a victory so crushing as that one.

Afterwards, between gasps and gulps of water, we wondered aloud when the pain would kick in properly. The next day, or the day after that? 

The next day, it turned out. My body, impatiently, decided it couldn’t wait for the day after tomorrow to arrive, and protested loudly regarding my reckless attempts at athleticism every time I tried to stand up, or perform any other routine function.

Wiseman got in touch on Wednesday. Sent me a link to an article he thought I’d appreciate. The article was entitled The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. In it the writer regales us with not only the history of Bialetti’s stovetop coffee pot, but the history of coffee, and in particular its brew methods, from the dawn of time. Or the dawn of coffee being discovered, at least.

It was a wonderful and fascinating read, and I did appreciate it. I love my moka pot. I’ve made coffee that way every morning  for more years than I can now remember, even taking it with me on my travels, excepting those mornings when I was staying somewhere with an induction hob. Although I note that Bialetti now make an induction hob-compatible version, which I am considering purchasing purely for the five days in every four years or so that I spend in an induction-hob-equipped house.

I’ve found the moka pot provides a more consistently good, strong cup of coffee than any other home brewing method I’ve used. I have recently become a fan of the Kompresso espresso maker too, especially while travelling, but at home the moka pot remains my default coffee brewing device. 

The article, splendid as it was, was irredeemably spoiled by the news, right at the beginning, that Bialetti – the company that invented the moka pot, and still make the best version – is in serious financial trouble and struggling to compete due to the proliferation of pod machines. Globally, but even in Italy.

*&!!%# pod machines. *&!!%# George Clooney. 

Learning that Italians are choosing to make coffee at home from artificial capsules rather than their trusty moka pots is a hammer blow akin to discovering that Starbucks had successfully opened stores in Paris. And, only last year, in Milan. 

Oh Milano, Milano, how could you let this happen?

Is nowhere and nothing sacred anymore? I am grieved, dear reader, grieved. I feel sure that these events are referenced in the book of Revelation as signs of the end of days.

I could tolerate pod machines while they remained in their place, their place being in the kitchen of the undiscerning coffee drinker who values speed and convenience over taste and quality. But now that they’ve successfully wormed their way into the homes of even discerning coffee aficionados, my own dear sister and the whole of Italy included, I am most grievously vexed. The urge to panic-buy 3-cup Moka Express stovetops is strong.

It’s time to take to the streets. Or at least start an online petition.

Hold tight, Bialetti. I’ll be over here drinking proper coffee and listening to records, while the real world gradually digitises itself and becomes available only through a Virtual Reality headset on a streaming subscription basis.

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’ve maybe skipped denial and gone straight to anger. Bear with me, dear reader, while I work through this…

Siri Problems and Extreme Laundry

It’s a Tuesday morning in early February. Leith smells like damp cabbage, and Radiohead are playing in the Hideout. Not literally, of course, but on magnetic tape, which is surely the next best thing.

Before leaving the house, I asked Siri for the temperature. 1 degree, she said, rising to 9 tonight. NINE degrees, Britons. Spring is surely not far away.

Sometimes, on days when I am going to be in Balerno (that’s most days), I ask Siri for the forecast for Balerno. Occasionally this is a surprisingly warm and sunny report, which seems too good to be true, and so I check the screen, and it turns out it is too good to be true, as Siri has delivered the weather forecast for Bologna. Or sometimes Palermo. One’s diction is not always crystal clear early in the morning.

But sometimes my articulation is not to blame. On one occasion I was driving along Seafield, with its plethora of car showrooms and garages lined up along the shore. Impulsively desiring some car-related window-shopping, I requested that Siri tell me where my nearest Honda showroom was.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda showroom?” I asked. Just like that.

“The closest one I see is Honda Showroom & Service Centre in Penang. Is that the one you want?”

Penang. Yes, of course it is.

“OK. Would you like me to get directions?”

Yes, yes, I really would.

But, unaccountably, she was unable to provide me with directions to my nearest Honda Showroom, 6,420 miles away in Penang.

I tried a different tack.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda garage?”

“Garage Zollig”, she said. 993 miles away, in Switzerland. Am probably not going to make it to either of those places and be back in time for dinner. Another day, maybe.

On the domestic administration front, the laundry has been taken to a whole new level. One of my Christmas presents this year was a fine-looking v-neck jumper. I proudly wore it to the last Akva of the year, shortly before we failed to go clubbing.

Somebody, I can’t remember who now, commented on how fine it looked. I was gratified.

“Extra fine merino wool,” I announced, grandly.

I believe time stood still at this moment. I am sure that all 140 people inside Akva, as one, raised their eyebrow. There may even have been an audible drawing in of breath.

“Ooh,” said one.

“Hand-wash,” said another.

“No. Please no,” I said. When a label says hand-wash only I tend to read that as single use item – please dispose of responsibly after use.

I found the care instructions on the label. The machine wash symbol did not have a cross through it. I was mightily relieved. However, the paragraph of tiny almost-illegible text beneath contained all kinds of arcane wording. Something about wool detergent, and a cleaning net.

Unaccustomed as I am to such extreme clothes-washing techniques, I did what any right-thinking nigh-on 45 yr old man would do. I visited my mum.

Mum had a cleaning net. Mums always have these kind of things. She even had some silk/wool detergent, which, she assured me, she had acquired from me, circa 2003 I think. It didn’t look like the kind of product that would go off, exactly, so I gave it a whirl last week.

I may have been too generous with my application of detergent. Peering in, worriedly, mid-cycle, there seemed to be an unfeasible amount of foam behind the glass. However, while I haven’t worn the v-neck in question just yet, it’s looking good. Perhaps a bit less shapely than it once was…

January on the Wane

January is on the way out, dear reader, which can only be a good thing. The days are steadily getting longer, although not especially warmer, just yet.

Lying in wait is February, and in the blink of an eye it’ll be March, with a ski trip to the Dolomites. I am imagining much in the way of leisurely slope-side pizza-consumption in the early spring Italian sunshine. Followed by Tiramsu, and almost certainly an espresso. Then, with a sigh and probably a burp or two, strapping on the skis and hurtling down the hill towards Brexit Day.

The country feels in a state of some turmoil as Brexit approaches. Personally, I can’t help but think the whole thing was an extraordinarily bad idea.

While I accept that Mrs May possibly hasn’t done as sterling a job as she might in navigating these choppy waters, I do have some sympathy given that she wasn’t for leaving in the first place. And I find myself grieved by the overall air of grasping self-interest that seems to be prevalent in the country, not particularly unusual in Westminster at any time, it must be said, but seemingly magnified just now. It feels like the country’s in a bit of a pickle, and rather than everyone rallying round to try to find a solution, everyone is instead fighting their own corner all the more fiercely, with Ms Sturgeon eyeing an opening to sell independence to the Scots again.

Along with worries about the Irish border, the long-term loss of GDP for the UK economy, loss of jobs, port blockages and the like, of immediate and pressing concern is the state of the nation’s Empire Biscuits, and in particular, the depth of icing. Last Friday the icing was unacceptably thin. This week the Admin Supremo attempted an early EB acquisition on Thursday night at Tesco.

“Never seen such pale Empire biscuits” was the report Friday morning. 

Bring on a second referendum I say.

Meanwhile, January has seen a marked decline in the use of the washing machine at Only Here For The Cricket Towers. Over the festive period in particular, I was delighted by how long my clothes were lasting between washes. It belatedly occurred to me that, in employing the tried-and-trusted Sniff Test each morning to determine my clothes’ eligibility for another day’s use, I had neglected to take into account the cold that I’d been suffering from for weeks, and thereby unable to effectively smell anything.

I do apologise to all my friends, particularly the huggers.

January has also seen a marked upturn in my sleep quality. On becoming more and more aware of the shape and hardness of the springs in my mattress, I petitioned the landlord for a new one, and received the go-ahead a week or so ago. I was reminded of a previous flat tenancy, twenty years ago now, when I inherited a room in a flat on Magdala Crescent. Lovely flat, quiet street, perfect location.

After a month or two living there, I began to question the cuts that were appearing on my torso without any apparent cause, until one day I noticed that some of the springs in my mattress were actually poking through. Not an awful lot, but enough to draw blood periodically. Somewhat timid in nature at this point in my life, I never mentioned it to anyone, and instead found a narrow strip along the westward side of the mattress which was unmined, so to speak, and lay very still every night.

I note with some alarm that Facebook is about to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Quite what that means I’m not sure, but I’m alarmed mainly by the implication that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a fact of which I was unaware. I was becoming quite fond of WhatsApp too. Ickle Bef uses it to send pictures of swans on the canal, which is charming. And Nicola, sporadically occupied in the Caring Profession between documentaries about the state of the Polynesian rainforests [subtitled], sends occasional informative updates to us all from drug dens in Leith.

If WhatsApp takes a Facebook approach to life and applies its cursed algorithmic approach based on one’s “liking” and “posting” activity… well, no-one will ever see anything I say, ever. 

I might have to start speaking to people in person from here on in. Eek.

The January Blues

And, just like that, it was January. Christmas is all but forgotten, schools go back in two days’ time, routines are gradually rebooting.

I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in a variety of ways over the years.

I’ve been at other peoples’ house parties, I’ve hosted my own parties, been shut out of a Banbridge nightclub and had to bribe the doorman to get in. Been on Edinburgh’s Princes St, kissed a strange girl and then nearly crushed in the exit rush, the year before they made it a ticketed event.

I’ve watched Scottish fireworks from Calton Hill, Australian fireworks over Sydney Harbour, been behind a keyboard trying and failing to play ceilidh tunes as folk whirled in the new millennium, been in church watchnight services, in prayer meetings, sat with friends doing a jigsaw, watched Jools’ Hootenanny.

Over the years and across the experiences I’ve learned that my favourite way to bring in the new year is less to do with the activity, and even the environment, and more about the company. Just simply being in the company of friends is how I like to close out the old, and bring in the new, no matter what we’re doing. 

The older the friends, the better, I reckon, but it takes time to grow an old friend, as the fridge magnet says, and one’s friend-circle is an ever-evolving thing. So time with new friends is an investment worth making. This year’s new friend could be next year’s old friend. A year can be a long time in a friendship.

Maybe there’s a comforting reassurance, as something familiar ends, and something new begins, that we’re not alone, there are others on this journey with us.

And so the NYE festivities, 2018 edition, began with dinner out with friends.

My flatmate joined us for dinner. I put it to him that a worthy Flat Goal for 2019 would be to defrost the freezer, seeing as it’s currently quite hard to close the door without an application of one’s size 11s. He concurred. Much fruitful conversation was had with the gang on the best technique for defrosting our freezer. Hairdryers, hot knives and towels were recommended.

My flatmate and I are a little lacking in the hairdryer department, on account of not being overly endowed in the hair department. But hot knives sounded fun.

Most of the party retired in a southwesterly direction back along the canal to Ickle Bef’s flat for a heady late-night combination of quizzes, many rounds of Ligretto, and a smidgeon of Jack Daniels.

It was here that one of the party dropped the bombshell that Jools’ Hootenanny is not, in fact, filmed live, but pre-recorded early in December. She was, by her own admission, deep in Prosecco at this point, and thus I’m not sure her testimony can be considered valid. I remain in denial to this day.

At 23:59 it was suggested we put on the TV for the bells, which – it turned out – was cutting it a little fine. The TV had been disconnected from its box earlier in the evening for quiz purposes, and the New Year arrived, technically bang on schedule but slightly earlier than we were prepared for, with Ickle Bef wrestling manfully with HDMI cables underneath the TV.

Many, many of the NYE parties I’ve attended, and especially the ones I’ve organised, have neglected to remember that midnight – the climax of the evening – actually the whole point of the evening – was fast approaching, until it was fractionally too late even for the 10 second countdown, and someone hastily shouted HAPPY NEW YEAR! And then it doesn’t really matter that one missed the actual moment, because the round of glasses-chinking, hugging and well-wishing can be just as effectively enacted at one or two minutes past the hour.

And anyway, as Bono says, nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

I woke up New Year’s Day morning. Checked my phone. My flatmate had texted.

09:05

Happy New Year! Freezer Done!

There goes my solitary goal for 2019.

Bono’s right, and wrong. It may only be the calendar date that changes, but still, it somehow affords a fresh start, a reset of thinking and priorities. The days are getting longer, albeit not noticeably so just yet. 

No blues over here, just January.

Here’s to fresh adventures in 2019!

Almost New Year

We’re midway through the festive season, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, when some have gone back to work and some haven’t. It’s an odd time of year. All through December I look forward to the time off that comes at Christmastime, and then when I get there I’m not always sure what to do with it.

Late on the eve of Christmas Eve, I began packing for my early morning flight the next day.

Packing, I find a relatively straightforward business, when going somewhere for a decent length of time – heading to the US for 10 days, for example. Or when going skiing. In both of these scenarios there is a lot of underwear to pack, not to mention a shedload of compassionate chocolate for my American friends in the former instance, and thus the which-bag-to-take decision is an open and shut, er, case.

When one is flying down to London for only four and a half days, however, there is much opportunity for vacillation. And when there’s an opportunity to vacillate I like to grab it decisively.

It seemed easy enough, initially. I had the option of checking a bag into the hold for free. It was a no-brainer.

So I dragged out the big guy, and started to fill it. Got everything in, room to spare. Looked a little under-filled, frankly. Began to wonder if I could have got it all in the carry-on-appropriate little guy. 

Vacillated.

Got the little guy out. Decanted everything from the big guy into the little guy and packed it to the gunnels. It fitted, just. Although there remained the ‘morning of’ items that would need added. Would be tight. Decided it was going to be ok.

But now… all the toiletries needed to be in 100ml containers. Dug out some clear plastic bags and began to fill them. Realised my Travel Size tube of shaving gel is probably 4 years old now. Wondered if I’d made the right decision. Would I have to re-check in?

Vacillated.

What settled it in the end was the thought…

“What if I receive a gargantuan Christmas present this year?”

And that did it. There was simply no space for a gargantuan present. 

Everything out of the little guy, back into the big guy.

Arrived at London City Airport, and my sister picked me up, with my oversized suitcase, at what we both thought was the pick-up point.

Cue the arrival of an Official at the driver’s window.

“I’m terribly sorry, madam, but I need to inform you that you haven’t got a ticket YET, but as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge. This is a drop-off area only.”

My sister protested her innocence. No signs, she said. This is where she’d always come to pick up people, she said, channeling a classic Northern Irish argument for right-of-way. I was waiting for “My father and my grandfather ALWAYS picked up people here y’know” but it never came.

The Official, as Officials are wont to do, failed to acknowledge anything she was saying and simply repeated the script.

“…as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge.”

With the option of ‘driving away’ now effectively off the table, I began to think we might be spending Christmas there, just me and her, in the car. Maybe Deliveroo could bring over some turkey sandwiches to keep us going. I had some Christmas tunes on my phone. It might not be so bad. Just four and a half days, then I could leave the car – mildly odorous and slightly itchy I would presume – and go back into the terminal to fly home, and she could safely drive off, having legitimately dropped me off at the drop-off point.

Mercifully, a compromise was reached, which involved me guiltily exiting the car, walking a few hundred metres to the official pick-up point, where my sister picked me up again, legally, for £397 less than she might have had to pay, and Christmas was saved. Hurrah!

Christmas Day duly arrived. Christie (6) declared to anyone who would listen that he had seen Santa and his reindeer flying into the garden the previous night.

“I literally saw Blitzen fly down into the garden.” 

“Oh really?”

“He nearly crashed into the SHED!” he proclaimed, joyful and triumphant.

I need to have a conversation with Christie about his use of “literally”. Maybe next year.

Over Christmas much turkey and many pigs in blankets were consumed. 

Of course, no gargantuan presents were received. However, I did receive a triple-pack of white hankies with my initial embroidered in the corners, which made up for the slightly disappointing absence of socks.

After a muddy visit to the park, and a family outing to see the wonderful Mary Poppins Returns, having been warned in a dream, I returned to the airport by another route (the bus and the DLR). This foxed the Official completely.

Back in Edinburgh Friday evening, it being the last Friday of the month, me and the gang were at an unusually-quiet Akva for a festive G&T. Or two. Or three, in some cases, but no names will be mentioned.

Post-Akva, there was an ill-conceived and ultimately abortive attempt to go clubbing by a few of our number. Once again no names will be mentioned. On our initial foray into an establishment on Grindlay Street, we appeared to have stumbled upon an underground table-tennis club. For children. 

Bemused, we beat a hasty retreat and retired to a nearby bar, where there seemed to be some other over-16 revellers, and we shouted at each other at close range for a couple of hours. It was great fun, although I really don’t know what anyone said, and just nodded and smiled a lot. 

Last words of the year go to Over the Rhine

Happy Almost New Year. There is still so much music left to be made.

 

Shower Screens and Jim Reeves

’Twas the Thursday before the Saturday before the Saturday before Christmas, when all through the house, was heard a resounding crash as the shower screen collapsed into the bath. Came right out of its wall fixings, and took a couple of bottles of toiletries with it. My flatmate’s caffeine-free shampoo was almost severed in two.

Mercifully, I was not having a shower at the time, or my glittering sporting career might have been rudely brought to an end before it had even begun.

Thinking the crash had come from outside, I didn’t investigate at the time, and thus didn’t discover the scene of devastation until I went into the bathroom for a mild ablute (no.1 flush button only).

It did bring to mind an incident from student days, where, having failed to acknowledge – much less deal with – a burgeoning bulge in the ceiling directly above the shower, we were rewarded one Sunday morning by seeing a flatmate emerging from the bathroom, somewhat discombobulated, with remnants of plaster in his hair, the ceiling having collapsed on him mid-shower.

It wasn’t all that rewarding for the flatmate in question, naturally, but it tickled us greatly.

Anyway, I rescued the dented shampoo bottle, and washed my hands with some ADVANCED hand wash, the label of which promised would protect me for a full 3 hours, and contained MARINE MINERALS for extra reassurance.

I felt extra-reassured by the presence of the marine minerals, but really I was only wanting to wash my hands. Important thing to do at any time, but perhaps particularly when one is suffering one’s second cold of the winter. Even if one is being a particularly brave little soldier and trying not to complain too much about it to all and sundry.

It’s now 4pm on Saturday, and outside the windows of the Hideout, night has fallen. The hanging hipster light bulbs reflect dimly off the glass, nearly opaque with condensation.

Tomorrow it’s our final Carol Service at church, the final ‘big’ service of the year, the end of Carol Service Fortnight. Thus the workload will ease on Monday, and the wind-down for Christmas will begin.

Thursday night, driving home from a long day at work, I was tootling along Grange Road, quite the thing, dreaming up the culinary delight that I was going to treat my taste-buds to when I got home. 

Belatedly I noticed, through the evening darkness, a cluster of hi-viz jackets at the side of the road. The middle hi-viz jacket appeared to be pointing a contraption at me. I braked reflexively and checked the speedometer. After braking, I was coming down towards 20mph.

I suspect Lothian and Borders will be sending me something this week, and it’s unlikely to be a Christmas card.

There’s a Maserati driver in Edinburgh, who has made his or her feelings clear on the subject of our 20mph speed limits, by obtaining the registration plate

F20 MPH

I hear you Maserati driver, I hear you.

In happier news, my sister has already sent me my first Christmas present of the year – Jim Reeves’ 12 Songs of Christmas. On vinyl. I am made up.

Growing up, until the release of Phil Coulter’s Christmas, Jim Reeves was the definitive Christmas soundtrack for us as a family. 

I was mildly surprised to discover later in life that there were in fact more than 12 Christmas songs out there, and initially viewed any of these pretenders with suspicion.

Too late for another coffee now. Time to head home. It’ll be 19 mph all the way…

Saturday at the Hideout

And so I wake in the morning // And I step outside // And I take a deep breath and I get real high // And I scream from the top of my lungs // What’s going on?

It’s Carol Service week at our church. Carol Service fortnight, really. In my world, this means longer hours – prepping, planning, emailing, video editing, and picking up kit. Crossing task after task off the to-do list, without the Tasks-Still-To-Do figure seeming to reduce at all.

It’s late morning on Saturday. Nicola is probably at the Cameo watching a foreign subtitled documentary about a year in the life of a rural French primary school teacher.

Money’s too tight to mention // I can’t get an unemployment extension // Money’s too tight to mention.

I am ensconced in my new favourite coffee shop, in Leith, having picked up some hired sound equipment from the nearby Warehouse. Another thing off the list.

My new favourite coffee shop has those hipster lightbulbs hanging in the window, slightly oversized, with filaments glowing brightly enough to emanate a sense of warmth, without, probably, any actual warmth, and very little actual light. But they look great.

I just wanna dance the night away // With señoritas who can sway // Right now tomorrow’s lookin’ bright // Just like the sunny mornin’ light

The coffee is decent, and the almond croissants are epic.

Nailed to the wall are a cluster of box-shelves, housing a variety of historic museum pieces. There are a couple of old alarm clocks, an old telephone with one of those rotary dialling mechanisms, a gas lamp or two, and a hand-operated coffee grinder sitting alongside a stovetop espresso maker. It brings me a perverse sense of pleasure that I am using a museum-worthy method to make my coffee every morning.

It’s just a little crush (crush) // Not like I faint every time we touch // It’s just some little thing (crush) // Not like everything I do depends on you // Sha-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la

The place has an unmistakable whiff of nostalgia. It’s winter, and in the middle of the room, contravening all manner of health and safety regulations I imagine, is something I haven’t seen for a serious number of years. It’s what I want to call a Calor Gas heater, although I daresay that’s like calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.

But by far its most prominent nostalgia-inducer for a child of the 80s such as myself is a wall-full of stereo cassette decks. Some single, mostly twin, there’s even a TRIPLE for maximum-efficiency mixtape-making. And on another wall, sitting atop an emptied-out TV cabinet (now jammed full of cassettes), is the cafe’s working model, a white plastic Sharp with stickers proudly advertising its main features.

Continuous Play™. 2-way 4-speaker. 14W PMPO, for goodness’ sake. Made in Malaysia.

That’s what is providing the tunes. Right now it’s a Simple Minds number which I can’t quite remember the title of, and can’t quite hear the words to Google them, because they’re just a touch too muddy.

None of your digital multi-room wireless bluetooth remote app-controlled streaming devices here. Proper music, without too much bass OR treble to speak of, and, Continuous Play™ notwithstanding, the periodic need for a staff member to come and turn the tape over. 

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning // The sun shining for your eyes // Wake up it’s so beautiful // For what could be the very last time

I had a Sharp twin cassette deck myself, back in the day. Featured hi-speed dubbing as I recall. But what sold it to me way back then in 1989 was a fully separate subwoofer speaker, positioned on top, slightly off-centre, pointing upwards. “X-BASS” proudly emblazoned on the speaker grille. This speaker could be activated by pressing the almost magical X-BASS button, which brought a definite and noticeable additional boominess to the music, without any extra bass as such.

It was such an amazing machine that someone’s made a Youtube video about it.

Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere // That I can find you // Oh, now, // Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere that I can find you, oh no

It cost £100, and I saved up for it with my own pocket money. I remember using it to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria on repeat, and used it to record U2’s 1989 New Year’s concert – broadcast live on Radio 1 – as they brought in a whole new decade at the Point Depot, Dublin. Heady days.

So take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // Oh Lord, // ‘Cause I’ve been a prisoner all my life

It now seems to be Phil Collins on repeat. Nostalgia can put a gloss on only so much. Take me home, indeed.