Dutch Sprouts, Christmas Shopping and ROAST Syndrome
Another Christmas away from home and here I am, listening to ‘Carols from King’s College’ and eating hot mince pies while the warm sun shines outside in a bright blue desert sky. It feels cooler than usual for the time of year – a very pleasant 25 degrees or so, with a wonderfully refreshing breeze and a few substantial clouds floating about. It would be my ideal weather in fact, if only it wasn’t Christmas Eve.
I remember one particularly lovely Christmas Eve when I lived in Canterbury: the air was freezing and sparkling with anticipation. I drove to a local farm shop and, wrapped up in several long scarves I picked through their frost-kissed vegetables, choosing some muddy carrots and a long, green stalk of sprouts grown at the farm nearby. I bought some local mistletoe too. I took the bits to my parents’ house along with several bags of wrapped presents. As usual the front door was adorned with a jolly Christmas wreath and I could see the brightly coloured lights of the Christmas tree glowing through the glass. I rang the bell and waited a few moments for the door to open – for the warmth and light and smell of mulled wine to flood out and invite me in. I remember watching my breath steaming in the air and thinking how gorgeous that moment was – all of Christmas still to come; the perfectly still frostiness of the evening and the immediate promise of warmth and family and happiness. And mulled wine.
I’ve got used to these far-from-home Christmases and I know we’ll have a fun and festive day in spite of the perversely lovely weather. The Christmas shopping is all done at least, and that’s certainly a very different affair over here… All the shopping for family back in England is done via the magic of the interweb: with just a few clicks (seventeen passwords, a few online PINs and a credit card security code or two) you can find just about anything you need, get it gift-wrapped and popped in Santa’s sleigh within seconds. Not as romantic or indeed as Dickensian as strolling through the dark, cobbled streets of Canterbury in a blizzard, carrying armfuls of bags and parcels, but it is very practical. Shopping in the malls over here is very efficient too – particularly once you know where all your favourite shops are… After living here for over three years I still get hopelessly lost in Dubai Mall (the world’s largest indoor shopping centre, based on total area), but I can now find my way to M&S or Waitrose in the same eerily instinctive way a drunk person can locate the nearest loo. The malls are so huge here, some people (AKA my husband) have been known to pop in for a spot of Christmas shopping only to stagger home many hours later with little more to show for their efforts than a DVD box set, blisters on their feet and the haunted look of person who has had one too many Starbucks Gingerbread Lattés. One of the good things about shopping in malls is that you don’t suffer from the alternately sweaty and shivery physical discomfort of what I call ROAST syndrome: Retail Over-heating Amidst Sub-zero Temperatures. Wrapped up in a duffel coat, woollen gloves, fluffy ear muffs and a balaclava, you brave the freezing British high street, only to get your eye-balls blasted dry with gusts of burning hot air as soon as you enter a shop, and you immediately have to strip off four or five layers which you then have to carry around with you as you choose your gifts, inevitably dropping one glove on the floor somewhere near the scented candles. ROAST syndrome is responsible for many a homeless mitten.
Shopping for Christmas dinner here requires no Arctic outerwear at all, just a bit more persistence to find all the things you need (GOT the cranberry sauce! but the quest for bread sauce mix is something akin to searching for the lost treasure of the Knights Templar). We’ve managed to get some of our Christmas veg from local organic farms (a rapidly growing industry here – and, frankly, something of a miracle), but much of our festive food is imported… The Turkish Delight really is from Turkey, and the turkeys are from France. Unsurprisingly, brassicas don’t do so well in the desert and our sprouts have come all the way from Holland. Thank you, Holland (my husband may not look grateful but he WILL enjoy his compulsory sprouts come hell or high, foul-smelling water). Sadly, they are not on a stalk. They are wrapped in cling-film.
Where possible this year, I’ve tried to get my Dubai Christmas presents from anywhere other than big chain shops. Global Village (I LOVE Global Village) has provided some lovely hand-crafted pieces from India and Africa and I found some gorgeous things at the local artisans’ market, ARTE. I happen to have a regular stall at this market (Books Bejewelled, for all your literary trinket requirements…) and this weekend I encountered the sorriest victim of last-minute Christmas shopping I have ever seen. The poor man was sweating and had what looked like an entire cup of coffee spilt down the front of his t-shirt (possibly a Starbucks latté, though thankfully I didn’t get close enough to confirm whether or not it was their festive gingerbread variety). He sidled up to my table, a wild, terrified look in his eyes, and whispered in the manner of a Cold War spy, “Do you know my wife?”
“Pardon?” I said.
“Do you know my wife?”
“I err – I’m afraid I don’t know whether or not I know your wife…”
“She likes jewellery. I’ve got to buy her some jewellery. Does she like your jewellery?”
“I… I don’t know…”
“No. No I understand…” He shuffled away and I saw him approach the next jewellery vendor with the same, desperate question – “Do you know my wife?” Poor fellow. I hope he found her some nice jewellery and that she appreciates all his efforts, as they were clearly born of love. And fear. Love and fear.
Well, I’ve got some wrapping up of presents to do now. I’ll be putting on the traditional ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and burning some Christmassy orange and cinnamon candles while I curl ribbons, swear at disobedient rolls of wrapping paper and stick my fingers together with Sellotape. Tomorrow I will Skype the family and eat Dutch sprouts. And I might go for a walk on the beach too… If the sun insists on shining I suppose I might as well make the most of it.