Escape to moominland midwinters

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Do you know that amazing feeling when you pull down an unpromising book from a shelf and are unexpectedly and completely transported by its raptures? One of the first times I ever experienced this feeling was with the Moomintroll books. At first glance they were silly children’s stories, but within the space of a page I, like millions of others, was hooked.

Moomins are wonderful, strange, tolerant beings, rather bohemian in spirit with a gentle philosophy of life. They live in circular houses, follow comets, grow jungles from hobgoblin hats, fly around on little clouds, deal with strange Hattifatteners and always have an open door and a spare bed for any visitors. The author and illustrator Tove Jansson has a remarkable talent for treating dark subjects with a light and satirical touch, and capturing the essence of Scandinavian joy and gloom.  Moominmamma is my ultimate heroine: I do wish I was as kind, patient, unflappable and fair as she, although I can’t quite see myself with her handbag.

Come autumn, just imagine filling your tummy with pine needles like a moomin, wrapping up your chandelier to protect it from dust, and settling down as the first snowflakes flutter, to sleep all through the long, hard winter. It’s tempting, isn’t it, on a cold grey day like this?

But Moominland Midwinter is darker, and more introspective than the earlier books. Moomintroll wakes up unexpectedly and is lonely, miserable and scared in a world to which he feels he does not belong – a world where the sun does not rise and the ground is covered with cold, white, wet powder. Fortunately he soon meets Too-ticky and a dear Dorry lookalike, Little My, who takes delight in sledging down the snowy hills on Moominmamma’s silver tea tray, and they build a snow horse for the Lady Of The Cold.

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The bureaucrat’s breakfast

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Some things don’t change nearly enough, and one of these is ‘breakfast’ at the office (in the canteen, 9.28 and 30 seconds sharp!). So I always look forward to December, when the bread in the shape of people arrives. They’re known as bonhomme, and are very tasty – even when they are particularly squat and malformed, like this one.

But I displayed my ignorance when I asked for a bonhomme today. I didn’t know they were only for ‘Nicholas’, which is now of course past. I didn’t know either that they are basically a German tradition: all sorts of amazing bread is cooked in wonderful shapes for this day. The waiter consoled me with a brioche instead, which is basically the same delicious eggy and buttery substance but without the cannibalistic edge.

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When the season gets sticky …

December 6, 2009 Leave a comment

Taking on the Christmas customs of the place you live in is a brilliant idea in principle. There have to be limits, however. Especially since we already have our Danish nisse to deal with, I’m relieved the girls were too old to embrace Saint Nicholas wholeheartedly when we came here.

Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, visits good children on 5 or 6 December, depending on exactly where you live, and lays presents in their shoes. We do a nice piece of chocolate for any kids in residence on the day, but that is it.

I was actually a bit shocked when I first saw Saint Nick and his ‘helper’ in the local shopping centre. You don’t have to be raving monster loony politically correct to find Black Peter and his switches for whipping naughty children downright scary and a little strange.

Every year this stirs debate an ethical debate. Some people find it pretty offensive or even downright racist, but at least one mosque in the Netherlands has stoically invited Sinterklaas to pay a special visit this year. In fact, they even cracked a joke.

Question: Why does’t Saint Nicholas ever come to the mosque?

Answer: there are too many shoes outside. Ha ha ha ha ha.

I’ll leave the commentary to the acid American writer David Sedaris, who has a hilarious take on this. This actually misses out some very funny sideswipes at gun law in the start of his essay: you can catch the full text here.

Me? I’m glad we stick to chocolate.

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The spirits of Christmas presents

December 5, 2009 Leave a comment

Phew, the last of our nisse calendar arrived safely with its recipient on Friday, braving postal services and appalling weather.

Twenty-four tiny packages, one for every day of advent. Every year I wonder if this isn’t a daft thing to do: every year the sheer joy and beauty of it wins out.  Yes, things have snowballed, and yes, there’s too much consumption in general. But the calendar presents are tiny, cheap, ironic, edible, useful (socks, gloves, hair elastics, pens) or Christmasy (fun in the run-up, but who would be seen dead with it after Boxing Day).

The dark side of Norse mythology is well known, but the world of elves and pixies is more closely guarded. Nisse, as we know them from our days in Denmark, are usually benevolent creatures, rather human in appearance and fond of red caps, who hang out in attics, barns and stables and keep a watch on humans and their happiness. You need to keep on good terms with them, or all sorts of strange things can happen. It’s particularly advisable to feed them rice porridge, with cinnamon sugar and a big pat of butter. Above all, they love the farm animals, and the horses.

A classic children’s tale about the Tomten, the Swedish version of the Nisse, is beautifully retold by Astrid Lindgren. Her quiet, rhythmic text ‘balances coziness with just the right shiver of mysteriousness’ (I’m quoting Michele Landsberg here): People never see the Tomten, who has seen many hundreds of winters and knows that ‘winters come and winters go, summers come and summers go’. The only way we are aware of his presence is by spotting his footprints in the snow when we awake. At night, he moves about the farm ‘on small silent feet’, cheering on the animals with encouraging verses in ‘a silent little language’ only they can understand. Children, too could understand Tomten language, ‘but children sleep at night’.

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Climate change and chocolate soup

December 5, 2009 Leave a comment

Not a wave, not a ripple, not a stir. Today I went looking for a little bit of climate action; surely there must be some spill-over from the tens of thousands of people demonstrating in the UK, and elsewhere, to try to convince world leaders to agree concrete actions at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

I did eventually manage to track down a vigil in our wee country, and arranged with a friend to meet at the appointed place at the appointed time. Ominously, when I went back on the Internet to check the details, the link kept taking me to South America instead. We turned up anyway.

OK, the weather was appalling – the rain lashed down in cords, huge global warming-sized globlets of it. I bought, and immediately broke, a six euro umbrella, in the gusty squalls. The square was empty, apart from a solitary police car. We wandered round other likely sites in the city in the deluge, to see if the action was elsewhere.

I marvelled (for the second time this week) at the sheer quantity of Christmas lights, the hundreds making up outsize baubles in the Louis Vuitton shop windows alone, the follies adorning the facades of banks, and the thousands of people out consume consume consuming and pumping up emissions on Saint Nicholas eve.  

Of course, individual protests may be futile, and do more to make the protesters feel good than anything else. Only firm government action has a real chance of arresting climate change. But it would be good to see some token, some sign that people stopped for even seconds to think about the consequences of our actions.

Instead we shelved our sodden coats and drank hot chocolate in the wonderful Dutch chocolate shop opposite the palace, with other refugees.

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Heavy Xmas metal

December 4, 2009 Leave a comment

Just when I was sure you couldn’t possibly get more uncreative than my present workplace they go and surprise me. A wonderful smell of mulled wine wafting up the office stairwell, and then this!

And this!

And – the really wild one – this!

Tinsel, baubles and metal go together rather well. Someone lit an advent wreath without setting off the sprinklers, although I don’t think I’ll risk doing this myself. And I learned that some people can twist twinsel around a stair rail and make it look fantastic, but most of us can’t.

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Riches from the east

December 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Near the end of November we children would eagerly await a big brown envelope with Swedish stamps, sent by a kindly friend of my father’s. In those days, advent calendars were a rarity, and looking forward to “our” day to open the door and reveal the picture inside was a real treat. When you are six children, that’s just four times each.

This year I have chosen a calendar depicting my favourite part of the Nativity, the three wise men. If you could look closely enough, you’d see how wonderfully sparkly their clothing is. I  always tried to pick the magi (it’s a Persian word in origin, apparently) to unwrap when we put up the crib. Their different complexions and magnificent robes were so exotic in damp grey Belfast: they spoke of warmer lands and deserts, they came with camels, crowns and gifts. The words were for rolling on the tongue – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Perhaps I was already an anthropologist in the making.

But there was also just the enormity of following a star, the sheer immenseness of the universe and the journey in it, which meant far more to me than any god. And Christmas brought exotic treats: clementines, with one or two wrapped in silver foil, dates and jellied Chinese figs. My father told a deliciously disgusting (and quite untrue) tale about how the last of these got their shape, but we still managed to gorge them down.

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