Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Family Time

Families, they're alright. I am in Budapest with my brother, his wife and their super cute baby. My brother, who is currently singing J Buckley's Hallelujah to his son as he bathes him, had drawn up an itinerary of three activities per day before we arrived and pinned to the kitchen pinboard amongst a few random photographs and cards. He is not the most organised of people, but he is an adventurer at heart; he puts as much as he can into his hours, until he finds a café with some good coffee and some chat.

Today we were hoping to go ice-skating (He is now on Pop Goes the Weasel) as per the plan. We took the metro which is like a funride at a fair, not least because the annoucement at each stop is accompanied by something generated by an ice-cream van or honking a clown's nose. The rink was closed so we ended up (now onto You Can Call Me Al) walking for hours, past all sorts of victory monuments, romanesque, gothic and baroque tribute buildings (not because there aren't real ones in Budapest, we just happened to stumble upon the tribute fare built 100 years ago), genuine Succession buildings, and communist appartment blocks. The streets here are wide and today they were almost deserted. Today or this evening is the time for Christmas celebrations (over fish) in Hungary. I am not sure how we figured we would be able to do more than just walk and look at the few passers-by.

The women here wear a lot of brown clothing, with gaudy (orange, gold and red) accessories, their hair dyed black or red and black eye-liner drawn heavily along the bottom ridge. I write this fully aware that I probably seem like a small boy to them, like I don't make enough of my looks. The men look like weather-beaten sailors or possibly pirates, but perfectly nice ones. (My brother is now singing a demonic version of Silent Night).

As the three of us strode into the wind that was puffing up our full length coats, I sensed that we were about to do Matrix slow-motion backarches then reach into our coats for our guns to blow the crap out of something. Instead we tried in vain to withdraw cash at several cash machines (ATMs), and struggled to identify and explain the significance of various monuments – both are not so easy in a country with a complex political history. Finally we spotted a dull yellowish light and some dark movement – a cafe was open! We ordered coffees and hot chocolate (or cocoa). The cafe was airy and smoky, bohemian and potentially revolutionary yet stately, a place for scheming as well as mindless drinking, friendly yet surly, cold yet warm. This paradoxical style of writing is not only good and bad, but good and evil.

My brother and I talked about our family, everyone in it. We analysed each member's motivations and childhood traumas, factoring each of the possible combinations and permutations. We were fortunate that everything was closed today otherwise we would not have been able to have a proper catch up, which, in a family like mine, means reaching agreement on the causes behind the major frustrations, disputes and tragedies of the day, with a sense of love and humour of course.

It's root vegetable soup time.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Christmas in the Heart

I am off to Paris for the weekend this Friday evening to see Top Friend and Adorable Cousin, who happen to be an item. OK, I wouldn't have met Top Friend were she not seeing Adorable Cousin, but I don't want to refer to her as my cousin's girlfriend as it wouldn't be fair to our friendship. They'll have just arrived from the wedding of my cousin (AC's brother), so I am looking forward to getting carried away with a few gooey stories. I hope they do details. They will. I hate when people can't remember what the maids wore. Useless.

The Boy and I are then taking a sleeper train to Budapest Sunday night to spend Christmas and New Year's with my brother and his wife whom I haven't seen in three years. I will also be meeting my new nephew. I can't wait. Everyone seems to think the sleeper train will be dreamy, but I am wondering whether I will be stacked on top of smelly, overweight, hairy men like I was last time I was in Eastern Europe. There was, of course, a board-come-bed in between us and I did have weaponry under my pillow.

There's a lot of festive love going round.* I have received some generous sentiments in Christmas cards,* I have enjoyed many a mince pie and glass of mulled wine with Oxford friends, and I have been hearing more and more from my loved-ones at home.

One big Chrissy group hug

*Cf. last post.
*Cf. Droid's card that ends: "Yours in eager anticipation of 'Change' and bird flu finally kicking in next year" accompanied by a Napoleon Dynamite-style pencil drawing of a bird with a swastika in its eye.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Hurty Winter Ickiness

Team, I have another wintry post, a confessional of sorts. I have been deeply hurt by someone I regarded as a true friend. Perhaps it's hard to imagine, but there aren't as many life stairwells in Oxford as there are in your hometown and so true friendship (reliability, honesty, kindness and small acts of heroism) becomes even more important, and paradoxically rare. One of my friends told me to repeat the words from The Last of the Mohicans to myself:
[Name], you are a man [or woman] with a few admirable
qualities. But taken as a whole, I was wrong
to have thought so highly of you
This helps a little because it's probably true, but it's not the full picture.

The encouragement of two close friends (whom I dressed up with) got me to a College ball last night. The Boy had to be up North. It was hugely comforting to be amongst many friends whom I have known for a longer time.

I did not think a betrayal from a friend would inspirit much or any sympathy from others. It just doesn't seem to have quite the same kick to it in your adult life, when friendships are often shorter and more practical, and when worthy betrayals are reserved for those in romantic relationships or marriage.

But, as if knowing what I needed without any obvious cues from me, I received supportive words from various unexpected (drunken) sources, about how lovely, fun and well-liked I am, and, from one friend, that she sees me as a strong, dynamic, capable person who she looks up to (gulp). One cheeky boy voted me the most beautiful woman of the evening, which made me smile, even if I know it was essentially my pride desperately needing some mending. And then there was a young gentleman whose girlfriend could not make it who danced with me for the last few songs in a really sweet and respectful way. He had these fun ballroom moves (one quite dangerous) that he assured me were not the product of study.

It's a grey Sunday. I have to do some work and find some peace. These probably won't come together, but I am sure I will feel fine very soon. And there's always Paris.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

It was a Cold and Frosty Morning

photographs by me and The Boy

I have recently had two chapters returned to my supervisor, marked 'Redo' so I am desperately trying to rewrite and polish them before I head off to Paris and Budapest for my Christmas holiday.

I am working hard, sometimes clinical, sometimes infatuated by my topic. It's difficult to avoid all the distractions though, the farewell parties and drinks, formal dinners at Colleges, conversations about holidays, romances, the reduction in VAT, and, as always, Africa. Then there's that uneasiness that comes each year with the dark afternoons, when you have to stop yourself from hopping into bed at 5:30pm.

This morning's walk over frozen mud and grass and pools was a nice change, a distraction that was quiet, delicate and primal. Brought me to the feeling of states of nature changing: water turning into solid, breath turning into liquid.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Christmas Cheer Oxford-Style

Oxford students are always ON, or nearly always, and make that a lot of Oxford students. I am talking about switched on for the Best CV and Cleverest Ever competition. Being on all the time builds up tension and shame, which means that they often 'pass on the sting', to use a neat sociology phrase (although not one that has much weight in certain academic circles), if they see other people not keeping up with them in the bolt through life.

The other day a colleague asked me what he should buy his girlfriend for Christmas, specifically for their agreed upon cheap present exchange. He was thinking a scented candle. That smelt of mother's day or gift from a distant family friend to me so I suggested a pair of long fingerless gloves or a luxurious scarf from Topshop.

Then, from behind a computer, came this snigger from Competitor Student, "He He, that's funny..."

I said smiling, "What do you mean?"

Competitor Student said, "Just hearing you talk about Topshop in the Department, that's just funny to me."

I smiled in a slightly puzzled way and turned to my friend, but what I really wanted to say was: "WAS IT REALLY FUNNY OR WERE YOU JUST SLAPPING ME FOR NOT LINKING IT TO THE PRE-EXISTING LITERATURE? MERRY CHRISTMAS MRS CLAUS!"