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A Polish Christmas in Review – by Justyna

18 Dec

It is meant to be winter here. Plummeting minus temperatures, woolen mittens, snowmen in peoples’ gardens, white goodness all around. It is meant to be Christmas time. But in reality it is sloshy at its best. We are being completely ripped off on the winter front. Kazek is not even wearing thermals under his pants. Talking +2 to +8 degrees. Atrocious. Good news is that we are saving a heap on the heating bill. The bad news is that because temps haven not reached freezing, there is plenty of ‘sickness’ in the air with the bacteria just refusing to die. Meaning, people are constantly fluey or drippy or both.

Christmas in nonetheless upon us. And this being my sixth Christmas in Poland, I thought it best to do a mini review of the Polish Yuletide festivities. I guess the general vibe in a nutshell is family and food. Bit of Christ-is-born thrown in there for legitimising purposes, but overall it is all about family and food. And cleaning. Polish women kind of go mental on the cleaning front. They actually have the strength and willpower to do complete spring-cleaning type efforts in the middle of harsh atmospheric conditions. We are talking washing of the windows. Ah yes. A very close friend of mine recently caught a cold washing her windows despite wearing a winter get-up of beanie, gloves and scarf. That is commitment for you. My mum the other day enquired whether I had washed mine. She caught herself mid sentence and exclaimed, I guess you’re eight months pregnant so you have an excuse not to. Well phew. And here I was thinking I would be expected to pull the ladder from out the basement. Kitchen cupboards get done-over with every jam jar and pasta container removed so that shelves could be wiped. All toiletries in bathrooms are also removed and bathroom cupboards cleaned. I know of instances where jars of creams and hair spray bottles are also wiped down. Curtains are washed and ironed, dust is removed from lamp shades. Basically entire homes get made-over. A friend runs a local gym for women. It is usually open from early morning hours until very late at night. She has been forced by the crazy cleaning women of the area to reduce the opening hours by about a half in the two weeks before Christmas. Most of her clientele had informed her that what with Christmas cleaning, going to the gym will simply be put on hold.

Once you have cleaned for a week you then start on the cooking and the shopping for all the cooking…

Although the giving of presents during Christmas is part of the tradition and always has been, it does not carry as much attention as it does in Oz. People in general don’t talk about Christmas shopping. They don’t go all out with efforts of what to get their loved ones. There are no massive Christmas shopping rushes in malls like those of the ones I knew back in Sydney. There really is no late-night Christmas presents shopping culture. And no one, no one, buys gifts outside the month of December. This chilled approach suits my anti-shopping ways just fine. But what the Poles do go crazy over is the food shopping. Think Tesco meltdown in the fish section. Bombardment of baking aisles with almonds, poppy seeds and baking powder being bought by the tones. Meats accumulated in such proportions that if Poland experienced a nuclear disaster, its citizens would be set with protein for about fifteen months. What you do not do, what you must never do, is leave your Christmas food shopping until the last minute. You will be entering hell if you do. Instead you do like the wise older-generation local housewives do (who lived most of the their lives without massive supermarkets at hand), you purchase in small doses throughout the week. Bring some herring in on Monday. Some flour and sugar on the Tuesday. Sauerkraut and dried wild mushrooms on the Wednesday. Everyone knows that the last thing you purchase is a carp. Usually still alive. You tend to buy it the day before Christmas Eve. And if you happen to be out of yeast or sour cream, then you send the kid or the husband to the local shop to avoid culinary disasters.

And then the cooking begins. There are twelve dishes on the Christmas Eve table and the deal is you are meant to try a little bit (or a lot) of each one. Again the women go into over-drive. Into hellish cooking frenzy. To the point that they are completely exhausted by the time the great feast begins (which is around 4pm at the ‘light of the first star’) and often do not make it to Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve is the big night of celebrations. It is a pescatarian delight with various fish and traditional dishes set on the table. Presents are also given on this night and if you want to go strictly by the book, the Christmas tree is dressed during the morning of the 24th. You sing carols (well we do), men wear suits and ties, women pretty dresses. The head of the family ‘breaks bread’ in the form of a communion wafer (‘host’) and everyone individually wishes other members of the family health, prosperity and other personal wishes. It is a pretty special moment whereby ten, thirteen or so people, before sitting down to the great feast, stands around the living room wishing one another best of things for the new year to come. If the family is churchly the grandparent might read a bit from the bible. Then you sit and eat. And you eat and drink (no alcohol, no meat) slowly but surely until midnight, when the fam puts on their woolies and hits the Midnight Mass. You then come back (if you are lucky you will be trudging through the snow), to the feast table and that is when the grog and cakes come out. Jesus has officially been born, so you can now indulge in the more sinful aspects of life – alcohol and sugar.

Christmas Day is much of the same but more low key. Red meat comes out, ties come off, families are relaxed, the women fuss less around the table. It’s also a time when you visit closer friends and distant family members. Basically your gut continues to be full, you refuse to take another morsel, but when the pork loin with the prunes is wheeled out, you just can’t bloody help yourself. Advent is officially over.

The tree is up until around the 6th of January (The Day of Epiphany). And then the Carnival begins.

 We are having Christmas at our place this year. Being close to popping I didn’t really fancy driving for ages across Poland and running into the possibility of giving birth in a forest somewhere. So my parents are coming and so is Natalia, my cousin from Sydney. It will be the first time in my life where I will be playing, along with Michal, Christmas host. How very grown up. I am in a sentimental trap though, wishing also to be in Oz during this time. The warmth would abound, the Eve would be balmy, the prawns would be chilling and the herring salad would only serve as a reminder of the ‘motherland’. Living here and experiencing a totally Polish Christmas every year I have grown to love all the more and miss the Australian version we made for ourselves with the aunts, uncles and cousins, way back when.

 Happy Christmas everyone!


My year in review – by Karen

17 Dec

2011 has been a pretty awesome year, when I think about it. I didn’t have any nervous breakdowns like last year. My family was happy and healthy. My grandfather did pass away, but he was in his mid-nineties, and I was extremely grateful that he avoided the kind of lengthy stay in hospital that he would have hated.

We had some cool visitors this year. We also did some awesome travel. I think the highlight was our family trip to Switzerland – so much wholesome communing with nature, so many bracing hikes. So much calves’ liver and raw cheese (not together).

For me, a year in which you pick raspberries from wild bushes is a good year, no doubt about it.

Most of all, this year was a year of health. I (shortly followed by Richard) dramatically changed my diet and lifestyle. I have always thought that “changing your lifestyle” as a maxim was just a crock of shit. Eating healthy food is not a “lifestyle”. But it has become less shitly in the following sense: I now dedicate a large amount of my time to doing things by which my rational brain is unmoved. I have, for example, spent the last few weeks striving to kick up to handstand  in yoga, which is more difficult and even more pointless than it looks. I achieved it yesterday and this arbitrary goal was far more satisfying than most things I’ve ever done in a workplace. I felt similarly when I did my first crow pose, my first chinup, and my first wheel pose (which is even more satisfying as I remember I couldn’t even do those as a teenager – my PE teacher comfortingly remarked that some bodies just aren’t meant to do some things). I realise now that this may be what sport is about: a continuous setting and meeting of arbitrary goals. The outcome is unimportant so there’s no room for stress, but the achievement still carries its bounty of confidence and invigoration.

This was me at the start of 2011:

I am kind of embarrassed to post this photo on the internet, but what is actually embarrassing is that I thought I looked good that day. Delusion is powerful.

This is me this morning:

Ok, so this photo is also embarrassing, but just because my bra is showing. You're supposed to notice the weight loss though.

Anyhow, even if it’s not super dramatic in the photos, it is super dramatic for me. Since March I transitioned from obese, to overweight, and this morning became reaquainted with my long lost friend, the normal weight category.

I’ve had only two colds in the last 9 months, whereas I used to get them constantly (kids). And the colds have been different (no snot, just a shortlived period of “ugh, I feel off”, which must be what a functioning immune system feels like).

I may regain the weight, or stop losing, or whatever, but you will pry my new physical skills from my cold, dead hands. So this is a permanent change, and not every year comes with those.

In 2011 my son started school, K1, at the most amazing dream school in the world. Leaving Singapore (eventually) will be that much more of a bummer because of it. He learned to really read this year, which is an amazing miracle every time it happens to someone and a privilege to behold. My baby girl learned to talk in sentences which I could describe the same way. They were both incredibly annoying at various times.

Although I’ve been fairly obsessed with my superficial health goals, this hasn’t caused the sky to fall down and I’ve in fact been more philanthropic and helpful to others than usual, which I see as a big green light for future selfishness.

It hasn’t all been bootcamp and yoga class though, I have also watched some terrible films (what happened to movies!?) and some awesome television (Homeland, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boss, Downton Abbey). I read few books.

There’s been Suzy and Ben’s wedding to celebrate, and Tabitha and Nathan’s to look forward to. I’m not good with episodic memory so I won’t list everything that has happened. This would also bore you.

Next year is looking good. I like change, and change will be afoot. I cannot discuss on the internet what form it might take (for real, practical reasons, not trying to be mysterious) but feel free to email me if you don’t know what I’m talking about. You will receive a swift and anti-climactic reply.

I would love to read your years in review in the comments below!

Inflight movie reviews- by Tabitha

15 Dec

These are the movies I watched during our Kuala Lumpur to Sydney flight today:

– Contagion: I enjoyed the part where Gwyneth Paltrow died a horrible, painful death.

– 27 Dresses: I can’t even remember what happened in this, despite watching it only hours ago. Something about weddings.

– My Sister’s Keeper: This is a Cameron Diaz movie based on a Jodi Picoult book. It is as horrific as that sounds, and a heavy-handed tear-jerker. Annoyingly, it actually did jerk a tear out of me, which I attribute to always being more emotionally affected by plane movies.

Now I am in Sydney for three days, then heading off to Melbourne to see the sisters, then it’s Christmas and New Year in Cambodia with Simon and Sarah. I will review this in advance for you: extremely awesome.

Shit week in review – by Beth

13 Dec

We’ve had a shit week this last week. Jeff got bacterial conjunctivitis right after Leo’s party and a cold and then Leo and I followed suit. Ongoing coughs and mucus flowing thick and fast. All three of us were miserable, cranky bastards (mainly Leo and me actually). Just prior to turning 2 Leo suddenly lost interest in having a day nap which has altered my perceived quality of life markedly. I know how lucky I am that he ever even had choice naps but that hasn’t stopped me shedding actual tears about it. It’s a grieving process. The days where he doesn’t nap seem veeeeery long and I don’t get to touch my computer at all some days. I’m already figuring out how to work around it so I don’t go completely insane, but I can’t think of anything else to review before getting this out of my system. Right now Leo is watching the same 10-minute episode of ‘Chuggington’ on repeat enabling me to do this. Bloody hell I was so lucky that I used the time I had earlier this year to do ‘Breadtag World‘. [End whinge]