Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Christmas 2009 (December '09 Webzine blog)

On 16th December I boarded a flight from Incheon airport. Some 15 hours later I stepped off the plane and onto English soil. It was almost a year since I had last visited my home country and, after some worries about finances, my wife and I decided we could afford to go again. Christmas is of course a very special time in England and the traditional time of year for families and relatives to come together. For families like mine without young children and whose members are dispersed all over England (and Korea in my case!) it is probably the only time of year we will all be in the same place. Friends from my home town also come back for Christmas and the New Year, and so it is a great opportunity for me to meet all my family and old friends in a short period of time.

The first week of my trip was unusually cold – below zero for several days and with heavy snow fall in some places. One of my friends was without electricity for a few days because the snow had damaged power lines. Around this time of year English people get very excited about whether there will be a 'white Christmas' – snowfall on Christmas day. There's a very famous song, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas”, sung by Bill Crosby and each year bookmakers take millions of pounds worth of bets on the question. This year looked a good chance for a white Christmas with the unusually cold weather (the last was in 2004) but unfortunately it didn't happen in our home town (though it did in other places).

On Christmas day many families have their own traditional way of spending the day. Christians will often go to a service through the night of Christmas Eve (a 'midnight mass'), or one on Christmas morning. Carol services are very popular, and carol singers go from door to door, although this seems to be dying out. My family usually takes a long walk together after Christmas lunch across the muddy fields nearby our house. We always meet several other families while we are out so that is obviously a popular tradition too. I can guess why – the traditional Christmas lunch is so filling that a walk may be the only way to stop your stomach exploding! The lunch consists of roast turkey, stuffing (a mixture of suet, breadcrumbs and herbs), roast potatoes, winter vegetables (carrots, parsnips and brussell sprouts) and gravy (made from the juices which run off the cooking turkey); followed by a dessert of Christmas pudding (a rich fruit cake soaked in brandy) with brandy-butter. Unsurprisingly people usually put on a few kilogrammes over the Christmas holidays, and the New Year comes just in time to make a resolution to lose weight.

It's amazing how quickly I have got back into the rhythm of my old life in England. After sleeping a few nights in my old room at my parents' house it feels almost as if I never left. Still, the meetings with my friends and family are tinged with sadness as I know I haven't got long to spend with them. It's strange – while I was in Korea I didn't miss them that much, but now I am with them it is heart-wrenching to have to leave again. Maybe if I stayed in England long enough I might start to develop cravings for kimchi, but for now I wish I could stay just a little longer.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

The Joy of Tea (January '10 Webzine Blog)

One forgotten joy I reconnected with on my recent trip to England is the traditional English tea break. The tradition dates back over three hundred years, to when tea was first introduced to England from India (via Portugal), at the end of the 17th century. The drink became increasingly popular under Queen Victoria, when England controlled the majority of the tea trade, and afternoon tea developed into an elaborate ceremony amongst the upper classes. These days Britain has the second highest tea consumption per person in the world (Turkey is first).

Although afternoon tea can be an elaborate ceremony, the every-day tea break is usually a simple affair – a 15 to 30 minute rest for a cup of tea and maybe a couple of biscuits or some cake, before going back to work. As well as giving your body and mind some time to recover from the day's toil, the tea break is also a social occasion, often taken together with colleagues or friends. I had been in Korea a few months when I started to notice I wasn't drinking as much tea as I used to (in England I averaged about 4 cups a day, and I had taken a large stash of teabags with me to Korea). Drinking tea just wasn't as refreshing as it used to be. I cast around for the answer – was it the milk, or was the water different in Korea? I eventually decided it was the social aspect of the tea break I was missing, in Korea I simply didn't have a regular group of friends to take it with me (sadly, while my wife picked up a few English habits from her time in England, tea-drinking isn't one of them). To make up for this I tried joining in with a few colleagues in their post-lunch coffee, but the effect just wasn't the same – within 5 minutes we had gone to the instant coffee machine, drank the coffee, and were back at work – hardly a break at all!

This story of the loss of my tea-breaks may sound light-hearted, but I have decided it is very serious indeed. My trip to England over Christmas gave me some time to reflect on the last year, and I realised that too many times I had been stressed and exhausted by the multiple responsibilities of work and home. Not that there was too much to do – I was busy, but not impossibly so – rather that having to hold on to many different tasks had tied my mind in tighter and tighter knots. I usually consider myself to be quite a relaxed and easy-going person so I was quite puzzled as to the cause of these new stresses. I am now sure that they were down to the lack of tea breaks – which meant I had no time to clear my mind of one task before starting the next. Rather as a cup which is reused repeatedly without cleaning, my mind became stained and mucky.

Luckily, while in England I rediscovered the tea-break as the perfect way to clean my mind. So, since January is the time for new year's resolutions (which usually last until about February), this year I resolved to restart my old habit and give myself at least a couple of tea breaks a day. In fact, maybe it's time for me to have one now...