Thursday, 24 December 2009

Edinburgh and Festivities

So, like the gnarled hand of death with its hand around our throats ready for the final squeeze, Christmas is almost upon us. Up in Scotland, the festive season has been appropriately hit by a pile of seasonal snow, giving rise to many pretty festive scenes, lots of minor car crashes, and a whole nation of people in constant exclamation about the state of the weather. I am now in my mother's new house - almost completed after months of work and looking very cosy and nice - in Dingwall, after having travelled up from Edinburgh via a quick trip to Aberdeen

In Aberdeen, just to briefly take the conversation aside, I unwittingly recreated what must have surely occurred in many low-quality British 1970s sitcoms, when I had to venture into my attic to unplug something. I'm now living in Edinburgh, and the flat in Aberdeen has just been put on the rental market but obviously around Christmas isn't really prime time for leasing out. As part of the moving and leasing, I put all my spare possessions (rather a lot) into my attic, took away the stairway, and nailed a big hatch over the top. Access was only possible therefore by removing the hatch, and an additional lock, and hauling myself up the hole. As the ceiling is rather high, and as I have no ladder, this is achieved by precariously balancing a bedside table on top of a chest-of-drawers. And alas, as I pulled myself up, my feet knocked the beside table off, onto the ground. So I was suddenly trapped in my attic, with the floor and chest-of-drawers looking frighteningly distant. My flat door was also locked with the key in the lock, so there wasn't even a possibility of phoning someone to rescue me. So I paced around my attic for a while, considering my options, all of which seemed to conclude in certain death or paralysis, and finally reckoned the best way was just to lower myself from the attic hole, hanging from the ceiling, and hope my feet could find the chest-of-drawers. This was in fact successfully concluded, without serious or mortal injury, but with a somewhat lack of grace. All I required, as I hung from the ceiling, feet flailing, was a jaunty comedy piano number, and perhaps a camp gent/butch wife/black neighbour to make some kind of weak joke about "How's it hanging?" before the credits rolled.

Anyway, that is all to the side and past, and now I'm in a snow-filled Dingwall, in a warm house, alone except for my mother's wimpy cat who spends his entire life pressed against radiators. My mother has decided to invite me to hers for Christmas this year, but has then abandoned me here for the Day itself as she drives, with my sister, to the manfriend's home, hours away. The manfriend has five rowdy dogs, which are entirely incompatible with a newly decorated house and a wimpy cat, so he is remaining in his country home over Christmas. Evidently, my mother, given a choice between "son" or "manfriend" has rejected the 31 years I've faithfully stood by her and opted for the 1 year of the handy house-building manfriend. When I mention any of this to my mother, she gets awfully flustered, and blurts out a series of apologies, and I was in fairness given the option of travelling to the manfriend's home with her, but have opted to stay in Dingwall, where many friends and family are, and where I intend to consume many gallons of wine.

Wine, or Diamond White cider, as won yesterday in the Dingwall pub quiz. It was a Christmas-themed pub quiz, and thus full of all kinds of stupid questions, and so my team did terribly; however, afterwards there was a raffle, and at the very tailed my number appeared, winning me the classic combination of Haribro marshmallows and Diamond White cider, the latter - for those unfamiliar - a staple diet of scraggily-bearded homeless men and 15-year old youths. I intend to save it for a special occasion.

So it's Dingwall now, and for the next few days, but as mentioned, it's been Edinburgh prior to this and my fleeting Aberdeen cameo. I officially moved to Edinburgh a few weeks ago but was promptly sent to Ghana, so only really moved in last week, and have now spent a total of five days there. And it's been a five days of great entertainment, promise and very unhealthy trends.

I decided to move to Edinburgh just about a month ago, and a number of people have asked the reason why. The main answer is "Because I can." I am in the fortunate position that my work allows, although isn't necessarily hugely keen on, me to live outside of Aberdeen. I've been back in Aberdeen for almost four years now. It was a couple of so years in Korea before that, but then something like seven years in Aberdeen before that. So quite a long time in Aberdeen. And I've been getting restless. I like Aberdeen and have many ties to it, but am not tied down to it, so while I have the freedom to go elsewhere, I think I should. And Edinburgh is a fantastic city, where I can walk about the grand, historic buildings and feel like a cultured, civilised gent. It's filled with wooden-style pubs, pretty doe-eyed girls and quirky nice shops - just five minutes from me there are two shops selling antique maps and a further two selling cigars and pipe tobacco. I've been lucky to find - renting - a great flat smack bang in the city centre, just seconds off the Royal Mile and minutes from the train station, where I can live a full and satisfying life without ever having to walk for more than five minutes in any direction. "A change is as good as a rest" it is said, and as I've had an insane amount of rest recently, there was no other alternative but for change.

So change it is... but is it really? Upon regaling a few of my Edinburgh tales to Green, he described it as being something more like a "regression". A return to my old wayward ways, with old wayward characters leading me astray. Are my efforts at cultural improvement and regeneration to be derailed by a series of shady characters of questionable moral fibre?

The most notable of these questionable characters goes by the name of Mike Day. Sharp-eyed and eagle-beaked (or whatever) readers may know Mike to be from days of yore, indeed during 2003 I lived in a castle with Mike. I also sailed on a yacht with him two years ago in the Adriatic. Since then, Mike quit a hated job in corporate law, and has become a filmmaker. For some time, being a filmmaker seemed to simply involve owning a camera and telling people he was a filmmaker, but by some random fluke of the universe Mike ended up actually making a film, a documentary about some traditional Hebridean bird-murdering (go to for more details), and then ever more remarkably, the BBC bought it. Yes, the BBC. The BBC. The BBC bought Mike's film. This is clearly quite impressive, and is clearly like taking a massive electro-pump to Mike's ego, as he strolls around telling everybody he sees that he's a filmmaker. Unfortunately for Mike, I don't really watch films, and especially ones about seabirds, the Hebrides or tradition, so all his filmmaking enthusiasm is wasted on me - but there are plenty of 15 year old girls he's able to impress with it.

Mike has become my temporary flatmate, a very smooth ploy by him on my first evening in Edinburgh last week. I had decided to go on an "Edinburgh pub familiarisation pub crawl", surely an educational experience. Varwell was in town for the day, so he came along, and my ever-unemployed sister obviously had nothing better to do than to spend her dole money on booze, so she came too also. And then Mike. Except he came with a bag... could he leave it at mine please, it had expensive stuff inside and he didn't want to lose it. Of course... and thus he now lives in the spare room. By the cratefuls of possessions promptly appearing over the next few days, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was the main resident, but I've given him occupancy until February 15th, the day after Valentine's.

So that first night out turned into a somewhat drunken affair. Great fun, with everyone on good form, but just a blur of increasing wastedness. Back at the flat there were no bedsheets yet, so I slept under a pile of housecoats, as did Mike (in a separate bed, I hasten to add). The next day was a day of suffering and recovery, almighty at times, but by the evening and by the time some wine had appeared we were ready for a new evening. The plan, by Mike, was to go what he described as a sculpture exhibition party, which sounded very cultured. The reality, it transpired, was that this took the form of a dire club full of students listening to garbage boppy music: it was not my scene; Mike loved it. I decided it was beneath my dignity to stay long, so disappeared off home, leaving Mike a text message informing him he had 1 hour 15 minutes before I went to sleep. There was still only one set of keys for the flat, and I had it, so if Mike hoped to get back he would have to buzz the door and hope I answered.

I woke the next morning with 10 missed calls on my phone, and no sign of Mike in the flat. My clothes, incidentally, were covered in curry sauce, but that's neither here nor there. I woke, made some coffee, and a little later the buzzer went and Mike appeared, with a bar of chocolate by means of an apology. An apology?

It seems Mike had come back to the flat and buzzed for ages, and eventually got an angry reply. "Go away. You don't live here any more." Mike, a little drunk, was confused, but the voice was angry and Mike figured he must have angered me somehow. Fortunately, he had his parents' holiday flat to go to, about half an hour away.

It turned out, of course, that it was not me that had been buzzed and woken in the middle of the night, but our poor neighbour.

Ok, next night was a YMCA-themed fancy dress birthday party, which I leave to your imagination, as I have to go and be festive.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Christie Cousins' Dinner, Moving to Edinburgh and Ghana

It's been a busy week or so. Last Saturday, I held a Christmas dinner party for my paternal cousins, which saw me cook a full Christmas dinner, with turkey, brussel sprouts, bread sauce etc, washed down by a variety of dubious spirits. We all ended up a little toasted, and at one point stumbled over to the casino across the road, bet on number 18 on the roulette table - and won. The night ended with a mixture of terrible DJing (I was the best there, which gives you an idea of our level) and housecoat mania.

The Christie cousin Christmas dinner party.

I was in a grim state the next day, but still (with my sister's and cousins' help) managed to get the flat cleaned and my stuff packed. For on Monday I hired a van and moved out, and Tuesday I moved to Edinburgh. Yes, I now live in Edinburgh, the conclusion of a brutal two hours for myself and my sister as we took a series of heavy loads and boxes up to the top floor - I always live on top floors - of a flat just off the Royal Mile. Upon finish, I sat down in my new flat (it's just rented, not bought) for ten minutes, then drove back to Aberdeen.

I've still to finish working on getting my Market Street flat presentable for renting, as my efforts have been waylaid by going to Ghana. I flew there on Thursday and have been there for the weekend. Not a flight of fancy, but a flight of official high-level business, or more accurately, getting very sweaty in a couple of industrial yards. I had a meeting in Accra at first, in which I eschewed my normal plan of hiding in the corner and nodding at everything, and actually had to put in quite a lot of input, including an impromptu presentation - alas, no public voice as I had no script to work from. Then it was down to a small town/city called Takoradi, where I've been careering around various different yards, shunting and shuffling equipment, and taking photos of different bits of pipe.

Some pipe I was working on. I've edited out the "top secret" part, but just try imagine some more bits of pipe, except shinier.

It's been just a quick weekend away, as by today just about everything is done, and I'm flying back to Aberdeen tomorrow, most likely. There I'll quickly finish getting Market Street ready, and I have a work Christmas party on Saturday - with free booze. And then it's time to celebrate the pagan-turned-Christian-turned-commerical extravaganza called Christmas, but which being a non-pagan, non-Christian ascetic, I have decided to call "Winter Magic!Time" (the exclamation point is crucial).

And one day, whenever that day may take place, I might even start to live in my new Edinburgh home.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Forsythian Cousins' Dinner Party

Well, things have been a little busy recently. Busy is, of course, a relative term, as I've not actually been working, and so have not been part of the daily schedule that so dominates people's lives until their cycle of monotony finally ends in retirement, insanity and death. No, I've been on holiday (though let's not pretend I was grinding at the mill beforehand) and have been busy with such events as Varwell's stag night and wedding, and then last week's poker night followed by a dinner party for the cousins from my maternal side. In amongst all this, I decided to move to Edinburgh, and so have been getting ready for that, and get the keys to a flat next Tuesday.

Despite all this pretence of being busy, I've still found plenty of time to have a few quiet drinks. In fact, you may argue, excuses to drink have been pretty much the cornerstone of why I've been busy. And so let's wind back to the Saturday morning just past...

...where I find myself awake in the stiflingly hot living room in my flat, slumped on the sofa, with the winter sun streaming through the window. The electric heater is on full, pumping out sickly warm air, my body is still awash with sherry, the smeared remains of a baked potato with chicken tikka filler sits by my side, and the room is strewn with debris from the poker mayhem of the night before. I'd had a poker evening, with the poker regulars (Green, Poker Mark, Stan, Julie) plus other assorted luminaries who fancied their hand at winning some money: Vizzy, Kitchen Mark, and two colleagues, my Polish colleague, as seen last year on a boat, and Bigboy, as seen during our mini-lifetime together in Azerbaijan earlier this year. Booze (tellingly, the two non-drinkers failed to win anything back) and stupendous poker skills thrust themselves about for almost eight hours and two poker games (£10 entry each), with the conclusion of the hyper-aggressive Vizzy winning the first and coming second in the second, won by Green, with myself a very respectable second and third place, to on overall profit of £10.

It was a very enjoyable evening, and an interesting change to our regular poker played on Tuesdays, without alcohol or money, but none of this took priority in my waking brain in this baking room.

No, all I could think was, "Oh God, I've got less than 10 hours to learn how to cook."

Because later that day, my sister, my brother and his fiance, my two maternal cousins plus their respective romantic associates, plus my two younger second cousins, were all coming round to enjoy a dinner party, the first ever Forsythian (as it's been dubbed, though the two second cousins weren't actually generated by a Forsyth) cousins' dinner party. Plenty of stuff was all worked out - where everyone was staying, the various alcohols ready and waiting, coal and wood for the fire in my living room to debut, and plenty of plates and cutlery for the occasion - but one big problem remained: I can't cook.

Or perhaps that should be, I don't cook. Because in my modern life, cooking is something that doesn't feature. One notable attempt 18 months ago some may recall, but otherwise when I'm onshore, I go round to Green's for his culinary sensations, or if he's not about I just eat out or get takeaway, or maybe shove a pizza in the oven. But actual cooking is rare, so to have to cook for ten people was quite an undertaking for me. But luckily, I'd had time to decide upon a couple of dishes, deftly chosen by my brother's fiance, and I'd practised them - successfully - earlier in the week.

Here was the menu.

So, I rose from the sofa, got a few hours of rest in my bed, and then showered myself to a waking health. By mid-afternoon my brother and his fiance had arrived, to quietly watch over me in case the effort got too much. But I was feeling fairly relaxed, and there was plenty of time to get the dinner table prepared, and the lamb dish basically involved getting a bunch of ingredients and shoving them into a casserole dish then the oven for 3 hours. Only the soup and the (made the day earlier) vegetarian dish for the token awkward vegetarian required any effort.

And so, by 7pm, all had arrived and were stuffing wine into their mouths, and by 8pm it was time for food, and round one: some soup. Tomato and basil soup, to be precise. And mmm, it was actually not bad. The key, for me, is not to aim for subtlty, just cram a bunch of stuff in a pot and make the flavours wrestle with each other. Wrestling is of greater mass appeal than opera. So lots of tomatoes, basil, cream, garlic, and whatever else ended up in there. The main course, the Cypriot lamb and potato casserole, also turned out pleasingly well for the same reason - flavour bombast rather than delicate orchestral movements. The next three courses I could coast through then, as they were alcohol based and therefore back in the realm of what I know. Amaretto and ice-cream were a nice combination, cheese and port is a no-brainer (and there was no subtlty with my port pouring), and the finale, cognac and cigars accompanied by a choice of housecoat, which also double as smoking jackets. Around the dinner table, us ten family members gathered in a selection of high-quality housecoats, and smoked cigars with a tipple of cognac by our sides (or, at least, the gentlemen did - most of the ladies found both components too manly for their taste).

And so went the dinner party. Everything then descended into hours of drinking, gathered round the coal fire, and reminiscing about all the times the older members of the family would upset and make cry the younger members of the family. It is a twist of cruel fate that of the five Forsythian cousins, the three males are the oldest and the two females the youngest. Thus my sister and Esme, my cousin, were regularly beaten. I, as the oldest, escaped all beatings, until reaching about 16 when my brother caught up with me in size and I realised it was time to quickly leave home and go to university.

It was a terrific evening, and happily only my cousin Malcolm was sick from it, though consensus is that it was due to all the port and not a rogue element in my food (as all else escaped poisoning). And this Saturday, it's the same again, except with the cousins from my paternal side. And I've got to figure out how to do a Christmas dinner rather than just some easy casserole. Yikes.

For those of you who prefer the pictures to the text (i.e. the "Heat" as opposed to the "Classics" readers) I'll leave you some photos taken by sister, from The Facebook.