CHRISTMAS CARD FROM POLAND – FEAR OF CHRISTMAS

We flew into Stansted on the wet and windy dawn that heralded the endorsement of the Boris Dynasty; a political sovereignty probably destined to rival that of Thatcher’s for durability, controversy and the same lack of credible opposition that swept her to power in 1979 and kept her in Downing Street for over a decade.  

Margaret Thatcher – love or hate her – durable, controversial and a political colossus

But fear not … this blog, amigos is not about politics.

Those of you who know me, understand that I am not a political animal; but rather an animal driven by a passion for writing, rugby, good companionship, fine food wine and beer, and these – and not politics – will be the subjects for this blog.

But note that Christmas is not included in the short list of my boat-floating passions.

Over the years, I have developed an almost morbid fear of Christmas.

So my only reference to politics will be to quote a slightly amended version of the insanely clever slogan that spearheaded the Conservative win last Friday:

LET’S GET CHRISTMAS DONE!

I managed to sidestep the last two Christmas’ with well-timed bouts of “man-flu”; however, this year I’ve not been so fortunate, as the dreaded bloke-crippling illness struck me two days ago and I am now well into the recovery phase: Netflix, chicken soup, tea and Lucozade on the settee with regular brow mopping performed by a sympathetic and concerned wife.

Now, I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of a Polish Christmas. I dislike Polish Christmas’ no more than I dislike any other Christmas … let me be perfectly clear on this.

It’s food Jim … but not as we know it

But let’s just say that a Polish Christmas involves quite a lot of religion (I mean … what’s that got to do with it anyway?) a lot of strange food, a huge amount of sitting around the dining table – first without any alcohol, and then with an excessive amount of alcohol. But it’s family time, so I will pack up my phobias in my old kit bag, smile and try to work the five words of Polish I know into every conversation. And who knows, I may even enjoy it? At least we won’t be playing Monopoly, or rowing over whether to watch Gavin and Stacey or Eastenders.

‘What was your best Christmas, then?’ my wife enquires this morning, searching for an answer that would situate me as a devoted family man, but probably expecting my reply to disappoint.

I reply that there are actually two that come readily to mind.

The first was when I was about nineteen.

I’d been out with a few mates touring the hostelries of Antrim on Christmas Eve, residing in each until we were no longer welcome and, consequently, I awoke on Christmas morning with a massive hangover.

Following church – and the communion wine worked wonders to combat the hangover – father announced it was time to “collect” my Christmas present, and handed me a large plastic bag.

‘You’ll be needing this, son,’ he said.

Not an MGB then.

One hour later, we returned home. I carried the plastic bag triumphally, inside which was the aforementioned Christmas present.

Father owned a large industrial estate with seven – what used to be called, back in the day – pay phones. And each of these he unlocked and poured the contents into my plastic bag.

The rest of the afternoon was spent counting two and ten pence coins and the princely sum of £27.52 was recorded – a sum sufficient to pay for my petrol to Portrush, fund the annual Boxing Day piss-up, and with enough left over to buy a couple of Ben Sherman shirts and a pair of cowboy boots at Tweedy Acheson’s in the sales on the way home.

It’s difficult to rival the level of thought that father had put into that Christmas gift, and my joy of receiving was only slightly surpassed by his joy of giving.

And the second?

The second was spent in Mendoza, Argentina, and came about quite by accident.

Mount Aconcagua – no Christmas wonderland

I’d been excused the family Christmas to climb Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes, for a charity we supported in connection with Jake, our disabled son … sadly no longer with us.

I was sharing a tent with a Geordie bloke – a huge Sunderland supporter – called Barry. We’d reached Camp Berlin, which at 5300 metres is the high altitude camp, and were well placed for a crack at the summit when a storm hit us.

As a result of this, two people died and we were trapped in our tents without food for over forty-eight hours.

I can guess what you’re thinking here: what on earth makes this a good Christmas?

But, I kid you not; it was about to get worse.

On the morning of the third day I noticed that Barry was slipping in and out of consciousness, and in his semi-lucid moments was talking more gibberish than you would normally expect from a Sunderland supporter.

It was clear that he was suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and I knew from my previous Himalayan experiences that either a pulmonary or cerebral edema would kill him within hours if he didn’t descend immediately.

With a general reluctance amongst my fellow climbers to help, it was left to me to get him down, in whiteout conditions.

Now, I don’t wish to paint from a palette of heroism here. After almost three days of eating frozen Pringles, I was more than happy to bale from an expedition that was ultimately abandoned because of the conditions. When offered a ticket out of purgatory you take it, don’t you?

But the funny thing about altitude and AMS is that after around three hours of hell, we had limped and slithered far enough down the mountain for Barry’s symptoms to have all but disappeared.

We even thought about overnighting at Base Camp and going back up the following day for about three nanoseconds before a bus appeared. Four hours later we were back at our hotel, where we were surprised to discover it was Christmas Eve.

The following morning we exchanged gifts: a Sunderland shirt for me, and a London Irish shirt for Barry.

We then rang our respective families, had a few beers, a huge steak and spent the rest of the day by the pool, followed by another huge steak and some fine Mendoza wine.

And we even remembered to raise a glass to our fellow climbers, trapped at Camp Berlin.

Christmas sorted.

Of course, in the interest of balance, I’ve also had some fantastic family Christmas’, but most of my family Christmas memories revolve around remote control wars, despotic relatives insisting on playing charades or other similarly pointless games, children whining over broken Christmas presents and the dog eating the chocolate tree decorations and throwing up on the carpet.

Dukes of Sidmouth – fantastic hospitality and breakfasts to die for

So … England last weekend.

What a fantastic visit we had, and terrific to spend time with family and good friends away from the rigours of the Festive Season. In short, it consisted of:

Four Full English Breakfasts,

The second rugby game: Chiefs V Sale – not as entertaining as Sidmouth V Chew Valley

Three turkey dinners,

Two games of rugby,

One muddy run,

And … a … pasty in a pear tree.

There’s not much more I need to add to that, so I’ll just bid you a very happy Christmas, a wonderful and prosperous New Year, and as Dave Allen used to say:

‘May your God go with you.

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