Well, it's one of my insomnia nights and here I am blogging again. This is not good because I have to catch a train to Dublin in the morning...maybe i'll sleep on the train.
but what I've been thinking about, my brain all awhirl with sleeplessness, is what i am missing at this time of year as we prepare for christmas.
And what i am missing is the slow, langorous, leisurly pace of my life in Dallas at christmas time.
If I hear one more Galwegian decry the hectic pace of life in the US, I may explode. let me make this perfectly clear. You folks living here in Galway lead a tremendously hectic, fast paced, fast talking, confusing life. there is no leisurely pace here. i know...I've tried to do some christmas shopping the last two weeks and I am giving it up
first, let me explain my Christmas time rituals in Dallas. We take a weekend or two around Thanksgiving (this week of the November calendar) and begin to accumulate a few things for a Turkey dinner. We know who's comng to dinner by then, whos cooking, what we'll make, and we have all we need.
At Thanksgiving, contrary to the sitcoms you see, the turkey is perfect, the meal is grand, the relatives are loving and lovely, the friends stop by, and the weather is gorgeous. I cannot recall a bad thanksgiving dinner in the last 30 years...perhaps the dinner rolls were not QUITE DONE when everyone sat down to eat, but that is the most significant issue.
The quiet after dinner period, bellies full of turkey and bloodstreams full of triptophan, are times of speculation, conversation, football watching and football playing. Perhaps a movie in the evening and, of course, leftover turkey sandwiches for dinner.
The next day begins the official christmas shopping season. Which we partake of.
A quiet leisurely drive to the mall, valet parking to avoid the crush. Then the fun begins. A four, maybe six hour saunter around the four floors and four hundred stores available to us for shopping. Just walking the mall from end to end on a single floor can take 90 minutes of slow, contemplative browsing and talking. We solve the world's problems on the way.
We wander around slowly, no hurries. We watch the children's shows with the puppets, the carollers, the kiddie train, the SPCA with their pets. We glance at shop windows never intending to enter...not yet, that would break the spell.
We stop for hot chocolates or coffees (and a christmas cookie, of course). Perhaps we step into a fine italian restaurant and make a reservation for later in the evening. We ooh and ahh over some of the window displays; Victroria's Secret with lovely lingerie clad angels cleverly and oh so effectively mixing eroticism with religion. But we do not enter such a hallowed temple yet...that's for later.
Home theater stores and electronics stores beckon with gadgets and TVs showing sports on 30 channels it seems. The NASCAR store has a huge video wall of a race in Sao Paulo or perhaps Daytona. Maybe we even get to see our own Texas Motor Speedway. the 40,000 people at it might explain why the mall is not as crowded as the news people always predict.
We stop and look over the rail from the third floor at the ice rink on the basement level, nearly 50 feet below. The Zamboni finishes its magical smoothing circuit and the suddenly the children are swirling around the rink widershins, flying in laughing rings around the Christmas tree that rises from the rink to top out above our heads near the roof of the fourth floor. looking up at its apex, we see joggers through the barrel vaulted glass roof of the mall as they trot their way around the rim of the mall roof in the cool autumn air. One of them glances down through the glass and slows to watch the children far below; both parties wave at each other.
The music in the mall at this time of year is phenomenal and we take our time around the musical displays. A small chamber group is playing carols on woodwinds outside a bookstore. A little further down, an animatronic puppet theater is enthralling more children sitting in front of it as a musical version of Dicken's Christmas Carol is played out over an elaborate 45 minutes of story and song...children from 2 to 20 sit on th floor and watch, never moving.
At least three groups of carolers, dressed in Victorian costumes, of course, slowly make their way around the mall perimeters on each floor stopping to sing in rich, but quiet voices. Their timings are coordinated so they never overlap spatially and do not interfere with each other or other dipslays. Pink noise is wafting through the malls PA system, perpetually maintaining a softness and comfortable level to the ambient sound. The carpeted floors and soft uphosltery also serve to moderate the noise of 20,000 people passing through a shopping center larger than Shannon airport.
One whole end of the mall has been given way to a christmas train journey that takes up about 15000 square feet of storefront. The mall management company actually reserves this storefront all year so that it may be used for the ride. in other seasons it is an art gallery or rented to smaller merchants who agree to vacate for the christmas season in return for much lower rents during the year.
Santa, of course, is also near so wishes can be expressed and photographs can be taken. he's a pretty good looking one this year and the children love telling him what they want. he arrived by helicopter on Thankgiving day during the downtown parade, then this morning by helicopter just as the stores were opening.
for us (my wife and I) the bookstores beckon, of course, and we check out the displays in Rizzoli's (The place for photography books in particular) and Brentano's (art books, architecture, and perfect gift books) and Shakepeare Beethoven (they always have the most high brow). On later shopping excursions we will go to a different mall that has a 100,000 square foot Barnes and Noble store in one corner. most of our actual purchases will be made there. It is great for browsing, reading in the overstuffed chairs, and listening to book clubs and speakers or getting into conversations with friends you haven't seen in a year.
finally, after several hours of just looking about and listening and eating and drinking perhaps with a stop for something a bit stronger in the bar of the hotel attached to this mall, we decide to actually do a bit of purchasing. The recon pass is mostly over and we've seen several things we decide to get at the CD/DVD store, the bookstore, a craft shop, and the pen store (something for my business partner who collects pens). The goth clothing store for a gift for a musician friend and a golf present for my brother-in-law from one of the sporting memoribilia stores.
Then it's about dinner time. The sky has darkened over the glass roof, the mall lights are a bit dimmer for the evening, the soft blue lights in the glass rails and floating tree gardens creating a gentle wintry feel without the cold. The restaurant is italian and serves fantastic food on the terrace overlooking the ice rink. There is a great mexican restaurant and an american grill down at rink level, but we enjoy Nicola's best.
finally, we are ready to leave...we pick the car up from the valet (he's been holding it by the curb for us because we are regular customers and i tip well...these guys work hard and deserve it) then head for home. traffic is light on the freeway and we talk about catching a movie first as we pass the cinemas on the way toward the house. We have over 60 screens to choose from in about ten minues distance from the house.
Tomorrow we'll go look at christmas trees. Our favorite lot will be open and set up...they come down from Michigan. we'll wander around the garden center and the tree lot for an hour or so sipping the hot chocolate they give to customers. When we find a tree we'll arrange for them to deliver it on Sunday and set it up in the house. These are the greatest christmas tree sellers we've ever encountered. their trees smell fantastic, fragrances of cedar and pine and douglas fir. my favorite tree lately though is the noble fir and they always have wonderful ones with the soft silvery green needles and the splayed branches. I love the smell too...nobles have a tang most other evergreens don't.
After tree buying it's off to Cotton Patch restaurant for a bit of comfort food in the form of chicken fried steak, cream gravy, black eyed peas and green beans with soft wheat rolls drowned in hot butter and tupelo honey...and a chat with our favorite waiter Zak who in a fevered delirium recently shaved his head, but cannot explain exactly why. we spend about 2 hours enjoying lunch, then back home to knock around the house and get the living room ready for the tree.
Once the tree is up we'll take weeks to decorate it, a little at a time each evening. Linda always embroiders a few new ornaments each year using plastic canvas and sparkling yarn. She works on one for a couple of nights then pops it on the tree. After that it becomes one more in the collection. some of them go to family as gifts as well.
We'll string out what lights we have, then go buy several replacement strings because it makes no sense to spend our time trying to find the one burned out bulb when a new string of 100 or 200 costs $2.
I'll set up the lights in the yard (we drape lights over the waterfall at the end of our pool) as well and then we'll spend a few evenings driving around the neighborhoods and city centers looking at lights. The gated communities with their perfectly orderly identical and supremely manicured decorations...the middle class neighborhoods with much more variety like the korean christmas decorations next to the kwansa house, and the guy who puts out ten thousand more lights than anyone else, but is willing to climb on anyone's roof to help set up their lights just because he loves christmas.
The older neighborhoods go all out with an absolute riot of styles, colors ,ideas, and traditions...hispanic neighborhoods are the most beautiful in many ways. And the people who have done their houses up always sit on their porches long into the evening, chatting, sometimes singing carols and having big block parties with barbeques and huge meals.
Somewhere in december we take a few afternoons off to go out to malls separately and pick up items we have seen that we know each other will like. We take our time and accumulate our presents slowly under our tree, enjoying the experience of shopping, seeing store people we know, running into friends and chatting for a while over at starbucks or maybe hooking up for dinner. recently I have begun to have most off my presents wrapped by the charity tables in the malls. its a good way to contribute to their causes and I am a lousy wrapper. My packages look oh so much neater now. but I always wind up wrapping several items myself on Christmas eve.
Electronic shopping allows a lot of our gifts to be ordered and wrapped and shipped without having to travel to the post office, but there is always a day when we must go there and stand in line a while...usually chatting with strangers for 5 or 10 minutes until its our turn. The US post office always puts on extra staff and arranges to make it as easy as possible to get the mailings done quickly...although it pays to know WHICH of the five post offices nearby are the most efficient ones. i like to finish up those afternoons with a lunch of fried chicken gizzards...more comfort food and best when the air has finally chilled to about 6 degrees celcius a week before christmas. i get a mess of gizzards to go then take them over to starbucks at barnes and noble and eat them with double espressos or hot chocolate and several magazines or newspapers from around the world...pure heaven.
Of course there are the parties to go to , but we take those casually and most poeple try to meet up for small dinners rather than big parties.
so our pace of life in Dallas at christmas is slow and deliberate. we noticed that the same thing applied in San Jose although on a slightly smaller scale.
here though, I was astounded to get caught in terrible traffic trying to get into city center yesterday, then there is no place to park, i had to go all the way to the top deck of the MCP and walk back down a flight of metal steps in the biting wind ... valet parking would be a really good idea.
And we lost so much time getting there that we had only a couple of hours before things closed. Not much stays open to 11.30 around here as in Dallas at Christmas. the streets were filled with people rushing headlong up and down, the stores were frightfully crowded, very few sales people to help, and quite hot with all the bodies pressed in.
everyone was rushed and harried, you had to literally grab someone to get any attention (tried desperately to buy a new pair of shoes and wound up in some very strange discussion where this woman could only tell me that all shoes in ireland were smaller than US shoes...i still am not sure i know what she meant, but she was quite annoyed with me for asking for 48's.
What with having to go not only to shopping street, but to the Woodies DIY, the ARGOS (49 working days for delivery of some flatpack wardrobes seems outrageous) then to the Wellpark Centre to check out something at the Sony Centre, we spent a huge amount of our time burning petrol in long traffic jams.
My wife Linda sums it up about the roads here by saying that there is no excuse for a western civilized country to not have high speed limited access motorways between at least its three major cities. She is right...spend the few billion euro, hire the workers from anywhere you can find them, use the latest, fastest, most sophisticated technology, build the roads in 5 years, and just get it done...or the CELTIC TIGER will die of starvation, caught in a snare of its own making...GOVERNMENTS SHOULD BUILD ROADS...from the time of Rome this has been the key to prosperity. The US has the economy it has today because of the interstate highway system.
So don't talk to me about the pace of life in the US...we have a slow, quiet, peaceful pace of life in Dallas (and its even slower in Austin and San Antonio). The ludicrous situations you see in American TV shows and movies are crafted to counterpoint the reality, to make us laugh in relief because we know our lives are not so hectic and thereby we are made grateful for the calmness we have. Those idiots on TV, the overweight middle aged guys with imporbably beautiful wives struggling through ridiculous scenarios and situations are exactly NOT us. for which we give thanks at this time of year :)
But here I have to dodge people flying headlong on their errands because they have so much effort to expend to get from errand to errand and so little time left in each day to do them. Do you ever wonder how much time people in this town waste trying to park a car? Not only the slow creep LOOKING for the spot, but the in and out and in and out routine to get the car into the spot? It adds up to a significant portion of life that could be spent enjoying the flowers. First thing to do, ANGLE the parking spaces...you have a positive fetish about one way systems here anyway, so why not angle the spaces in the right direction. second thing...re-mark the spaces to match the emerging average car size...SUVs and Mercedes sedans do NOT fit the old spaces...the populace has voted with its euros...they LIKE bigger cars, they BUY bigger cars...make it easier for them to PARK bigger cars...it translates into more time they spend in the shops BUYING stuff than in the car park trying to park.
it is time to rebuild Galway to make it convenient for its citizens. A convenient city prospers because it provides more opportunity for commerce to flow, for services to emerge, and for efficiencies to appear...cities are machines and systems for maximizing the prosperity of residents; they should be lubricated with convenience.
So that is what I am missing here in Galway at Christmas...my peaceful leisurely pace of life in Dallas around this time of year. We're going to take a few days to go to London for some quiet shopping too...now that's a place where you can really relax and take your time about shopping.