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      10.05.2013 17:53
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      Trees can both preserve and destroy life

      This is a major rant warning, if it's not your kind of thing walk away. I needed a cathartic release and felt that boring my fellow peers with the dull details of a rather disastrous train journey was the obvious way forward so here are the unvarnished thoughts from my head shortly after the epic events that I like to call "Train versus Tree".

      The story begins as any normal South West train journey home from work on an average Thursday leaving a mere 1 minute late at 5:37pm from Richmond to Bracknell. I was making good time which was unusual to say the least when fate began to weave its ugly web and just outside of Sunningdale sparks suddenly flew up followed by a massive plume of smoke and the train came to a screeching halt at precisely 6:08pm. With a certain sense of inevitability I found myself propelled towards the nearest metal post with my hands otherwise occupied with my Kindle and phone whilst my stomach remained somewhere back near Virginia Water and all I could do was brace myself for impact and hope to avoid internal damage. The inevitable hubbub of murmurs from seasoned commuters used to these kind of delays occurs stirred up, but having myself been subjected to such incidents as broken signals, points failures, level crossing failures, the train being directed down the wrong line, the guard locking himself out and swans on the line, I wasn't too worried. Standing time at this point 32 minutes.

      Finally, the guard pipes up with the usual patter - "Apologies ladies and gentlemen but there is a fallen tree on the line which will need to be cleared before we can proceed" - oh well I thought to myself, that doesn't sound too bad (though obviously the sparks and smoke came from hitting said tree should have forewarned me of the catastrophe that lay ahead). Some 30 minutes later we were informed that the tree had been successfully removed, but alas whilst the main rails were fine the juice rail (that all important one that actually provides the electricity) was compromised so they had to call ahead and get the electricity turned off and procure the services of some undoubtedly highly skilled technicians. Ah well, I knew that I was only about 15 minutes away from Bracknell once the train got going and I had a couple of TV shows downloaded to my iPhone, as well as my Kindle and MP3 player so I had plenty to occupy my time and had yet to feel any real fear at this stage.

      With the time ticking along to 7:15pm, a standing time of 1hr 38 minutes, we were informed the technicians would be arriving in 15-20 minutes. 45 minutes later they finally arrived. Harrah. At this point I, and given the conversations I unfortunately eavesdropped upon so too a lot of other people, was beginning to feel the first real pangs of hunger. Ah well, I figured it couldn't be much more than 30 mins to fix the problem. So so naïve. As more time passed, passenger tannoys becoming less frequent and blood sugar levels starting to crash it became apparent by about 8:30pm (by now a standing time of 2hrs 53 minutes) after a whole hour and a half of waiting that this might be a tad more serious then I gave it credit for. But, with assurances that the "technicians were working feverishly away" and that they were "confident it should be completed within 15-20 minutes" and that they were "terribly sorry for the inconvenience this delay may have caused to our journeys" I still wasn't particularly worried, although we'd just had our first medical emergency on board with calls to any passengers with medical expertise to find the guard. Uh oh! Not surprising since there was no ventilation, no access to the outside world and no food or water apart from what was available in passengers' own inventories. I had half a bottle of water so knew I wasn't going to die, though I was pretty sure my stomach had eaten itself...

      So roll on 9:00pm, by now a standing and leg cramping time of 3 hours and 23 mins, the moment the world became dark and soul crushing. "Terribly sorry ladies and gentlemen but as soon as the technicians solve one problem (basically the juice rail had buckled and they needed to connect it back up without dropping certain bits off or the apocalypse would occur or something along that description) another one just keeps cropping up. So what we're going to do is send out a rescue train to take us back to Virginia Water where taxis and buses will be waiting". Grand. It took them 3 hours to decide on this plan? Okay, but no problem as "the rescue train will be arriving within 15-20 mins so not too long to wait and apologies once again for the disruption this has caused to your journey". Yeah, so the rescue train finally arrives on the scene at 9:35pm, nearly approaching the 4 hour mark of standing, and we are told to brace ourselves for the coupling procedure with high emphasis placed upon health and safety. As I had been standing this whole time (so for 4 hours straight) I nervously gripped that same metal pole that had tried to maim me earlier certain that my legs would buckle and braced for impact. It was like being hit by a cloud of flour. Next was the mass exodus of the first three carriages as we all had to move to the safety of the rescue train by squeezing between the chairs with a gap wholly unsuited for a normal sized human followed by what must have been a seriously complex uncoupling procedure which took until 10:15pm to complete.

      But, the train after 4 hours and 15 minutes of waiting lurched forward to a symphony of cheers, to be greeted with even better news that this train would in fact stop at Virginia Water and then go on to Ascot, where a second shuttle service could be picked up for all the remaining stations including my beloved Bracknell. Hazaar, I might be back before 11pm. Upon arrival at Virginia Water we waited ever so patiently for the train to begin moving in the opposite direction. "May I have your attention please, we are currently waiting for the signalman to gives us the signal so we can get going...which he has just done now so we'll be going right now...". Overjoyed, but given how the rest of the evening had gone, I was still slightly apprehensive especially since the doors were still open after this announcement. So departing now...any moment now...nope nothing. Zip. Nada. "Oh er...sorry ladies and gentlemen we seem to have hit upon another snag" - mass groans fill the air - "I don't want to give you any false information so I'll get back to you as soon as I know anything, but please wait on the train until I can get back to you with bus and taxi information". So another 15 minutes passes waiting for further instructions. "Yeah this train has not been given the go ahead so your best bet is to try to get a coach to Ascot, sorry once again for this inconvenience and thanks for your patience.". Inconvenience? Patience? It's 10:30pm, 5 hours after I left work you <insert highly inappropriate expletives here>.

      So, at least I was no longer standing but walking which had the advantage of restarting my blood flow but the disadvantage of returning sensation to my nerve endings...unfortunately straight into a massive melee of people desperately trying to procure taxis by whatever means necessary (including elbow shots and hair pulling) as well as the sight of a coach just leaving in a proverbial cloud of dust. Fantastic, more waiting in the freezing cold and I hadn't even brought a coat as silly old me hadn't realised my 42 minute train journey home would take 5 hours, what an imbecile! Finally a new coach arrives and like a swarm of locusts the crowd shoots towards it, and of course I end up being about 15 people too late so have to wait for the next one. Come 11pm I am finally on the coach which has to do some impressive manoeuvring to get out of the car park in the first place and by 11:24pm I'm at Ascot station and plod over another bridge to get to the train before collapsing in a heap having not eaten since 1pm and having stood practically non-stop since 5:37pm. Arriving home at 11:45pm I felt like I'd been wandering the desert for 40 years and fell to my knees frantically kissing my lounge carpet which turned out to be a huge mistake as carpet fibres are quite hard to get out of your teeth.

      So what did I learn from this experience. Trees are in fact evil. Train corporations are also evil and incompetent at managing just about anything. People handle these things pretty well all in all by just having a good old laugh / whinge about it - it's good for bonding if nothing else. Standing up for 5 hours straight just plain hurts. It is possible for your stomach to eat itself. Finally, I could have travelled by plane to Azerbaijan or Burkina Faso in the same time it took me to travel for the distance equivalence of 15 minutes. If you made it to the end of my rant thanks for listening, and my advice is make sure you always carry food and water on the train with you - especially when trees are about.

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        24.08.2012 11:46
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        How NOT to get a Cuban visa extension

        For Europeans a Cuban visa will last 30 days with one extension possible while being in the country. My trip was planned for 6 weeks and remembering how easy it was to get visa extensions in Asia I did not really research it much. For "not much" please read "not at all". What was supposed to be a simple morning excursion soon tuned into a two day nightmare so if you fancy a similar experience just follow these tips to be in for a right treat. If however you are looking for a more relaxed holiday not ending in getting deported I'd advise you to do exactly the opposite!

        1. Do trust the Lonely Planet
        2. Do not learn any Spanish
        3. Do not get stamps and a copy of your medical insurance in advance
        4. Have a lie-in
        5. Wait politely in line till it's your turn

        My Cuban adventured has been characterized by lazy days at the beach and even lazier nights full of rum and dive talk. This kinda influenced the way I went about this extension. On the last day possible I turned up mid-afternoon at the address listed in the Lonely Planet in Havana Nuovo Vedado - just to be told that I'm completely wrong here. Great, not that I walked for over an hour in the oppressing heat to get there. So instead of saving some money I had to splash out on getting a taxi to yet another immigration office so far away from the city center that it does not really count as Havana proper anymore. Cheers Lonely Planet! Anyway, my casa owner later informed me that he could have told me that the info in the guidebook was wrong. So here comes handy tip No.1: Ask your casa owner regardless of what your plans in Cuba are, they will always know better than any guidebook you can buy.

        In all Asian countries I went to the visa application forms had been in English. Naively assuming Cuba would be the same; however, I was in for a nice surprise. I actually speak some Spanish but clearly not enough to cope with a long form asking intrusive questions about my private life (that's what I imagine they were asking anyway) after running around for hours to get there. If you really don't speak any Spanish bring a dictionary and don't count on meeting anyone at the office speaking English. Luckily I did meet a Mexican girl that went through the form with me, without her I would have been lost.

        Having filled in the form and my 25CUC in hand I was ready to get this stamp in my passport - just to be told that I was missing about a dozen important documents. In Spanish of course and not just any old Spanish but Cuban Spanish which has nothing to do with what I learned at school. Trust me, it was a very long half hour until I got everything the immigration officer was on about. Temptation to start crying was certainly there or at least to get a very large bottle of rum and down it!

        What you need for a visa extension is 25CUC in stamps that you can get from the bank, a copy of your valid travel medical certificate (with dates that you are covered for) and a receipt from your casa that you are staying there. The latter I only found out after a one hour wait at the bank, a trip to Hotel Cuba Libre to print off my medical insurance and another 3 hour queue at yet another Havana immigration office.

        Queuing will become your best friend while in Cuba, people just love to queue for literally everything and anything. The way it works is that you arrive at the end of the queue, shout as loud as you can "Que es ultimo" - which will probably be ignored - and wait in line till it is your turn.

        But what line I ask you? At the Havana integration office there was a huge number of people but nothing, really nothing, that would resemble a line. Staff randomly appears shouting random things in a random language (Spanish speakers will have a clear advantage here) and collect passports on an equally basis. Your best bet is to wait at the entrance and be annoying for long enough that someone is going to take your passport off you. Then just sit and wait for the next 100 hours until you are called in the office. At that point I was getting slightly grumpy (granted, it was all my fault but anyway) when the office woman told me that I was missing the casa receipt, she therefore could not give me an extension and to top it all off they were closing for the day. Which meant that as of 12 o'clock that night I was without a valid visa - believe me, not a petty thought when you are very far away from your home embassy.

        The lady then told me that she'd keep my passport there overnight and all I had to do was turn up the next morning with the receipt. And with a lovely smile she added that I'd either get my extension then or they would deport me. Good night to you too! And what a night it was, filled with random cocktails in our casa to celebrate my potentially last night in Cuba.

        The next morning I was so prepared, receipt in hand I was at the immigration office (btw, the closest to the city center is Calle 17 y K) just after sunrise just to find myself at the end of another very, very long queue. This time it actually was a sort of orderly queue which unfortunately disintegrated as soon as the office doors opened. Right at the start a woman asked for all foreigners' passports (pasaporte extranjero) and collected them.
        Hours went by, empires rose and fell and entire Hollywood trilogies were filmed before I saw that women again. But then finally after literally 12 hours of queuing across 2 days I had the all-important stamp in my passport. And frankly, it wasn't that bad. I've met some super interesting people all in the same situation at me and very much improved my Spanish.

        To make the whole experience a bit more fun bring a friend or at least a book along. There is nothing as boring as starring at a dirty wall in 35degree heat waiting for the immigration staff to finish their lunch. Supplies are always good and a snack and some cold water will go a long way increasing your survival chances and maybe even make new friends. The most important thing is to keep smiling and do your best to see it as a cultural experience. I did certainly learn more about the Cuban way of life and met some interesting people along the way. Most of the problems I had can be easily avoided and no sane person has to jump through all these hoops to enjoy another month in Cuba. But hey, at least I got another great travel story to tell - and my mates felt sorry for me and bought me a big bottle of rum to celebrate me not getting deported.

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          26.04.2010 13:49
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          Humility in the face of disaster

          I was laying by the pool of our rented villa in Mombasa, a cold glass of Tusker beer in one hand, enjoying the caressing breeze coming from the gently swaying palm trees above me. Nothing could dampen my spirits as I watched my two daughters shriek with delight from the pool as we watched a monkey jump on to one of the sunbeds and proceeded to eat the cashew nuts that they had left there. Our chef was in the kitchen preparing a delicious smelling lunch for us; could life get better than this?

          We were enjoying a last minute break before the end of the Easter holidays. My son, 18, had decided to stay at home and because we were only going to be away for 9 days, I agreed. Had I known the implications of this decision and the impact it would have on all of us I would never had concurred.

          We were due to fly to Nairobi in the evening, so we had a relaxing day at home and then a stress free journey to the airport. Check in was very quick so we decided to spoil ourselves and went into one of the airport lounges and enjoyed a few refreshments before we boarded our flight to Kenya. Whilst sitting in the lounge, my eldest daughter said that something just had to go wrong; she remarked that things had gone too smoothly and she thought that something bad was going to happen. Naturally we dismissed her prophecy of doom and continued to relax and enjoy the start of our journey.

          The flight was enjoyable, the connecting flight from Nairobi to Mombasa was equally as pleasant and stress free. We arrived dishevelled but happy at the villa around midday. The accommodation was even better than we expected. It didn't take us long before we were covered in sun-tan cream and splashing around in the Indian Ocean. We had a perfect holiday but on the last day as I was laying by the pool I received a shocking text message. A volcano had erupted in Iceland, there were no flights home. It was all very surreal, and hard to comprehend the enormity of the situation. We surfed the net and became more and more alarmed as we realised that this wasn't going to be a short term problem and it was in fact an international disaster.

          On the morning that we were due to fly home we packed up and headed to the airport. We took our scheduled flight to Nairobi where we tried to get some more information as to when they expected flights to resume. The airport staff were indifferent to our situation and extremely unhelpful. We were told to hang around all day and listen to announcements. We asked at another check in desk and were told by the same airline that we should go and find a hotel and then phone in everyday to get updates.

          We sat in a café at the airport and assessed the situation. I had very little money left but I did have my debit and a couple of credit cards on me. I hadn't contacted my bank to tell them we were out of the country because I thought I had taken enough cash with me. Would I have problems trying to use my card? I tried to phone my insurance company but the numbers they had given on my policy documents weren't in use. We were fortunate enough to have free WI-FI so we trawled through the entire hotel booking websites that I could find. We couldn't find any triple rooms available, a double and a single rooms would cost me $300 + per night for B&B, and the prices were rising by the minute. Had we known it was just for a couple of nights it wouldn't have been a problem but with no end in sight I didn't want to accumulate huge costs as I suspected that my insurance company would not cover my expenditure and I didn't want to be left with colossal bills.

          After six fruitless hours and a flat laptop battery we were no nearer finding a hotel. My daughter suggested we contact my friend whose best friend lives in Nairobi. A couple of text messages and an hour later we were in a beautiful air conditioned car being whisked off to a game lodge. Fortunately for us the friend who lives in Nairobi although not there at the time, happened to have a friend who owned a lodge called Acacia camp on the Swara Plains.

          We arrived at the camp slightly bedraggled and still very anxious. Our bags were whisked off to a little cabin; it was basic, rustic but utterly charming and very clean. After freshening up we were given ice cold drinks and some very welcome nibbles. We were told that the camp was also housing three other volcanic refugees' this was welcome news as we had felt very much alone up until that point. The camp was just what we needed, a calm, tranquil oasis where we could collect our thoughts and try to rationalise our situation. There was free WI-FI so we weren't isolated either.

          We spent three days on the camp watching the news, contacting the airline and just generally trying to get booked on a flight home. My son back home was in a terrible state, he completely went to pieces. I felt so helpless and was becoming increasingly frustrated with Kenyan Airways who were giving conflicting information. We eventually heard that we were booked on a flight on 3rd May another 12 days away. I was outraged. The three other stranded people had flown with Virgin and were booked to go home on 23rd April; Virgin was clearing the backlog of people in priority of booking dates. Kenya Airways were bizarrely making those who had already been stranded for up to a week, wait until they had space on later flights. We were told not to go to the airport and on their website it quite clearly endorsed that information.

          On the fifth morning and sadly for her, my youngest daughter's birthday, we decided to go to the airport and see if we could get more information there as I refused to believe that we wouldn't be able to get a flight until May. Whilst sitting enjoying yet another delicious breakfast, the owner David came to introduce himself. He was concerned that we were going to the airport and felt that it would be a waste of time. This charming gentleman promised us that he would make a few calls and see if he could find out anything for us. At 12pm he rang to say that we should take an early lunch and be ready for a car to pick us up at 1pm. He explained that the airlines were giving priority to students taking exams and as my eldest daughter is due to sit her A levels soon we would be eligible. I couldn't pay by card for my bill so they presented me with an invoice that they were happy for me to settle when I got home, that trust was astonishing and meant so much to me.

          At 1.45pm we arrived at the airport, we were greeted by a lady who informed us that they were holding a flight for us and we would have to hurry. Much to my embarrassment and the horror of my daughters, I started to sob quite loudly. I was so totally overcome; the stress that we had been under for the last four days just erupted within me. My sobs were of utter relief and gratitude. I don't know how David managed to do what he did but we will be eternally grateful for his godlike intervention. Twenty minutes after arriving at the airport we were sitting on the plane, upgraded to Business class with a glass of champagne in our hands.

          As we took off the lady in the seat across the aisle from me squeezed my hand, she too had tears in her eyes. When we landed, for the first time ever, I understood why people cheer when they land. The whole experience was a roller coaster of emotions for me. We saw humility and greed. The kindness that we saw was humbling. I thank god that we were exceptionally lucky, we had a roof over our heads, we even done a few game drives, we met some amazing people and were in a position that we could afford to do so. How many others were stranded and are still stranded, without a bed or money for food and drink?

          Having been caught up in this disaster, I like so many others would like to know who is responsible for the mayhem caused by the enforced no fly zones. That decision has cost the airlines dearly, travellers are facing huge bills and the knock on effect will be colossal. I think that the insurance companies should be made to cover some of the expenses and I think those travellers who have suffered as a result should at the very least receive an apology. If it wasn't for BA heading twenty six planes into London, I think we would still be in Kenya on the game lodge.

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            28.05.2009 11:20
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            A quite unique way to spend your Christmas

            If you spend your Christmas Holidays in Asia there's of course only one thing to do - go/fly/drive to the next beach and have a great time unwrapping Christmas presents while taking sun, enjoying a coconut and listening to the lazy sound of tropical waves.

            That was exactly my plan for 2008, preferable a small not too crowded beach in Vietnam, maybe even a small white sand island where we have to catch our own fish?!

            Well, yeah. As I said, it was a plan. Just a view days before Christmas we realised that we were still in Laos, totally broke and all flights to the beaches were fully booked. Now it is quite difficult to be stuck somewhere in Asia without being close to the beach given that Thailand has 3000km coastline and that Indonesia and the Philippines consist of pristine sand beaches. Laos on the other hand has no coastline at all :-/

            We were just discussing alternative plans like ignoring the whole thing and celebrating Christmas one month later in Burma or faking photos and just blaming that we've been to a wonderful little island in the middle of nowhere, when we found a beach! Of course, the Mekong runs through Laos and in some places the riverfront looks just like a beach - replace the turquoise water with something muddy brown and the good looking bikini girls with grumpy fisherman but all in all a perfect beach! I instantly felt in love with this place, it's a perfect beach just a 10min walk from our GH. We spend long days there, having picnic, reading and sometimes even swimming in the freezing cold Mekong.

            The 25. was of course something spacial; we took our little Christmas tree with us and decorated the shrubs with glitter and other kitchy x-mas stuff. The presents were great, Hallo Kitty sticker, a little Panda and one of these great (and annoying) waving cats.
            The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, but still it didn't really feel like Christmas.

            The thing we really missed was a real family and friends get together over a big, big dinner. Mentally prepared for another noodle soup and curry evening we arrived at our Guesthouse - and found it glittering with Christmas decoration, a massive tree on the front door and Westlife singing atmospheric songs from an old cassette player. Mama&Papa (the owner of the GH) and their lovely daughters organised an amazing Christmas party for all the guests - Lao style of course! We had spicy pasty, fried seaweed and morning glory with an unlimited stock of homemade garlic LaoLao (a rice whisky mixed with herbs) and BeerLao.
            The highlight were he Christmas hats everyone wore and singing songs in at least 6 languages and meeting great new people.

            This was surly the nicest Christmas dinner i ever had in my whole life. Normally you sit together with you family, half of whom you never see throughout the year and try to be as nice as possible while your uncle gets utterly drunk, your cousin starts to argue with his girlfriend and you are so bored that you nearly fall asleep. Well, that's Christmas for me anyway.
            But this year is was what it should really be about. Being nice to others, sharing what you have (even if it's just half a bottle of Tigar Whiskey) with strangers, being happy!

            If you don't know what to do this year for Christmas then book a flight to Luang Prabang, get a room at Oudomphong Guesthouse and have the Christmas celebration of your lifetime!

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              14.06.2008 23:30
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              It sucked.

              Christmas - A time for love, family, and children ripping open their presents on Christmas morning, then cursing Santa because for getting the wrong things. Ahh, don't we love it?

              In films, Christmas morning would start by two lovely children excitedly waking their parents up, then the whole family going into the large living room to see the Christmas tree. The man would hold his beautiful wife in his arms as the children would excitedly, but calmly open up their presents and thank the parents gracefully and appreciatively for each present. Then, the family would sit round the table and enjoy a wonderful cooked roast turkey and potato dinner, and it would be the best Christmas ever!
              What a load of bollocks, does that happen in anyone's house, if so, who are you?

              The way I vision Christmas is tumbling out the bed, 2 in the afternoon, putting on the kettle and frying some bacon, then dragging my mother out her bed. About 4 pm the brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, nieces and nephews would invade the house, and somehow my brother and Gran would always start a fight! Then, we would all gather round the TV, watching the stupid programmes Sky give us and eat a Chinese take-away whilst the children fight over the Barbie dolls. Really, I don't fancy Christmas at all.

              One year, we decided to try something new for Christmas, something, different. Then it hit us! We'll go abroad! Obviously, the family didn't approve but it worked out fine. So me, my mother and my little cousin set off for Manchester Airport, Dec 20. We decided to take the three weeks as it was a special occasion. The 6 hour bus ride was a nightmare, I do not, whatsoever recommend it! He flight was a nightmare also, Onur Air, I've already wrote a review about that.

              We arrived in Turkey, Dalaman, and waited for our suitcases to arrive. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. So, we left the airport, bag less, and got on the bus. It was night-time and we were all very tired. The bus ride was 2 hours, but it flew by.
              We arrived upon our hotel, Ilona Apartments, Marmaris. We decided to book independently as no travel operators were willing to give us a full package for Marmaris. Although, our flight was booked through Holidays4u. The hotel was out of reach, isolated and an utter mess. We walked in to what looked like a gangster's hideout. 10 guys sitting round a table playing cards and smoking cigarettes. One day, after 5 minutes of waiting, decided to have manners and fetch us our keys. Apparently, they were more interested in finishing their game then serve their customers. When we walked up the four flights of stairs to our room, we opened our door to a dirty, dusty s**thole. <<< Sorry about the language, its the least explicit way to describe this. Our first day of the holiday, was basically washing the room. We empted all the cupboards and scrubbed the dirty tiles. After a full day of therapy, the room was somewhat bearable. We couldn't go out that night, as we had no clothes to wear. So we cuddled up, in a ball together and feel asleep. The next morning, there was no sunshine, no children screaming at the pool and no music from any of the restaurants. We walked out, still in our clothes from the previous day, into a dull and cold ghost town. A cat walked up and down the street, an old newspaper sheet blew down the pavement, and apart from that, the place was dead. We walked out into the main area of Marmaris, to see a few people walking around, and one or two cars. None of the bazaar was open as there was no tourists. So we had to splash some cash and go to the big, expensive Turkish clothes shops. We bought a few days supplies of clothes then went to find somewhere to eat, which was a nightmare. Our last option was McDonalds.. who goes on holiday.. to eat McDonalds? Apparently, we did! It was the worst holiday ever, so far! We decided as it had been 2 days, and still no sign of a suitcase, we'd go to the Holiday4u office and check up where our suitcases were. "They're in Heathrow", the guy said plainly. He acted like it was nothing, as if it didn't really matter we were stuck in Marmaris with no luggage at all! So from there, our daily routine was, get up, watch Tv, go to Mcdonalds, go to the Holidays4u office, then go back to our s**thole.

              Dec24: We were getting really anxious as our 4 year old cousin was already told that Santa DOES deliver presents to Turkey. We had no idea what we would tell her! We went back down to the Holidays4u office to see where our luggage was this time. "There in Sweden", said the guy, once again, dry and plain! My Aunty Liz started to get really peed off, as she usually does. We demanded to speak to someone else. This time the woman's name was Lorna, young and very cheery. She wasn't very cheery when we told her about our cases, in fact, she was really sympathetic and helpful. She was raged when she heard about how "Paul" treated our case. She said he was naturally depressed. Also, she was very funny. She said they couldn't exactly get the cases to us by Christmas day, but she said she will try and get them out of Sweden by New years eve. Assured by this, we only bought a few day's clothes. All in all, we had spent £2000 on that holiday between the four of us. It was getting out of hand.

              Christmas Day: After resolving Vanessa's crying and screaming match after realising Santa hadn't come, we took a walk down the marina. Apart from the dull and cold weather it was pretty nice. We stopped by the English pub where there was a pub quiz. We won 2 bottles of wine. We had a steak and kidney pie and had a toast to the worst Christmas ever. When night-time came, we simply watched Turkish TV, once again. What a crap Christmas that was! I would have rather stayed at home, to be honest.
              New year's eve: 4 McDonalds later, we took another trip down to the Holidays4u office. Lorna looked quite worried to see us, we assumed bad news. "So, where our luggage, today", moaned my Aunty Liz.
              "Its ended up in Germany", she sighed. We said nothing, we all just walked out the building and wondered how we were going to celebrate New Years with no clothes or make-up! Once again, we went expensive clothes shopping, and even make-up shopping. We decided to just go down the beach front and see what there was. A huge crowd of people were gathered round a big un-lit sign saying "Happy New Year", we decided to tag along. We expected some action and partying, but they set on a firework (literally, a firework).. switched on the light, and that was it! No cheering, no clapping, just simple handshakes and a few "happy new year"s.. Or in Turkey "Mutlu Yillar". Severely disappointed, we went back to our apartment, and once again, fell asleep in front of the Tv.

              Jan 7th:we took another trip to the Holidays4u office to see Lorna. We were raging at the fact we had spent 2 weeks and still no sign of suitcases. They matter was, apparently, the suitcases were in Istanbul and they refused to release them. We gave up, went back to the apartment, and counted up the days to go home. It was a terrible holiday. All we ever did the whole holiday was watch tv and eat McDonalds. We were all over a stone larger when we came back.

              We love Marmaris, its a wonderful place in the summertime, just not in the winter. We did get our suitcases, when we came home! They were battered to bits. Turkey is not the place for winter. The only Turkey we'll be doing for Christmas, will be the type you can eat!

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                18.12.2006 18:23
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                I would walk 500 miles to be with them!

                Two years ago, at Christmas, I was living in Spain, but had booked my flight to come home for Christmas, to be with my family. Unfortunately it wasn't to be, as through ill health at that time, I was unable to make the flight. I was distraught at the thought of not being with my own family over this period, but had to accept the fact, it was the first year we would spend it apart.

                I started to make arrangements for our Christmas in Spain, along with my niece, who is Spanish, and my brother, who had lived in Spain for 32 years.
                I tried so hard not to feel sorry for myself as Christmas approached, and threw myself into making it as nice as possible for the only two members of my family who would be there on the day.

                Christmas Eve, my brother and I went out shopping for the food, and last minute presents. We had a lovely day, and he took me for dinner afterwards, and he tried to make it as enjoyable as possible for me, as he is also my 'twin' and we think alike in a lot of ways, and he knew I was feeling sad about not seeing my daughters that Christmas. It is also our birthday on Christmas day so, my daughters were feeling extra sad at me not being home with them that year.

                When we eventually got home, I was quite exhausted, but we settled down to watch some Christmas television. In our family it is traditional for us to see 12 midnight come in, and it is then we open our pressies!!
                So 12 midnight came, and the 3 of us wished each other a 'Merry Christmas'! Then the phone rang, and it was my daughters, wishing me a Merry Christmas and a Happy Birthday!
                Well, we were all crying on the phone, and it was just so emotional, when the doorbell rang. I was still on the phone, when my brother insisted I go to open the door. I opened it to find my 2 daughters standing there, still on the phone to me! They were bundled up with gifts, and wearing Santa suits and hats, but nothing could disguise my own girls!

                I cannot explain the emotions that ran through me, and I just stood and screamed at this sight! I couldn't believe it! All my Christmas wishes came true at that one moment!
                We hugged and cried for I don't know how long!

                Unbeknown to me, when the Doctor had told me I couldn't fly on the 22nd, my brother had somehow managed to get last minutes flights with a Spanish airline to get the girls over to Spain!
                I later heard that their flights had been delayed because of the weather and they were worried whether they would indeed make it!

                We lived in a Villa at this time, with a separate apartment downstairs, which my Niece stayed in when she was visiting us, and when my daughters arrived early on Christmas Eve, she had moved them into this small apartment. Of course, my brother had taken me out for the day that day, and obviously now, it was to keep me out the way as long as possible.

                So they had actually spent Christmas Eve downstairs in a cramped apartment while we had had the luxury of upstairs watching Christmas TV!
                To let you understand, the apartment was directly below the lounge area of the Villa, and normally you could hear everything, so I do not know how they managed to keep so quiet for so long, knowing my daughters and knowing how they are usually fairly 'loud'!
                Looking back now, my Niece kept vanishing downstairs, making the excuse she was going for her 30th shower??!!!

                What a terrific time we had and sat up most of the night, and the next day, we had Christmas dinner round the pool! We all had less food now, as I had only organised it for three, not five! What the heck, you could have put 2 roast potatoes and 2 Brussels on my plate, I still would have enjoyed it al!

                Thank goodness for last minute flights!!! It is a Christmas I will not forget in a hurry!

                This year, I am travelling home for Christmas to my home town in Edinburgh! We now live in the South of England so it will take us about 5 or 6 hours to do this by car, but we have to take the car rather than fly, as I was over zealous with the presents this year....AGAIN!

                I am travelling home because my daughters are there and I know that like last year, it will be worth while! I would make a marathon journey to be home with family at Xmas, as there's no way Xmas could be the same without them!

                Last year, well we drove up, and made it in about 5 hours, and this was with stopping once for something to eat. The roads were in fact, eerily quiet since this was the Friday, and the last working day before Christmas. We left about 5 PM and expected the roads to be jammed with other people wanting to go home for Christmas, but no, it was more or less a clear road all the way up.

                We had a fantastic Christmas, each of us opening the silly presents we had bought!

                Unfortunately, we had to leave earlier than expected as the weather forecast predicted heavy snow across the country! As we bade farewell to my daughters we set off and initially thought we would make it safely, until we reached Newcastle! We drove into a sheet of snow falling and the wind screen wipers were doing nothing to clear the way! Traffic was at a snails pace by this time, so we managed eventually to drive into a road side eating place, with the hope of sitting it out until it subsided.

                We sat in this roadside cafe along with many other travellers who had ventured in here for the same reasons, but rather than it subside, it got worse! The cars in the car park were covered in snow, and no one could make out which car was which!
                Eventually the snow subsided, but the ground was thick with it. We decided to have a go at driving further up as we supposed the gritters would be out by now! After clearing all the snow off the car, we slowly made our way back onto the main road. Yes! The gritters were certainly out, but not doing anything! We saw one gritter lorry on a slip road.......STUCK in the snow!

                The main road itself was not too bad by now, as previous traffic had turned most of it too slush, but we still were being over cautious and travelling about 15 miles an hour. Looking out over the countryside, it was just a massive white out!! Beautiful scenes though, but scary to drive in!

                Another few miles down the road, it was getting better, and the snow had vanished in some places, but the other vehicles on the road, had also vanished! It was very eerie, driving down the A1 with snow all around you and just the clear dark sky with the stars twinkling!

                We drove without too much trouble until we got closer to London. It all started again! North Kent, where we were headed was covered in snow, and we had been listening to this on the radio all the way down, hoping we could perhaps dodge some areas that were getting the worst of it, but how could we dodge this? This is where we were going to!

                Again we stopped at another road side cafe and of course ate some more, and drank more hot coffee! By this time it was 12 midnight and we had left Edinburgh at 3pm! So 9 hours we had driven, and still just 50 miles to go, but that 50 miles would prove to be a nightmare! As we sat in this cafe, we pondered whether to take the chance and try and get home, or give up and bed ourselves down in this cafe, which a few other motorists had decided to do.

                We chose to battle on, and yes, it was a nightmare, at one point getting stuck in the snow, and having to be rescued by a snow plough! By now, there were more cars being rescued, and once the snow plough got us all out, he told us all just to follow him, and we did! He scooped the snow up and made a passage for us all to drive through! We followed him for about 5 miles and giving the driver of the plough a farewell 'toot' we managed to get off the road and onto a safer road heading towards our home! I have never been so glad to get home in one piece!

                It was now 3.30am! Exactly twelve and a half hours to get home!

                Isn't it worth the journey though? How many times throughout the year I have had a flight to take me there, but nothing can beat the drive up there, to be with your family!?

                Christmas is a time for travelling, even though it might get you down at the thought of snow, ghastly weather, and even more snow! It is worth the risk just to know you will be with the people you love most!
                There is the other factor though, that you could be seen as irresponsible by venturing out, knowing you could face dangerous conditions!
                I would say we had no choice but to try and get home, as we had work commitments etc, but if we had had that trouble driving UP to Edinburgh, would I have still done it?

                I must be honest and say, yes! Nothing could keep me away from my family at Christmas, and nothing ever will again!

                Where ever you travel to for Xmas , there is one thing that bonds everyone! We are all celebrating the same thing! No matter what that journey entails, it really is so much worthwhile, as when do we ever make the same effort? I would travel the globe to be with my loved ones at this time!

                Merry Christmas everyone!

                J x

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                  17.12.2006 19:27
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                  My Christmas Travel Story

                  A True Story
                  -----------------

                  I can’t remember exactly when it was that I finally stopped believing in Father Christmas and, of course, I could be lying for those reading that still believe that a burly man with good cheer and a white beard, still circumnavigates the world on Christmas Eve, sliding down chimneys and distributing gifts to all and sundry. If I could recall that fateful day when somebody despicable did lay it on the line to me that Christmas was just a huge commercial exercise to provide enough metaphorical nuts to get the shops through the winter hibernation then that moment may have been recaptured in a kind of technicolour brilliance just a couple of years ago.

                  Anybody that finds themselves travelling at Christmas must, sooner or later, encounter Chris Rhea’s “Driving Home for Christmas” on the radio – it’s the law. There’s nothing more salutary than driving along thinking that you should be somewhere else, preferably in a warm living room, decorated tree in the corner lit up by a myriad of twinkling fairy lights, glass of mulled wine on the coffee table accompanied by a plump mince pie flashing a subliminal “eat me” message to you as the television flickers with the mind numbing Christmas schedule. Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like getting home on Christmas Eve knowing that you’ve got the next few days off and an excessive Christmas lunch awaits your delectation the following day. Time to finally relax one would think but then have you ever had to worry about that momentous moment when your belief in Santa Clause may about to be smashed all over again? You’ve probably guessed by now that that’s exactly what did happen to me otherwise I wouldn’t be penning this tale now.

                  Every year had seen the same debate – which party was going to visit who for Christmas Day. It’s accepted that Christmas is a stressful time for us all and Christmas Day, in particular, can be a real firestorm. Families fight tooth and nail to either avoid having certain people on that fateful day or conversely, to capture the flag of being able to host the festive fayre for the massed congregation of close family. As ever, I’d humbly gone along with my good lady’s decision to ask her mom and dad to come down from Brumland (which, incidentally, is several hundred miles west of Lapland in case you were wondering) to join us for Christmas lunch. It was always something of a family rotation to work out who would host my parents-in-law each year and, this year, the spotlight had fallen on us; after all, my ma-in-law had unilaterally declared that she was to host no more Christmas Day affairs having “done her bit” when the kids were growing up.

                  Christmas Eve is a long day if you are a parent. By the time the kids have gone to bed and actually fallen asleep and by the time you have written out Santa’s note, left the carrots and water for the reindeer and placed the mince pie and sherry on a platter for the big man in the red suit assuming he really is going to relieve you of the job of sloping into the garage or loft to secrete the pressies about the lounge and/or kids’ bedrooms then it’s probably gone Midnight by the time you hit the hay. In an ideal world, the next thing you want to register is getting up at a reasonable time on Christmas Day, watching your children open their pressies and helping yourself to a Yuletide breakfast. This year was different; it wasn’t going to work like that.

                  Negotiations had been a little strained. Not that we where caught up in a United Nations type of scenario complete with interpreters earning a fortune whilst everyone else concentrated hard on the sounds coming through their earpieces but I wasn’t too sure of the proposition. We’d (when I say “we”, I mean my wife) agreed to have the pleasure of my parents-in-law on Christmas Day. The clause in the agreement that niggled me was the estimated time of arrival. Bearing in mind the usual lengthy itinerary for the day in question, my ma-in-law had determined that she would go to Midnight Mass and then drive down to our house in the middle of the night on Christmas Day. This involved an e.t.a. somewhere between 2am and 3am. “We’ll let ourselves in and be really quiet” she assured me as I looked at her wondering if she’d ever been genteel about anything in her life. Still, it was time to adopt an open mind and see what happens. I’m sure she won’t wake us up, I convinced myself.

                  And so Christmas Eve arrived in a fanfare of seasonal joy. The night’s activities passed off, the kids went to bed and we played out our annual routine of Santa cum cat burglar, stalking about the nether regions of the house to plant the gifts for the wee ones. With our job done, off we toddled to bed. The next thing should have been waking to the light sound of snow falling, me lurching towards the balcony and calling to some young urchin to find the biggest turkey that he could find and buy it for the poor family from around the corner. Erm…no…I’m thinking of “A Christmas Carol” aren’t I? Well, OK, at least waking at a reasonable time and reeling off all the customary things that get done on Christmas Day. HOWEVER, this was not to be. Having traversed the charms of Midnight Mass, my in-laws travelled down the not so glorious M6 and M1 to arrive at my gaff pre-dawn. In a hail of clanking and commotion, we could hear the front door being unlocked by a key and my ma-in-law cursing that she couldn’t see a thing which was no real surprise as the lights were off (quite customary for that time of night). With their beds laid out in the lounge, the next half an hour or so was taken up with various creaks, bangs and exclamations as my relatives finally settled to go to sleep, having managed to offload their luggage and set themselves up in the sleeping bags laid out neatly for them. It was at this juncture that I realised that all of those stories of hearing reindeer hooves on my roof when I was a kid could have simply been pushy relatives arriving at various houses in the street. It seemed that Santa did not exist after all but rather the St. Nick concept was actually based on an army of mother-in-laws travelling through the night to make sure that they were there for the present opening in the morning and good riddens to any son-in-laws that felt a tad cranky having had just a few hours sleep.

                  The following morning came, greeted by a bland, morning sky and the usual lack of frost in these days of Global Warming. I remember being distinctly tired as I clambered out of bed and sleepily towards my festive fry up. As I switched on the radio, Chris Rhea was grinding out that bitter sweet song about driving home for Christmas and, just for a few seconds, I imagined my ma-in-law in the passenger seat, surrounded by presents and being driven by Father Christmas. It was that final thought that made me realise that there was a right time for travelling at Chrimbo and only Santa should be allowed the use of the roads after Midnight. Maybe he could drop an explanatory note along with next year’s presents and do something useful for us long-suffering relations that host their relatives. If he was real, I’m sure he would. So if you do find such a note next year then just remember that you read it here first and that your extra sleep could all be down to me with a little bit of help from Chris’s hit song and a welcome appreciation of good will to all men.

                  Merry Christmas.

                  Mara

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                    17.12.2006 12:53
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                    Christmas is a family time, a time for sharing and caring

                    I love travelling and I also love Christmas. I have spent Christmas is quite a few different locations, from the totally “over the top” American Christmas to the somewhat humble Spanish Christmas. I have to admit to preferring the latter and having now spent three Christmases in Spain, I would be very reluctant to travel back to the UK to spend Christmas there.

                    Travelling to Southern Spain from the UK is very easy, there are numerous flights from most airports and journey times vary from 2- 4 hours, depending on location. Flights are relatively inexpensive, especially if booked well in advance. There are hundreds of available hotel rooms and apartments, most of which can be booked online with a very easy internet search, failing that, your local travel agent will organise a trip..although you can expect to pay a lot more.

                    The first thing you notice when you leave the airport is the temperature, it is usually around 25 degrees in December during the daytime…very comfortable and many holidaymakers still insist on wearing shorts and t-shirts. You can always spot the locals as we are running around in jeans and fleeces..lol. Mornings and evenings are much cooler and with marble and tiled floors, I would advise a pair of slippersocks, essential for any trip to Spain in the winter-time.

                    If you arrive after dark, the next thing you will notice is the Christmas Light Display. The town halls in Spain vie with each other to produce the most spectacular light displays and each town is decorated with the most amazing results. However, none of this is put up before the second weekend in December. This is because the real Christmas for Spain is not celebrated until 6th January (more about that later in review).

                    Shop, restaurant and bar displays are decorated much the same as they are in the UK with the British Bars and Restaurants going a tad over the top. Spanish people tend to look on in amusement at their efforts. Houses are rarely decorated (unless they have British residents).

                    Street markets are beautiful and a great place to pick up last minute bargains. The whole Christmas shopping experience in Spain is totally different to the UK, there is no rushing around, no panic buying or hoards of people needing to get that “one off” item. In fact when the Playstation 2 made its appearance and everyone in the UK was panicking and rushing around trying to find one, our local GAME shop was stocked from floor to ceiling and selling a couple a day.

                    Christmas in Spain is much more low key. Gifts tend to be tokens and kids do not expect vast sums of money to be spent on them. Shops have more toys than usual but still not to the same level as found in the UK. Christmas here is much more about family and friends getting together to celebrate, have a huge feast and spend time with each other. Incidentally, Spanish Christmas feast starts on Christmas Eve and goes on all through Christmas days…these guys know how to party.

                    You may also notice that from 21st December, there are large queues outside the town halls, this is because the local councils in all towns distribute Christmas packages to the poor and underprivileged. These packages include meat, chicken, vegetables, tinned goods and wine..enough for a good Christmas dinner, they also receive an envelope with an allowance per person, I think it is around 50Euros. Seeing these people walk away with their Christmas boxes and a big smile on their faces is the true spirit of Christmas for me.

                    Christmas Day in Spain for any visitor is quite different. For a start, you wake up to glorious sunshine (usually) then have the option of a walk along the prom where everyone you meet will wish you “Feliz Navidad”, people will be swimming in the sea and you will see remnants of the Christmas Eve Parties still going on in the Spanish bars and restaurants as well as on the beaches. The British restaurants on this coast offer full Christmas Lunch and a good offer of a home from home Christmas Day. Personally, we avoid these as I like having Christmas Day at home. Many people also opt to have Christmas Lunch on the beach and set up barbeques and tables in the sunshine. Many shops remain open and all will be open again on Boxing Day (apart from the British ones who seem to take a two week break)

                    If you really want to experience a Spanish Christmas then you have to wait until January. On the evening of January 5th there is a spectacular parade in every town throughout Spain. It is the evening of the Three Kings. Floats are paraded through the town with the final three being the Three Kings. ~In this part of Spain, the kings are paraded down to the beach and sent out in a boat. Our parade generally consists of around 20 floats and each one contains several children and adults who throw millions of sweets to the crowd. This has to be seen to be believed as the sweets rain down on you and the children catch them in hats, bags and any other receptacle they can find. Our haul from last year lasted until Easter. It is all about children having a great night and receiving sweets from the Kings, prior to their gifts on Three Kings Day. When children go home, they lay their shoes outside the door so that the Kings “know” that a child lives there and will leave gifts…very similar to our Father Christmas. However, the gifts that they receive are much smaller and of much less financial value. I have never heard them complaining. There then follows the biggest feast of the year and two days holiday to recover.

                    I would say that if you want to escape the madness of Christmas in the UK, by that I mean the crowded shops, people rushing about and the general panic that seems to ensue, then I would say, head for Spain, soak up the culture and the true meaning of Christmas, spend some time with some Spanish people and get back to reality. You will have a great time and catch some sun at the same time. Spending Christmas in Spain has made my children much less materialist and we would find it really hard to leave here at Christmastime now…we much prefer this sort of Christmas season

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                      13.11.2006 17:51
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                      Christmas away from home is not for me

                      CHRISTMAS TRAVEL STORIES

                      I have just had an e mail from a cousin who lives in New Zealand and she is looking forward to their summer. However, she does add that if she could have one wish for Christmas it would be to be back in England just for Christmas Day, away from the heat and the beach, and opting for a traditional English Christmas instead.

                      Well I know some people do love to go on holiday at Christmas, whether it is to escape the weather or the relatives, there is no doubt they go off in their droves.

                      As someone who hates the cold weather, but who loves the tradition of Christmas, I have only ever been tempted once to go away for the holiday. That was several years ago. A member of the family was working in Japan and we decided to go out to spend Christmas and New Year with him, leaving England on 19th December and returning on 5th January.

                      The trip had been booked months in advance and we were all eagerly awaiting our first trip to this distant land, the long journey all added to the excitement. Our cases were packed with Christmas goodies from home – mince pies, Christmas cake and Scottish shortbread biscuits. We had decided not to buy each other presents before we went, preferring to look for something while we were there.

                      Upon arrival at customs at our destination we were made to open one of our bags, which contained several cylindrical tins of Scottish shortbread. The keen eyed customs officer asked in broken English what it was. “Scottish biscuits” I replied. His face lit up! “AH! Scottish whisky? How much you bring?” Oh dear, he did look disappointed when I opened one of the tins to show him the biscuits!

                      Anyway, we were there, on arriving at our relative’s house, he had made a great effort to decorate a tree and had made a garland using origami techniques, all very pretty. The shops were decorated with the most beautiful Christmas decorations we had ever seen, even though this was a country where English was not widely spoken, the usual Christmas carols were blaring out in all the stores. And so Christmas Eve arrived. A friend called in bringing us a Christmas cake – how beautiful it was, but how different from our own Christmas cakes. This one was a cream sponge, lavishly decorated with swirls of cream to resemble snow and decorated with chocolate Christmas shapes. Mmm delicious! I had taken some of my home made Christmas cakes with me, which were enjoyed by everyone and are now known as “the Englishwoman’s cake” and requested year after year!!! (Maybe I should set up a shop in Japan!)

                      Christmas Eve was good, we spent the evening with Japanese people who were all keen to hear about Christmas in England, then came the shock – they all had to leave early as they were all working the next day, including our relative.

                      “But surely they are letting you have the day off, it is Christmas!” I wailed.

                      “Ermm no, this is Japan, people don’t have many holidays here.”

                      “But if you were in England you would be allowed the day off for your religious festival, you are an ‘ethnic minority’ over here, they should understand this.”

                      But, as he said, this was Japan, they did not care about other culture’s beliefs and so to work everyone had to go.

                      It seemed strange that the Japanese children all looked forward to a visit from Santa Claus, the same as kids over here, the difference was that once they had opened their presents they went to school!

                      The shops were open, the carols still played, but try and find anything the least bit Christmassy to eat and you were stumped! Meat is terribly expensive and somehow a Christmas dinner of sushi didn’t appeal. So we decided to book a meal in a restaurant in a hotel for the evening, along with some other English people. The hotel took great pride in advertising its Christmas Dinner, but although they tried hard, it bore no resemblance to the traditional Christmas dinners we knew.

                      Boxing Day was of course just another day, but worse than that – all the Christmas decorations seemed to have disappeared overnight! Now the shops were full of presents for New Year, which is when the Japanese have their big celebration.

                      The people our relative knew made a great effort to invite us to their homes in the period between Christmas and New Year, but once it was New Year’s Eve they all seemed to disappear and we were left to our own devices. I felt as though they were saying “this is our festival, we do not want to share it with foreigners.” Needless to say, I was quite upset about this, we had shared our Christmas but it seemed they were not prepared to share their New Year’s Eve with us and as everywhere was closed we stayed in the house and made our own entertainment.

                      However, on New Year’s Day, we were visited by more Japanese people and we realised they thought we would want to spend time as a family on New Year’s Eve, as is their tradition. But New Year’s Day is a time when they exchange gifts and we were also invited to go to church with one family. As only 2% of the population are Christian, the rest being Shinto or Buddhist, they were delighted to have us join them.

                      I must add here also that New Year in Japan is a very traditional time in all respects. It is a time when the women dress up in their finest kimono, even the shop assistants wore them at New Year. And one of the ladies presented me with a kimono of my own as a New Year gift! Unforgettable! Especially when she informed me that I couldn’t just “put it on” but had to “be dressed properly” and I was whisked off to a beauty parlour to be attired in their traditional way!

                      That was one of the highlights of the visit, but there were some disappointments too. The fact that the weather was mild but quite cold, the houses do not have central heating, and once Boxing Day arrived Christmas was all finished in their view, made it seem as if Christmas was over all too soon.

                      However, on the plus side, we did have an unforgettable holiday, made lots of new friends, experienced a new culture. Another plus was that we did not have to wear ourselves out trailing around the shops at home in the last few days before Christmas, there was no Christmas tree to put up and take down again a couple of weeks later, and we got our cards posted early!

                      However, never again would I go away at Christmas, unless it was to a cold country, with lots of snow, a roaring log fire, and a real traditional festive atmosphere. You just can’t beat the white Christmas traditional scenario, basking on a hot beach may be okay for some, but not for me, at least not in December.

                      The following year we stayed at home, our relative saying he had to stay in Japan as he could not take time off to come home. How disappointing that he could not join us, but we carried on with our usual traditions anyway, thinking of him in that distant country and wondering if he was enjoying himself.

                      We invited friends round one evening, a couple of days before Christmas Eve, and as we sat drinking our mulled wine the doorbell rang. What a surprise! The most wonderful Christmas present we could ever have asked for – standing on the doorstep was our relation. He had been due to leave Japan for a business trip and had managed to arrange for it to coincide with Christmas so he could spend the festive season here!

                      Nowadays, it is not unusual for us to have Japanese visitors to spend Christmas with us. They save up their annual leave to take it with their New Year holiday and love to share our traditional festivities and of course I get to wear my kimono at New Year.

                      What is more, almost every year when they arrive at the airport, they are usually greeted with a brass band playing Christmas Carols as they enter the arrivals area. Now that is what I call a great Christmas welcome to overseas visitors!

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                        09.01.2002 04:42
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                        • "only comes once a year"

                        I have always wanted to make the ultimate visit; no I do not mean a treck to Bethlehem (though this is my next plan of action if all the trouble stops out there). I am talking about a trip to Lapland. Now that I have two young children it seemed an even better reason to go but the cost has always put me off! However I decided to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak and I booked a day trip to Lapland. I saw the advert in one of the Sunday papers (I wont say which one for fear of free advertising). The total cost of our family day out was just under £1,000 for the four of us. Yes I know it was expensive but at least I’ve achieved it. The smile on my children’s faces was amazing and my husband looked pretty pleased too. We flew out from Heathrow on a very early flight. This was difficult I must admit but the children were fine about waking up, it was us parents that couldn’t handle it! A coach met us the other end and we were taken for a guided tour then lunch. It was after lunch that we were on our way again to the most spectacular grotto I have ever seen. Reindeer rides were laid on to take us to the great man himself and each child given a present naturally. A glass of mulled wine later we were all given free time to enjoy the snow and a snow ski ride. Then back home around midnight UK time. My brief description doesn't do it justice but believe me it was worth the cost. Presents come and go on xmas day but this memory stays with you forever.

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                          31.12.2001 02:03
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                          Unlike certain school-kids, I haven't got a new toy to bring in on the first day of term, so you'll just have to put with that other standby of all over-worked teachers, the holiday diary! I don't normally do the "d" word for the very reason that teachers ruined my enthusiasm for them at a very early age, but having "nowt else" to write about at the moment, here it is. WOT I DUN ON MY CHRISTMAS HOLS by Mr. Nibelung My wife and I jumped off the "whose turn is it to go to whose in-laws this year?" carousel years ago. Having no children of our own helps, (although I have a 22-year-old daughter from a previous marriage), therefore there is no "grand-parental" blackmail applied. So, on a biennial basis we tend to trot off to somewhere a bit more "Christmassy" than Hounslow, and let's face it, most places are. This year it was to the Lake District, Ambleside to be precise. We have, up to now, always used an agency called Heart Of The Lakes for our bookings. They have some lovely properties on their books, many of which only accommodate two, which, if there really are only two of you, feel at lot cosier. Of course, these still don't come cheap in peak weeks like Christmas and The New Year, and our apartment still came out with not much change from £400 for the week commencing 22nd December. WHERE WE STAYED We took a ground floor apartment in a large Victorian house called Whitecraggs on the outskirts of Ambleside. The flat is fully equipped with "mod cons", dishwasher etc, an ingle-nook with cast-iron stove, and a bedroom complete with 4-poster. As Whitecraggs' name implies, it is set in quite rugged country with its very own crag at the back of the landscaped and steeply-sloped garden. Christmas morning saw us clambering to the top for two reasons. A) The view, along the length of
                          Lake Windermere which, with the rising sunlight against it, was glorious and B) to get more than "1 out of 5" signal-strength on our cell-phones, so that we could make seasonal calls to anyone who was up by then! (Don't come to the Lakes expecting to carry on a mobile business while you're here, unless you are prepared to move around until your phone works that is). Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the diary. SATURDAY - the journey north. Set off early (8 am) up the M40/42 to get past Brummingham before anyone gets a chance to clog-up the M5-M6 interchange - it works! Manage to breeze through at 70 m.p.h. for the first time in years. Arrive in Warrington around 11.30 am to make flying visit to "ex" (yes, we're still friends) to exchange presents and make suitable cooing noises over new baby. Baby has a cold, which is lucky for him, because he can't smell what I can, as he sits and strains red-faced on my lap! No sign (olefactory or otherwise) of own daughter however, who was due in from Antigua at Gatwick at 6.30 am and reckoned she'd be there to see us before we move on - (yeah right, Kate, and the porcine quadrupeds are refuelled and awaiting air-traffic clearance) Rest of journey flies by, leaving us with some precious daylight to unload our trusty Nissan Micra at Whitecraggs. We'd been caught trying to find this place in the dark AND pouring rain once before! The proprietor, who is new, shares a bottle of Lanson "shampoo" with us (very nice) and has left us an M&S aussie red wine + cheese basket. (also very nice). We set up our very small Christmas tree and glow, even before we inaugurate the lights. SUNDAY Make a trip south to Beetham, Lancs. (I think) to a nice pub in the Good Pub Guide, in vain attempt at next docking manoeuvre with Kate, who despite the 24-hours respite, STILL fails to get there at all. Still, lunch was nice
                          . Standing out on the A6 in case she didn't see the turn wasn't, on one of those depressing winter days with a "Tupperware" sky. We return via Windermere, and drool over the selection of local foods (Cumberland sausage et al) at the local Booth's supermarket - this place really is almost as good as a "dellie" and is a sad omission from life in the South. Stock up on special Christmassy beers, of which there is also an excellent range. MONDAY We decide to get into the Christmas Eve spirit, which I reckon has the nicest "feel" of the whole Christmas period. Take the glorious sunlit drive to Keswick via Grasmere, where my wife has agreed to give blood, having missed the mobile vampires when they were round our way. I quip that once she gets to her 50th donation, she is due some back! Wot? No "Merry Christmas To All Our Bleeders" sticker? How is it that even "Woolies" and W H Smiths feel festive in Keswick? After a mooch-around our favourite bits, we get out the Pub Guide and bang off via Ullswater to The Queens Head at Tirrill near Penrith. Now, THIS is more like it. Low beams, a log fire, real tree and decorations, good food, and they brew their own beer! The Christmas Eve feeling doesn't get much better than this unless a really sexy barmaid ushers you to the mistletoe against your will (and whispers those magic words "These are on me"). Oh death, where is thy sting? The evening is spent smiling at each other (my wife and me, not the barmaid, you mucky devil) and sampling wines for mulling, by the end of which, I'm not as thunk as drinkle peep I am, honest! TUESDAY The big one. We torture ourselves by inventing ever-longer lists of things to do before opening our presents, like putting some clothes on, and climbing the crag to make phone calls* - THEN we rip the presents open! *remember to do the
                          se two in the right order. What did I get for Christmas? I've forgotten already, but I can remember what we did! Lunch was a splendid affair at the Log House restaurant in Ambleside, but then I suppose it should have been at £50/head before the table wine is added on. We did however get canapés and champagne included prior to moving to the dining room. As its name implies, wood figures high in the list of building materials, and the place is characterful in a Norse kind of way, and beautifully lit and sunny. The Kiwi waitress announces the "live-sex" upstairs, which pricks up a few ears, I can tell you. The sax-player looked a bit surprised and overdressed too! Despite being live music, he seems to be working his way through the karaoke version of this year's "Best Christmas Album Ever - CD" - oh no, not Slade and Roy Wood AGAIN! Another evening spent smiling at each other - at least, I think we did. The "stayer I long here", the "poor missed" I get! TV didn't figure very large in our Christmas arrangements this year, which, having seem the Radio Times, is probably just as well. Oh well, that's the big day polished off. WEDNESDAY The other big one, i.e. the first day of the inaccurately-named January Sales. Since we're in the Lake District, where better* to start than the HQ of Hawkshead Outdoor Clothing in ..er..Hawkshead, Lakeland Ltd (formerly Lakeland Plastics) and Lakeland (formerly Lakeland Sheepskin)? The latter pair ought really to go to http://www.confusingdomainnames.co.uk/ to get themselves sorted out. * Well, I'll tell you "where better", a pub, that's "where better", but does anyone listen to me???? Several anoraks, items of hearty outdoor clothing, and kitchen gadgets that you never realised you'd been doing without all these years later, w
                          e do actually get to go to a pub - I can't remember which one but it's the principle that counts. On settling down to a quiet evening by the fire, we smile at each other until it dawns on me how much these bargains have cost. I break into my Christmas "special beer" selection and down a couple of bottles of Cadwallader's "Old Crotch Rotter", or some such. THURSDAY I can't believe it's already "the day after Boxing Day". Take shower and check crotch for rot. False alarm, although stomach is by now partially concealing the full vista. Call on wife for second opinion. Not impressed, apparently. Adds Cumberland sausage and pickled walnuts to shopping list We go to Keswick again - we like Keswick, and it's a nice safe distance from any major Sales! I detect a pattern beginning to form. We go off to a pub in Buttermere, well not IN it, the village I mean, and indulge in Cumbrian soul-food - Steak and kidney pie and chips, followed by Sticky Toffee Pudding all washed down with a pint of Old Peculier. My wife remarks to the waitress, "Diet starts in January". I think "Which year?" but don't say it. On returning to the flat, we finally get some sense from Kate, who is "definitely" coming for lunch tomorrow. FRIDAY Lunchtime - no sign of Kate. Owing to high winds on the M6, she has "had to drive at the speed limit" (???) and because she is following a police car has to keep her cellular activities to crafty SMS messages below the dashboard! FINALLY, she arrives - third time lucky. We exchange presents and go in search of a pub still serving lunch. It is nearly 2.30 p.m. Thinking we know where we are going, I forget the map, and end up on a vertiginous tour of the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, one of which is a "tad" icy. No pub though. Never m
                          ind, Dad comes up with another suggestion. Why doesn't she join us for our "last night" meal at The Glass House in Ambleside. Ever quick to spot a free meal, Kate decides to stay on for a few more hours. We have a really fabulous meal and bid our farewells - Kate is off to Hogmanay in Edinburgh tomorrow, so I suppose I should be grateful that she could fit us in on her whistle-stop visit to England between holidays. SATURDAY It's bloody well snowed overnight and then gone very cold! I wake the whole household crunching backwards and forwards to the Micra with the luggage. Funny, it's taking more trips this time, I wonder why. We slither gingerly down the 30% slope of Whitecraggs' driveway and start for home. The Lakes District looks fabulous in the early morning indigo, like a huge mince pie, dusted with icing sugar. I decide to rewrite the Nissan advertising copy for the Micra. Remember "You can't have a small car that's good on a motorway! You CAN with a Nissan?" Well, here's my version. "You can't buy up the entire contents of Lakeland Plastics January Sales and expect to put it in a small car! You can with a Nissan! Just ignore the sparks coming out from underneath, that's all!" Breakfast in the Knutsford Little Chef brings us back to reality.

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                            02.12.2001 18:39
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                            Having my choice of lifestyle, I'd find a secluded beach and worship the sun every day of the year, drinking cocktails in my studded bikini and shades...... Sorry, got carried away there... However, you get the picture. That's why, when I was offered a Christmas holiday to the Florida Quays early last year, I didn't refuse!! It seemed to take an age for Christmas to come round, but when it did the whole family were excited. Having packed our "sun stuff" we headed for sunnier climates.... Lovely. Or not. I have visited Orlando international airport several times, and never seen it so busy in my life (Americans holiday there too). A bustling airport is not exactly what we wanted after a 7 hour flight. The stupid luggage system and security checks took the best part of the afternoon, and by this time my elderly grandmother was prectically on the floor. After taking the short journey to our luxury villa, we flopped down on the beds and slept well into the next day. Being the first one up, I looked out past the swimming pool to a golf course. Men played in caps and sunglasses. Children splashed in the water as the sun caught their hair. It just wasn't right. I could feel my back start to sweat after just a few minutes and went back inside the air conditioned house. Leaving that day to relax was lovely, I'll admit and it felt like I didn't need Christmas. The next day we took my young cousins to the Magix Kingdom Disney Park. I'm young in mind and body, but with teeming crowds and hot sun, one day is enough for anyone. I just wanted to snuggle up by a fire with a tree and Frank Sinatra. Christmas day wasn't special at all. However much trouble people went to, it just wasn't natural. Turkey doesn't taste the same, and lights don't sparkle the way they do in a cold night sky. Two weeks l;ater, we were back at the airport and ready to leav
                            e. Everyone missed home, and an English christmas, and to top it all off the flight had been over booked. With cheap tickets, we were the first to be kicked off. Fortunately, with a Father who works for British Airways, a fuss was made and suddenly there were 8 free seats in First Class! Miraculous!! So, when you're planning a Christmas holiday, just think about it. You can't really take all your presents with you. Just trust me, ther magic is always at home...

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                              19.11.2001 04:07
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                              I am a sun worshipper. If I could have one wish for Christmas it would be to hibernate from the beginning of November and wake up at the end of March. I live on the Norfolk coast and although we do not get sharp or severe frosts, we do get bitingly cold northerly winds; a town invaded by thousands of tourists in the summer months turns into a ghost town in the winter. I am self-employed and I finish work from mid-December until about March, so my husband and I usually escape to warmer climes for Christmas. This is the story of one Christmas that we spent in Gran Canaria a couple of years ago and two very special friends that we made whilst we were there. We stayed in an apartment complex in Sonnenland. This is a peaceful inland location on the outskirts of Maspalomas. Maspalomas is situated on the southern tip of the island and is renowned for superb sandy beaches and spectacular sand dunes. The south of the island is hot and desert like with high volcanic peaks in the centre, whilst the north has pine forests and fertile plantations. The apartment complex catered for self-catering and guests on an all-inclusive basis. One tip I will give you - if you book your holiday at a bargain price - never, never tell other guests how much you have paid. We overheard an argument between a dissatisfied guest who was complaining about being given processed sliced chicken for his Christmas dinner. He turned around and said to my husband "How much did you pay for your holiday?". "£149 each for self-catering" my husband replied which made the man even more angry as he had paid £1000 each for the all-inclusive option. Following a lot of expletives, we made a hasty retreat! The duplex consisted of a living room and kitchen downstairs and bedroom and bathroom upstairs. Outside were individual little gardens planted with trees and shrubs. Some of the apartments, including the one next door to ours, were holiday homes
                              owned by local people who visited at weekends. We first met Mia and Spike when they came into our garden to chase butterflies - a young brother and sister who lived next door, sleek and brown and thoroughly Spanish. They were a little nervous of us to start with and it was clear that they did not understand a word of English; and our Spanish was very limited indeed, so communication was difficult. But once they had been into the living room a time or two and had been tempted by a drink of milk they soon became used to us. In fact, they spent most of the week with us and when their owner arrived on a friday evening they disappeared until the following monday morning. I did try to ascertain their real names, but their owner spoke no English so the two young cats became known (by us) as Mia and Spike (named after two brown Burmese cats that we used to own). Not only did they spend their days with us, but spent nights curled up at the bottom of our bed. In fact on a couple of occasions Mia and Spike were curled up asleep on one side of the bed and a big ginger tom who we nicknamed Sam (after a big ginger tom that we used to own) slept on the other side. And woe betides if you accidentally kicked Sam, as he would hiss at you. And now I will let you into a well kept Canarian secret - a little known beach at Montana Arena frequented mainly by locals - a sandy beach and warm, clear seas where you can swim and snorkel in safety. We spent Christmas Day on this beach with a few local people and their families and their dogs (which were on the most part well behaved). We prepared a picnic with a cooked chicken and salad and fruit washed down with a bottle of white wine. It was lovely, lovely, lovely ..... (and we saved some chicken for our furry friends) I have previously written in more detail about Gran Canaria, so if you don't mind I will give "Gran Canaria: an island of contrasts" a plug here. If you are t
                              hinking of spending Christmas abroad, bear in mind that certain countries cater for tourists between May and the end of October and outside of those periods are very quiet indeed, so you may find restaurants and shops closed and nightlife non-existent. I have visited Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, so if you are looking for a holiday in the sun at Christmas, I would recommend the Canary Islands. Flying time from the Unted Kingdom is around 4 hours and the temperature in December is around 25 C. Plus more importantly, they cater for tourists all the year round. Eating in or out is inexpensive and there is plenty to see and do. You may be wondering by now, what country will Janna and husband be visiting this Christmas? In the past we have been very fortunate in that we have been able to find some great last minute deals. We hope to get to the Costa del Sol in southern Spain for what could turn out to be more than just a holiday........... Janna 18th November 2001

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                                28.11.2000 15:57

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                                A short, but cautionary tale. I am a great advocate of travel, but a yuletide adventure can be unwise. My sister (who I should point out is now very happily settled with a nice chap and a baby which is freakishly jolly and good-tempered) had exited a long relationship which had looked like heading for the altar. The first Christmas loomed, and she decided, rather than spending it with my parents (with whom she is very close), she would jet off with one of her more glamourous friends to glam European cities for the festive season. The idea was to show herself, as much as anyone else, that she was a thrusting and independent young woman, who didn't need a reassuring festive family get-together. She was wrong.She visited one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but (apologies in advance) it might as well have been Hull if you're not in the mood. The fact was, she didn't really want to be travelling the world, she wanted to be sentimental and safe; she just didn't want to admit to that. So she spent a lot of money, a lot of time, and all she got was a bit depressed. So, if you yearn for an escape from the chaos of the festive season, think about it very carefully. Be self-aware, and even if you feel a bit wet, if you know you'd be better off having an utterly conventional Christmas, do that. What do you have to prove, you have the rest of the year to go trekking across Annapurna, and the festive season is loaded with associations you may not want to trifle with.

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                                28.11.2000 06:57
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                                A couple of years ago my wife and I wanted to get away for a short break over Christmas. No particular reason apart from thinking Christmas abroad would make a lovely change. We booked a trip to Cyprus and stayed just outside Aiya Napa. We arrived here about three days before Christmas, got to our apartments and found a game of bingo going on in the lobby. One old lady won this particular game and stood up all excited then said to her friends " 3 pounds great. Where am I going to spend it?" My wife and I didnt think anything of this remark and went to bed. Next morning when we got up we went exploring the local shops. We found the shops but didnt find any that were open! The further we walked the more closed shops we found. There were plenty of restaurants in the area but they were all closed too. We came back to our apartments and asked some other people where the shops were etc to be told to our horror that everything closed at the end of October and does not open again until March! Now we realised what the lady had meant when she won at bingo. At least there was a bar and a shop in our apartment block. Guess what? These closed on Christmas day and Boxing day as well! We could not believe that our Christmas break in Cyprus was a complete break from humanity in that there was nothing to do. At least the weather was fine even though it got dark shortly after 3pm. Cyprus did seem to be a beautiful place but if you are going for Christmas dont expect to have a wild time.

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