Don’t be fooled by the title: I mean that we are inhabiting someone else’s home sweet home for the holidays. Our current stay is in a beautifully decorated and well-loved Edwardian terrace house in Bristol’s trendy Bishopston neighborhood.
We landed in Bristol about 10 days ago, and have been lucky to be located near Gloucester Road, said to be the longest strip of independent stores in the UK. Indeed, its length has given us a lively and lovely walk a few times. Besides numerous and varied eateries, cafes, artisan food shops, and music venues, it’s offered me countless charity shops at which to maximize my Christmas shopping, in light of a promise Tim and I made to keep our spending on one another to £20 (apologies to our friends whose gifts were relatively even smaller, and may now think us cheap jerks). In this circumstance, a tight budget presented a fun challenge. For my part, it made me think critically about what I was buying and why: Will Tim want to carry this item around? Will it enrich his life in some way? Can he donate it without guilt when he’s finished with it?
By the morning of Christmas eve, the shopping was sorted and gifts stealthily wrapped, whence a new problem arose: the central heating had stopped working. Repair people came to see the boiler, and found that the computer chip had fried. They were off for holiday at noon, so the earliest they could bring a part around was Tuesday – giving us fully five days without heat in the middle of December. Now, the UK is having a very mild winter, but we have burned through much firewood and probably quite a bit of electricity by way of an electric heater to try to say warm. Invoking memories of our Milton Keynes experience this past September, where the gas wasn’t even connected to the heating system, we find ourselves grateful for the help of the kindly neighbours who have furnished us with block heaters.
Never mind. We are healthy, if chilly, and the festivities had to go on. This is our second Christmas spent together, and one question we continue to negotiate is that of differing traditions. Tim was raised in what I believe is English custom of celebrating on Christmas Day; I was raised in the Ukrainian tradition of having Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. We thought we might as well enjoy a Ukrainian meal on Christmas Eve – called ‘Sviat Vechir,’ and leave the gift-giving to Christmas Day. Sviat Vechir, in all its rich, symbolic glory, is comprised of a 12-course meal. While the contents of our portable pantry are perhaps fodder for another post, suffice it to say we don’t usually schlep around the goods to produce 12 courses on short notice. It’s also not particularly economical to buy the ingredients for each, so I settled on a ‘Sviat Vechir’-lite, offering a small representation of dishes. I hand-made the cabbage rolls the way my late Baba had taught me, but allowed the little Polish shop near us on Gloucester Road provide the rest. Perogies, rye bread (alas, there was no Christmas Kolach), Borscht with Uzhka, which are yummy little mushroom dumplings, and kutia. Kutia, the traditional first dish, is a delicious-if-dubious-looking stewed wheat dish with honey and poppy seeds. I’ve only even had the home made variety, and it’s always amazing. I’ve never made it, though, so what I know of the recipe is that it’s labour intensive. When I saw tinned kutia at the shop, I had to get it, not just to save time, but to satisfy a somewhat morbid curiosity.
The dust on the can was pretty thick, so I gave it a wash before opening. Inside was a densely packed 800 grams of wheat and poppy seed, sweetened (as best as my Polish reading abilities could tell) by sugar, raisin, and date, and indeed it did taste like mincemeat. The old tradition goes that you fling a spoonful of kutia to the ceiling; if it sticks, you’ll have a prosperous year, but not so if it falls. With no honey and no viscosity, flinging this to the ceiling would have ended poorly indeed; but then, kutia on the ceiling would, I suspect, invoke the wrath of any home owner who’d entrusted us with their domicile’s best care!
Normally the meal is followed with hearty caroling and a midnight mass. There is no Ukrainian church in Bristol so far as I can tell, and only one of us knows the carols, so we listened to the glorious Kyiv Chamber Choir’s recordings instead, and generally relaxed into a food coma before retiring to a smaller room so that we could reasonably keep warm.
Since Christmas Eve we’ve endeavoured to use other people’s heat, in absence of our own. We took a drive up to historic Gloucester, at first confused by the rabbit-warren roads and the seemingly derelict first appearance, which mask a substantial regeneration of the Severn Canal waterfront. After navigating a few neglected-looking bits, we found the warehouse conversions that present a tidy mixed-use selection of residential and retail, reminding me of Vancouver’s Olympic Village conversion of the False Creek flats.
We’ve also spent a lot of time in the local Boston Tea Party, a welcoming West Country chain of delicious, hearty food and good coffee. I stepped out of character one day, ordering lemongrass and ginger tea instead of my usual black Americano, and was veritably blown away. This tea was sublime, and I had to have some for home. Luckily, there were two packs on the shelf amidst the other options, and I didn’t have to wait for the next delivery. This loose-leaf tea is prepared by the local Canton Tea Company, and I’ve been downing at least a couple of mugs of it daily.
When braving the cold at home, we also delight in is Elsa, the seven-month-old kitten we’re charged with the care of. An avid hunter, she loves to play and stalk ‘prey,’ although I find her the most amusing when she’s chasing her own tail. She hasn’t quite worked out the intricacies of using a cat flap, so we try to help her with this detail. She loves being handled and patted, and will gladly settle into a warm lap, especially if there’s a kitty rub available. She gives the place an added warmth, especially since we’ve just learned that the boiler needs a secondary part that won’t be available for a further six days!
It seems, perhaps, glib to say when many in the north are suffering from extreme flooding and, in some cases, total loss or ruin of their homes, but I’m quite shocked to find that the UK doesn’t have a contingency in place for very simple heating fixes: that is to say, product and service to provide a simple fix that would alleviate people from sitting in the cold. Our boiler, it turns out, needs a second part. We won’t know the ETA for this until Monday at the earliest -although there are parts available, this particular service company has told me that they don’t call around to source parts so as not to upset their supplier (which strikes me as appalling on so many levels). So, we’ll have at least 12 mid-winter days without heating; this morning there is frost on the roof. I’m from a country where the cold is lethal, so it quite shocks me that this kind of thing is allowed to happen in a developed nation.
That said, tomorrow starts a new year, and with it, a fresh dose of optimism and a new lease on adventure. Last year at this time we were test-running our first ever house sit, in Lyttleton, New Zealand, soaking up the gorgeous Canterbury summer. It’s amazing to think of all that’s unfolded since that time: 12 consecutive house sits since March, time spent across an array of the UK’s city and countrysides, and a veritable menagerie of dogs, cats and fish cared for. Who knows what 2016 will bring?
Happy New Year, all!