Sunday, December 27, 2009

Another Year, Another Decade 12/27/2009

As 1999 moved towards the new Millennium, I was sitting down for a New Year’s dinner with my mother and brother in the St David’s Hotel in Cardiff.

This year, I will be spending it in LA with a whole new set of friends that I didn’t even know at the start of the decade. Heck, I didn’t even know them at the start of the year.

Isn’t life strange?

I’m still not sure what I’ll be doing on Thursday night. I’ve always found New Year’s Eve a bit depressing, but if there is one thing worse than paying over-the-top prices for a bad meal and clinging to strangers as the chimes strike, it’s sitting alone watching people do the same on TV – especially if the post-midnight revelry is taking place in Scotland to the tune of bagpipes.

Was there ever a more hideous sounding musical instrument? I swear that the bagpipes are the suicide watch of the musical world, and I am just praying that LA will be a bagpipe-free zone for the festivities.

I suspect that I may not be able to escape them if I go to Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica. This is a British pub that, at 4pm, is celebrating the UK New Year, which will be followed at midnight by the LA one.

I quite fancy celebrating the New Year in daylight, which might make it marginally less depressing than it normally is, although if they have bagpipes on the telly, I might be reaching for that razor blade and not even make it to my first US New Year.

I mustn’t be too horrible about Scotland’s national instrument, because a man called Jim from Scotland saved me from the razor blade on Christmas Eve.

I arrived back in the UK to discover that my Sky Plus box had gone kaput. Now, for a TV critic to be without TV at all is bad enough, but at Christmas, with several couch potatoes to keep happy, it is an event of monumental devastation.

I phoned Sky – no one was available until well after the New Year. I wailed, I cried, all to no avail. Despite having paid for a special plan in case of breakdown (my own, in addition to the equipment, I had presumed), there was just no one around.

Hurumph! The Sky’s the limitations I screamed at my family, munching peanuts and staring hopefully at the blank screen in the corner of the room.

I tracked down Sky’s VIP service, on whose list I had once been, but they couldn’t help because I didn’t have a special code from the “plan” department. So it was back to them. Back to VIP with the code, only to discover I am no longer a VIP.

“You’re going to lose a very good customer,” I whimpered.

“I’m very sorry about that,” said Scottish Jim.

Then Scottish Jim rang me back. He was going to see what he could do. Suddenly, I wanted to marry Scottish Jim; then I wanted to marry Welsh Kevin, who was on my door within half an hour, taking away the defunct box and replacing it amid such screams of delight that have not been heard since the Wise Men delivered their gold, frankincense and myrrh to a woman who, a couple of hours before, didn’t have a Marriott Reward point to her name.

Fair play, that was great service. Having constantly praised LA service as being infinitely superior to its UK counterparts, I have to say that Sky surpassed itself. I might even take up the bagpipes as a tribute to Scottish Jim.

For the most part, my LA life allows me to stay in the UK loop. Rolling news on the internet, and also Facebook, mean that I am never out of touch with anything or anyone for very long. Oh, yes – and Sky! Lovely, lovely Sky!

But ten hours on a plane is a long time out of the loop, as I discovered when I arrived back home for Christmas and was instantly told by my uncle that: “Gareth Edwards has come out as being gay.” Apparently, he said, it had broken up his marriage, and he had also contemplated suicide.

‘GARETH EDWARDS?!” I screamed. The great Welsh rugby scrum half of the Eighties? “No wonder he never fancied me.”

I reached for my phone to text Gareth, offer support, blah blah, while trying to conceal my delight at hearing the most exciting news to have come out of Wales since . . . Well, Henry VII’s ascension to the throne, to be honest.

I rang my brother with the bulletin. “No,” he said. “Gareth Thomas.”

Oh, good grief. That wasn’t news. The ex-Welsh captain? Those of us in the rugby world had known that for years. Still, I was pleased for Gareth and thought his coming out in the macho world of rugby, and also Wales, was an incredibly brave move on his part.

So much so, that I went up to him in my local club, the Cameo, to tell him when I saw him there before Christmas. All well and good – had it not been his lookalike team-mate (well, both balding) Tom Shanklin.

Apparently, in the bus on the way back from Cardiff Blues’ match against Toulouse before Christmas, Gareth received a call from Elton John. The team celebrated by singing Candle in the Wind for the remainder of the journey.

Much as I am looking forward to celebrating my first New Year in LA, there are some things about home that you just can’t beat.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas Treat For Your Cervix 12/20/09

Christmas shopping in LA promised to be a darn sight cheaper than it has been in Paris the last couple of years.

Where the exchange rate between the pound and the euro just gets worse and worse, the dollar against the pound has been pretty solid around the $1.60 mark for some time (and even higher). With consistently falling prices in the US now reflecting the depth of the recession, I was looking forward to a bit of a spree.

US TV commercials have been full of gift suggestions, although not many that really appealed to me.

“Give her a gift that even Santa can’t deliver,” said one, presented by a man in a suit. “Give her a pap smear.”

How does that work? I don’t know about you, but a pap smear isn’t something that would have me rushing down the stairs on Christmas morning, checking to see whether Santa’s reindeer had drunk their saucer of milk, and squealing: “Oh, I really hope this is the year there’s a pap smear in my stocking!"

Breast enlargements, yes; a tummy-tuck too (you might as well be sliced for a sheep as a lamb, if you’re having the general anaesthetic anyway); but I ask you, a pap smear?

For men not in the know and really, really stuck for a present for the lady in their life (or ladies – I’m sure they could run to a discount for a bulk purchase), pap is short for Papanicolaou, and is a screening test in gynaecology to detect abnormal cells in the cervix.

I didn’t check out the details, so have no idea whether the gift is just the appointment with a doctor, or a DIY kit to conduct your own test while the turkey’s browning; but either way, any man who bought me a pap test for Christmas wouldn’t live to taste the pudding.

Williams Sonoma e-mailed about yet another set of pointless holiday-themed gadgets and foodstuffs, none of which I want but suddenly feel I cannot live without. Having missed out on their mandolin chipper, I was thrilled to see a mandolin dicer, before remembering that I buy everything ready-chopped, sliced and diced these days (I suspect it is only a matter of time before I start buying “ready-eaten” to save time).

I also resisted buying their gingerbread house – a snip at just under $60. I’ve always associated gingerbread houses with paedophiles, after a child-devouring witch lured Hansel and Gretel to one (child-eater my arse; we know what that was all about). I could no more eat a gingerbread house than . . . well, do my own pap smear.

The American Tea Room has taken over from Williams Sonoma as my favourite gadget shop, even though tea-pots and kettles are the main gadgets on offer. But oh, what pots and kettles.

Exquisite sculptures from China, ultra-modern electric kettles that keep water at different temperatures, according to what tea you are making; a tea-pot and kettle in one, that you can keep boiling on the stove.

And dozens upon dozens of teas – my current favourite being the fruity Martinique (it is actually a bark) that I drink hot, but also make by the gallon and keep chilled in the fridge.

The ATR is not a shop, it’s a shrine to the best drink in the world. I’m not quite at the stage when I can give up my three mugs of PG Tips in the morning, but I now have an entire cupboard containing nothing but exotic leaves.

The only problem with doing my Christmas shopping there was that I ended up keeping everything for myself.

The Beverly Hills branch of the Taschen bookshop kindly provides me with PG Tips when I am out and about, but this week there was champagne, as Hugh Hefner (whom I interviewed a few weeks ago) launched his six-volume autobiography.

It was the only Christmas party I went to and was rather jolly. Centrefolds Stacey and Deanna, dressed as Bunny Girls, greeted me, and Beautiful Barmaids had provided waiting staff for the night – all women well over six feet tall.

I even met Benedict Taschen, the man behind the great bookshop, and stacked up on several Christmas presents, which, like the teas, are sitting on a shelf in my apartment.

I took respite from this exhausting gift-buying for myself in the Montage Hotel, where a man sidled up to me and said: “Is that your perfume I can smell?” It was Estee Lauder’s White Linen, which I told him women really like, should he be looking for Christmas present ideas.

“Yes,” he said. “It smells . . . oily. Would that be right?” I wasn’t sure whether he meant oil as in aromatherapy, or oil as in Castrol GTX, but it just didn’t have quite the ring of compliment I normally hope for from a man.

But then the kind of men I meet generally aren’t the complimenting sort; they’re the kind who’d buy me a pap smear for Christmas, but check on Amazon before ordering from the TV, in case they could get it just that little bit cheaper.

And if you do happen to be one of the unfortunate women who gets given one on Friday, worry not.

Remember, a pappy is only for Christmas, not for life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Campaign For Hug A Martini Day 12/9/09

Each time I go back to the UK, it takes me a while to get back into the spiritual groove I have been establishing since I moved here.

It’s tough, when you’re surrounded by a hundred Welshmen, spilling their pints of Stella over you, while drowning their sorrows at another Welsh rugby loss, to stay calm.

So when I come back, I have to re-group, as they say, and have to immerse myself back in the culture that seems such a far remove from home.

My bookshelves here are packed with self-help books of various sorts. My latest read was Eat, Pray, Love, a rather earnest quest by US journalist Elizabeth Gilbert to “find herself” in Italy, India and Indonesia.

It all sounded a bit energetic for me, and I specially wasn’t drawn to the India bit, where she rose every day at 3am to meditate.

Good grief: I’m hardly ever in bed by 3am.

I’m a bigger fan of Andrew Gottlieb’s take on it – Drink, Play, F@*k – although having no hash key on my Apple computer keyboard (as I have just discovered), I have had to insert a star where a hash should be. Life’s never easy, is it?

Outside my local grocery store, I picked up a magazine called Awareness, billed as “California’s premier bi-monthly holistic magazine”. It’s a rather unprepossessing publication – all muted colours and men who look like aliens on the cover – but I thought it might serve as a pick-me-up for my dilapidated spirit.

The cover provided information about forthcoming events, including a “Raw Spirit Festival” (rustic 100% proof Russian vodka, I wondered? Somehow, I doubted it). There was also an “Alchemy Conference”.

The only thing that would draw me to that would be if it were to alchemise into a Jimmy Choo "all shoes ten cents" sale before I got there.

Inside the magazine, there were even more treats – a tree-hugging day in Santa Monica, for instance. I’ve never quite got tree-hugging. Why would you hug a tree while there are still men in the world? And why is there not a Martini-Hugging Day?

People have told me that tree-hugging is a very rewarding experience – well, not people I hang out with, you understand, just people who don’t wash their hair much and prefer Glastonbury digs to a Marriott. Weird people.

The magazine is very big on angels (and disturbingly, I really do know people who claim to hang out with their angels), and there is even a website on which you can “Listen to Archangelic Messages”.

I don’t think that Christmas is the time to tune in, to be honest, a time when archangels have a habit of delivering messages along the lines of: “Lo, you will become pregnant without having sex and not be able to find a Marriott within walking distance.”

If you’re not keen on chatting to angels, guess what: you can “Get in touch with your personal gatekeeper”. Should you be as ignorant as I am on this, your gatekeeper is “The producer/director of the play your soul wrote before you came into this lifetime.”

Having just had possibly the worst year of my entire life, here’s a message, gatekeeper: you should have done a re-write of the middle act; it’s shit.

Despite some strange practices described within, Awareness is quite encouraging about money and does not rule out material riches going hand in hand with spiritual ones (just as well, the packet these people must be making on the back of the gullible and/or stupid).

Niurka, for instance, is a glamorous businesswoman and author of Supreme Influence; she offers techniques on how to become aligned with your true nature in order to increase prosperity and yet stay true to your spiritual self.

I am quite drawn to this you can have the penny and the bun philosophy, and Niurka has a strong background in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), of which I am already a strong advocate.

“Make a decision to go deep within yourself,” advises Niurka. “Focus on the essential nature of your being and everything around you will change.”

My bank balance, in particular, I hoped, although I suspect my damned gatekeeper wrote: “No money. Ever” into my script in his/her first draft.

I already meditate twice a day, but decided to up it a bit, in the hope of changing a few things.

When I first learned Transcendental Meditation, I found that it lowered my blood pressure and made me generally less anxious and depressed – well, apart from on the day when I went for my initiation ceremony, couldn’t find anywhere to buy the required handkerchief on Oxford Street, and nearly went under a double-decker bus in my rush to get there.

It’s a powerful tool, though. Within an hour of upping my 20 minutes to 40, I was in Sports Club LA spa, asking for more information about the Four Seasons Amex special massage offer.

“We’re not the Four Seasons,” explained the receptionist. “Yes, you are,” I insisted. “The Beverly Hills Hotel is, and you, the Beverly Wilshire, are part of the same group.”

“But we’re not the Beverly Wilshire,” she said.

Oh, no, you’re the gym. Silly me.

It’s all very well diving into your psyche in search of greater awareness, but nobody ever tells you that it can make you mad.

Barking mad, if you’re a tree-hugger.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping A Welcome In The Welsh Beverly Hillsides 12/2/09


It’s a word I used on my Facebook page this week, saying that I was suffering from a rather severe bout of it. It is a Welsh word that, as far as I can gather, doesn’t have an English equivalent, and it means, quite simply, a deep longing for home.

It’s not a longing for your house or any specific individual, and the only way I can explain it is in terms of its being a longing for one’s homeland: the place where you left your heart.

No matter how far you travel and how much you enjoy every new experience and people that you meet, hiraeth is the rhythm of your innermost being, always reminding you of the place from which you came and gave you life.

There is also, in my case at least, the inevitability of its returning there.

It came upon me suddenly this week, and although I described my sudden feelings of isolation in terms of homesickness to my non-Welsh friends, I could say “hiraeth” to my countrymen and know that they would know exactly what I meant.

I love LA. I love the sun, the easier pace of life, the lower utility bills, the great service in bars, restaurants, and at the end of the phone. I love the fact that you can eat out at a really good restaurant without having to take out a second mortgage; and I love being able to go to the gym and eat healthily with such ease and without being considered a bit of a freak.

In contrast, there is very little I miss about the UK. Appalling train services, expensive gas, electric and phone, rudeness pretty much everywhere you turn – on a point by point chart, LA would win over the UK every time.

But then there is that little corner of a foreign field that is, to me, forever Wales, and I am as attached to it now as the day I came out of the womb at Glossop Maternity Home in Cardiff in 1958.

I know how lucky I am to be living in Beverly Hills, where the sun rises in my living room and sets in my office. I know that for many people, this would be the trip of a lifetime, and that even to see the Hollywood sign on the hills just once, let alone every day, would be one of life’s great joys.

And I know that I am blessed to have a job that enables me to travel and meet new people all the time, and that I have been equally blessed to have the good health that enables me to do that.

All of this I know in my head. But then there’s hiraeth. That aching, longing, tugging of the heart that, this week, has seen me sobbing uncontrollably to go home – to my family, my friends, my homeland. To where I belong.

I’ve been looking at the languages of other cultures to see if they contain a word that conveys the same sentiment.

Arabic has the word “ghurba”, which is a derivative of the word for stranger, and in the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is explained as: "absence from the homeland: separation from one’s native country, banishment, exile; life or place away from home.” it is also often translated as “Diaspora”.

Like hiraeth, “ghurba” also carries with it an intense, melancholic feeling of longing, nostalgia, homesickness and separation: of, according to the Canadian newspaper columnist Ghada Al Atrash Janbey (thank you, yet again, Google), “a severe patriotic yearning for a place where one’s heart was not only living, but . . . to a place where one’s heart danced to the silence of a homeland’s soul.”

There is a word for it in Portuguese, too – saudade – and it expresses a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one loved but is now gone.

It also carries fatalist undertones and the repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return – or even, as one translation puts it: “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”

Apparently, this state of mind has subsequently become pretty much part of the Portuguese way of life – a feeling of absence, something missing, and yet a desire for presence rather than absence – or, as they say in Portuguese, a strong desire to “matar as sauddasa” (literally, to kill the saudades).

I don’t know about you, but that kind of thinking isn’t going to put Lisbon top of my must-see holiday destinations next year.

My favourite word so far to describe my 6000 miles away from home hiraeth is the Dutch one, “weemoed”, which is apparently a “fuzzy form” of nostagia. Being Dutch, their definition means that we don’t have to guess for very long quite why it might be regarded as fuzzy, but I like the word.

The Fins have “kaiho” – a state of involuntary solitude, in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unobtainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain (I tell you: my Welsh hiraeth buddies and I are a veritable choir of laughing policemen among this lot).

In Korean, “keurium” is the closest to saudade, and reflects a yearning for anything that has left a deep impression on the heart – a memory, place, person etc. The Japanese word for a longing of the heart is “natsukashii”. While in Armenian, the word “karot” describes the deep feeling of missing something or somebody.

Different words, same emotion, but to me there is something about just saying the Welsh word hiraeth that pulls at exactly the part of your body from which the longing comes.

It’s the part I feel when seeing my friends’ names on Facebook late at night, and the pictures of my close friends Mary and Liam's first grandchild.

It’s my Mum’s voice, 6000 miles away on the phone, telling me about Maddie the bichon frise’s latest crimes (breaking into my old bedroom and opening the M & S biscuits, an aunt’s Christmas present).

It’s knowing that there’s a rugby game being played just a couple of miles from my house, and my brother calling me from my home to tell me who was asking after me.

I want to know how Sioned and Gareth’s wedding plans are going.

I want to see Leisha who, for my birthday when I went back home, decorated my table with flowers, bought a cake with candles, and reduced me to tears with her thoughtfulness.

I want to know what Liz and Ronw are filming and share with them the hysterical laughter than never fails to leave me uplifted.

I want to go to the Robin Hood pub, chat to Dave, and hear Gwerfyl and Heulwen's latest adventures.

I want to see the Tuesday lunchtime rugby blokes in Llandaff's Butchers Arms, still reminiscing about the Lions tour 30 years ago.

Although "hiraeth" is a word not linked to specifics, all of these people are inherently linked to the home I love. And each brings extraordinary qualities and joys to a life that, even as I look to the sun setting on Beverly Hills, fills me with a longing I haven't felt in many years.

It’s a longing for the warmth of the Welsh, the humour and laughter (oh, God, how I miss the laughter here), Sunday roast in the Cameo Club, the wet leaves in autumn – yes, the rain. I never thought I’d say it: but I really miss the rain.

I miss being among people who "get" me. The rugby team were shit against Australia, but I don't care. I miss being Welsh.

Whatever you want to call it in any language, it’s a longing for home. Like most clichés, "Home is Where the Heart Is" didn’t earn its cliché status for nothing.