Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Poem by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863)

Friday, December 23, 2005

I stand corrected

OK. It's not the biggest in Europe (Warsaw's is as big) but still it is one of the biggest ... It stands 72 meters tall, weights 180 tons and it is truly mighty !

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The biggest Christmas Tree

Well, here we are in Lisbon, near the biggest Christmas Tree in Europe. The weather is sunny and mild and it's wonderful to be home again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Ready, set, GO !


We're on our way !!!

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Da Vinci Code

Interesting opinions about "The Da Vinci Code" ... I don't remember so much ever being written about a mere thriller before.

The Algarve

It saddens me to see this opinion published in one of the most respected and widely read newspapers in the world. Not because it isn't true, but because, unfortunately, it is.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Bach Christmas

BBC Radio 3 is celebrating Christmas 2005 by broadcasting continuously over ten days the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Listen to it here.

And the winner is ...

Deadly Christmas Lights

A family of five have died in a house fire in west London which could have been caused by Christmas lights.

Headaches

More Christmas Cards

A woman's touch

Angela Merkel, the new German Chancellor, is being credited with helping to break the EU budget deadlock (she's even been dubbed the "secret EU president": eat your hearts out, Tony Blair and Jose Manuel Barroso ! ).

Overall, Britain is giving up around 20% of the rebate it would have otherwise received over the 2007-2013 period in exchange for a commitment that EU spending (including agriculture) will be reviewed in 2008.

Needless to say, the deal is being strongly criticized in the UK by Tories and Liberal Democrats.

As the BBC political editor put it: "Tony Blair has chosen to face criticism at home in order, in part, to avoid isolation in Europe. He's also scheduled another row on the British rebate and the CAP, for three of four years' time; by then neither Mr Blair nor French president Jacques Chirac are likely to be around to take part."

THE DRAFT DEAL

  • Britain accepts £7 billion cut in budget rebate, £1.4 billion more than previously offered
  • Total EU budget of €861 billion, up from €849 billion, or 1.045 per cent of GDP
  • Review of all EU budget including farm spending in 2008, but with no guarantee of outcome
  • Eastern European countries will increase development funding, with easier access to money

THE WINNERS AND LOSERS

  • Britain will have to give up roughly £7 billion of its annual rebate between 2007 and 2013, and agree to increase the size of the overall EU budget nearly to levels it rejected in June. But it won a commitment to review agricultural spending in 2008 and can claim credit for ending the long-running budget row
  • France beat off attempts to cut farm spending. But it had to accept a spending review, and secured a smaller cut in the British rebate than it wished
  • Germany, the EU’s largest financier, managed to reduce its net contributions to the budget. So did The Netherlands, another big financier
  • Eastern Europe’s eight states secured less development funding than they had hoped for, but more than Britain originally offered. They will also have easier access to the money
  • Luxembourg and Belgium, home of most EU institutions, lose from the cut in administrative expenditure
  • The European Commission had €150 billion (£102 billion) cut from its original request

Sources: The Guardian, Times, BBC

Friday, December 16, 2005

Today's discovery

isle of the dead

Arnold Böcklin (1826-1901), "Isle of the Dead" (1883)

Doesn't this sound familiar ?

Thirtysomethings choose to live together, but separately - About a million couples are thought to be sharing their lives in different households

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Full moon

Views from my window: full moon on a clear December night. Tonight's full moon is special.

Life without Mozart

Wouldn't life be so much poorer without Mozart's music ? I've lost count of the many sublime moments I have lived to the sound of "Eine kleine nacht music", the "rondo alla turca", the andante from the concerto no. 21 in C major for piano and orchestra, the andante cantabile from the symphony no. 41, the first movement from the symphony no. 40, the Konigin der Nacht and the 'Pa-Pa-Pa -Pa' from the Die Zauberflote, the exquisite Confutatis and the sublime Lacrimosa from the Requiem, the Overture and the "La ci darem la mano" aria from D. Giovanni, the gaiety of the Nozze di Figaro (Overture and the "Voi che sapete") the grandeur of the violin concerto no. 3's second movement, the piano sonatas, the clarinet, the horn and the oboe concerts ... and so many other masterpieces written by Mozart ! And he died at 35 ! Imagine if he had lived a little longer ...

By the way: 2006 marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. To join in the celebration of this genius's life and work, visit the official website.

News follow-up

Wikipedia survives research test - The free online resource Wikipedia is about as accurate on science as the Encyclopedia Britannica, a study shows.

The latest on the EU budget crisis. Tonight's summit in Brussels will bring to a climax the EU's very own annus horribilis. It has been said that the UK's ultimate strategy for trying to reach a deal before Sunday is to work until small hours, "wait until Chirac is on his third beer, feeling like he wants to go to bed" and then come up with a real compromise.

At the Word Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong the Chilean foreign minister, Ignacio Walker, criticised the EU farm subsidies, which amount to $2 (£1) a day for each cow: "So many poor people wish they would be at least as well off as an EU cow".

The end of the day

Drawing by Escher, "Relativity"

Daunting perpective coming up the stairs. Will I ever get there ?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The surrealist in me

Quadro
Painting by René Magritte, Time Transfixed, 1938

My surrealist poem

I hanged a dream on the wall

And kept it there with spit

It will never peel and fall

Because the wall just ate it

Get your own surrealist poem here and your own surrealist compliment here.

Partly inspired by this.

Happy 14th Anniversary



Also on this day:

2003: Saddam Hussein captured
1995: Bosnia peace accord ends three-year war
1972: Last Moon mission returns
1962: 'Music of spheres' hails Venus fly-by
1939: USSR expelled from the League of Nations
1911: Amundsen reaches South Pole
1900: The birth of Quantum Theory

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A minor let down

Today was Clara's Christmas play. She had two lines in it as one of the narrators and, having practiced them with me everyday for a couple of weeks, she knew them by heart:
...
- A nice girl would at once exclaim
....
- Not Goldie, she begins to swear, she bellows
...

In spite of a really bad cough tormenting her since yesterday, she was very excited about the whole thing and completely confident about getting on stage and playing her part properly. At the dress rehearsal, earlier today, everything went according to plan.

Then the big moment came. The gymnasium was packed with drooling parents and proud siblings when the play started and everything was going fine. Suddenly, another kiddo gets a bit confused and shouts her line too early. Clara ended up only delivering her second line.

What a let down.

Christmas lights

Christmas lights just around the corner.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Harold Pinter's Nobel speech

Harold Pinter, who was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, recorded a profoundly anti-American political speech to be heard at the award's acceptance ceremony (Pinter couldn't travel to Sweden because of his ill health). Very uncomfortable but hardly unexpected: no true political activist would waste such an opportunity to reiterate his political message. It happens over and over again at the most important award ceremonies.

Love it or hate it, back it or dismiss it, two paragraphs in the speech are, in my view, worthy of special mention as I completely agree with them:

"I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man."

The thing is, this determination "to define the real truth of our lives and our societies" can only be successful if, as Pinter puts it, it is "unflinching, unswerving and fierce".

That said, I think that as far as we common, simple humans are concerned, it is perhaps convenient to start with the universe that immediately surrounds us on a practical day-to-day basis and only then, after successfully grasping this more immediate microsociety, if there's still strength and capacity for more, should we aim higher.

Random news: today's pick

The magnetic north pole is shifting fast towards Siberia.

The credibility of the Wikipedia leaves much to be desired, or so it seems.

France and England will never see eye to eye in what regards the PAC.

Average house price in Britain to reach £200,000 in 2006 (it is currently £196,181) !

On Bach.

Music: today's pick


I swapped my innocence for pride
Crushed the end within my stride
Said I'm strong now I know that I'm a leaver
I love the sound of you walking away
Mascara bleeds a blackened tear
And I am cold
Yes, I'm cold
But not as cold as you are
I love the sound of you walking away
Why don't you walk away?
Why don't you walk away?
No buildings will fall down
Why don't you walk away?
No quake will split the ground
Why don't you walk away?
The sun won't swallow the sky
Why don't you walk away?
Statues will not cry
Why don't you walk away?
I cannot turn to see those eyes
As apologies may rise
I must be strong and stay an unbeliever
And love the sound of you walking away
Mascara bleeds into my eye
I'm not cold
I am old
At least
As old as you are
As you walk away?
As you walk away
My headstone crumbles down
As you walk away
The Hollywood wind's a howl
As you walk away
The Kremlin's falling
As you walk away
Radio Four is STATIC
As you walk away
The stab of stiletto
On a silent night
Stalin Smiles
Hitler laughs
Churchill claps
Mao Tse Tung
on the back

Franz Ferdinand - Walk away

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bang

Some thought it was an earthquake. Others, a volcano. It was the biggest explosion ever during peace time in Europe, heard 100 miles away in Norfolk ! The only reason why there weren't scores of dead and injured is because it happened on a Sunday at 6 AM. The M1 has been cut off all day, the sky is pitch black, the panic-race to petrol stations has started. Causes and consequences ? Still unclear.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Farewell to an icon


Today, the famous red double-decker Routemaster makes its final journey. Time to move on.

Christmas cards

For my daughters

I still look at you in awe
That you’ve come from my insides
And by love and natural law
You have grown with such fast strides

Here you are, so kind and fair,
So much bigger yet so small
Gently sleeping while I stare
In sheer wonder and recall

Springs of love, my pride and bliss
You’re the apples of my eyes
The essence of happiness
You’re life’s biggest and best prize

- Mum -

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Access to the NHS ? Only if you're healthy !

Here we go again. The NHS advisory board has said that patients could be denied treatment if their lifestyle makes it ineffective (for instance if a smoker with asthma doesn't stop smoking) but that treatment should not be denied just because their condition was self-induced (such as if a person has diabetes or is obese as a result of over-eating). It's interesting to read people's comments on this fracturing issue: a large number of people clearly state that the NHS should refuse to provide treatment for people with illnesses derived from drinking, smoking or weight problems. Why not, then, let drinkers, smokers and overeaters off the hook as far as paying taxes goes ? Why not, then, make the list a little broader and include illnesses derived from fitness workouts (heart attacks, brain aneurysms), jogging (busted knee-joints, heart attacks), rock climbing (broken arms/legs), flying in airplanes (thrombosis), going out to discos (hearing problems), working too much(depression, high-blood pressure, heart attacks), eating too little by choice (anorexia, anemia, tuberculosis), eating red meat (high blood pressure, heart attacks), wearing makeup, colouring your hair or getting piercings done (skin rashes, allergies, infections) and so on ?

Apophis

A 390-meter wide asteroid, Apophis, has a considerable probability of colliding with the Earth in 2036. Such a collision would "would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere."

This is not as bad as the catastrophe caused by the collision of a 10 Km wide asteroid with Earth 65 million years ago, which lead to the extinction of dinossaurs and most other organisms on the planet in a question of hours. Still, you'll have to agree that it's pretty bad.

Read what's being done about it here.

Warm again

We're all nice and warm again. Turns out it wasn't an animal after all (thank godness for that !), just lots of rust and bad pipes which had gone misaligned. After a couple of hours the problem was fixed. After another couple of hours the house was warm again. Hot baths and showers for all, went to bed nice and clean, slept like babies. All's well that ends well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Frozen

I’m on an unlucky streak (not that unusual with me). Besides making three different lightbulbs blow in one day, having a sore throat, being feverish and longing to be in bed all day, my broadband internet connection breaking down and my computer’s hard-disk being reported to have bad sectors and to be the cause of “A serious system error”, it seems I’ve also been condemned to freeze to death.
Yesterday I woke up at 5 AM with a terribly scratching and poking noise coming from inside the central heating pipes. Not being able to identify the source of the noise or do anything about it, I was quite distressed and wasn’t able to sleep again (fortunately the girls didn’t wake up or they would have been scared to death). At 7 AM, I finally concluded that probably a small animal had gone into the boiler vent through the opening in the outside wall: the noise was coming from above the boiler and at this stage it was only heard whenever the boiler let off a shot of hot water into the central heating pipes. I turned the boiler off and there was no more noise, which meant that if indeed it was an animal it was probably dead by now. I called the rentals agency, told them what happened and asked them to send someone around to fix the problem as soon as possible. I stressed that, since the boiler was turned off, we had no heating, nor hot water (outside temperatures were -1º C / 30º F). I was told that an “engineer” would come and look at the boiler shortly. I sat freezing, waiting all day long and by the end of the day, the “engineer” still hadn’t shown up. I called again and was told that he would come first thing today. We all slept dressed like Eskimos and this morning the girls happily went to school, where it’s nice and warm.
Well. Here I am freezing (does it show? Well, I am!). He still hasn’t come. The house feels like a giant freezer (those fabulous scenes of Yuri Zhivago and Lara in a frozen Russian cottage keep coming to my head). I called again and they’ll call me back. If the “engineer” doesn’t come before I pick the girls up from school, I’m set on packing up and spending the night in a hotel. I’ll write about it later.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Follow up on the EU budget debate

In spite of Britain's concessions, the stalemate in the EU Budget negociations continues. There's too much money on the line and there are too many different views on what the EU is, where it should be heading, what it needs and what it's needed for. If the Budget is this difficult to work out, no wonder the Constitution was a mirage.

Tom Wolfe

When you wake up to the news that schools are allowed to arrange for kids to have an abortion without their mother's knowledge, that sex education and "contraception literacy" are to be mandatory in primary schools from the age of 5, that "gay weddings" are a big step forward in society, having finally put an end to centuries of discriminatory and unfair behaviour, and other such news, it feels good to know that there is still someone out there with some visibility and credibility writing about the decline of human values and the increasing "de-moralisation" of sex.

Excerpt from Tom Wolfe's interview by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times:


"[Tom Wolfe] thinks, basically, that Friedrich Nietzsche got it right.

'Whatever you think of him, his predictions are unbelievably accurate. In the 1880s, he said ‘God is dead’, but then said, ‘Before you atheists run up your banners of triumph, let me sketch out for you the history of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Barbaric nationalist brotherhoods will lead to wars that have never been waged before — that was the two world wars in the 20th century — but in the 21st century, there will be something much worse, the total eclipse of all human values. The horror of that you cannot imagine, when people will believe in nothing, and everything that is said will be opportunistic.'

He thinks he may have identified, and described, one aspect of this eclipse of values in his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons . This is, as he puts it, the “de-moralisation” of sex.

[...]

Wolfe inclines to the belief that sexual repression is one of the most distinctive things about human beings; removing it, therefore, threatens our humanity. Similarly, he feels that our humanity may be degraded when the insights of modern biologists — notably his hero, Edward O Wilson — sink into the popular imagination. People will begin to think they are little more than genetically predetermined animals.

'I just think it’s going to have a very negative effect on humans. People will gradually begin to think that the fix is in, that they are not going to improve, that their child who does poorly at school wasn’t born with the right genes. It will make people depressed, feeling there’s no way out. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from believing we were made in the image of God, and this has turned it all on its head.'”

Interesting personality test

Good personality test. I've taken it and found its results pretty accurate.

I wonder if this is also how people see me.

UK's next prime-minister ?

David Cameron has just been elected the new Tory leader. This 39 year old Etonian has every condition to be the country's next prime-minister: he has charisma, he is attractive, he is a brilliant and eloquent speaker and he is a man of his time. He has become fashionable just as New-Labour is going out of fashion.

Monday, December 05, 2005

No Christmas Carols, please !

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, a policeman came by and knocked at our door. Since my kids only know what policemen are like from what they see on TV, they were in awe, thinking "Is something wrong ? Who is going to jail?". I don't know what my husband's thoughts were when he answered the door but mine were a mix of "Oops, they caught me speeding somewhere and I'm about to be fined" and "Something bad has happened to our neighbors." Well, it was none of it. It turns out that there had been a complaint from someone in the neighborhood about some Christmas Carolers and the policeman was trying to assess who else had been bothered by them. Fortunately we hadn't and so that was that. Still, we were quite amused with the story: what nasty stuff could these Carolers have done to have the police called on them !

So, here's a fair warning to all of you: Beware of the nasty Christmas Carolers ! They're out there somewhere !

Worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Goodies from Grenoble

Hubby arrived from Grenoble yesterday loaded with goodies: cheese and sweets.

France produces nearly 400 different types of cheese, some of them considered to be the best in the world, so I guess that good cheese is something you should definitely get when you're there. He brought home some "Saint-Felicien" , some "Beaufort" (not from the Grenoble region) and some "Le Delice du Ministre" Chevre (goat's cheese). Excellent cheese. Combined perfectly with good Portuguese red wine (Touriga Nacional 2003 vintage).

As for the sweet stuff, he bought two kinds: delicious arabic baklava-like pastry (but not as sweet) and bonbons.

The bonbons were truly divine. He got them from a little boulangerie-patisserie called Bourbon, on 3 Place Notre Dame.

O la la !!! Vive la France !

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Let the celebrations begin




There.

The Christmas Tree is up, the whole house smells like mince pie (because of a beautiful Christmas pot-pourri I got at Tesco's), the Christmas Stockings are hanging along the staircase and there's already a couple of Season's Greetings cards on the piano.

Christmas has officially begun.

Friday, December 02, 2005

How we go through life

the lovers

Painting by René Magritte , "The Lovers", 1928

Poetry

Fragonard_The_Reader

Painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Reader, c.1770-1772


[...]she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, on to the top, on to the summit. How satisfying! How restful! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, here - the sonnet. [...]

Virginia Woolf - "
To the Lighthouse"

The first face transplant

Amazing news ! Today a woman received the first face transplant ever as a result of having had her face bitten off by a dog. Truly anything must be possible nowadays ! But I wonder how it will feel to look at yourself in the mirror and see someone else...

The British EU Budget Rebate

So. Tony Blair has finally given in on the EU Budget Rebate issue, much to the contempt of Tories and Euroceptics, who have been screaming their heads off calling him incompetent and a traitor. It is not a total concession to those who wish the rebate done away with: a cut of up to 15% is what is expected at this stage, just enough to be seen as a fair partner in the funding of the European Union's enlargement.
Whilst Britain still has every right to claim that the Rebate and the Common Agricultural Policy are intrinsically related and that you cannot rethink one without rethinking the other, it would undoubtedly be unfair if the Rebate was left completely unchanged during the EU enlargement: it would make Britain go from being the EU's second largest net contributor to the second lowest.
I think that it is a shame that the Common Agricultural Policy is not being discussed as passionately as the Rebate, though, and I sincerely do hope that today's partial concession is not perceived as a defeat in the battle for its reform. It is truly absurd that in this day and age agriculture still takes up 46% of the EU budget. It is revolting to think that this has meant that there has been enough money around to subsidize surplus production leading to waste ! In a world where there are people dying of hunger everyday this is truly shocking. As long as the Common Agricultural Policy remains as is, developing countries around the world won't stand a chance of being able to sucessfully export their agricultural produce to Europe. The poor will remain poor. The rich will become richer.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Coincidence

On the news today: phonics teaching !!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Phonics

"I like stickers because I really love them. Bye bye. See you later."

Yup. I guess this is what you should expect in the very early stages of learning how to read and write using the phonics approach. This methodology has been adopted by primary schools in the UK for teaching kids basic literacy skills. Since children learn the letters of the alphabet not by their name but by their sound, spelling becomes a phonetic interpretation ...

I must confess that I am still a bit ceptical about all this ...

The MMR jab

Clara took her MMR booster jab today (vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella). It hurt a bit and she cried but when it was over the nurse gave her a Twix bar and told me that she won't need any more jabs until she's in her teens.

The MMR jab has been shrouded in controversy since a study came out in 1998 claiming that it could be implicated in autism. Not-so-good media coverage at the time led to many alarmed parents deciding not to immunize their kids, with all the very serious individual and public health risks that this entails. In spite of the health sector's efforts to publicize that extensive and indepth investigations of this allegation have unanimously concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, some of the uneasy feeling about it still lingers on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The hours

SalvadorDali-The-Persistence-of-Memory-1931

Painting by Salvador Dali - The persistance of memory - 1931

The hours drag by
So heavily
Their mantle’s trail
So deep
They will not stop
To render
Either peace or
Good night's sleep

Today's agenda for tomorrow's nightmare

In the spotlight this week:


- The Turner Report addressing the pension crisis


- Domestic nuclear power stations: rethinking energy policy

Pre-Christmas frenzy

I've done most of my Christmas shopping. I know that from now until Christmas I'll be caught up in a frenzy of events barely under control. There will be parties to go to, Christmas cards to send, presents to wrap, Christmas decorations to be unpacked and put up and a bunch of "last minute things". At least this year I won't have to worry about buying food or cooking since we're going back to spend Christmas with our families.

The kids are very excited about being with their grandparents and aunts(who absolutely and unashamedly spoil them, especially at this time of year!). They have been duly assured that Santa Claus will know exactly where they are and will leave their Christmas presents in the right place (but just to be on the safe side, we'll leave a note for him on the kitchen table, where his milk and cookies should have been).

Along with a large suitcase full of presents I'm also taking a couple of boxes with Christmas crackers. Last year everybody loved the very English tradition of pulling crackers during the Christmas Day lunch.

Invented by a London sweet maker in 1846, a cracker is a brightly coloured paper tube, twisted at both ends, which contains a party hat (crown), a riddle and a small toy or other trinket. When it is pulled (by two people) it gives out a bang as its contents are scattered.

Some English Christmas traditions we'll be sorry to miss this year: the Queen's Christmas Message, mince pies, trifle ...