Glen Innes' Standing Stones. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

As is probably evident by the recent string of guest posts regarding spending Christmas abroad (Heather from There’s No Place Like Oz‘s post on her first Christmas away from home is actually the most read single page in this site’s history) – I’m bracing myself for my second Christmas away from home, and the first of two that will be spent away from my fantastic family.

I'm super excited to be asked to contribute beyond my normal eggnog. Here I am making punch.

With this year to be spent in New Zealand (Nelson and Rotarua to be precise) and next year to be in Busan, I wanted to make a special effort to see my family and do an early Christmas this year. If you read my entry on Kimchi & the Korean Christmas you’ll know how much Christmas means to me and the lengths my family goes to to make it special – and I was given an absolutely wonderful goodbye gift by my mother in my recent visit. Not only did my mother and father make a $500 contribution to my upcoming Fiji trip, but they also pulled out all stops to make my ‘Un Christmas’ as close to the real thing as possible. I’m talking all of the traditional Christmas trimmings.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flight to Armidale

My journey started at 6am as I dragged myself out of bed and hurriedly gathered my things. Despite it being only a short four day visit, I had to pack pretty heavily to cover the Christmas gifts and the things I’d already deemed not good enough to make the upcoming Korean cut. One thing I need to say about flying domestically in Australia is that, for all of the doom and gloom about American domestic travel – it’s so much more affordable than what we have to do here in Australia. I paid $152 for an hour long flight from Sydney to Armidale. Granted, Armidale isn’t a particularly popular destination – but the plane was full and you just know you’d have paid a third of that to fly a greater distance in the United States. Unfortunately it’s not a situation that’s likely to change – with Qantaslink being the only carrier that currently flies to the hippest country town in NSW.

Maybe it’s because I spent three very significant years of my life at University in Armidale, but I’m in love with the ‘capital’ of the New England region. It’s not on a great many travelers’ lists of places to see, and it’s a real shame. It’s the site of Australia’s first rural University and as a result of that, boasts a far more cosmopolitan culture than you’d expect to find in a place six hours inland from Sydney. The University fosters a great theatre and arts scene in the town, and there’s more trendy cafes and foreign film opportunities than neighboring cities such as Tamworth. There’s a growing LGBT community, a lot of foreign students to add some colour to the usually very Caucasian inland mix, and a growing number of Australian bands and theatrical groups pass through on a yearly basis.

Touching down at Armidale’s grandly named airport is an experience in itself. Out the window I could see cattle and sheep idly chewing on unnaturally green grass, and I could only imagine what it must be like to fly into even smaller locations such as Glen Innes or Moree. I had a friend there to pick me up (whose wedding I attended earlier this year) and he whisked me off to the downtown area to finish off my Christmas shopping and do a little catching up.

A quick lunch at the popular Elly’s Cafe was my way of repaying Chris for the ride. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s conveniently located at the heart of the recently redeveloped Armidale Plaza and offers a decent variety of food. I had the Big Mamma focaccia – which had an interesting combination of prawns, mayo, and shallots. Definitely not something I’d tried before.

From there it was time to finish up my Christmas shopping. You’re spoiled for choice if you’ve shopped in Sydney or Melbourne – but Armidale isn’t as terrible as one might expect given its isolated location. The Armidale Plaza, Woolworths Centro, and the famed arcade mall all offer a decent selection of boutique shopping, cafes, hobby shops, and book stores. Between the three locations I managed to find all of my gifts at a pretty affordable rate. It’s come a long way since when I attended Uni – with the supremely nerdy Sleepy Dragon hobby store, Game, and EB Games being the kind of stores I’d have killed to have access to back then.

My day of shopping ended with some pretty scrumptious mixed berry and ice cream crepes at the imaginatively titled Crepes Crepes in Woolworths Centro. They even do kebabs there, which aren’t an easy item to find in rural Australia.

Weekend in Glen Innes

My brother Dom and his beautiful girlfriend Bronte

 

 

While the family home is in the sleepy little village of Ben Lomond – I went to high school in nearby Glen Innes. My sister and her husband now have a house there, and while I love my family home, the lure of ADSL2+ and a finished bathroom (my parents are in the process of renovating) meant it made a far more appealing option. My brothers, 23 and 21, are great guys and I get along with them well. My time there basically entailed playing WoW and Guitar Hero with them in between beers. Unlike Armidale, Glen Innes isn’t particularly cosmopolitan or interesting. It’s annual Celtic Festival does put it on the map, but in the summer months there’s precious little to do outside of catch the latest production from the Glen Innes Arts Council.

I did find time in my busy schedule to go on a run, and was reminded of how much of a difference it makes jumping from one hundred meters above sea level to over a kilometer above sea level. Doing a pretty simple 5km run from my sister’s place to my parents’ school and back was absolutely draining. If I hadn’t enjoyed far more successful runs over similar distances in St Leonards recently, I’d have been worried.

Someday I’d love to do a more detailed entry on the sights and tastes to be experienced in Glen Innes, but this won’t be that entry. Suffice to say that there’s some beautiful old buildings on the main street, the historic Chapel Theatre, the Standing Stones that loom over it all, and some nice spots to be seen on various day trips.

A Very Merry Un-Christmas

But the real reason I was in town was to see my family and celebrate an early Christmas with them. Saturday night saw us putting up the Christmas tree, and this year’s theme was red and gold. There were no Christmas carols on the stereo this year – so I did my best Bing Crosby impersonation and warbled a few numbers to the delight of nobody. Mum mixed us up a few frozen margaritas and it was all good fun. We may also have dipped into Fallon’s delicious home made sugar cookies and chex mix ahead of schedule. Don’t tell her!

The Christmas Tree in all of its splendor

The effects of the tequila and a long day had me in bed good and early, which was probably for the best. Mum had us up and working hard early the next day. The first ever Un-Christmas was upon us, and we had a mountain of cleaning and cooking to get through before we could celebrate.

Just a small sample of the delicious spread Mum laid out

 

 

I pitched in by mixing the punch, cutting up the cheese for crackers, and supervising with a refreshing Barefoot Radler in hand. This is my traditional role for most Christmas occasions. Heather decorated a gorgeous looking gingerbread house; Mum baked up some fairy cakes; David and Leigh made seafood salad; Emma shelled eggs for deviled eggs; Dominik carved the chicken and ham; and Dad pottered around in the garden. Like my beer drinking and supervision, this is also Dad’s traditional Christmas role. It’s probably for the best. His curried sausages and stew, while good, don’t have much of a place at the Christmas table.

By 2pm we had done all of our cooking and settled in at the dining room table for lunch. Mum really had spared no expense in doing her best to emulate the traditional spread. Everything from chicken and ham to devon lilies and my favorite – seafood salad. Beers and ice cold soda was passed around to combat the seasonable summer heat. We popped crackers, wore the silly paper hats, and participated in the age old tradition of reading out the terrible jokes that come with them. It was my first chance to meet my brother’s girlfriend Bronte as well, and I’m pleased to say that she passed muster. That’s a good thing, since she’ll be partaking in the Fiji festivities with us next year.

After lunch was done we settled under the tree to open presents. It was a bit strange to be opening three or four presents to everybody else’s one. My parents pitched in $500 towards Fiji; my brother bought me an exquisite new watch; my sister and her husband got me a sexy new gaming mouse; my foster sister Emma got me some wireless headphones for my laptop; Leigh got me a game I wanted; Dad tossed in a new copy of Lonely Planet Korea; and Izaak got me a $20 gift card for the iTunes store. There was also plenty of clothes (including the necessary upgrade to my ever dwindling underpants and socks collection), some travel stuff, $150 in EB Games vouchers that I’ve already spent; and plenty of candy that my growing beer belly does not need.

Posing with the ridiculously nice watch Dom bought for me.

It was a lot of fun and reminded me just how lucky I am to have such a supportive and loving family. It’s always hard for me to say goodbye to them, but particularly so when I realize that I won’t see some of them now until January 2012. I’ll be seeing Dominik and Leigh in Fiji and my folks when they meet us at the airport, but chances are I won’t see Izaak or my sister for a long time now – and that’s a hard pill to swallow.

But it’s also one of the sacrifices I have to make if I want to travel. Maybe someday I’ll be wealthy enough to bring them all along with me or fly back to see them every few weeks – but until then I just have to come to terms with the fact that I’ve chosen this path and the sacrifices are worth it. My family is always going to be there for me and no amount of distance or time spent apart is going to change that.

An Un-Christmas Tradition?

Doing Christmas a few weeks early was actually a lot of fun. I’ve long bemoaned the lack of holidays in Australia between the Queen’s Birthday Weekend in July and Christmas in December, and I’m thinking I might just add Un-Christmas to my yearly holiday schedule. I’m thinking September to break up the monotony. Who doesn’t like an excuse to eat good food and drink with friends? Plus you get to do your gift shopping without the usual Christmas rush! It’s a winner I tell you. Watch this space for more developments on my campaign to introduce Un-Christmas to the global holiday calendar.