Christmas – a global marketing feast!

If there is one holiday in the world that has a sweeping impact on everybody, it has to be Christmas. What unifying theme inherent to Christmas makes it one of, if not THE most awaited time of the year? This seems to be true regardless of race, social background, creed, or religion.

Is it the extravagent meals, the parties, or the family gatherings that make this holiday so special? Dare I say it just might be the outrageously priced presents and the spirit of giving and receiving that has created such a global buzz – in other words commercialism! Very, very clever marketing tactics. In fact, quite brilliant – just about everyone buys into it!

Whatever it is, no one can deny that Christmas is the most expensive holiday there is, and many are saying (quite rightly in my opinion) the true spirit of the season has been missing since retailers started to realize the money making opportunities Christmas can offer.

Food for thought – many have been complaining about how Christmas mutated into a crass, and wantonly commercialized yearly event way back in the late 1800’s. While it is untrue that the Victorians came up with this holiday, they are credited for having “invigorated” it. From what used to be a solemn family occasion, manufacturers, shop owners, and industrialists cottoned on to the fact that Christmas had the potential to be turned into a profit maker.

In the quest to drive profits higher, entrepreneurs found innovative ways to get the cash registers ringing well into the 21st century. Today we see Christmas decorations and hear holiday carols playing in the background since November, or in some cases even earlier – drives me nuts!

Let’s dive a little deeper into how it all started. Perhaps by doing so, we can understand how it’s got to this ridiculous point. At the turn of the 19th century, when shop windows start displaying hand-painted Christmas cards, it signaled the start of the holiday season. A great way to remind people to buy the Christmas cards for friends and family!

Christmas comes early in Selfridges’ Oxford Street store. Photograph Anthony DevlinPA
Christmas display at Selfridges, London. Photograph Anthony DevlinPA

Then there were the department stores who created a whole new Christmas tradition – obsessive and excessive shopping. Case in point, JP Robert of Stratford was the first to incorporate a Santa for the children to visit. It was the perfect marketing ploy! A mother would bring her child to the shop knowing it would be fun and exciting to the child. Similarly, Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase “only X shopping days left to Christmas,” and made sure his department store – Selfridge’s – was at its most glamorous to tempt shoppers to come to spend their money.

Even during the outbreak of World War II, although austerity measures dampened Christmas buying, it never came to a grinding halt. By the time rationing ended the British actually encouraged everyone to go on spending sprees.

It doesn’t take a historian or an economist to figure out that Christmas has been well and truly commercialized for a very long while. It is far worse today, with easy access to credit cards, online shopping, Boxing Day sales and so much more, all designed to part us from our money.

In my book, the true gifts at Christmas are the presence of loved ones, not the presents. Sure, gifts are nice, but they are not the be all and end all – unless you’re a small child and even then, they do not need to be madly expensive!Christmas 1

My most favourite memories are of the build up to Christmas Day. The tree used to be a live one that went up in time for my birthday (Dec 23rd), Mum would always make me a chocolate cake and that was the start of Christmas for us.

This year, for the first time in a very long time, I’ll have all my family here with me for Christmas, all us siblings, Mum, Dad, nieces and nephew.  There won’t be massively expensive presents, but there will be a whole lot of love and that’s what the true spirit of Christmas is to me.

Michelle

PS – I might just get a chocolate cake again as Mum will be here for my birthday 🙂

 

Thanksgiving is Thanks to a Woman!

Are you thinking: gee Michelle’s a bit behind the ball on this one – Thanksgiving has been and gone!

Indeed the date has passed; and I hope all my American friends and connections received my good wishes post on Dragon Sisters Facebook page?

In Australia and in many other cultures, we don’t have Thanksgiving Day per se. But like many of the American global cousins, when it comes around, I share in reflecting upon all the good in my life which I have to be thankful for. I’m not forgetting, Canadian Thanksgiving in October or the similar secular observances around the world.

You may not know but until Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, each American state scheduled its own Thanksgiving date.

What I think is just fantastic is that he did this because of a 74 year old magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. Ms Hale had been lobbying for 15 years(!) as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Until President Lincoln responded, she had been ignored by past Presidents. Her letter asked him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”

She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” (Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler et al.)

And that is how the last Thursday in November became American Thanksgiving Day.

Forgive me for crowing about girl power again – but there you have it: all thanks to one persistent lady!

Maybe my blog title today is a bit cheeky because, of course, Ms Hale can’t be credited for the existence of Thanksgiving, but wasn’t she an extraordinary woman?!

I found that little snippet about her very inspirational. I hope you do too.

Michelle

AUSTRALIAN BREAST CANCER DAY 2015 – a time for reflection

It’s 18 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and today, on ABC Day (26th October 2015), it’s time for reflecting on how fortunate I am. My life was turned upside down by my diagnosis and forever changed. Changed in so many positive ways. SO if you’re newly diagnosed and reading this, it might sound weird, but believe me with time, you’ll probably come to think in a similar way.

ABC DAY 2015Over the last 18 years I have had amazing experiences and opportunities. There have been lots of highs and many sad times when good women that I have known have lost their battle. Today, I fondly recall Sandy Smith (Canada), Orlanda Capelli (Rome), Deb Read, Christine Barker and Jenny Petterson all from Sydney together with Gayle Creed (Brisbane), and from Darwin there is  Tere Jaensch (my fiesty Mexican friend), Jill Parker, Jenny Scott, Gaelene Henderson and Joan Whitworth. There are many others too, but these particular ladies popped into my head today.

Awareness, treatments and research have changed so much since my diagnosis. It comes down to the voices of consumers making themselves heard.

Back in my day (gosh, I sound ancient!), there was no NBCF. No breast nurses except in Victoria. No McGrath Foundation. No BCNA and no Dragons Abreast. There was, however a group of passionate women who were all determined to make their voices heard. Women like Lyn Swinburn AM (Vic) who started BCNA, Susan Tulley (NT), Penny LaSette (NT) and Tere Jaensch (NT – dec), Sally Crossin AM (NSW) and Anna Wellings Booth OAM (ACT – dec) who became the very first group of consumer advocates trained by the NHMRC. There are also other women like Jan Skorich (ACT), Janelle Gamble & Leonie Young (QLD), Veronica Macauley-Cross (QLD –dec), who all made wonderful contributions to breast cancer advocacy. They were the vanguard and should never be forgotten for their amazing contributions. There were others too, like Pat Matthews (TAS – dec), Carol Bishop (WA), Gerda Evans (Vic) and a host more have followed in these footsteps.

Together we all advocated for change and it’s pleasing to see so many wonderful improvements in treatment for those diagnosed. It’s also great to see all the support breast cancer receives globally, BUT advocates are still needed. Not just people telling their stories, but trained advocates who know how to present their arguments, when and how to push to best present the breast cancer cause, not for those who are already diagnosed but for those who will inevitably follow. There are still too many people being diagnosed.

Ellie, Alexa and Sasha
Ellie, Alexa (age 14) and Sasha (age 21)

My daughter Sasha (now 21) was 3 years old when I was diagnosed and my son was 12. It had a huge impact on both their lives. More than we initially realised.

My two young nieces are both 14 years old. I sincerely hope a cure for this insidious disease can be found sooner rather than later. It is for my daughter and my nieces that I have always been an advocate – for them and others that follow us on the breast cancer journey. I am fortunate to have had wonderful training by the NHMRC, mentors and support on my journey as an advocate.  As the Founder of Dragons Abreast in Australia, I am forever grateful to Sandy Smith (dec) and Professor Don McKenzie from Abreast In A Boat,  Jon Taylor (dec) then President AusDBF, Alan Culbertson my first coach, and Melanie Cantwell (ex DBNSW) who so readily supported my vision for breast cancer survivors in Australia to have the positivity of the sport of dragon boat racing.

I was lucky. My treatment (a mastectomy and chemotherapy) has allowed me to survive for 18 years. I never say I am cured, because I also know far too many who have experienced a recurrence many, many years later. I go for my annual check ups, I look after my health as best I can and am always grateful for each day I am blessed with.

Michelle

“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.” ― Erma Bombeck

Belgium – A Delightful Little Country

I started this post a year ago today, and I’ve just notice I missed actually publishing it…so here we go!

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Helene & Pierre

The train from Paris to Brussels is smooth and fast. I was met at the station by Helene, who I’d met when she and Pierre were in Australia and staying at my place. We took the bus to her home, dumped my suitcase before starting on a tour of Brussels.

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Helene & her parents
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Welcome to Belgium meal – home made by Nanette.

Nanette, is the most fabulous cook and had prepared a special dinner to welcome me. It was delicious – especially the dessert tasting plate!

The city centre is compact and very attractive.   2014-09-13 13.44.46 I tried delicious biscuits, visited the Cathedral, the Grand Place, and saw host of other famous landmarks and rubbed the reclining bronze statue (whose name I do not remember!), but the story goes that if I rubbed it I would return to Belgium.

Helene’s family warmly welcomed me to their homes in both Brussels and Wavre which gave me an experience of both the city and countryside. It was just a brief visit, but we managed to jam in heaps!

Belgium might be a tiny little country, but it’s full of history and wonderful scenery. I visited Namur, with its stunning citadel perched high on a craggy hilltop from which you can see for miles. Ideal place to watch out for invaders!

View from Namur Citadel
View from Namur Citadel

We also took a day trip to Bruges which is just delightful. It’s like stepping into a story book with its beautiful old buildings, the river that meanders through the centre of town, pictureques scenes abound around each corner. So many wonderful chocolate shops, delightful lace makers and fabulous little cafe’s. Definitely a place worth a couple of days at least. Sadly, I only had a day.

We even squeezed in a quick visit to Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the chap who invented the saxaphone. A big thank you to Christian for driving us all there! It’s another very nice little town to explore on an afternoon.20140913_182813

Delightful Bruges
Delightful Bruges

Belgium is just a tiny little country but full of beauty; I was very impressed and was very lucky to have Helene as a guide.

Michelle

 

A Unique Friendship

Maria Angeles is my oldest female friend. My father, a Dutch Eurasian and her father, a Spaniard, worked for the United Nations and were both posted to Jerusalem. No, they were not military observers or troops, they were permanent staff of the United Nations.

Schmidt Girls College, Jerusalem
Schmidt Girls College, Jerusalem

Maria Angeles and I met at Schmidt Girls College, a strict convent school run by German nuns. Both of us were about ten years old, although neither of us is positive exactly what age we were. What we do both remember very vividly is our German lessons and our Albino music teacher who terrorised us. We also recalled the very strict discipline of the nuns that would be completely unacceptable in today’s educational environment. In fact, it would be classified as child abuse and bullying.

A couple of years later, due to the political climate, I was sent off to boarding school in Beirut. Maria Angeles’s family was posted to Cyprus, then onto Geneva. My Dad was posted to Nairobi, so I finished my education in the UK and began working in London, Maria Angeles finished hers in Geneva before returning to her native Spain to start working.

Throughout those years, we remained in close touch, exchanging long letters and always planned to meet up again. Maria Angeles was the first to get married, and even though I was only in the UK at that stage, it just wasn’t possible for me to go to Spain. She sent wedding photos, and when I got married a few years later, I sent mine. As the kids came along we exchanged baby photos, and so our friendship continued even though we were living continents apart as by then I had moved to Australia. We shared trials and tribulations, stories of separations, family weddings, proud moments and everything in between.

When I moved to Spain in September 2014, I had hoped we’d be able to meet face to face. Unfortunately, that was not to be as by then my dear friend had been in a horrendous motor accident. She’s left with limited mobility, unable to drive, and can only walk short distances with the aid of crutches. The need to rely on other people to help her get out of the house has severely curtailed her movements. So although I was in the same country, my work schedule, and her mobility issues kept us from meeting. We talked on the phone and kept in touch by email – yes, we have finally graduated from hand written letters!

with Maria Angeles
Taken at the end of my 40 hour journey from Darwin – as I stepped off the train in Alicante – reunited at last!

On my return trip to Spain last week, I made it a priority to see my dear friend. The days were blocked out in my schedule to travel to Elche, a 6-hour train journey from Barcelona, and the shoe city of Spain. I didn’t venture into a single shop; instead the time was devoted to being with my childhood friend.

We talked as though we were still those two young girls. There was no awkwardness despite the fact that so many years have passed. It seems like it was only yesterday we were kids yet 45 years seem to have flown past.

Maria Angeles and I agreed, during our reminiscing that we’d both had a great life.  Wonderful opportunities, and education even though we spent considerable time in political hot spots and third world conditions (Congo, India, Pakistan as well as the Middle East).  We also reflected, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was our diverse childhood experiences that have really bound us together. Unlike those who grow up in the same place, we never had the opportunity of neighbourhood friends since our neighbourhoods  frequently changed. Our home was always where our parents were posted.

Just as I struggled to adjust to a life in the UK and then in Australia, Maria Angeles struggled to return to life in Spain. We are both United Nations children, the people we are today is thanks to our upbringing, the challenges we faced along the way, the amazing experiences and people we met along the way, but to us it was all normal. It was our life and we just accepted it as normal. It is only as we have grown older that we know just how different that life was.

I’m thrilled that I was able to see Maria Angeles in person once again, to have a glimpse into her life today. It was nice and at the same time a little weird meeting her adult children as it still felt like we were those two young girls. How could she have such a grown-up family? Equally, I think her children were as fascinated to meet such an old friend of their mothwpid-img-20150806-wa0001.jpgers, one who came from so very far away, as they have lived their whole lives in the same place. While I was there, they had a snapshot into their mothers childhood years, and I suspect saw her in a slightly different light.

We don’t think of ourselves as being old, but Maria Angeles is now a grandmother to three gorgeous little boys, the eldest of which is three years old.  Some of my other friends are grandmothers, but to see my old school friend as a Grandmother was something else – makes me realise I must indeed be getting old even if I do still feel like a spring chicken.

We’ve promised it won’t be another 45 years till we see each other – we’ll both be celebrating our 100th birthdays if we leave it that long!  Seize the day, live life to the full because we never know what’s around the corner. Life is fragile and I’m thrilled I got to spend those two magical days with my lifelong friend and her delightful family. Friendship is a wonderful gift and I am pleased to have some very special friends.

Michelle

GOODBYE ECIJA

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With the Academy Directors

Friday night saw me bidding  a sad farewell to the last group of my lovely students who have been a part of my life since last September. I have to admit I shed a little tear (and so did some of them). My walk home, after handing in the keys to my boss, was filled with mixed feelings. I knew this was the last time that I would be treading the familiar route, one that I had walked four times a day, in all kinds of weather. As I walked I said a mental goodbye to the places I regularly walked past. Sometimes in the freezing cold, other times with sweat pouring down my face.

One of the things I am really going to miss about being there is the lovely long break in the middle of the day for siesta.  My break was usually 3 or 4 hours, depending on the timetable and whilst it was a bit strange at first, and I never used this as a siesta time, I soon developed the habit  of using these times to work on other projects or simply relax with a good book.

I arrived struggling to speak Spanish, and even more, the accent of Andalucia but now I surprise myself with how much I actually understand and am able to communicate. I think I surprised some of my colleagues and students too. Whilst I am by no means fluent I can get by very well. You can read about my early adventures in the Spain tab of my blog, but my most memorable occasion is the gas bottle episode.

I became accustomed to the fact that all the shops close for lunch and on Sundays, including many of those in Seville and Cordoba too. I learnt to organise myself around their opening hours and Sunday was truly a day or rest and recreation.

Whilst I still registered that the church bells peal out every hour, every day of the week, even through the night. I got used to it and it became a familiar part of daily life in a little Spanish town.

I loved sitting in the Salon (the main square that is more correctly named Plaza Espana) especially in the recent months when the daylight lasted until about 10 o’clock, and at the other little bars having a tapa and watching whole families or varying generations all eating together, the children and dogs all playing sociably. I didn’t enjoy the dog poo that I need to keep a sharp eye out for!

It’s been a great learning experience. Learning about the rich culture, both ancient and modern, learning about the people and the local customs. All in all it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn first hand about life in a small Spanish town away from all the commercialism and tourist hubble-bubble of the larger cities.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience. Thank you Educalia Ecija and all the fabulous people I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with during my time there.

Michelle

 

An Update from Australia

I’m writing this one especially for my Spanish friends to give everyone a quick catch up on what I’ve been up to since leaving Ecija on the 27th June. Big shout out of thanks to Arnaud for the lift to Cordoba railway station. I had to dash off on that particular date because I was bringing my 13 year old niece to Australia for the very first time. She is Spanish and lives in Seville and was already on school holidays so time was precious. I was thrilled, as I travelled, to receive emails and text messages from several students telling me how they had managed their speaking exam. Well done everyone!

Alexa chopsticksThe journey to Australia is not exactly short, but we broke our trip with a stopover in Singapore where I introduced Alexa to some aspects of her Asian heritage. Like most Spaniards, she’s not partial to spicy food and I think was a little overwhelmed by the Hawkers Centre, but she gamely tried using chopsticks and was successful!

Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Haw Par Villa, Singapore

She also enjoyed Haw Par Villa with the Chinese mythology scenes. It was fun for Wayne and I to see her reactions too.

We arrived in Darwin in the early hours of 2nd July, and had 12 hours here before flying on to Brisbane. Alexa really enjoyed meeting her cousins Sasha and Ellie for the first time and seeing her grandparents again.

Elie, Alexa and Sasha
Ellie, Alexa and Sasha

They spent a great week together but I came straight back to Darwin as I had a pile of work to sort out. I’d been gone almost 12 months, so as you can imagine there was a pile of paperwork and other business to attend to. Boring, but essential things like insurance documents, bank statements and so on the list goes.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to how expensive everything is compared to Spain. No more lovely cheap fruit and vegetables, they are exorbitant here by comparison, but on the other hand the salaries here are much higher.

So what do I do with my days? I usually wake by 6 am most days. I sit out by the pool and have my coffee, the first cup of the day, as dawn begins to break. I like this time as I have a chance to sit quietly and think about the day ahead and my calendar before heading into the shower, followed by breakfast which is usually yogurt and fruit. No tostada con jamon and ham is definitely not the same as jamon in taste or texture.

I then get started on my work diary, checking emails, Facebook and touching base with US clients as they are 16 hours behind and it’s still the day before there. It’s then straight into my writing tasks, which includes blog posts, profile writing and editing for my clients. I do love the variety of genres I am able to tackle so the work is never dull.

By 10 am I’m usually onto all the local Australian tasks for the day, which I try to have cleared away by 12 noon. My afternoon work session starts at 4 pretty much like it did in Spain, but here it’s because I need to be available for European/Middle Eastern clients as they’re just beginning their work day. I’m also pleased that I am still able to work with a few students via Skype for the extra practice they need.

I do miss being in Ecija, sitting in the Salon having tapas, but I don’t miss the terribly hot weather there at the moment. My lifestyle in Spain was definitely more relaxed than it is in Australia. However, I do understand that I was in a very fortunate position to have a job when so much of the country is out of work. I was also able to maintain my freelance work so my life was very comfortable there. Even though I am back in Australia, I will maintain my Spanish rate for any clients from Spain as I know the burdens that everyone faces with the crisis and making ends meet.

My work day usually ends somewhere between 8 and 10 pm, a bit like in Ecija. It’s then time to relax and kick back with the family and enjoy a glass of vino blanco. I usually choose a New Zealand white wine which is very different to the wines of Spain.

Darwin is delightful in the Dry Season and of course it is lovely to see the dogs and be in my own house. Our entertaining in Australia is very different from Spain. We do a lot more at home, having friends over for meals.  It’s fun to cook in my own kitchen where I have everything I need instead of being in my little piso without an oven! We’ve had lots of baked goodies since I’ve been back. Alexa has also been cooking Spanish omelette’s so we’ve had touches of Andalusia here with us in the house.

Sasha and I really enjoyed watching the latest season of Game of Thrones the last few evenings before we went to bed. Last night we watched the final. It was  great to see the scenes filmed in the Alcazar in Seville, and the Osuna scenes. Now we are all in suspense for what comes next season.

Hasta luego,

Michelle