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A Month in 10 Stories: December 2015

Emilia Leigh - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Illustration by Louise at Amalfi White Living

I’ve heard people say “I’m having such a full day / week / month”, and I've wondered what they've meant, exactly. And although it's not a great figure of speech, this was how I felt about December. So many things happened – some sad, some horrifying, some exhilarating, and the month stretched, folded onto itself, and then again and again – every layer of it fragile, every space in-between vibrating with an extreme emotion. 

I flew home to Sofia for Christmas and then back to London on the Bank Holiday Monday. It was a very dejected flight, most people sleeping off the late nights and the too many glasses of wine. I was coming back to London on my own and was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I was due back at work the following day, and I couldn’t believe Christmas was over, the year was over. Not only that, but we had too many warnings, great big warnings, about the frailty of the world we live in, and so I kept reminding myself that in the end, what made my heart full were the small moments, the real moments, the moments spent with family and friends, and the moments spent on my own when I allowed myself to dream up another world, where things were just as fragile, just as exhilarating.

1. Paris

My third Paris trip for the year was rather bittersweet. It happened three weeks after the November attacks, and it felt very much like a

déjà vu. I wish I could say that we had an amazing time, but we didn’t, although we did try. Paris was different, subdued, and every sparkling Christmas decoration looked out of place. Yet, the city was still beautiful, the food still incredible, and the cappuccino still the best. Here are a few Paris moments:

• A winter stroll around the grieving city;

• Paying our respects at the Place de la République;

• Flowers and candles for Paris.

2. The Blue Carpet
I’d never refuse to go to a film premiere, especially when it’s for Ron Howard’s latest film, and Chris Hemsworth is expected to be in town. Everything was very last minute (the best surprises usually are), and there I was, on the blue carpet, still wearing my work clothes (I didn’t even have time to put my makeup on), thankfully enjoying a complete anonymity. I really wanted to love In The Heart of the Sea but I didn’t. I blame Rush and A Beautiful Mind for that, as they're not only two of my favourite Ron Howard's films but two of my favourite films ever. The man just knows how to tell a story on the big screen.

Similarly, In The Heart of the Sea deals with a few difficult subjects – the controversial whale oil trade, corruption, survival at sea – yet, for some reason, the script didn’t have the depth (ha!) it needed to make this a great film. But walking the blue carpet was a lot of fun, all the X-factor stars were there, enjoying their moment in the limelight, and yes, seeing Chris Hemsworth in real life for a second time was definitely worth it.

3. Christmas in the City 
Running errands and shopping for presents in December can be a bit of a nightmare. It really gets that crazy, and all the little details of London's festive transformation are often completely lost. But if you tried to leave the house, pretending you're doing it without a purpose, it could be a whole other experience.

If you tried to forget about the crowds and the traffic and the queues, the city would seem charming and welcoming, the window displays so much more vibrant, the Christmas lights so much more cheerful; you'd actually stop to buy roasted chestnuts and silly Santa hats and quirky stocking fillers, and you'd definitely stop to listen to the buskers. 

4. The Force is Finally Awake
Weeks and weeks ago, we purchased our tickets for the Saturday screening at the IMAX cinema: film start time – four o’clock in the morning. But then, on the Wednesday, we had to go to the ballet, and this just happened to be the night of the European premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And it was the BIGGEST, LOUDEST, MOST SECURITY-CRAZED film premiers I’ve ever seen!I know, I'm a fan, but witnessing Darth Vader marching down the red carpet, flanked by his army of stormtroopers, was definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. 

But we were running late for the ballet, so we couldn’t stay. The solution? We grabbed a pair of tickets for the 00:01 showing of the film (and yes, I was still planning to go to work on the following morning). Of course, the cinema was packed, and everybody was so excited, including the cinema staff, and it was all a bit of a dream. The film was just as good as it had to be. Not perfect, and by now everybody would know what I mean. But it was impressive in every other way, honouring not only the original Star Wars trilogy, but the movie-going experience as a whole.

5. The Nutcracker Season
It's on TV, in cinemas and in every ballet hall. Your school may be staging it, even your local church might have decided to give it a go. This year, I decided to watch The Nutcracker on the big screen, courtesy of Pathé Live. This famous Bolshoi production was with the 1966 libretto and choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, and Denis Rodkin and Anna Nikulina in the principle roles. 

The Russian version varies significantly from the Balanchine’s work for the New York City Ballet and Peter Wright’s version for the Royal Ballet, but I didn't find it superior in any way. I did think that the presence of the living dolls in both Act I and Act II was a good decision, as the actual story runs out of steam towards the end of Act I, but otherwise I’m still inclined to think that The Nutcracker is in a desperate need for a fresh re-telling.

6. Christmas Cooking
Proper Bulgarian Christmas means a lot of cooking. A lot a lot! And if you wanted to make everything from scratch, you'd have to start in September: marinating cabbage in salty water, air-drying red peppers on string on your balcony or in your pantry, scouting around for the best quality beans and rice and walnuts and flour and the finest filo sheets for the baklava. This takes time and expertise, research and local wisdom. My daily conversations with my mum often revolved around her latest precious acquisition and cabbage update, so when I arrived in Sofia on the 23 December, all I had to do was start cooking.

Since my mum did all the prep, the agreement was that I was going to do all the cooking. The moment my suitcase was unpacked, the apron was on, and it all started. I cooked till about one o’clock in the morning, grabbed a few hours sleep on the couch, woke up, had a very strong coffee, and it was back to the stove (realising my apron was still on). A few hours (and a few mishaps) later, it was all done. The meat-free feast was ready for Christmas Eve – pickled cabbage with potatoes, mashed potatoes with diced leek and dried red peppers, stuffed red peppers and stuffed cabbage leaves, bean stew, beans and rice bake, home baked round bread called pitka, inside of which we place a coin and a piece of twig for health and success, and walnuts and dried-fruit compote called oshav and honey and salt and dried oregano we call chubritsa. And finally, a very sweet version of mulled wine with apples and honey and cinnamon.

The many dishes have to be an odd number (well, depending on who you speak to), symbolising the abundance of the upcoming year. Best of all, you’re not supposed to clear the table until the next day, so the ghosts of family members long gone can feast on the leftovers (preferably while everyone else is asleep in bed). A bit spooky, sure, but if you think about it, it's not Christmas without a heart-stopping moment or two. And then, on Christmas Day, the vegetarian dishes are out, replaced by roast duck or turkey or chicken platters, overflowing with colourful, mouth-watering trimmings everybody is simply too full to eat.

7. Submission Frenzy 
It’s finally on, although I did have to press the pause button towards the end of December, as it turned out, most literary agencies close shop for two weeks over the holidays. The whole submission process has been stressful, but I just ran out of excuses not to go for it. I couldn’t procrastinate any longer. But I've been worried, as last year I was in the exact same position when the seven rejections I received stopped me cold in my tracks. The only difference now is that I have my own prep talk (I’ll need it for sure). So, I just have to keep submitting. Wish me luck!

8. Kerouac’s Original Scroll
I first read On the Road in Bulgarian. I was in my early twenties, and although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t know then enough about the writing process, to appreciate fully the significance of Kerouac’s work. Twenty years and several rereads later, I recently purchased a copy of the original scroll (in a book form) from the little Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Here’s a snippet from Kerouac’s original breakneck, urgent prose:

Here are a few interesting facts about the scroll:

• It’s 120-foot long (that's about 36 metres);
• The narrative is one long paragraph, single-spaced, written on tracing paper sheets;
• Kerouac uses his friends’ real names, so if you’ve already bonded with Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, it does take a bit getting used to;
• Film rights were bought by Coppola in the 1980s for $95,000;
• The price of the original scroll in 2001 – $2.43 million;
• And here’s the amazing part – it took Kerouac only three weeks to write it.

9. December Moments
• A night out in Covent Garden;

• Enjoying a few treats in Paris;

• And a few more things:

Clockwise from the top left:
• The Shard's Christmas lights were rather impressive this year;
• Admiring Edgar Degas's Stage Rehearsal at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris;
• This London pub's festive window display was worth a snap;
• Encountering a very Parisian Christmas tree;
• Unwrapping Megan Hess's exquisite book Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon;
• And finally, taking a walk on Christmas morning.

10. Let’s End the Year With a Smile
I wanted to end this post on a positive note, and I think I got it. Over the last 12 months, I managed to catch up on a lot of films, concerts and documentaries thanks to Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime. But every time I needed some cheering up (let’s face it, we all have those moments), I trusted only one person to do it – Michael McIntyre. So, it only makes sense to round off all the festivities with two of my favourite sketches.

And some more Michael McIntyre.


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Thank you for reading my blog, and here's to an amazing 2016!

Emilia Leigh
Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0) | Permalink
Hannah commented on 26-Apr-2016 06:54 PM
You go to Paris so often wish I could that. Really sad what happened.
Emilia Leigh commented on 29-Apr-2016 11:19 AM
Dear Hannah, thank you for your comment, indeed it was very sad, very brutal. It gives us all a whole new appreciation of the things we take for granted.
Zee commented on 30-Apr-2016 06:01 PM
Thanks for sharing! It was wonderful to see Christmas through your eyes :)

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