Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Not for Boxing

Today is Boxing Day, a uniquely British holiday, and I'm washing up the dishes from yesterday's feast. While fisticuffs are not encouraged, Boxing Day can be a time for various sporting events, post-Christmas entertainment, and sales in the stores where yesterday's gift is sold at cut-rate prices.

There are various theories for how the holiday originated, but most involve boxes full of presents or money to the servants and those in occupations that required working on Christmas day. Some people here leave envelopes of money for the postmen and the trades people, and others small presents.

My hostess Helen and I are planning to visit an outdoor festival in Hyde Park today if we can find out more information than the little I learned from spying a poster on Highgate Hill yesterday. We might also take in a movie. I've learned from my travels that one does not have to give up one's addiction to movies, in whatever country one may be found. Last week we went to the Odeon in Camden Town and saw "Pan's Labyrinth," an excellent mixture of fantasy and drama from Mexican director Guillermo de Toro. It explored the difficulties of adolescence through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl dealing with good and evil during the Spanish Civil War. Helen has already vetoed "Perfume: the Story of a Murderer," the new film about an 18th century killer with a keen sense of smell. One of the big news stories here, in addition to the aftermath of the poisoning of a KGB agent, has been the murder of five prostitutes in Suffolk by what the scandal papers are calling the new Jack the Ripper. Someone is now in custody and sex workers are breathing easier. But who wants to see a film about it?

I've spent considerable time in front of a television set, my hostess's entertainment of choice, and I have not yet figured out how it works. There are both analog and digital channels, and various "free view" offerings for those not paying extra. It seems as if BBC has four channels and ITV, the commercial network, has two, but more can be received on the digital side. In addition there are numerous radio channels, all received by antenna rather than cable, and both TV and radio are interactive, allowing the viewer/listener to make selections and talk back. Helen also has a DVD recorder and can record one channel while watching another. But the digital channels come in clear while the analog ones are blurry. We watched the Queen's Christmas day message on a blurry one and I could barely make out her face. I thought it was Helen Mirren. Her message was an encouragement of multiculturalism (Muslims and Hindus were shown celebrating their holidays) , education and inter-generational communication (the Queen is now over 80). Helen recorded the "alternative Queen" message by a Muslim woman and we will watch it today.

I've also failed to understand Helen's explanations about the mobile phone service which seems to be much more technologically advanced than what we have in the States (but then I don't own a "real" cell phone, so what do I know?). Helen and her friends send text messages back and forth since they are cheaper than calls, and the phones can even turn code into simulated voice messages, with sometimes humorous results. The phone numbering system seems a bit bewildering to me. I tried to call London from Oxford but only made a mess of it. I feel like a barbarian visiting the civilized west, and much in awe of flush toilets.

Good news from California. A new bishop has been chosen to replace the retiring Sylvester Ryan in the Catholic diocese of Monterey. He is Richard J. Garcia, the auxiliary bishop of Sacramento, and he will be installed in a colorful ceremony in Monterey on January 30. I am very sorry I will miss it. When we learned that Ryan was retiring at the mandatory age of 75, some of us involved in peace and social justice work were most concerned that we might get saddled with a conservative bishop. Rome is known to do such things. Garcia was mentioned as the best possible person who could be chosen for a diocese that has a large Spanish-speaking population. He will be one of only 25 Hispanic bishops in the U.S. While his parents were born in Mexico, Garcia was born and raised in San Francisco. For a diocese in which immigration (and raids by the INS in the dark of night) is a crucial issue, Garcia is a Godsend. Good things do sometimes happen.

News tidbits: The Druids got to Stonehenge a day early this year. They thought the winter solstice was on Dec. 21, but it did not arrive until a day later. Johnny Depp will play Freddy Mercury, the charasmatic lead singer of Queen who died of AIDs. While Mercury was openly gay, he kept his Indian ancestry a secret. Brits are worried about Bulgaria and Romania joining the European Union shortly, for it will mean an influx of immigrants in search of jobs from those poorer countries. Many of the clerks and waitpersons I've encountered here have had Eastern European accents.

The mp3 player and the cell phone are ubiquitous in London (and probably now all of the world). On the underground over half the people are listening or talking to someone not present. Is conversation going to become a lost art?

Today is the seventh straight day of overcast skies. While I initially thought that might indicate the possibility of snow and a white Christmas, the temperature remains a free degrees above freezing, just enough to be uncomfortable, but not cold enough to bring the white stuff. London is clearly not a prime vacation spot for the winter holidays. Unless you like indoor entertainment.

Tomorrow I fly to India. One of our pilgrims, who had earlier cancelled because her employer wouldn't give her the time off, let me know on Saturday that she could come after all. As the travel agents had left for the four-day Christmas holiday, this posed a challenge. Thankfully, it has been met and Shelli will be on her way tomorrow as well, when the group from California flies out of San Francisco. I am traveling Jet Airways, an India-owned company, and though I was advised to confirm my reservation 72 hours before departure, that has been so far impossible. The confirmation phone number has packed up and gone on holiday as well. My plane stops in Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now called) for a three-hour layover, but I doubt that the airport lounge will give me much of the flavor of this city. I will arrive in Chennai (formerly Madras) on Thursday evening, a day before our pilgrims descend on the subcontinent. In India I expect to find the sun and the stars once again.

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