20 December 2011


Most of you reading this probably figure you know me well enough by now to know that I loathe Xmas. (See, I can't even bring myself to spell it out.) And you'd be right, mostly. But this year, rather than writing the usual screed about everything I find appalling about the season at hand, I'm going to write about the things I like this time of year. So much for predictability.

But that takes us to the first thing I like, which has to do with predictability - in this particular case the predictability of physics. Click on this paragraph to read one of the Leaders from this year's year-end double issue of The Economist. Then make sure to come back here to read the rest of my blog. (If you use Windows you can right click on the paragraph and open the article in another window. If you use a Mac there must be something you can do but I don't know what that is.)

I love the special year end double issue of The Economist. It is probably the one thing that I look most forward to reading every year. The Leader that you have just - hopefully - read, is a perfect example of why. It is beautifully written. It is clear and easy to understand. It is witty and entertaining and fascinating and makes plain some things that you have undoubtedly seen throughout the past year in headlines. The whole issue is full of articles like this, about a wide variety of subjects. I only wish it was bigger, or came out twice a year.

I love Xmas Day. Though truth be told I could do the same thing any day of the year. Which is - I get together with friends, we go eat dim sum in a gigantic noisy Chinese restaurant that is jam packed with people of a similar bent, then we go to a movie matinee - usually something blockbusterish - this year probably the new Mission Impossible movie. It's got the Burj Khalifa in it and the Kremlin blows up. What could be more festive than that?

Okay, so what else do I love about Xmas? I'm thinking, I'm thinking...

The best Xmas I ever spent was in Dakar, Senegal.

I spent December 24th wandering the town, admiring the occasional African Santa Claus I encountered and the rather odd mix of African and French decorations. I caught a pickpocket with his hand in my camera bag in the main street market. Though then I worried about him. He couldn't have been much more than 12 and when I grabbed his hand and held it in the air and yelled at him, I was joined by a bunch of angry market women who took over his chastisement from me. I don't know what happened to him after that. Maybe they just humiliated him and sent him home. Maybe they beat him to death.

But I digress. My friend and traveling companion Ronna and I had dinner at one of the swankest French colonial restaurants in town. I had the very best steak frites (with a fresh green peppercorn sauce) that I have ever had, and we shared a bottle of excellent wine.

Then we wandered down to the wrong side of the tracks where all the tourist guides tell you not to go. Actually, it was under the tracks - a very sleazy, big nightclub that was mostly an enormous colorfully lighted patio with a band set up at one end of it. It was riotous with all the people that well-intentioned "experts" warn you against hanging out with: hookers, their pimps, their best customers, a variety of gangsters and assorted other crooks and junkies and drunks.

We had a blast. The Ventilateur was the dance craze of the moment (1984) - a dance in which one turns one's ass to the rest of the crowd and spins and jiggles it as best one can in emulation of a fan. Ronna proved to be particularly adept at this. I can't recall if she was the only white girl in the place, but she was certainly the only one who could hold her own dancing.

We drank. We smoked. There may have been some hash laced into some of those cigarettes. We chatted with everyone, in English when possible, in our tortured French when we needed to. We got lessons in Wolof - the primary local language from which jazz idioms such as "heebie jeebies" and "hepcat" derive.

At dawn Xmas morning the whole place emptied out and everybody walked through the deserted streets of town down to the beach where we scrounged coffee and breakfast from the few vendors who were around and a cafe that was open.

It was even better than dim sum and a movie matinee.

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