Wrapped in an enigma.
My favourite Christmas moment came courtesy of a glamorous sales assistant in a rather posh shop in Leeds.
She looked poised and confident, even though it was about 10 minutes to her closing-time on Christmas Eve and the remaining customers were mostly borderline drunk or very bad at Christmas forward-planning.
I bought some earrings, mostly because I thought they looked nice, although the fact that they were the only ones left might also have had an influence. The assistant gave me a charming smile then asked me whether I would like the earrings gift-wrapped, not something usually available in my price-bracket.
I think she may have noticed some indications of panic or indecision in my swaying eyes, because she kindly added that there would be no extra charge, which I tried to disguise as a matter of no importance to me, although I’m worried that I might have accidentally said ‘Phew’.
Then I watched her as she assembled her gift-wrapping kit; a square of tissue paper, a small bow and a roll of sticky-tape looking as battered and abused as you would expect of a roll of sticky-tape after a busy Christmas.
She was a small-built, elegant woman of south Asian origin with narrow, deft-looking fingers and aged about 30, or at least old enough to negotiate herself around simple wrapping tasks.
Because I enjoy watching any task done well, I was anticipating a master-class. Unfortunately, her attempt turned out to be utter crap. The tissue paper wouldn’t sit flat and persisted in going its own way and pulling itself up short at every opportunity; the sticky-tape attached itself to anything in the vicinity, including itself and the clothes and hair of the assistant, but didn’t appear to have any affinity to the tissue paper. The bow didn’t settle itself as an elegant final touch; it had to be bashed into place.
And all the while, the assistant smiled serenely as if all was going to plan, even though I almost could see thought-bubbles coming out of her head saying ‘bugger’, ‘oh shit’ and ‘should I pretend to faint?’
Still, it gave me immense satisfaction to discover that the planet contains someone even worse at wrapping things than me.
My other December highlight was a trip to one of the Cape Verdi islands, a scattered archipelago below the Canaries and to the left of Senegal in the huge Atlantic ocean.
The islands form an independent African republic of about half a million people speaking many Portuguese /African Creole dialects, which, because the islands are quite far apart and islanders don’t interact regularly enough to produce a common dialect, means they have difficulties understanding each other, let alone outsiders, which also makes them adept at non-verbal communication, which suits me fine – as does the fact that we didn’t see a MacDonald’s, a Starbuck’s, a chicken outlet, a bus stop or more than one postbox.
The island we went to was called, with brutal honesty, Sal, salt being about its only resource before the arrival (when the salt ran short) of the cavalry in the form of northern European tourists happy to overlook its bleak desert landscape in exchange for guaranteed sun, clean seas and the feeling that they were quite a long way away from where they would ordinarily be.
We did have a wonderful voyage in a yacht with proper varnished-wooden decks and a skipper who plied us with drinks, the local seafood and a range of interesting opinions, but the best thing about the islands was the people.
They are quite poor and poor people are, in the interest of evening things out, obliged to pester the rich for money, even though the Cape Verde islanders are the very worst hustlers I’ve ever encountered.
‘Buy my cigarettes/ badly-executed turtle carving/ mis-printed Chinese T-shirt/ home-made hooch,’ they say. ‘Very very cheap.’ I reply ‘No thanks’ and the Cape Verdi hustlers give a shrug meant to indicate that they quite see my point and walk away smiling, without bothering to do even a token parting wheedle. No wonder they’re poor.