Sometimes Santa isn’t that good at choosing presents…
Holding a foreign affairs portfolio in the Federal Government means you travel… a lot. And with a young family this carries with it certain domestic challenges.
So a social contract has developed between me and my family to resolve the situation. Be it out of compensation or guilt, provided I return bearing gifts then everything is OK.
My wife Rachel is the easiest piece of the puzzle. I pass through Duty Free often which simply means cosmetics. Her favourite is nail polish which lives in the refrigerator. After a year of travelling the inside door of the fridge now has a line-up of tomato sauce, milk and a bank of Chanel.
But choosing for the children has proven more difficult.
My starting point was clothes. T-shirts have the advantage of being definitively from a destination which proves I went there, while being easy to carry. But there are two drawbacks. The first is that they are kitsch. The second is that because they are kitsch Rachel hates them.
Having assiduously collected T-shirts from the entire Pacific it dawned on me that I did not have a single memory of any child of mine ever wearing one. It turns out that Rachel carefully ensured – for the sake of the kids – that after their first presentation these items never saw the light of day again.
My 15-year-old son Sam didn’t think much of them either. During a random clean up inspection of his bedroom we attacked the draws of his wardrobe which had shirt sleeves and trouser legs hanging out of them in such number that they looked like a textile interpretation of the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Yet one drawer was perfectly neat bearing witness to it being barely used. Clothes seemed to enter this draw but never come out again. Intrigued I opened it for a look, only to see the best and most pristine collection of untouched souvenir T-shirts in Greater Geelong.
Costumes were another alternative for the littlies. But once my seven-year-old Bella had a kimono, a white dress from Samoa and a hula skirt, Rachel called a halt to all new clothes. The pile of dress-ups in the corner of the toy room was so high it resembled a snow drift. If our baby Georgia ever crawled in there her best hope would be a search-and-rescue dog.
The only child which showed any appreciation for my efforts was my four-year-old Harvey. While he refused to be seen in public with my offerings he was at least prepared to wear his oversized Tongan singlet as pyjamas. It wasn’t much but it meant a lot to me.
So bruised but not defeated I went in search of other options. A visit to a toy store in Guangzhou yielded a 3D puzzle of the Shanghai Tower. It was fun, educational and clearly from China. At home I offered to help Bella with its building. It held her attention for a good 10 minutes and then took me three hours to construct on my own. While admitting to a sense of satisfaction on its completion Rachel assured me that this was not really the point.
In PNG I purchased a delicate doll of an Asaro mud man, hand crafted in a genuine highlands village complete with a removable miniature mud mask. It was exquisite. I thought it would be perfect for Georgia and it was. She squealed with wonder as I unwrapped it and carefully handed it to her whereupon she proceeded to stress test it by whacking it against the wall.
The head of the doll atomised and the mud mask itself was rendered to dust. A handmade Cuban doll now sits in Georgia’s room on a shelf so inaccessible that it can only be viewed with a set of binoculars.
Key rings, cups, beads and shells have all failed to impress. The only winner was a plastic Samurai sword which Harvey now uses to surprise as he attempts to skewer me from behind while I’m shaving.
With resignation I have retreated back to my unsatisfactory formula: the jersey of a local sporting team for Sam, a pink top for Bella, a top with the country’s name on it suitable to be worn as Harvey’s pyjamas, a soft toy for Georgia, nail polish or lipstick for Rachel and a snow dome for myself.
As I was set to return from South America in the week before this Christmas, the impending big day created added pressure. There has been no spark of inspiration or outbreak of imagination. My bag contains a soft toy and some clothes. I know there will be the politic excitement on my arrival but will the baby gaucho and the Uruguayan sun shirt become treasured possessions?
I am not optimistic.
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