Sunday, December 29, 2013

1985 and 2013


So, what do these two photos have in common?

Yes, they are both of me... on the left I am 17, on the right I am 45...

I've always been a wanderer. Itchy feet... my dad would say. I like to travel, I like to move abroad and back, I even like to move house every few years whenever I can!

2013 hasn't been the best year from that perspective... every time my kids were off school, I had too much work on to take a holiday and the consequence has been that for the very first time since the first photo was taken here, I have been nowhere. I have not been abroad, I have spent every single night in my own bed - no sleepovers, no nights away, no holidays - how thoroughly depressing. Life's too short to spend an entire year looking out of the same window (at the same rain).

I can't really see how 2014 will be any better either but one thing I can definitely predict is that my feet will become itchier and itchier!


As a child, we spent Hogmanay at my granny's house. I've mentioned the format before. But the one thing I didn't go into was the alcoholic content. Gramps used to drink a little too much (and sing about belonging to Glasgow) and consequently Granny didn't. She certainly didn't believe children should be given alcohol either so every year she'd take out (presumably the same) bottle of Advocaat that she'd bought years before for all the non-drinkers. I think she thought it was liquidized egg, that's what she told me anyway... I doubt she'd ever read it closely enough to see it contained 18% alcohol. She certainly used to present it to me as the non-alcoholic option - a bit like shloer only yellow (and dare I say bloody awful).

Even as a young child of eight or nine, however, I was drawn to all things exotic and this putrid alcohol contained two 'a's side by side and the word 'Dutch' on the label and to me that meant foreign, exciting, and making myself like it became a goal in itself. I'd nurse a glass of the viscous liquid all night willing it to taste better because I was desperate to escape into some dream of foreign wonder. But after my gran died, I gave in and accepted Advocaat wasn't my tall, dark foreign, stranger (I opted to marry several foreign men instead!)

Nearly thirty years have passed since I last tasted Advocaat and then my friend Siobhan asked me last Saturday if I'd like a glass. Straight, it was exactly as I remembered it, in all its vileness... But then she asked if I was insane drinking it neat, she filled my glass with Mexican lime juice and lemonade and presented me with my first taste of a Snowball and I am more than gobsmacked to say, not only did it inspire me to buy my first bottle of Advocaat since I came of age, but I also intend to ring in the bells this year, for the first time since 1983 with a glass of Advocaat in my hand!


Saturday, December 28, 2013


This popped up from my favourite little happy chef on Boxing day. I must work my way through this list as biryani is my favourite food! (And if you don't follow Sanjay on Facebook, I recommend you should - it is impossible to watch him without ending up with a huge smile on your face - he's such an enthusiastic, happy guy!)

You you've been in publishing too long when...

you have this type of conversation with your eight year old...

I was in Tesco on Xmas eve and I decided to have a quick look to see if they had a specific novel for Charlotte's birthday (a week after Xmas). The problem was that I was already stressed enough and couldn't remember which novel it was she'd been going on about. Worse still Léon hadn't finished his shopping and was rabbiting on in my ear about what to get Lots for Xmas.

Me: Léon can you shoosh a minute, I'm trying to find Lots a book and I can't remember what it's called.
Léon: What's its name and I'll help you look.
Me: I can't remember, that's the problem.
Léon: What colour is the cover.
Me: Blue I think, dark blue.
Léon (very loudly in the crowd of shoppers) And what font is the title in on the cover??

Boy, did we get some funny looks. Don't all eight year olds ask that? ;-)

Friday, December 27, 2013

I like her logic

Boxing day, 8:09pm, in complete seriousness...

Amaia: Mummy! I've got an idea!
Me: What?
Amaia: Well, I quite liked Christmas so maybe we can do it again tomorrow?!


Thursday, December 26, 2013

3 year old logic

Amaia: "Is it a nursery day today?"
Me: "No you're on holiday"
Amaia: "Oh goody, when are we going on the aeroplane?"

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I've never written about Lockerbie but I guess my kids probably want to know how I experienced that just as they asked me once to write down my experience of 9/11.

It was Christmas of 1988 and I was spending it alone in Besançon with my then boyfriend, André. He had decided he didn't fancy a family Christmas so had claimed to his mother that he had too much work to come home for the festive season. I was studying for some uni exams so was home alone in the flat while he was in the office. André and his mother, Annie, had always been afraid of flying, terrified planes weren't safe so every time anything happened to one they dissected the accident in every detail. I was pottering about when the phone rang. I lifted the receiver and said 'allô?' Annie sounded terribly distressed and said just one word 'Dumfries' in a her strong German accent. I didn't catch what she meant. I was, of course, assuming she was speaking either French or German to me (as she had no English at all) but she repeated the word 'Dumfries' over and over, half panicking, half crying. She hung up, I turned on the news and was surprised to hear TF1 discussing Lockerbie. These days Lockerbie would probably have meant very little to me as I fly everywhere but 1988 was pre-RYANAIR so as a student I couldn't afford to fly. I used to go by Eurolines coach to France all the time and the last night stop before Glasgow was Lockerbie, so I'd passed through often.

Over the next few days accidents were ruled out and terrorism in but it was more a news story than anything else... a news story about my country, but not really something tangible. Of course I calculated quickly how few more minutes the plane would have needed to fly to hit greater Glasgow and that was quite terrifying. I watched and felt the world had changed a little, for the worse.

A week later I was coming home. I had a seat by the window on the coach and was staring out at the world as it changed from France, to England, from London to countryside and finally across the border. Thirty-five hours into my trip the bare, treeless hills loomed up covered in sheep - finally I was nearly home. I had crossed the border into Scotland. No one had prepared me for what I was about to see and I cannot begin to imagine what it had looked like a week earlier. Very suddenly, without warning a deep lozenge-shaped pit, we've all seen the photo, was just there beside the road, the houses looked as if I was in a war zone, smoke was still rising from the plane-shaped pit. (The third photo shows the road our bus drove along). The bus passengers gasped but didn't speak. It was so close to me I could almost touch it. The bus was made to slow down and file past the hole by police, who seemed to be everywhere. News suddenly became reality. That day the horror of what had happened finally hit me and still today I can see it, smell it as if it was twenty-five years ago. I lost a bit of my youth and innocence that day.

To this day I cannot imagine why it came as such a surprise to me. I knew my bus went through Lockerbie and I had seen the photos on TV in France. Why was I so unprepared? It just didn't seem real till then. I still can't look at that specific photo without feeling that sharp intake of breath that had hit me back in December of 1988.

10 mins old

Surreal conversation of the morning:
Amaia: Who's that baby?
Me: You.
Amaia: What number was I when I was born?
Me: What?
Amaia: Was I 3?
Me: No, you were zero.
Amaia: Ok. And was I a boy or a girl when I was a baby?!
Me: A girl.
Amaia: Well I don't look like a girl!

Why we find even Italy expensive...

I came across this map the other day and it started to explain something I had been wondering ever since we started visiting Thomas's parents both in Denmark and then latterly in Italy...

I know Danes earn much more than we do so it was never a great surprise that the Danish supermarkets felt a bit pricey on my meagre UK income. But we have all known since the 80s and early 90s that Italy was a great cheap destination for Brits and Danes alike. I still remember lira notes that were worth less than 50p when I lived in Perugia in the 80s. So finding this helped me finally understand that although Italy might feel like a delight to my Danish relatives, to us poor UK earners it is no longer the financial paradise of my youth!

I am always amazed how expensive I feel visiting Tuscany is. The petrol is dearer, the food shopping feels extortionate. I rarely find a full trolley in Tesco, Silverburn costs me more than £120, whereas Coop in Bibbiena can easily fit £200 + in a smaller trolley. But if you look at the price level indices above, it can be explained in several ways. Italy's average is 111, but of course Tuscany is one of Italy's most affluent areas, so to reach a national average of 111, I guess Tuscany must be well in excess of that, at least in the 120-140 bracket. The UK's average is 104, but London is our affluent area and is drastically more expensive than Glasgow so for the UK as a whole to be 104, Glasgow must be in the 80-100 bracket or even lower. 

On top of that we, as a family have two other major issues. Given there are seven of us, we rarely shop for our main items in Tesco or ASDA, we bulk buy our meat, cheese, stock, coffee, butter, rice, pasta, mayonnaise etc in Makro, so get them all at trade prices. In Italy we can't bulk buy anything as we don't have the storage facilities to do so, so things cost almost double in real terms. 

Finally, and perhaps sadly most significantly, we are self-employed, and that means we have no paid holidays. So where most people relax with their feet up earning their annual, well-deserved break, we see every day of every holiday (here or abroad) as a huge financial loss which is unfortunately not offset by a decrease in mortgage, and other living costs during this period. In the old days, freelance staff could command a salary of 20% more to offset this, but those days are now gone. We're more likely to be given a paycut as an incentive to get work than a pay increase.  With little visibility too, a holiday can only be booked at the last minute, making it almost impossible to coordinate. If things don't improve, I find it hard to imagine our kids seeing much of the world, or even the Scottish coast. It is hard to believe that just eight years ago flying to New York for a long weekend was a normal thing for me to do!

Having checked out the map above, it looks to me like we are going to have to beg all our family and friends abroad to consider annual meet-ups in the likes of Poland in future unless something happens to improve either our earnings, or our unpaid holiday status.

And while I'm ranting anyway

I know I don't usually moan about living in this affluent area - we moved here for the schools and ours has just come in the top three in Scotland again so it is all worth it, but you know what really pisses me off here...?

I've long since given up trying to compete with the kids' classmates presents. This year's norm seems to be a new games console - either the new PS4 or the Wii something or other, of course with that you need a game or two of course, and a few lego figures, maybe an iPad to go...

Unfortunately two self-employed people, five kids and an awol ex don't really qualify for that lifestyle so we make Christmas about family and making biscuits together, reading together, hugging in front of a movie and so on. Gifts don't need to cost much, it's the thought that counts... But when you've bought each of your kids (as their main present, not their stocking filler) a DVD of a recent movie, for the very reason that you couldn't contemplate the £50 it would have cost to see when it came out a few months ago in the cinema, then it really seriously pisses you off that on the last day of school, their classmates (who've simply received the DVD as a normal every day request from Asda as soon as it came out) bring it in for last day of term entertainment. Suddenly two of my kids' major surprises for next week have just been shown to them today because everyone's already seen that of course... Except they bloody haven't!

Ok, rant over - I'm just feeling a bit sorry for my babies! Just as well kids don't mind seeing DVDs more than once.

Next year I'll keep them home on the last day so they can get their Christmas movie as a surprise rather than just a re-run :-(

Friday, December 20, 2013

Wishing me a stressful Christmas?

Is December 20th the hardest day of the year for those of us who are self-employed?

I remember well my years employed in other people's companies. By December 15th, you were starting to wind down, you'd the office party to look forward to, and projects to dust off... In publishing there were many projects passing for press up to Christmas Eve. You'd often spend that afternoon eating mince pies, and chatting getting ready for a very well-deserved holiday and if you were lucky the boss would let you away half an hour early. Working in a multinational department, you'd spent the couple of weeks before that waving off friends who were flying home to France, Spain, Greece, Germany or wherever for the holidays. You felt their anticipation and the atmosphere was great, if manic.

Something you don't think enough about before you opt to freelance, or run your own business is the truly hideous concept of 'unpaid holidays'. It is not that I don't need a holiday. I have worked almost every day since February, including most weekend days, so I bloody need a holiday. But as I watch my dozens of facebook friends today at their office parties, their drinks session or count down to the long drive home, no one seems to have a depressing status saying something along the lines of: No chance of any freelance work for the next two weeks, everyone's on paid leave, so trying to make ends meet in the most expensive month of the year with half my normal monthly income. I guess that just wouldn't be in the Christmas spirit. And of course, the knock-on effect of that is that you are half a month down on salary when you start 2014 so you spend it playing catch-up from day one! Stress! At least during summer there's still hope, but please excuse me if I find Christmas a tad more stressful than I used to...

New boiler

When we moved into this house six years ago there was a fairly inadequate heating system. It always seemed very much as if someone had installed a boiler and then added the two extensions, thus doubling the size of the house, and halving the efficiency of the heating.

Over the last nine months the radiators have got colder and colder so we finally decided to replace the boiler. The new one was installed on Tuesday. We wondered if it would be noticeably better but within ten minutes of it being switched on it was obviously better. Improvements include actually needing to put cold water in the bath when you run it - that's not been necessary for years. The radiators are almost burning to the touch too, instead of just seemingly being filled with tepid water.

But I'll give Rosie the last word. Has it passed the hamster test? For the eight months Rosie has lived with us she has buried herself at the bottom of a sawdust tunnel every time she has fancied a sleep. But since Wednesday morning - well she's taken to sleeping on top of her sawdust. I assume it is a bit like when I sleep under a duvet in Scotland but swap it for a light sheet on a Mediterranean holiday!

Thumbs up for the new boiler!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A worry

I love the way small children's minds work sometimes...

Léon knows there's no Santa. We have always done 'European Xmas' in this house - presents on the night of the 24th from relatives so Santa doesn't come during the night.

Now he's in primary 4, a good number of the kids are now also in the know. To be honest, thinking back to when the other two were that small, I am very surprised anyone still believes at that age, but there you go...

So today we were driving to school when Léon got into a tizzy. I asked what was worrying him and he said that it had just occurred to him that some parents might never actually get round to telling their kids about the Santa myth and what would happen to their kids in turn if they didn't realize there was no Santa, because that would result in no one bringing them any presents!

I did try to explain there's usually quite a gap between believing in Santa and becoming a parent - well in this particular suburb of Glasgow anyway!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Quote of the day...

Quote of the day from Amaia (3): My sister has long, long, long hair but my daddy, he's just got pricks on his head!


From the minute I worked out Amaia's due date back at Easter 2009 I knew this day would come.

This morning the nursery issued us with the form offering us an extra year because sending her to school next summer would make her one of the youngest in her year.

The way the Scottish education system works is as follows: let's take next summer's intake as an example. All children who will turn 5 between 1/3/14 and 28/2/15 should start school in the August of 2014. Children whose 5th birthdays fall between 1/1/15 and 28/2/15 are offered an automatic right to defer school entrance so as to become the oldest starters of the summer of 2015, rather than the youngest of 2014, if their parents so desire.

We didn't have this issue with Anna two years ago as she missed the deferral cut-off by 12 days. So she went to school at the age of four and is more than coping psychologically, socially and academically. She's an outgoing, confident little girl and doesn't let her age stand in her way. Still I wish she could have been older when she went. Amaia is a quieter one though. She's more introvert, less self-assured. She very much reminds me of her sister Charlotte who I deferred back in 2004. At the time those who had chosen not to defer often commented that their child was clever enough to start at 4. I learned to let that wash over me because I wasn't deferring Lots for academic reasons - she already wrote all her own Christmas cards at the age of three and could quickly calculate but she didn't like stepping onto the stage and singing, in the playground she was not confident enough to seek out friends and often sat quietly hoping they would come to her. At the time I thought Charlotte would benefit hugely from not having to be the baby of the class over and above being quiet and introvert. I also reasoned that the highest achievers of our European neighbours are not those who start at 4 but rather those who start at 6 or even 7. I was also pushed in that direction by having been a February baby myself, in the days before deferral was introduced. I had all my vaccinations a year later than my classmates, I sat my uni entrance exams at 16, I couldn't go to university social events till six months after I started as I was just 17. I was sent to teach in France at 19, just a year older than the students. All in all I had a huge chip on my shoulder about being the youngest at school. Of course, it didn't affect me academically but I still lacked confidence because of it and didn't fully come out of my shell till long after my teens. Of course as deferral didn't exist back then, I did not hold any grudge against my parents at least!

As time has gone by I have found further benefits to having deferred Charlotte. As far as I can see 15 is the new 17. Marcel and his classmates were exposed to drink, drugs, sex and peer pressure by about third year at high school. By deferring her, she is now hitting that age more able to cope with it from a maturity perspective, and furthermore, with no chip on her shoulder and nothing to prove.

When I knew this decision was coming I, of course, discussed it at length with Thomas but I also discussed it separately with both Marcel and Lots herself to get their input. Marcel immediately suggested we defer so she had nothing to prove. The older ones in my year tend to lead, the younger ones prefer to follow, he advised. I asked Charlotte if she felt any regrets given one downside was that she had been first in her year to reach puberty and was not comfortable with that at all at the time. To my surprise she actually said that she'd have found coping with puberty even harder if she'd had all the hang-ups about age too. She thanked me openly for making what she decided was the right decision for her. As she pointed out, she has to choose the subjects she's taking on to 4th year in just eight weeks - she'd have felt even less ready to do that a year ago than she does now.

As I said, with some kids, especially the socially extrovert, calm ones who are very much at ease with themselves, it might not be wrong to send them but I think both Lots and Amaia have the type of personality that definitely won't have anything to lose by being a little older when they have to make life's more important decisions. Even Léon, who turned 5 after the first 2 months of p1 would have coped better emotionally, had he been able to start a year later. He was so young at first that although he was as bright as a button, he just wasn't all that interested in formal learning when he could have been charging round the playground in a dinosaur costume! I really don't think we'll hear any complaints. I'm 12 years into schooling from a parental perspective and have yet to meet anyone who has told me they wish they hadn't deferred their child. The same is not true of the opposite. Given I work from home and am therefore not financially constrained to send her to school, although it would of course make my life logistically much easier, I cannot justify to myself not offering her an extra year of childhood before formal education starts to take her from us. So we signed the paperwork today, to keep our little girl another year. Five and a half is a better age...

Toy hamster

Thomas doesn't buy the kids an advent calendar, he makes up 24 little gifts of his own, wrapped in napkins every year. Some days they get sweets, others, toys. Yesterday Anna and Amaia each received a toy hamster.

Mid-morning, I went to the loo and found someone had put quite a lot of paper, which looked unused, into it. I also noticed there was no loo roll on the holder. I then walked into the living room in time to see Amaia making her toy hamster (which has a ball underneath) roll back and forwards through an empty toilet roll tube middle. I think she remembers how Rosie used to do this as a baby so acquired one for 'Butter Cheeks' her own way!


In the part of France I (used to) come from, these are not 'pains aux raisins', as they are everywhere else, they are 'Schneck' (not Schnecken, I hasten to add - that wouldn't be good Frallemand!)

So with that backdrop in mind, we had this cute conversation in the car yesterday. Marcel came in from school with a letter inviting all the advanced Higher French class pupils to a frogs' legs and snails lunch in Glasgow for Xmas. He remembered tasting frogs' legs in Paris when he was eight, but was unsure as to whether he'd ever had snails. Lots remembered the same from when she was six. Léon asked if he had tasted frogs' legs then too. As he was about six months old at the time, I was sure he hadn't and pointed that out. 'Oh but I've definitely had snails, though' he replied. That would surprise me but he did go to France a few times to see his grandmother after I split up with he who shall not be named, so maybe he was right. I asked what he'd had them with, expecting the answer 'garlic' so was gobsmacked when he came back with 'croissants and pains au chocolat!' I guess, despite not being much of a German speaker he understood the word 'Schneck' after all!

I might add when I explained I actually meant the slugs with shells, he was somewhat dubious as to their edible quality!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

That wonderful way only little people can sleep...

I have photos of all of them doing that at some stage in early childhood - it is so sweet. And once they are fully grown like Charlotte and Marcel, through my photos I can look back and cherish the toddlers they once were.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Nelson Mandela

"...But Gregory escorted her around the door and before either of us knew it, we were in the same room and in each other's arms. I kissed and held my wife for the first time in all these many years. It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times. It was as I were still dreaming. I held her to me for what seemed like an eternity. We were still an silent except for the sound of our hearts. I did not want to let go of her at all, but I broke free and embraced my daughter and then took her child into my lap. It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife's hand."

I was was about 26 when I read A Long Walk to Freedom. At 26 I could not begin to imagine being deprived of human touch and tenderness for 21 years. I think the simplicity with which he wrote that phrase blew me away and it was the first line I remembered nearly twenty years on when news of his death broke last night.

Over and above that, I don't think there's much I can humbly add to what has already been said today, except to mention my pride as a Glaswegian in the little part we played, renaming the address of the South African consulate to Nelson Mandela Place, long before that was the accepted thing to do, our awarding him the Freedom of our city and my own university's election of his then wife as rector, to put pressure on their regime.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nursery update

Hazeldene came very close to having to change its motif this morning...

Hazeldene has always used the tree across from its main building as its emblem. This morning, after the chaos at the primary, I checked carefully that neither the Hazeldene tree, nor the other large tree to its left was moving before parking there for five minutes and dropping Amaia off at 9am. At 12 when Thomas and I went to pick her up however we were shocked to see the morning's events.

Nursery is now closed until this can be removed from the parking area. But it seems no one was hurt in the chaos despite it happening when nursery was open and full of kids.

Looks like the council made more than one bad call this morning.

Another mini hurricane

It's been a blustery night... 
I could tell from the fact that the wind woke me up every hour that things weren't completely normal out there. I got the little ones up at 7-45 and told everyone that I'd take them to school this morning. Normally Marcel and Lots get the bus but I figured if they'd to walk the 15 minutes up to school from the bus stop they'd be soaked through for the whole day. 

Marcel had done his paper round as usual. Today would have been a good morning to hand out his Xmas cards to his customers I think - no one would have dared not to give him a Xmas bonus as he was (despite being nearly 6 foot tall and carrying a bag with thirty odd newspapers in it) blown from the pavement out onto the road several times, not to mention he spent more than an hour dodging flying debris in the dark.
Marcel told us how bad things were so we checked two Twitter/Facebook feeds - East Renfrewshire Council's which informed us all schools were operating normally, and the local Police who were advising people to leave the roads free for essential travel only! Ho hum.

So we all set out at 8-25. The high school is seven minutes away and they need to be there at 8-45. The first obstacle was on Crookfur road. Where they have recently torn down the pensioners' houses an old tree had fallen over and was blocking three quarters of the road.

The large chunks were on the right of the road but the left was blocked by the top of the tree so cars took turns driving up on the pavement to pass it by. This added ten minutes onto our journey. Things were calm from there on until we reached Waterfoot road where the high school is situated on top on an exposed hill. Our car - a seven seater people carrier with six people inside was lifted noticeably off the the ground and shaken from side to side. Lamp posts swayed and I could see the old tree in the farm had been blown over and destroyed but fortunately it was lying on the field rather than the road (I'll take a photo later). 
 At this point we got to drop off and Charlotte had no problems getting out (the C8 has sliding doors in the back) but Marcel actually couldn't open the front door and when he did it blew back and hit his head. 

From there we drove to the primary and things seemed calmer as we left the exposed hill. But the photo above is the infant school entrance! I heard parents discussing that this had 'just happened' but I wasn't there so don't know if anyone was trying to walk down the path when it blew over. People do like a drama.

From there I went to nursery where two trees were damaged in the garden adjacent to the nursery building.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am not a health and safety parent. The primary ban on kids sitting on the school wall or running about on the grassy embankment drives me mad. I fully believe they should be out throwing snowballs in the snow and not stuck bored in classrooms looking out at it. I let them climb trees, cook, use sharp knives etc but I do believe the council made the wrong call this morning. Things are calmer now and kids could easily have been told to stay home until the worst of the storm was over and then come in. But I drop my kids every morning a street from school and let them walk in alone. I give them that independence to help them grow and I do not expect them to be crushed to death by a tree on the way in. If this happened, it was clearly not safe this morning.