Monday, October 23, 2017

Friday, October 13, 2017

Need for speed

Charlotte turned 17 in January and wanted to learn to drive immediately (not sure why given she hasn't a hope in hell of affording a car, but I guess I did the same at 17). 

In February she was too busy with prelims, March with oral exams, April and May with Highers, June with going to Nicaragua, July with going to Italy, August with settling back into school, so I figured it was off for this year... 

That was till she started asking about my availability on Thursday afternoons. I work from home so can move stuff about within reason. It turns out that Thursday afternoon is the only time she has free periods when she hasn't volunteered to be a teaching helper for the lower school. So yesterday she ordered herself a car (dual control for £11 for 2 hours). 

It's been a long time since I sat beside someone who has never ever been behind a wheel, the last time was possibly Derek in 1988! When Thomas learnt he had the basics and Marcel took some proper lessons, so there I was with my first millennium baby explaining 'that's the clutch, the brake, and the accelerator, this is the gear stick and that is the hand brake...' She surprised me with a few odd questions like 'are the three pedals in the same order in all cars?' Hahahaha - can you begin to imagine? 

But then she really threw me... I'm not much of a gamer; Candy Crush Soda on my smart phone for ten minutes at bed time is the extent of my gaming. She asked 'You press the brake to stop, right?' of course, then she followed up with 'and once it has come to a stop, if you press the brake again at the same time as putting the gearstick in reverse, you go backwards, right ?' WTAF?????? Sorry? Mind-blown! Well apparently on 'Need for Speed' (something on a PS3, I think), that's how you make your car reverse - the  L2 button (whatever that means!) Why on earth would you make a game that teaches kids that is how you drive a car? Are they insane???? She seemed a bit put out that she'd been misled! Kids today probably think they know how to fly a plane if they've got a flight simulation game 😜.

All in all it went well. She seemed to get the hang of hill starts fairly quickly, though I still need to get it through to her that you don't pull on the hand brake to stop 😂. But we definitely came top of the class that day... The other mum who hired a car with her 17 year old son at the same time as us returned it after just twenty minutes of the two hour hire, citing the fact that she'd got in such a big fight with him that he had pulled the car over and stomped off home leaving her to return it alone! She was last seen making her way to the pub, fuming 🤣.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Such a sweet boy

Léon's school has organised an s3 Maths trip to NYC for the October week... I'm not sure how they got away with that one but well done to the Maths teachers for managing to come up with a reason for needing to go to New York; I don't suppose exotic school trips are usually too high up the list of perks when you're a Maths teacher!

Léon's Maths teacher seems to be one of the lucky ones who departed yesterday, which meant his class had no teacher today. (Their half term holiday started today so this only meant one day with a sub - (apparently these are called 'please-take ( teacher)s' in today's speak, as in 'We had a please-take today' - I do try to keep up with the lingo as best someone can at my age)).

Léon was moaning over dinner that she had not only left a seating plan of his class for the please-take, but that the seating plan had a photo beside each name. I asked why this was an issue. He told me he and his friend had had the idea to swap places and names for the day (like no kid in the world has ever done that before!) but that the seating plan had ruined their fun.

Before launching into an explanation of why this was a stupid idea (citing the example of when Andrew and Dylan had done that in Charlotte's first year class many moons ago, and the wrong one had ended up with a demerit against his name), I casually asked which friend he'd been plotting with. 'Ayaan Shaik', he replied! 'Ayaan Shaik and Léon Buchanan-Widmann?' I asked. 'Yeah!' came the reply. 'The teacher would have been able to tell, Léon', I pointed out. 'Well, I have no idea how', came the sweet reply, 'not if she hadn't had photos!' I love that at 12, he can't see what is glaringly obvious to me at 49. It gives me hope for his world, especially when we are currently living in such horrible times.

The hole in the middle

Here we all are in 1990. Young, though older than we look, Linda and I are 22, Shona, Sheina and Gillian are 23. That was a great day; we sat our Senior Honours Swedish exam and celebrated with fish suppers from the Philadelphia in Great Western road, eaten straight from the newspaper on the mangy, green carpet in Linda's great Glasgow Street party flat. The accompaniment was Lucozade from plastic cups, though I suspect we moved on to wine later in the evening. Uni was over, we were six weeks away from being able to write MA(Hons) after our names and we vowed to be friends forever. 

And we are, and will be, except we now have a gaping hole in our middle... We didn't know when this photo was taken that one of us was already more than half way through her life.

Sheina was the quiet one, so politely spoken. She was the lady in the group, the one who organised dinner parties for us when we were still arranging piss-ups. That's how she came across to others, but to us she had a wicked sense of humour, especially after a wine or two. If you wanted to get us all talking about our deepest and most intimate thoughts, Sheina was the one who could steer us on to the topic without us even noticing she'd taken us there. She made us laugh and cry. Sheina lacked the self-confidence to realise she was a beautiful person, but we all saw through that. Her death five years ago this week changed us forever. Our annual meet-ups became much more frequent. We see each other many times a year a now. We are a family and will always be there for each other. But there will always be a little unspoken hole at the centre of us all.

How to conker

Ever since I had kids, we've spent October in parks searching among the leaves for conkers... Early
on, when Marcel was two or three I found a tree hidden in a far corner of the Botanics that seemed to have escaped most of the passing schoolchildren so we were always guaranteed to get two or even three there. It was enough to play conkers with, well once at least.

Then I moved in with a Dane. Unlike Scots, Danes don't battle with conkers, they build animals (and more) from them (how civilised!) This posed a problem - try making several animals out of just three conkers. So conker season has always been a bit of a failure, until this year!!!

We went for a walk round a graveyard in September. Much to our surprise the trees had already started dropping their conkers and more to the point, it would appear kids hang about cemeteries much less than they hang in parks(!), so we had no competitors! We left all the damaged ones for the squirrels, but we still amassed a whole bag full. We'll be able to have a major conker animalfest next week when the kids are off for the October week and the rain inevitably leaves us housebound. Woo hoo.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cool boots

Another little souvenir I'd have liked to have brought back from Amsterdam was a pair of boots. These caught my eye in a shop window and if I could have come up with any legitimate way of charging them on company expenses, I swear I'd have come home wearing them! Sadly, I think that would have been a hard one to explain to my accountant. 😥

Souvenirs for intellectual infants :-)

Playmobil and Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum have got together and come up with an adorable way of making art accessible to the tinier amongst us. Amaia was thrilled with her present from Holland but also interested to see the original and ask about it. Well done to them. At less than 5 Euros, I was pleasantly surprised too.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

EU life and Brexit

Where do we stand today, mum? How close are we to knowing whether we'll need to leave?

That's what I was asked this morning on the school run by my 11 year old. There was neither fear, nor excitement in his voice, just resignation as he spends another day playing the waiting game...

I expect Leave voters today fall into two categories; those who just want TM to get on with things and ignore all the media hype and expert warnings about imminent economic collapse, or those who feel they were lied to and misled and may have voted differently, had they known the truth.

I also imagine Remain voters, for the most part fall into two categories; those who are resigned to EU withdrawal and feel vaguely sad and those who go through periods of rage when they scream at Twitter and Facebook (or at the TV or radio) whenever the utter incompetence of the UK government is mentioned. These are probably still hoping against hope that sense will prevail and potentially bring down TM's government before all the EU doctors and uni professors leg it to the first available job on the continent, but in between times they get on with their daily lives, they go to work, they go shopping, they go see a movie or whatever.

But there is one further category; those who didn't vote at all. It wasn't that this third group were disinterested, or busy washing their hair that day. Ironically, those who didn't vote were the most affected by the whole thing. Those are the EU UK residents. This means my family and all of those millions of families like mine across the UK... over three million families to be precise. I voted of course, but my husband couldn't vote, he was disenfranchised. He's been here nearly two decades, he's the director of a UK company, he's the father of UK citizens, but he wasn't permitted a say on his family's future. This third group, unlike the first two, doesn't think about Brexit once a week, or even once a day. It doesn't even think about it every time TM or Boris or one of the others says something stupid. This third group breathes Brexit every minute of every day and has done since June 2016 and let me tell you, it's getting awfully tiring.

My husband's status will change, though no one knows what to. Currently the date for this is March 2019 - though that may be longer if a transition agreement is agreed, or shorter of course, if this crazy dictatorial clause whereby Brexit Day is decided by a government minister without consulting parliament (that the HoC voted for the other night) is fully accepted. The conundrum is this: the day he potentially loses his right to live in the UK coincides exactly with the day I lose my right to free movement and therefore my ability to leave the UK permanently with him. So suddenly there is potentially nowhere where a family like ours (and those other 3 million) can legally live together.

This means we've been placed in a situation where we must look at the current state of affairs and decide if it will be safe to stay here or not. And let me tell you - the shambles that is the UK negotiating team is not giving us much to work with at all. We somehow have to find out in advance that Thomas's rights won't change, despite the fact that we are now seeing on a daily basis that EU citizens are being turned down for loans, mortgages, rental agreements, jobs and more. This, of course, isn't legal (yet) but EU citizens are a risky client now so they are best avoided. My mortgage fixed rate is up for renewal in the summer of 2019. If EU citizens are deemed too risky, I will not be able to renew my mortgage (we will be 15 years into our mortgage at that point) as I cannot pay it alone. It, like most mortgages, is based on two earners. So I could lose my home.

There is also talk about fining companies who employ EU citizens rather than UK ones in future. This, of course, will make my husband unemployable, which again means I will lose my home.

There are many other more complex issues being mooted but let's just work with these two, given how huge they are. Let's work backwards from the official date of March 2019 with these two points. If we deem there to be a possibility that these two things go ahead, the last date an EU family can escape the UK is the middle of March 2019. By that date the EU member needs preferably to have found a job abroad and also have sold their UK home and found somewhere to live abroad, so you can't start thinking about it with two weeks to go. When you have children, disrupting them during a school year is not ideal, so the best time to take them out of school is the holiday before March 2019, so preferably the summer of 2018, (or Christmas at a pinch). Assuming you go for summer 2018 as that gives the kids longer to acclimatise to a new country before starting a new school, your house sale and new EU job need to be in place by June 2018, so realistically you need to start looking for them around January 2018. That gives us EU families just three months to find out what is going to happen and at the moment it looks extremely unlikely that we'll know anything at all in three months time.

So if we know nothing by Christmas this year, we are left with the question: do we sit it out and assume the government will finally come to its senses, negotiate something in the country's interest or even call the whole thing off or do we give up everything we've worked our whole adult lives for, disrupt our kids' schooling by pulling them out of a school we know is good and moving them potentially to a country where they don't even know the language, shatter our family in two (because at the very least Marcel needs to finish uni here, and Charlotte is due to start uni in Sept 2018) and start our lives again at the same time as we hit our late 40s/early 50s? Does this government instil the confidence in you that they'll sort out all the issues on the table, diplomatically by this Xmas? I have my doubts.

And that is why we breathe it every minute of every day. That is why many have started leaving already. If this doesn't get sorted in a more serious manner soon, it will be too late for my family, and for many of the other three million like us.

A trauma-free life

Léon comes across as a laid-back, happy boy. He can run a little bit on nervous energy, but in general things don't seem to get him down too much, all things considered:

  • his mother decided to leave his father when he was less than a year old
  • he has poor eyesight but we didn't discover the problem till he was four, so he couldn't really see properly till then
  • he used to visit his biological father about once a week from his 2nd birthday till his 6th and then he simply vanished from his life
  • when his father stopped seeing him, his French aunt and German grandmother also disappeared from his life
  • six weeks after his mum went freelance (when he was 3), his stepdad was made redundant, so the family's income plummeted drastically
  • his grandpa was diagnosed as terminally ill four weeks after he started primary school, so his mum's mind was elsewhere for the following twenty months (plus)
  • when he was six, his gran had a stroke and lost her ability to speak for several months
All in all that's quite a load for a child who is still only 11. Of course, those are just the negatives, and there are many, many more positives on the other side of the balance. 

Two weeks into high school, the English and Maths departments are still trying to make sure the kids are streamed according to their ability, (they've been put in sets based on the primary work and standardised test results). To check the quality of the pupils in the top three English classes, the teachers decided to set them the task of writing a 'personal reflective' essay, along the lines of the one they'll need to do for Higher in five years time. (See Charlotte's which I mentioned previously). 

Léon came home talking about having to write an essay about something he had experienced which has marked him in some way... Given what both Marcel and Charlotte chose at Higher, I was apprehensive. Léon is definitely way too young to open that can of worms. I asked tentatively if he'd an idea of what he could write about: I dunno, he said, I don't think anything really bad has ever happened to me in my life... I was about to point out that it didn't necessarily have to be something bad, just something that had moved him in some way when he suddenly looked as if a light bulb had come on. I braced myself... I know! Once when I was six and school had just started letting us eat our packed lunches outside, I took out my sandwich, put it on the picnic bench and turned to open my juice, and at that moment a seagull swooped down and stole my sandwich! Do you think that would count as a traumatic experience? Cos I can't think of anything else that's ever really upset me!
What a sweet, innocent and optimistic child he still is! 

At the end of the day he decided to write about this summer as it had been momentous for him to be left behind in Italy and gain a little independence away from his parents for three weeks and his home for five. The teacher was very happy with it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Thomas has decided to challenge the kids with this month's chores chart. Apparently it's the typeface his German grandparents were taught in school. It should be interesting to get their reaction!

Sunrise over a volcano

Nicaragua World Challenge MCHS

I meant to blog a link to this when she came back at the beginning of July, but we left for Italy then and I never got round to it...

Imagine being 17 years and eight months old and already having climbed to the top of a volcano on the other side of the world in complete darkness at 3am, to sit on the top and wait and watch sunrise over four more volcanoes. Imagine then going down and climbing those other four and volcano-boarding down the biggest one, Cerro negro, which last erupted the year before you were born...

One of the most difficult things I find with parenting teenagers is the sheer amount of envy you have to control deep within yourself, when you see their freedom and what's on offer these days. I was thrilled with a week in Switzerland (on a bus) on a geography trip as my high school experience (and I didn't even do geography!), now both my kids have gone to the other side of the world to do charity work and I'm practically glowing green. I don't envy them what awaits them after uni, of course, the world is so much more depressing than it was in my 20s, but as a traveller, I would kill to hide away in their rucksacks at times.

Charlotte came back with wonderful tales of another world. She taught in crowded outdoor classrooms where kids sat at desks combined with chairs but always with one eye on the sky as the daily torrential downpour meant they needed to be ready to run for their lives in the middle of a lesson, though being kids some were tempted simply to dance in the refreshing rain. Kids as young as seven could be under cover in less than thirty seconds with all their belongings when they needed to be. She described them as curious and desperate to learn all she could teach them. She told us of them crowding round her wanting to touch her hair as they were all much darker than her.

She also spent a few nights sleeping on the floor of semi-derelict classrooms, none of which had or needed windows, under mosquito nets and spending the days painting and restoring them. She got quite acquainted with the Nicaraguan flag as all school buildings have to be painted in the country's colours!

She showed us photos of the wildlife; things I've never even seen in a zoo. They simply walked past her in the more dense jungle areas: tiny frogs, coloured birds, monkeys, sloths and snakes. We've had pet hamsters since Charlotte was 13 and she's never picked one of them up yet - for as long as I can remember Charlotte has never liked animals with fur (yes, I know that rules out a few!) but she used to ask for terrapins, tortoises, snakes and the likes when she was little, so I'm surprised this itsy bitsy frog didn't make it home in her luggage!

She told us of the amazing food, proud that she was the only one in her group not to get an upset stomach! But most of all she told me that she'll keep in touch with her school and go back one day to see how they are doing. Then she turned to the three wee ones and said 'One day, I'll take you there', and for now at least, she really means it! Her world is much bigger now.

I'll leave you with this cute conversation I overheard when Charlotte was taking Amaia through her photos:
'Lotsie, see when people go volcano-boarding?'
'Do they shut the volcano while people are doing it? I mean, like, do they turn it off!?'

And here are her photos if anyone wonders what Nicaragua is like.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Beware of sepsis

It's only Wednesday today. It feels like three weeks on Friday...

It started at the beginning of last week. Charlotte casually asked me about 10 days ago if she should be worried if her pee was darker and smellier than usual. I asked if it hurt to pee, thinking she possibly had a urinary tract infection. She said no and had no other symptoms so we thought nothing more about it. Eight days ago I asked her in the passing if that had cleared up and she said she felt it had improved a little but not altogether disappeared so I phoned the GP while she was at school and arranged a phone consultation for 4pm. I fully expected they'd tell us to bring up a sample and that they'd check that. Unfortunately Léon managed to forget his PE kit in his Maths class that day and when got home at 4:03, we'd missed the call and last GP consultation of the day. Charlotte said it wasn't a problem as it was more or less back to normal anyway.

On Wednesday she was fine. On Thursday she was complaining of a backache and searching her memory for when she could have pulled a muscle. There were no longer any signs of problems with her pee so we didn't instantly connect the two. She also had a slight cold. I asked on Thursday if it could be a pain in her kidney rather than her back as I often get kidney pain when I'm under the weather. She considered it a possibility and decided to see the GP if it got worse.

Friday, she wasn't overly sore but Saturday she complained her back pain was worse and coming through to the front. I phoned the Out-of-hours GP service on NHS24 and was told to give her paracetamol and see our own GP first thing on Monday when it reopened. She wasn't in any way distressed, had no temperature, was eating normally and showing no other symptoms so we weren't overly worried.

On Sunday at lunchtime I shouted her to come and eat. It is completely normal not to see Lots before Sunday lunch! She didn't come down. I went up. She was burning hot and soaked in sweat. I phoned the Out-of hours again and told them I needed an appointment. I bundled her into the car and drove to the Victoria Infirmary. I then discovered that the second Sunday after schools go back is a bad day to go to Out of Hours... every 5-7 year old in Glasgow seemed to be in there, all accompanied by their younger siblings. I even knew two other people in the queue! After two hours we were seen by a woman GP (whose name I wish I had noted down, so I could thank her now). I fully expected a 5 minute consultation and a prescription for amoxicillin. She discovered Charlotte's temperature was 40 degrees, her heart rate was up at 160, her blood pressure was at 90/60, her pee was full of blood and she was retaining fluid. She said she needed to be hospitalized as a sepsis risk and advised me to drive her straight to A&E at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. She told me to wait outside while she rang ahead and prepared a letter for them of her findings. She then had second thoughts and told me as Charlotte could be as close as five hours from developing sepsis, she didn't want us waiting in A&E so called an ambulance to drive her between the two hospitals, telling me to abandon my car. She was dragged out, hooked up to a heart monitor and driven across Glasgow. The QEUH had her hooked up to intravenous antibiotics and fluids within the hour.

Charlotte is 17, nearly 18. In Scotland that makes her a legal adult, so it also means she was transferred to the adult hospital, not the sick kids' hospital next door to the QEUH. That meant I was only allowed to stay for visiting hours rather than overnight as you would be with a child. I couldn't go with her for kidney scans or blood tests, etc. Leaving your child hooked up to intravenous antibiotics and fluids while they shiver and shake uncontrollably is extremely difficult. Sleeping with your phone on and beside your pillow, so as not to miss any emergency calls is also hard. By Tuesday morning, I was convinced it was about Friday. I had driven in and out to Govan a dozen times in just three days, taking various worried siblings to see her.

On Monday morning she was taken for a kidney scan and that night she was deemed out of danger and moved upstairs, to a room with the best view in the whole hospital of the helipad! By then her fever had disappeared enough that she was getting seriously bored with the lack of things to do and with the food!

Last night they agreed she could move onto oral antibiotics and go home, on condition she came in for blood tests as an outpatient till her infection levels dropped to a nil. They had dropped considerably but not to the level they had been hoping for. So we'll be back again tomorrow. Here's hoping she's well by then.

I think the biggest shock for me in the whole thing was that she went from not having a fever to being considered an imminent sepsis risk in less than 12 hours. It really is terrifying.

This, by the way, is my second encounter with the QEUH in as many months. I am very impressed with the speed, friendliness and competence in there, (though not the food, lol!). I know everyone jokes about the 'death star' but sorry, anyone who saves my child's life is all right in my books.

Sheer joy

I think this is my favourite photo from this year's holiday. Amaia had been given a rather old photo so she could take photos and she was very impressed with the sunflower field outside Poppi. I love the looks on both her sisters' faces as she lines it up. I like it best, not because it captures a nice view, but because it captures the love, happiness and patience of two big sisters pleasing the youngest one.

Monday, August 28, 2017


It's been a long time since any of our kids crawled into our bed during the night, probably 5 years or more. Friday night, something upset Amaia (I suspect Roald Dahl is to blame as we're reading Witches together at the moment and it seems to be scaring her witless!) So around 2am she crawled in between Thomas and me. I didn't wake up so hadn't noticed. I got quite a fright when I felt fleece under the duvet (Thomas doesn't tend to wear a fleece onesie to bed!)

At that point she also started to stir, she reached one hand out and touched Thomas's head, then started to feel in my direction. As she realized she was between us, she nearly jumped out her skin and exclaimed - 'Woah, what are you two doing in my bed?' Hahaha

Here's Amaia in her bed - did she really, genuinely think all three of use could fit in there?!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Qualifying for the absurd

As I mentioned in the passing last week when I was discussing Lots's exam result, there has been a change in our financial circumstances. At the time, we had not been informed of any change by the child maintenance department, we simply had noticed that our bank account was rather on the light side and had telephoned them to see if they had any inkling why. Their unofficial reply then resulted in the cancellation of my planned trip to buy the kids their new school uniforms a few days before school went back. They told me that as soon as they had the official paperwork, I would be sent an explanation. So here's an excerpt from this morning's letter. 

It just struck me as a bizarre concept altogether...

Let's analyse it. A child's father 'qualifies for the nil rate of child maintenance'. It goes on to list what can qualify a person for this rate - having no job, being a child themselves, living in a care home, working abroad for a non-UK-based employer (and various other options for 16 and 17 year olds). So although an absent parent earns a living and has a job they no longer need to give any financial contribution towards their children. They basically earn the right to be absolved of all financial responsibility for them by moving abroad. I'm not sure I understand how that is possible. If I lose my job tomorrow and find myself homeless, I am still financially responsible for them, the person with custody never gets that opt out. If I decide to move abroad tomorrow, I still have to feed and clothe them. How can any parent ever qualify for the nil rate of child maintenance? Children are your responsibility from the day you have them till the day you die, not even simply until they turn 18 (or 25, or whatever arbitrary cut off point is put on it.) 

I presume they are assuming parents who move to good jobs abroad will feel morally obliged to not let their kids go hungry or without clothes and I hope that is generally the case but the wording that a parent can ever qualify for a nil rate of maintenance towards their child blows my mind. If I was homeless and hungry, I would still see to it that my kids were fed before me. I would never ever feel I qualified for a nil rate of responsibility towards them, no matter how old they are.

This notion is simply absurd to me.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Family words

Every family has its own made-up words. For instance, we Buchanans all call a digger a jalt. This came from an encounter I had at three with a digger being used in my neighbour's garden - I was convinced it was going to dig up the lettuce patch at the back of my garden and wanted to alert my parents to the strange and dangerous beast, but lacking the vocabulary, I rushed in and announced in a panicked tone that a jalt was trying to eat our plants.

I suspect tonight's cooking quote from Amaia might have spawned a new family word, and if it hasn't entered our vocabulary yet, I'm going to try my damnedest to get it to.

I asked her to help Anna make dinner and this is what she came out with: I'm trying to wash this mushroom but I just can't seem to get it to undirtify!

It's brilliant, isn't it? I think it's one my dad would have loved. I remember how fond he was of Charlotte's yestertime . He used it whenever he could.

What's the obsession?

I went (once again) to Italy on holiday. Thomas's family lives there so it is our most common destination. As always, straight off the plane I skipped along looking out for vintage Fiat 500s (aka ancient Chuggies, in family speak) and had to stop every time I saw a vast expanse of sunflowers.

Then one day a week or two in, Léon asked the question 'What is your obsession with sunflowers and Chuggies, mum? They are just flowers and cars!' - you can imagine his tone, eleven going on fifteen, deep, newly broken voice oozing a mixture of contempt and boredom! I hadn't really thought about it before, I'd simply always spent my holidays in Italy seeking these two things out... So I lay in bed that night and thought it over - why chuggies and sunflowers?

I hadn't realized till then what an absolutely huge question it actually was.

Let me go over  my encounters with Italy. In 1981, my family went abroad for the first (and only) time in my childhood. We drove to the south of France and used a friend's caravan. Two weeks later we drove back. Our trip there went Glasgow, London, Ramsgate-Calais (on a hovercraft no less!), St Omer, Fontainebleau, Lyon, Aix, to Le Lavandou and the return took me along the coast to Ventimiglia, then Turin, Aosta, through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel to Geneva then a day in Paris and a drive home. I still remember the entire route as it was magical to me. I had dreamt of going abroad so long that when I did (at 13) I took in every sound, every language, the name of every town, the food, the smells, the heat, the dust, everything. I had found my raison d'être. Between that trip and my 18th birthday, I spent a total of 4 weeks abroad - one visiting a German couple I knew, one on a school trip and two meeting my French boyfriend's family. None was spent alone.

Then came the summer of 1986. I was 18 years old. I had worked extra hard in my first year at uni to come top of the Italian class. I wanted to come top because I had heard a rumour that the top student was offered a bursary by the Italian government to study at Perugia uni for the summer. There was no way I could have afforded to go to Italy, pay a room, university fees and food for a summer in Italy but if I just worked hard enough and consistently enough, I knew I was in with a chance. I won the scholarship - but for me it wasn't just a scholarship to learn Italian, it was a scholarship to freedom, to independence, to adventure, to becoming me. I won the money to allow me to leave home for the first time, to have my own flat in an ancient stone building in Perugia, in a house with quaint little red roof tiles and a window I could stare out of at life in a foreign city.  I watched out of my window in Perugia's narrow Via della Viola as the little three-wheeled trucks made their deliveries and the ancient Fiat 500s zoomed past. Of course, they weren't so ancient then - they were old and battered but almost everyone seemed to have one as they were amongst the only cars that could fit up the narrow alleyways.

During these weeks, I studied and I watched the Chuggies from my window. I experienced living alone for the first time, I had my own place, I shared with two Austrian boys. I felt like a grown-up for the first time, doing grown-up things in my own place, alone with my own front door key. All I had was a table, two chairs and a single bed but I can still smell that room if I close my eyes; it was cool, with a marble floor, it was high up in the building but so noisy with the voices of international students passing to go to uni, it vibrated with the low hum vespas and chuggies. It smelled of dry and dusty Italian summer. It smelled of the breathless summer in a city. I remember being 18, lying naked on top of my sheets desperately and unsuccessfully trying to find some cool in the evening breeze to bring me air to breathe, and loving it. I hadn't won a scholarship, I had won the lottery, I had won my life.

The first time I walked into Perugia uni for a class, my jaw dropped in shock - I felt like I'd walked into a Michelangelo painting - frescos on the ceiling and walls - everywhere I looked and many languages around me. There were voices from everywhere in the world, or so it seemed. We had to communicate together in Italian as it was the only common language. I remember in one of the first classes we were asked to describe the seasons in our own country. A black girl sitting beside me said there were no seasons where she came from. Perugia for me was an orgasmic coming of age in the most international place I had ever been and in one of the most beautiful cities I had ever seen. I was growing up and becoming me. I was becoming the me who needed to be surrounded by multiple languages and nationalities always. I was learning to love the south and the heat and the smells in the air of herbs and dried grass and the endless fields of sunflowers that stretched before my eyes every time I set foot in a train to go anywhere from Perugia. The photographer in me walked daily to the edge of the city to wander alone amongst the sunflowers and the bees. I was fascinated by them all standing there in lines, to attention, untouched by wind and rain. The vibrancy that met my eyes overwhelmed me. It still does.

So, Léon, when I run about at a few months off 50 stopping to breathe in the beauty of the sunflowers, I am 18 again and on the edge of a new beginning. When I hear an old Chuggy, I have my whole life ahead of me. I am in a new place at the start of the adventure that would become my life. Going to Perugia made me the woman who had to marry a foreigner, who had to speak multiple languages at home and sunflowers and Chuggies are the very embodiment of 18 year old me. So, love me or leave me, as long as there is a breath in my body, I will hunt out the last remaining Chuggy in Italy and the most vibrant sunflower field I can find.

And one day when I'm dead and buried I hope the sight of a chuggy or a sunflower will make you stop and think about me for a minute. Maybe you'll turn to Léon junior at that moment and say: You know what son? Let me tell you how crazy your grandmother was...

A different view of my capital

I swear you hear the oddest things at times. There I was yesterday sitting on a bench in Princes st. A middle-aged woman with a strong northern English accent sat down beside me. I was quietly munching on a sandwich when she took out her phone. Her side of the conversation went like this: "hello love... yes, that's me arrived in Edinburgh... First time, uh, huh! ...To be honest it looks a lot like Preston!"

(Oops, did I just spit out my lunch?)

Somehow, I've been done

My table is getting a bit old and done, but buying a new one is a bit beyond my means. On holiday in Italy, several cafés we went into had vinyl table cloths with coffee beans on them. I decided I'd look for one. On the day we went to Montevarchi market, there was one on sale at just 7 Euros - perfect. We bought a 2 metre chunk and brought it home. We didn't open it till we got home... why would we? - you don't use a table cloth on holiday! Now I've unrolled it, I think I've worked out why it was only 7 Euros. I guess it's unique, you could say it has a certain charm. Maybe it'll come in useful for... I dunno... lying on my back on it taking selfies?! (No, innuendo please!) Oh well, why not?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A holiday surprise

I'm just catching up on some things I meant to post in the summer...

This year we went over to visit Thomas's parents in Tuscany. Marcel had an internship job all summer working for Lloyds banking group so couldn't join us on our family holiday. The little ones were quite upset, especially as they don't see him much term time when he is living in Edinburgh. One night, a few weeks before we left he came to Thomas and me to tell us that he had managed to get three days off and if he could tack it onto a weekend, he'd love to fly over and surprise them. Marcel is often full of great plans, many more than a human can actually execute so I figured it would prove impossible given the timing of flights and the fact that Brita and Peter are quite remote from any airports, but I didn't count on his determination. By leaving from Edinburgh, he worked out he could be in Rome by 10am on a Weds morning and by flying home via East Midlands, he could leave late on the Sunday, so he managed it and we managed to keep his secret, even from the big wee ones.

On the Wednesday I suggested a day trip to Arezzo to 'find something we could take home' for Marcel's birthday, not mentioning it would actually be Marcel we'd be taking home. There were some moans as it was a particularly hot day (in the high 30s) but we managed to drag all four into Arezzo, where we'd prearranged Marcel would simply walk up to them in the main square. I pretended to take photos with my phone while Anna had a break for some water and Lots and Léon watched some Wimbledon on Charlotte's phone. Anna was first to notice who was walking towards them...

Isn't that sweet?! They were all so thrilled and much fun was had together...

Fond memories

From '79 to '85 I went to Eastwood High School. Times were a tad less exotic than today and our annual school trip at the end of June for all years was a bus to Irvine's Magnum centre. Depending on your age you were told a time when you were allowed on the ice rink and in the pool and for the rest of the day you could use the other sporting facilities, wander along the beach or into Irvine town (where people seemed to return every year with goldfish in bags, so maybe there was a fair or something in town - I never got beyond the ice rink.) 

So it was a bit sad to see that it was being demolished the other week when I took Charlotte on her Irvine trip - end of an era. I so fondly remember the convoy of buses going down the A77, best day of the year - every year.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Finances and rewards

When Charlotte scored her six A grade Highers (English, Maths, Chemistry, History, Spanish and French), I asked her how she wanted to celebrate. Obviously the norm around here is a slap-up meal, driving lessons and a brand new car with a ribbon round it, but she was au fait with our family's latest tiny financial drama... (her estranged father has decided to brexit off out of the country (I don't blame him one bit on that front - I'd have left too if I didn't have the sole responsibility for a bunch of kids I had with him who are being educated here - grrr!)).

The child maintenance service had rung me the day before her exam results to notify me that as he had left the country, they would be closing our case with no notice as they have no authority to force a foreign national living abroad to give me any maintenance payments at all - gulp. The good news was that there is a reciprocal agreement between the UK and France on child maintenance (phew), the bad was that I'd need to take him to court to enforce it (sob)...

Under Scottish law he is liable to provide Marcel with maintenance till he leaves uni and Marcel has just spent over 2 years fighting him through the Scottish legal system (completely unsuccessfully) to enforce it. He runs round and round on the same loop... His dad's lawyer says he's only willing to pay if Marcel works to provide a little for himself too - fair enough - so he gets a job and his dad's lawyer says he is rich enough to pay for himself now so needs no maintenance, he gives up the job, he says he's not trying, he gets a job - yip you guessed it!

So Marcel is desperately trying to do an Honours degree in Law while also working a 20hr week and doing compulsory voluntary work (as part of a scholarship). His room (not his flat, his room!) costs a whopping £550 a month and he has to pay all that himself while all his flatmates have their parents pay between 80 and 100% of their rent. It's hard to express the level of frustration it brings me, knowing Marcel is trying to do well so he can have a great career, while the playing field is far from level. Last year he had five flatmates - four didn't work at all and concentrated only on their studies, one had a one day a week job, Marcel worked all weekend every weekend and from 4-8pm two nights a week, fitting his studies in as best he could, and he even did really well. I'm sure he will succeed as he is a determined boy... man, even, but I can't imagine this is great for his mental well being. He's had to grow up and support himself way too young. Till now Thomas and I have been sending him all his food money at least as a help but now we've no maintenance, Marcel will have to bear the brunt of that too, I suspect.

So back to Charlotte. Being a sweet soul, she asked for a 99 at the beach and a walk up to the Irvine dragon. We had a lovely day out - me and the three girls. Well, more accurately they had a lovely day, while I felt guilt and inadequacy mixed in with my bursting pride at her astounding achievement. Even in a high-achieving school she was one of only 3 kids (out of 250) to sit six Highers. And she worked her socks off to get there. She didn't even seem to be upset at her beach trip and ice cream.

Anyway, we'll see how this pans out now. If it turns out we need to move because of the cut in income, that could ironically be the brexit straw that breaks our back too. Maybe we'll be forced to move to France and make a claim there!

Back to school 2017 - the turning point

We went 'back to school' yesterday so I dragged the kids out for the obligatory official photoshoot. I had simply intended to write under it August 2017: Amaia p3, Anna p6, Léon s1, Charlotte s6, Marcel (about to be u3) but still working in Glasgow and Edinburgh on his summer internship.

Without realizing at the time though, I captured a wonderful moment, a turning point in my family:

They lined up naturally and I took a photo (which wasn't great because Marcel closed his eyes)...

Then Charlotte noticed they were not standing in the correct order of ages (which they do for school photos, though not in general), so she tried to physically move Léon down the line, by pulling him while the girls looked on to see what the problem was...

Léon stood his ground and pointed out that the school photo was done in age order because of height and now that he had noticeably overtaken her, he would be staying in his rightful position in the line as number two! Charlotte laughed it off and gave in much more gracefully than I had expected! I wonder when the next change in rank will occur?!

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Scottish Coke

When I was a child in the early 70s, growing up in the rather posh Glaswegian suburb of Newton Mearns, we called any carbonated soft drink lemonade - orangeade was a type of lemonade, as was cola. We didn't call them Fanta and and Coke back then. Mum's best friend was bringing her daughter up in the slightly less leafy Glasgow suburb of Glasgow - Castlemilk. Heather and I were the same age. When we entered the chippie at Heather's house I soon learnt that asking for 'orange lemonade' provoked howls of laughter and queries of 'Is this your cousin the snob?' After flooring them on several occasions, I learnt you had to ask for a 'bottle of ginger' and you sure as hell, didn't pronounce the double 't' if you wanted to survive it out the shop alive! I also quickly understood that just as lemonade was a no-no there, mentioning ginger back home made my teachers' eye brows rise and their lips curl in disgust. Newton Mearns back then was a great place to have the Scottish cringe beaten into you (sometimes literally). Gladly, my kids are now less self-conscious here, it is ok to be Scottish now, and they even learn Scots songs and poems at school.

Yesterday I was shopping in ASDA. They had these on special at the checkout. It made me laugh out loud and I just had to buy it for obvious reasons - I expect it tastes bloody awful, but it made me smile anyway!