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!

Friday, August 04, 2017


Phyllis the photographer

Anna and Amaia were lying in bed lasting night singing along to Lady Gaga's Paprazzi together. Suddenly Amaia stopped and asked 'Mum, what's a paparazzi, anyway?' Before expanding into Italian grammatical plural explanations and the finer nuances of the word, I simply said 'Well, it's a kind of photographer who...', to which Amaia replied, 'So you're like our family paparazzi, then?' I suspect my older kids might even agree with that definition (if I put it into the singular, anyway!)