Friday, September 18, 2020


I used to drink my coffee black - when I was a kid that was. It was probably because my mum drank it black so didn't think to put any milk in mine when she first introduced me to instant coffee in the 80s. All through uni my entire friend group were all '237's on the vending machine - well except for one weirdo who didn't (and still doesn't) drink coffee of any colour (we love you all the same Gillian 😁). 

By our mid-thirties, we'd all moved on to white - maybe our old intestines just couldn't keep up with the straight paint-stripper caffeine. 

This year on my birthday, I woke up and wondered if my aging insides might not feel better with no caffeine at all. I was only ever a two cups a day girl, but still, I thought it couldn't hurt to try decaff for a week. I had an old jar lying around that I used to use for my decaff friends back home so I tried that. For two days I had a blinder of a headache. I thought the reaction was completely over the top given I really didn't drink much coffee, but it worried me all the same, so once I'd come through the other side of the cold turkey, I decided to stick with it. 

And what a pain that is turning out to be. Decaff is everywhere in the UK, has been for decades, Italy was the same when we were down there in the summer. Like me it is the taste they are after, not the drugs, but Denmark is a complete pain in the backside. Danish supermarkets are notoriously poorly stocked. It might be different in central Copenhagen, but where I live there are only two supermarkets that stock it (out of more than ten within 15 minutes drive) and each of those has a choice of one (over-priced) brand, when it is (occasionally) in stock. Worse still, cafés think you're insane if you even suggest it. I tried three different ones in Copenhagen airport on Wednesday and they just looked at me as if I'd asked if they happened to stock green and purple stripy hairless cats for human consumption.

I'm not missing that lull in the afternoon when I need a coffee, I'm no longer in need of a caffeine fix but I hope at some point Denmark will catch up with the notion that coffee without caffeine can be a nice addition to the menu too, and not some weird health food item you need to buy off the Internet for home consumption only.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Scotland feels odd

I was over in Scotland for four days - for the first time since February. So this was the first time I have been over to experience the effects of Covid and the run-up to what is increasingly likely to be a no-deal Brexit. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it was an interesting experience.

Simultaneously it looks like things are still completely normal and as if things are changing, ever so subtly.

I touched down in Edinburgh as all the cheap flights to Denmark leave from there. A 6-15pm arrival meant grabbing a bite to eat before jumping on the intercity coach, but I knew that would be fine as there is a large M&S Food at the arrivals gate and various other smaller shops... except it wasn't ok as they were all boarded up with signs saying the falling passenger numbers made it pointless to open at the moment. The rest of the shops were also closed. Finally we found the Costa was braving the pandemic so they rustled us up two toasties to go. On departure on Sunday, things were more open behind the departure gate, with about 50% of the shops open, but still I couldn't help but wonder how long Edinburgh airport (or presumably any other UK airport) will be able to weather the Covid storm without passengers. And even if the Covid threat goes away, passenger numbers are unlikely to reach previous norms with a falling pound, rising unemployment and the knock-on effects of the UK becoming a rogue, pariah state. And fewer flights and fewer airports will inevitably lead to the UK becoming even more isolated and insular than its current unrecognisable standpoint.

So Charlotte and I jumped on the bus - this was newish experience as I almost always hire a car, but given one of the main reasons for my visit was to sell our old car, I didn't need two while I was in Glasgow. This was the second company that worried me. The coach had around 60 seats and shuttles between Glasgow Buchanan bus station and Edinburgh airport in both directions every half hour between around 4am and midnight. There were three people on to coach to Glasgow other than us two. On the way back on Sunday at 5pm there was one. And given the driver has to be in Edinburgh in case anyone wants to take the return leg, he must have to drive it through even if no one shows up for the outward one. I couldn't help but wonder how close this company must also be to liquidation.

Thomas and the kids couldn't come this time as it wasn't holiday season, so I had been given a list much longer than my arm of what they needed from back home. Some of the items were Scottish things they were missing like Scottish crumpets and potato scones. Of course, we make our own in Denmark, but they aren't the same. Other items were specific brands we haven't found here. Thomas likes an oil-based shower gel and the closest we have found here dries his skin out. He also had a medium-sized list of newly published political books that he would rather I picked up than he had to pay the postage on. Finally all the kids had asked for some clothes for school - general underwear and then some specifics.

Given the books were all fairly new, I figured I was best going to the largest bookshop I could find in Glasgow. However, only one of the books was in stock - the rest would have needed to have been ordered in and therefore would have arrived too late for me. I guess people are buying their books online even more than before so Waterstones is probably about to be another 'To Let' sign on the high street, and those signs have definitely increased since my last visit.

Thomas tends to wear M&S shirts to work. He asked me to get a few of the warmer cotton long-sleeved ones just like those I had bought for him last November when there had been four different designs. I tried Sauchiehall street and Silverburn but although there was a selection of maybe four or five different long-sleeved models, there were none of the warmer winter ones he's used to buying and no gap on the shelf to indicate they'd sold out. Maybe there was an issue with supply? 

I proceeded downstairs to get myself and Anna new bras and again was confronted by a supply problem. There were numerous bras but very few in either her size or mine (and we take completely average sizes). Oh well, at least I could pick myself up a couple of those really soft cotton nighties I usually buy in M&S every two or three years. Last time I bought two was when I was going into hospital in November 2018. I had a choice back then between three or four colours in plain, two patterned, one with long sleeves and one almost down to my ankles. I remember trying three sizes - mine and one above and below to see which felt best. This time there were two models - one plain, one with stars - I could have the one remaining size 8, two size 22s or the one size 24. So, again, it seemed to me the selection was greatly reduced and the supply of average sizes completely missing. So no nighties either😒

This pattern repeated itself several times. The kids have been buying their underwear in Primark since they were born. There's nothing Amaia likes better than looking at all the different pants and socks and mulling over whether to have days of the week, llamas, stars, colours etc This time for age ten I could have white pants or pink pants and nothing else. And I could have plain socks or stripy socks in her size. For Anna, who is adult size, the selection was even smaller - she could have white socks, full stop.  So yes, it served the purpose but the selection was entirely gone. They had also asked me to see if there was anything they might like to wear to school. I found nothing between Primark, M&S and Asda that jumped out at me. Usually I struggle to contain them in these shops but not this time.

The final item on my 'to-get' list was a spare double duvet cover for Marcel and Charlotte's rooms. Danish double duvets are bigger (because Danes are bigger) so the duvet covers here don't fit my Scottish 200x200s. I tried my usual haunts for those and although every place had two or three, very few had anything that would go with my colour schemes (which are not outrageous - a yellow room and a terra cotta room). Between the five shops I tried it came down to a choice of one grey one!

I mentioned this to a Scottish friend (who I was chatting to online). Despite being my mother's neighbour, she couldn't meet up with me for coffee because of the new Corona restrictions😢 (next time Lynne!). She's a keen golfer and said her favourite gold shop is also being hit by supply chain issues already.

Finally, I went on the big grocery hunt for my greedy ex-pats. Things I take for granted were much diminished - eg Asda now seems to have mild chorizo or nothing - no extra special, no extra spicy (which I'd been sent for). Their selection of vitamins and shower gels was also smaller than usual. Maybe everyone has simply switched to shopping online instead of in person but the wonderful selection I am used to in Scotland is definitely getting smaller. 

A further issue I came across was the lack of adapting to the new norm. I nipped into Matalan, desperately trying to find Anna the bras that had been missing in M&S, only to be confronted by the biggest unsold and unreduced selection of suitcases I have ever seen in my life. Of course, when they ordered them in back in the winter maybe they didn't see the holiday market falling of a cliff but they aren't trying anything to shift them to make space for something they could sell instead. Home Bargains was the same... they had two aisles dedicated to travel and two to Halloween costumes, decorations and sweets - I can't imaging guising is going to be particularly big this year! Going in to strangers' houses to delve into a communal bowl of goodies - I think not!

Anyway, I'm not trying to draw any conclusions yet - it could be Covid, though our shops haven't changed significantly because of it, it could be a supply chain issue, it could be Brexit. It is all very subtle and I suspect if I was still living there, I might not even have noticed if one item dropped out every other week or if the selection just became narrower, it is simply more obvious to me because Covid has meant that I was away for almost seven months rather than my usual 6-8 weeks.

It will be interesting to watch the next few weeks and months to see what happens. With Covid on the rise again and chaotic no-deal looming, I could be stuck here till after the new year and if I am, it will be very interesting to compare this blogpost to one I write after my next visit.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Wee stripy pests

I swear there are so many of these nasty we buggers on my pear tree at the moment I might start referring to it as my pear byke.

I've been trying to count the bums in this photo, that I was brave enough to take yesterday, and I'm up at about twenty.

Next year I'm setting my calendar to remind me to go and pick them all at least two weeks earlier than this. They'll not get me this way again.


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Assistantships again

I mentioned we'd been talking about Charlotte's (and my) assistantship recently. 

She always knew I'd been to France to do that in the 80s and having had foreign language assistants in her high school, she knew what it entailed, but it wasn't really until a few weeks ago that she asked me more about that year and I thought back to it in any detail.

One question that brought back floods of memories was 'What was it like when you arrived?' I can guarantee she was not prepared for the answer to that. When I think back on it now, I think I was a bit taken aback by the whole thing too, so I am not sure I ever really mentioned it to anyone, probably not even André...

I was assigned a tiny little town in the Vosges. I'd never been to the Vosges and I'd never heard of Bruyères. A quick check in the local library informed me only that it was a little town of about 4000 inhabitants that lived mainly from forestry commission work. But this was pre-Internet so the encyclopedia didn't say much more. My parents happened to be holidaying in France that summer (I was home alone, cat-sitting) so they swung by to check it out and came back laughing - telling me I'd struggle to find it, it was so small and boring, especially with us being used to Glasgow - the biggest city in Scotland.

So I arrived the first week of October 1987. To UK readers that is possibly meaningless, but to French readers of my age group and older, it might ring the odd bell. I arrived in this sleepy little hamlet-sized place in the back of beyond but it was far from sleepy. There was only one street with shops, but it was crowded. The main square was crammed full of vans, each one with a larger satellite dish on the back than the next. There were vans marked TF1, France 2 and more - every conceivable channel, even some close international ones. Press were swarming everywhere, microphones were being thrust in every direction but this was no joyous event. There was a sinister, oppressive feel to it all. There was a lot of whispering, pointing, huddles of people. The vans were even staked out in front of the collège where I was to be a teacher. 

At first the German assistant and I had no idea what it was all about. We sat in our little flat looking out across the Vologne river that meandered beautifully along the edge of our view. We thought it was quaint, endearing even but we had no idea of the infamous nature of the Vologne. 

After a few weeks, the reality of what was going on hit us like a tonne of bricks. His face was on every newspaper. I can still see it now, as I did then, le petit Grégory. A child had been brutally murdered three years, almost to the day, earlier in the next village, a couple of kilometres away. His family were suspected of tying him up and throwing him, alive, into the Vologne. He was four years old. It had become the most infamous case in France in the interim and was still unresolved. The first week of October 1987, a new judge had been put in charge of the case and had decided to hold a reconstruction of the murder that week. One of the accused's presumed accomplices was a young female cousin of the dead boy and a pupil at my school. 

While discussing this start to my year abroad, Charlotte was scrolling through Netflix when suddenly, I saw his face. I couldn't believe the coincidence. Netflix has just put out a mini documentary series about the case called Who killed little Grégory. So we watched it together over the next few days. I felt like I was back in that beautiful, yet oppressively sinister place all over again. Everyone who lived there then feels tied to that case in some small way and probably always will. Friedrun (the German assistant) and I were to become part of it too, along with all the other members of those close-knit villages vosgiens. It became our home and we loved it dearly but at the same time it would always have a dark undercurrent you felt you needed to escape. 

A hat-trick

For the third night in a row, we've had another classic from Léon! Doughb' is on a roll! So tonight is was Amaia's turn to be on the receiving end... The conversation went kinda like this:

Amaia: I'm not really looking forward to my school photo tomorrow. We've been told they're doing my class first. We're getting the individual shots and the class one both at quarter past eight in the morning. I've picked out my lovely yellow suit that Großvater bought me but I'm afraid I'm going to look half asleep at that time.

Léon: I can make you a coffee at 7-15 when I'm making mine if that would help?

Amaia: That's nice of you but I don't really like coffee yet Léon.

Léon: Well, couldn't you just rub it into your skin and maybe you'd still look more awake once the caffeine has seeped in?

Well that's a first for me - caffeine face wash - maybe it'll catch on, especially amongst ten year olds who want to look more awake first thing on a Monday morning! It must be truly fascinating to live in that boy's head at times!

Friday, September 04, 2020

Once a space cadet, always...

Léon got his glasses the first month of p1. He was five years old. I still remember sending in a note with him explaining we'd just found out he was really long-sighted and had been struggling for the first month at school to focus on his books and the board, but all was now well as we'd got to the root of the problem. His teacher was an adorable, lovely young woman - Miss David. She was one of those cuddly, loving, caring infant school teachers. A few months later, once she'd got to know him better and she had patently forgotten that he had originally been spec-free, she stopped me one night as I was picking him up, 'Miss Buchanan, can I have a word? Oh, god, I thought, what's he done... 'I just wanted to ask - can you remind us - em - was it his eyesight or his hearing that you said Léon had a problem with? It's just, we're not always sure he fully hears what we ask him!'  I assured her it was definitely just his eyesight and she wandered off looking somewhat embarrassed

Ten years on and he's still a bit of a dreamer. And he isn't in the slightest nosy. We can sit round the dining table discussing something for half an hour and unless you actually ask him to pay attention, he can completely filter it out if something else is on his mind. The others can't help but hear it, but Léon can be thinking about his favourite sport, or his music, some meme he's read on the internet or whatever 15 year old boys think of with no knowledge of the conversation taking place around him. 

Often when we ask him to do something, he hears half of what you say and figures whatever he has understood is enough to be getting on with. So I can say at 2pm 'Léon can you make me a coffee for 5pm, that's when I'll be in from town' and I come home to a cold coffee that has obviously been made at 2pm! It can be frustrating, endearing, and even amusing at times. His siblings call him 'doughb', (short for doughball and he doesn't seem to mind). How he does ok at school is beyond me - maybe they are just more interesting and good at holding his attention than us.

So, why this story?

Here's a picture of our hall and Léon's bedroom door:

And here is a view from outside the house:

When Thomas pointed out to Léon yesterday that although the weather was still reasonable, we wouldn't be needing the parasol again this year so could he take it down and put it just outside his room so it could be stored in the loft till next spring, what would you have taken that to mean? Léon's interpretation has had Charlotte creased up with laughter most of this evening.


Thursday, September 03, 2020

Léon logic

Me : Léon, why are you wearing your Partick Thistle scarf? 

Léon: Well, I'm watching the Spain Germany match and my German football top is in the wash so this was the closest thing I could find. 

Hahaha. Never thought I'd ever hear Partick described as 'the closest thing to the German national team' 😂

Slavic supermarket

Ever since Thomas spent a year at the university of Tbilisi learning Georgian or should I say 'სწავლობდა ქართულ ენას' in his early twenties, he's been really into Georgian wine. The only issue being that the only place we've ever found it was in a supermarket in Latvia when we were on holiday in 2006, and a restaurant in Paris a couple of years later!

That was until last Sunday! We had actually set out looking for a Polish supermarket because we missed our trips to the Polish corner in Thornliebank, before Brexit made them decide to close up for good a couple of years ago, much to our dismay. I'd got used to my Sałatka Polska, Thomas loved the sausage selection and Léon would happily have turned into a Polish dumpling, if we'd let him. 

We were directed by Google maps to a back street in an Odense housing estate to a place called Eurodeli, which turned out not only to be a Polish supermarket, but more an Aladdin's cave of mainly Slavic wares from all over Eastern Europe, culminating in a booze section that not only had a Georgian wine but a whole shelf full of them! I expect it might become a home from home, if I let him loose in the city alone!

Modern language degrees and Assistantships

Language assistantships have been high on the list of conversation topics in our house this year, for obvious reasons. They run in the family - kinda like short legs and green eyes... André had been a French assistant in Greenock when I met him back in 1984-85. I had gone on to be an English assistant in France in 1987-88 and now it is Lottie's turn and of course she's opted for her spiritual home - Spain.

And I have to say, even if you drop Covid out of the equation - what a bloody palaver compared to how it was in my day! (Now don't I sound old?!) I may be suffering from severe memory loss, correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I remember, they told us in first year that we'd be assistants in our third year - there wasn't really much else on offer, and they told us that in our fourth year we'd spend a semester in the country of our second language studying at uni. In the autumn of second year we filled in a form. Mine said France please, preferably somewhere near Metz and that was about it. Then around the April or May of that year I got a typed letter telling me which school I had been assigned. I then left in the August, spent the best part of a week at the École normale de Nancy learning what was expected of me before being released on the last day to two teachers from my school, who'd kindly come to pick me up. From there I was taken to the school which (unluckily) was in the middle of nowhere, or as it turned out luckily, because that meant the school asked if I wanted to share a free flat with that year's German assistant, Friedrun, who I am still in contact with today. That was it, more or less.

Thirty years on things have been complicated beyond recognition. Now only about 40% of kids do an assistantship, most prefer to opt for the study option for their year abroad. I am not sure why given they aren't paid, but that seems to be the norm now (until Brexit anyway, I guess it might change back). And worse still in their second language they aren't offered the study option because of the university terms overlapping so are expected to take themselves abroad and job hunt (until Brexit cocks that up too, I presume). 

Charlotte decided she'd like to do it the way I did, so asked for the British Council application form. I use the term 'form' loosely... I've seen shorter PhDs to be honest. Imagine the worst job application form you've ever seen and then add another 15 pages on the end. Despite going abroad for a year being compulsory, she still had to fill in many, many pages explaining exactly why she was the best person for the job, her experience, everything she'd ever done with kids in the past - right down to brushing her siblings' teeth when they were toddlers. She'd to justify which region she wanted to go to, and pick two back-ups, she'd to rate the age-group of kids (or adults) to teach in order of preference, she'd to write a novel explaining whether she would choose a rural or city setting and why. 

All applications had to be in by the first of February or they would not be considered. On receipt of her form she was told that she would be informed if her application had been successful by the end of June, and thereafter all successful applications would be sent to the foreign country and they would try to match candidates to an appropriate school by the last week of September!!! (for a job with a start date of Oct1). These kids are 20 years old, some (like me - a February baby from the pre-deferral era) are only 19. Imagine being told you will be given, in some cases, less than a week's notice to move country and find accommodation and you have to pay a deposit up front despite your first pay packet being due end November? 

Charlotte was actually amongst the first to be informed of her regional allocation in July, though it was another month before she knew which school she would be going to. Being assigned Madrid meant there was only one airport so she could easily have booked tickets if Covid wasn't causing uncertainty, with about four weeks to go. Some students were told simply that they got the south, with no indication till a fortnight ago whether that meant the Mediterranean coast or practically in Portugal. And some are still waiting to hear. 

Over and above the whole application fiasco, they then have to fork out nearly £100 to get an international police and background check done, and a second one of these needs to be done at the Spanish level, on arrival. She was also sent a ten page health and safety assessment to complete for her university, but given this turned up with a deadline of before she had been assigned a region, let alone a school or age group, this was shelved till it turned up again in a revised format last week. 

All this is the standard 'assistantship process' 2020s style - I'm so glad I am not young today - it just seems so much more stressful than how it was done in my day! Anyway, of course, Charlotte has now had the whole thing compounded by a global pandemic. 

Some unis have cancelled it (after all that!), some have advised their students to phone the schools and postpone their start dates (though many of the foreign schools are refusing this request), some have even threatened students that if they accept the job they've been offered they will kick them out of their study programme at home for defying their advice! 

Charlotte is lucky, in so much as Glasgow is being quite pragmatic - they have told the kids: go as planned if you feel you can do it safely, drop out for a year and do it next year and graduate a year late if you don't, omit it altogether and try to get into honours without it if you feel capable of doing so and graduate a year early. All the students Charlotte knows from her high school who went to other unis that have cancelled the students' placements are now looking to go out to the foreign country with no job and look privately as they don't have accommodation booked to go back to uni at home later this month, don't want to waste a year doing nothing and don't want to attempt to enter the dual minefield of Covid and post-Brexit student exchanges next year. They figure they might as well sit abroad surrounded by Covid rather than home surrounded by the same issues.

So, back to Charlotte. Having been assigned the region she wanted, followed by the age group she wanted in a bilingual school just half an hour from where she ideally wanted to be and with enough time to actually do something about flights and accommodation, Covid reared its ugly head again knocking all that on the head so she's been on the edge of her chair now for a month waiting to hear if it would go ahead, if they would go back to remote teaching or what. 

With school staff back in Madrid for the first time since March just two days ago, she was waiting to hear if she could finally book a flight and start the flat search (despite being a bit cash strapped as both her summer jobs in Spain got cancelled because of the virus). On Sunday night she was starting to feel the relief you get knowing this would at least be the week she would finally know. Suddenly at 11pm on Sunday she received an automated email in Spanish from Madrid council telling her she had been withdrawn from this year's programme, her job offer had been cancelled and her access to the webpage that allows essential workers into Spain terminated. Worse still it said she would not eligible to reapply in this academic year. 

She was frantic - no one else on her facebook group chat had received that email, so Spain hadn't cancelled it, something must have gone wrong specifically with her application and triggered it. Hadn't they received her police record check on time, or what? After a sleepless night she spent all of Monday morning phoning and emailing around for clues; this was not helped by the bank holiday in England, I can tell you! By Tuesday they had ascertained it was simply an administrative error - 'Charlotte Somebodyelse' had requested to withdraw because of Covid and someone had highlighted the wrong name! I kid you not! By Wednesday, she had a new job offer (in the same school) and access to the essential worker site restored. I have to say she's one cool cookie. If I'd had to deal with that at that age (even without Covid) I'd have collapsed in a sobbing heap, but she calmly sorted the whole thing out, in Spanish, without a single tear. 

So she's now waiting to hear the final details from her head mistress before hopefully flying out some time in the next two weeks. Thereafter she has to shell out another £100 for the course I did back in Nancy, though they're not sure if that's online or in person yet. It's going to be an odd year to assistant - social distancing, masks, closed attractions, and much more and she is fully aware that she won't get the normal experience but she's promised herself she'll do a second year out there in 2023 to make up for it, and given she still has an EU passport unlike her contemporaries, she will at least be able to do so...

Covid permitting.

Something more interesting than the music run

The kids have been back at school for three weeks now. Unlike in Scotland I am no longer on the school run as there's a free school bus - yippee. I can't say I miss those ten minutes listening to over-tired kids whining at each other about everything from how much space they are taking up on the back seat, to whose turn it is to choose the music, the front seat or (not) scrape the ice off the windows. 

I am, unfortunately, still on the music school run. Léon plays violin, Amaia viola and Anna electric guitar. Of course, the strings are in the music school and the guitar is in Anna's school (the local middle school), so that's a harrumph to start with. Last year when Anna was still in the last year of lower school, I had to run her to the middle school fifteen minutes after school chuck-out for her lesson, so I was really looking forward to this year when she could just stay behind after school. So the timetables turned up and Anna's lesson, of course, had been moved to two and a half hours after the end of the school day🙄 

So she comes home on the bus then needs to be taken back later. Amaia and Léon are an hour apart in the local music school - different start times, different end times and Anna is of course bang smack in the middle and there are no school buses three hours after the end of school.

So I set out on Tuesday at my usual 4:35pm and finally got me and everyone else home by 6:50pm. The bloody music school is only 15 minutes away but the three times circuit and detour via the house for drop off and the middle school takes fully two hours and fifteen minutes, so this week, I started to mull over alternatives.

Where could I go if, instead of driving round in circles for 2 hours and 15 minutes, I simply jumped in the driving seat and drove in a straight line for those 135 minutes? 

So, apparently not only could I make it quite a bit down into Germany to Rendsburg if I opted for a southern route, I could also get as far as Malmö in Sweden if I opted for a more eastern route.

Rendsburg looks like a nice day out. Have a look at these pics. And I know Malmö is definitely ok because I've been there (and they've got great kebabs too!)

So, kids... if I don't come back for you next Tuesday, you might want to check out if mum's gone off on a wee magical mystery tour😉