Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Retiro at Xmas

Charlotte and I had an interesting experience the other night...

Madrid is knee-deep in Xmas decor at the moment, so we decided every evening after dark to go for a long walk and discover a different part of town's contribution to the festivities.

On my last night we opted for a trip over to the Retiro park as we were sure it would be a highlight. Being sensible, as always, Lots checked if the park had a closing time and we saw it was 10 pm. We wandered round the lakes, taking pics and finally made our way to the main exit. The park was pretty full as many had had the same idea. I stopped to take one last photo of a pink Xmas tree reflecting in some water, three steps from the gate. As you can see on my last photo, time-stamped at 10pm, there were a number of us.

None of us, however, spied the bloke I have circled in red. The park attendant who was tasked we thought with emptying the park... In fact his job actually seemed to be more specific than that - more locking up the park than emptying it. Despite being less than three steps from Charlotte and within shouting distance of everyone in the picture, do you think the bastard shouted over 'closing time!' or do you think he sneaked some hefty padlocks onto all the gates then disappeared in a puff of smoke?! 

Yup, you got it in one! He didn't utter a peep! So one minute later when we attempted to leave, he was nowhere in sight! A crowd of about ten of us figured we should probably walk to the next entrance/exit, though given the main one was shut, it was a long shot.

The crowd had swelled to about thirty, including some elderly Spaniards who were finding the going quite hard. Needless to say the next exit was also bolted, and the next and the next! By 10:19 I was beginning to wonder if my Iberia flight the next morning could be moved if I was still locked in the park! 

Finally after about 25 minutes of walking the perimeter in the dark, we found one park attendant who let us all out, but I am still puzzled as to why the first guy didn't simply announce it was everyone's last opportunity to escape. I guess he was maybe just in grinch-mode and having some free fun at our expense!

Monday, December 04, 2023

A tiny surprise about my gran

My kids had a bit of a falling out with their dad back in 2012 and it took till this year for them to decide to visit him again. Long story...

Marcel was running the Côte d'Azur marathon and Milly the 20K, and Charlotte and Léon were cheering them on. That is where their dad currently lives so they invited him to spectate, had lunch with him two days in a row and did a little sightseeing. They got to meet the woman who, on paper, has been their stepmother since 2016 too. I always thought it would be better if they had some contact with him but the amount was, of course, up to them. 

So, because of this rift, from early childhood Léon has been known as Léon Buchanan-Widmann. That was always unofficial as it would have required his father's consent until he reached adulthood, so his passport and Danish residence permit still insisted on Gautier. Now he's 18 he wanted to make it official after all these years but found out that adding the ‘-Widmann’ he has used since he was six would have caused all sorts of bureaucratic nightmares with the change of his French passport unfortunately. 

Changing to your other parent’s surname is a box-ticking exercise now thanks to a change in French law from July 2022, but changing to anything else requires courts and can be declined. Poor Lots tried to change her name in 2020 so had to pay over €500 and go through the French courts to change hers, Marcel waited till after the new law (accidentally - he didn’t actually know the law was going to change) and it took him 6 weeks as against Charlotte’s 3 years. Anyway the upshot is that Léon finally decided following Marcel’s route might be a tad less stressful than following Charlotte’s, so dropped the ’-Widmann’ with a little pang of regret and became Léon Buchanan. 

When the message came in from the Scottish register to say it had been changed, he logged on to order the new birth certificate he needs to change his UK passport. While I was on helping him, I got lost down the rabbit hole of the registry. 

First, I checked if my great auntie Cathie was still alive, and strangely she seems to be! The woman must be 100, and still doesn’t talk to the remaining members of the family despite still having all her marbles, weird woman! 

Then I checked a few of mum’s friends and from there I looked back at old records of family members' births and deaths. 

Growing up I used to moan to my gran about disliking my name, feeling it was too old for someone growing up in the 70s, yes I know I was named after my other dead gran but that didn't please me at the age of 7... and she confided in me that she felt exactly the same. Her name was boring and too common in her age group… not exactly my issue but we could relate at least! Gran was called Jean and confided in me that sometimes as a kid she signed things Jeanne and pronounced it the French way to make herself see much more exotic. 

She soon realized as a little girl in Springburn that Jeanne was a little farfetched so often contented herself simply with changing her name to Jeanie, just to be a tiny bit more exciting. Longing to be a little more than just a Jean and a Phyllis became a leitmotif between us during our brief 16-year overlap on this planet. 

I found gran’s death certificate from 1984. Jean Stirling had died of metastatic cancer of the lungs and brain at the age of 68. I found her marriage certificate from 1943. Jean Napier Henderson had married Matthew Thomson Stirling. Then I went back to 1916, but Jean Napier Henderson had never been born!

That puzzled me, given I knew she was definitely not born down south or elsewhere. I stuck in a wildcard and to my surprise found little ‘Jeanie Napier Henderson’ born to Annie (née Venters) and Allan Henderson in 1916. All the names matched. 
In those days things weren’t digital. Records were written and recorded by hand. My gran never learned to drive, never owned a passport, so probably never saw her own birth certificate which had been lost in the first world war. Her mother had died when she was a child, her father has a breakdown when he was left to raise two young girls alone. Her family called her Jean, so she thought her name was Jean. By the time she married, it had changed de facto as she filled in Jean on her marriage certificate, but she was never the plain Jean she hated so much, she was the Jeanie she always dreamed of being and never knew she had been! 

My own mother died in 2022, not knowing her mother’s first name was not what she had always believed it to be! How weird is that? I’d love to ring them both up today and tell them, but that is obviously never going to happen. 

Excitedly, I did double check my own birth certificate, but apparently it wasn’t a mistake. I am still frumpy Phyllis with no middle name alternative! Ho hum!

Friday, October 13, 2023

2 days, 2 years later

Every so often I feel like writing about a quasi-taboo subject matter and then go to delete it once I have. But the only way to make those topics less frightening is writing about them; maybe it'll help someone else go through something similar one day.

It's now been 2 years and 3 months since I rather carelessly lost one of my boobs. Let's just say you can no longer call me a 'right tit', no matter what I do!

Humour is one way of tackling the situation. Another is distancing yourself from the occurrence to the point where you almost can't believe it happened, to you at least. 

It is never a good sign when they tell you at your mammogram that they would rather you didn't put your clothes back on, but instead follow them to an ultrasound room to meet a consultant.

That in itself was a rather surreal situation, because you are at best psyched up for reading mammogram results a week after the most unpleasant boob-squeeze. You are not psyched up for watching your own boob on an ultrasound screen within five minutes. 

Having been in lockdown almost since my arrival in Denmark, I hadn't had many opportunities at that point to practise my Danish. My passive Danish was fine, I'd been listening to it for 13 years at that point, but I was just learning to speak it out loud, which is no mean feat as there are some seriously hard-to-pronounce sounds in this language. And this mammogram was at the height of the covid outbreak, which didn't hit Denmark anything like as badly as the UK, but it did still mean I had to attend this appointment alone.

To my untrained eye, things didn't look dire. There were no obvious clumps of dodgy cells, suggesting a tumour, there were no lumps or bumps and none of the outward signs you get on that diagram that makes the rounds of Facebook every few months. The only surprise I could see were long strands of white that looked vaguely like long worms. The consultant explained that these were long, maybe 10cm, areas of calcium built up in my milk ducts. I had breastfed five kids for two years each so it was of no surprise to me that there might be a little build up of something in there, some wear and tear, some damage. And they kept using the word calcium, so that isn't a bad thing, is it? They gave me a leaflet on calcium in technical Danish and booked me to come back for a biopsy. That word I liked less, but again, if it was to determine if there was a calcium build-up, how bad could it be?

The biopsy made the normal mammogram seem like a walk in the park. Every older woman knows the horrors of a mammogram. I don't know about in the UK, but here there are signs up claiming the procedure isn't painful, mere uncomfortable. Bullshit! They take a carpenter's vice, squish your boob into it, turn the handle till your eyes water, then turn it just a little more till you think you might pass out, take a photo, then repeat the procedure from different angles three more times. For the biopsy, however, they need to see your boob in real time. So you get to lie face down on a bed with a hole to put your boob in. A nurse pulls and tugs on you till they have you in place in that vice and onscreen. Instead of the usual 5 second photo, you lie there while the insert a knitting needle into you to extract cells. They keep you clamped while they check each sample to see if they have enough cells, they repeat this procedure for about half an hour. All the while a second nurse holds your hand looking incredibly sympathetic, which is both nice and terrifying, in equal measures. Even if you weren't being investigated for a cancerous growth in your breast, it would be a bloody nightmare, but add that psychological layer on top and it is almost too much to bear. 

As you go to leave, you're given a further booklet on calcium, and they mention almost as an afterthought that very occasionally, if you are really unlucky, the biopsy needs to be repeated if they didn't get the right cells. A week later of course I got the email asking me to come back to repeat the entire ordeal as I was one of the unlucky ones. The bruising was quite a sight!

After the second biopsy, I was invited in, this time with my husband, an ominous sign, to discuss the way forward. That was when I was first given a leaflet of DCiS, (ductal carcinoma in situ). The consultant told me Danes usually react ok to this as they mainly know germanic languages so know none of those words, but as a speaker of many romance languages, I didn't need any explaining of that condition. They went on to explain that if the carcinoma was still in situ in the duct, I would be ok until it grew and burst out into my breast or was carried round my body by means of my lymphatic system. All in all, it would probably be around ten years before it mutated into incurable cancer. The only way to tell was to inject dye into me and trace which lymphs were being used by which ducts. More than two years on my breast is still blue where the dye went in! Once the lymphs were located, they were removed and biopsied. They came back clear so it was indeed still contained to my duct.

In the UK, they usually perform a lumpectomy at this point, according to the NHS Scotland website anyway. In Denmark the standard procedure, and only one on offer to me was a full mastectomy within a week. I could decide whether or not to be reconstructed during this operation, later or not at all. In my head there were only two options: 'then' or 'never' (and 'never' was not even a close second in my head). I couldn't face going through it all, healing, physio and then going back to square one. Had they removed both, I might have managed to consider the option of 'never', but I couldn't face it with only one. I had been 'top-heavy' since my teens, it was part of my femininity and I couldn't imagine what having only one breast would do to me psychologically in my early 50s. Already I was facing looking like a train wreck naked, but in my clothes I could hide and feel normal and that mattered to me. It was six months before I could bear to have anyone look at me, even reconstructed with all the scarring, so I am not sure I could have got my head round the alternative. I have nothing but admiration to the stronger women than me who opt for 'never'.

I expect if your mind is strong enough, 'never' is probably more comfortable. I have no feeling on one side from my shoulder to the bottom of my ribs. I can feel tugging, but pinch me, burn me and I have no reaction. It aches but it doesn't feel like it is part of me. With all the muscles cut away, it took six months of physio before I could lift a salad bowl down from a shelf or close the boot of my car. I simply couldn't reach upwards with my right arm. Even now it is harder to use my right arm than my left.

For the first few months, you are so caught up with the physical aftermath, you don't get as far as analysing the psychological. When I think back now, I am gobsmacked. I took the three youngest kids to Hamburg (3 hours away) for a four day holiday 3 weeks after my op, 1 week after the drains were removed from my body, because I felt I had let them down by not being able to go on the summer holiday given I was operated on at the beginning of July. With hindsight I must have been insane. What on earth was I thinking clocking up 20 000 steps round Hamburg and Lübeck so soon after such a huge operation?

I didn't even tell my mother or the members of my family who weren't in Denmark, because Covid restrictions meant they couldn't get to me, so I didn't want to worry them. I rang my mum on the Monday for our usual chat saying I was busy Tuesday and Wednesday and then rang again on the Thursday as if nothing had happened. She died six months later thinking I had had nothing more than a minor procedure at my GPs to remove a little calcium, not imagining I had had a lymphadenectomy, a mastectomy, a breast reconstruction, a breast reduction on the other side to even things up a bit. And those were only the physical things.

The mental side of things was a whole other realm. It was two-pronged. On the one hand, it had been caught early enough that major surgery was enough, meaning I got to bypass the horrors of chemo, radiotherapy etc, and I wake up eternally grateful for that every day. But on the other, it was one of the worst things you can go through without reaching that final level of horror. So, I was in this odd limbo where I didn't feel mentally I had the right to mope or complain because I had been so lucky; so many people have it so much worse. It did seem weird though to go through what I went through with no acknowledgement from myself or others of the depth of that trauma. On balance though, I think I coped reasonably well with it all and was sure it was all behind me.

Two weeks ago, I went for my first mammogram on the remaining breast since that whole rollercoaster ride. I hadn't needed one till now as the tissue from the remaining breast had been biopsied when the reduction surgery was carried out. I managed to attend the appointment without being too traumatised, driving myself there, chatting to the staff in the health centre. It is hard for me to undress in front of strangers now, which is odd as I was never shy before. I look completely normal in clothes, so as I undressed, I warned the woman who was going to be doing the xrays and the young male student who was obviously there to learn about the job, before turning to face them. Yes, they probably see this every day, but I still struggle with how I look, even if they don't. Maybe one day I'll have the balls to go topless sunbathing in Spain again and simply tell people I was attacked by a shark or similar but I am not quite there yet. They said they had read my notes and tried to put me at ease.

I wasn't taken through to the ultrasound this time, which had to be good, right? Yet, three days later when I got an alert that there was a new message from Syddanmark health service in my private email box (all medical correspondence is secure digital in Denmark), I couldn't open it. I thought I was fine, but I simply couldn't bring myself to read it. Thomas asked if I wanted him to read it, but I would know from his face, so I sat on the message for a full two days until finally on the third morning I woke up with enough mental strength to finally dive in and read my results, which were fine this time. So I guess it did affect me more than I am willing to admit if it took me two days and a night simply to open an email.

Onwards and upwards, I guess.

Friday, September 29, 2023

18 today

So my boy is 18 today, except he isn't really! He was born at 23:45 on 29/09/05 in the Queen Mother's Maternity hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, so given he now lives in Denmark, although on his birth certificate his birthday is still September 29, if he wants to raise a glass at the moment of his birth, he now needs to wait till 00:45 on September 30! 

I guess in a way it is a metaphor for the complicated path his life has taken till now. He was born after my marriage to his father died. French by birth, he was brought up from the age of one by a Dane so even before we moved to Denmark, his Danish was better than his French. Now we live here and have done for 4.5 years, he is what a truly bilingual person looks like. He's not just good at both Danish and English, he is native in both now.

He's a Dane living in Denmark, but not eligible for Danish citizenship, at least not until he's sat a whole host of qualifying exams about Danish language and culture, despite having studied till 19 at a Danish STX (the highest level of Grammar school). When he leaves school next year many of his mates want to do a gap year travelling, but Léon can't as he's on the kind of residence permit that doesn't allow you to leave the country for more than six months without losing your right to be here. 

To be Danish he needs to work a minimum of 4.5 years full-time before he can apply, but for some crazy reason university doesn't count towards that goal so whereas he could become Danish 5 years from now if he doesn't go to uni, he has to wait nearly 10 years if he does, as the degree will take 5 years before he can begin the compulsory 4.5 years of work. It's so unfair given he feels every bit as Danish as his two Danish passport-holder sisters. He will have lived in Denmark nearly 15 years before he can apply to be a citizen at the age of 28 and he will have been brought up by a Dane since before his first birthday. He will have called a Dane Dad for more than 27 years before he can apply. 

It is almost as if the government is encouraging foreign-born kids, however bright, not to go into further education. Why penalise someone for wanting to be say a doctor, and encourage them to go work full-time in the local supermarket instead? I thought Denmark prided itself on the level of education given to its young people and I also thought it needed more doctors than it needs unqualified supermarket workers.

Anyway, however long it takes, I have no doubt he will one day qualify for a Danish passport. I just wish he got to celebrate his coming of age in a more equal manner with his peers.

Happy birthday Léon!

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Should I be worried?

We had a Spanish girl staying with us for three weeks. Since she was 18, Charlotte has au-paired off and on for Sara and her little sister Paula and their cousin Eva in Madrid. When she first met Sara, she was 10 and her parents wanted an English-speaking au pair to help her with school. As the years went by, Sara got too old to need a babysitter but our two families had become entwined, culminating in us finally flying down last year to meet them for the first time. 

They had brought Charlotte food parcels when she was isolating in her flat in Madrid with covid at Xmas 2020, they had invited her to their house for her 21st when covid restrictions had meant she couldn't see any of her family, and she had visited them most summers becoming more like an older sister to her two Spanish sisters. 

So when their mum tentatively asked me last summer over dinner if I would let Sara come and stay so she could live in an English-speaking house for a few weeks, I was more than happy to accept. She's 15 now, and so is Anna, so I knew it would be good for both of them as Anna has chosen to do Spanish at Gymnasium too.

On arrival early July we thought a few board games would be a good way to break the ice. The kids had only met her once over dinner last year in Madrid and she seemed quite shy. Articulate would be a good one to help her with English, we thought. (You get a word and have to describe it to your partner and they get to guess which word you are describing.)

Léon was first up, describing for Anna. He drew the word 'van'. His description: 'A vehicle that is often white and used by bad people who want to kidnap small children'. I was somewhat surprised that his go-to use for a van was kidnapping rather than say deliveries or being used by a worker of some sort such as a gardener or plumber, but Anna guessed it immediately and the game continued.

The following day, Amaia, who had been out with friends on our first games evening, joined in. By some coincidence she too drew the card 'van', this time describing for Sara. She had neither been there the night before, nor heard of our game, so I was more than surprised when she started immediately with: 'it's like a car but bigger, people use them for kidnapping kids!' 

Am I living in a much more sinister world than I realise or are my kids all just quite disturbed?

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Quick update

Quick update on yesterday's blog post

Charlotte finally found out yesterday that she was one of the lucky few who would be told her final grade before the day as she’d scored enough on the 75% that’s already been marked to get a First class degree! I can’t begin to imagine how she managed it through all that but she is one of the most determined people I’ve ever met, so I’m just bowled over. I can’t wait to see what she does next. For now she’s gone to see friends in Madrid, then later in the summer she won a scholarship to go on an all inclusive extended Catalan course being held in Majorca, then she’s going straight back to spend another year in Madrid teaching while she considers her options for the future, so watch this space!

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Charlotte's unforgettable uni years

It's been a wild ride. The five years of Charlotte's university life have been, shall we say, an unorthodox mix of trials and tribulations that feel more like a roller coaster designed by Salvador Dalí than the blissful journey of self-discovery and academic enlightenment I'd optimistically envisioned back when she left Mearns Castle in 2018. 

Year 1: Bombs, Pre-cancer and losing her family:
The inaugural year kicked off with a bang - almost literally. A bomb scare served as a less than warm welcome to university life with the whole campus being evacuated within days of her start. Sitting home in Newton Mearns and receiving texts telling me that police had ringed campus because of a bomb threat but not to worry because she was 'just fine' was not quite how I'd envisioned Charlotte's welcome by my alma mater! 
And just when we thought things couldn't get any more dramatic, I had my own little scare. A seemingly innocent visit to the doctor turned into a two-month ovarian cancer scare leading to a full hysterectomy and not one, but three, hospital stays for infections over Christmas. Fortunately everything had been caught in time so the damage was mainly psychological rather than life threatening. 
You'd think we had faced enough excitement for one year, but no, Thomas got a job interview in Denmark while I was under the knife in hospital. We'd been considering leaving the UK since it became clear how EU citizens would be treated after Brexit. The kids, all dual nationals, were fine but I was on the cusp of losing my freedom of movement, so it was then or never. He got the job, quite unexpectedly given he'd been in the UK for nearly two decades and they needed a Danish expert. With extremely heavy hearts, we decided to sell the house the kids had grown up in, pull them out of their good East Ren schools and emigrate. So, Thomas left in March and the rest of Charlotte's first year was spent helping a recuperating mum (who'd been told not to lift anything heavier than a kettle for the next three months) pack a lifetime up in boxes while looking for student accommodation for the following year. Where we found the reserves for that at the time, I don't know.

Year 2: Strikes and a mystery pandemic:
Just as we were trying to adjust to our new normal, Charlotte's lecturers decided to go on strike for the whole of her last term, which wasn't great for her academically, though we could fully empathise with their motivation. But that was merely a prelude to the pandemic opera that was about to ensue. The last week of her last term, which was cancelled because of strikes was further cancelled by Covid lockdown! Charlotte found herself suddenly deserted in her halls as the Covid lockdown sent international students fleeing the country, but although she was in international halls, Denmark had closed its borders to Covid three weeks before the UK went into lockdown, leaving her unable to get home to us until mid-June. And because the first lockdown was so strict, before the concept of bubbles was invented in the UK, she couldn't even move in with her very lonely granny or her aunt and uncle whose flat she could ironically see from her halls window!

Year 3: Spanish Lockdown, Xmas Alone, and what a 21st!
Charlotte's third year saw her bravely navigating a year abroad amidst the ongoing pandemic. I had always assumed I'd fly down with her and help her find a room, but we were a few months into a pandemic and Madrid had been hit worse than most cities, only people with work contracts were allowed in. For a while it wasn't obvious she would even get to go abroad, the year before had been sent home in March instead of at the beginning of July, so I took her to Copenhagen airport with her big case and her masks and waved her off alone. However, the virus soon locked her within the Madrid region though the schools never closed so her year was more successful than we had imagined when she set off. She caught Covid for the first time around Xmas before the vaccine was available, which actually turned out to be a positive! It meant she couldn't leave Spain over Xmas and return home. Many of her flatmates who did leave Spain for a week at Xmas weren't allowed back in until Easter because of the pandemic. It also meant she had a less exciting than expected 21st a week after Xmas with no family and no flatmates. Fortunately for us she has au paired for the same family in Madrid since she was 18 and they made her a cake and bought her some cosy socks as a gift so she wasn't completely forgotten, but that'll definitely be a 21st to tell her kids about one day!
She caught a second bout of Covid within six months and weathered it again fine. I had my own health problems that summer, but as Charlotte was locked in, I played them down at the time, so as not to worry her unnecessarily, so she didn't get to hear about my DCIS scare and mastectomy till she got home two months after it, when I was very much on the mend, physically at least.
They finally lifted travel restrictions four weeks before she was due to leave Spain, so I knew I wouldn't be seeing her any time soon. The now completely mature and self-sufficient Charlotte decided to spend the first six weeks after her job ended back-packing around Spain alone, seeing all the places she had expected to see over the year she lived there and she came home eventually around the beginning of September having seen none of her family in over a year!

Year 4: More Strikes, Granny, and French Frenzy 
The hits kept coming in Year 4. More strikes, dropped courses, and a limited choice of exam questions made studying a Herculean task. In the midst of all this, we lost her Granny, diagnosed with a terminal illness and gone within five weeks. By then Charlotte had moved in with her aunt and uncle as student accommodation is seriously hard to come by in Glasgow, especially if you want to be there less than 51 weeks, and she was only meant to be there 20 September - 15 March, with a month in Denmark over Xmas. Meanwhile mum also moved in with them as she needed to be cared for and then all 5 of us from the Danish side of the family and Marcel and Milly from London also moved in there so she would have her whole family around her on her final journey. Poor Amanda had nine extra bodies in a four bedroom flat! There were a loooooot of airbeds! This probably wasn't the easiest time for Charlotte's studies either.
To add to the turmoil, as part of her degree, Charlotte had to find a job in France, arrange everything, and move just days after the funeral. Shockingly, her internship-paying job soon turned into a full-blown teaching role when the teacher she had been employed to assist in the small private school in Toulouse turned out to be 8 months pregnant and going on maternity leave within days of her arrival. Essentially, she was thrown into the deep end paddling furiously on less than minimum wage. Though four months full-time teaching experience in a private school will be ok for her CV, I imagine, and Toulouse was lovely; I sneaked down for a wee week alone with my biggest girl in May, just to check the granny straw hadn't finally broken the camel's back, and of course it hadn't.

Year 5 Just when you thought nothing else could go wrong, year five said "Hold my beer!
Strikes decided to make an unwelcome encore, this time for three days a week. If your classes were Monday or Friday, you got taught, if your classes were mid-week, you didn't. Some students threw in the towel. Lots, forever resourceful, opted to camp out on the floor of the Monday class she wasn't enrolled in, so she could get the info anyway. Having befriended a good number of Spanish and Catalan guys, she spent her weekends hill-walking and partying in Spanish and Catalan to help with her language-learning but the uni had one last surprise for them... Their finals were to be hit by a marking boycott, leaving two of Charlotte's final exams unmarked in time for graduation. Yesterday was the final deadline for degree classification and she now has the results of 180 of the 240 credits her final degree classification will be based on. Many of her fellow students are also missing grades. The uni has decided to 'grade' all ungraded final work (in Charlotte's case all her Catalan papers and all her written Spanish language papers) at D3, the lowest pass grade available, to see if the final total comes to a pass mark, thus allowing them to graduate. This decision was made so they do not need to lower anyone's grade afterwards, only raise them, but is so far from what she is likely to actually have, it is quite underwhelming. When the boycott is over, these papers will be re-marked and the degree classification adjusted accordingly. Yes, in real terms, this isn't going to affect her actual life or future employment, but what a dampener on graduation day to not know what you are going to get. This should be a time for celebrating with your classmates, supporting those who haven't done as well as they had hoped, and none of that will be happening if their grades come in over summer once they are all in far-flung places. Graduation, the culmination of years of hard work and camaraderie, will now have a surreal tinge. As she dons her purple robes and receives her still-blank certificate, she will be celebrating a success tinged with the bitterness of yet another university experience tainted.

So there you have it. Five years that have been far from the standard, run-of-the-mill university experience. Despite the insanity, the strikes, the scares, and the virus, Charlotte weathered it all with a determination and grit that leaves me in awe. She's graduating now - with stories to tell and strength beyond her years. And even though her transcript may be peppered temporarily with a few unjust D3s, she's earned an A1 in resilience and fortitude in the University of Life.

On top of Ben Nevis with her Spanish and Catalan boys

Saturday, June 10, 2023


Thomas got himself a Norwegian (the airline) credit card a few years back, mainly because it gives you 1% cash back and free air miles. After a number of years of shopping, he finally amassed enough air miles to take both himself and me away for a weekend to Oslo. We've never left the kids home alone before, so it was quite a nail-biter. Three kids with an empty, a cat, two tiny kittens and us a whole flight away, but hey ho, you have to cut the strings at some point and it isn't exactly like we have anyone nearby who can babysit, so we bit the bullet and went for it! And what a weekend it was! 

The first thing that struck me about Oslo was its sound. The city seems to have fully embraced the electric vehicle revolution, making its streets oddly quiet for a bustling metropolis. More than half the cars and all the public transport and taxis in the capital were electric. The absence of noisy combustion engines gives Oslo an air of serene futurism – like stepping into a tranquil, otherworldly dream where cities whisper rather than shout. All around us seemed to be nothing more than an eerie whoosh. I had to learn to cross the road all over again, no longer able to gauge the speed of an approaching car by its engine noise.

But, the surprises didn't stop there. As a proud Scot, I have a penchant for potato scones. I really miss them since moving here, though occasionally make my own, but they are always on the menu whenever I am over visiting Derek and his family. So imagine my joy when I spotted what I thought were these delightful treats in a local supermarket. I immediately took a pack home and opened it. There were no cooking instructions and I could see they had some sort of filling, so I bit in expecting maybe cream cheese or similar only to find they had strangely been filled with sweet buttercream! A surprising twist, though, and I kind of think it grew on me after the initial shock! Potato scones meet cake... why not? And for a country that is known to be expensive, I was more than surprised at how cheap and omnipresent their sushi was. I guess they have a thriving fishing industry over there!

The language was fun too. The news was on on the train into town from the airport with subtitles and I could understand every single word. It just looked likely badly spelled Danish to me, though I suspect they think of it more as Danish being badly spelled Norwegian! I could easily read a novel in it anyway, so that's a nice bonus, suddenly realising I passively know one more language than I thought I did!

Oslo has also mastered how to get tourists onto its public transport network. The downloadable app is easy, can be used for buses and trams alike with every ticket valid an hour and every new ticket you buy being discounted more each time. It's a far cry from trying to use the bus or tram in Odense as a foreigner when you are left scratching your head as to how to navigate the system and you can't even ask the tram driver who is barricaded into a glass box!

Oslo is the furthest north I have ever been and its bright nights are even brighter than here or my native Glasgow, with the sun refusing to set entirely, bathing the city in an ethereal twilight long after 10 PM. It was as if the city existed in a state of eternal sunset, a spectacle that left me appreciative of our wonderful world. 

One of my biggest surprises hit me on touchdown in Oslo. Despite the current heatwave, huge piles of snow greeted me on the runway at Oslo airport. Yes, you read that right – mountains of snow in a heatwave! I can only imagine Oslo must be truly baltic in the winter months as there was more snow on that runway than I have seen all the years I have lived in Denmark!

Above the cityscape I glimpsed another hint at their true climate, I could clearly see a ski jump – a surreal contrast against the summer skies, a testament to Oslo's love for winter sports. It made me think of mum, a woman who never saw or tried on skis in her life, yet managed to beat the kids at Wii ski jumping every time we visited after we moved to Denmark. The kids had so much fun ski jumping with their granny, I'd have loved to have sent her a photo of a real ski jump!


Haggis and Sushi

Every time in the last two years that I've tried remounting the blogging horse, life has thrown me from the saddle. From mastectomies to dying mothers and cats, I feel like it's all been a bit too much at times! I don't really have any intention of getting fully back on top as I want to reserve some time to longer writing projects but it is time I either write the odd article, or throw in the towel altogether, and I guess but I can't really opt for the second option or it leaves me no outlet for potential ranting or wonder at the ways of life.

Life is currently a little chaotic thanks to the addition of a pair of crazy kittens to our life. After Nacho was killed back in March, poor Samosa took to pacing around depressed, only showing any excitement whenever the other ginger Tom in our village passed the window. It was heartbreaking to see quite how excited she got whenever she thought she'd spied him from the window; god only knows what was going through her mind if she thought Nacho was still outside but we were no longer allowing him to come into the house. I guess we should probably have shown her Nacho after we found him back on that horrible wet winter's day so she could have tried to understand, but at the time I was too distraught to think of how difficult she would find the sudden disappearance of her best buddy.

So, we initially decided to get her a new wee brother as a playmate. By sheer chance, we happened upon a Burmese cat breeder who had a little problem on her hands... She was a vet who bred Burmese cats in her spare time. Her mummy cat had accidentally escaped, unknown to her and when her babies popped out, it turned out that they were only half Burmese and therefore not sellable as pedigrees. She needed a solution and we needed a kitten. Kittens can't legally be given away in Denmark till they are older than 12 weeks, so having found him at six weeks, we decided to visit him until he was old enough to leave his mum. That didn't go quite to plan, however, as when we went to meet him when he was eight weeks old, it turned out he had one beautiful, gentle sister who had no loving home to go to... and somehow our quest for a playmate turned into a duo who are now running rings around her. She loves them both and is definitely a little more cheery than she had been of late, though I know she still misses her Nacho.

The kittens, like Nach both have really loud purrs which is a nice reminder of how things used to be. I still find it hard to contemplate that my boy is gone but their antics ease the pain a little. He will always be my special boy. I feel I somehow let him down by not realising he was going near the dangerous road. Had I known I'd have tried to protect him, but what ifs and if onlys won't bring him back, so I need to move forward with the new norm, that is my sweet threesome: Samosa, Haggis, Sushi. I'm sure my Nacho Cheese would have loved them both.

Here's baby Sushi                                                             And this is baby Haggis

And doesn't Samosa look content and relieved?

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Nacho Cheese

It's taken six weeks for me to be able to even write the words. Six weeks ago today someone ran my Nacho over and left him dead by the side of the road. All day I shouted and looked for him, knowing in my heart something was wrong. He hated the rain, you see, and was never out in the dark but that day he went out around 9am and when the heavy rain started an hour later, I called him, but he didn't come running down my field, a streak of cream fur against the grass as he always did. 

By midday he was still a no-show and as the rain got heavier, I put on wellies and a coat and tried all his usual haunts, mainly in the fields and the woodlands behind my house. I didn't try out front because he never went out front. He never ventured near the road as it scared him and there was so much nature in the other direction.

By dinner time as darkness was falling, I was beside myself. I stayed up all night with the door open and a plate of his favourite biscuits, just in case he'd been locked in somewhere but he never showed. It was a long cold night on my sofa. It was a long, cold, wet and dark night outside. I couldn't imagine my baby out in the winter rain. At 8am I knew something bad was going on. I dressed and got in the car, thinking I'd go straight from my house towards the next village, but at the last second without knowing why, I turned right onto the road through our village. I knew he was a homebody so once I had gone around four houses, they are spaced out, I figured he must just have got locked in somewhere because he would never have gone any further than that, especially not in that direction. I decided to go as far as the inn where Léon works as that is the easiest place to turn the car. And there I saw something; opposite the last house before the inn, lying on the grass verge on the other side of the road was a ginger cat. 

I pulled to a halt and could see he was dead, stiff but unblemished. He was wet so looked ginger, not cream and for a few moments, I almost convinced myself that it wasn't him but a different missing orange cat. The first thing I was drawn to were his toe beans; they were so pale. Nacho's were always a deep pink, whereas Samosa's are pale, I felt hope for a second before I realised that cold and lack of circulation would take their toll. I willed someone else to be dead instead but I turned this wee man over and he had his one black whisker on his left just like my Nacho, next I checked his head and he had an ear tattoo just like my boy, he even had his extra fang. Nacho had five fangs instead of four, having retained a baby tooth on the right-hand side. My world shattered. There I was with his basket, some treats as I knew he would be hungry after his night's adventure and I suddenly I knew he would never be having treats again.

I laid him gently in the car, in the towel I had brought as I thought he might be wet and cold when I found him.

We'd been having a problems with a cat from the next village over the winter. She's a lovely cat around humans but is very territorial and had decided this side of the road was her territory too. Nach, Mos and Smilla, the tortie next door, didn't agree and she was often seen chasing our cats. 

I wonder if she chased him across the road as he just never went that way. He was way too timid to choose the road side when we own 9000m2 of grassland and forest that he happily spent his whole life in. Only something like that could have spooked him out of his routine.

I have been over that morning in my head so many times, asking myself why I didn't tell Thomas to keep them in as the weather didn't look like it was going to be great. I blame myself, I should have known to keep him home, somehow I should have known. I couldn't sleep for weeks as every time I closed my eyes, he was there again, on the verge, cold and wet. My poor darling boy who hated to be wet, who was never out in the cold and the dark before. My beautiful boy who wasn't yet two. Now he lies under an apple tree he loved to climb. It catches my eye whenever I go out with the bin and sometimes I think how beautiful it is to have him near, other times I cry because he is out in the rain or the cold, which he really didn't like.

The night before he died I took a few photos of him on my phone: one, a live photo, loops. He barely moves so all you can see is his breathing. I would watch it over and again, just to see my boy breathing. I had no idea he had less than 24 hours to live. 

He had the loudest purr of any cat I have ever met, now my house feels a little too quiet. 

Samosa had turned one that week and had never been catless for a single night in her life, having moved from her mum and siblings to being Nacho's shadow, following him about, tormenting him, washing him, loving him. She seems so sad and quiet now. She often stares out the window at the neighbour's cat or chickens, looking curious, but not full of anticipation. Then it happened, this morning. There's another cat in the next village, not the one who was causing the problems, but a pale ginger one who looks similar to Nacho, other than his smaller, greener eyes. He rarely comes up here, but when he does the kids call him 'Fake Nacho' as they are so alike. It was him I thought I had found that morning back in March as he is slightly darker and with wet fur, you look darker. This morning Fake Nach was sitting on our lawn and Mos saw him. Her tail started swishing, she ran up and down the window ledge, standing on her hind legs, miaowing and clawing to get out. She saw her brother who she used to sleep and eat with and who suddenly disappeared and she wanted him back. She was so excited it broke my heart in a million pieces. As she ran up and down watching him, I stood with the tears running down my cheeks. How can I explain to her he isn't coming back when she so obviously wants him to? Her reaction was so different to seeing any other animal in our garden.

To help her and to help us, we decided to get her a wee buddy. He would never be Nacho Cheese, but he will be someone else she can wash and play with and snuggle up to. When we recently visited a family whose cat had had kittens, their daughter talked us into taking two instead of one, the little runt of the litter had no home to go to and our hearts melted. For a five-year-old, she'll make a great saleswoman one day! So tomorrow, Mos finally gets her new playmates after six weeks alone. I hope she will come to love them the way she loved her big brother who we all miss every day. 

Monday, March 13, 2023

You miss the most unexpected things

Denmark is weirdly flat, not quite the Netherlands flat but flat enough that there are points where I have stood on this island (Funen) maybe 10km inland and watched as a thunderstorm sweeps in from the sea with no barriers in its way. The highest point in Denmark is 171m! I am sure I have had piles of garden rubbish back home that could more or less have rivalled that!

As a Scottish person who has been up the odd Munro, I thought I would pine most for the hills and the mountains of home, and I do sometimes. I miss those spongey-looking mountains you get in Scotland where there isn't a tree in sight, just the odd white crumb, that on closer inspection turns out to be a sheep on the hillside. Obviously Alpine mountains look much more spectacular and I marvel at them every time I fly over them to visit my in-laws in Tuscany, but they aren't my home countryside.

Interestingly though, I am beginning to realise that there is something I miss just as much, if not more than the hills from home, but that I hadn't pre-empted: waterfalls. When a country is flat or flattish, there are almost no waterfalls. I was brought up in Newton Mearns so the nearest park, where I went all the time as a child and then with my own kids had this beautiful waterfall. Nearby Linn park also had a beautiful waterfall, unsurprisingly given linn means waterfall! Almost every park I knew in the vicinity of Glasgow had a waterfall, almost every walk I ever went on in nature involved a waterfall.

I loved to photograph waterfalls and to watch them, but even more than that I loved to stand and listen to the power of the water, to marvel at its endlessness, and that is something I took for granted.

When mum was still alive, I used to hire a car when I went to Scotland so could visit all my old haunts and friends but now I tend to stay with my brother in Glasgow in a paid parking zone, I can't. I guess I'm going to have to find myself a public transport waterfall trail for future visits, just to give me my annual dose!

Saturday, February 25, 2023


When we got the cats, we discussed whether to give them English names, given we are an English-speaking family, Scottish names, given we are a Scottish family, or Danish names given the cats are technically Danish and will likely spend their entire lives here. The advantage of Danish names would be simpler vet visits and catsitter stays. First of all we googled the top 15 cat names per gender in Denmark and got these: 

Søde kattenavne til hankatte                        Gode kattenavne til hunkatte

  1. Charlie                                                            1. Nala
  2. Winston                                                           2. Fie
  3. Simba                                                              3. Luna
  4. Abyssi                                                              4. Lunka
  5. Sham                                                               5. Fia
  6. Lio                                                                   6. Fortuna
  7. Ra                                                                    7. Desdemona
  8. Calle                                                                8. Maui
  9. Balder                                                              9. Wiwi
  10. Balou                                                             10. Lani 
  11. Bandit                                                            11. Nayla
  12. Evian                                                              12. Mis
  13. Eddie                                                              13. Nanna
  14. Ditlev                                                             14. Åse
  15. Djengis                                                           15. Sussi
The kids rolled their eyes and vetoed the Danish lists. So they started suggesting names from back home. Thomas ruled half of them out as unpronounceable. Eventually they compromised on food items that were (at least potentially) known in both places. So we ended up with Nacho Cheese. 

Nine months later when we got Samosa, we decided to go through other snacks/foods. The girls had Salsa, Chilli, Dorito, Mango etc on the list but couldn't agree. Léon happened to wander in at that moment and point out that Samosas, like Nachos were an orange, triangular snack food and, given she was also partly ginger, it stuck.

I half expected it would get shortened to Sam or Sammy within weeks, but you never know with these things and within days she was being shortened to Mosmos. Amusingly, that in turn gets shortened to Mos, which she seems to like best. And that in itself takes us back to an interesting compromise: Mos is Danish for Mash, as in mashed potatoes, so maybe she ended up with a Danish food name after all!

Friday, February 17, 2023

Store bededag

Anyone who has been living in Denmark since the last general election (1/11/22) knows all about 'Store bededag' or 'Great prayer day'. The new three party coalition centrist government spent a month in negotiations before visiting the Queen and offering to form a government, then out of the palace they trotted and announced their brainwave - if we scrap this one bank holiday, we'll make enough money to fund the entire Danish defence budget, half the health service and god knows all what else. I think they thought Danes, with their great faith in the state, would just nod and happily agree to working an extra 7 hours a year for the good of the land. It is a very secular country after all so I doubt more than half a dozen pensioners actually spend great prayer day praying. But they seem to have miscalculated; Denmark is incandescent with rage with people's protests and sieges of parliament on a daily basis. (Here is an article in English to explain the ins and outs).

Unions think they should have negotiated it, workers want a say, the church isn't happy etc etc. Though, to a man, Danes swear it is entirely about workers' rights, I suspect the crux of it is also partly buns! You see, when Denmark, back in the 1600s, scrapped all the minor religious bank holidays in favour of one great prayer day which falls on the fourth Friday after Easter, everyone other than ministers presumably had to spend the day at prayer. Everywhere is like a ghost town on Store bededag, nothing is open. It's like Christmas day with knobs on! Local bakeries weren't even allowed to open, so they invented these very yummy warm cardamom buns that could be eaten for 24 hours, so everyone could buy them before the bakery shut on the Thursday night. They are quite delicious especially toasted with melted butter on top. Here's a recipe, (but it is in Danish). So, once a year everyone visits a proper bakery and buys dozens of these delights, and the bakeries presumably take in half their annual income in 24 hours! I, for one, am more worried about the loss of this tradition, than I am about the kids being in school an extra day a year!

Anyway we happened to be discussing it over dinner when Léon came out with a rather sweet confession!
You remember when we first moved to Denmark, mum? Well, our school took us all to the outdoor swimming pool to celebrate Store bededag the first two years and because I have never been in a church and know nothing about prayer days, I thought everyone was saying Store badedag (Great bathing day) but just pronouncing it weirdly, maybe in some local dialectSo, I thought we'd moved to the best country in the world! One where the government gave everyone a day off a year so they could go to the pool together and have a lovely time socialising!

What a sweet idea! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023


Danes are great at English. By the time most Danes reach end of Scottish primary school age, they can understand a thousand times more than their Scottish peers have learned in French (or whatever other foreign language their primary concentrates on). They can discuss most topics and understand most accents. By the second last year of high school they are reading Shakespeare in the original! Most Scottish kids in their second last year at high school struggle with Shakespeare even though it is technically in their native language! If anyone considered introducing Shakespeare translated into French or Spanish in a Scottish Higher class, it would be a non-starter! In addition to this all Danes do a minimum of two foreign languages over and above Danish, which would probably not go down too well back home either. So, in principle, I take my hat off to Danes and the level of English they tend to acquire.

The other week Anna (who is in the equivalent of s4 in Scottish terms, (Year 9 in Denmark); she's 15) came home chuckling. 'Guess what my homework is?' she laughed. 'I've to speak to my parents only in English for the whole of the next week!' Can you imagine a teacher back home having the confidence to assume firstly that a child of 15 had enough French to use only that for a week, and secondly that their parents also knew enough to keep it up!? Here it is taken as a given. 

Despite speaking only Danish at school, my kids are in standard state schools, not international schools, they still speak English at home and to each other. They moved here nearly four years ago when they were aged between 9 and 13 but claim 'at home Danish just doesn't feel right,' and yet they all pass as Danish natives outside the house. What is more Thomas always spoke to them only in Danish, even when we lived in Glasgow! I doubt now that it will ever change but only time will tell. So, Anna found her homework far from taxing!

Their above-average level of English comes with a downside however... They are so proficient, they believe their English has reached native in standard, and that's the problem, it invariably hasn't. Somehow the Danish education system instils a huge amount of confidence in its citizens, and they rarely stop to question their own ability. The English textbooks used in Danish schools for the under 16s are as far as I can see written exclusively by Danes and they sure as hell don't think they need a native English speaker to copy-edit them. 

Danes learn British English at school but sit glued to Netflix and watch American media content 24/7, the young (males in particular) game online in English-dominant group chats from their early teens upwards. Léon always says you can tell if a Dane is a gamer or not without discussing computer games; if they speak English with a Danish accent, they don't game, if they speak with an American accent, they almost always turn out to be gamers. This also means that unlike in Scottish schools where 90% of a given Modern Languages class is likely to be female (once they pass the point of compulsory French/Spanish/German), in Denmark young men are often better, at least at the spoken part of English, than their female classmates, who, on the whole game less. 

The result of this mix of English input from a young age is textbooks spelled in British English but which use US terminology, for the most part. Amaia actually had an (approved) English textbook a couple of years ago where one of the exercises stated 'Turn to the person sitting beside you and ask them what colour of pants they are wearing'! I fully get that you can easily ask your neighbor what color their pants are, but you most definitely should not ask your neighbour what colour their pants are, not in a school setting anyway! Danish speakers of English often happily mix different variants of English and jump about in register, using both formal and spoken English within a sentence, and don't even get me started on their use of English swearwords, that's a post in itself, if not a thesis! 

They don't seem to learn about English style either so in a business setting often write long-winded technical texts repeating the same words again and again in what would be considered bad style by a native. When copy-editing English written by a Dane, although there are sometimes no concrete mistakes I often have to break one of their sentences into three or even four before it begins to sound English. When inventing stories for school textbooks, they make cultural errors such as naming the characters badly. I know this sounds a strange, and maybe pedantic point, but they often set a story in a contemporary classroom, the kids all on their iPads, working away, but the kids in this 2023 setting are described as being 12 years old but named Deborah, Helen, Jacqueline, Carol, Gary, and Steven. I had five kids and they had shit tons of classmates, but those names were much more likely to belong to their parents than the kids themselves. I'm half expecting one day to come across a baby Phyllis in one of the kids' text books 😂

As an English expert with over 30 years experience in language publishing, I find it depressing that I can find mistakes or awkward turns of phrase in almost every web page, ad, textbook or talk given in English here, but at the same time really struggle to get anyone to understand the need for a native speaker to proofread anything. I have rarely had as little luck freelancing as I do here. I do get work but not nearly enough! And after a couple of years, I am now seriously considering throwing in the towel altogether and looking for something completely different, despite seeing on a daily basis how useful I could actually be to my adopted country. I once applied for a job writing tourist brochures in English for the island I live on and was rejected with a lovely letter (which sounded rather strange and stilted!) explaining that although I could probably do it faster, I had less local knowledge of Funen, so they had gone for a native Dane instead! This was far from being a one-off!

My kids, all English native speakers who speak English at home and have been educated in the UK are corrected at school by teachers who are somehow confident they know better, (they don't!) I remember Amaia using the word 'Santa hat' in a story she wrote for her English class here: The kids all wore Santa hats on their last day at school in December... Her essay was returned to her with Santa hat underlined and she was told to change it to gnome cap, (she didn't!) Every English 'mistake' they have ever had corrected in Danish school was not a mistake and they have stuck to their guns! But I do find it fascinating. If I was teaching French in Scotland, or Danish for that matter and a native pupil of that language handed in a dialogue they had written, I would ask them to explain their writing to me, I would not assume I am right and the native is wrong!

This whole rant was inspired by Amaia's current homework. Amaia is the equivalent of s1 in Scotland, (Year 6 in Denmark; she's 13). The class is working on short sketches to perform in English for the school. The book the sketches are taken from is entirely in English, written exclusively by Danes and is quite frankly horrendous! In the six pages we're working on, I have counted at least six mistakes. I'm so inspired I am considering writing a book of dialogues for schools and sending it to publishers here, though I know before I even open my laptop to start on it, that it would be viewed with suspicion as it would use turns of phrase the Danes themselves were not familiar with, and the contemporary kids would be called weird and wonderful names such as Olivia, Katie, Adam and Aaron, so it would inevitably be rejected in favour of a reprint of Amaia's appalling little textbook! Strangely, Danes trust Danes much more than they would trust the likes of me to write a school textbook! The errors in this sketch book range from mild:

We will never see our son any more instead of: We will never see our son again
to awkward:
Darling, our son is playing with that devilish device again! Said by a father whose son is playing computer games
to downright Danish:
I'm leaving to go to school now mum, hi! instead of: I'm off to school now, bye!
(The Danish word for Hi is Hej, the Danish word for Bye is also Hej (think Ciao in Italian)).

I have lived many places abroad: France, Germany, Italy and Denmark, and nowhere else do they confidently use foreign speakers of English to write all their English content. Everywhere else I have lived, I could easily find school pupils, students, or even business people to tutor in English. My daughter is always tutoring a minimum of three or four Spanish kids at any given time, they are positively clamouring for native input to improve themselves, but not in Denmark. Back when I lived in Newton Mearns, although my kids were all at one of the top 5 Scottish state schools where the standard of teaching was excellent and the facilities top notch, they were almost the exception in their class as they were the only ones who didn't have a private tutor after school! I have never met a Danish parent who uses tutors in ANY subject, such is their faith, at least here on Funen, in their state education. 

I guess if things continue in this direction, Danglish risks becoming a separate variant of English as they are developing their own way of speaking it, in a bubble and passing it down from generation to generation. It'll be fascinating to watch, though I am already prepared for a great deal of eyeball rolling!