Thursday, 29 April 2010

We are family...

I blame my mother. Well we all do. Mothers are always reminding you of long-lost relatives you've never heard of. The conversation usually goes like this:

"You remember Auntie So and So, the one with the hip?"
"No, never heard of her"
"Of course you have. Married an engineer. They had that caravan at the coast"
"You remember their youngest, surely? "
"She had terrible trouble with her bowels, couldn't get on a bus"
"You've lost me, Mother"

Last week I had a similar discussion with my mum which involved a relative who knew my brother years ago and used to go to my school. Facebook had linked them together again. This time the chat went like this:

"You remember Toni, her grandfather was your grandmother's brother"
"She was born the same time as your brother, I was in hospital with her mum"
"It's ringing a bell"
"She was two years ahead of you at school, lives in America."
"That's nice. And?"
"Well you should befriend her on Facebook too"
"But I don't really know her"
"Oh but it would be nice for you"
"Oh I don't know, Mum, she'll think I'm mad"

Suffice to say, Mum decided to facebook-friend Toni herself and then got into a message chat with her. This is when it all got very spooky.

It turns out that my second cousin, who lives in America and whom I vaguely remember, is none other than fellow blogger Expat Mum. For the last few months since I've been blogging, both Expat Mum and I have been posting on the blog for mums of teenagers, Mad Manic Mamas. We have commented on each others' posts and she has given me advice on how my son will manage on his skiing holiday. All this time neither of us were aware of our family connection.....but now we do!

Expat Mum and I are now Facebook friends and are piecing together the convoluted branches of our Newcastle-based family tree, which has now gone global. There also seems to be some facial similarities between my son and her nephew. It's a very exciting time.

My mum is thrilled.

Thanks Mum.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Gallery - Portrait - My Boy.

This is my lovely boy. I adore this photo because he looks so happy, cuddled up in a big fluffy towel after his bath, showing his tiddly teeth. I love to see his dad's hands either side of his head; so strong and protective.

He is now 14. I managed to snap this photo of him last summer when he had a nice short haircut. He has since grown it longer so I can't see his face properly to get a decent photo!

The theme for this week's Gallery at Sticky Fingers blog is 'Portrait'. Pop over to Tara's site to see more...

Monday, 26 April 2010

Mum's Gone to...God Knows Where

I had just got out of the shower. Wrapped in a towel I walked to the bedroom window and looked out over the fields at the back of the house. Suddenly I heard a voice:


I screamed and dropped the towel.

There was no-one there. My heart was racing. I thought I was alone in the house as Dougie had already gone out and I was sure the door was locked. Then I spied where the voice was coming from. In the corner of the room was our trusty Sat Nav, happily charging itself. Obviously, now charged, it had come to life and frightened the life out of me. Why my daft husband had decided to charge it in the bedroom rather than in the car itself was beyond me (he told me later, after laughing like a drain, that as it was completely dead it had needed a proper boost as it sometimes took a while to pick up the signal).

Our experiences with TomToms and the like have been hit and miss. Even choosing the voice caused an argument. We eventually plumped for Jane as Dougie said there was something reassuringly familiar about ranting at a female voice if she got it wrong. Despite a degree in Geography, map-reading has never been my strong point. Ask me about ox-bow lakes and the regional consequences of Thatcherism in the 1980s and I'm your girl. Ask me whether it's left or right at the next junction and I'm flummoxed.

You may wonder why we took a fly-drive holiday to Iceland? Thankfully there is only one  main road on the island so you just keep going clockwise. Though at one point, coming away from Reykjavik, we did travel anti-clockwise for 10 kilometres.

Buoyed by this success, the following year we tackled a fly-drive round Eastern Canada and this is where our GPS nightmares were real corkers:

We had pre-booked a Sat Nav and I sat fiddling with it in the basement of the car hire garage in Toronto, keying in the address for our next stop. The garage was located on Yonge Street which is apparently the longest street in the world and, I quote, "one of the busiest traffic arteries in Toronto". Great.

As we pulled out of the garage and started to move, we waited for our lovely satnav lady to tell us what to do.....

"...deux cents metres, tournez a gauche"

"WHAT THE F**k WAS THAT?", blasted hubby.

"Erm, I think it's French", I reply


"Err...hang on a minute, I'll have a listen"


"I'll translate.....err, left, it's left, look there's the little white arrow"


"Left! Left here. Now! Just turn!"

Thankfully he managed to turn into a fairly quiet street where we parked up and I altered the language on the GPS so we could have a nice English-speaking woman to swear at.

Things improved slightly until later in the holiday when we tried to locate our hotel in Montreal. If you would like to read the full post go to Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 11. Let's just say, keep a map handy if you plan to drive through a tunnel!

I could go on with my Sat Nav stories but will leave it there for now. Would love to hear your tales of the perils of GPS, map-reading or general husband/wife car squabbles! Come on, please share so I can take some comfort that we're not the only ones.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Mum's Going to Eurocamp

This blog of mine began as a place to record all our family holidays. I enjoyed scribbling in notebooks while we were away but typing them up and then committing them to the internet was a strange feeling. All the daft things we did became more public as I became part of the blogging community and was able to share my writing with others.

So you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I was approached a few weeks ago via Twitter, by a PR company working for Eurocamp, offering me a family holiday of between 4 and 7 days in France at one of their fabulous parcs, so that I could review it on my blog.

Of course I agreed straight away and Dougie, the true Scot that he is, was positively ecstatic at the thought of a family break without his trusty credit card getting a hammering. My son was so impressed he told all his mates on Facebook and MSN. In fact they were both quite amazed that my tippy-tapping on the computer was going to permit them a freebie holiday. As for me, I sported a huge grin and an air of superiority for at least a couple of days and no-one dared complain when my attention drifted to the laptop instead of the cooker at dinner time.

We have now booked a four-day holiday during the next half-term break at the 4 Star Parc Domaine de Drancourt in Picardy staying in a 3-bedroomed superior home with decking. Having experienced similar camping holidays when Rory was six and seven and thoroughly enjoyed them, I'm hoping this will be just as good with our son now a teenager. I suspect we won't see much of him!

Postscript: A knock at the door just now. It's the postman with a large parcel from Eurocamp: a beach bag, map, playing cards and..... two super-soakers. They know the way to a young lad's heart!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Gallery - Sloth - The Playboy Mansion

Look at these two - Hugh Heffner and Junior relaxing by the pool.

I snapped this photo a couple of years ago in Cyprus. The boys were completely unaware that they had mirrored each other's position on the sunbed: head, arms and crossed feet exactly the same.

There is also a story behind the bathrobes. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

When we first arrived at the hotel we noticed that we had two very lovely towelling robes hanging up in the bathroom. I decided that as our son was 12 and was considered an adult as regards the cost of staying there, he ought to have one too. So we asked at reception for an extra one. Son loved his new dressing gown.

On day three the maid decided in her wisdom that our room should only have two bathrobes so removed one of them. Thankfully that afternoon the housekeeping supervisor knocked on the door and asked if everything was to our satisfaction. This gave me the opportunity to say we needed our extra robe back again. Within an hour we had another one delivered. Sorted.

From day four onwards we decided to hide our son's bathrobe in the wardrobe just in case enthusiastic maid took it away again. This seemed to work until day six. From where we were sitting in the hotel grounds we could see the front door of our room. We spotted the housekeeping supervisor knock on our door then use her key to go in. It dawned on me that she was going to check whether there were three bathrobes. Of course she wasn't going to find the third one, stuffed as it was in the cupboard, behind a pile of clothes. So we watched with interest as she came out, bristling. Ten minutes later poor maid was hurrying to our room, carrying with her another bathrobe and looking a bit bewildered. So we returned to the room knowing we now had four robes. We left the extra one folded up in the room and decided to return our previously hidden one back to the bathroom. (Have I lost you yet?)

The following morning I was anxious that the poor maid had got into trouble for supposedly removing the dressing gown so when she came to tidy the room I showed her the extra one. She looked at me, puzzled:

"WE DON'T NEED THIS EXTRA ROBE, WE HAVE FOUR NOW", I shouted in that exaggerated way we Brits have of making ourselves understood in a foreign country.

"Four?", she replied

"Yes, FOUR!" I started gesticulating with many hands, pointing to the extra one on the table. She smiled at me and nodded a little before getting to work on cleaning the room, so we got out of her way, sitting on the patio until she'd gone.

Half an hour later I returned to the room and there, on the table, in a neat pile were.... FOUR.... NEW towelling bathrobes. I think I shrieked at this point and ran into the bathroom to find the other three still hanging up. So for our final day in Cyprus we had accrued a grand total of SEVEN big fluffy bathrobes and doubtless the maid thought I was completely bonkers. Having seven of them, it was very tempting to stuff one into our case as they obviously had no idea how many we actually possessed, but...but....I just couldn't do it. So my haul of ill-gotten gains to be shoved into the case included 6 lost golf balls, a selection of toiletries, sewing kit, plastic shower cap, miniature toothbrush and paste, shoe shine and a book from the library that I hadn't quite finished.....

This began as a prompt for The Gallery which was to find a photograph representing one of the seven deadly sins. It ended with a rambling story about dressing gowns!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Mum's Gone to visit Liz Hurley

Once we knew our son Rory was going skiing with the school this week Dougie and I decided this was our chance to have a romantic few days away. We've never been away more than a night without our little lad (not so little now, a gangly 14 year old) and this was the perfect opportunity for a bit of....well a bit of husband and wife time.

I've no idea how we stumbled across the fabulous hotel Barnsley House. I must have put "unashamed luxury, drop dead gorgeous, perfection in the heart of the Cotswolds" into Google and up it popped. Liz Hurley owns an organic farm next door. Previous guests at the hotel include Elton John, Brad Pitt and Kate Moss. If it's good enough for Elton and Kate it's good enough for us.

From the moment we arrived we were in hotel heaven. Checking in procedure was ridiculously informal. No computerised bureaucracy and credit card imprinting here. A smiling, approachable young man, filling a log basket, called for one of his colleagues to join us in the hall by the fire to tick our name off a list and hand us a huge chunky key with a torch on the end. Considering the number of times we have been unable to work keycards, this was a delight.

We had chosen a Stableyard Suite which looked fabulous on the website but even more eye-popping in real life. Click on the video link below to hear me muttering to myself as I take a tour of the room. Shame I hadn't tidied up some of our clutter before I started filming, but you'll get the overall impression. And just look at that bath: no good for one person as you just slither about as your feet can't touch the end, yet perfect for two.

Some of you will remember our stay in a beautiful chintzy hotel in Edinburgh where my poor hubby took a fit of sneezing as soon as I jumped onto the cushion-laden bed. Barnsley House, though very traditional from the outside, was pure mimimalist chic on the inside so no danger of needing the anti-histamine. It was full of electrical wizardry too, as the TV and music was controlled using a hand-held console. The default setting seemed to be Classic FM and this was piped throughout the room, including the bathroom. Dougie declared that there was something quite satisfying about performing one's early morning functions to the March of the Toreadors.

The inevitable mini-bar, far from having locked-in miniatures and extortionately priced crisps, had bottles of water, ginger beer, elderflower presse and dandelion and burdock, all free. Proper milk in a half-pint carton and biscuits in kilner jars.

Once settled we had a wander through the beautiful gardens designed by Rosemary Verey. Tucked away at the bottom of the garden was the private cinema and the spa. We could have booked a private screening (maybe next time) and we didn't book any treatments in the spa either but we took full advantage of the relaxation room and the outdoor jacuzzi/pool with its hot jets and bubbles.
Evening meals could be taken in the hotel dining room or the Village Pub across the road which is owned by the hotel. We decided on the Village Pub and weren't disappointed. Great beers, steak and ale pies and log fires, surrounded by a whole list of characters from a Jilly Cooper novel.

For two nights we turned down the turn-down service as we often find it a bit unnecessary but for our last night we agreed for housekeeping to do it, just so we could see what it involved. We were very impressed: they had washed our coffee cups, re-stocked the fridge and done some origami with the toilet roll. I saw something small and dark on the bed and made a dash for it, believing it to be some choccies. Discovered it was an ingenious packet of seeds, attached to little wooden sticks. Little Gem lettuce seeds. That was pretty cute, though did nothing to satisfy my craving for a bit of pre-nuptial chocolate!

A nightcap back at the hotel, sinking into the squashy sofas, then a little walk back to room 18 with our trusty torch. We could have navigated by smell, as our room was next door to the farm, so the country fragrances were rather strong at times but if Ms Hurley is a fan of The Good Life then who am I to complain. Though I was woken on the first night by some strange low moans. I thought it might be people in the next room enjoying some nocturnal fun but I listened again and realised it was the cows from the farm. Really Liz, I'm trying to get some shut-eye here.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Gallery - Joy - Shopping!

The Gallery theme of Joy should really bring to mind our lovely children, their little cherubic faces which make our hearts swell with pure happiness. So what do I choose? Something totally frivolous and indulgent. SHOPPING! WITHOUT CHILDREN!

I sometimes think shopping with a teenage boy is a hundred times worse than shopping with a toddler. At least when he was little I could strap him into his buggy, ply him with raisins and breadsticks and hope he fell asleep. Now he grumbles and sulks in every shop and makes the whole experience so miserable, we always end up squabbling. Shopping as a family when we're on holiday is not even worth trying.

This week, however, our son has been away skiing with the school so my Hubby and I have had a romantic three days away in the Cotswolds (more in a separate post in a day or two). On the way there we spent a few hours in Bicester Shopping Village. Familiar with outlet centres full of mountain clothing shops and discount book stores, Bicester was a revelation: cheapy versions of Jimmy Choo, Valentino, Armani, Gucci.... 

The day didn't start particularly well as we drove in, tried to find a parking space then took a wrong turn, ending up driving all the way out again. We managed it on our second run, waving to the same marshal again as we negotiated the mini multi-storey car park.

Once in, we shopped with miltary precision: in and out of every shop, quick scan, locate the extra 50% off sale rails and hone in. I seemed to be drawn to white shirts and things coloured yellow, despite the fact that I have enough of the former and look positively ill in the latter. Dougie has a great eye for spotting things for me, in fact I really should hire him out to friends who complain their menfolk are useless in shops. Though as a man he has a knack for entering a shop, declaring there's nothing in it and leaving. As a woman I do have to touch and fiddle about with clothes and dither.

A successful day, I came away with a gorgeous black top, sandals and handbag. Dougie had to be content with a long-sleeved T-shirt for £9.99.

The second day of the holiday we visited the villages of Bourton on the Water and Stow on the Wold. Bourton was beautiful but the shops more suited for souvenir-hunting. Stow was better: we hunted out a Scottish cashmere shop where I picked up a gorgeous long grey sweater on the bargain floor. Dougie got nothing.

Third day: Cheltenham. Dougie's Day! At last my personal shopper came home with bags of his own - shirt, T-shirt, sweater and sleeveless pullover. I did manage to sneak in a sweatshirt too, but, like everything else, it was in the sale so just think of the money I've saved....

Friday, 9 April 2010

How will he cope without me?

Tomorrow my lovely 14 year old son will leave me for a whole week. His first trip abroad without us, skiing with the school in Italy.

The conversations I have had lately with him are inevitably one-sided as I fret constantly about how he will manage without me there to cajole and nag.

This week I have mostly been saying:

"Remember to change your pants every day."
"Don't mix up the dirty and clean clothes."
"Eat up all your food, you'll need your energy."
"Brush your teeth...properly"
"Get plenty of sleep"
"Look after your money: keep your wallet hidden"
"Don't spend all your euros on rubbish."

"Make sure you use plenty of sun block"
"Is your iPod charged?"
"Have you got your camera?"
"Text me every day"
"Don't just text back 'ok' if I text you."
"Listen to the teachers"
"Listen to the ski instructor"
"Don't mess about on the slopes"
"Don't take your helmet off"
"Make sure you keep warm"

To all of this I have mostly been receiving the following replies:

"I'll be okay"
"Stop fussing"

This is going to be a very long week and I will miss him so much. I'm sure he will manage fine. It's me I'm worried about....

(This post also appears today at Mad Manic Mamas)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Gallery - Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall, constructed by the German Democratic Republic in 1961, divided East and West Berlin until it was pulled down in 1989 as Communism collapsed and the Cold War ended . 96 miles of wall, 12 ft high, constructed of reinforced concrete blocks, with barbed wire, guard towers and a "death strip" between the two parts of the city where upwards of 100 people died trying to cross from East to West.

We visited Berlin last October, just before the 20th anniversary of its demolition. There isn't much left of the wall to see but a mile-long stretch of it near the Ostbahnhof was saved in 1989 and 110 artists from 44 countries were invited to create the world's longest open air gallery. The Western side of the wall had been painted with graffiti and murals for years, but this Eastern side had remained untouched.

The photo above shows a section of the wall painted by Gunter Schaefer who had grown up in West Germany. Named "Fatherland" it combines the German and Israeli flags and refers to two November 9ths: in 1938 when the Nazis attacked German synagogues and arrested 25,000 Jews and the day in 1989 when the wall came down.

Shaefer and the original artists were asked to return to Berlin in 2008 to restore the paintings to their former glory because vandalism, souvenir hunters and erosion had damaged them over the years. The wall here will now be protected by 24 hour security. That's irony for you.

The wall today is not ugly to look at, with its bright, vivid murals, but it represents a bleak period in Germany's history so I felt it was a suitable photo for the theme of Ugly in The Gallery this week.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Gallery - Outside my front door - a host of golden daffodils

My home is in the Fens. Flat as a pancake. So flat that I didn't have to do a hill start in my driving test. Living in Lincolnshire, near the town of Spalding, we are blessed with lots of fields of spring flowers, some of which are grown for their blooms but many for their bulbs, hence this part of England is called South Holland.

This field can be found halfway down my street. I tried to take a photograph yesterday but it was pouring with rain and I couldn't find my wellies. Today the sun is shining. I still couldn't find my wellies so teetered over the mud in my good boots to take these photos for you. The things I do for Tara Cain's Gallery.