Thursday, 24 October 2013

Last Post

Well, we returned home last week to an overgrown garden and a tidy house - thanks to our house sitter - and now it's back to normal living; kids to school and adults to work.

There's been some changes in our absence. The children have grown closer to us, and we're closer to them. We do more together now. We spent the Saturday afternoon looking at the photos and laughing at the memories. And I'm watching the bank balance, with, it must be said, some trepidation.

  • Was it worth it?


  • Would we do it again?

Probably not. For next year the older boy will have important exams, and he will not be able to take such a long time off school. And then it will be the younger child's turn.

So this is the end of this blog.

Who knows? Maybe I'll write another. But it won't be about an eight week holiday around Europe, with a family and a kindle...It will be about another adventure.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Air Time

My God the flight from Holland to New Zealand is LONG. Two flights, two airplanes and over twenty four hours in the air.

So: Top Tips for Long Haul.

  • Check in early. Some airports have very complicated check in procedures. Schipol (that's Amsterdam) is now all automated - if you've got kids and bags there's not a lot of assistance. 
  • Carry sleeping tablets.
  • Water. Buy a bottle of drinking water in the airport lounge before you leave and top it up on the plane.
  • Try and get onto the plane early. There's often a scrum for overhead locker space. 
  • Take eye shades, ear plugs and toothbrush.
  • Carry a cardigan or wrap. You can get added warmth if the blankets aren't enough.
  • Buy access to a lounge or a shower if you're stopping enroute.
  • Remove contact lens. Wear glasses instead. 
  • Eat a proper meal at your stopover because airplane meals are never wonderful. 
  • Ask for fruit snacks mid-flight - often there's a bowl of apples.
  • Make sure there's someone to drive you home from the airport. 
I've not tried the noise cancelling headphones, but if you want to spend $500, I'm sure they're great.

And remember: these flights are costing you the price of a small diamond ring, so you may as well enjoy them. Watch as many movies as you can!

Le Bris, 1868: no long haul and no movies. Image from Wikipedia

Sunday, 20 October 2013

More Travel Tips - Packing List

The packing was always going to be a challenge. Eight weeks out of a backpack, through summer and into autumn, travelling through countries and cities - well, how to do it?

Here's a list of items that worked well:

  • charcoal a-line skirt (with pockets. You can never have enough pockets when you're travelling)
  • jeans
  • shorts
  • silk singlet
  • white travel shirt (with more pockets)
  • plaid shirt (doesn't show the dirt)
  • black merino jersey
  • black cardigan
  • 3x bright-coloured t-shirts (one of merino, for layering)
  • long-sleeved black top
  • rain coat
  • black tights
  • hat, gloves and woollen scarf (these add warmth but don't take up much room)
  • sandals
  • walking shoes - for cities and mountains
  • ankle boots - so you don't always look like a traveller
  • satchel - to blend in with the crowd and carry the coat and camera
  • exercise gear (eg running shoes) - so you don't get too fat from all the yummy food
  • a kindle - unless you want to carry a LOT of books

Of course I took more than this. But I didn't need it. Damn. I carried a lot of extra weight!

Final Book Review - Ender's Shadow


is the setting for Ender's Shadow - but a Rotterdam of the future, a bleak vision of street kids and organ farming and street kitchens. Out of this cess-pit steps Bean, a tiny urchin about four years in age and about one hundred years old in street-wisdom.

Ender's Shadow is the companion series to Ender's Game, which is coming out as a movie this year, and which I can't wait to see.

Shadow was written a lot later than Game and boy, does it show - Bean is a much more complex character, with more sophisticated interactions, thoughts and feelings.

The only complaint I have with Shadow is that - it helps if you read Ender's Game first. And then you'll get addicted on the whole damn series, and seven books or so later, you emerge from Ender's world, to find your whole family annoyed at your prolonged inattention...

Does Ender's Shadow enhance my understanding of Rotterdam? No. Not at all. But it's still a great read.

Image from Amazon

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Book Review - The Book of Liverpool

The Book of Liverpool - a City in Short Fiction 

is, as it says on its cover, a series of short stories. All set in Liverpool, the shorts span events in the city from WW2 to present day, seen through the eyes of the characters.

There's haunted houses and the slums of the pre-war and post-war eras. There's the bombings. The Toxteth Riots. The Hillsborough Disaster. And there's the future, too; the Liver building sets off to sea, like a vast cruise liner, filled with insurance actuaries.

Liverpool has more than its fair share of great writers and some of the very best - Beryl Bainbridge, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Cliver Barker  - have contributed to this selection.

The only complaint (and its really just a small complaint) is that the club scene that birthed the Beatles isn't really touched on in this collection, save for a haunting story by James Friel Something You Don't have to Deserve, except Friel deals with a club in its decay, not in its prime.

It's a great read, especially if you're trying to gain an insight into a complex city in only a few days. The sense of community, of celebration of small things is a hallmark of these stories; really, a hallmark of the city.

Image from Amazon

Tales from Two Cities

Posting on this blog was interrupted by lack of access to devices. Not the wifi, although that has been a bit tricky - more that everyone in the family had their books stored on on their iPads and were at critical places in their various narratives, so I was the last to have access.


We spent the last five days of our holiday in two cities: Liverpool and Rotterdam.

At first glance, these cities appear quite different - the scouser birthplace of the Beatles, and a north sea port. But look closer, and the similarities emerge.

Both are port cities. Both were bombed extensively during WW2. And both are reemerging, two very different phoenixes.

Built on the banks of the Mersey, Liverpool is embracing its heritage, restoring the older buildings of the port and the docks, and transforming the central city into a vibrant shopping area: Liverpool One.

Liverpool Docks

Rotterdam, on the Maas, is the largest port in Europe and the third largest in the world. But rather than rebuilding as it was before the war, the city is embracing modern architecture. The place feels like a homage to concrete and steel.

Both these cities have space - especially along the banks of their respective rivers. They have exceptionally well-planned public areas. And they both have an air of vibrance; of excitement. As if they realise that it is possible to rebuild, to make a city better than it was before.


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Number One

My teens love thrills. So it's no surprise that the number one attraction for the holiday was *drum roll*: Alton Towers.

Alton Towers is the British theme park and chock full of roller coasters. A teenager's heaven. They researched it in advance to find the best rides - not something I'd seen them do with, say, the British Museum.

Couple of tips - go in the middle of the week, take warm clothes and avoid the school holidays. There were next to no queues and plenty of rides to chose from in mid Oct.

And don't expect to sit in the cafe. The kids won't let you.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Tips for Feeding Teens in England

Teenage boys need feeding regularly. Unlike France, where boulangeries are plentiful, snack food was harder to find in the UK.

We discovered these solutions:

  • Tea Shops. Toasted tea cakes, scones and cups of tea (my son has become addicted to tea, preferring the more exotic blends to the everyday) or milkshakes.
  • Big breakfasts mean you can last until lunch time. It doesn't have to be a cooked breakfast - cereal followed with lots of toast will do.
  • Big lunches mean you can avoid expensive mid afternoon snacks or desperately grabbing whatever overpriced restaurant you can find in the evening.
  • You can of course make it yourself, but its not always that easy to carry loads of sandwiches around with you on the tube. We found it easier to take snacks - muesli bars, biscuits, fruit. 
  • You can buy pre-made sandwiches in some off licenses. They're not the greatest, but needs must...
  • Carry water with you.
  • Make sure you have lots of fruit with breakfast!
  • In London, the boys liked subway, because they felt full afterwards.

For the evening, self-cater as much as you can.You will eat healthier and save a packet. But sometimes you'll be tired, or busy, or out of food. Here's what we found:

  • In London, curry houses or Turkish restaurants had better prices.
  • Teens love buffets, look out for 'all you can eat' deals. We found a Chinese place in Exeter offering £6.00 meals.
  • In rural areas, it's pretty much pub grub. Ask around for which pubs do good meals - there is a lot of variation. The good ones are really great.
  • Try and encourage the kids to order potatoes instead of fries. If you can.
  • The tourist areas are expensive - like £70 for hamburgers and fries at convent garden. Aargh! So either avoid the tourist areas, or eat before you go, or just suck it up. Tell yourself that you'll never be there again...

Teenager's Top Tips - London

London's AWESOME

Here's The Tenager's list, not in any particular order, of Cool Things to Do in London.

The Shard
London Dungeon
Walkin' and Discoverin' stuff
Covent Gardens
Globe Theatre 
Street Performers - Trafalgar Square
Kew Gardens
Double decker buses and the Tube
Changing of the Guard
London Eye

We also went to loads of museums, galleries etc - none made it onto the list!
We didn't go to the Tower of London, Greenwich or any of the markets, so this list is by no means complete...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Book Review: Shakespeare's Sonnets

Stratford upon Avon

Is very atmospheric, quaint, charming; full of pretty half-timbered buildings.

And of course, replete with all things Shakespeare. So reading Shakespeare's Sonnets would be an easy thing to do, I thought.

That was before I realised how many sonnets there actually are. In the book I downloaded there are 154. I am only up to number 66. The poems are all in praise of, or in thought of, Love: themes of love conquering time, death ending love, the impermanence of beauty, love as a slave, love as lust, lust as power.

I do wonder what they might have been like had he chosen a more weightier topic - like death, or politics, or religion. But politics and religion are unsafe topics and 154 poems on death would have been a bit much. 

The thing I like best about the sonnets is Shakespeare's confidence that his poems would be read, and that people would keep on reading them - thus rendering his love (and his art) immortality.

'So long as men can breathe and eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.'

And on that note, here is some graffiti from Warwick Castle. Not as old as the sonnets, but also outlasting its author! Who needs immortal prose, when you can carve your initials?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Book Review: an unmentionable title

Agatha Christie and Casual Racism

When staying on Dartmoor I was going to read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I must confess this was partly an easy option, having read and re-read the story since childhood. However, due to an accident with my iPad, I lost the iBooks version (should have used kindle) and so could not read it when on the moor. Shame. We spend an afternoon wandering near Grimspound as the mist came down, very atmospheric and a black dog (a common Devon myth) would have only added to the ambience. 

But we also went to Burgh Island. An odd little place, it's an isthmus, so you can walk to it at low tide and at high tide you can take a peculiar tractor that travels across the sand as the waves rock it to and fro. 

Agatha Christie stayed on the Island and set one of her novels there. Unfortunately, the novel has a terrible title, so I'm not going to write it here, but it's been renamed as 'And Then There Were None.'

The story starts with ten people being invited to an island and then, one by one, they are all murdered, very mysteriously.

It's not one of her best works but it is entertaining enough for a wet day. But it is also very racist. Against Africans. Against Jews. Against Natives (who don't, apparently, care as much for death as white folk). While these are probably the attitude of Christie's characters and not necessarily those of Christie herself, they are still shocking to read. It was interesting to see how much attitudes have changed, and how it is now no longer acceptable to make sweeping judgements of a sex or a race, even if its your characters with the prejudice, not the author.

That being said, the book is ok, not brilliant. Ten characters is just too many. And they do not have diverse enough voices. So I wouldn't recommend it - and I don't envy the other guests on Burgh Island while Christie wrote it. What would it be like, to inhabit the same hotel as a crime writer?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips for Travelling in the UK

Things I have learned:

Apologies for an extended absence - I've been staying in a 13th Century cottage in Devon and such houses rarely come with internet access.

We've been travelling in the UK for nearly four weeks and here's a quick summary of things I wish I knew when I arrived:

  • Get a local sim and insert it into your smart phone. This will allow you access to google maps without incurring roaming charges, invaluable when in a new country. I had avoided this, thinking my phone was locked. Turned out it wasn't. You can tell by inserting a micro sim into your phone and seeing what it does! Cost of aforesaid sim: 5 pounds. Until I figured this out I spend $86.00 in calls and data
  • Be careful with tripadvisor holiday lets ( We've had a very mixed experience with this site.  However, I do recommend listings that are attached to reputable outfits - such as Helpful Holidays. The reason: the cancellation fees are massive (the total cost of the booking if less than 4 weeks notice) and communication with owners is very mixed. If you use a third party agency, responses to emails and phone calls is much faster.
  • Research your destination in advance. This gives you a good idea on what you want to see - important in a place like London, where there is just so much to do.
  • If you are going to a rural destination, invest in an Ordnance Survey map. There are heaps of little attractions in the country - ruined castles, roman roads, stone circles - that are marked on these maps. Most are free.
  • Get out of the car. The UK was developed for people on feet (there are hundreds of little public access footpaths and bridleways).
  • Buy National Trust membership. We purchased New Zealand Historical Places membership before we left which gives a family of four access to National Trust properties - 100s of castles, stately homes, gardens and other places across the UK. Cost: $69.00
  • Plan for bad weather. England is green because it is wet! And when its sunny, get outdoors.