Tuesday, 2 September 2014

New-fangled technology

Are you the sort of person that finds postcard writing a chore?

Do you find that when you go on holiday these days you send less postcards than you did in previous years?

We used to leave postcards as a job to be done on the last day of the holiday.  We used to dither over who would like which picture the best and then we used to try and tailor the words to the addressee.

We would mumble our way through postcard and step purchases unless we left things so late we ended up posting them once we returned to the UK.

Not this year.  Well, not quite this year.

This year we experimented with Touchnote,  app-based postcards that use your photos.

Well the experiment was a success.  

We used the photos on my phone, still dithering over who would like which image.  We pulled the contact details from the contacts on the phone and we mulled over which message to type in the space available.  We pressed send and it was printed and posted from Guernsey.

Despite the personal touches involved I think this postcard may have felt less personal to the recipients.  The photos can be very personal but we're a camera shy family so our pictures were of things not people.  And the message is printed not written.  I remember writing postcards crammed with words on every spare space and the printed text doesn't allow for this, or hand drawn pictures either.

I think we'll use it again.  I like it, but I don't know what it's like to receive a Touchnote card.

If you want to find out more about the app, click here.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A simple life

If I had to write a book review for homework over the summer holidays and the book wasn't specified, I'd choose a book that I'd read at least once already.

I'd also choose an easy book. Why choose Tolstoy when you can select Blyton.

Ethan chose a book he hadn't finished before the start of the holidays.

Ethan chose a book for which there are not one but three film adaptations.

He has chosen The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I haven't read (I can't be doing with all that Dungeons and Dragons crap).

He has finished the book and he has watched the films.

School starts back on Thursday and he hasn't written his review.

I tried to persuade him along an easier route but he is steadfast.

Sometimes, just doing enough to cross the line is the best option. Running a marathon for the hundred metre race is a waste of energy.

I think I might be a bit stressed by the end of the week.

Sunday, 31 August 2014


Our return journey was a little different.

We arrived at Livorno early, popped the car on the train and waited patiently in the station until our departure time.

It didn't take us long before we moved out of the 30 degree heat into the much cooler station.

When we got on the train it was like stepping into an oven. We weren't worried because we knew the aircon would cool us down.

After about an hour we were still baking and asked for help getting the air conditioning working properly.

When the engineer reached us he explained it was working, but facing a tough challenge. The train had been sitting in the very hot sun for quite a long time. It was a big lump of iron that readily absorbed the sun's energy. It was like putting ice cubes in an oven.

Eventually things did start to cool down but it took a couple of hours.

During dinner we learned from other passengers that our arrival time had been pushed back by just under two hours. We weren't aware but knew that the journey to the ferry would have less slack; we'd be eating on the boat rather than a restaurant en route as planned.

I thought we should have been told, and we might have been. I need to check my email.

I have survived just under 24 hours without internet access but have ferry wifi enabling this post.

Back to work tomorrow, in the afternoon perhaps.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Driving in Italy

I have tried to avoid this because it just confirms every stereotype. But Italian drivers lack discipline.

I haven't done any driving this holiday but I've spent a lot if time behind the dashboard as a nervous passenger. 

The condition of the roads isn't good. I know we complain about the pothole ridden nature of UK roads but the main roads we encountered in Italy were worse.

On main roads, say dual carriageways it seems to be acceptable to use the dotted white line as something to be straddled. Sometimes it's anyone's guess as to which lane a driver is intending to occupy.

This also happens between the inside lane and the hard shoulder. The solid white line here too is often under the midpoint of the car, van or truck. I haven't been able to figure out why this is the case.

Filter lanes joining roads are ridiculously short. In other countries drivers anticipate a filter lane and move over to accommodate joining drivers. In Italy it's every man for himself and you have to squeeze into whatever gap is available at high speed.

Personal space is in short supply in Italy. When I was younger I recall a friend instructing me on how to deal with Italian men if they get too close on the bus. The same problem exists on the road too but the solution isn't as easy. Drivers tailgate far more here than anywhere else I've driven.

And then there's driving in Rome where driving defensively just isn't enough. You have to drive aggressively to a) get anywhere and b) avoid invoking the ire of others on the road.

So if you can, take the train. The service is so much better than the efforts of Geeater Anglia.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Cold hard look

I have an issue with pompous arses who want to lecture me about the Ice Bucket Challenge. 

I did it because it seemed harmless, and raised awareness and money for a Motor Neurone Disease charity. I chose to donate to the MDNA because I am more familiar with that charity than I am with the work done by ALS. If people have given to ALS then isn't it great a charity has received more money? If they now have so much money they need to invest some to guarantee income for the future - then that's wonderful.

Some people have pointed out that top management at ALS earn money. Some people need to raise that ALL major and most minor charities have people on the payroll. I think that with the fund-raising they've achieved this year the ALS team have more than earned their salaries. 

Some people have complained that not everybody who has done the challenge knows what ALS or MND is. True, some don't. Some have found out about it as a result of the challenge though and increased awareness has to be a good thing doesn't it? 

Don't get me started on the people who bitch about the waste of water. I don't give a monkeys if you do the challenge and raise money for Water Aid or any other charity but unless you're living off the water grid in the same country as me then give up your lecturing. I don't live in a drought stricken country. Me saving water in my country doesn't help those who are in drought stricken countries. 

And I know this started as a challenge for ALS but let's not be critical of those who use the challenge as an excuse to raise money for other charities. Who cares? What's bad about raising money for other charities? 

And then there's criticism of charities who've tried to use  it as a vehicle for their own fund-raising efforts. I've seen Macmillan taking a beating for this. If I worked for a charity right now I'd be looking for the next Ice Bucket Challenge idea. I'd want the next social media charity explosion to be for my charity. I might try and jump on the Ice Bucket Challenge bandwagon. Who cares? What's bad about raising money for charity? 

Lastly there are those that say that only 50% of the fund raised through the challenge are incremental. 50% is substitutional. Right, so millions and millions have been raised incrementally and the same amount has been substitutional for other charitable giving. If this argument is going to be used then I'd suggest all major charity fund-raising should cease. Eliminate Comic Relief, kill Sport Relief, chop Children in Need. Stop the Macmillan Coffee Mornings, the Cancer Research Race for Life and ALL appeals by the Disasters Emergency Committee. 

Clearly this is a ridiculous notion. We should be delighted at the increase in charitable giving. Who knows, maybe the increase will stick. 

And for those that have been nominated and don't want to take part... It's fine, you don't have to. 

Rant. Over.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Weapons smuggling

I smuggled two weapons into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome today. 

St. Peter's was our last stop at the end of a long hot day.  We turned up to find a ridiculously long queue. We'd made the effort to drive to Rome and walk from the Colosseum so we decided to brave the high temperatures and wait. 

At this point I'd like to say that queue etiquette was non-existent. 

As we got closer to the front of the queue I spotted signs advising that penknives were not allowed into the Basilica. They even had airport style machines for X-raying bags. 

I had two Swiss Army knives in my bag.  They're useful!  There's the corkscrew, scissors, tweezers, screwdrivers, nail file etc. Even the knives can be useful for cutting bread our spreading pate when normal cutlery isn't available. 

What should I do? 

I know I didn't plan to stab anyone or deface any of the artwork but the police didn't know that. 

The police also didn't know that I once made a return flight to Cologne with a penknife in my bag without even realising it was there. 

I could hand them in, but if this was anything like airport security then I wouldn't get them back, and one of the penknives had travelled around the world with me; I didn't want to see it go. 

We looked for somewhere that I could stash my illicit hardware until after my visit when I could retrieve it. Nowhere seemed suitable so I decided to wing it and forfeit them if asked. 

I went through the body scanner at the same time my bag was being scanned. Nobody said a word, I wasn't challenged and I took my two "blades" around St. Peter's unnoticed. Nobody got hurt, nothing got harmed and I still have my penknives.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Horsing around

I don't like horse flies.

Given the amount of attention they've been affording me I wonder whether I should, perhaps, start neighing.

Their modus operandi lacks subtlety. They land on either skin or clothing. They prefer skin but will put up with clothing if ready access to flesh isn't available.

They then rip a hole in the skin. It's not a sophisticated manouvre and it does hurt. The idea behind the pain is that the victim focuses on the injury rather than the cause of the injury, this leaving the horsefly to leave the scene unharmed.

Once your flesh is exposed the horsefly then has ready access to your blood and will return, at will, to feed.

Apparently they are repelled by insect repellent, but I'm not convinced.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pet crab

We went to the beach today.

It was full of scantily clad people bearing more than a passing resemblance to the colour of furniture we all used see in the houses of grandparents.

It was a drive away but the children wanted a beach day, so we obliged.  The weather was hot, the sea was warm and the satnav said it was just over an hour away.

We sat in the sun, watched people, dug a deep hole, swam in the sea and started a small driftwood collection.  Having been inspired by our stone stacking artist we decided we'd stack driftwood. Our collection was accumulating in a large Tupperware container and it made it into the boot of the car for the return journey.

When we got back Ethan noticed we had a stowaway. In amongst the driftwood was a crab, admittedly tiny but a crab nonetheless. He set about making his new pet comfortable.

First he added water, and then salt. His next concern was food. What do baby crabs eat?

We have an ants nest outside the building and, given the ready supply of these, Ethan thought we could feed the crab ants.  The crab seemed nonplussed by the offer of an ant but Ethan was undeterred.

The next thing a pet crab needs is a name. Ethan reasoned that if he was going to eat ants, then maybe he should be called Anthony.

So here's Anthony.  Advice on whether crabs will eat our other readily available food sources is welcome.

We have grass, rosemary, lavender, olive leaves and unripe olives, bay leaves, unripe figs and pine needles.

Update: While Ethan was in the shower, the following notes appeared under the bathroom door.

The spelling of butt is deliberate here.  "I'm sorry Ethan" "I'm sorry Butt". Family humour.

And it appears Anthony has met an untimely end. No foul play is suspected.

This blog post is delayed until Tuesday as a mark of respect.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Not the normal tourist attraction

We bought a guidebook with us that has pointed us towards some less touristy attractions.

Florence and Tuscany with Kids took us to Dreamwoods.

Finding the place was a challenge. The satnav rejected all address information we had so we relied on Google maps (thank goodness for Three's All You Can Eat Data). Some website somewhere warned of the gravel road but it didn't mention the hairpin bends and the possible state of the roads after yesterday's torrential thunderstorms.

We found it eventually and first impressions were a bit uninspiring. There didn't seem to be anyone around so we just started looking around.

A gentleman in his early sixties (perhaps) appeared. His name was Deva Manfredo and he explained that he was the artist responsible. He produced a map and suggested we might want to give him €20. He explained his art doesn't manipulate materials other than balancing items that he finds (mainly stones) upon one another.

We started wandering around this unusual sculpture park in the woods. The horseflies were a complete pain (avoid visiting in August and September or wear strong insect repellent) but the art was amazing. There were over 200 pieces of art scattered along a complex maze of paths in a wood near a water lily pond and meadow.

Talking to the artist I think he started living at the neighbouring commune but now lives in a local village. We didn't get to how he moved from Germany to Tuscany but I imagine "the sixties" might have had a part to play. He doesn't see much traffic and was delighted to have been mentioned in a guidebook. We had to retrieve the Kindle from the car to prove he'd made it into print.

He works with stones and stuff he acquires whether it's marble factory waste, driftwood or discarded electrical items.

His work is diverse, beautiful, strange, and fascinating. He has a small shed that serves as a shop where you can buy small take away examples of his art (where he has used glue) and calendars and postcards showing his work.

Here are some pictures.

A modest suggestion

Being a female tourist in Italy during the summer poses too many "what shall I wear" dilemmas.

There is a lot of walking to be done. This probably requires comfortable sandals but I reckon you can get away with flip flops at a push. There are also plenty of torre and duomo climbing opportunities. This is where sandals win against flip flops. One could consider trainers or similar but on a hot day that doesn't appeal.

Hot weather usually encourages Brits to dispense with as much clothing as possible. Women often wear strappy tops with very short shorts. This is a problem when trying to visit duomos. Italians, unsurprisingly, take religion very seriously and you must be dressed appropriately to be allowed entry into most churches or cathedrals. I've seen signs banning hats, strappy tops and short shorts or skirts. I think shorts that aren't very short are OK and a t-shirt with short sleeves is OK. I often wear sleeveless but not strappy tops and make sure I have a sarong with me to cover my shoulders and thus avoid causing offence.

I remember traveling with my friend Pam, Interrailing around Europe, in my early twenties. Either the Italians have become more tolerant of tourist dress (or lack of it) or I wear more these days.

Either way, nowadays, you are less likely to be refused entry for a lack of apparel. Attractions want your tourist Euros and will offer you a modesty cape made of paper if you aren't deemed to be wearing enough.

Saturday, 23 August 2014


I always forget something when I go on holiday. I think most people do. 

Sometimes it's the thing you've left right next to the front door to make sure you don't forget it. Often you're so busy trying to remember the obscure things that it's the obvious things you forget. Sometimes the things that get left behind are the things you remember a few days before travel and you think "I must remember that" and it's almost instantly dismissed to the deepest recesses of the mind. 

This time I forgot binoculars. This might not seem an essential item (I agree) but I'd seen a guidebook recommendation that it was a good thing to pack if you have children; it allows them to look at detail that they might otherwise miss. This particular guidebook had challenges for children that required binoculars. 

I forgot a bikini. This isn't strictly true as I don't own a bikini. I threw all of mine in the bin during a moment of self-loathing in which I decided my midriff should never be seen in public. Having seen other stomachs on display here I think I could have got away with one. Also, we have a private garden here that isn't overlooked so the only people's eyes I'd be offending would be family. So this is a retrospective "with hindsight" omission. And I could still debate the merits of a bikini. I think there comes a point when it simply isn't right. 

And I forgot knickers. This hasn't been the disaster one might imagine. I had packed some for our epic journey and I'd also packed laundry detergent. This and a quick trip to local shops has negated the need to go commando.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The times they are a changin'

Years ago everyone took pictures on holiday. The shutter wasn't clicked too often because film and processing were expensive and there was no preview prior to printing.  Cameras were either small compacts or bulky SLRs. Things are a little different now. 

A camera can be something we'd recognise as a camera or a phone or tablet. People even use GoPro video cameras for stills. 

And it used to be the Japanese for whom the people in the picture were more important than the scenery but now everyone is the master of the selfie. 

The quality of pictures seems less important and the secondary cameras on mobile phones and the poorer quality cameras on tablets are even preferable for those seeking a flattering self portrait. The selfie stick is something I've noticed for the first time this year. It's not just a monopod but a way of snapping a picture of oneself and family or friends without having to ask a passing stranger for help. 

Another reason that quality is less important is that photos can be edited almost immediately. 

I also think photos are more transient. We all used to treasure photos and place them carefully in albums. Now our albums are online, uploaded, shared and forgotten.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three things to take on holiday

My mobile contract is with T-Mobile and last year our holiday was in France. To use my phone in France I bought a booster for £10. It had a call, text and paltry data allowance. Despite being careful with my data usage I burned through at least one additional booster.

This year I wanted a better solution and started my research a few weeks before we left. On one website I saw that customers with a SIM from Three paid nothing extra for calls, texts and data when using their SIM abroad. I noticed that to qualify for this benefit the SIM had to be active for a month before leaving the country. I also spotted that there was a loophole that allowed customers to buy a SIM with an add-on (a pre-paid top up with set amount of defined use) that could be used straight away. 

I did my research on the Three website and it wasn't crystal clear. Admittedly my research wasn't thorough and I didn't read everything, but I couldn't find the information I needed. 

I searched for T-mobile solutions. I found something about a £2 per day charge for calls and texts and a £3 daily charge for something pathetic like 50MB. I also found a reference to the booster solution I'd used the year before. When I contacted T-mobile they advised the web pages about boosters had been removed from the website and weren't visible. I sent them screen grabs to show they were still discoverable and turned my attention back to Three. 

I dived in and bought four SIMs. Two had £15 add-ons with calls, texts and unlimited data and two had £10 add-ons with calls, texts and 500MB of data. The SIMs were free and the purchased add-ons would last for 30 days. We started using them in the UK and they worked perfectly except for one hiccough (more later). 

It was a different story in the Netherlands. Hannah's phone worked and so did Ethan's but mine didn't and neither did Dave's. But the children's SIMs only worked for calls and texts, not data. I phoned Three using Hannah's phone and they explained that their "works abroad" claim didn't include the Netherlands but did include Italy. I was confused because the cheaper SIMs worked partially but I waited until we arrived in Italy. In Italy everyone's phones worked perfectly except I had no data. 

I lived on WiFi for a couple of days and then called Three. Their offshore customer services team were great. They talked me through simple checks then transferred me to the technical team. The fix involved deleting a couple of profiles hidden somewhere in Settings. I was soon starting to enjoy my "All you can eat" data. A couple of days later and Dave's phone stopped working. A quick call to Three and everything was sorted. 

So it worked, and despite the problems, I would recommend this as a great holiday solution.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

24 - part three

While I was busy sleeping and not sleeping and trying to sleep, the Autoslaap train was showing off. By the time I was conscious in the morning the train had changed direction. On the previous day we'd been pulling the carriages that contained the cars. I woke up to find we were pushing them. We'd turned around. After my initial confusion I checked to make sure we were still heading for Italy. We were. Thankfully. 

When the rest of the family were awake we got dressed and turned our temporary bedroom back into a sitting room. We retrieved the table from under the seats and we were ready for breakfast. Breakfast Autoslaap style was "different". It arrived packaged in a cardboard box rather like airline food. There was a Capri Sun (orange), a white roll, a wholemeal (or maybe rye) roll, butter, pate, jam, cheese spread, ginger cake and chocolate spread. An interesting combination but we were hungry and we were out of alternatives. Our attendant also brought us a surprisingly tasty coffee that was pleasant enough that we didn't have to use the icky creamer that was provided. 

Once we'd cleared breakfast it was time for more whist, scenery-gazing and guessing where we were. I'd woken up in Milan and occasionally we passed somewhere else I recognised. It didn't take long at all before we arrived in Livorno at 11:30am on the dot, as per the itinerary. 

It was now that being almost being last to check-in was a disadvantage as we were one of the last to retrieve our car. That was the bad news. The good news was that the chipped windscreen was not shattered. 

While I was waiting for the car I had a chance to speak to some other travellers. Someone was only staying in Italy for just a week before returning. Someone else was doing the trip for their fourth year in a row. There were people with young children, people with teenagers and couples without children. Some people didn't like the hassle of flying, others didn't want to drive the long distance. Amongst the vehicles there was a Morgan and a BMW touring bike. 

As we were on our way I checked to see if we would repeat the experience. The consensus was "yes" but we haven't completed the return journey yet so I'll reserve judgement.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

24 - part two

We were the only ones to have arranged or cabin away from a seat setting. Nobody else had moved onto bunks. Ethan was happy reading horizontally and I took advantage to gain some horizontal shut eye. So I didn't care that we were bucking the trend.
As we moved through countries I gradually realised we'd moved into Germany and the first thing that struck me was the increase in graffiti. I think this surprised me because perhaps I imagine graffiti to be the preserve of a disaffected youth. Germany's PR machine has been persuading me that they're doing alright Jack (or whatever the German equivalent of Jack is). I might expect it in Spain where youth unemployment, or unemployment generally is shockingly high, but not in Germany.
We went through Cologne and along the Rhine. I saw vineyards planted on infeasibly steep slopes and then I started to feel hungry, and thirsty.
The nice attendant paid us a visit. We'd splashed out for a meal in the restaurant car and the reviews I'd read said that it was worth the expense. The advice was to book the early sitting at 6:00 pm to be sat eating dinner alongside the Rhine. Our attendant wanted to know if we wanted wine with our meal and recommended we find her at dinnertime to lock our cabin while we dined.
We'd had a sneak peek at the restaurant car earlier and it was a bit posh. It wasn't very posh but it didn't seem to be a shorts and a t-shirt environment. Dave and I changed into something more suitable but our children were immovable objects and turned up wearing their usual scruffy attire.
Dinner was good, the view was excellent, but there was a problem. I felt perhaps there wasn't enough dinner. If I added the calorific content then it was probably sufficient but I really was quite hungry. Luckily I had some emergency shortbread back in the cabin to tide us over.
After dinner it was back to the cabin for some post dinner entertainment.  This comprised of Hannah teaching Ethan how to play Cheat and Dave and me teaching the children how to play Whist. The remaining bunks were assembled and we prepared for sleep.
There were blankets in the cabin and each bunk had a freshly laundered sheet fashioned into a sleep sheet rather like a sleeping bag liner. There were also pillows with freshly laundered pillow cases. There was a slight problem with the sleeping arrangements. One could argue whether this was a fault of Autoslaap or of us but Dave was too tall to fit in a bunk properly. Given that he regularly suffers with a bad back this was not ideal but he did his best not to make a fuss.