Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Costa Living

Aiguablava Beach - a beautiful rocky cove
The last time I visited the Costa Brava, I was 18, and armed with an Inter-Rail ticket. This was a bit of a problem, as most of the beach resorts there weren't actually served by rail - but my friend and Inter-railing companion, J, wasn't fazed by that.

She wanted to go to the beaches where she'd camped with her family -- so, with our massive backpacks and her huge stereo, we took a succession of local buses from Girona and spent several nights in tiny "pensiones" close to the sea. We sunbathed, drank cheap sangria and ate paella, sat out late at night on the beaches getting chatted up by local boys, dragged our backpacks round the Dali Museum at Figueres and finally washed up in Barcelona, whereupon we almost got mugged and spent the entire day in a police station.

This time was a bit different. The Doctor and I arrived en famille with a car, two children, two suitcases, a large coolbox and various other items (including Littleboy 2's school uniform, having come straight from his end of term service). We arrived at a villa near Begur on the Costa Brava at the not-too-appalling hour of 7pm after a marathon day and a half's drive. Luckily our friends, with whom we were sharing the villa, had arrived first and had everything sorted - drinks, dinner and even inflatables for the pool.

The very popular diving board at Tamariu
Begur is a beguiling town (of which more later) and surrounded by some stunningly pretty little coves. Little being the operative word - don't go here if you want wide, sandy beaches where you can spread yourself out. The beaches are rocky, nestled at the foot of cliffs and accessed by winding roads - so parking is limited and you need to get there early to find a space. I dread to think what it's like in high season, as we were not even there within Spanish school holidays. Our first day, at Tamariu Beach, was a Saturday, and when we arrived at the beach there was barely room to lay down our beach towels. (Luckily having five rather lively kids who wanted to play beach ball helped -- after a few hours, all the neighbouring sunbathers had mysteriously moved away).

But the sun was warm, the water was clear and - best of all - there was a diving board on the rocks, allowing hours of endless fun for the children (and me) diving into the aquamarine sea. There was also surprisingly good snorkelling (or in our case, diving in goggles) -- I never think of the Med as a snorkelling or diving destination but we saw tons of fish when we dipped below the surface.


The beautiful coast around Begur
Aiguablava -- another of Begur's local beaches -- was an even prettier cove, lined by a seafood restaurants and with pedalos and kayaks for rent. The pedalos were the kind that have slides coming off them, so of course the children were desperate to go on one.

Medieval Begur; these towers were lookout posts for pirates
Begur itself is a pretty medieval hill town with a castle on its peak and crumbling towers from which the townsfolk used to watch for pirates. It has apparently become quite a destination for chic Barcelonians, and you could tell that from its range of boutiquey-type hotels, trendy bars and cool-looking restaurants that were more like something you'd expect in Manhattan than the Costa Brava. However, with five kids in tow, including a toddler, this wasn't for our party, and happily we found the kind of places that did a good pizza/ice cream option as well as some tasty tapas.

The nearby village of Pals was also a real find -- another medieval town with ancient walls and beautiful gothic architecture. We headed there on a rainy day and found it packed by fellow tourists flooding the souvenir shops - which, rather than selling cheap tat, were rather high quality, many selling the glazed artisanal pottery which is the local industry.

All in all the area was unexpectedly unlike the Costa Brava I remembered from years before -- and definitely unlike the much brasher Spanish Costas of Southern Spain, with their British fish and chip cafes, high rise blocks and sunburned clientele.

Lastly-- don't I always say this?-- you can drive there from the UK. It's only an hour from the French border and it's totally do-able, even with children. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire helped, and we had stop -offs in Cahors, in southwest France, and Blois in the Loire Valley on the way back. Even on the way down, where we could only stop one night, we managed dinner in the city of Chartres, right by the famous and very beautiful cathedral.

And, although we did spend many hours in the car, there was only a BIT of moaning about the drive. Although the cheers that the boys let out as our Channel Tunnel train pulled into Folkestone were rather revealing....





Friday, 27 June 2014

End of term madness -- and mindfulness...

End of school madness has descended on the Nappy Valley household. Having two children at two different schools (thank god, only for another few days) makes things even more "interesting" than usual. This week has seen my presence at one school or the other on no less than four days out of five: for school plays, sports days, visiting mornings for new schools and information evenings for parents. Next week is only a three day school week, but our diary includes a school carnival, a school trip, a Leavers' Party and a Leavers' Service (after which we will be speeding down the French autoroutes towards Spain and a much-needed holiday).

Despite having (so I thought) read all the school mailings religiously all year, on three occasions I have found myself almost missing crucial events because of letters being mislaid, not sent out etc.  I was also informed midweek that Littleboy 1 needed a fancy dress costume for Monday. After my experience with the fez, I found this infuriating -- in fact I think working parents need to go on strike about this sort of thing. It ALL gets dumped on the mothers -- the Doctor just laughed about it when he heard, and in a relaxed fashion just told me not to bother. But he won't be the one who has to stand there cringing when the little darlings go on their carnival parade and our child is the only one in boring school uniform....

One of the reasons I work from home is so that I CAN go to all these school events, do pickups at different times of day and help the children with homework that, increasingly, seems to require adult involvement such as looking things up on the computer and printing things out. (Yes, I know a nine year old can use Google as well as I can, but select appropriate images and print them? I can't even get our printer to work half the time...).

I can't even begin to imagine how hard it is for the mothers who work in an office five days a week and only see their children after after-school club in the evening. Most of them do seem to make it to the events, but they're always checking their watches and running for the train as soon as it's over, and looking harried and hassled.

I don't recall my parents having this level of involvement when I was at school, although maybe I'm wrong (my Dad is the only one who's around, and he doesn't remember it). In a way it's lovely, because you do get to see what they're doing and to cheer them on at everything and meet the teachers on a very regular basis. And yes, God knows employers ought to be sympathetic about letting working parents go to these sorts of events. But I bet not all of them are. And it depends what you do -- The Doctor, for instance, can't cancel clinics because of a school sports day, and there are only so many swaps you can do with colleagues.

Anyway, coupled with all this running around is the rather sad realisation that another school year has gone by. When you are a child, the end of the school year is fun and exciting. But when you are a mother, it's just a marker of the passing of time -- that your children (and you) are another year older and that these are precious moments that must be captured -- and enjoyed -- in the bittersweet moment. I'll try to carry that end of term mindfulness with me as I rush off to the next school event....


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Blogging friends old and new

Two Knackered Mothers, one bestselling author..with the lovely Helen

What is the collective noun for blogging mothers? A phalanx, a gaggle? Perhaps a maternity....

Anyway, there was a good gathering of them at BritMums Live on Saturday. Most of whom I didn't know. Yes, nearly all my all crowd seemed to have decided that this was the year off, having been religiously for the last five years. Sod's law I suppose.

But.... I did get to meet the fabulous Knackered Mother (aka Helen), whose Wine Club I've been admiring and commenting on ever since it started. We chatted excitedly across the book signing table,where she was signing copies of her excellent book, and then I watched her very impressive performance in the "Building your food brand" session .

And I did enjoy the day. I met some interesting new bloggers and decided that my blogroll is in dire need of a revamp (as is my blog design, which is shamefully old-fashioned, and probably won't see me "monetizing" my blog any time soon). I learned all about travel blogging, and decided I might start a separate travel section on my blog. I wandered around and marvelled at the number of brands that want to get into bed with mummy bloggers. And I listened to some hilarious, sobering and heart-rending stories as a selection of talented bloggers read out their posts.

But the best bit? It had to be the musical performance of The Good Enough Mums Club. These talented women have written a musical about motherhood which is funny, honest and downright dirty. They performed a taster from the musical and I loved it. They're performing around London this summer and I intend to go.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Holiday budget tips - you read it here first

Seriously...this is much more fun than Disney
The lovely Rosie Scribble has blogged about a competition in which you can win some foreign currency for posting your family budgeting travel tips. As I'm heading off to Europe shortly, this would come in very handy, so I'm going to have a go.

Having travelled a fair amount with my kids, particularly in the US, I've learned a few things over the years about how not to spend your money. Here are a few ways I can think of to cut down on expenses during your holiday.

1. My number one budgeting tip -- don't eat out too often with small children if you can avoid it. You will pay extortionate amounts for food they don't like and drinks they don't finish. If you are self-catering, great -- buy delicious food for yourself and eat in, and cook the kids the stuff they like. You'll also be able to afford that good bottle of wine, instead of having to pick the cheapest bottle on the menu.

2. If you are eating out, check out whether or not kids' menus are actually cheaper. We've now worked out that for two kids, the Pizza Express kids' menu adds up to more than if you buy an adult Margarita (pizza, not the drink!) and split it between them. My kids never, ever want the pudding or the "babyccino" (being too full up on pizza) so it's really not worth it. Oh, and take crayons. Or you'll end up buying expensive drinks just to drown out the noise of the bored children complaining, and ice cream to keep them from going crazy.

3. Consider travelling by car to your destination, instead of flying.  If your kids are OK in the car, it will save you money -- flights plus car hire add up to a lot (particularly when care hire firms whack on extra charges for car seats etc). You can also take all your stuff and paraphenalia that goes with having children -- and avoid extra bag charges from mean airlines (BA, I'm looking at you here). Take plenty of audio entertainment for the car -- we enjoyed listening to Harry Potter on the way to France this year.

4. If you are doing long drives, a good plan is to stay overnight at somewhere with a pool for when you arrive. This may not sound like budgeting, but actually not all hotels with pools are expensive (in America, we always went for the Holiday Inn Express chain; it was relatively budget, but all the hotels had small pools). It will also save your sanity, as what you really don't need after a long drive is manic, screaming kids in a hotel room.

5. If you do have to hire a car - see above -- avoid the car seat charges by packing a blow-up car seat. We have a brand called Bubblebum. Yes, the Littleboys giggle about the name and say they're "squishy", but these seats are incredibly useful and fit nicely into your luggage.

6. If you want to save money, avoid theme parks. Honestly. Take your children swimming in a lake, hiking up a mountain, make sandcastles at the beach. They will have just as much fun, probably won't have any meltdowns and you'll be about two hundred pounds better off.

7. If you're going to a city, do your homework first about travel options - is there a family travelcard, does it include museums/sightseeing? In San Francisco, we managed to get a travel ticket that included several attractions. Otherwise, you could spend a fortune on just getting around.

8. Also in cities - don't try and do too many museums in a day. Not only will you pay through the nose (most places, unlike London, charge for museums), your children will want to kill you and you'll end up buying them expensive ice creams/toys to keep them from melting down....

9. If you are determined to do lots of museums, check out in advance whether your chosen destination has free ones. Washington DC is a good option as the Smithsonian Museums are free. Also, if you visit New York, bear in mind that some museums, like the Museum of Natural History, advertise a high price for your visit which (if you read the small print) is actually optional. You can pay $1 to visit that museum, as long as you are prepared for some dirty looks at the ticket booth.

10. Last one -- and this might be obvious, but I still haven't quite learned from it -- avoid that museum gift shop! Your kids will want to buy some piece of utter tat, or a toy that they will love for ten minutes and then forget all about. You'll find it in two years time lying at the bottom of the toy box and wonder why you spent twenty five dollars of your hard earned cash on it. Trust me.

Monday, 16 June 2014

I'm going to BritMums Live - are you?

About six years ago, when I had just started blogging about life with small children in Nappy Valley, I was contacted by someone called Susanna, with a blog called A Modern Mother, who wanted to start a network for Mummy Bloggers. I wasn't sure what this really meant, but I signed up to it, and a few months later she launched British Mummy Bloggers.

A few other bloggers joined up, and I remember that they had a coffee morning in London, but I couldn't go because I had a work meeting. So I didn't get to meet Susanna. Then, just as I headed to live in the USA, British Mummy Bloggers had its first blogging conference. My little part of the blogosphere was abuzzwith this event, as hundreds of people I'd met online got to meet each other in real life, and I was really disappointed not to be able to go.

Over the years, as BMB evolved into Brit Mums Live, and got bigger and bigger and then REALLY huge, I STILL haven't made it due to living abroad and having small children who I couldn't leave. Oh yes, and in the meantime, I had introduced my good friend, Maddy, to Susanna (long story, but she was moving to the same town), and she is now one of the chief organizers of the event. And I still haven't met Susanna.

But this year ...(drum roll).....I'm back in London. So this year I'm finally going (well, for one day anyway. Kiddie commitments still get in the way).

Saturday's schedule sounds exciting. I'm really looking forward to some of the speakers, such as Benjamin Brooks-Dutton, who has written so movingly about his wife's death. If I'm honest I'm a bit terrified by all the sessions about monetizing your blog, creating brilliant video content and so forth, as I've never really done any of this, and I'm not sure I ever will, but there's a session on travel blogging that sounds good. Really, it seems from the programme that there's something for everyone.

So what I want to know is are any of you, dear readers, going? Sadly I know a few of my old muckers are unable to make it (you know who you are). So who should I be looking out for? (Apart from Susanna - who I finally, six years on, will get to meet). Let me know....I don't want to miss anyone.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Life for Rent

Crystal Palace: our new abode
"If my life is for rent, and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine"

So warbled Dido -- and I'm inclined to agree. Although I've been a homeowner for 15 years (with the exception of the past month) I'm coming to the end of my fifth year of renting houses and I'm happy to report that we've just exchanged contracts on our new house.

Yes, NappyValleyGirl is no more as we're moving to Crystal Palace in August. Any suggestions on what to call the blog gratefully received. I've though of a few -- View from the Palace, Life in the Palace, Palatial Living -- but not sure yet about any of them.But we are sure about the house, and the area -- which has a great park (with model dinosaurs in it), fun restaurants and shops, and -- possibly --  an exciting future with the plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace itself.

There are upsides to renting. When something goes wrong (as it seems to do on a weekly basis in the house we're currently renting) you just call the landlord/agent and they have to pay to sort it out.
Luckily in our case this has normally been quick and efficient - but in our first rental in America, where our landlady was tricky to get old of and insisted on trying to fix everything herself first, it wasn't always so. But on the whole, the only stress you have is waiting in for the workman rather than worrying about how expensive it's going to be to fix.

On the other hand, you can't solve the longer term problems with the house. The reason something goes wrong with our current house on a weekly basis is partly because the plumbing is dreadful. If it was our house we would probably rip it all out and start again - but, we can't. In our 10 years in Clapham, I only once recall having to call a plumber out -- this year has seen at least three visits.

Clearly, renting also means you can't make decorative changes -- my landlady has quite eclectic taste in wallpaper, and we haven't put any pictures up this year because it didn't really seem worth damaging the walls for a 12 month stay. It's also hard to get too excited about maintaining the garden when it's not, well, yours.

Of course, I'll probably be eating my words once we move in and I'm spending half my earnings on house maintenance and half my time pruning what estate agents term a "mature" garden (read overgrown and out of control). But for now, I'm looking forward to making my own disastrous decorative choices, hammering some picture hooks into walls and planting some flowers of my choice (I have a dream of a wisteria-covered facade).

Crystal Palace, here we come.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

How Lord of the Rings saved violin practice

At least all that obsessive watching of "The Two Towers" has been productive
Littleboy 1 recently started playing the violin. Now, he's a musical boy who took to the piano very quickly, and with his Dad also a good violinist, I had rather assumed that this would all go smoothly and I wouldn't have to do much.

But somehow, with the all the piano practice, homework, sport and other stuff we have to fit into our week, violin seems to have fallen somewhat off the radar. We were managing one session a week, with The Doctor at the weekend, but it increasingly ended in tears, either of frustration because he found it hard, or because there was something much more interesting to be done with his brother. (Meanwhile I was wondering if the neighbours could hear the terrible sounds emanating from our house and thought we were strangling a cat.)

Six months in, and his teacher had begun to write subtle, then not-so-subtle hints in his lesson book about the need for more practice. He'd also joined a string ensemble at school and had been given music to learn for a concert -- despite the fact that he had just about mastered playing open strings. It was time for action, so I decided that over half term we would get to grips with the violin.

Now, although I have tried in vain before to emulate the "tiger mother" style when it comes to music practice, I have never really succeeded. But this time I tried all sorts of things. Bribes, mainly, but also -- playing along to a CD that came with his violin book, and me playing the piano with him so it seemed like we were doing duets. But there was still lots of grumbling and not much improvement.

And then.....it happened by chance that Littleboy 2 was playing a tune on the piano that he said reminded him of the music from Lord of the Rings (something the two of them watch obsessively on DVD). I sat down at the piano and managed to pick out the tune. (Just goes to show that MY years of music lessons, which included barely scraping through my 'cello Associated Board exams until I gave up at the age of 18, did actually pay off).

Soon we were looking up, and improvising, all sorts of different musical themes from the Lord of the Rings films. There was the Shire music (which has a vaguely Irish/gipsy feel), but their favourite seemed to be the "Riders of Rohan" music. I wasn't sure which this was, so we used the iPad to look it up. (Handy parental tip -- you can find all kinds of sheet music on the internet, and an iPad is a perfect way to look at it.)

Littleboy 1 then spent a whole half hour engrossed in playing this theme on his violin (I've tried to post the video here, but it doesn't seem to like Blogger). Voila - his playing improved, and he was then able to tackle the concert pieces much better. Littleboy 2 even accompanied him on the piano.

So thank you, Peter Jackson, or actually Howard Shore, who Wikipedia tells me wrote most of the music for LOTR. Thank you for saving violin practice. Now, if you could just help me with that maths homework.....