Travelling to Florence, Italy, with an 11-year-old – bonding over pizza, shopping and art

Girl in front of Duomo in Florence

Paula in front of the bell tower and dome in Florence, Italy

Florence is the perfect destination for a fashion-conscious tween with a healthy appetite, budding interest in history and art and a willingness to spend time with her uncool mum.

I find travelling alone in a country where I don’t understand a word daunting, but I’m determined to overcome my insecurities and prise open the world city break by city break for Paula. Secretly, I also hope to build up enough shared memories to sustain a mother-daughter relationship far beyond the turbulence of the teenage years.

Half-a-litre of house red

We spend our first hour in Florence peering at street names and upside down maps – weighed down by back sacks and dragging cases behind us – like a pair of awkward, nearsighted beetles.
After a good 20 minutes, we accidentally stumble across the slightly dodgy address of our 3-star hotel, settling in a sparse, but clean room for a few minutes before venturing out in search of the legendary Italian pizza and pasta.
Paula tucks into her spagbol with much appreciation while I splash out on a deliciously fresh seafood pasta – washed down with half a litre of house red… I know, I know, but it was only one Euro more expensive than a large glass of wine!

TIP: Don’t count on an 11-year-old to be of any use when it comes to reading maps – you’re on your own.

Stairways to heaven (or hell…)

We wake up to an unexpected early summer’s day, thrilled to be in a foreign city with no other agenda than to enjoy ourselves. We arrive early at the city’s religious heart – the  Duomo Group and decide to climb the 419 steps of Giotto’s famous bell tower to join the tiny moving figures on the viewing platform.
Half-way up the solid stone walls appear to close in on us as we edge our way past fellow climbers speaking in foreign tongues – not unlike the Tower of Babel, I imagine.
My daughter’s sudden onslaught of severe vertigo manifests itself in high-pitched shrieks.
We somehow make it to the top to be rewarded with the most spectacular views of the surrounding Tuscan hillside and a sea of rustic roofs at our feet – but we would still be up there, if it wasn’t for the young Casanova who abandoned his own ascent to take my screeching daughter by the hand and accompany her down at least 210 steps.

TIP: The view is well worth the climb, but wear comfortable shoes and think twice if there’s even a hint of vertigo or claustrophobia.

I scream ice cream 

Ice cream parlour in Florence

Ice cream mountains in a gelateria in Florence, Italy

After our morning ordeal, we feel we deserve the mountainous portions of chocolate, tiramisu and coconut gelato – the Italian take on ice cream.  It’s the food of the Gods and we float out of the gelateria in a sugar-induced trance.

We weave our way through a maze of cobblestone alleys dipping in and out of big name fashion stores, boutiques and quaint shops selling ceramics, handbags, jewellery and colourful scarves.

After a well-deserved riposo (siesta), we’re ready for some serious bargaining for leather handbags, belts and knickknacks at the San Lorenzo outdoor market, resulting in a few unintended purchases.

We end our first day with a little prosecco for the senora and Fanta orange for the senorita, nibbling olives and crisps in a wine bar, before hitting the streets again in search of the ultimate pizza – experience.
Sausage pizza (yuk!) for Paula and pizza vegetarian for me, followed by shared tiramisu trifle – and washed down with a single glass of Chianti – (for the senora) provide a good base for some serious bonding, gossiping and giggling.

Girl eating ice cream

Paula with her ice cream – gelato in Florence.

TIP: Don’t think about what you’re eating – just let go and enjoy yourself – being on a diet would be torture and a sin!

A spot of culture
Thanks to a tip from my mum, we booked our tickets for the famous Uffizi art gallery online at home and walk in straight past the snaking queues. Armed with a list of top 10 paintings, we spend three hours searching for masterpieces such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Holy Family and Da Vinci’s Annunciation.
TIP: Unless you know your art from your elbow, go in prepared with a list of must-see paintings and a bit of information about them – or you’ll be overwhelmed.

Woman in front of Ponte Vecchio bridge in Italy

Me with the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the background

We stroll across the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge with its shiny offerings of jewellery, but decide over cups of pure melted chocolate and bambino pastries, to skip the Pitti Palace and other historical wonders, choosing to do more shopping in stead.
TIP: Don’t be too ambitious – involve your tween in the itinerary and strike the right balance of fun, history and culture – and ply her with lots of snacks to keep enthusiasm up.

We even squeeze in a quick visit to the leaning tower of Pisa on our last day. Flying into Pisa and taking a bus (one hour trip) to Florence is dead easy and if you have enough time – take a city bus from the airport to the tower and walk down through the old centre before hopping on an airport bus and heading home.

Girl in front of leaning tower of Pisa

Paula in front of leaning tower of Pisa.

Our trip has topped up the shared memory bank nicely, but I’m already scanning the world map for our next destination – just in case.
Have you travelled somewhere intesting with your children? I’d love to be inspired by your travels.

 

Tips for for a more traditional Christmas – inspired by the Chiltern Open Air Museum

Children making Christmas decorations at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Making traditional Christmas decorations at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

Imagine Christmas without online shopping, central heating, cars, TV, expensive gifts and supermarket deliveries.

A traditional Christmas would’ve been a major challenge

For someone who relies on a last minute online trolley dash for presents and who wouldn’t bat an eyelid opting for ready-made starters, pigs-in-blanket and pudding for the festive meal, a traditional Christmas would have been a major challenge, I’ve discovered.

So, when I was invited to attend a traditional Christmas weekend at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, an educational charity celebrating the historical heritage of the Chilterns, in Buckinghamshire, I didn’t expect to be inspired.

Yet walking among historical buildings decorated with holly and ivy and talking to volunteers of the museum about their memories of post-war Christmas, has made me question our usual orgy of bright lights, tinsel and high-tech presents.

How to have a more traditional Christmas – what we can learn from Christmases past

1. Make your own decorations:

popcorn on a golden string for Christmas tree

Traditional homemade popcorn string for the Christmas tree.

Marina Long, 77, of Chalfont St Peter, moved to the countryside in Gloucestershire at the start of the Second World War.

“Everything was scarce because of the ration books, so we hoarded stuff. We never got rid of anything. We started preparing for Christmas months in advance,” she says.

 

Marina remembers collecting sweet wrappers and coloured pages from magazines, which would be turned into homemade decorations. They used flour and water paste to glue paper chains together, as glue was a luxury.
The children also collected fir cones and painted them white.
“We only had a few shop bought decorations from before the war.”
A kewpie doll with coloured wings dating back to around 1937 still features on the top of Marina’s Christmas tree today – although she’s shed her wings through the years.

What I learned: Instead of rushing out to a department store to buy the latest trend in Christmas decorations – I’m going to fall in love again with our battered collection of decorations on the loft (some dating from before my first child was born 11 years ago). We’ll also make our own paper chains, snowflakes and fir cones this year – or that’s the plan any way.

2. Ditch the remote, forget the Xbox – play parlour games

“We had no television, so we would play Blindman’s buff, charades, riddles or word games,” remembers Marina.
Gathering around the open fire toasting crumpets, is another favourite memory.

What I’ve learned: I was so inspired by this idea that I did a bit of research about traditional parlour games and I’ve come up with a list to try with my poor unsuspecting family this year. It will be tough dragging them away from various screens and getting buy-in from a cool, know-it-all tween, but I’m adamant to solicit a few giggles this way. 

3. Useful and homemade presents – (OK, maybe just useful!)

Christmas tree with handmade corn decorations

Traditional Christmas tree decorations made from corn

Marina says Christmas presents were either homemade or useful in those days.
“I remember being very excited about my first fountain pen when I was about 11, as we’d had only dipping pens in primary school.”
Her parents were good with their hands and another favourite present was a wooden cot made by her dad and clothes and bedding knitted by her mum for her favourite doll. “It was the best present.”
The children were encouraged to make their own gifts for relatives such as pincushions or embroidery.

 

 

What I’ve learned:
Imagine the time, skill and consideration needed to make presents for your family – as opposed to clicking a few items into your online shopping basket.
Sadly, I’ve been blessed by two left hands and the idea of making anything frankly terrifies me and any homemade gift from me under the tree would only result in fits of tears. But, I’ll resist the urge to buy expensive presents and spend more time thinking about useful and meaningful gifts.

Other traditional Christmas events in the The Chilterns 

Traditional craft workshops at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden during December include creating your own buzzwangling advent calendars, splendiferous Christmas stockings, crackling Christmas crafts and a Christmas rapping session with the Big Friendly Poet.

Find out how the Tudors celebrated Christmas at the Amersham Museum. Meet Tudor guests and find out how the Tudors decorated their homes. Write a parchment label, help decorate our kissing bough and make a decorated yule log to take home.

Take advantage of the two-for-one entry offer at any of the three museums during December by Quoting the word: FAMILIESCHRISTMAS

Disclosure: We’ve been invited to attend the Chiltern Open Air Museum’s traditional Christmas weekend as a family. All impressions and opinions are honest and my own.

National Space Centre: a blast of a day out for families

Boy in Astronaut suit photograph

Astronaut Max on the moon – having a ball of a time…

We’re not an easy lot to please, but our family day out at the National Space Centre in Leicester was a blast!

A four-year-old obsessed with Lego and toilet humour, a 9-year-old who refuses to concentrate on anything other than a computer game for longer than 10 seconds and an 11-year-old nearing the teenage tipping point and with zero tolerance of her two brothers.

Grumpy dad, stroppy mum 

Add to that a grumpy German dad whose idea of fun is watching historical documentaries. Throw in a stroppy mum who needs yoga and Chardonnay to get through most days and it becomes nearly impossible to find a family day out that works for everyone and doesn’t end up with all of us wanting to kill one another.

I had my doubts 

So, when we were invited to a VIP family day out to watch Back To The Moon For Good, the latest show in the planetarium at the National Space Centre in Leicester, I had my doubts. It starts with a one-and-a-half hour drive from our home in Buckinghamshire accompanied by constant squabbling in the back of the car, threats of carsickness from the tween and a husband with an already challenged sense of humour getting grizzlier by the minute.

Rocket tower at National Space Centre

Bubble-wrapped rocket tower at the National Space Centre, Leicester

We arrived at the Space Centre at 10am – the iconic 42m high rocket tower towering above its drab surroundings. I still had my doubts, but from the moment we entered we were mesmerised.

There are seven themed interactive galleries, as well as the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium to explore and it literally offers something for everybody. We didn’t manage to see everything during our 5-hour visit and left with our heads buzzing. We’re planning a follow up visit soon.

Here are some of our highlights:

  1. Back To The Moon for Good – this amazing show scheduled to start in November in the Planetarium tells the story of 20 teams competing for the Google Lunar X prize. The scientists from around the world are trying to design a robotic spacecraft to land on the moon. Images are projected onto the entire 58-foot dome surface and totally surround you, extending beyond your peripheral vision and transporting you to different worlds. It’s the closest I’ll get to being in space during my lifetime.

Tip: Try to schedule the show somewhere for the middle of your outing to give tired feet a bit of a rest, before hitting the exhibitions again.  My husband loved the show and thoroughly enjoyed meeting the German members of one of the teams competing in this challenge as part of our VIP experience. This was right up his alley

2. The 42m-rocket tower – travel up the length of the Blue Streak rocket in a transparent elevator to the top to take your photograph on the moon, relive the 1969 moon landing and see an Apollo moon rock.

Tip: Don’t miss the rocket launching countdown and blast off in the Cafeteria, complete with smoke. This was Max’s favourite. (The space toilet also appealed obviously)

3. Ride the 3D Spaceflight induction module to Europa – a white knuckle ride through radiation clouds, a near miss with an asteroid and a hair-raising ice canyon run.  The simulator ride was Lukas’s favourite.

Tip: Don’t eat just before you go on this ride and keep your bag on your lap!

4. The weather pod – The tween (Paula) loved a chance to be in the limelight in the weather pod where you get to do a live weather forecast on television and can upload your video to Youtube and share it with friends and family – here’s ours! I tried to embed it below, but if it’s not working – check it out on Youtube:  (Any tech tips welcome)

5. Over 150 interactive challenges and experiences :

Boy entering space rocket

Astronaut Max entering a rocket

  • Girl at exhibition model in National Space Centre

    Paula orbiting planets around the sun at the National Space Centre in Leicester

    Do the stress test to see if you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut

  • see if you’re likely to suffer from space sickness
  • climb through a black hole
  • try to lift a tin of baked beans on different planets, touch a meteorite
  • land a lunar module on the moon
  • watch a video of astronauts eating and drinking food in space (this was my personal favourite – being quite keen on food and drink on earth, it would be a concern for me in space).

The combination of entertainment and opportunities to explore things aimed at all ages is brilliantly done and kept us all interested throughout – no mean feat!

Tip: Don’t spend too much time in one area – as there’s lots more to see!

Smiling faces all round 

Our day out at the National Space Centre was absolutely amazing and we all left with smiles on our faces, which doesn’t happen often. We even survived being stuck in traffic back home for two hours.

Boy in front of display at National Space Centre

Lukas lighting up a planet at the National Space Centre

Disclaimer

We were offered the VIP day and tickets to see the show for free, but I would not have written a glowing review had that not truly been our experience.

For prices and practical information visit the National Space Centre website.

How NOT to start your day… and other tips from an imperfect mum

A minion from Despicable Me close-up

Me in the mornings – how you don’t want to be

I am walking hand-in-hand with an unidentified handsome male on a deserted beach. I can taste the salty breeze, my companion – he has the same profile as George Clooney – turns to look at me…

The alarm on my mobile phone rudely interrupts my dream. I try to block out the sound, but the beach and the mystery man have gone and then I remember: It is 5.45am. This is MY hour, my window of opportunity in the next 24 hours to do something Just for Me before my day is swamped by other people’s demands and desires.

So, I get up quietly, slip on my airline socks and my husband’s fleece and sneak downstairs with my laptop to write on my novel or what I hope will one day become my novel. This is pure bliss, escaping into a different world of interesting characters created and controlled only by me.

A scene from a badly scripted sitcom

Like Cinderella dreading the moment when her carriage will turn back into a pumpkin, I watch the hands of the clock creeping closer to 6.45am, which will signal the end to my solitude, my calm and inner peace.

From the moment I wake up my daughter at 6.45am our house is transformed into a maddening, hysterical scene from a badly scripted sitcom.

My husband has woken up by now, grumbling about sitting in the traffic again while scavenging through his wardrobe for an ironed shirt. (He does his own ironing of course)  Any minute now the daily hunt for his company access card will kick off. He will be crawling around under the sofa, rustling through the washing basket and the boys’ toy box – cursing under his breath and accusing every woman and her dog of stealing or hiding his yellowing mug shot resembling someone on Prime Suspect.

Mutiny over breakfast

Poster of white text on red stating keep Calm and Carry On

More calmness needed in the morning

From downstairs my daughter starts her daily rant about the lack of choice on the breakfast menu, having dismissed 15 types of cereal and a selection of fresh fruit. Wait till she has a family and see if she’s still so keen on rustling up eggy toast or Nigella’s pancakes on a weekday morning.

The next one to surface is Max, 4, who solemnly announces that he’s not going to school today because his best friend stinks. This, rather than being a reflection of his best friend’s poor hygiene, is his latest ploy to try and stay at home because the novelty of school has worn off after just two weeks.

“I hate phonics. All we do is phonics. It is rubbish,” he moans through his Cheerios.

My husband, thankfully, has now left the house – minus his access card and dragging the overflowing bin behind him as he forgot to put it out the night before.

Child cruelty

The last one to rise is my 9-year-old son, Lukas, who tries to stay in bed as long as he can to resist my attempts at forcing him to do his 11-plus homework.

(If this sounds cruel – it’s not. We’re talking 10 minutes of maths or learning vocab instead of playing Fifa14 on the I-pad.)

Things start accelerating from about this moment. I realise there’s only an hour left before everyone has to be ready and out the door, including me.

My daughter is walking up the hill to the bus stop, the four-year-old is lying on the floor in front of my bathroom naked, refusing to move and Lukas is trying to see if he can take 30 minutes to put on one sock, one eye on the clock.

A race against time 

Max is refusing to get dress. I scream, cry, plead… in the end I challenge him to a dressing contest. I am halfway into my bra and knickers when the doorbell rings. My daughter has forgotten her bus pass and will now be late unless I drive her up the hill to the bus stop.

Lukas, seizing the opportunity, claims he absolutely can’t work out how many halves there are in three and a half without my help and downs his pen. Max, meanwhile, starts wailing because I’ve won the dressing contest unfairly as I had to quickly pull on my jogging bottoms and T-shirt to drive my daughter up the hill.

By the time I’ve deposited Lukas at the middle school 10 minutes late, having returned home once to fetch his forgotten football kit and dragging Max into the infant school, kicking and screaming, I’m very low on humour and badly in need of a strong coffee.

I return to my home office, climbing over discarded shoes and dirty washing, ignoring the mountain of breakfast dishes in the sink, ready to start my working day.

Does this sound familiar? What are your strategies for making the mornings easier?

If your mornings are more successful, please send me some tips and I’ll do a follow-up post with tips for other badly organised mums like me.

Scrabble letters spelling 'bad mum' words

Bad mums round-up on Britmums

And by the way, I am the editor of a monthly bad mums round-up for Britmums.  If you identify with my struggles and imperfections, drop me an email chenekoscielny@gmail.com or tweet me @CheneKoscielny your imperfect, humiliating, bad mummy posts and I’ll include them in the October round-up to make other mums feel a bit better about ourselves.

How to act cool when dining in a Michelin restaurant

Since I had children my culinary excursions have been dominated by the kind of restaurant that offers finger food or plastic cutlery in garish surroundings with a kindergarten-ambiance.

It’s fair to say that my standards have been significantly lowered since the days when I earned a decent salary and had a semblance of a life.

Out of my depth

Father and daughter

My dad, Deon, and I on his 70th birthday

So, when my dad offered to treat us with a meal at a 3-starred Michelin restaurant to celebrate his 70th birthday, I was over the moon, but out of my depth.

The world class L’Auberge du Vieux Puis, which I think can be loosely translated as the Inn of old powers – is hidden away in the unassuming village of Fontjoncouse with a mere 150 souls at the end of a beautiful, winding mountain road in the Languedoc region of France.

Since retirement, my parents spend most of their time eating and drinking wine in this beautiful part of France where they seem to have discovered their second wind and an almost indecent lust for life.

The Venue:

The restaurant is the pride and joy of chef Gilles Goujon, with whom I managed to sneak a photograph on my mobile phone to my husband’s embarrassment.

Chef and diner

Michelin crowned chef Gilles Goujon and moi

The restaurant is a delightful blend of old and new with a historic well in the front garden contrasted with sleek, contemporary lines, modern glass floor panels showcasing historic foundations and a selection of quirky artwork, including iron sculptures produced by an eccentric local artist.

Tip: Don’t forget your mobile phone for photographs, but try to be subtle so as not to alert the staff and other diners to the fact that you’re blown away

The Challenge

The crisp white linen tablecloth is covered with an array of cutlery (no plastic in sight) hinting at the number of courses to come.

My tummy does a little flip flop as it begins to grasp the enormity of what awaits.

My father selects an un-pronounceable local white wine, the first of many bottles to come, in a totally different class and budget to my daily Chardonnay.

Tip: Try not to think about the pair of shoes you could have bought for the same price as the dish you’re about to consume, as it is bound to sour the taste.

The Aperitif

wooden platter with food

Aperitif – bread balls with explosions of taste

To warm up our taste buds, we are presented with a selection of foreign-looking delicacies on a long wooden platter, accompanied by detailed descriptions from a waiter in perfect English.

The offerings include a bread ball that releases an explosion of wild mushroom juice into your mouth upon first bite, a second bread ball infused with liquid tomato, a mushroom tartelette and a fragile-looking mini squid pancake.  Every bite is sheer heaven!

Tip: Don’t ignore the waiter’s instructions. My husband, who usually tries to go against the stream, approached his plate from right to left instead of left to right, which meant the squid dominated the palate.

The Amuse Bouche

Amuse bouche - tomato in a gazpacho

Amuse bouche – tomato in a gazpacho

The pleasant little interlude consists of a pretty ball of tomato sorbet with buffalo mozzarella cheese interior and encrusted in sugar, floating in gazpacho water.

By now the wine and conversation are flowing and my taste buds are dazed and dizzy with excitement, wondering what had hit them.

The Entrées

My mouth literally hangs open as the waiter describes the entrée: A single king prawn entrapped in a delicate cage made of potato and squid ink on a bed of tomato and vegetable pasta, accompanied by another bread ball (clearly a Chef’s favourite) infused with the juice from the head of the king prawn and aside a clam filled with potato and chorizo paste.  My taste buds are in ecstasy.

prawn dish on a plate

King prawn encaged in squid and potato

The portions, though not small, are surprisingly light so I’m not as stuffed as I would expect to be at this stage and the next dish – I can’t remember what it’s called and I’m past caring – doesn’t disappoint:

Sea bass cooked in a Spanish carbon oven with roasted fennel seeds, baby octopus and cucumber of the sea on the side.

fish dish

Sea bass with cucumber of the sea

The Main Course

And now, for the piéce de resistance – the main course: Roasted pigeon!

pigeon dish

Piéce de resistance: Roasted pigeon!

I must admit when my dad told me earlier what to expect, I did experience a flickering of doubt. I’m not exactly a fussy eater and apart from liver and frog legs draped suggestively over a bowl once in a pretentious French restaurant in Cape Town, I can’t think of anything I won’t eat.

The pigeon – much like a chicken thigh – roasted in almond milk and accompanied by a roasted apricot on roasted fig, topped with mint and with roasted aubergine slices on the side, look and sound beautiful.

But the thought of the fat pigeons on our lawn back home and a taste strongly reminiscent of liver cause mutiny among my taste buds and I send the plate back with the pigeon barely touched.

Tip: Do not try to explain to the head waiter in a Michelin restaurant that the main course is not “quite your taste.” The hawk-nosed Frenchman looked incredulous and stomped off shaking his head in disgust at the sound of such un-culturedness.

The Cheese

cheese trolley in restaurant

Death by cheese

I know the French like their cheese, but I wasn’t expecting this. A three-tiered trolley laden with enough cheese to fill the English channel is wheeled to the table by a young waiter, who gives us a lecture about the origin, vintage, pedigree, etc of the selection on offer.

I suspect the waiter has been tipped off by the head waiter to approach me first for a good laugh, because when he asks Madame what she would like before anyone else – my mind goes blank.

Eventually, I plump for goat’s cheese – spicy and creamy with quince marmalade, feeling like I’d just flunked another important test, but the taste is so good, I couldn’t care less.

The Dessert

dessert dish with strawberries

Strawberry and citron delight

Always my favourite item on a menu – the dessert: strawberry and lemon sorbet swimming in strawberry Chantilly cream and surrounded by meringue sugar strands does not disappoint.

I also lust after my dad’s chocolate cherry maccarron with salted caramel.

Finally, we are presented with a little black box with a selection of handmade chocolates  – which we can’t finish despite our best attempts and so ends my first (and probably last) Michelin experience on a high note.

box of chocolates

Too stuffed for chocolate!

Tip: When you go to the bathroom, don’t worry about finding your way. Every time I got up from the table, I was led straight into the ladies by a sea of attentive waiters, who stopped short of offering to wipe my bum.  

Have you ever eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant – what did you think?

Airing your dirty laundry online – for imperfect mums

A pile of dirty washing in front of a washing machine

Anyone up for sharing dirty laundry online?

Do you sometimes scroll through other people’s online lives and wonder if you’re the only one who isn’t sailing through life from one photo opportunity to the next? Facebook is a collage of happy moments carefully selected from the scrapbook of life to stroke our egos and create glimpses of the person we want the world to see:

Look, here I am with my beautiful, adoring family; here we are in another exotic destination. Aren’t we pretty? Aren’t we special? Aren’t we happy?

Virtual street cred 

Twitter is subtler, punchier, wittier. You need a bit more virtual street cred, the right lingo. But the purpose is the same – a virtual mantelpiece advertising the you brand to the world – Aren’t I clever? Aren’t I witty?

Less-than-happy updates

But which online tool do we use when the cracks start showing, the public face slips. Is there a place for my dirty washing online? Is there a place for less-than-happy updates? Where do I go to lick my wounds online after a hurtful row with my partner, where is the online confessional chamber to own up to my parenting doubts and insecurities and mistakes? Who do I ask to Share, Pin, Like or Dig my wobbly life moments?

Lacking depth

Maybe the online life platforms lack the depth of real life relationships because the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who create them haven’t yet experienced the knocks and disappointments of adult life. They impose their shiny world of opportunity and positivism upon us, leaving us unequipped to deal with the fall-out if our realities don’t live up to the ideal.

So, we’re trapped behind strained smiles and bubbly messages, covering up a secret sea of unexplored feelings that never get to see the light of day. We feel shamed by negative feelings, compelled to delete on the spot the emotions that really touch us, that make us who we are.

What are you missing?

A recent study found that Facebook makes us feel sad – because of FOMU – fear of missing out – so while you’re sitting in your slippers in front of the laptop jealously ogling other people’s lives, you suspect they’re sipping cocktails on a beach, jumping out of planes or watching their children perform some amazing feat. Meanwhile, they’re sitting in their PJs staring at their screens worrying that you’re having a ball.

Impulsive rants and vacant threats

Social media seems out of depth when it comes to real emotion, but happily gives a world audience to impulsive rants and vacant threats. Immature men fire off rape and bomb threats on Twitter at women who intimidate them in stead of facing up to their insecurities.

Social media also fails miserably when it comes to dealing with the emotions of people touched by tragedy. No bullet-ed RIP message on Twitter or macabrely out-of-place Facebook status update can really touch their grief.

Too many glasses of wine

Sorry, if I’m being a bit morbid, today. You’re probably wondering, rightly so, if I have had one too many glasses of wine tonight.

Maybe – or maybe I’m just in a reflective mood. Maybe I’m just not bursting at the seams with uncontrollable excitement about the day, my children, my husband or my life today. Maybe that’s OK.

I’ll post a more polished PR snapshot of my life on Facebook to turn you green with envy again tomorrow.

Link

a newspaper article

Die Glocke in Ennigerloh – we are front page news

So, we didn’t exactly plan to make the front page in Germany, but a chance meeting with a young reporter and a quick chat about my blog and our holiday have catapulted us into the limelight in the country of my husband’s birth.

As you should know from my previous post – we spent a few days with my in-laws in Ennigerloh – a town in Munsterland, Germany, best known for cement factories, which also happens to be my husband’s hometown.

What is a mummy blog?

While we were enjoying a friendly water polo match in the Freibad – public pool – I got chatting to Elisa Berste, a student and freelance reporter for Die Glocke – a daily paper in the area.

I told her about my blog and that I will be writing about our experience there. She didn’t seem too sure about what a mummy blog was, but her editor obviously did and she emailed to ask if she could interview us.

The article – which was promoted on the front page and then carried inside the paper with a photograph of our family, including my in-laws – has apparently hit the little German town like a bomb – in a positive sense. It was even discussed at a local political meeting and seems to be the best PR the little Cinderella town has ever had.

So, what made us so newsworthy?

We raved about the town’s facilities for families – an amazing public swimming pool, a Venetian ice cream cafe, family cycling routes, amazing playgrounds and very affordable meals out: £4 per large pizza in an upmarket pizzeria.

The open countryside, friendly locals and the fact that local children seem to play outside and roam by themselves also impressed us.
German children start school only at the age of 6 and there seems to be less pressure on them to perform academically and to have a planned activity scheduled for most days of the week, the kind of competitive parenting you can’t help but getting sucked into when you live in certain parts of England such as Buckinghamshire.

The reporter did get a few minor facts wrong – probably lost in translation between her English and my German, but the themes of discussion of freedom, affordability and a society which seem to prioritise the freedom and quality of life of families came across very well.

As a bonus visits to my blog have skyrocketed since the publication of the article in Germany.
Just awaiting a call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who knows maybe she can give David Cameron and Nick Clegg some tips on how to look after families!

Forget Majorca, Ennigerloh is the place to be this summer!

Little boy playing with water and sand

Max enjoys the water and sand play area at the Freibad in Ennigerloh

I´m typing this post on a German keyboard which annozinglz swaps the y and z, so bear with me till I get the hang of it.

This summer holidaz report is brought to you, not from mz deckchair on the beach in the Caribbean, but seated amidst stuffed animals, and plastic pot plants in a black leather armchair in my father-in-law´s study.

We are spending the first few days of our summer break trapped in a forgotten little outpost in Northern Germany called Ennigerloh, where my husband spent the first 18 years of his life (which explains quite a lot.)

The little village in Munsterland best known for its gigantic cement factory, does not feature on Tripadvisor as a sought after holiday destination (in fact it doesn´t feature at all – surprisingly…) so I wasn´t exactly counting the days.

Holiday is a state of mind

But a friend once told me that a holiday is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the destination, so I was determined to see a different side of Ennigerloh this time.  And, believe it or not, the little Cinderella town has seduced us with its charms over the past few days.

Spaß (fun) in the Freibad (open air pool)

The fact that we find ourselves in the midst of a stifling heat wave perforated by the odd spectacular thunderstorm means we´re spending a lot of time at the Freibad.  The open air public swimming pool, of which almost every German town boasts one, puts our drab leisure centre pools to shame.

The Freibad – almost every village has one – which costs 2 pounds (can´t find pound sign on this computer) to enter, is as close to a children´s paradise as you can get.  My older two spend hours jumping from the 5m, 3m and 1m diving boards into the sparkling Olympic-sized pool in Oelde, a neighbouring town. I even managed the 3m jump after holding up the queue of German children for 20 minutes to much ridicule from my husband and hysterics from my children.

Max, 4, meanwhile has two smaller pools with sprinklers and slides to choose from. Luscious lawns and huge trees surround the pools with (towel-free) deck chairs and picnic spots as far as the eye can see. (Obviously the Germans are more chilled about deck chairs at home than when they are on holiday)

Little boy flying through air after jumping off 5m diving board

Lukas, 9, flying through the air from a 5m diving board in Germany

middle-aged woman jumping off 3m diving board

Me leaping off 3m diving board – watch out Tom Daley

Competitive water polo

The children took part in an organised water polo tournament with local children and soon started shouting to team mates in German after realising that was the only way to get their hands on the ball. The game took quite a serious turn after the dads, including my aggressively competitive husband, joined in.

A young reporter from the local newspaper: Die Glocke was on standby to photograph the holiday fun, so my husband (who can´t resist a bit of limelight) and children may have made the news in his hometown.

A stretch of sand dotted with beach baskets – as they´re called in German – wooden two-man seats with canvas awning overhead and footrest, an invitation for stressed-out parent souls to relax while the children get to grips with a variety of water pumps and wheels. A permanent outdoor table tennis table and giant chess board and squeaky clean changing rooms and showers make this one of the best pools I´ve ever been to.

Spaghetti ice cream anyone?

Famished after several hours in the water, we hit the Venetian Eiskafe – an Italian ice-cream parlour distinctly out of place in the industrial heartland of Germany – for generous plates of spaghetti eis: spaghetti-shaped ice-cream drizzled with strawberry sauce and topped with smarties. I enjoy a cream-laced iced coffee with enough calories to last me until Christmas.

Family in front of ice cream shop in Ennigerloh, Germanz

Eiscafe Venezia in Germany – might as well be in Italy

Family eating ice cream at EisKafe in Ennigerloh

Spaghetti ice cream and sinful iced coffees

German children are well-catered for – the playgrounds are creative masterpieces, testament to imagination that the nation is not usually credited for.  Drawbridges, towers and castles with twisted slides and tunnels can be found in every village.

Paradise for cyclists

Unlike at home, where we are too scared to venture out on our bicycles as a family, Germany is a cyclist´s paradise. Cycle routes and lane criss-cross the town and take you across acres of stretched out rural fields under glorious open skies. Everyone aged between 4 and 94 uses this as a mode of transport and I can vouch for its safety, even after a few glasses of Schnapps.

My husband and I cycled 10kms to a restaurant in a nearby village overlooking a lake, for a cocktail evening that could almost compete in terms of food, music and location with a Manhattan hotspot, if you ignore the local farmgirl out on the town dresscode and the perennial stereotype of socks with Birkenstock sandals, favourited by hardcore Germans. Tonight the plan is to cycle to a nearby beer garden for more Weiz-bier, a refreshing beer served with lemon slices.

After three days, I feel more relaxed than if I´d spent a week in Majorca. Whoever said Germans don´t know how to have fun?

How are you spending the first days of the summer holidays? Have you ever considered Germany for a family holiday? What were your impressions?

How to throw a smashing disco party for pre-teens – on a budget

Photograph of a young girl in a garden

The party girl – for once quite impressed with her mum.

After 3 kids, you would think that I’d be like a walking Google search results page for How to throw a successful children’s party.  But in this instance you’d be well advised to click on by and consult a different source for inspiration.

Previous party mistakes

It’s not through lack of trying – I should add. It’s just that I’m not very practical and I’m quite shy (OK, you can stop laughing now).

So, this usually means that my parties are either at least one parcel short for the pass-the-parcel game or a cake slice missing in a party bag or both (I kid you not).

My shyness (I said stop laughing!) means I get stage fright when confronted with 10 expectant four-year-olds all wanting to pin-the-tail-on-the donkey at exactly the same moment or 10 tweens aggressively demanding a fair winner for their X-factor performances.

My palms go sweaty, my throat gets dry and I usually dodge into the kitchen at this point to fetch yet another plate of over-catered, often inappropriate food, leaving my husband or some other more competent parent to pick up the pieces. I also usually top up my glass of  Chardonnay at this point.

Food no-no’s

When it comes to food, I’ve made a few mistakes in my time. When I first arrived in the UK from South Africa, I’d never heard of e-numbers and the idea of presenting children at a party with carrot sticks and cocktail tomatoes (which to this day I haven’t seen a single child eat at a party) would never have occurred to me. It’s a party for @£$!! sake!

For my eldest’s second birthday party I invited all the kids in the street and laid on the children’s party with the highest sugar content ever held in the history of the UK.We had cupcake-decoration, Easter egg hunts, chocolate treasure trails, fizzy drinks in every flavour – and not a cocktail tomato in sight.

The children – bless them – were high as kites as they bounced and raged around the garden, but the mums couldn’t wait to bundle their kids out the door to force-feed them vegetable smoothies at home.

Success at last! And some handy tips for hosting a disco party

But all this is in the past. I am delighted to report that after 11 years, I’ve just hosted a summer disco party for my daughter – which was raving success and really raised my stakes in the mummy department (long may it last) I thought I’d share this achievement with you – and maybe boost my reputation as a talented entertainer and my Google ranking for children’s parties in the process.

The music:

My daughter luckily sits next to a young man in class who hires himself out as a DJ and lighting expert for parties at £35/evening  (Take note – Sir Alan Sugar). Despite their proximity in class, I was instructed to ask the boy’s mother in the playground if he would be available for our party.The youngster also has a very cute dad (more about that later)

The venue:

Our sound and lighting expert came for a pre-party consultation and together we decided to use the conservatory and outdoor areas (his mum had a gazebo we could borrow) for dancing, thus saving my wooden floor from complete destruction. He drew a plan of where the lights and music system would go. Sorted. (Or so I thought)

The decorations:

I’ve got one word for you: Poundland – our decorations consisted of:

  • 8 small mirror disco balls (£1 each)
  • plastic, champagne flutes with the cutest summer cocktail straws
  • fairylights (borrowed) for the gazebo.
  • Oh and a few balloons – also Poundland, though don’t expect them to outlast the night.

The food:

Needless to say, I over-catered – and again there was not a cocktail tomato in sight – but in keeping with the summer theme we had coloured jellybeans, popcorn and marshmallows.

I dodged to the kitchen a few times at inopportune moments to fetch mountains of sausage rolls, chicken nuggets and crisps and to top up the fizzy drinks.

Instead of party bags, we had colourful ice suckers that we handed out on the way out and they went down a treat.

The games:

I found this relatively stress-free – a few dance-offs – my husband was the judge and a limbo dancing competition, which they loved so much, they asked for a rerun.

A microphone – which led to several impromptu performances on the dance floor and thankfully I wasn’t drunk enough to go near the mike – I do love a good Karaoke.

The weather:

Because it happened to be the hottest day of the year – the children loved being able to play on the trampoline and be outside in-between dancing. The boys even managed a rugby game.  Thank you God.

The stress levels:

Because of my shyness (Oh shut up!) I will never experience a stress-free party, but considering we had 26 children and that the DJ actually came down with a nasty stomach virus on the morning of the party and had to pull out – I did pretty well. This is where the cute dad comes in – he offered to be the DJ in his son’s place, stuck around for the whole night and even took photographs, which naturally I didn’t even think of.

The result:

One very happy 11-year-old girl and loads of leftover sausage rolls and fizzy drinks.Success! I may even consider starting a children’s party event management business in partnership with the young lad’s dad – what do you think

Do you have some children’s party tips to share?