Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Volunteering to improve your career prospects and your wellbeing

Pic: Geralt, Pixabay
Readers of this blog will know that I have had good and bad experiences volunteering - some people are as awful as corporate sharks... but I wrote this article on LinkedIn about the personal benefits and would like to offer it here as a positive example of what you can achieve... it is not just about the fuzzy feeling inside when you help a cause.

You can read it here. Please share your opinions and like if you  appreciate it. I would love to feature your experiences on the blog... let me know.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Toyota Travelogue 2016 part 2

On 24 August we reached Castagnole Lanze, in Piedmont. We had the car checked and it was fine, great relief! Just water from the aircon, not oil or anything nasty, as mentioned in Part I. Castagnole Lanze is a small village, the nearest town are Asti and Alba, both medieval and worth a visit. They are famous for wine (Barolo, Asti spumante), good food (including the famous white truffle) and two different Palios in the autumn (horses in Asti, donkeys in Alba). Castagnole has two annual street celebrations: the Spring one dedicated to new wine and good food and the summer one with street concerts attracting major names in Italian music (folk and pop). We stay at my parent's house in the centre of the new part of the village but visit the old part which has an amazing Baroque church. However, the major attraction for Michela was my godmother's beautiful new cat, whose mum is a ginger moggy and the dad is unknown but certainly a pedigree one. You can see it in action below.

In Italy I saw all my school friends as we celebrated our Leva, a gathering that starts at 18 (last time I did it) then continues at 25, 30, 35, 40, etc.... We celebrated with this big champagne bottle with firework at a dancing and eating restaurant and on Sunday I got this cute posy before the special Mass given by our Professor of Religion in secondary school. The summer street celebrations also include a fairground and it's Michela's favourite time of year. I saw parts of the street concerts as we needed to keep an eye on Michela who tried all the rides... Soon we were back on the Mont Cenis, where we visited the beautiful church and the Alpine garden. There is also a museum.

Next stop was Annecy, a beautiful town with a lake, famous for the inventor of safety matches and the colour in fireworks. We went on a boat tour of the lake and Michela was asked if she wanted to pilot the boat, I had to say yes on her behalf as she was a bit shy about but then enjoyed it a lot judging by the mini pump fist when she told this to her dad, who is not keen on boats. 

We had dinner at Les Tables, which I have reviewed on TripAdvisor because it had a very nice kid menu and a very affordable Savoyard menu for adults. If you love cheese, I recommend it. The kid meal included ice cream served in a plastic cow, which Michela has kept to use as storage for rubbers.

Chambery was once Italian and capital of the Savoie, a small kingdom with a king (the King of Italy and his family were exiled after 1945 for their complicity with Fascism). There is great looking castle and it's a pity we did not go to see it as the admission charge is small.

On to Troyes, which is a great city if you like half-timbered buildings, narrow medieval streets and Champagne! Back in the Champagne region, where the food is excellent. We always go to the same restaurant as it has delicious food and menus in English (not a tourist trap, don't let the translated menus blind you). Troyes has a pretty good covered market, if you fancy buying your lunch or dinner.


Last stop is Calais, which has been in the news a lot because of the migrants' problem. Last year we did not venture in town but this year we did and it was back to normal. Two years ago we went and the shopping centre look terrible with many empty units, there were also many young male migrants roaming the streets and looking very unhappy, which is understandable but a bit frightening when you visit places with a young child. This year the bookshop had reopened and there were less empty units. The streets look more lively. Let's hope that this situation is resolved, UK charities have been set up to relieve the immigrants' plight with donations of food and items for families. Calais has an amazing townhall with a Rodin statue and wonderful gardens. This year the theme was Oriental gardens, hence the red sticks and the pagoda and small pond at the front. We had dinner at the modest hotel we stay at because the restaurant is so great.... This year we booked and got a table overlooking the beach walk, which is full of playgrounds, mostly free.

The last day it was a sunny day and as Michael and Michela enjoyed a lie-in I went to the beach and it was wonderful, so empty and natural... It was around 8am on a Sunday. Just me and a few birds, the sea had retracted a long way. Then two walkers appeared, too good a morning to miss out! We were back in England a few hours later.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Personality tests, why are they so fascinating? Introducing Personality Perfect

Take your test by clicking here

I was commissioned to write a review of a new PersonalityMatch app called Personality Perfect, launched in June 2016, which you can download for free here (App store for Apple) and here (Google Play for android). Like many, I always have a go at any personality quiz that I find on Facebook or other social media channels, I have even created some quizzes for fun. 

As with other apps, there is a free level and a premium zone but if you want to try before you buy, the free level gives you a good taster of what you pay for. The Personality Perfect app stays in touch with you and I have got a couple of follows-up after the test, which was fine as it reminded me of other things I could do. Sometimes apps do pester you to continue playing, but this one was lower key, I would have not minded an extra email after those, maybe two weeks down the line. I am saying this with my marketing hat on but also as a user. There are so many distractions online that a weekly or fortnightly reminder is not unwelcome. I also appreciated receiving articles about my profile, which focused on growing my confidence levels and on conversation skills.

I was surprised by the result as I don't see myself as a leader, but the character traits are spot on. So what does a premium account of PersonalityMatch offers? Instead of a summary, you get a 21 page in-depth profile, listing strengths and weaknesses, covering life and love, career choices (aka which jobs are suited to your personality) and... drumrolls... how to unlock your potential. So for instance, with my profile I'd discover how to grab those leadership skills and forge ahead!

I have saved the best bit for last, the point of difference... you do not have to do it on your own! Dutch entrepreneur Johan Hagenbeuk built in a social element which is easy as 1,2.3:
1. you take the free personality test
2. invite a friend to do the same
3. let the app match your results.

So if you feel you want to share this experience with friends, colleagues, family, you can!

There is a 14-Day Money-Back Guarantee and you can see samples of what you'd get if you click the link in your personalised email.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Toyota Travelogue 2016 - part 1

Our 'new' Toyota Yaris on Mont Cenis
Nearly every year now we travel by car to Italy from Cambridge through France. This time round I got teased by my Italian friends, asking me if I was going back in an inflatable! I replied I officially result as emigrated from Italy so they laughed even harder! This joke was passed on Twitter and liked, although I had to explain it was the Italians, not any Brit who cracked the joke. 

Back to the travelogue, if you want to read the previous ones, click here.... You will find most years, except last year when I was not in a good place due to tennis elbow and personal blues so I did not post it... I have the photos somewhere though. 

So this year we again repeated some stops as they are handy so my partner does not drive too many hours each day and we miss out on looking around where we stop. I mention the car brand not because I am sponsored (offers welcome though!) but because we did the journey with a 2003 Toyota until this year, when we got a more recent Toyota. Again we had a trouble-free journey, except that we had a scare on Mont Cenis when the car hit a stone and we saw liquid dripping underneath. We crawled down the mountain and arrived in Italy where we immediately drove to our trusted local mechanic Flavio who said it was just the condensed water from the air conditioning... phew... anyway if it were something else surely the alert lights would have flashed! Still it was tense as we did not want to end up stranded before reaching destination or in a dodgy predicament down a mountain....

1st stop: REIMS
This giant statue is in the cathedral... Every time we enter Reims, we shout 'Champagne' like Bubbles Devere, this portly Lady we all find very funny! Sadly no Champagne this time, to be honest I can only drink by the glass now as alcohol makes me fall asleep.

Here is the photo of a Champagne house and a view of the tram too. We were on our way to a public park, where I was lucky to find a free Jazz concert. Of course I sat alone while my partner and daughter visited some nearby shops. Of course there was armed police strolling by, as in other cities we visited, except Annecy, where I did not see any... I might have missed them though. We had a good dinner at Le Comptoir du Boeuf which offered Michela a huge slab of salmon (instead of usual burger/fish and chips option of most children's menus). Scroll down for the Jazz video... We also loved this fountain, which sadly did not spout Champagne, a missed opportunity, I say!

2nd stop: DOLE It is near Lyon, it was our first time there and to our delight we discovered it was the hometown of Pasteur, the vaccine inventor and also the inventor of the Pasteurisation process and a very effective treatment that prevents mould on vines. The wooden frame of his portrait was donated by grateful wine producers and it is made of vine wood. We also saw an interesting case with two mice with ears attached to their backs, apparently Pasteur dabbled in genetics too... Another great thing about Dole are the houses on the canal, the marina and the underground passages, including a hidden pool. No need of a map, all you have to do is follow the cat trail... So look down and follow the tiles with the cat.... Because of the motorway diversion away from Lyon, we missed the Mushroom Playpark so we broke the tradition of having a photo of Michela on huge mushroom slides. The best we could do is sit her on this chicken ride celebrating the expensive Poulet de Bresse, a 'bargain' at over 30 euros per uncooked chicken. It must the Champagne of chickens! Dole has also a fun way to collect ciggies' butts and find out popular opinions...

3rd stop: Chambery
It used to be Italy and the capital of Savoie at one point, but now a French city. We followed an elephant trail there and found this charming free library... and this funny pub chain...  The highlight aside the excellent ice cream, food and mountain views were the statue of elephants and Rousseau's house, which is out of town and worth a visit! I took a movie there and a photo of his bedroom with desk and all... Apparently he was a skilled musician and composer - he taught himself! After Chambery we climbed the Mont Cenis then crawled into Italy to my native region of Piedmont, once known as Savoie and a kingdom to boot!
Come back to this blog and you can read Part II with more pics and stories... On the way back the stops will be Annecy, Troyes and Calais!

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Who is your role model?

Just a quick update to show something I made for Facebook, inspired by a conversation with another blogger. I did follow in her footsteps and looking at my life now I replicated a lot of her decisions. So after so many years, she is still my role model. What about you???

Friday, 1 July 2016

10 Things Women Approaching 50 Will Understand

This is me on 28/6/16
In 2014 I wrote a popular blog post called 10 things only women hitting 40+ will understand and now I am emotionally ready to deal with the real hot potato... hitting half a century pretty soon. I don't see much of a difference, except that ageism is starting to rear its ugly head in the work environment and I have early symptoms of menopause but still going through all the joys of the monthly period. I am on HRT now and whatever your GP says, there is a brand you can use when you still have the period. It makes a huge difference to hot flushes and hormonal mood swings. I apologise if I am recycling some 'things' from the previous post but they are still true! I will update them to suit my 'new' thinking.

You dust off old tech - nostalgia is so fashionable!

1. You rejoice when a cartoon you grow up with is revamped, but then don’t like the new drawings, the new storylines... So you get a video off Freecycle or head to the only charity shop that still sells them. And what about a vinyl player, a cassette/cd player... Personally I regret getting rid of the old-fashioned camera with professional lenses I had and my cassette walkman dying of natural death. Nostalgia is a big trend among the younger generations too. Who would have thought that the e-book would not upstage a paper book? Young people still like smelling those pages like we do. And my daughter made me chuckle when she asked me how she can pause the radio (it was not a digital radio!).

You start to get Saga-style stuff in the post - too early!

2. Why am I getting adverts for stairlifts, special holidays, special deals at the local gym... Is it likely I want those extra-wide fit shoes or a mumu outfit or elasticated pants? Not likely at all. Our generation likes jeans, trainers and trendy stuff and it's hard enough not to look like a mutton (because yes, we still like fashion, shock horror), so please don't send any geriatric adverts my way, please!

You are still a tiger, not a cougar!

3. You can’t still stomach any violence, real or imaginary (aka films, TV, video games), but you are ready to pounce like a bloodthirsty tiger if somebody tries to harm/hurt your child in any way. If like me you are an 'old' mum, you have a 9 year old that is still learning how to cope with school bullies (boys and girls), 'unpleasant boys' and 'unfair' teachers... 

The Ministry of Sound is still churning out those CDs!

4. You might have danced there in your late 20s but the brand is still trying to look cool and despite the current download culture, they are still producing CDs. You recognise the old tunes among the most recent dancefloor hits and go back in time when you could stay out all night and feel fresh in the morning. And yes, you'd still give a Paddington's stare to the hip girl/boy who doesn’t hand you a nightclub flyer while you are out shopping at the weekend.

You ask yourself: 'Mirror, mirror, do I need you?'

6. No, you don't. I try to avoid looking in the mirror unless I am applying makeup for a special occasion or I am brushing my hair. Don't ever look after the bath, don't. If you do, appreciate your good bits, if you have looked after yourself, I am sure you look great for your age! Remember that even celebrities cannot defy ageing, there are enough plastic surgery horror stories that prove it.

If comfort eating is your thing, don't knock it!

7. Yes, it's good to be a healthy eater but sometimes a little of what you fancy... or a lot depending on your mood... I am unlucky because when I am down I lose my appetite so I cannot gobble ice cream and feel better. So basically if I am happy I get fat! This does not work very well because I am happier in spring and summer when I'd rather be thinner! But I still believe that life is too short to count calories, dammit!

You are in the market for stylish sunglasses for sure!

8. You should not feeling guilty for buying an expensive pair of sunnies - consider the price and dangers of an eye lift or dermal fillers. A stylish pair of sunglasses will make you look younger - and will protect your eyes from the sun so no further wrinkles from sun exposure can join the others.

You still have secret office fantasies

9. Unfortunately or fortunately, you still fancy a younger colleague but you’d die of embarrassment if he’d ever found out. Remember that nobody can stop you from imagining all sort of things happening. And you can give him a hug and friendly kiss at the Xmas party without nobody suspecting anything. You could probably get away pinching that perky bottom but you don't want to risk a summon from HR.

You have removed your date of birth from your CV

10. You know that revealing how old you are can damage your career prospects. Yes, they can do the maths by checking when you graduated or got your A levels, but they might not, so it's worth not declaring your age unless you are asked for it. Unfortunately you will not get some jobs not because you are under-qualified but because somebody younger will pip you to the post. I have written a jokey article about it, read it here

Pictures from CC search. Credits: Plkawll, The Italian Voice, Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia via Wikimedia Commons, jeff_golden, David Gandy for GQ Japan by Arnaldo Anaya-Lucca, Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese, Saed de los Santos, Andrew Hurley, Dan Vidal, Wikimedia and Wikipedia

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Confessions of a Summer Parent in Cosmopolitan Cambridge

I know what you did last Summer!

Summer did not have a great start with Brexit becoming a reality in a city that has a huge majority in favour of staying in the EU. Indulge me by letting me bring out the Brusselo as this illustration made me laugh and laugh.

Last summer was not a great one, me with my tennis elbow working away or resting a 'dead arm', battling the blues too - the first Summer I put my daughter in the holiday club, albeit part time. So I have great hopes for this Summer when despite everything the mood is good and we are going on holiday twice since my partner did not take any time off at the half term. We did and had a lovely week in France staying at a friend's house. Two more French holidays coming up, Brittany and en route to visit my parents in Italy. We never had such luxury before but they won't cost us the earth either, we are a frugal family... I still have my Cheapskate blog running...

When Michela was little, the best thing ever was to have a paddling pool as she would spend ages in it, so if you have a young child an inexpensive paddling pool is a must have plus a toy kitchen. I saw a really cute wooden one in Ikea recently at a very good price (no sponsorship here, just saying). The below one came from a charity garage sale. Get these two and you will be lounging in the sun with a book or magazine while your child keeps busy. Trust, me whatever it takes to distract/amuse your child for more than 10 minutes it's worth trying out!

Michela is now 9 and I just love the age as we can do more interesting things together. Today I will join her Brownie group to a trip to Cambridge Botanic Garden, the loveliest place ever! This Summer will be special and it does not matter I don't have a work contract - my arm is doing well and I am feeling upbeat (I recommend HRT even if you still have your period). We are going to have fun with crafts (sewing, papier mache'/decoupage, knitting) and we will cycle everywhere, we might volunteer to host a picnic for other families linked to the University, we will be best friends and there will be less 'Don't do that' from me. Let's enjoy this bliss before the teenager emerges!

Michela and I at the half term - we love art!

This post is an entry for the BritMums Confessions of a Summer Parent Challenge, sponsored by Anchor. Views are my own and I thought it would be a fun competition to do.

P.S. After a Facebook convo, here are a few more suggestions that came to my mind:

  • Also small items (not too small, think choking hazard) and boxes, they love filling them up and emptying them. 
  • Playdough is good too
  • Oversized drawing chalks for pavement 
  • Best and nearly free thing, a brush and a bucket of water to paint a wall with (choose one you don't mind getting damp) or the patio...

Monday, 20 June 2016

Back at home... applying for a PhD and jobs...

Standing in my garden on a recent sunny day (not today)
My contract terminated late in May so in the past few weeks, I have been applying for jobs (permanent and contract ones). I have also applied for a PhD and would like to be accepted and do some research on blogging, but of course you never know so I have still to apply for selected jobs. I say selected because I am limited location-wise (I cycle to work) and hours-wise (I have to pick up my daughter from the afterschool club before 6pm). My partner has a busy job so he can only help now and then.

I have more time now so have been spring-cleaning the house (including very dusty bookshelves), been baking and indulging my social media accounts. I have also started a new creative writing blog and you can read my fiction here. I am feeling good, either HRT is working or I have SAD as I don't do as well in winter months (this year it will be different as I will take action - and it helps having an arm that works again after nasty tennis elbow). Aside tweeting marketing stuff, I also spend more time on Facebook and other platforms discussing the EU referendum. I have no vote despite living in UK for many years so I can only join the debate verbally. I am for remain and if not, I would have changed my mind as a huge number of brexit people are nasty beyond belief (online) or do not trust rational views (figures are figures, emotions are something else).

So here is another update. I am on the lookout for new things to test. My daughter is 9 and I am a keen cyclist. Would love to test some cycling gear/accessories. Have sent a request for two products, let's see...

PS It's likely I will not be working this summer so no holiday club for my daughter. I have plans for some great stuff to do together. I am not stern on tablet/computer use, my daughter puts them down if I offer an activity, if not she can spend time on them while I do other stuff. She grew up with me hitting keys all the time, even when breastfeeding her. It would be hypocritical to limit her enjoyment. Also forbidden fruit tastes sweeter. I know what children's development people say but she did not become addicted to TV after spending hours while I was trying to work from home and no, she has not moved from addiction to addiction, she can put the tablet down if I offer time with her.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Another update... so you know I am still around

Dear Readers,
This is where I now spend my lunch breaks... pure bliss.  
By Peter McGlasham, Wikimedia
I know from the stats that many of you are still sticking around, possibly reading old posts and wondering why I am not updating. The fact is that office work has taken over and I have stopped working from home! I continue contracting for the University of Cambridge and I am now here full time on a temporary contract. Oh the bliss of being connected to the Botanic Garden, despite not succeeding - yet again - to get the trainee opportunity to learn plant identification while working in the Garden. I am going out now and having a stroll in my lunch hour.

I am also doing 100 other things, being involved with a community garden (that blog is updated regularly), doing some fiction writing, volunteer work in various places, trying to be a good member of a Cambridge Skills Exchange (no, I don't look after that blog).

If you are a PR (and yes, I still get emails for product testing), please note that my daughter is 9 years old and this post gives you an idea of my interests. Please send requests for appropriate products.

Thank you all and I will pop in again!

Monday, 27 July 2015

What I have been up to...

The Empty Common Community Garden

I have neglected my blogs again, but in my defence I got a new job and it has been challenging to keep up. One blog that I have not neglected is the one I set up for a community garden. I posted a yummy recipe for blackcurrant muffins just now...

If you are into community gardening - or love to grow stuff in your garden or plot, visit the Empty Common Garden blog here.

Unfortunately I also had to shelve craft ideas while I cope with an issue with my arm, so it might be a while until you hear from me again. I will try my best to continue with the community gardening blog in the meantime.