Monday, 25 November 2013

Product review: Michela meets Furby Boom

Furby Boom has climbed to the top spots of Xmas wishlists everywhere, including the Dream Toys list from the Toy Retailers Association. So we were both very excited to be offered the opportunity to review it!

This new, updated Furby has many more responses programmed in and more movement (ears, eyelids, mouth and animated pupils). Plus he (ours is a boy) can interact with a free app you can download onto a smartphone (Apple-only devices, android and Blackberry apps are not available at the time of blogging). There is even an egg hatching challenge - we haven't managed that but Michela has already named all the eggs on the enclosed poster.

Grooming time!

Although we couldn't get the app, Michela has been having lots of fun out of manual interaction. She enjoys feeding him, tickling him, turning him upside down and hugging him. Furby started speaking with a squeaky voice, then morphed into a bigger voice but still retaining childish playfulness, making 'rude' farty noises, snoring loudly, demanding food... 

The next change (growth?) brought Furby back to a childish voice (a different one, with a slightly naughty personality), which was a relief for both of us as we enjoyed the squeaky tone much more than the 'grown-up' one. 

Then the batteries ran out (4 x AA batteries are needed) and after changing them, Furby reverted back to its original personality. Still, we had the Furby for nearly one week and he is still going strong. Michela considers it as a pet and I'm allowed to touch it now and then. 

One thing I need to mention is that there is no switch off button - you need to make the Furby go to sleep, which Michela struggles to do, so it's now my job! I quite enjoy doing it.

We are both very happy with our stripey Furby, the only downsides are the fact you need a screwdriver to change the batteries and that the app is not available yet - the latter issue has generated quite a discussion online, 

Suitable from age 6+, the RRP for Furby Boom is 59.99, but you can save £10 if you buy it from Argos. More 2013 dream toys at Argos... 

UPDATE - September 2014: Furby has been dusted off and is my daughter's best friend since we found and decided to download the app. She has been busy grooming it, feeding it and hatching eggs all day. Tablet is down on battery and recharging. January 2015: Still playing with the Furby, now cousin has her own Furby and they 'met' at Xmas. June 2016!! We still have this toy and Michela has around 18 Furbys or more in her virtual city. Lots of grooming going on with plastic brushes on the 'real' one.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Hooked by a hook, why I'm not a Trebus, a craft project & a competition

I have always been a secret squirrel, never a minimalist. I like to keep stuff - so my partner has annoyingly nicknamed me Trebus. Unlike Trebus, I do like having some empty space around me and being able to find things, so I'm a great fan of storage: shelves, cupboards, wardrobes, chest of drawers, baskets, sheds, you name it, I have got it! Over the years I must have spent a fortune in Argos, Homebase, Ikea and B&Q as I lived in several different houses (owned and rented). However I also like going around charity shops, so I have bought and done up old furniture to use as storage. 

But what about small things to keep at hand or in view? That's when the humble hook comes into its own. So I jumped at the chance of reviewing a variety of hooks from Command, which you can buy from retailers and online. I do recommend visiting its website beforehand, which offers useful information, decorative inspiration and a tempting competition

Hooks are not only handy for everyday living but also great for special occasions (think Halloween, Christmas, Easter...) when you'd like to stick something on a wall without leaving a mark. That's what Command hooks and strips can offer you - damage-free hanging - which is perfect when you are renting a place and don't want to lose part of your deposit because your pictures or Christmas fairy lights left a mark or, worse, a hole on a wall. 

Win, Win! Check out for a chance to win one of three £150 Photobox vouchers and a 3M Command product kit.

Crafting corner: let your imagination run free

Forget hanging kitchen utensils or coats in a hallway, you can use hooks to create your own wall art. This pictorial tree would work really well to display family pictures - no hammer and nails required! 

Step-by-step guide to creating a memory tree
1. Choose the area in your home you wish to update: it could be a bare wall in your living room, a child’s play room or even your study. You will need to purchase a tree wall transfer in order to start off your design, unless you want to paint your own. 

2. Plan your colour palette. We worked on a cream wall and chose a brown tree transfer, so decided to keep our decorations to neutral creams and browns. You don’t have to stick to one or two colours though – why not go for a bold design?

3.  Pick out some items to hang on your memory wall. Perhaps you could focus on a specific event, such as your wedding, holiday or birth of a child - you could even turn it into family tree! Think about the shape of the items you are hanging and try to balance the display in terms of the composition.

4. To hang photo frames or canvases, you can use Command Picture Hanging Strips. You can take a small birdcage and clip photos or quirky post cards to it, and then hang it using a Command Clear Hook so that it blends in with the wall, or perhaps use the Command Clear Mini Hooks to hang lighter items such as a little trinkets or lighter cardboard decorations. These don’t leave any marks on your walls and remove cleanly and easily - perfect if you decide to swap or move any of the items at a later stage. But before you do, check the pack to work out which hooks suit each of your decorations the best, weight-wise.

5. Once you have decided on your arrangement, try laying out all of your items on the floor to see if the design works before you hang it. 

6. If you are using Command hooks or strips, it is recommended that you put them onto the wall and leave them for an hour to ensure that they stick before you hang your items. And there you have it! A beautiful memory tree that looks great in any room and is completely unique to you. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

Guest post: top tips for a comfortable and beautiful vintage home

The vintage look is still in, but if you are not keen on old furniture or antiques, it doesn't have to be musty interiors with back-breaking furniture and rigid, scratchy fabrics, writes Jessica Christian from

You can easily incorporate a vintage feel into your home while retaining all modern, hedonistic comforts. It is surprisingly simple to retain the best of mod cons while injecting vintage glamour, especially since mainstream manufacturers have taken notice of our love of vintage elegance and are creating stunning reproductions. 

Quality reproduction furniture can look as good as old pieces, but comes with user-friendly innovations such as soft-close drawers, easy-clean surfaces and stain-resistant fabrics - the colourful take on the chesterfield sofa pictured above and the elegant cabinet with slender legs are attractive examples.

But it's especially in the bedroom that we crave comfortable charm. In the old days they knew how to inject style in a bedroom - think thick linen sheets, handmade quilts and embroidered pillow cases... These were indeed beautiful, soft to the touch but not easy to maintain - delicate embroidery doesn't fare well in a washing machine.  However you can indulge yourself by choosing easy-care quality fabrics, a multitude of decorative pillows and luxurious blankets and throws. Bedding and bedroom furnishings are available in such an enormous range of colours, sizes, fabrics and patterns that you are spoilt for choice.
You can also add small touches of vintage appeal here and there. An embroidered footstool in an empty corner or even a neat stack of old suitcases positioned to form a stylish bedside table can impart a delightful and ageless je-ne-sai-quoi to your very own boudoir.

It might not offer all mod cons, but vintage furniture is superb. Made to last in seasoned wood by expert craftsmen, it can last for centuries if properly cared for. Soft modern cushions can take the edge off the unyielding hardness of solid wood. Salvage yards, auctions and second-hand shops can unearth vintage treasures.

What if you are on a tight budget?

If you cannot afford to replace your furniture and are pushed for space, you can achieve interesting effects by injecting vintage style through paint and accessories. A dado or picture rail instantly adds old-fashioned charm to any room, including a narrow entrance or bland corridor.

Accessories can really jazz up a room and ooze vintage vibes - just think of orange, brown and cream chevrons… the Seventies, right? Cream, soft rose and dusky blue – the fabulous twenties! And do you remember seeing photos of Eighties' petrol blue and dove grey power suits? Each decade has a distinct colour palette - a good place to start if money is tight.

This article was sent by Jessica Christian. Visit her blog for more interior decorating tips. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Toyota travelogue 2013: from England to Italy

Our Toyota will be 10 years old in October - in the past five years we have been taking a few continental journeys from England to Italy through France (once through Belgium), which have been documented on this blog and a newsletter (see links at the bottom of this post).

We started travelling with a toddler and we now have a school-age child and a lighter boot - you can well imagine what it is like to travel with a young child with the travel cot, buggy, bulky car seat, etc... This year we have been able to take back oil, wine and other continental delicacies (madeleines, langues de chat, saucisson sec, Mont St-Michel biscuits...) that took our fancy. 

This year, the itinerary was: Cambridge, Laon, Dijon, Grenoble, Asti, Lyon, Reims, Calais. Calais has a surprisingly nice, clean beach and great facilities for kids as it has several free playgrounds for all ages (from baby to teens) just opposite the beach. It was kind of interesting to walk around the beach, pick up shells, build a sand castle and see big ferries come in and leave.

First stop: Laon

Laon's cathedral - a pilgrimage hotspot in the Middle Ages
Laon, part of the old walls
Laon - this sign tickled our funny bones
Laon, The Templars' Chapel

On the French motorway: two of the best aires

Aire d'Urvillers

    Aire de Jugy

    Second stop: Dijon

    Dijon: main park

    Dijon: old buildings in the prime shopping area

    Third stop: Grenoble
    Grenoble: the old fort 

    Grenoble: a church angel

                                   Fourth stop: Castagnole, near Asti
    Castagnole: the baroque church

    Castagnole: the tower

                                                         Fifth stop: Lyon

Lyon: the farmers' market (Sunday)

Lyon: the Japanese tea stall at the farmers' market

Lyon: a stunning square close to our hotel

    Sixth stop: Reims
Reims: the cathedral

Reims: the Art Museum

Friday, 13 September 2013

How to see the positive side of rejection (aka hurray, I didn't get that job!)

Now, now, who got that job?

Nobody likes rejection, me included. I'm a proactive go-getter so if I work hard on a job application (not only researching the company/organisation involved but also preparing presentations and undergoing various tests if I reach the interview stage), it's a real downer to be told, "We loved your presentation, but we found a candidate closely matching our requirements, bla, bla".  Often I get zero feedback and I wonder, "Why not?". But not for long.

Thanks to the internet it's remarkably easy to find out who gets the job you have been applying for, if the organisation/firm doesn't make an announcement on its website, then you just do a search on LinkedIn. Another way is to work for that organisation in another capacity. More than once, I didn't get the job but I ended up working there through a temping agency. That's how I found out that a couple of jobs I applied for went to internal candidates. Grrr, the internal candidate, what's the point of advertising such a job? I don't see the point, no matter what the law says.

Then there is the annoyance when you find out that the job went to somebody younger, a 'man' (I have nothing against men, I quite like them, I'm just fed up of this gender divide nonsense) or, intriguinglysomebody who is not 'better' than you, like somebody less experienced... Something my partner told me once comes to mind: "In business people hire people they like or they feel comfortable working with". So the winning candidate might not be 'better', but more likeable. Not a compliment, but it's understandable. You can't please everybody.

Women also have another disadvantage over men - it has been proven that women don't tend to bullshit. Sorry for the use of the strong word but there has been research saying that women won't apply for a job unless they can tick all the requirements on the job description. I was ticking away, until my partner advised me to stop. And he was right as I got a few interviews for managerial roles. I didn't get the jobs, but from the feedback I got, it was a question of beating stiff competition, there was nothing wrong with my CV.

There is also another scenario, which happened to me recently. You attend the interview and you get a raft of hostile questions. So you do some verbal fencing while wondering:
  • Have they read my CV?
  • Why in hell have they called me for this interview?
  • Is it some sort of strategy to find an emotionally strong candidate?
  • Why am I here? This job sounds like miles away from the job description.
  • I don't like these people, should I sabotage my interview?
  • Why is this woman in the panel giving me the evil eye while the other is as nice as pie? Is it a game of good cop, bad cop?
Feel free to add more scenarios... I'm starting to realise that interviews are either a competitive sport or a performance theatre play. Most of the jobs I go for are contract jobs, so you'd think they are easier to get than permanent posts, but no, it's actually worse! These jobs are highly attractive because Cambridge has a transient labour market. There are plenty of people after them, even people who don't live in Cambridge but are hoping to move here.

But back to that list of thoughts surfacing in my head while I'm being interviewed... If like me you sat there and had similar thoughts, not getting the job is the best outcome. Always trust your instincts,  I haven't and I should learn to. I once got a job after getting the evil eye treatment and it was not a nice workplace. Luckily I had the option of going back to work from home. 

I'm lucky to have a choice, but I didn't when I graduated in 1993, during an economic recession. I had to do jobs I was overqualified for, work for unpleasant people until I made my escape into journalism. I had a wonderful career for well over a decade. 

Out of London it's a bit different, plus the economic/financial recession of 2008 is still having repercussions, whatever the politicians say. There are less opportunities in "the provinces", but things are picking up in digital marketing. 

I could stay freelance but after several years of homeworking I like the idea of being in an office again. I started doing inhouse jobs in 2011,  a bit hampered by restrictive childcare provisions. Now my daughter is in school and has a place at a afterschool club, it's getting easier. Still I'd like to see more flexible opportunities for mums. 

I couldn't stop working, not even when heavily pregnant, so my only option was to volunteer my skills. I'm still doing some volunteering and it's wonderful work, but at some point everybody needs to earn some money.

We all want a better life-work balance, another reason why it's best not to get certain jobs, especially in the corporate sector, which is not child friendly, whatever they say. And most businesses still believe on bums on seats, like remote technology is something out of sci-fi. Maybe we need an app so employers can breathe on remote employees' necks. 

Finally, if you are a male reader, I wish you luck in finding a way to work and see your children grow. It was a big financial sacrifice for us, but well worth it - after several years of working as a freelance consultant, my partner is back on the career ladder and I'm on my way. Like the French songstress sang: Rien, je ne regrette rien.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Spot me at the Creating Cambridge BIG Summer BBQ 2013

I attended this business networking event during the summer. Quite a funny video. I was only drinking orange juice, honest! I'm wearing a floral top and jeans.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Back to school - where has the summer gone?

We went back to the Aire of Jugy -
see updated pics here (link to come)

We came back from the holidays the day before the schools opened and it has been hectic. My partner flew abroad for a business trip a few days later and I have been holding the fort while working from home.

We had a great holiday driving from Cambridge to northern Italy through France and our soon-to-be-ten Toyota didn't break down. What will we do when it does? I will blog about this soon as I have some photos to share.

I have also been networking, which is not innate for me but it's coming along nicely - give me a break, if I were a consummate chatter, I'd be in sales not content marketing (ie writing stuff). If, like me, you are a bit nervous in a room full of strangers, just smile, look around and locate somebody on their own. This trick works very well, I have learnt it at my first business conference from a really smart lady. It's not as creepy as it sounds, honest!

We had a lovely summer in the UK and some rain in Italy courtesy of the Cambridge cloud (a real cloud, I'm not talking about internet storage). It follows us around a bit. But after a few warm days back in the UK, the idyll was over, with cold, rainy days. I just about managed to mow the grass and rake it before the grey clouds arrived.

Well, that's it for now. I have heaps of things to do and a  work file to go through.

Hope you are all doing well and the kids are enjoying school.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

School is out, plus two product reviews

My daughter has been on holiday for over two weeks. I am back at home after working full time for three months, doing editing and writing work, and gearing up for September when it will be hectic again. I might work full time again, work from home or do a mixture by taking short-term contracts. 

August is a quiet month in my field - and my partner's - so we are enjoying this extraordinary British summer, while doing a spot of DIY. My partner painted the kitchen and my summerhouse's revamp is coming along nicely.

Being at home all day is a bit of a shock for Michela, as this year she went to the after-school club full time, Monday to Friday till 6pm. So we visited all the charity shops and bought lots of games and books to keep her busy. 

It's very busy in Cambridge as it's high tourist season - Michela is popular with Chinese and Japanese women, who wants to take picture of her... With her long hair, big brown eyes and long eyelashes, she looks a bit like a Manga character (not to mention the 'big head', which is a family joke as I can wear her hats).

Testing, testing... Disney movie & a special diary for juggling parents
We have always encouraged Michela to watch TV and against all the academic research out there, she has not become addicted to the small screen. She is very selective and into Scooby Doo at the moment, which I don't mind watching now and then as I grew up with it. We are also doing some back-to-school shopping (more about this after the review).

So among the various press releases that have hit my inbox I have selected two items to review - The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a Disney movie, and Family School Year Diary

Scanning through the press release of this film, which was released on DVD at the end of July (£9 on Amazon), I can agree that it's indeed magical and heart-warming. I was surprised at the quality of the script, which at times reminded me of indie movies. It is just a tad gushing but I smiled and cried a little bit too. It's amazing how many themes the writers have managed to squeeze in this family movie: infertility, the power of belief, competitive parenting, adoption, fantasy (a kind of eco-friendly Pinocchio), respect for diversity, unconditional love, dysfunctional parenting and emotional neglect (the paternal grandfather), death of loved ones, job insecurity, friendship, art and magic. 

And all of this in a 'normal life' scenario. Yes, it's a movie and there is a fantasy element to it, but most of it is about real life and people you can relate to. My daughter being only six, found some parts not to her taste (such as the factory scenes and the job insecurity storyline) but loved every bits where the young boy hogs the screen. I loved it - this film stands out among some really dire offerings full of violence or very predictable and devoid of any imagination. Well done, Disney! Looking forward to Monsters University - I bought the DVD of Monsters, Inc before my daughter was born (yes, I'm a big kid).

And now for something completely different.... The Big Family School Year Diary from Mum's Office.

This is a special diary indeed, running from August 2013 to August 2014 to coincide with the school year. It has a reptile-effect cover and comes in three colours: raspberry, blackberry and peppermint - delicious!  

Structured in the week-a-page format, it has extra pages for notes, children's information,
mum's information, event planners, term planners - even a pocket money record. I love it. I have tried digital organiser and I'm not a fan. I like to write my stuff down in a Filofax, but since it's also my work organiser, it's getting a bit cramped between school events and work commitments. My daughter's school organises a lot of events, so aside my PTA and class volunteering there are dress-up days, special days (like science, boat building, costume making for plays) where you need to take bits and pieces in, meetings with teachers... I need to remind myself of all these things and my pocket-size Filofax is struggling. And I have only one child, imagine if you have two children or three (the norm here in Cambridge) and these children do extra curriculum activities. It's like project management on a daily basis! 

Dads who are not involved in running home life have no idea of how hard it can be. My partner found out recently. So if I'm off to work inhouse for a client, how is my partner going to know that Michela needs to take stuff at school for an activity? We need a family diary. RRP price of The Big Family School Year Diary is £16.95, not the cheapest around, but perfect to juggle your family life in style!

Product specs:
  • Measures 18cm x 12cm with 176 pages
  • Hardback cover with rounded corners
  • Gusset pocket on the inside back cover
  • 2 grosgrain ribbons, an elastic strap to hold it all together and a pen loop.

Back to school shopping and PTA woes

By Geralt
All the stores and supermarkets are displaying their back-to-school wares. Michela goes to a primary school where pupils are asked to wear blue clothing, but there is flexibility for shoes, so aside plimsolls (which are very cheap), she can wear her 'normal' shoes. As she is a bit of a tomboy, we get through trainers and boy boots (girl's shoes are of the flimsy variety), while 'party shoes' don't get much wear and are usually passed down to a younger friend with a more girly disposition.

So it's down to buying some tees as her blue check pinafores still fit - and she doesn't wear them much anyway. We might have to buy new jeans, despite buying a bigger size, we have to change them every six months or so as she is growing in height at a fast speed. She is now 117cm. Obviously she has not taken from me. I bought some stuff at the school fete, I was manning the uniform stall so I had first pick - we had heaps of stuff, kindly donated by parents. 

You guessed it, I'm in the PTA, with the role of publicity/poster/programme designer and bar server/uniform stall person at events. It's great fun and the committee is made up of working mums, with dads helping out on the day at events. It's a small group this year and it's the case of 'ask a busy person', which is annoying as we know that there are some non-working/part-time working mums that really enjoy coming to the events but don't want to pitch in. Prior to each event (disco, Xmas shopping, international food night, Father Xmas' visit, summer fete) we panic in case we haven't got enough volunteers. Sometimes we have to threaten cancellation to get some volunteers - we can't run all the stalls ourselves with such a tiny committee. The events are so much fun, though, even if you are manning a stall.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A frugal family's tale - my budget baby articles and review of Aldi's Lelli-Kelly-style shoes

First of all, let me say that we regularly shop at Aldi, so when I was offered a sample of the Lelli-Kelly-style shoes for Michela, I was happy to accept. I was not surprised to find out that Aldi won Which? Supermarket of the Year 2012 - its international offerings (sliced cooked meat, cheese and the cheapest but quality maple syrup you can find) had us hooked for the past three years or so. Aldi's brochures are so well written - as a copywriter I find them delightful. I have kept the Halloween edition as it offered ideas for spooky face paint and fun themed dishes.

Without further ado, here is my review of Aldi's Lelli-Kelly-style shoes. The
headline of the press release says it all: Spend or Splurge? Well, we are no splurgers, we love a bargain and we are charity shop addicts. I even wrote baby-on-a-budget/credit crunch articles a few years back (scroll down for links) for various publications.

Back to the Aldi shoes, we tested them on a walk into central Cambridge and at school (Michela's school uniform policy doesn't apply to shoes). It was a welcome change from the usual, sensible shoe we buy for Michela - we bought plimsolls, boy-style boots (sturdy, rainproof and kickproof) and croc lookalikes at Aldi, so we have tested its kid range out of our own pockets since she started school. We buy most shoes from supermarkets anyway, we tried Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda for trainers, sandals and wellies. We only shop at shoe shops during the sales and it's more like TK Maxx anyway.

The shoes did well, they were a bit dirty after a day at school but the sequins were still stuck on! Lelli Kelly shoes come with little gifts but retail at a whopping £49.99, while these lookalikes are £8.99. They have been available from June 27, so if you are lucky you can still find a pair at your store. Sizes are from 7 to 12. Pity they don't do size 3 as I'd have bought a pair from myself! These pink and silver sparklers are part of a special range, so they won't be gathering dust on the shelves... I hope Aldi will reissue them at some point. Children grow out of shoes pretty soon.

My credit crunch series in full

Baby on a budget (online version)
Baby on a budget (print version)
Buying secondhand high chairs
Buying secondhand for your pregnancy, baby and toddler
Have a green Christmas
Family garden on a budget
Build your first aid kit