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Friday, 29 June 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: UnoTelly review

A friend is for a reason, a season, or a lifetime

Picture by Mark Allison

           It’s a little over six months since I started this blog to try and draw my technophobic friend into my world and perhaps a little patronisingly (it’s true I was being patronising) drag her into the 21st century.  My pompous attempt at refreshing our long, long friendship over the internet might have on one brief moment succeeded, but since then there has been a lengthy reverberating silence.

It’s a little over six days since the same friend’s birthday, and every year I forget! Well not exactly forget, I always remember the next day and palm slap my forehead. I’m not sure why I do that, because we’re long past the stage of sending cards or presents. It’s just that I know her birth date so well, it is ingrained on my mind like my childhood telephone number (485464), it’s one of those numbers that will always, always be part of my memories.

It’s a little over six hours since Mr Sunshine woke with the dawn and set off with five students for a gaming competition in Cambridge and I lay unable to go back to sleep,  pondering friendship  - I’ve been pondering ever since.

A good friend once told me that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I remember feeling offended at the time assuming (making an ass of myself again) she meant I was only to be a friend for a season or maybe a reason, when I wanted to be a friend for a lifetime. There was no need to be offended, I know now our friendship was for a reason. We no longer communicate as we once did, but yesterday she sent me an email – she said she missed my smiling face - I miss her too.

Picture also by Mark Allison
I think I must have been very good in a past life, because I had some amazing friends over the years, better than I deserve actually! Just because I don’t see those friends anymore, doesn’t mean I don’t think about them – I do.  Sometimes I wish I could turn the clock back and tell them how much having them in my life meant to me, because for some it’s already too late.

But for my technophobic friend it’s not too late. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t read the blogs; they are evolving and developing a life of their own. Just as we have done as friends, we’ve moved on, found new lives and new friendships. We no longer need to share every thought or dream, we already did that as twelve year olds making daisy chains on the lawn.  What we have is time, as her dad used to to say: ‘Everything in life is daft, except time – time is the only thing you can’t replace’,  well time is what we need, time to grow up, to mature and make the best of the life we’ve been given. But there is one thing for sure, when we’ve finished maturing, when responsibility and achievement no longer clammer to be heard – I’m going to find her. 
We are going to sit in her kitchen, wine in our teacups. She’ll still be slimmer than me, her hair will still be long and she’ll know my real age. She’ll remind me of the time I wrote pan-iced instead of panicked on an insurance claim. She’ll wear a flowered apron because she knows I like them and we’ll giggle and laugh until tears run down our cheeks, she’ll do her Monty Python impression of the ‘Knights who say Ni’, and we’ll talk about people no one but us remembers.

Happy Birthday my friend, sorry it’s late................

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

UnoTelly review

A funny thing happened to me a few Weeks ago, I received an email. Okay so not the funniest thing in the world I admit.

But this email said: ‘I came across your blog and found it well-written and informative.’

My first thought was to check the name on the on the email, had it arrived in my email box by a fluke?  Nope apparently not, it was definitely me it was addressed to! So my second thought was ‘well-written and informative’ have they actually read my blog?

The next part of the email said: 'Hence, I am wondering what are the terms of you reviewing our new exciting product - UnoTelly, a perfect solution for USA and UK expats.'

You can imagine my third thought -  it has to be a con!

Well, this is the biggest shock of all – it isn’t a con, it works and it works well.

UnoTelly is a DNS-based system to allow people who live outside of USA to watch Netflix and Hulu. UK expats can on the other hand enjoy British channels (BBC iPlayer, 4oD, iTV, Channel 5) they miss. It works on all devices including Computer, Smartphone, TV, xbox 360, PS3, Roku, and etc. 

To begin, I rather tentatively set it up on my laptop (without the help of Mr Sunshine).

  • Step one – download – easy peasy
  • Step two – log on – didn’t work, I panicked and assumed it must be a con again!  Emailed UnoTelly to explain about the faulty system and received a very quick response from a Nick at UnoTelly.Com, who explained I needed the password, which he’d already sent with the last email and then apologised for the confusion.
  • Step three – log on – it worked!

I now have access to all BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and numerous American channels, I can also use the iplayer facility and watch Hairy Bikers and Antiques Road Trip at any time of day. The downsides? Hardly any, it’s very cheap, easy to set up and use, and I have access to all kinds of programmes I thought not possible before. If there is a downside it is that once or twice it froze, although this mainly happened when Mr Sunshine was playing an online game.

If you're interested UnoTelly are offering 5 coupons with 25% off.

Just enter LettersFromTheNetherlands at the checkout

What's in it for me, you must be wondering - Well - I get free access to my Hairy Bikers for twelve months :-) 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” ~ Oscar Wilde (Was it really him or is this just another assumption?)

Recently, despite the best efforts of the Fyra fast (assumption) train to the airport I found myself once again at Schiphol with an hour to spare. Did I go shopping, treat myself to some Duty Free, grab a tasty meal? Nope, I trotted (that’s what you do, when you really want to run but the suspension on your bra isn’t up to the job), to the mini spa for a fifteen minute massage. Fifteen minutes of excruciating pain under the hands of a misplaced Jordie in the hub of Europe’s busiest airport might not be most people’s idea of relaxation, then I’m not most people. Just this small taste of my old life as a massage therapist, or as someone once enlightened me – a prostitute (that’s another story), is enough to send me hurtling back in time to my life in Derby, the city I called home for a long time.

 With the misplaced Jordie’s question ringing in my ear I ambled to the gate:

 ‘How did your shoulders get so knotted?’  hummm I wonder how

              Previously I’d assumed everything about the Dutch would be supa efficient including their airline, so it was with eager steps I climbed aboard my first flight with KLM the Dutch airline.  That the airline operated the world’s most difficult self-service check-in and used Dinky toys to manufacture the planes couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. The plane was clean, on time, I got to stow luggage in the hold without extra charges, they gave me free food – a miniature pack of Pringles admittedly, but it was free. I had a trouble balancing the planes seating arrangement in my head - two seats on the left and three on the right. How did KLM plan to stabilise the plane? Looking round I noticed those seated on the left tended to be on the heavier side, surely KLM isn’t that basic? No of course KLM isn’t that basic, if it were I’d have been on the left side.  Moments later thoughts of seating plans flew out of my head and a hint of the old fear of flying came back to haunt me as the engines rattled like an antique washing machine on the spin cycle and the plane leap frogged it’s way through the clouds.

The well named City Hopper preparing for takeoff
            A fifty minute hop across the sea and the plane dropped into LeedsBradford airport.

            Searching for the Avis desk, I noticed a few changes from Schiphol airport. In LeedsBradford it is apparently customary to wait for the staff to stop speaking to each other before expecting to be served, the dress code for travellers could be flatteringly described as comfortable and everyone looks bored. Of the three people behind the Avis service desk, one man in his sixties was serving, and two women were eating and dropping bits of tuna mayo sandwich onto their keyboards, to be fair, most of the dropping came from the over excited, absurdly fidgety woman who blouse stretched uncomfortably over her coral bra. Waving my documents and wearing my best ‘I know you’re busy but please serve me smile’ I tried to make eye contact. When that failed I tried looking at my watch, making gentle coughing noises, and finger drumming the counter. Eventually the fidgety women looked up with an apologetic smile, a smile with traces of tuna mayo.
                ‘Sorry for the wait, he’ll be with you in a minute.’ She said, nodding towards the old chap grappling with a pile of contracts.

                I returned the apologetic smile with a glare, what kind of service was this? Why didn’t she stop jumping about in her chair and give me some damn keys.

Finally found the car
Fifteen minutes later the old chap finally turned his attention to me. The moment he spoke I forgot about the wait, and sensed a trace of a smile creeping onto my face. The man spoke with the soft familiar Yorkshire growl, his speech slow, deliberate and determined.  And he would whether I or he liked it or not, go through the full car hiring spiel. For once I didn’t mind, I just stood back and let the wonderful long vowels take me back to my years of working in Leeds. As I walked away clutching the car keys I realised, I hadn’t listened to a word he’d been saying and that the woman I’d assumed absurdly fidgety was suffering from a disease of the nervous system. Too ashamed to go back and ask for directions I gave myself a figurative slap round the face and trudged around the car parks for twenty minutes trying to locate the smallest car in LeedsBradford airport.

Raian and Richard
The rest of the visit flew by much smoother than my first KLM flight. I got to meet and adore my son’s beautiful girlfriend, Raian, spent an educational day in Leicester with the OU, celebrated Richard’s birthday in style surrounded by much of my lovely family. Driving back to LeedsBradford though the stunning countryside around Harewood House and listening to Ken Bruce host Radio two’s Popmaster quiz,  I was hit by a massive wave of nostalgia. This beautiful country, with its quaint village’s greens adorned with hesitant bunting is my home, it is the country where both my sons and my family live, where all my memories stem from, I understand how it works and have a shared history here. Just at that moment with the sun warming the car, driving through the stone villages I assumed nowhere else could ever feel like home.

So who was the grinning middle-aged woman trotting (not solved the bra problem yet) towards Dutch passport control a few hours later.

‘Why are you smiling so much?’ asked the passport control officer.

‘Because I’m home.’ Was my baffled answer.

Of the assumptions I've made this week, by far the worst was assuming this song (which I adore) was aimed at people like me:

Richard and Raian

Most of my lovely family celebrating Richards birthday

Johnny almost fully recovering wearing Richards birthday present

Is this really empty - again?

The hats back with it's rightful owner

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Zombies herald the winds of change.

Walking the newly bald Alfie earlier today, a warm draft brushed my cheek.  It should have felt pleasant, it didn’t.  It felt as though I was walking past one of those choked up restaurant extractor fans, spewing recycled air and grease onto the streets. This warm air is a harbinger of change; it announces summer, not the bogus exotic summer of last week. But, the long awaited temporal summer that flits briefly from spring to autumn, never quite settling long enough to become familiar.

                There is a lot of change happening in our small expat community. Living arrangements are being redefined; people are resigning their position as expats and going home, while others make their position more permanent. It all feels a little unnerving.
              Mr Sunshine and I are experiencing a few changes too. I’ve started looking at new apartments, I’ve not actually been to see any - that would be tempting providence (we haven’t heard if we’ll be asked to stay yet). It’s not that we don’t love our apartment, we do. It’s the noise that’s getting us down. During the winter the noise isn’t a problem, but once the sun arrives and the Hijgend Hert throws open its yellow doors, the regular bands become less quaint.

                It all came to a head a fortnight ago, when my mum arrived from the UK to a heat wave and dozens of zombies roaming the street outside our apartment. The zombie themselves were quite entertaining, the pulsating zombie theme music that accompanied them until 2 am wasn’t.

                ‘I can’t do this anymore Trace, it’s gone beyond a joke.’ Said Mr Sunshine.

                For once I agreed with him.

                I’m not sure I agreed with the other change in Mr Sunshine though. A few weeks ago, you might remember we went to see Cesar Millan. Despite the distraction of Cesar's nipple tweaking on stage, we did learn a few important lessons. One of which is: your dog needs to engage with his nose more often at home so he feels like he’s earned his treats. Now, Alfie has a very active nose whenever we’re out, there isn’t a urine soaked lamp post or antique turd he hasn’t glued his little wet nose too within 5 kilometres of the apartment. However, in the apartment his nose had become totally redundant, so Mr Sunshine took it upon himself to transform into Alfie’s mentor.

Amazing patience
                Most dog owners would settle for training or teaching the dog, which would, of course be too easy.  The mentoring starts when Alfie is called into the kitchen to watch Mr Sunshine prepare a few treats. Then Alfie is asked to wait in the kitchen while the treats are hidden in the lounge, which I have to say, Alfie does with amazing patience.  

                ‘Go find them.’ Yells, Mr Sunshine.

                 Alfie bounds into the lounge dashing round the furniture looking for his treats.

                ‘Use your nose. ‘Mr Sunshine says.

Alfie continues to unsuccessfully look for his treats.

‘Like this, sniff-sniff-sniff.’ Mr Sunshine is teaching by example.

Alfie continues to look for his treats.

Sniff-sniff-sniff, come on you can do it.’ It’s the example thing again.

Then he does, Alfie’s little nose drops to the floor as he impersonates his mentor. Cheers of encouragement  escape both our mouths whenever Alfie draws close to his treat, as do sighs of disappointment as he walks right past. It’s a slow process, but with his mentors help Alfie is finally learning to use his nose at home.

Other changes this week:

  1. Alfie needed to be scalped when we found him foaming at the mouth after trying to eat another tick, his long hair was lovely but a heaven for burrowing ticks.
  2. I lost last week’s will power and gain a couple of lbs. - it’s not looking good for Turkey and bikinis.
  3. The best news is that our shower is blocked. Doesn’t sound like good news you might think – remember my plumber?  

Saturday, 2 June 2012

When being a trailing spouse sucks

Not everything is coming up roses
Each week my experience as a trailing spouse evolves. Sometimes the experience is enjoyable - the semi naked plumber last week, sometimes the experiences are educational -  I now know that cockerels can indeed fly, even if only for a short distance, sometimes the experiences have been thought provoking – is the Dutch medical system really better than the one we have in the UK?

The week my experiences sucked!

Firstly, after a week of being treated to meals out and indulgences by my very generous mother, Mr Sunshine and I decided that enough is enough. Talking about losing weight hadn’t actually had any noticeable effect; neither had cutting toe nails before easing my way onto the scales. However,  I did find if I placed most of my weight onto my left foot while leaning ever so slightly over the bathtub I could shave off a couple of lbs. Actual shaving on the other hand had no tangible effect.

The time had arrived; we have less than eight weeks before our jollies to Turkey and a rather substantial amount of weight to lose if we weren’t going to wander to the beach as a rather flabby, flaccid middle aged couple who obviously don't own a full length mirror.

Okay, so my scales will NEVER
give this reading, but its a good photo.
Drastic action was call for: Mr Sunshine has sworn of booze and I’m surviving on fruit and pureed cauliflower - I’ve been happier.  But it’s paying off; I set myself a weight loss goal of 18lbs (8.2 kilos) and by Friday had lost 5lbs.  I suppressed the vision of myself becoming the new weight loss queen; Oprah Winfey already claimed that title several times. Besides, I know myself too well, maintaining a diet beyond a few days is for people with will power, not me. I’ve tried muttering Kate Moss’ famous phrase ‘Nothing tastes so good and being skinny feels.’ Health reasons apart, that phrase is full of holes.  Has she eaten homemade carrot cake, Champagne ice cream within a white chocolate case, or chocolate fondant filled with toffee? I rather doubt it, if she had, she’d keep those ridiculous statements to herself.

Dieting sucks.

Secondly, this week Mr Sunshine had a chance to relive his youth.  A quick train ride to Amsterdam after work had him meeting up with his friends from his days at Manchester University. He was home early though (not trusting the trains in the Nederlands) to tell me all about his great evening of reminiscing and curry.
He didn’t ask me about my evening!

Earlier that day, Alfie and I met up with friends in the forest, Sally and Maggie (Canine Miss Breda). Maggie usually looks and behaves like a princess, however once in the forest she develops a passion for swimming in the blackest, sludgiest water. Alfie on the other hand, stands on the edge of the sludge watching in confusion as Maggie contentedly doggie paddles back and forth, only her nose and eyes jutting out of the sludge. I couldn’t help but feel thankful that Alfie doesn’t like the water; at least I wouldn’t have to bath him that night.

Fate doesn’t like me to feel thankful though.  Later, I started to notice an unpleasant, shit scented odour following me around the apartment, it was everywhere, or more actually everywhere that Alfie was.  Our perfect little dog smelt shockingly of shit, I could smell it on him, but not actually see it – that was until I lifted his ears! There they were, two nice sticky lumps, one each side, somehow Alfie had managed to lift his floppy ears and press the side of his neck down into the fresh excrement of another dog, much the same way as I dab perfume behind my ears. Hiding under the table wasn’t gonna help him this time, I armed myself with super strong shampoo and dragged him under the shower.

Not a dead sweetcorn at all
And that’s when it happened. Clinging above Alfie’s left eyebrow was the ghost of a sweetcorn, a grey lump that wobbled when flicked. Five minutes on the internet searching for ‘grey sweetcorn kernel stuck on my dog’ revealed distressing information; it wasn’t a sticky vegetable but a tick!

Finding ticks suck.


Ticks and dieting might suck, but they paled into insignificance by my final experience. Opening Facebook one morning I was delighted to see a message from John my youngest son. This is what the message said:

Hi mum,
Just updating you, I was in A & E last night, I have pneumonia. I have antibiotics, so should be fixed soon.

There is nothing that sucks more than being a trailing spouse and hearing one of your children is ill and several hundred miles away. It doesn’t matter, that your child is a grown man, and that your child is more than capable of looking after himself. All that matters is that you ache, really physically heart wrenchingly ache to be there.