Tag Archives: school

City Adventures in Berlin

Given the huge amount of history contained within this European city, it’s really no surprise that there is an incredible number of museums to visit in Berlin and somewhat understandably, by the end of our penultimate day, both children were beginning to grumble about feeling a little “museum-ed” out. We were lucky to enjoy some glorious sunshine whilst we were there, so we took every opportunity available to venture out on foot as well as making using of the “hop-on, hop-off” bus and highly efficient public transit system. I think (hope) we managed a good balance between those museums with exhibits about Nazi Germany and those about the Cold War era and it was great to hear G being able to explain in more detail some of the topics she has learned about at school. Here’s a list of some of our city adventures in Berlin this May:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: A strangely effective and emotive memorial built within 5 minutes walk of the Brandenburg Gate. These 2,711 concrete slabs vary in size and shape and are constructed on undulating ground, which once formed part of the “death strip” that split the city into East and West by the Berlin Wall. There is no attributed significance to the number or design of this memorial, but instead it intends to invoke a sense of unease as you wander through the rows. Beneath the memorial, there is an information centre, which contains details and memories of some of the Jewish families affected by the horrors of the Holocaust from 1933 on. Unfortunately, the centre was closed on the day we visited and we didn’t have time to go back, but it is somewhere I’d be keen to revisit if we had the chance.

DDR Museum: Located on the banks of the River Spree, the DDR museum details life in East Germany under Socialist rule and is a fantastic interactive experience, which M really enjoyed. It looks at all aspects of everyday life from school and work to holidays, transport, national service and beyond. M was particularly taken by the opportunity to try his hand at driving the Trabant P601 simulation, whilst G spent a long time at the interactive desk which gave in-depth information about different parts of the political history of Berlin. My Grandad came from Czechoslovakia to the UK as part of the Allied forces during the war years and I found that the exhibits invoked many memories of how my grandparents lived, albeit in Northamptonshire, as well as of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1988 to visit our family who still live there. A great museum which kept us busy for between 2 and 3 hours.

Palace of Tears: This tiny museum is one we almost missed, but is definitely worth dedicating at least an hour to wander through it. It is based in the former border crossing point at the Berlin Friedrichstraße station, which was only used for those leaving East Berlin for West Berlin. It covers the timeline from the building of the Berlin Wall to its collapse, looking at the stories relating to the checkpoint as well as the process to achieve the reunification of the country. M and I spent some time watching the video of the fall of the Berlin Wall and talking about the fact that this event was living history for me – something that I remember happening during my childhood when I was about his age.

Jewish Museum: This was one of the museums recommended to us by G’s history teacher, but unfortunately the permanent exhibition is currently closed as it is being redeveloped. However, we spent the morning seeing what was open to the public and it was definitely time well-spent. Split over a couple of floors, we first visited the Holocaust exhibit, which displayed mementos, letters and photos from many Jewish families and relayed some of their history as well as detailing whether they died in a concentration camp or were fortunate enough to survive that terror. From there, we ventured outside through a memorial garden, before heading back in to the “A is for Jewish” interactive exhibit, which talks about the many varying aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Germany. Finally, we walked through the “Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves)” art installation, where you quite literally walk on 10,000 sheet steel faces of varying sizes symbolising all innocent victims of war and violence.

Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie: This was one of the surprise hits of our holiday and one that we wouldn’t have visited if it hadn’t been for my insistence that I wanted to go to see Checkpoint Charlie on foot and our need for something to occupy our unplanned afternoon. Filled with an absolutely incredible amount of exhibits, it started with a look at the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who is thought to have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust before he disappeared in 1945 and was presumed to have died whilst imprisoned by the KGB, although there have been very many question marks surrounding the circumstances, and timing, of his death. Upstairs the exhibit moved through very many escape stories from East Germany, which absolutely fascinated M, not least of which was the armoured escape vehicle on display. There is also a huge area dedicated to human rights and worldwide civil unrest, including Ukraine and North Korea. An absolutely fascinating museum and one that you could easily spend a day, or more, exploring.

German Spy Museum: The unquestionable highlight of all the museums we visited in Berlin and it got a definite thumbs up from both children. Starting with a timeline of the development of espionage worldwide through the ages, this museum blends its interactive experience with a particular focus of espionage during the Cold War era. The main exhibit was divided between East and West Berlin and how spies played a part on both sides for many years. The laser maze gives visitors the opportunity to see if they can successfully work their way through the lasers to reach the abort button before enemy missiles are launched. Sad to say, neither G or M managed it, triggering the alarms as they made their way through it, although they both had great fun trying. There was also a section about fictional spies, most notably 007 himself, James Bond with some memorabilia and clips from several of the films. We hadn’t left ourselves enough time to see everything this museum had to offer as we had to head back to the airport for our flight home, so it’s definitely one to revisit in the future.

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Bringing History Lessons to Life in Berlin

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a big fan of holidays. Not just the trips themselves, but I absolutely love the process from the moment we start thinking about the perfect destination to pick and, much to Mike’s frustration, can frequently be found thinking about where we should travel next, even before we’ve left home on the next one booked. We haven’t done too much travelling since our trip back to Canada last summer, but no sooner had G and I got home from our fantastic day out at the Strictly tour, than it was time to finish the packing and zip up the suitcase for our 5 day half-term break.

Our holiday was perhaps not what people expected, in that we weren’t chasing the sun with a few days at the beach, even though both G and M are desperate to go back to Greece and mention it every time they can possibly shoehorn it into any conversation. Instead, we had taken inspiration from G’s GCSE history syllabus and her learning about Superpower relations, the Cold War and Nazi Germany during the inter-War years, subjects which also happen to tie in quite nicely with M’s focus on World War 1 in his history lessons this year; and so headed to Berlin. As the children have got older, we try to involve them more and more with planning our activities whilst we’re aware from home and this trip was no different. G spoke to her history teacher just after Christmas as the school had taken a group of their A-level students to Berlin a few weeks earlier and came home with some recommendations of the best places to visit to help solidify her learning and understanding of these eras.

Armed with that information as well as the additional research Mike had carried out in the preceding weeks, we had plenty to do to fill our time and couldn’t wait to get started. I had found what looked like a great place to stay: the Citadines Kurfürstendamm Berlin apart-hotel, meaning that we had access to a full kitchen which always makes life a little easier when travelling with food allergies. We were ideally located not too far from the main retail street and within easy walking distance to not only shops and restaurants, but also the Berlin U-Bahn, or Underground rapid transit system.

Our first day started, as it so often does when we travel to a new city, with a “Hop-on, hop-off” bus tour, although we weren’t as impressed with the City Circle Tour offering as we have been with other tour companies we’ve chosen in the past. However, it gave us a great introduction to the city of Berlin itself and helped us work out how to get to the various sights on our list as well as ticking a few of them off without too much hassle. Both G and M were fascinated by their first view of the few remaining remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate and the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, all of which really brought their history lessons to life.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.

There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.

It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.

Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.

Birthday blessings

This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.

It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.

The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.

However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.

I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.

The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.

Finishing the summer in style

With Christmas now just 6 weeks away – eek, where has this year gone?! – it’s hard to believe that I still haven’t finished telling the tales of our busy summer. You’d have thought our fairly last-minute plans to fly out to Canada for 2 weeks would have been more than enough to keep us all occupied, but we had even more adventures squeezed in to the final 10 days of the summer holidays before school started back.

We had the return journey from hell with a disrupted flight thanks to a group of rowdy French exchange students, who got into arguments and near fist fights with both the airline crew and other passengers, just rows away from the seats we were sitting in. I have never been so upset on a flight and am just grateful that the children were more entertained by the films they chose to watch, than scared by the events going on around them. This behaviour continued in the Dublin airport terminal and didn’t help the stress of a delayed flight back, which meant we missed our onward flight home by mere minutes. Mike and I were tired, grumpy and so fed up by all we experienced, that we complained long and hard, which fortunately secured us a later flight home, though it was 12 hours later than originally planned, and a hotel room for the day, which gave us the chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep, something that had been impossible on the plane.

We were both back at work the following day, whilst G and M went to my Mum’s for the last 2 days of the week. We rushed through the washing and then found ourselves packing once again for a weekend in Liverpool to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibition that we had missed when we visited back in April and what was, perhaps, the highlight of M’s summer holiday – a week at Over The Wall. Our weekend in Liverpool was a great success, especially as we managed a return trip to both of the fabulous freefrom restaurants we had discovered on our previous visit, something both children were desperate to do. The morning spent at the World Museum was well worth it and we all enjoyed seeing the amazing Terracotta Warriors that were on display. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since Mike and I first saw them in Xi’an, China and fantastic to introduce G and M to this incredible ancient tribute to China’s first emperor. They also insisted we explored every other part of the museum we could and given the rather miserable weather, it was a great way to entertain them whilst away from home.

From Liverpool, we headed back South, dropping M off at the Midlands OTW Health Challenges camp for what we had no doubt would be an amazing week for him again. I cannot begin to describe the incredible benefits that M gets from OTW and why this charity deserves all the support and praise we can possibly give it. Once again the camp chefs outdid our expectations and created meals for M that went beyond our wildest dreams – and yet again apparently put my attempts to shame. This year, however, I can take great solace in the fact that M shared with the chef that I put my recipes on this blog and he not only took a look at them, but also used them to help cook treats for M whilst he was at camp. Just as with his stay at the South HC camp 2 years ago, M was exhausted after a week of unbelievable fun and challenge and just about managed to survive the very final bit of our seemingly endless summer adventures.

OTW’s Midlands camp is based just minutes away from the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire and it seemed a shame to be so close and not stop there for a relatively quick visit. The NMA is somewhere I’ve long considered visiting and we chose a beautiful day to make the trip. Both children were about studying the World Wars at school and with 2018 marking the centenary of the Armistice, it seemed fitting to spend some time walking the grounds and exploring the many memorials that are found here. It was a remarkable and moving place to visit and I’m glad we made the effort to, despite M’s reluctance and overwhelming tiredness from a week away from home.

Birthday Wishes

Turns out that October 15 is a popular day for birthdays. Old school friends, work colleagues and even M’s adored Godmother, but we’re celebrating a special day a lot closer to home. Cue Friday night celebratory meals, Saturday evening at the theatre and a Sunday afternoon spent baking a batch of M-friendly Chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes all to mark this occasion.

So, what more needs to be said other than Happy Birthday to our favourite husband and Dad!

Finding Gromits and Owls

Summer feels like something of a distant memory now and, I have to be honest, it passed in something of a whirlwind once again. As the children get older, we seem to squeeze more and more into every spare minute we can find, creating precious memories that I hope will last a lifetime. This year we had the added bonus of exploring just how to make the most of having introduced bananas into M’s diet as well as pushing the limits with a few more trials along the way too.

Our summer plans were originally to stay close to home, with my Mum helping out by looking after G and M for much of the time whilst Mike and I both worked. Things changed just after Easter and we found ourselves having to bring forward our plans for a Christmas trip to Canada and head back in the summer instead. However, between the end of the school year and our long-haul flight to Toronto, G and M took part in a rowing course and touch-typing course respectively and we also managed to find the time to head to the beautiful cities of Bristol and Bath for a day in each to explore their summer art trails – Gromit Unleashed 2 and Minerva’s Owls. We’ve enjoyed taking part in an incredible variety of sculpture trails over the years, including the Shaun in the City trail in 2015, so it was great to be able to dip into these 2 challenges, although M in particular was disappointed that we didn’t have time to find all of the sculptures that formed part of the trails.

The glorious weather made it a real pleasure to spend time outside on our feet, though M might disagree with me after our very hot day in Bath, where we had to resort to searching out a supermarket to find some allergy-friendly ice-cream and ice lollies to cool us all down. Food-wise, we enjoyed both eating dinner out at our all-time favourite, Wagamama and an idyllic picnic lunch catered by Marks and Spencer. One evening M even commented that it was just like being back in Syros because he was happily walking through the city in the evening wearing shorts and a t-shirt. All in all, those first couple of weeks of our summer were busy, but amazing and a great start to what the rest of the holiday would bring.

Bananas’ Best Bits

One of the nicest things about adding some new foods to M’s limited list, other than the obvious of…well, you know, the addition of new foods to a highly restricted diet…is that just 3 new ingredients have added a huge number of new recipes for him to enjoy. Each one has brought something different to the cookery table, but the best one in many ways, or so M would have you believe, is the mighty banana. I first started playing with recipes back in March for M’s birthday, when I adapted an old favourite to bake a banana bread birthday cake with reasonable success. M wasn’t impressed by what he felt was an overwhelming flavour of nutmeg, so the recipe has had a few more tweaks to reach what is, by M’s exacting standards, almost complete perfection. It’s no exaggeration to say that the introduction of a 3rd fruit has been a game-changer in our household and so I thought I’d share the best bits about bananas with you all:

Banana Bread – it’s never easy to find recipes that can be adapted, and adapted well, to suit M’s restricted diet and these days vegan recipes are almost always my automatic go-to starter for 10. I found a wonderful vegan banana bread recipe on the BBC Good Food website and it took just a few subtle tweaks to turn it into a tasty, gluten-free, M-friendly baked treat that has been a big teatime hit. The latest twist has been to add some dairy- and soya-free chocolate chips to the dough, which makes the cake taste even more indulgent and a welcome addition to his daily packed lunch for school.

Banana & Chocolate Chip cookies – so often my recipes are a response to an unexpected need and these cookies are no different. One of M’s English lessons recently revolved around a tale of children stealing cookies from the staff office and his tutor group were given the opportunity to re-enact the story during a lesson. M came home from school very upset that he hadn’t been chosen to be one of these wannabe thieves and felt excluded because he knew he wouldn’t be able to share eating the cookies once they had successfully been taken. Fortunately, a quick call to the Head of Year 7 and an even quicker Google search found this wonderful recipe, which again required just a few tweaks to make a batch of M-friendly cookies that could be smuggled out of the school office alongside the ones for the rest of his class.

Banana, Apple & Lime Smoothie – one of M’s most precious possessions at the moment is the Nutribullet and Smoothies recipe book that my Aunt has given him as a memory of my Uncle. M feels even closer to him as he peruses the different recipes, trying to work out which he can safely make and enjoy and smoothies have quickly become a staple of his everyday diet. It’s even given him a great vehicle to trial raspberries as a handful added to the fruit mix works a treat. Despite his regular reluctance to get up and get ready for school, M can frequently be found whipping up a smoothie as an alternative to a more normal breakfast and he happily drinks it as he and G walk to school each morning. For a child who has always struggled with what to eat first thing in the day, these smoothies have been a real success story and a welcome break from the stresses that have all too often been a constant part of our morning routine.

 

Exploration through Enrichment

One of the things I love about G and M’s secondary school is the Enrichment week they run in June. Every year the young people are encouraged to explore new activities and opportunities during the week and try their hands at things they perhaps haven’t had the chance to experience before. When G was in Year 7, she opted for Bush Camp – an African-style adventure that involved 4 nights away from home sleeping out under canvas with campfire dinners, quirky showers and earth toilets for her home comforts. If there’s one thing that proves my daughter doesn’t always follow in my footsteps, this choice was it as I am a reluctant camper at best and it would take an awful lot to convince me that this could be considered as a fun week away from home. However, G loved every moment and couldn’t wait to choose her options for both Years 8 and 9.

Whilst G had determined that this year was going to be the year for a week away at pony camp in the Brecon Beacons, M’s choices were limited by the reality that he wouldn’t be able to spend a week away from home. We made the decision right at the start of his Year 7 year, not wanting to put him through once again the trauma of last-minute decisions and the inevitable disappointment that he experienced when we had to conclude that he couldn’t go away to the end of term Year 6 camp last year. We opted that M would be based at home for the week and instead he had to  the activities that he would participate in during the school day.

M decided on Action Adventure, where he got to try his hands at high and low rope courses, archery, building a trebuchet and bush-craft skills over the first 3 days of the week. Day 4 was designated as a community day, which was designed to give the children an opportunity to understand their role in our local community and to give a little something back. Some children did bag-packing at a local supermarket, others chose sponsored activities to raise money for local charities and M’s group of year 7s built wooden bird-boxes to be put up in the grounds of their school.

On his final day, M was keen to join the trip to the Tamworth snowdome, although he was disappointed that he had to ski, rather than being able to show off his rapidly improving snowboarding skills. He has been learning to snowboard since Christmas and has been coming on in leaps and bounds on the artificial slopes. He didn’t find it as easy to ski as he had hoped and the combination of time spent focused on skiing and ice-skating meant that he and his friend slept on their way back home. Both children had a great enrichment week and I’m grateful that this fantastic opportunity has been available for them both to fully experience, explore and enjoy. Not only am I impressed by the variety of opportunities they have to choose from, but the school did a great job of keeping the parents of around 900 students updated about their return home on the final day, which is no easy feat!