Hurry Back Valerie

Me and girls in France

From L to R: Me, Emmanuelle, Joanne, Valerie. France, 1976, shortly before we moved up to the mountain.

Visitors to the mountain were extremely rare. In fact, aside from the night that I’m about to recount, I can only remember one other occasion in the year when we had visitors, but that’s a tale for another day.

The other children and I slept in the same room. We had a motley assortment of beds and mismatched bedding, and I was in charge of making the beds every morning. We generally slept well after our daily wanders in the mountain air. On this particular night, we had gone to bed. As usual. And drifted off easily. As usual. I couldn’t tell you what time it was, but sometime after we had fallen asleep, we were awoken by the sound of loud bangs. Pounding bangs. We sprang up sharply in our beds. Confused. Fearful. More bangs. After some whispered discussion we concluded that it must be someone at the door. Somebody was pounding at the door. Who? It wasn’t a noise we were used to.

We sat very still. Unsure. Afraid. Shortly afterwards, we heard the adults lumber down the stairs. More bangs. Raised voices . The door must have been opened because the banging stopped, and new voices were heard. Muffled. We couldn’t make out what was being said, and people were shouting over each other.

Next, the sound of something being dragged. Furniture being moved? Why? Doors being open and closed. Still the raised voices. What was happening? Why was nobody coming to tell us what was happening? We had instinctively clustered together on the same bed now and held each other tightly. Joanne said that she would creep down the stairs a little to peep. Joanne was brave, but we said she was too young, so Valerie went instead. We urged caution, and let her go. We waited. Clutched each other in the darkness. Hurry back Valerie.

After a short amount of time, she scampered back in. She didn’t speak until she was right back into our huddle, and in urgent hushed tones announced “C’est la police!”

This is my fourth memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the previous parts, they are here: A year in the French Alps

How Vivid the Painted Rainbow Stripes Were

Vanessa and Emmanuelle

Me (bottom) and Emmanuelle. France, 1976

There were rainbow stripes painted on the upright canes. So pretty. Magical almost to our young eyes. There were four canes, wedged firmly into the ground, and they formed the four corners which supported the makeshift roof. The whole thing was no wider than the width of my arms stretched out, or rather Emmanuelle’s arms, as she was the one that took the measurement. And probably half the depth, but I can’t be sure because we didn’t measure that. The canes were of the type that might be used in gardening, for plants to know which way to grow, thicker though than the ones my Dad used for his tomato plants. The sides and roof had been made from branches and grasses that must have been found close by. It was difficult to tell though where the structure ended and natural growth started, because they had become intertwined over time.

We pushed through the growth and sat inside. There was just enough room for the four of us to kneel in there. We looked up at the sky through the gaps in the branches of the roof. We knew there would be much fun and adventure to be had here, but not today. Today was for sitting and looking up and around and feeling happy at our new discovery. We imagined children such as ourselves must have made it, maybe with grown-up help too. We were sure it must have been made for playing in though, we couldn’t imagine grown-ups having a use for it. This was a place for make-believe.

It must have been there for some time because nobody lived in that part of the mountain any more apart from us. It had somehow withstood the adverse weather that is prone up there, and still it stood. Perhaps more surprising was how vivid the painted rainbow stripes were still. Yellow. Red. Orange. Green. Blue. It aroused the curiosity of young minds. We wondered whether the children would come back sometime to play in it again. Or just to see if it was still here. Perhaps we would get to meet them. What fun that would be. New people to play with. But maybe they were too old to play now.

We had ventured a little further than usual today, probably further than we were allowed if we were to check. Sometimes it’s best not to check.

This is my third memoir piece from the year I spent as a child living self-sufficiently with my mother and another family in an abandoned village in the French Alps, with no electricity, or any modern conveniences. If you missed the first two parts, they are here: A year in the French Alps

A Small Favour (with a ‘u’) To Ask…

Dolls in school

I need some help with sharing a link, via Twitter, or whatever means you would like. It’s part of the research that I’m doing for my dissertation. I’m looking at how mentoring is used with students in schools, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I’ve set up a survey which is for staff in any schools in England (secondary school age) to fill in. Even if you’re not based in England yourself, you probably have followers on your social media platforms who are, so the more people who can share the link, the more potential survey-completers I will find!

This is the link to the survey:

I’ve prepared a couple of versions of a tweet that you can simply copy and paste (you’re welcome), or feel free to share the link to the survey in any other way you would like. I would be SOOOOOO grateful.


Do you work in a secondary school in England? Do you have 10 mins to fill in a survey? @VanessaJ2011

If you work in a secondary school in England, please consider filling in this survey, thank you! @VanessaJ2011

The survey will be open for two weeks initially, but I may extend if I need to.

Apologies that I haven’t been as active in reading and commenting on your blogs lately, I’ve been busy with my studies, some of you have been lucky enough to receive a visit from me, ha! But it’s all been a bit random. Normal service will resume in September.

Thanks in advance of your help!

photo credit: - Annetta - via photopin cc

Packaging and Meaningless Multipliers

Woman and cleaning products

With such a range of cleaning products, it’s no wonder that lucky gal is delighted!

I have previously expressed my amusement at packaging labelling (oh yes, it’s all party party party around here!). Recently I’ve been noticing something new – an increase in the use of meaningless multipliers. Let me explain…

First, take my make-up remover wipes. Actually don’t take them, I need them, just look at them:

Makeup wipes I don’t know if you can read the small black print on there, but it says “2 doses of cleansing milk”. To the best of my knowledge, a dose is not a specific amount in itself, and nowhere on the packaging do they tell us how how much one dose of cleansing milk is, therefore stating that there are two doses is completely meaningless.

And look at these crisps:

Crisps Twice flavoured indeed (and yes Mike, flavoured has a “u” in it).  It seems to me it would be more efficient to just put enough flavour on in the first place rather than having to do it twice.


My laundry liquid says “3 x Cleaning System” :

Laundry liquid

Does anyone have any idea what “3 x Cleaning System” means? I certainly don’t, and there is no explanation on the back either about it. Just the usual instructions, warnings, and reassurance that the queen is a fan of products made by this company – I always insist that my household products have that royal stamp of approval, if it’s not good enough for the queen then it’s not good enough for me right? :

Back of laundry liquid  Queen approval

My hair conditioner boasts “Triple resist x 3″ So does that mean 9 times resist then? And what is it resisting? Close scrutiny I expect.


In fairness to this conditioner, it does attempt to explain what triple resist means with a little list of three things further down:

1. Reinforces
2. Nourishes from root
3. Feels stronger

I’m not convinced that those three things actually work as an explanation for “Triple resist x 3″ though – Number 3, “Feels stronger”, surely that’s an outcome of numbers 1 and 2 working well? But I guess we’re not meant to over-think any of these meaningless multipliers, we’re just meant to believe that we’re getting a few times more of something than we would usually expect to get.

Have you noticed any meaningless multipliers cropping up on your packaging?

Smiling lady with cleaning products photo credit: missmac via photopin cc

The Vocabulary Holding Zone


Drawing of Vanessa looking in a dictionary

My wonderful blogging/doodling/author friend, Mike Allegra, drew this picture of me specifically for this post. Do you think he’s captured my likeness?

A lot of words cannot be fully explained by the dictionary alone. They have a subtle hidden meaning that can’t adequately be described, it is only through hearing the word being used regularly that we grasp their full meaning. Or they have more than one meaning and the context is everything. This is one of the reasons why learning another language can be so difficult, and it’s also why translations are often so funny – a literal meaning of the word is used without an understanding of the more subtle sub-meaning, or alternative meaning. Some of you may remember these mistranslations  I posted a while ago. Many of them (though not all by any means) would actually stand up to a dictionary definition, but a greater knowledge of the meaning is needed to see why they are funny.


All of this is why I am sometimes reluctant to incorporate new words into my vocabulary until I’m confident I understand their full meaning, not just the dictionary definition. We all occasionally hear words that we feel drawn to – either we like the sound of the word itself (Like “serendipity” or “discombobulated”), or we look up the definition of a word and feel that we like the meaning and can see uses for the word in our vocabulary. They’re not necessarily completely new words to us, they may well have blipped across our radar many times, but didn’t register before. I like to put those words into a vocabulary holding zone; I think I’ve understood them but I can’t be totally sure until I hear them used several more times. Once I’m happy, then they can graduate into my general vocabulary zone. Once in the general vocabulary zone then I have to make a conscious effort to use them a few times quite soon to make sure they are properly glued into that zone, otherwise they will slip out, and goodness knows where they end up after that.

1) Some of my recent graduates from the holding zone into the general vocabulary zone, with dictionary definitions, are:

Gravitasseriousness, solemnity, or importance (Gravitas spent a few years in the holding zone – I’d understood what it meant for a long time and yet hadn’t had the confidence to use it for some reason, so it had to keep repeating a year before it was able to graduate. I think that says a lot about the word itself – gravitas is a word with gravitas! Those who are familiar with it will know that it has more to it than the definition alone).

Rhetoricthe art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please (It has other definitions too, but this is the one I’ve picked. Again, it’s a word that has been around me for a number of years because I work in a university and it’s a very university word, but it’s only since I went back to studying several months back that I’ve been able to incorporate it myself.)

Disaggregate - to separate from a group or mass (this one didn’t need long in the holding zone).

Polemicof or involving dispute or controversy (not quite as straightforward as it sounds).

2) Words currently in my holding zone, with dictionary definitions, are:

Nomenclaturethe terminology used in a particular science, art, activity, etc (I think I’m happy with the meaning of this word, it’s more a crisis of pronunciation with this one, I can’t say it fluently yet).

Zeitgeist - the spirit, attitude, or general outlook of a specific time or period, esp as it is reflected in literature, philosophy, etc (I love this word, I might give it some extra special attention so that it can graduate quickly, but ssshhh, don’t tell the other words).

Hermeneuticof or relating to the interpretation of Scripture (I can’t see that I’ll have much opportunity to use this word, but it’s just a very satisfying word to say out loud. Try it, all together now – “Hermeneutic!” See?).

Reificationthe act or an instance of making an abstract idea or concept real or concrete (this is a very new entry into the holding zone, wish it luck).

I can date the development of my vocabulary holding zone concept to my late teens when I had just started working. I had never understood what “cynical” meant, but knew I wanted to use it, so I looked it up in the dictionary and thought I understood it. In order to impress one of the bosses at my work with my wide vocabulary, I threw it into a sentence, like “He’s being rather cynical isn’t he!”. To which he replied “Well I wouldn’t exactly call that cynical”. Drats. And thus the holding zone was born.

Do you like to incorporate new words into your vocabulary? If so, do you have a holding zone for them, or do you just throw caution to the wind and start using them right away? Any recent additions to your vocabulary you’d like to share?

Picture credits:
Doodle of Vanessa by Mike Allegra
Dictionary photo credit: jovike via photopin cc

Three Things Thursday

I was trying to think of a catchy title for a sundries post for today and thought I was oh-so-clever coming up with “Three Things Thursday”. Then I decided to Google it and discovered others have come up with that name already. Sigh. Is there nothing new and original any more? And now I’ve just realised that it’s still Wednesday. Well I’m going with it anyway. It’ll be Thursday soon enough.

Thursday Thing One:

Last week I filmed some pickups for an independent feature film that I have a small part in called Marriage. It’s a small, but significant, part and I’ve loved being involved with this film. The filming began towards the end of 2012, and they hope to have the film completed and ready to rock and roll by the end of 2014. They need time and funding to get it finished. This is the trailer for it. There’s a very brief glimpse of me around 1min 44secs on the right hand side of the screen with a cut lip:


Did you catch me? And if you’re feeling really adventurous, there’s a 9 minute documentary about the making of it. Again, I make a brief, but slightly longer, appearance around 8mins 21secs:


Thursday Thing Two:

As some of you know, I’m one of the contributing bloggers over at the Limebird Writers’ site. For various reasons, we’ve decided that the Limebirds will be no more. It felt quite sad, but we’ll all be keeping in touch. The site will stay up anyway so that our archive posts can still be accessed. Our goodbye post is here

Thursday Thing Three:

For the benefit of some of my newer followers, if you’re interested in cooking, you may like to know that I also have a cookery blog, I don’t post there very often, but I posted something last week, and thought it was time I gave it another shout out over here. Here it is – Sugarness

And one final thing…oh wait… my three things are up! I knew I should have made this Four Fings Friday instead.

Well, enough showcasing of my stuff. Any Thursday things you’d like to share with the class on this fine Wednesday? Or while we’re showcasing, feel free to showcase, or show-off, any of your own things in the comments, go on, don’t be shy…

Handy Things My Computer Does That My General Life Doesn’t

Computer graphic image

1) Gives me an “Are you sure?” prompt before I make any big changes.

2) Lets me know very quickly if I’ve made an error, often even suggesting ways to correct it.

3) Allows me to delete things and start again.

4) Warns me when my memory is running low so that I can make alternative arrangements for storing information.

Elephant with computer

5) Allows me to replace parts or upgrade when things wear out or need updating.

6) Gives me a status bar so that I can see how much longer there is to go until something is finished.

7) Offers “Help” at the touch of a button.

8) Allows me to recover things that I thought were lost forever.

9) Auto corrects me as I go along.

10) Allows me to be in several places at once.

11) Warns me when there might be a virus around.

And best of all…

12) Lets me know when it’s necessary to shut down for a bit.

Sleeping dog

Can you think of anything else your computer, or any other technology, does that you wish your life did? 
photo credit: opal nova via photopin cc
photo credit: via photopin cc
photo credit: Plbmak via photopin cc

Using My Knife as a Mirror, and Seven Other Quirky Things I Do

People doing strange things on a beach

This isn’t one of the quirky things I do, but only because I haven’t previously thought of doing it. Anyone want to join me, it looks like fun?

Last year I posted Five things I do that I wonder if you do too. Here are some more things I do that I wonder if you do too…

1) When watching cookery contests on TV, I worry unnecessarily that the food has probably gone cold by the time the judges get to taste it.

2) If I’m reading a book while out in public, I always read a bit faster than usual in case someone is watching and might think I’m a slow reader (no idea why I think they would care, or why they would be timing me, or what scale of average page read times they would be measuring me against, or what would happen if I fell short).

3) I always feel the need to apologise for my unkempt appearance to any unexpected person who knocks at my door to deliver something, sell something, or attempt to religiously convert me. “Oh, sorry my hair is a mess, only the cat kept me up half the night and so I slept in a bit later than usual, but I am going to wash it later before I go out – my hair that is, not the cat, the cat can wash itself.”

4) I make clothing purchase choices based largely on whether it is something I’ll be able to get away with not ironing.

5) I often have suspicions that I eat a lot more than other people do.

6) I use my knife as a mirror in restaurants to check I haven’t got spinach in my teeth.

7) I buy Christmas presents for my pets, and then won’t tell anyone what I bought unless I’m sure the animals are out of earshot.

8) If my chair squeaks, or a floorboard I’m standing on creaks, or anything else makes a sound that is even vaguely fart-like, I will deliberately remake the sound lots of times in a row, exaggerating the physical gestures required to make the sounds, just to be absolutely sure nobody else around could possibly think that I actually DID fart (the fact that they might think I’m completely nuts obviously doesn’t bother me).

Anything ring true for you here? Any quirky things you do that you wonder whether others do too?

Oh No! Now What?! 100 People Are Looking at Me!

Vanessa public speaking

Ever been in a situation where, through totally your own fault, you’re suddenly stuck and there is no choice but to wing your way out of it or risk public humiliation, the likes of which has never been seen before? Do you want to hear one of mine?  (I might have slightly exaggerated with the “public humiliation, the likes of which has never been seen before” bit).

My job necessitates me occasionally speaking or giving presentations at conferences or events. I actually quite like doing it now, but it used to terrify me. Public speaking can be pretty scary can’t it. On one such occasion several years back my manager had asked me to do the housekeeping talk at the start of a conference. No big deal right? No presentations to give, no workshops to deliver, just some basic info to impart. What could go wrong?

There were around 100 people attending, my manager stood at the podium and welcomed everyone and then said, “I’m now going to hand over to Vanessa for the housekeeping.” I made my way up to the stage, hoping I wouldn’t trip (as if THAT was the only thing I had to worry about, ha! Little did I know).

There were three pieces of information that I was tasked with imparting -

1) Where the ladies and gents toilets were.
2) Where the fire exits and the fire assembly point was.
3) At what times the breaks were during the day.

My heart pounding, I walked up to the podium, turned to face the angry baying crowd of 10,000 (again, I may be slightly exaggerating), and that’s when I realised – I had forgotten to find out where the toilets were, I had forgotten to find out where the fire exits and fire assembly point were, and I wasn’t holding the piece of paper with the break timings. Seriously? How could I do that? I had three bits of information to impart and no idea what they were! It was like one of those nightmares, except that thankfully I wasn’t naked, and my dead grandfather wasn’t there passing round a basket of macaroons made from ground up rats. So what could I do? I had no choice but to wing it. Of course I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was pretty much like this:

“Hello everyone, thank you for coming. I have a couple of things to go through with you. First of all, the ladies and gents loos; if you go back out of the main door to this room and just keep walking, you’ll find them, if not, then ask at reception. If the fire alarm goes off, then please leave quickly by the nearest exit and head towards the fire assembly point at the far end of the car park (I figured that even if that wasn’t where the fire assembly point was located, at least I was sending them somewhere safe away from the building!). And we do have several breaks throughout the day which are detailed on the programme which you’ll find in your packs. If you have any questions, come and find me during the first break. Thanks very much.”

And there we are, I managed to stand up and talk to 100 people without telling them anything of any use at all, and I’m pretty sure nobody noticed. I’m thinking of taking up a career in politics.

When was the last time you were in a “Oh no! Now What?!” situation? And were 100 people watching? Because if there was less than 100 then mine was worse.

You Never Know When You Might Come Across a Time Travel Portal

View of historic buildings through a window

I had a class last night. We were in a room at the uni that I hadn’t been in before. The picture above is the view from where I sat. I was struck by the contrast of old and new; the modern(ish) classroom, with the glimpse of history just outside. I imagined that the window was a portal to the past; I could simply step through and would find myself in some oldy worldy historical times of yore (I’m not very good with history, so don’t push me on dates). Some might say I should have been concentrating on class rather than imagining the window as a time travel portal, but I say – where’s their spirit of adventure?

Maybe I would come across Shakespeare suffering from writer’s block, I could tell him about the future and his block would be instantly unblocked. I’ve always thought he missed a trick by not writing about time travel. Who doesn’t love time travel stories right? I’ve seen Back to The Future, so I know you’re not supposed to change anything if you go back to the past, but surely the addition of one little time travel play amongst all of Shakespeare’s works isn’t going to upset the space-time continuum too much is it? I’m pretty sure generations of school children would thank me.

Or if not Shakespeare, maybe I could help some peasants with their revolting. If I brought some IT equipment through with me, I could produce some posters which I think would help them get their message across much more effectively. (What do you mean the building on the left doesn’t quite fit with revolting peasant times? Stop trying to ruin my adventure!). Or maybe there will be a princess that needs rescuing, I can totally help with that, I’ve seen Disney films, I know what to do. And then if the princess wanted to let me try on some of her dresses afterwards to express her gratitude, well, it would be rude to refuse.

I asked my classmate sitting next to me what she could see out of that window, I asked if she could see the time travel portal too, or whether I was the only special privileged one. I wondered if she would tell me that all she could see was a modern office block and some cars. She didn’t answer though, she just gathered up her books and moved to another desk. Some people are so strange.

Given a choice though, I’d probably rather have a portal to the future. We already know  a lot about the past, but we don’t have a clue about the future. I’d like to see what we’ve made of ourselves and the world around us in the near future: 25, 50, 100 years from now. I daren’t go too far into the future because there might be nothing left to go to, and then I might not be able to get back, I don’t really know how it all works, but I’d better play it safe. Maybe next week’s classroom window will have a portal to the future, and then I’ll be able to find out, in my imagination at least…

If you came across a time travel portal, would you choose to go forwards or backwards? What would you like to see? Do you wish Shakespeare had written about time travel? And do you think a princess would consider a pair of jeans to be a fair swap for one of her dresses?