Life, Lately | Christmas 2019

Friday 27 December 2019

As we go running full-tilt towards the end of another year, it’s a natural impulse to reflect on where the hell we are and what we want out of life.

The daily grind can be pretty full on here, and by nature I’m quite a driven person – but often I feel that I live too much in the future, rather than the here and now.

I’m at my happiest coming up with a plan or dreaming up some new reality, but sometimes I could really do with just stopping to smell the roses and appreciating what is around me.

After all, the last decade has been a pretty full-on journey.

This time ten years ago, we had just bought our first house…

this time nine years ago, I had just gotten engaged and started an exciting new job …

this time eight years ago, I was a newlywed returned from a dream honeymoon in Thailand….

this time five years ago, we had just bought and moved into no.80…..

this time four years ago, I had a newborn baby son and was getting to grips with being a first time mum…

this time three years ago, I started my job at the University…

this time two years ago, I had just found out I was expecting my daughter…

this time a year ago, we had become a family of four and put plans in motion to kick start the home renovation.

In short, it’s been a hell of a decade -  one with a lot of highlights and a lot of hard work. Reflecting back makes me realise just how far we’ve come as a family and how much we have to be proud of.

There’s clearly something in the air for me during late autumn, as all of my major life shifts have occurred pretty much consistently from September – December every year – and now I have another one – I’m about to move on to a new job.

Everything has been pretty crazy since I wrote a summer update when we came back from Italy, so it felt like time to fill you in…

The Evolution of No.80

I recently posted about the home renovation we’ve been doing on No.80 since we arrived here five years ago  - a process that has happened a little more slowly than we first expected, partly due to the small matter of having two babies in between.

Things really began to kick off in the later summer after a long period stuck in planning, and now phase one is so almost-complete we can taste it.  Work has been underway to transform two tired bedrooms with low eaves used as a general dumping ground up on the house’s third floor into a master suite for the mister and I - a bedroom, a bathroom and a dressing room, our own little domain up in the clouds.

Living through a project like this (whilst simultaneously having a downstairs extension added too) has been quite stressful. Everything is dirty, messy and out of place, which got to me more than I thought it would.

Although that will be the case for a while yet, the upstairs part of the build is pretty much over.

All that remains is for the carpets to be fitted and then we’re on to the finer details – lighting, furniture and decorative touches. I don’t think we’ll be moving up there for while -  we’ll probably want to get some new bedroom furniture first, and Theo still comes into us a fair amount at night, so I don’t want to be on a separate floor until he’s more settled.

It will be next spring at least before we get the dressing room properly fitted out, simply because of cost and plenty of other priorities.

But its nice to have that part of the building work over with and to be able to sort out Romilly’s bedroom which has basically been used as a storage facility while all the work is going on.

Downstairs, the brick shell of the extension is now in place, and work will begin on fitting the roof before Christmas, but it will be March 2020 before all is complete there. I’ll be sharing the process right here, so stay tuned if you like those kinds of posts.

The Winds Of Change At Work

So as I said above, it’s been a time of a lot of change for me as I’m also leaving my job at the university.

This hasn’t been an easy decision. Before I worked there, I used to sometimes drive past the gates, look at the beautiful wedding-cake buildings around the lake and think wistfully that it would be nice to work there, and from day one of starting I have always felt at home.

The job felt like a redemption after going through a nasty restructure process where I was working before. I discovered that I really loved the buzz of working on a campus, as there is always something going on.

It took me a while to understand the world of HE – it really is a universe of its own – but eventually I hit my stride and I was really enjoying my work.

Then I went and had a baby. 

Since coming back from maternity leave, things have not been good. For a while, I wondered if it was just the natural rockiness of having been away for a year, and having my job remit changed about a month before I went away to focus on a different area.

But as the weeks went by, it became apparent that nothing was working out. Although I don’t want to go into detail, I was treated quite badly and basically have felt pushed out of the job.

It got to the point where I felt like my work was worthless and I was dreading coming in each morning. The office became dominated by a clique led by people who had come in since I’d been away -  anyone in the circle got prize projects and praise, anyone out of it, not so much.

I thought I was going crazy for a while, as that type of thing is so insidious and hard to prove – but then I found several others who were also feeling the same way. I tried to address it with my boss, but she basically just fobbed me off.

I felt miserable and isolated for a while, but then I decided to do something about the situation and see what else was out there.

Another factor in my decision is that I’m pretty certain there is a restructure coming in our team. Having experienced one before, I wasn’t keen to be caught up again. Restructures are usually bad news, although for some they will be indifferent and for others they will even benefit – but I knew whatever happened, it wouldn’t be my choice, whereas leaving now was.

Luckily I managed to get the offer of a great new job at a software development firm, so its onwards and upwards.

Handing my notice in was a sad day, and I do feel like I was backed into a corner and pushed to leave for the benefit of others – something that has only been confirmed since I resigned.

But sometimes life moves in funny ways, and the new job is a step up and better paid, so at least a sad situation had a happier ending. I believe the bad experiences in life teach you more than the good ones.

So I’ll be starting my new adventure in January, and it will be great to really have a fresh start.

I have had two very negative experiences returning to work after each of my kids though, and hearing from other mums I think there is a lot of this under-the-radar maternal discrimination that happens, which is a real shame.

Each time I have been lucky to turn adversity into opportunity, but it won’t be the same story for everyone.

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like…

As soon as 1st December hits, we go full-on festive as we’re huge fans of Christmas, and with two young children its about as magical as it gets.

Theo was shaking with excitement from the first glimpse of the advent calendar, and Romilly is now old enough to pick up on the joy and add to it, so it’s a really nice time.

We followed our usual tradition, which is to kick things off by going to the little Christmas lights switch-on in our town. There are rides for kids, a farmer’s market and fireworks, so it’s a nice afternoon – and we always get fish and chips on the way back home!

This year it was very rainy and damp, but we swaddled up and tried not to let the bad weather take the shine off it. Theo still isn’t keen on fireworks, but Romilly’s little face lit up and she said ‘Wow!’ when she saw them.

Normally we do lots of festive activities at home like baking mince pies and gingerbread men but that’s been off the cards with all the building work and our rickety old oven on its last legs, so its been a little harder to get into the Christmas mood.

What did help was going to get our Christmas tree – an exacting process, as the Mr has sky high standards. It has to be a 7ft Norwegian Spruce (these are less popular these days because they drop needles, but they're the only ones that smell like Christmas), even branch spacing, deep foliage, and symmetrical. No wonder the hunt usually takes a while!

We found this year's tree pretty quickly in the end, and it was so lovely decorating it. The ornaments that we have on the tree have been collected over the years and all tell a story.

From the little blue tree decoration that Mr A-F got me on our first Christmas, before we even had a home or a tree together, to the unusual golden dinosaurs, red telephone boxes and Knight in armour from St Michael's Mount in Cornwall where my mum lives - each one makes us smile and prompts a lot of memories as it comes out of the box, so decorating the tree is always a really special process.

This Christmas break has been all about catching up with friends and family. We kicked our festive holidays off with a trip to The Engine Yard, a complex of smart shops at Belvoir Castle, where we went for lunch with Katie and Richard, our friends and Theo's godparents.

We had a lovely brunch with the kids and browsed some of the shops. I was really taken with Margo&Plum, an interiors shop that is exactly the style I want for the new bits of the house.

I also had a couple of evenings out - my work Christmas party, which was a winter Market with festive food stalls, a meal and some drinks with my circuit training group and then I met a couple of friends for cocktails at The Junkyard. This is the newest addition to our neighbourhood, an outpost of a popular bar in the city that's now installed a branch in an old converted church. I can definitely recommend the espresso martinis!

For Christmas itself, we were really lucky to be hosted by family this year - Christmas Eve at Mr A-F's mum's place and Christmas Day and Boxing Day at his sister's house. Cooking or hosting isn't something we could have done this year in our building site of a home!

Luckily, my sister in law is an excellent host and a skilled cook with a beautiful big house made for hosting parties, having just been through an extensive renovation. The best part was Theo and Romilly getting to be with all their cousins, which made the day so much more exciting for them and us.

With 20 people around a giant table, including 7 small children, it was very lively but honestly? I can't imagine Christmas any other way. It's all about getting together and embracing a bit of chaos.

For the rest of the holidays, we have minimal plans. A few wintery walks in the country, building Lego and playing with the kids, seeing friends who are back in town for the holidays, doing some sorting out in the house that we never normally have time for, catching up on reading, eating cheeseboards in front of the fire and generally trying to get some much-needed downtime ahead of 2020.

Happy Christmas everyone!

I'm watching...

Opportunities to watch many programmes have been really limited lately - a lot of nights, we’ve been painting or finishing bits off upstairs in the evening as soon as the kids are in bed and then crawling into bed absolutely shattered, but we have been slowly working our way through The Night Manager.

I get that we are extremely late to the party on this one, and I’m not sure why we didn’t watch it when it first came out - we both love a thriller and are mad fans of Hugh Laurie. We haven’t finished the series yet, so no spoilers, but we are enjoying the ride and it's very well written and acted.

The other thing we have been enjoying is a lot more light-hearted - Escape To The Chateau. Like many people, we have fallen in love with the Strawbridge family and their colourful adventures as they’ve been turning a derelict chateau in the French countryside into a family home and hotel business.

It makes what we’re doing to No.80 pale in comparison, and it has also made us want to run off to France more than once. On a less grand scale, it's also inspired some of the decorative choices for our own house. I’m still determined to go and stay there one day!

I'm Reading... 

To my surprise, I’ve powered through quite a few really good books lately - normally, when I’m at work, I walk around the lake at lunchtime, but since the weather has been so foul I’ve been camping out in my car for a break and reading instead.

First I tackled The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer. If you've ever read the 'Time Travellers Guide To..' series ( I think it was even turned into a TV show) then this novel by the same author is very similar in tone and format.

With the country in the grip of the Black Death, brothers John and William fear that they will shortly die and suffer in the afterlife. But as the end draws near, they are given an unexpected choice: either to go home and spend their last six days in their familiar world, or to search for salvation across the forthcoming centuries – living each one of their remaining days ninety-nine years after the last. So begins a historical time travel novel designed to show off the author's amazing knowledge, as the story catapults from the 1300's all the way through to World War II.

Next, something I wouldn't have picked myself but ended up enjoying a lot. Some of my friends have decided to form a 'slow book club' - slow because we all have kids and it can take ages for us to work through a book. We are all taking it in turns to choose the book, and this time it was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It focuses on the trials of a pair of African-American newlyweds who are ripped apart by an erroneous prison sentence. What follows is an amazing exploration of love, identity and racial experience that definitely took me by surprise with its raw emotion.

After that, I ripped through Sixty Minutes by Tony Salter. I read this on the Kindle Unlimited programme that comes with Amazon Prime membership and is a really great part of it - it's like a lending library where you can borrow a selection of the latest titles at no charge - for up to 10 items. This book was exactly the kind of pacy thriller I like for light relief. Set over a one hour period it's a race against time to stop a suicide bomber aiming for the Natural History Museum. Within that framework it manages to explore a complex story with the interwoven lives of six well sketched characters. It's very well written and I've already downloaded another title from the same author to enjoy later.

And then I went into something I've been wanting to read for a while - Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver it's a spectacular Gothic novel set in the eerie marshlands of East Anglia. Centred on a darkly controlling father and his quietly rebellious daughter who descend into a series of murderous events after the discovery of a 'doom' - or Medieval depiction of hell - in their local church. It's beautifully written and one to enjoy on dark winter nights.

I'm Listening... 

The only thing I've been listening to lately is Heart Christmas on the radio!

Happy Christmas one and all and wishing you a brilliant 2020. 

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