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100 days of DuoLingo

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Back in June I wrote a blog post about my aims for the next six months of 2017. At the time I had just started using DuoLingo to learn Italian, and was slowly starting to get to grips with going back to a language I've repeatedly tried and failed to learn over the years.

One of the great things about DuoLingo is that is tracks how long you've been learning for. You get quite competitive with yourself, and as I write this it's telling me that I've been learning for 115 days! This isn't entirely true, as you can use "Lingots" earned from reaching milestones to hold over a day or two if you don't have the time or energy to do your daily task. However I haven't definitely not used enough Lingots to cover 15 days, so I've certainly broken the 100 days mark of learning Italian!

How to use easy is DuoLingo?
All you really need for DuoLingo is a computer/laptop/tablet and the ability to turn on sound, that's it! There is an option to use a microphone but as I don't have one I've switched it off. You can use your settings to do things like set your daily goal, ranging from "basic" at learning enough for 1 xp a day (which equates to just one translation or listening exercise), up to "Insane" at 50 xp a day. I started off with 20 xp a day, which was two lots of 20 exercises a day. But in the end I was finding that it was difficult to get the enthusiasm to do that much, especially if my journey home proved difficult, so I've now set it to 10 xp a day. This is one session of 20 exercises, a mixture of listening and writing in Italian, translating sentences from English in to Italian, and occasionally picking the right answer (or answers) out of a list. Oh, and it's completely free to use, although you can use it to buy things like flashcards that will help you learn offline.

Personally I'm finding it very easy to use, especially now that I have it set in a way that makes it easy to get it done and dusted in the evenings. I think it really helps that I studied Latin at GCSE and AS Level and then again at university, and did a lot of French in school too. Unlike English, Italian grammar is very gender-based, and the endings of words change depending on the context of the sentence. For example "I eat" is "mangio", while "we eat" is "mangiamo". If you're not used to this kind of grammar style then it can be difficult to wrap your head around it, and even though I know how it works I still struggled at certain points, and at one point came close to giving up entirely.

A breakthrough
My biggest problem came when I was trying to learn possession words (yours, mine, theirs etc). As I mentioned above, Italian grammar is similar to Latin in that the endings of nouns and verbs change depending on a host of different things. For a while I was really struggling to get my head around possessives, as I assumed they were static. Instead, I eventually realised that they follow the ending of the noun that is being possessed. So for example "i mie mele" is my apples, but "il mio cappotto" means "my coat", you can see that the word "my" is "mie" to go with "mele", and "mio" to go with cappotto, as one is plural and the other is singular.

Once I realised that then I found it a lot easier to progress. I am still going back frequently and testing myself on old things, but I spent weeks grappling with possessives, whereas now I'm trying new levels and only working on them for a week before I move on to the next stage.

Is there an app?
There is indeed an app for DuoLingo, but for the time being I haven't installed it. I'm quite enjoying using it on my laptop as I can jut sit in bed and concentrate on what I'm doing. Although using the app would no doubt help if I wanted to work on it while waiting for the bus, for example, I'd be spending too much time looking up the road to really focus on what I'm learning.

Next steps
Overall I'm really happy with my progress, although I seriously doubt DuoLingo's claim that I'm now 20% fluent in Italian! My next biggest step will be remembering all my vocabulary, as after grammar problems it's always learning a huge range of new words that's a problem for me. Once I've hit the 200 mark I think I'll start leaving little labels around the house to help me remember the Italian translation of various words, or I might draw up a little "10 words a week" list that I can sellotape to my work PC and glance it to help me remember.

I'll do a second review when I hit 200 days (if I manage to keep my streak going that long without interruption). Maybe I'll have come across another grammar problem, or maybe I'll be genuinely fluent in Italian! I'd eventually like to use it to learn Dutch as one of my best friends lives in the Netherlands, but I really do need to make more progress in Italian first.

Charity shop haul: August 2017

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Originally it looked like this was going to be a miniscule post. The charity shops in Cambridge, my usual haunt, have been very thin on the ground for good items recently. The students have all left by July and by August the place is swamped with tourists, so donations are thin on the ground (from what I can tell anyway). 

But as I had another week off it meant that I could take some time to stroll around Colchester, and me and my husband had a day out in Maldon with the in-laws so I had a little look around the charity shops there too.

Sadly there were no clothes this month, one or two things caught my eye but I just couldn't picture myself wearing them. There's no point buying clothes you like if you don't wear them, so I put both things back and moved on.

Books
My collection of works about women in history has expanded again this month! My main purchase was a biography on Cecily Neville, the mother of King Edward IV and King Richard III. She's one of those medieval women that used to only exist on the periphery of history, but recent works have really helped make people more aware of her. In fact I've already sat down and read the whole thing and really enjoyed it, I liked the way Amy Licence really tried to focus on Cecily. I find that with many books about women there's a greater emphasis on the men in their lives, in order to bulk out the text as there's often very few resources about the women themselves. This book is a little short, but only because Licence doesn't fall in to that trap, and what information she does have on Cecily is really interesting!

DVDs
My aim to refill my DVD collection with stuff I'm missing from home continues apace! This month I bulked out my collection with the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie (I mistakenly thought I already had the second one, so now I need to keep an eye out for that too), Sense and Sensibility (which I always enjoy watching on a lazy afternoon). I also bought one of the Family Guy "Star Wars" specials. I've never seen the Star Wars movies, to my husband's everlasting horror, but I'll happily watch this parody of them, even if a lot of the jokes go over my head.

I then went in to Colchester for a during in my week off, and what else did I find in a charity shop? The second Family Guy Star Wars parody DVD! So now I own both of them for the princely sum of £2, I wouldn't buy them at full price but I'll happily have them in the animation drawer to watch when the fancy takes me.

Simple pleasures

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Now that we're in to September and autumn is on the way, I thought I'd take a little look back at some of the simple pleasures I've enjoyed over the summer. It's not my favourite season by any means, but there have been aspects of it that I've enjoyed, especially now that we're becoming settled in our house and have got more furniture set up around the place.

Baking

After a hiatus of nearly two years, I've finally started baking again! I used to bake nearly every weekend when I lived in London, my housemates were generally out of the flat on Sundays so I could use the kitchen to my heart's content in the afternoon. When I moved back with my parents I didn't really have the inclination to bake, especially as it's my Mum's kitchen and there's always something going on there. I made one batch of cookies while the rest of the family was on holiday, but that was it.

Now that we're settled in the house and there's less decorating to do at weekends I've started to pick it back up again. A new colleague started in our office recently so as a welcome I baked some chocolate chunk cookies, which turned out very nice. Then this weekend I had three quarters of a lemon left and decided to make lemon fairy cakes, which have also come out nicely. Once I've got back in to the swing of baking I'd like to try some new things, I've got recipes for shortbread and a chocolate loaf cake which I'd love to test, and I've never made a lemon drizzle cake or a Victoria sponge, so getting to grips with them would be nice.

When it's warm enough to have the windows open
I'm not a fan of hot weather. I've probably said that on this blog before, but it makes me feel sweaty and gross, and I hate walking around when the humidity makes it feel like a sauna. It's the main reason why I'll probably never visit Florida.

But that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy good weather. I like it when it's sunny but not excessively hot. I particularly love being able to have the garden door and all the windows open, allowing a lovely breeze to circulate around our house. We're really lucky, when you open the garden door and the window in our bedroom you get a lovely current of air. Plus our living room has a large window overlooking the back garden, so I love to sit indoors in the cool, looking out across the grass, with the door wide open so I still get some fresh air!

Keeping plants alive
It's the miracle of miracles! You may remember from my post about my week off back in July that my attention has slowly been turning to our garden. There was so much to do back in March that there wasn't really a chance to do much with the garden, apart from cut the grass and see what was growing. But in July I set up two hanging baskets and some plastic troughs with petunias and lavender. The petunias went a bit mad and grew quite large, they're now starting to die back a bit (helped by me forgetting to water them, it's rained so much I wasn't sure if they were too damp or too dry, turns out they were a bit too dry). But the lavender is coming along nicely, it's taking a while to grow but I'm hoping that it'll survive the winter and grow back in the spring. My mother-in-law is a keen gardener and has loads of lavender so I'll be asking her what I need to do with it to keep it alive in the cold weather.

I'm just generally impressed with how well they've survived. It's amazing the difference the petunias make in the hanging baskets, they light up the whole of the front of the house. I really hope they grow back next year, but if not then I'll be happy to plant new ones, maybe in purple rather than magenta, or maybe a mix of both!

Visiting new places 

If there's one thing summer is good for, it's visiting new places. As we're still new to the area we've moved to it's been a real pleasure to occasionally get out for a little drive and then stop somewhere for a walk. Along with visiting some of the local villages around our way we've also been up to Hedingham Castle and down to Maldon, and I've had a little visit to the lovely old town of Coggeshall. I also had a nice walk along the river near where we live and found a load of blackberry bushes, but sadly didn't have a walking stick to hook down the really good berries at the top!

Obviously with autumn all we need to do to go out is wrap up a bit more, so I'm hoping that we'll be able to visit a few more places before it gets too cold for my warmth-loving husband to want to venture outdoors. I've got a book of walks around Essex that I keep intending to use more, so we might see about going for a nice stroll somewhere soon.

I hope you all managed to enjoy some simple pleasures in the summer, and that you have some lovely ones in autumn too :)

Changing your name after your wedding

Sunday, 27 August 2017

One of the more common questions you get asked when people find out you’re getting married is “So will you be changing your name then?” Generally it’s directed at women, but more men are hearing it too, and if you’re in a same-sex relationship then double-barrelling is flagged up as an option.

I'm only changing my surname!
But one of the problems is just how much stuff you end up needing to change, and how many different ways there are for doing so. After getting married in April I’m now in the process of getting things updated with my new surname, and frankly I’ve had some mixed results with it!

Work
I’m quite lucky to work for a large employer with lots of HR staff dotted around the place, and they have plenty of experience in updating your details. All I needed to do was show up at the HR office with my marriage certificate, wait for a colour copy to be sorted on the photocopier, and that was it. My colleague in HR sorted out my payroll, HR record and pensions information so it was all swapped over in less than a week! I count myself very lucky to have found it this easy, obviously your work place may be slower or require you to fill out extra forms.

Verdict: 5/5

Banks
My main bank since my student days is Barclays, and through Google I managed to find the page on their website that said I just needed to take my marriage certificate in to a branch and they would sort it from there. So I did exactly that, and spent just over five minutes with a staff member going through the process. Originally it came across as very easy, again they took a colour copy of my marriage certificate, and I was told that a new debit card and chequebook would be in the post shortly.

However when things arrived it became very clear that something had gone wrong. Although they had updated my title, so I was now “Mrs”, they’d left my maiden name as my surname. Cue a certain amount of frustration, especially when I went to a second branch to sort it out (I didn’t want to go back to the first for obvious reasons). They could see that something had gone wrong with the changeover, although they didn’t tell me what, but they couldn’t fix it until I handed over my marriage certificate again. I therefore had to make a third trip, certificate in tow. I ended up with yet another new card and another new chequebook, but thankfully in the correct name.

I also have a mortgage with my husband through Halifax. This time it was closer to ten minutes as the staff member had to fill out what seemed to be an extremely long online form. Not only did they need my previous name, new name, my address and my mortgage account number, but I was also asked about my current wage! I even had to check that they weren’t going to change my mortgage in anyway as some of the questions seemed too personal for what was a change of surname. Once more the marriage certificate was copied, and the online form had to be printed off and the whole thing sent to a head office through Halifax’s postal system.

The disappointing thing with Halifax, apart from the questions, was that I was told it would only take three days to sort out and I would receive a text message to confirm it had gone through. Despite them having my mobile number (I’ve had texts from them in the past) I never received anything to confirm the name change had gone through. We only realised it had been processed a week later when we checked our mortgage account online, and found it was now titled “Mr & Mrs” with one surname.

Verdicts;
Barclays – 3/5
Halifax – 4/5

Electoral register
This got done this week as we received a letter about updating details online. No need to photocopy or send off the marriage certificate, we just logged in with the code we were sent on the letter, and there was an option for me to change my surname on one of the pages. Obviously until I next get a polling card I won’t be certain that it’s gone through fine, but it seemed to be a smooth process.

Being on the electoral register is important for your credit rating, so keeping it up to date with your name and current address should be standard. When you get one of these letters, double check they’ve spelled your details correctly, and amend them online if not.

Verdict: 5/5

Driving licence
I’ve only just sent this off (very naughty I know), so hopefully this will go through fine! I’ve deliberately left this late as it’s the first time I’ve needed to send off my marriage certificate and I’m worried it’ll get lost in the post, or damaged by the DVLA (a friend of mine had a bad experience with hers). I collected a form from the Post Office, filled it in with all the details, and have now posted it off with my driving licence and the marriage certificate. It should take three weeks for the new to make its way back to me, and hopefully my marriage certificate will come back in one piece too!

Verdict: 5/5 for getting the form from the post office, ?/5 for getting it back!

HMRC
I expected them to be the biggest nuisance with this kind of thing, but it appears not! All I had to do was fill in an online form, including the date that we married and some information about my husband, and that was that! But again, I’ve only done it recently so any problems won’t have arisen yet. But for ease of use I’ve found them one of the better ones to deal with, even if it was a little time consuming.

Verdict: 5/5, so far!

I haven’t got around to sorting out our utility bills (energy and broadband are in my name), and I haven’t done my passport as I’ll need to pay £95 for a new one to change my name! But so far I feel I’m making progress, and this doesn’t even include all my shop loyalty cards that have also been swapped over!

Charity Shop Haul: July 2017

Sunday, 13 August 2017

July started off slow for charity shop visits, but then I had a week off work and spent the first afternoon of it wandering around the huge number of charity shops outside the Grafton Centre in Cambridge! This was then followed by a morning strolling around Colchester, so in one week I managed to visit a lot of shops, and get some lovely bargains!


Clothes
I love White Stuff, but I find some of their collections a bit hit-and-miss, so I haven't bought anything from their shops recently. I did however find this gorgeous blue top in one charity shop, and quickly snapped it up as it was only £5! I've actually got quite a few of their tops, but some of them were bought three years ago and are starting to get holes (I wear them every week as they're suitable for work), so my plan is to use charity shops to replace the four most damaged tops!


Books
This month was quite poor for book purchases, possibly because I have quite a few from the past couple of months that I need to catch up on, so I was quite discerning this month. I also just didn't find a huge amount that I needed or wanted to buy, it was a better month for DVDs (as you'll see below). That said I did find two decent books to add to my shelf. The first is "Nella Last's War", which I've actually read in the past and really enjoyed. This book is an edited version of a set of diaries which were kept during the Second World War by Mrs Nella Last. She lived in Lancashire in Barrow-in-Furness and spent the war actively helping charities, running her house, and worrying about her sons.

The other book was "The Times Obituaries of Notable Women", which is a collection of obituaries about various women who died in the 20th century. It should be good source material for some upcoming ebooks so I'm looking forward to sitting down properly with it at some point and making a few notes.

DVDs
Now that I've moved out of my parents place I'm finding that I need to buy DVDs that I've had easy access to for years. So imagine how chuffed I was to get the first two Bridget Jones movies for £1 each. They're nice easy watching that you can have on as noise in the background without dedicating lots of time to watching, so having my own copies at last is great. I also got "Made in Dagenham", which I've wanted to watch for years and never got round to!

Mortgage Overpayment - July 2017

Sunday, 6 August 2017

If you'd like to find out more about why we're overpaying our mortgage, the post is here!

July turned out to be a fantastic month for overpaying. It wasn't a record breaking month, that's still held by April. But it was still very good and it's all thanks to my expenses claim, my train ticket to a work conference gave an enormous boost to the payment pot!

So without further ado our overpayment for July was £129.27!!

That was made up of our standard £30, which we budget every month. I received £5.39 from Quidco, which was cashback from buying some house items a few months ago, and then £78.66 was my work expenses claim. I also did a couple of account sweeps, rounding my bank balance down to end in a 5 or a 0, and that netted me an extra £5.56, and then I finally rounded down the mortgage balance at the end of the month to pay off an extra £7.66. 

Since we're now just over halfway through the year, I thought I'd take a little look at the impact our mortgage payments, and the overpayments, have had on some of the numbers!

When we started the mortgage we were having £12.01 added in interest per day! It's now down to £11.82 a day. We were due to go under £11 a day in August 2020, but we've now brought that up to June 2020, and of course that will go down as we continue to overpay. We were due to drop under £155k owed in May 2018, that's now fallen to March 2018. I really want to do it before January, but playing with numbers suggests that that might be a little tricky. I'm really happy with how close we're getting though, it's good motivation for the future.

I have a terramundi pot, which I started to save in when I was living in London. I only add £2 and 50 pence coins to it, and it's starting to get a little heavy. But it's certainly nowhere near full ,so I'm now debating if I want to crack it open in December and use whatever's in it to make one last huge overpayment for the New Year. But on the other hand I'd like to know how much it can hold when it's full, so I should hold out.

We'll see what the coming months bring, and see how many more £2 coins I can stuff in to it in the meantime XD

A week off in July

Sunday, 23 July 2017

After a very busy period at work, and my last week off being for my honeymoon back in April, I was very relieved to have a week off this month. Well, technically it was four and a half days, but it was still time off work and I was grateful for it as my brain was starting to get a bit bogged down!

Monday
This was the half day part of my leave. Popped in to the office in the morning, which might have been a bit daft as I have a long commute (live near Colchester and work in Cambridge) but I had things to sort out around the office. Once I'd done everything on my list I then started my holiday by driving over to Cambridge's Grafton Centre, had a little lunch in Bella Italia (I had two starters, pork and beef meatballs in tomato sauce, and carbonara croquettes, delicious!) and then strolled around the charity shops outside the centre. I managed to get some DVDs and a nice top, so my next charity shop haul post will have some good bits in it! Keep an eye out next month.
Started the week with a good book!

Once I'd worn my little legs out with all the walking I drove home and had the rest of the afternoon with a nice cup of tea and a good book, heaven!

Tuesday
Sadly my car needed work done so I dropped it off at the garage Tuesday morning and spent the day confined to my town. But that's not too bad as the town isn't huge and the walk down the high street to the river is quite pleasant. There have been some changes in bin collections recently, which mean that we can now get free sacks for garden waste! Excellent news as they were £3.50 before. But you can only get them if you fill out a form online and get an emailed voucher. Unfortunately having jumped through the respective hoops, I got to the Town Council offices to find that they had run out of garden sacks.

Quite frustrating but there you go. I was asked to phone on Friday to check if sacks had arrived before walking down, and I walked back home to spend the rest of the day reading my book, playing online, and planning what to do with the rest of my week. I intended to go for a drive up to a village called Coggeshall, but when I went to pick up my car they showed me where my suspension coil had snapped! Not good, so I had to book the car in for Friday for more work and be careful with my driving for the rest of the week.

Wednesday
Mirror for £4? Yes please!

Despite the car trouble I used Wednesday to drive in to Colchester and have a long walk around. I popped in to numerous charity shops but sadly couldn't find anything I particularly wanted to buy, not even a book or two! However I did manage to get some nice hanging baskets from Wilko, for our garden, and a bathroom mirror for only £4! We've been really struggling to find a bathroom mirror we both like, so at only £4 I figured this will be a handy placeholder to use, and then we won't rush in to buying something we don't like just because we need to fill the space.

I also managed to get some nice birthday presents for one of my sisters. Her birthday isn't until September, but I think I might have all her gifts sorted now, getting that done early is a big bonus!

Thursday
I decided to call off my trip to Coggeshall due to the car problem, and instead went up to Marks Tey. I drive by Poplar Nurseries here every day, and it looks like such a big garden centre that I've wanted to go inside for months. Now I had my hanging baskets I decided it was time to get some plants and get gardening!

I wasn't disappointed, it was a lovely big shop. I spent quite a lot of time mooching around the "grow your own fruit and veg" section before coming to my senses and realising it was far too late to be planting tomatoes and strawberries (but I'll try to find a budget for them next year) and instead wandered over to the outdoor section to see what flowers I wanted. I knew I wanted some lavender plants, and then something nice for the hanging baskets. 
Tiny lavender and little petunias!

But there were so many other beautiful plants that in the end I had to go eat some lunch as I was just wandering around in circles trying to work out what I wanted to buy. After filling up with a lovely cheese scone and a nice cup of tea, I had my head on straight and went back out with a trolley. Three small lavender plants for £1.50 each, a box of six dark pink petunias for £4.50, two small trough pots, and two bags of compost, and I was ready to come home! Buy not before I popped back in to their farm shops to get two enormous slices of cake for me and my husband (chocolate loaf for me, carrot and walnut for my husband). I really liked the nursery so I think a second visit is on the cards so I can write a proper review of it!

Once I got home I got everything potted up and placed, ready to surprise my husband when we came home. I ended up putting two petunias each in the hanging basket, and the other two in the smaller trough. The three lavender plants fitted nicely in the larger trough, despite being quite small and spindly. I've been told in the past that lavender can get quite larger so hopefully they'll grow a bit and won't stay quite so small.

Friday
Car went back in the garage in the morning, and then a quick call to the Town Council meant that I could hurry down and pick up some newly arrived garden waste bags! Then all I had to do for the day was wait for the call to say my car was done. I decided to use the time to sort out my clothes, we out our wardrobe from IKEA back in June and my clothes were still in bags in the spare room. I sorted through them I realised there was a lot there that I hadn't even missed despite not seeing them for a few months. I ended up filling a few bags to donate to a charity shop and then hung up the rest, so now all my clothes are sorted out and the spare room looks a lot clearer!

So that was my somewhat productive week off! I didn't get as much done as I'd intended (sending off more forms to change my surname for example) but I'm especially happy about getting the plants sorted. Gardening doesn't come naturally to me so getting plants potted is an achievement to me!

My next week off is at the end of August, and since this week off really wasn't long enough I'm really looking forward to it XD
 
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