Christmas shoeboxes

Sunday, 24 September 2017

I hope you can forgive the Christmas-themed post. It's less than 100 days away, which to some people means hitting all the panic buttons and freaking out about whether there's enough chairs in the house to have everyone round on Christmas day. But for me I have to think about Christmas things a bit early as I make Christmas shoeboxes for a charity called Link to Hope, and they ask for the shoeboxes to arrive at their warehouse by early November!

I first came across Link to Hope a few years ago. I wanted to do a charity shoebox but didn't want to go through the Operation Christmas Child programme, due to some of the more problematic things I've read about them (I won't go in to it here, but if Google it then you'll find plenty of other websites discussing it). I found someone else on a forum asking the same question, and Link to Hope was mentioned in the replies. They state on their website that they will give a shoebox to anyone, regardless of religion, belief or creed, and they do not hand out any literature with their shoeboxes. They do use churches as community spaces in some areas, but they also use schools, village halls and any other large building that can accommodate the people that arrive to collect a box.

This year is especially exciting for me as I've finally been able to volunteer as an Area Collector! These are people who act as a drop off point for shoeboxes in their local area, and I haven't seen one this far out in Essex before! I've already had one person phone me to check I'm happy to accept them, and I'm hoping more will want to join in as we get closer to the November deadline!
Just need some winter woolies

What do you include in a shoebox?
Link to Hope, who I do shoeboxes for, have two types - family and elderly. Nothing is divided by age or gender, so you can't pick "nine year old girl" or "two year old boy", but it does mean that you can fit a big variety of things in. The people that receive the shoeboxes are from areas that have few work opportunities, and winter is a struggle between earning enough money for food and get some heating, so simple things like toiletries and school supplies become a luxury rather than a need.

There's basics that you put in every shoebox; toiletries such as shampoo, soap and showergel, sweets and chocolate, plasters, tissues, and winter woolies including hats and gloves and warm socks. Then you have extra items depending on which group your box is going to. Additions to family shoeboxes include school supplies such as a notebook, pens, pencils and rulers, a small cuddly toy, and some little toys or games. For elderly ones you can include a nice mug, a cloth shopping bag, reading glasses, and a small pack of dominoes or some playing cards.

Can you include freebie items you've got?
As long as they're unopened (in the case of toiletries) then of course you can collect freebies throughout the year to include in your shoeboxes! I recently got a free tote bag from TK Maxx for signing up with their "Treasures" programme, I already have more tote bags than you can shake a stick at, so I've folded this one up for one of my elderly boxes.

Next year I'm planning on keeping a better eye out for things I can collect for free that will go in the shoeboxes. Having a few extra little things to include is nice, but only as long as they're useful and in good condition. Don't just chuck in a load of sample facemasks that you don't want to use. But if you travel frequently and pick up the little packets of wrapped soaps in hotels then you can include those. If you have a subscription box for things like stationery that you know will just sit in a drawer for years, then you can build up a nice little collection of pencils and notepads that can be added to bulk out empty space.

My best buys
Since I try to collect things throughout the year I generally manage to put my shoeboxes together a bit cheaper than buying everything in one go in October. I also like to bulk buy things that I can then split across several years of shoeboxes, I recently bought 15 small bouncy balls off a party supply shop on eBay. These normally go in giftbags for kids parties, but I've put two each in my family shoeboxes and that still leaves me with 11 to be split across the next few years!

I managed to buy two really nice tin pencil cases for £1.50 each from The Works, along with colouring pencils from Tiger for £1 a pack, and I got some lovely Crayola felt tip pens from Wilko for £2 during their "Back to School" sales. I picked up two mugs from Waitrose at £1.50 each when they were having a sale, one for each elderly shoebox. They're a lovely bright blue and really thick, my husband used to have one (that was eventually dropped on the kitchen floor) that survived several house moves so they're really good quality.

Things you can't send
Obviously there are also things that, for customs and safety purposes, can't be included in shoeboxes. Medicines is the obvious one, no cough syrup or paracetemol or anything like that (but first aid items such as plasters are very useful and can be included). You also can't send any seeds, which is a real shame as it would be helpful to give people help in growing their own food where possible. You also can't include any books or literature, so no children's books or guide books or pamphlets.

If you want to create your own shoebox for the charity then you can find more information on their website, and a list of Area Collectors can be found here!

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

(The blog post below includes some links to Amazon, these are affiliate links and mean that I earn a few pennies if you choose to buy the same thing. You will not be charged extra by Amazon.)

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.

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!

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.


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 :)