Thursday, November 28, 2013

A weekend in Rome

In September I visited York and enjoyed a fascinating hour at the Roman Bath (underneath the public house of the same name) listening to a history PhD student talk about Costantine, Maximus, and even how the Bible was brought together. I also learned that the hot baths they had - the sweat houses - helped reduce internal parasites.

I have always been fascinated by ancient history so after my short visit to York (and I've been to Bath very often as well) I was all fired up for a visit.

 Rome! Gladiators, emperors, and orgies. Well, maybe not quite what I had planned, but certainly part of the story of this amazing city.

What intrigued me was how much was still intact, or still around even if in ruins. The ancient architecture is integral to the city. You can sit on a plinth that probably held up the statue of a Roman god, you can run your fingers across the cool marble of a pillar that has stood for two thousand years - and that's just walking down the street.

I could diarise our weekend - a long wait for a non-appearing bus from the airport, the first night visit to the small church to watch small ballet and opera, the constant charging around to visit one or another of the wonderful sites, and the amazing restaurant recommended by our quaint little hotel. We visited the Vatican, saw the Sistine Chapel (worth it!) and enjoyed mild weather and copious rogue salesmen.

But all I need to do, really, is show you. My recommendation for Rome is to go... you will not regret it.

The Coliseum

Statue from the top of one of the more modern monuments

Palatine Hill

Titus' Arch

Palatine Hill

Don't ask for a light in Rome...



St Peter's Square

St Peter's, looking down from the gallery

Little statue by Michaelangelo

All photos are my copyright. For more, visit my Flickr site.

Monday, October 21, 2013

In a pigeon-hole

Am I ‘rock ‘n roll’ or ‘flat cap’? Or even M&S slippers? An article in Marketing Magazine the other week talked about the ‘baby boomers” – those born between 1946 and 1964 (which includes me). We also have Generation X, and Generation Y.  The younger generations – again pigeon-holed and, no doubt, stereotyped for their behaviour and purchasing habits.

That made me think. Do I fit the stereotype for a baby boomer? Will I behave as anticipated according to the UK marketing analysts? The answer, though it galls a little, is probably ‘yes’.

I’m a bit rock ‘n roll and a bit slippers, so if marketers can work that out, then what is directed at me is going to hit with sufficient accuracy as to occasionally highlight something I may actually be interested in. And I might buy/subscribe/donate.

Am I happy in my pigeon-hole? I do not respond well to anything to do with soap operas or beauty products which may be appropriate for a ‘woman of my age’. I would like to remove myself from that demographic niche, but it isn’t that simple (yet).But other than that, yes, being in a pigeon-hole is great, as long as I’m a pigeon.

As a marketer, I send information to people who match the demographic and ‘look alike’ profile of people who have already demonstrated an interest in what I am marketing. I pick a pigeon-hole I’ve found pigeons in before. If I were looking for ducks, I’d look in the pond (as long as it wasn’t polluted of course).

Even the TV - a ‘mass marketing’ media - thinks about its pigeons. You won’t spot a nappy advert in the middle of a major football match, but you might get men’s aftershave during a soap opera (remember, the target audience isn’t always the consumer, it’s the purchaser too).  

I like marketing – not just because it’s my job. I like it because you can do it well, and you can target audiences and (most of the time) make sure you send them something that is likely to appeal. You can get feedback on what you are doing and improve things. You can, according to your sector and products, help people find something they want or need.

So here I am in my pigeon-hole, and I’m happy knowing that amongst the things that are brought to my attention, there’s some serious pigeon fodder. Marketing may not be a perfected art, but the better we do it, the less likely we are to send the flat cap and rock ’n roller an ad for Classic FM.

I fully expect, of course, a flat-capped wearing, rock ‘n roll loving pigeon fancier to respond saying they love Classic FM.  After all, we’re all individuals. And that makes marketing even more fun!

Liked this post? You may also like: Direct Musketeers

Photocredits: Woodpigeon: RSPB, Duck Canoe Foundation

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Taking a proper gander

Taking a ‘proper gander’ is to take a really good look. But ‘propaganda’ is, if anything, implying that what you see is diffused, distorted, or even disingenuous.

On Tuesday I went to London with a friend and, before enjoying ‘Woman in Black’ at the Fortune Theatre, we went to the British Library and visited ‘Propaganda, power and persuasion’.  From origins (anti-papist cartoons, even Egyptian monoliths) through war (I was hugely impressed with some early animation from WWI) via health and all the way up to today. Propaganda is part of our lives.

The leaflet that accompanies the exhibition has a ‘user’s guide to basic techniques’. Just in case you fancied overthrowing a government, or establishing a new religion perhaps... in fact, when I looked at the basic techniques, they are so much a part of my world that it was just a little bit scary.

Here are the British Library’s basic techniques, and my interpretation of how I encounter them:

1. Establish authority

I’m a manager – if I had no authority, I couldn't manage or lead my team.

2. Exploit existing beliefs

We live in a world surrounded by social, religious and moral beliefs, behaviours and mores. I need say no more – just watch the news.

3. Appeal to patriotism

Before we go down the dangerous nationalist route, I only need think about the work I do every day which talks about how a disease affects hundreds of thousands of people in our country, impacting our economy and our lives. I probably wouldn't get very far on the basis that the disease affects far more people (over 5 million) in the US.

4. Create fear

Fear is a key motivator in advertising. Brush your teeth regularly with ‘Wonderpaste’ so you don’t get gum disease and lose all your friends...

5. Use humour

I'm sure you can come up with plenty of examples, but to give you a hint, look at any of the newspapers and you will find cartoons of politicians, celebrities, business leaders...

6. Imply everyone agrees

Or every cat, or at least 8 out of 10 cats...

7. Disguise the source

Friend of a friend strikes again... social media is wonderfully rife with stories and scares and outrage and you believe it because your friends told you so. Trace the source of some of these stories and, if you had known the origins in the first place, you would not have paid the slightest bit of attention to the issue.

8. Hammer it home

As we say in advertising, tell them once, tell them again, then tell them you’ve told them.

9. Make false connections

For this one I’ll repeat what the BL say: “Start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial. Many people will not notice that there is no logical link between the two.”

10. Be selective about the truth

90% of women in our survey loved it... we surveyed 10 women. One of them thought it was absolutely disgusting.

11. Establish a leadership cult

Watch out Simon Cowell... for as leaders rise, so do they fall. Sadly, in my opinion, leadership cults (and celebrities are leaders) are the motivating factor for millions of people. Beware the feet of clay.

I loved the exhibition – from the cartoon of the pope as a bizarre mythological creature through to the 80s TV advert about AIDS – propaganda isn’t a word, it’s an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.

Disney WWII propaganda cartoon (not featured in exhibition)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Acting my age

What does it mean when someone says 'act your age'? Is it a criticism implying that you are behaving badly? Possibly. But then, what is actually acting your age - fitting into a stereotype that was set by others, at another time, in another context?

Blow that for a game of soldiers.  This year I am rapidly approaching the grand old age of 53 and I have felt no urge whatsoever to wear floral print, thick stockings and beige cardigans. Oh, hang on, I do wear beige, but more along the lines of 'wannabe safari explorer' than zippered cardigan or sensible waterproof jacket.

So how do I act my age? I'm not sure. Take my week so far...

Monday night - The Full Moon Party.
  • Drive an hour or more after work into the Suffolk countryside
  • Get lost - find a pub and find local who knows exactly where I am supposed to be
  • Meet with a childhood pal, a number of interesting artists, sculptors and a neurological psychologist (who used to live in Totteridge Lane, across the road from where I also lived in a past life)
  • Make pizza using host-prepared dough and own toppings
  • Cook pizza in dragon-shaped outdoor oven
  • Have in-depth conversations on dementia (unsurprisingly), the speed of the universe, psychology and probably a few other things I can't remember
  • Tickle one of two six year old blond twin boys who are fascinated by the open fire
  • Lose half my pizza to a Staffordshire bull terrier
  • Sleep for an hour and a half in the back of my car
  • Drive back home between 2 and 3am and watch the most spectacular lightning storms all the way from Thetford to Cambridge
Tuesday evening - bowls match against Great Shelford
  • Finish work and change into a white polo shirt and trainers
  • Walk  two hundred yards from office door to hidden bowling green (at work)
  • Help set up for the match
  • Get placed as number one in fourth team (playing first means your bowls are most likely to get thunked out the way during the rest of the end)
  • Play average bowls (good for me) in winning rink team
  • Sandwiches, drink and raffle with opposing team and team-mates in bar (also at work)
So what age am I acting - as if I were 30 years younger by staying out so late on a work night? As if I were 20 years older by playing bowls?

I don't care. I don't want to fit a stereotype, I want to enjoy life and carry on learning new things and meeting new people. But, I have to say, the 3am bed time is not something I want to do too often - especially not with work the next morning. Well, I won't - not until the next Full Moon Party, or gig, or ...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Courage and confidence, pizza and beer

On a hot, sultry Wednesday evening, I left work on time (amazing!) and met a friend at the Haymakers pub in Chesterton. Rumour had it that their pizzas were pretty good – and what better way to break up the week than a pizza and a glass of something cold with a good friend?

Arriving first I ordered a half of cider called something like ‘Pickled Piglet’. If I had drunk more than a half, I would have indeed been such! A very nice cider, dry and fruity, but not burn your throat like some scrumpies. My friend arrived and she had a Malko... something Czech. Not Malkovitch or Maldova, something in between. I could go look it up, but that’s not so much fun.

We ordered our pizzas (no mushrooms for me!) and they duly arrived folded and oiled, looking glorious as we sat in the shade of the old ash tree. A very pleasant supper. I moved on to diet coke – had to drive home and it was a ‘school night’ after all.

The conversations I have with this friend are always interesting. She is a very intelligent person and a highly talented musician. We talked about science fiction films and writing (we both know Dragon’s Egg, a superb book by Robert L Forward from 1980. I mistakenly thought it was by Theodore Sturgeon until I looked it up – but I also love Theodore's book More Than Human.) We talked about the parasitic or symbiotic nature of humanity on planet earth and whether it should – or should not – be eliminated (by nature or other means, we weren't bent on genocide ourselves, you understand).

We also talked about courage:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

"Put 'em up..."
And then she put it in the context of confidence. Is confidence not similar? The person who is totally confident, who believes everything they say and do is right, is often perceived as arrogant (bordering on psychopathic perhaps?). 
Is confidence an act? That’s how I thought of it – that I may seem confident and outgoing, yet inside there are very different feelings and self-perceptions. So are the self-perceptions right, or is the act the reality? The conclusion from the conversation was that confidence is more like courage.
“Confidence is not the absence of doubt, but the triumph over it. The brave person is not the one who is always confident, but one who goes ahead and follows what they believe, despite their doubts".
Well, that’s kind of what we came up – though I didn't have Nelson’s quote to crib from.

The outcome is that I am feeling more confident as a result of one conversation. Because I can be what I appear to be, and I understand that – as my training colleagues often used to say – showing some vulnerability is not a bad thing, it actually reveals humanity. Being me maybe isn't so bad.

You don’t have to be superman/woman/child - not unless you really want to wear your pants outside your trousers.

Acknowledgements: Cowardly Lion from MGMs 'The Wizard of Oz'

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Amazing dementia lab

I have to post the quickest blog about this ever - this on line lab is just amazing! I like the way it uses a Facebook interaction in a very clever way - try it out and see what I mean. It makes it personal and also gets across a very pertinent message.

If you haven't seen it yet, visit the ARUK Lab and then vote for it here in the awwwards!

This is an amazing bit of tech, but more important is the story it tells about dementia research.

Thank you.
Dementia Lab

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Ribbons and letters

6th June is a momentous day - the death of Robert F Kennedy, the birth of David Blunkett, the feast day of Claude the Thaumaturge, and the start of D-Day in Normandy.  (Thank you Wiki for some of these.)

It's an important day for me too. It's my wedding anniversary (though, since becoming single it's significance has waned somewhat) and it's my brother's birthday. I haven't seen my brother for a long time. I don't know where he is or how he is. I don't know, to be honest, if he is alive or dead.

When he first moved to Cornwall about 25 years ago, I would write to him, and phone him sometimes. And in 1991 I became pregnant with our son, Alex, and I wanted to tell him. And I couldn't find him - I didn't know where he lived or where he was working. I wrote to him though, at the address I still had, and sent photographs of his new nephew. When Alex was about a year old, we took a family holiday to Cornwall. We found the address Philip lived at, but there was no answer.

My cousin, Nick, went down to Cornwall (he'd lived there for a while and knew the area well) and did manage to catch up with Phil one day. He told me 'your photos were on his wall'. So he had received my letters. Nick told me that Phil was working in a computer games shop. That was probably just after Melody was born, in 1993. But after that, neither Nick nor I could ever reach Phil.

I tried the Salvation Army - who did know him but he wasn't with them. I tried 'Find your family' websites. I found some very nice Philip Sheppards (one also had a father called Anthony, same as our dad, which was a strange coincidence), but I didn't find my brother.

My brother and I fought as kids, don't all siblings? But as adults we got along pretty good. I don't know why he chose to forget us. But you don't choose your family, do you? So the only choice you have is whether you stay in contact or not. Lots of families fall apart over stupid things - lots of families just drift.  I just miss my brother.

My daughter, Melody, wrote a song for me - and for anyone who has lost touch with a loved one. Here it is. Please share and send to anyone who this may touch.

Happy birthday Phil, wherever you are. This family still think of you.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Where is shopping going?

Here's two headlines from the same email which I received from Marketing Magazine:

Amazon eyes international expansion of grocery business


Ocado to launch non-food sites in 'hypermarket' drive

So, are we set for a wonderful combination of increased competition driving down prices? Sadly I don't think so. Each of these two huge brands have very clear ideas of who their target markets are and though I am sure there will be as much theft of consumer as possible between brands, I don't think a price war is imminent. But there will be battles for new audiences - I don't go on to Amazon for my bread, nor to Ocado to buy guitar strings.

More entrants in the market will provide more choice, but I can quickly see a time when a whole new industry arises around on-line grocery shopping - where the fulfilment is a different organisation to the seller.

Picture this, in your town an Ocado, Tesco Direct, Asda (new entrants to home delivery) and an Amazon van all out and about delivering groceries. Wouldn't it be more cost-effective to have one van for the food and small goods? (I'm not talking sofas here.)

We already have 'white van' drivers who deliver for multiple non-food goods, so what about it for  food? It's very possible. You have your huge delivery of fresh broccoli  and you pack and label them according to how many orders you get from the marketers. A 'print on demand' solution for non-branded goods.

And for brands, the challenge will be to ensure their unique selling point is a strong one. That's a challenge they face now - whether it's ketchup or kitchen towel - but my goodness I can see that search optimisation and brand values are going to be a whole new challenge for marketers. How do you get that wonderful 'Bisto family' feeling in a search term? You will have to rely on traditional advertising to build brand values and develop customer loyalty, but will it work in an era when you can simply search 'best gravy mix' and find something just as good, but much cheaper? Marketers live in 'interesting times'. 

We are some way off from all shopping being on line and seeing our beloved (or behated, in some cases) supermarkets closing their doors to the browser, and opening the browser as their doors, but I do see big changes ahead, and soon. These two super-players are simply flexing their muscles ready for the battle ahead.

Picture courtesy of

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

This single life - internet dating

I have a number of friends who have been successful using internet dating to meet their partner - in fact there are claims that one in five new relationships start on line. We spend more time on line these days than ever before and do more and more things on line, so why not dating too? After all, it's got to be easier than going into a pub or club on your own, hasn't it? You have the safety of distance - cyber distance.

There's a lovely infographic here about how people spend their time on line, and top of the list is email. It doesn't, however mention internet dating or the percentage of people on line who look at or search for 'stuff' that they certainly wouldn't mention in a survey. In fact the internet has produced such a wealth of free material, that it's challenged the industry to reinvent itself. If you don't know what I'm on about - look at this article here. Safe, I promise! It's a link to Reuters.

So what has prompted me to write a blog about this much publicised medium for finding a partner? Well, there's nothing like experience, is there. And experience shared may do absolutely nothing for you, but it helps me.

Now, let's look at the logic of this - what is a dating site? It's a shop window. And like anything else, if you want to sell, you have to market it. I write a nice profile (engaging copy as we'd say in the trade), and I put up some photographs of myself (won't buy without seeing the product), and I looked up some other profiles of 'your recommended matches'.

The result is that I find I am a) too old b) too fat or c) too far away. And, I guess, d) unappealing. I have to add d), because of the lack of response and rather depressing outlook that internet dating has given me. Let's face it - people do react to first impressions, and though you could probably write up a storm on a personal profile, your mugshot is going to be what 99% of people make a decision on. (OK, my statistic isn't verified, but the overall precept is - check out Psychology Today).

So, for me to make a good first impression, relying on a dating website is not the right place. I have no chance to further influence anyone who chances across my profile. They will make a snap decision based on the top two sentences, and no matter how good they are, if the face doesn't fit, then they will go no further.

The one thing I believe you should be on any kind of website where you are representing yourself is honest. So though I have some nice photos (even photoshopped!) I don't put them up as my main profile picture. That isn't me. And the thing is that me being honest isn't much use anyway, because not everyone else is. I have had conversations (brief) with individuals who are married (no thank you!) or who live miles away (internet sex? no thank you either). And the photographs - the age and the photo don't match, but sometimes they are honest enough to say 'Here's a photo taken ten years ago'... hah hah!

All right, so I'm sounding sad and cynical, but in truth it's just about the medium. It's not right for me - but it may be right for you.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From heartening to heartbreak

On Friday and Saturday I was at the Alzheimer's Show. 'How can you have a show about Alzheimer's? It's not an entertainment!'.  But what else do you call it? An exhibition? An exposition? Max Pemberton of the Daily Telegraph said 'An Alzheimer's show does make sense.' (His article is available on line here.) Show is just about the only word to describe the collection of talks and stands full of information around Alzheimer's and dementia. And calling it anything else could have been disingenuous.

The first show like this ever run in the UK (and anywhere else? I don't know) we didn't know what to expect. Who would attend? What did the people who visited the show expect too? But it went ahead, despite some challenges in the early planning. And, in my opinion, it was a success. Others' too, I hope.

What I can give you is my experience of the event, which was both heartening and heartbreaking at the same time.

Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, is a disease. Diseases can be beaten - but we are a long way off from a cure, partly because we know so little about the complex human brain. So research is happening (not enough) and progress is being made, but we are years behind other diseases like cancer and heart disease.  I was there to help provide information on what research is being done and what real progress is being made, but there were also stands with practical help - everything from phone call screening machines, through legal advice to the admirable Admiral Nurses.

I was on a stand and talking to the visitors - a myriad mix of people, including occupational therapists, trainee nurses, and people with the disease. Though every conversation had was in its own way powerful - and we had very many indeed - there were a few that stood out.

The first was a nice looking man of about 40. He approached the stand and asked for information about Alzheimer's. I asked what his area of interest was. 'I am a policeman,' he said 'and we often get called out to help find people who have got lost, or we pick up wanderers. And sometimes we visit families who are just at breaking point. I want to find out more to help us manage these people properly.' Right then and there I found my hero for the year.

I met one family, husband about 45, son perhaps the same age as mine (early 20s). The wife told me that the husband had just been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. The future ahead for them is not going to be easy, but maybe we'll find a cure for his grandchildren.

I met many people who had recently been diagnosed, and I met their carers, families and friends. Every single story, every exchange we had, there was a heartbreak. One way or another, nearly a third of the UK population has a close friend or family member with dementia (more stats here in this simple animation). The impact of the disease is huge - not just on those with the disease, but on everyone around us.

Another conversation that really stood out was with a young lady from South Africa. She is a dementia carer here in the UK, but her main ambition is to go back to South Africa, to the townships where she came from, and educate people about dementia being a disease. What she told me was shocking - that people with dementia who wander into dangerous areas, or even just into other people's homes and gardens (such as they may be) are considered to be possessed - to be affected by witchcraft. It was almost unbelievable to think that in this day and age people do not understand about Alzheimer's and attribute it to witchcraft, but there is evidence that this is so. When she told me that many of these people are killed through fear and misunderstanding, I realised just how serious this young woman was.

I'm not sure what difference we can make to perceptions world-wide, but every little bit of progress in education and in moving closer to the treatments and cures for dementia that research is unearthing, has to be a good thing. An Alzheimer's Show was, in my humble opinion, a good idea.

Useful links:

Admiral Nurses
Alzheimer's Research UK
Alzhiemer's Show - 16 and 17 May 2014
Alzheimer's Society
Dementia information
Dementia statistics
Dementia UK
NHS About Dementia

Photo credit: Policeman from Strawberry Fair by George

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The best morning's birding

Sleepy barn owls
This morning I woke in good time to head off to our local RSPB reserve, Fowlmere, before 10am. It's a popular place on a Sunday, and though I love to see whole families enjoying this lovely reserve, a herd of people does tend to fright the wildlife a bit more than a few individuals.

I was lucky enough this morning to meet the reserve Warden, who was out and about doing some general maintenance and also on the lookout for anything interesting. The first thing he pointed out to me was some bullfinches - I could hear them but not see them. A quick fly-past and that was it, but at least I saw them. I haven't seen them since I was 16. Then, some redpoll, hopping around a bush above our heads.

Water rail
I was given a delightful display by a family of long-tailed tits, heard my first chiffchaffs (they are two weeks late coming to the UK this year, and who can blame them with our weather this year) and - most exciting for me - the water rail. We (the warden, myself and some others) were in the reedbed hide and a pair of snipe, really close, were pointed out to me. I looked across to see the moorhen strutting about in the sunshine, but it wasn't a moorhen at all - it was the water rail! I've been to Fowlmere many, many times, and this was the first time I have even seen one and in brilliant sunshine, in the open.  I also saw a tree creeper, chaffinch and a party of jays.

My walk round was punctuated by the rattle of a woodpecker, the laughter of a green woodpecker in the fields, and the 'yak yak yak' of a bird I have yet to identify. The woods and the reeds were alive
with birdsong - spring is truly here. The robins, dunnocks and blackbirds were singing full belt, the greylag geese arguing in the fields and on the lake, and the gadwall, Canada geese, mallard and swan serenely enjoying the sun on the water. A small muntjack deeer watched me cautiously, a grey squirrel shot across the path, and the sound of fallow deer moving through the reeds provided animal variety.

This, for me, was the perfect way to be alone, because how can you be alone when surrounded by so much amazing wildlife, and the odd enthusiastic birder as well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The birdwatcher in me

I was thinking today, about my love of birdlife. Where did it come from? My father was a nature lover, but not a birder. And I thought back, to an old gentleman sitting in a big blue chair – Kensitas cigarettes (I used to run to the shop to buy them for him when I was 10) and Mosaic sherry by his side.

Alexander F Long, RAF
My grandpa, ‘Bones’ Long, was the birdwatcher in our family. I remember his excitement at seeing a collared dove on his way home one day (perhaps in the early 60s), when they were new immigrants to this country.  Or do I remember being told about his excitement? Memories are often constructed, but I do know he inspired in me a fascination in birdlife.

Furthermore, my love of dinosaurs (originally enjoyed as a child, and revived when I had a son) was manifested in their modern descendants – birds. Well, I believe that to be the case, anyway. Take away the feathers, put some teeth on those beaks – voilĂ ! Dinosaurs are still here.

Why birds? Because of their variety! A big old pheasant can be phenomenally stupid, whilst a bird a quarter of the size is extremely intelligent. Members of the crow family (they aren’t just black, they are a multitude of blacks), for example, are amongst the smartest of the avian species on the planet – inventing ways to crack nuts and solve problems that would leave an orang-utan puzzled.

Oh, I love orang-utans too, but I don’t get them in my garden (if you do, you are very lucky). I can see birds at any time – day or night – in any country I live or visit. And they all have different ways of attracting my interest. From huge flocks of starlings executing the spectacular murmuration, to that cute little pied wagtail hopping about on my lawn – they intrigue and entertain.

He’s been dead many, many long years; a man who fought in two world wars, rowed in the Olympics for his country and won Bobsleigh and Tennis medals. I have not inherited his courage or physical prowess, but his simple passion and delight in birds.

Thank you grandpa. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Krakow part three - This Single Life part five

The liberation of loneliness

 I needed some time away from the stress of work (following a very intense couple of months) and to get away from everything I took a long weekend away - in Krakow. I have no idea why I chose that destination, but I seriously needed some 'me' time.

Going to a completely foreign country where I didn't have a clue about the language is not everyone's idea of 'stress free', but I really enjoyed myself.

I arrived at Krakow airport and came out into the airport lounge to a dull grey day and not a clue about the language. I could say one thing 'thank you' (dziekuje - which would come in useful) and decided to get to my hotel by bus. I found a bus stop eventually and bought a ticket from the Bilety machine. I realised that I could read some Polish - though the sounds were unfamiliar to me. 

By taking the bus into the city I saved money and I got to saw much more of the city - taking the bus route through the wealthy suburbs, and the less wealthy areas too. From huge houses behind iron gates to the massive newly built apartment blocks. Flying in over Krakow the apartment blocks looked like huge dominoes all stacked round the city.

I found my hotel and booked my trips (the salt mine and the Jewish Quarter), and with the whole day ahead of me still, thanks to an early flight, went exploring. I felt perfectly safe in the city. It was a typical European city, though more Eastern European than I had even visited. The weather was grey, the snow was piled in un-melted heaps by the side of the roads and my exploring took me all over the city - mostly in circles. I found the castle and cathedral and after an enlightening afternoon headed back to the hotel.
The clapper is the 'heart'

I was not with a group, and the only conversations I had the whole time were transactional - enough to get what I needed. I walked in circles quite frequently, I got lost in some strange parts of town, I went the wrong way on the tram and walked a five mile route to the Schindler Museum instead of a half mile.

There was no one to chide me for a wrong decision, no one to pressure me about time, or activity, or about what to do. I could climb high in the cathedral tower to visit the heart of the bell, descend into the depths of the salt mine, wander the streets aimlessly and was totally at liberty to please myself. I went back to the hotel when I wanted, I ate at small Polish cafes (where my lack of Polish was matched by the owners' lack of English) and I survived, eating wonderful traditional local cooking.

So the liberation was that I had nothing and no one else to worry about. No foibles or preferences of anyone but myself to consider. And yet I had no one to share the story with at the time. But you know - that's fine - because I have more tales to tell since my return.

I think my next trip may well be in a group, because I want to go whale watching in Iceland, but if it isn't, I really don't mind. I like pleasing myself. And I'm sure the whales won't mind at all.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When creative writers go wrong

I go to a writers circle most months, and for February we had a 'write beforehand' exercise. We were given three titles and I started writing about 'The Betrayal'. It was pants. The next choice was 'Thursday morning, 4am' but it also left me uninspired. The final choice, 'Shoes in a charity shop' didn't exactly excite me, but some whimsy took my mind last night as I was thinking about this challenge, and this is what I wrote.  Best read aloud, with a suitably regionalised accent for the shop assistant:

Shoes in the charity shop

“Excuse me,” I said to the lady at the counter, “but these were on the shelf over there”. I pointed towards the shoe rack, and put the two bananas down in front of her.

“Oh my, they are lovely, aren’t they?” she said. I looked at her, a little confused. Well, yes, I liked bananas, but that’s not what I expected her to say.

I looked down at them, and then up at her.

“Well, aren’t you going to try them on?” she said. “They are just your colour.” I looked at her as if she had just landed from another planet. “Go on!” she enthused. I paused, and a small frown creased her brow. “It’s OK, we do spray everything. They won’t smell or anything. They are perfectly clean.”

I looked at the bananas again. Two long, slightly curved, and somewhat wide yellow fruit, delicately scored with black. Actually, the black was rather nicely symmetrical. I looked at the bananas again, turning them round on the counter, to view them from every angle. They were bananas.

“Not too high, are they?” the assistant asked. She nudged them towards me. “Go on. They aren’t expensive, and they are so lovely and soft. I bet they’ll fit like a dream when you put them on.”

Sighing at the complete impossibility of it all, I took the bananas from the counter and put them on the floor. I slipped off my burgundy court shoes and … stepped into the bananas. They felt soft, squidgy. The fruit seeped between my toes, a not unpleasant feeling.

“Walk around a bit, see how they feel.” I walked across the shop floor. The bananas moulded to my feet. The gluey fruit flattened, the slippery skins buttered themselves across my instep. “They do look smart on you.” Said the girl. I decided to stop looking at my feet as I walked. I crossed the shop and went to a full length mirror that hung next to a huge vase full of walking sticks. The bananas felt strangely comfortable.  I looked at myself in the mirror, there were my feet – neatly encased in … mashed fruit.

I went back to the counter and slipped them off. Putting my feet back into my own shoes, my toes still sticky with squashed white flesh, I felt rather silly. “I don’t think they are really for me.” I said. “Shame.” The assistant sighed, and as I put the pulped bananas back on the counter her face instantly clouded. “Look what you’ve done to them!” she said. “They’re ruined – I can’t sell those!”

“But…” I started, and then realised I had not one iota of defence. She looked at me. I looked at her, and then down at the ruined bananas. “I tell you what,” I said. “I’ll take them, but I’d like a handbag to match.” The girl smiled.

“No problem,” she said, and reaching below the counter, pulled out a large yellow melon. She unzipped it and pulled out something not unlike a very ripe mango. “Look,” she said. “Even got a matching purse.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Krakow - Eposide Two: Above the salt

From Wiki: "The word salary originates from Latinsalarium which referred to the money paid to the Roman Army's soldiers for the purchase of salt."

White gold, below the salt, salt of the earth, worth his salt. Salt has been currency both in physical and literary terms for thousands of years. And though I was familiar with salt harvesting from the sea, I never really thought about rock salt or that it required mining. I never imagined, for example, that beneath the ground the prehistoric seas had left such huge salt deposits as those that give their name to places like Salzburg and Salzach.

My visit to the Wieliczka salt mine was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Poland. There is a lovely story of how the mine was found, through the dropping of a ring by St Kinga (she dropped the ring in a salt mine miles away, and it turned up in Wielicza). St Kinga is the patron saint of salt miners, of course.

The mine itself is an amazing place and certainly worth visiting. 101m underground and you are in a huge chamber that equals that of many a stately home. And it's all made of salt - from the tiles beneath your feet to the crystals on the chandelier. The salt miners (who lived longer than their non-mining contemporaries, due to the 'benefits' of salt) made the most amazing statues and underground chapels - carving out of the salt not only the chambers and passageways, but detailed statues of saints and heroes.

The mine was awe inspiring - in fact it is one of the most extraordinary and intriguing places I have ever been. A mix of nature's wonder (the varying colours of the salt and the way it crystalises on the ancient props) and the ingenuity of humanity - carving not only a living from the salt, but the amazing chapels too.

From the Pope to gnomes, all along the tourist route you get to see the craftsmanship of carver-miners. The tour I went on was around two hours and we walked a long way, exploring three levels of the mine that are open to the public. And the amazing thing is that we saw just 1% of the mine - it must be absolutely huge.

St Kinga

The main hall

One of the tunnels

The floor tiles - simply carved out of the salt floor

One of the carvings in the main hall

Carving detail

I was there! 
The salt mine alone was worth the trip to Poland. I wish I could have taken better photographs, but those I do have don't even begin to do it justice.

Photos: All (C) Carolyn Sheppard 2013

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Krakow - episode one: Too fat for a Pole

The town and the places I visited were full of young people – healthy looking, with their distinctive defined features and lean figures. I did, however, notice a distinct lack of middle aged people (and have no explanation for this). The older people were the retired generation (and didn't tend to hang around tourist haunts, understandably), but I was disappointed at the lack of impressive facial hair across any generation. This may be a stereotypical expectation, but one fulfilled in the past (in an adventure in Spain, but that’s another blog post). There’s no denying it, if I hadn't been wearing a big coat with a fur collar and the most ridiculous (but warm) ear-flap hat, I would never have been mistaken for a native, not at my weight.

St Adelbert's
I enjoyed my visit to Krakow and the people were friendly, especially the ones on the market square. These fell into three distinct categories – firstly the tourists, of whom I was one and blatantly wandering about with a camera taking pictures of churches and architectural detail; secondly the visiting Pole who is confident in the language but unfamiliar with the city. They were disappointed when I couldn't direct them to their chosen destination or tell them which tram was going where. Finally were the panhandlers; those individuals (of all ages) who were asking for money or food, with the catch phrase ‘I'm hungry’. One rather elderly lady in a fur coat told me she hadn't had any lunch (but she did have cigarettes).

I adopted a technique for dealing with the latter group – a simple and safe one. Speak complete gibberish. If I spoke English, then they had a way in to conversation, and being British and polite, we hate saying no. But, if I spoke complete rubbish, they gave up and went away, heading towards the next likely looking mark. Now I may sound insensitive and there are definitely those in need in Krakow as in many places, but I am not wise enough to know who is deserving and who is not. Nor am I foolish enough to get out my purse in a market square in front of a person who can (fur coat lady aside) no doubt run a lot faster and further than me.

If you know me, you know I am not a Christian or a great believer in any formal religion, but I do believe that the basic ideas (of nearly all religions) are a good moral guide overall, where they are about mutual benefit. I also understood that Jesus was a man (if he really was, blah blah, nothing deep here, save that discussion for another time) who stood for helping those worse off than yourself and in being humble in this life. So whilst on the freezing streets of Krakow young and old are asking for handouts from strangers, in the churches there are the most extraordinarily gilded statues I have ever seen.

I understand that churches were built to impress and convey the might of god (and the ceiling of St Mary’s is wonderfully impressive), but of the little I know of the Bible, I don’t think the apostles went around in huge gold-laden cloaks. Perhaps just one statue from one church would have yielded enough gold to feed everyone in the square that day.

Oh I know that’s simplistic, but it’s not so much about the money or aesthetics as about the conflict with what I understood Jesus to represent, and then how he is represented. In St Adelbert’s (where I attended a wonderful chamber concert), the painting of Mary and child had silver crowns stuck on top of their halos – an obvious later addition. It looked like a kid had got the silver paper and jelly beans out. Probably real silver and amber, probably worth a small fortune, yet to my mind they detracted from the impact of the painting itself. Mind you, the churches were very impressive and as a visual feast I certainly enjoyed visiting and photographing them.

It was cold in Krakow so I spent most of my time in my coat and well wrapped up. I ate wonderful food at Polish cafes and enjoyed local fare. Still, I didn't over eat and didn't drink much (apart from the delicious mulled wine) and I walked miles and miles. But if I had visited in summer and worn the local fashion of rather hideous check, they’d have still known I was too fat for a Pole.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Expect to pay for the packaging

When I go into a supermarket and buy a bag of rice, I know that I am not just paying for the rice. I am paying for the packet, for the processors, distributors and shippers that got the rice from the field into the factory and into the shop and for the point-of-sale poster telling me this rice is on special offer.  

Right up to advertising it’s an invisible process, but we all know it goes on. When I was a child I found out that the actual cost of the chocolate in the bar I bought was less than half of what I was paying. ‘When I grow up, I’m going to let people buy chocolate at the right price!’ I thought. I did grow up, and I understood. You don’t just pay for the chocolate.

But when it comes to charitable giving, it seems that some people forget this.

Now we are talking very different purposes of course – mostly there is no physical exchange of goods or services for the financial consideration – but the process is the same.

For you to donate to charity, in most cases you need to be made aware of the cause, be given a method by which you can give, the banks need to move cash, the charity needs to allocate the funds and spend the income it generates, and everyone along the line needs to be rewarded (financially or otherwise). This distribution chain involves just as much as the rice or chocolate.

In these economic times even more than ever, charities are keenly aware of keeping their costs down – but administration cannot be cost-free. Even the collection tin requires purchasing, the labels printing, the volunteer recruiting, and the bank that processes the donation makes its buck somewhere along the line you can be sure.  

What percentage of a donation goes directly to the cause? As much as possible. The Charity Commission is there to make sure that charities are not just ‘jobs for the boys’ but are tasked with achieving their charitable purpose. The alternative is simple – we stop fundraising. We let the issue/disease/crime run its natural course.  

The truth is that donors need fundraisers – imagine trying to donate directly to a school in Africa, or a research scientist in a laboratory. How would you decide whether it’s the right place to send the money, how would you get the money there? There are some successful directly funding charities, but they are the minority and usually quite small.

As fundraisers we are often criticised for being a profession as opposed to a vocation, or that we spend too much on administration. But if we were not professional, if we did not administer efficiently and lawfully, if we did not pass on absolutely as much of the money we can – then cancer wins. Then victims of crime are abandoned. The lonely voice in the night has no one to call. The child dies.

It’s not really such a hard choice to have things done professionally and well. I am proud to be a fundraiser.

And just as a caveat - these are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, colleagues or friends.