Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 - The Year in Review

Picture the scene...

I'm sitting at my desk gazing out at a clear blue sky - not one single cloud to be seen - while a gentle breeze caresses the palm tree right in front of me. It's only ten o'clock in the morning but already the thermometer is reading 30 degrees. Far off I can hear the constant drone of traffic, interspersed every five minutes with the roar of the aircraft passing almost directly overhead on their way into Congonhas Airport. But today these are nothing but a mild hum, almost soothing, when compared with the relentless growl of the jackhammer coming from our neighbour's house. Yesterday they discovered they had a leak in their sewage pipe causing a stream of vile grey liquid to wander down the street past our front door and shortly afterwards to discover that their recent building work had included the cementing over of their access panel. Sewage is never a pleasant smell, but in 30 degrees on a windless day, it's particularly unappealing and I find myself longing for nothing more than the usual acrid odour of pollution. I'm itchy. The mosquitos are out in force at this time of year and I also picked up a nasty case of sunburn while we were off at the beach last weekend which is now starting to peel.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that Christmas is only three days away!

Anyway, I need to hide from the children for a few hours so I thought I'd look back over the past year and rehash a load of second-rate material that didn't make it into the blog first time round. (Isn't that what end of year reviews are all about?)

"Run for it! Grandad says it's time to wash the dishes."
For a year that has been so long and difficult, we actually managed to spend quite a lot of it on holiday. Two trips back to England and Ireland, two long weekends at the beach and a week in Rio de Janeiro. That's probably more holidays than I had in the previous five years put together. And I'm hoping 2012 will be just as fruitful. I'd like to see a bit more of Brazil itself though. It's a country that's bigger than Europe and so far I've seen next to nothing of it apart from its famously ugliest city.
Safe as houses - allegedly
Helen fared somewhat better. As well as external trips to California, Mexico and Argentina, she's been able to enjoy some of the finest locations Brazil has to offer the intrepid journalist - cow farms in the middle of nowhere, giant factories and port terminals up in the poverty-stricken North-East, newly pacified favelas in Rio, areas of rainforest ruined by illegal logging...

São Paulo did give us some fun during the year though, with the rainy season bringing severe flooding around our local park for the first time in a decade.

But apart from that, things were pretty much 'business as usual' and the year was mostly about just getting on with life. The excitement of our first six months was replaced by a more steady, day-to-day acceptance that this was what our life was going to be like for the next few years and that we just had to get on with it.

So that's what we did. Helen was swallowed up with work and the huge amount of unnecessary bureaucracy and admin that comes with trying to live and work in Brazil. Honestly, if Kafka had had a pair of shorts and some Havaianas, he would have had a field day out here.

The boys have done us proud, however. After an initially difficult settling-in, James has finally found his niche as the undisputed oddball of his year and is now much happier at school. He has a small group of like-minded friends and although they would certainly make the worst group of footballers in the entire history of the school, they are perfectly happy spending their time being clever and coming top in nearly every subject. James was even voted 'cleverest boy in the year' by his peers and next term he's going to be co-teaching an ECA (extra-curricular activity) on basic computer programming.

"3.14159265358979363.....nuuuuuuh! Brain freeze!
And he finished the year by getting to sing the solo at the start of the school carol service. He was slightly nervous. I was terrified. You don't really get the full experience from my hopeless attempt to capture the moment, but he's standing there in front of a room packed with parents, teachers, school children. Even the British Consul was there.

As for David, he's spent the past year being Mr Cute and Mr Popular.

For him, school seems to be one endless round of fun and games and whenever I go to collect him he seems to be surrounded by adoring fans. The teachers love him, his classmates love him and a worryingly large number of girls from the senior school also love him.

I can only assume they never get to see the Mr Grumpy that puts in an appearance every night at bedtime and every morning at getting-up time, although I did enjoy reading the following from this term's PE report: "...he gets very upset when he loses...and he often lies on the floor and stops playing." I know the way.

He has decided he wants to be an artist when he grows up and so here is his postcard from Rio to introduce a collection of photos from the rest of our year.

Or maybe an artist of the floating world?
So which one is David: the stripy one, the purple one or the one with the great big gob?
"Hang on, David. I just need to take a big leek."
Here the concerned dad remembers the ABC of first aid: air, breathing, camera!
Breakfast was always much nicer when Dad let us make it ourselves.
Juquehy - so nice we went twice.
Obligatory arty shot of something organic.
Obligatory comic shot of humorous tree growth.
M-I-C-K-E-Y  D-A-V-I-D
"Dad says when I've scrubbed off all the rust he might even buy me a t-shirt."
Love, peace and açaí.
Out here we have to build our own Christmas

So there you have it - a nice lazy blog entry to finish off the year. My New Year's resolution may well involve a more vigorous approach to blogging, but then again, it may not.

In the meantime, I hope you all have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going up in the world

This time out my blog is short;
There's very little to report.
But don't despair and calm your fears,
For soon I'll have some good ideas.
And while you wait, with time to think,
Might I suggest you try this link?

Yes I wrote it, pretty much,
With just an editor's 'gentle touch'
To clarify an explanation
And ready it for publication.

So now I really must insist
On thanking The Economist -
My audience for this endeavour
Is sure to be my largest ever -
And also, as an added treat
No photos were required. Complete!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Crazy paving: or the perils of paulistano perambulation

Brazil is home to some of the most stunning pavements I've seen outside Barcelona...and Pompeii. The famous calçadas of Rio de Janeiro's beach fronts are a wonder to behold, not only because they are so long and visually stunning, but because they are also well built and incredibly well maintained. I've used this photo before, but here it is again, just to illustrate what I mean.

São Paulo, on the other hand, is home to some of the worst pavements I've ever seen. Generally, they're not so pretty. Generally they're not so well maintained. But their biggest fault (speaking as someone who has to walk along a fair few of them every day) is that they're not so uniform.

Out here it seems to be the case that the pavement belongs to, and is the responsibility of, the property it runs along the front and/or side of and not the responsibility of some overarching body like, for example, a local authority. In theory this seems like a great idea. People won't want their beautiful house or shop to look a mess by being stuck behind a grotty stretch of pavement - especially if they're also liable for any injuries caused by tripping on loose stones - and so they'll make sure it's kept in good order, so saving large amounts of taxpayers' money from being swallowed up on endless repairs every time someone else has come along and dug the whole thing up to replace a pipe or cable that wasn't buried properly in the first place.

This is why big, expensive buildings like Shopping Iguatemi, our local upmarket shrine to over-indulgence, has a big, expensive and meticulously maintained pavement running right around its six square miles of mercantile floorspace. (Yes, I know it's not really that big, but I couldn't find the exact size when I needed it. But it's big, okay. And it has a lot of pavement.)

But turn the corner and go up Alameda Gabriel Monteiro da Silva - which is the street next to ours and which is little more than a one mile long opportunity to overpay for unnecessary things you never really wanted anyway - and the pavements become, literally in some cases, an artistic extension of the boutique or gallery to which they belong. And never mind that your neighbour has a beautifully detailed mosaic to entice in his customers, if you want a dirty great slab of dark concrete outside your place, then you go ahead and lay it.

 And as for the pedestrians? Stuff 'em! What the hell are they doing walking anyway? That's no way to do your shopping. They should be driving, preferably in a big car so they can fit in all the stuff they're going to buy that they don't really need. And that's why so many of the pavements aren't even flat, but are sloped, to allow cars to drive up and park on them. But not all. That would be far too convenient. Some of them still have a curb, or are slightly raised, because they have parking round the back so as not to spoil the view of the front of the shop.

So a gentle stroll down the road now involves frequent changes in texture, height and angle, sometimes as often as every five metres or so, and while I should probably just shut up, stop complaining and enjoy the rich variety and artistic merit of my underfoot surfaces, I find that doing so beside a road full of speeding vehicles, in the pouring rain and with two children, four bags of shopping and an umbrella is nothing like as easy as it sounds.

And that's assuming all those different pavements really are as well maintained as they're meant to be. Sadly, I have come across the odd one or two which could, perhaps, do with a little smoothing out at the edges.

But one thing that pavements certainly are out here is washed. And sadly I do mean washed, not cleaned, as the daily efforts of thousands of people and millions of gallons of water is completely pointless in a city of twenty million people and ten million polluting vehicles. This doesn't seem to stop them though. There they are, every morning, with their hoses and brushes and (on occasion) even scrubbing brushes and buckets of soapy water. Sometimes you can even see the difference afterwards - a slightly lighter patch of stone here and there - but usually not. They just make it wet and slippery.

And quite often I've see someone with a pressure hose, pumping water out at goodness knows how many psi, chasing individual leaves off their pavement and into the gutter where the flood of water they've been drowned in will carry them off somewhere until they can be someone else's problem. And as if that's not bad enough, five minutes after the pavement is dry once more, the wind will deposit another load of leaves all over the place and then a bit later on in the afternoon there'll be a torrential downpour which will soak everything anyway.

To be fair to the Brazilians for a moment, and as you know from my blog about gardening a few weeks ago, battling to keep nature in check is something of a full-time job out here. It only takes a few weeks of lazy maintenance before the Atlantic rainforest has overpowered your pretty little lawn or you have an entire food chain competing for first dibs on your rubbish. So it's no surprise people out here are so obsessed with cleanliness. They like their bodies to be clean. They like their houses to be clean. And clearly, they like their pavements to be clean as well. Speaking as a filthy foreigner, I say yeah, okay to the first, up to a point to the second and really, get a life to the third. Honestly, I don't need my pavements to be spotless and germ free.

But I would like them to be easier to walk on.

Come and join me for a stroll down my street

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Washout. Eat out.

As you've no doubt noticed, I've significantly reduced the number of blog entries I'm writing. From a high of almost one a week, I'm now providing you with barely one a month, it would seem. There are two reasons for this - well, three if you include inherent laziness - and the first of them is that after weeks of false starts, I finally got going on the famous novel I promised to write for James. I then came to another grinding halt when I tumbled down a plot hole the size of a small moon (it's a sci-fi novel) but at least I managed to churn out several thousand words before I did and now it just needs a fairly comprehensive rewrite of a couple of chapters or so and I'll be back on my feet and heading off to Mars.

Sadly, it would appear I'm not exactly a master of multi-tasking and when I'm writing the novel I can't think of anything to write in the blog and suddenly I find another week has gone by and once again I've told you nothing about life out in São Paulo. Well, while the novel is wallowing in low orbit I thought I'd take the opportunity to give the blog another go.

But the novel is only one of the reasons the blog has suffered. The other is that São Paulo is doing its best to be rather dull at the moment. Today, for example, I was woken up by the rain hammering down on the driveway just outside the window. It settled into a miserable drizzle but was still so heavy that we decided to abandon our usual trek out to Emporio Santa Maria for Saturday breakfast and just sat around the house instead. It's now three o'clock in the afternoon and it's still raining heavily. Once or twice it eased slightly, but once or twice it also turned into a downpour. There is no wind and the clouds are black - this is going to continue for a long time yet. Helen has abandoned the day and gone back to bed with an iPad, a pot of tea and a pile of Ruth Rendells. James and David are so bored they've even got bored with annoying each other and are now being reasonably pleasant to one another for a change.

Actually, as I listen, James is currently watching an old episode of Hornblower and attempting to explain the plot to Angela, who comes in once a week to clean the office. She speaks no English and James' portuguese, although a good deal better than mine, is being sorely tested with explanations of the intricacies of Napoleonic naval warfare. They're chatting away though so he's obviously making a pretty good job of it. David, meanwhile, is building a galaxy out of Lego.

This week has been half term and although not every day has been as much of a wash-out as today, the weather has certainly been no help. It's been too cold to go swimming, to wet to play in the park, most of the boys' friends have either been away on holiday or busy doing their own thing and apart from one afternoon play date for James, we've been on our own for the whole week. I think at this point we're all quite desperate for school to start again.

The rest of the weekend is a little more promising, however, and I think I'll stop here for the moment and come back tomorrow once we've done something a bit more interesting than stare out at the rain...

Now imagine this for 36 hours

...Well, it's now Sunday night and I've done a fair bit of staring out at the rain today as well, but mostly from inside someone else's apartment, right at the top of a very tall building with fabulous views of a fair bit of the city (whenever the rain was light enough to see further than the next street). And finally, now that the weekend has come to and end, so has the rain. Typical.

Anyway, half term has suddenly picked up. Today was nominally a play date for David, but we were all invited and we enjoyed a pleasant late morning/afternoon of chat with another ex-pat couple and were treated to both brunch and lunch - and invited back for a barbecue when the sun comes back. Now that's my kind of a play date!

And yesterday evening Helen and I abandoned the kids and went out to dinner (for only about the third time ever) to a somewhat more upmarket food joint than we're used to frequenting. For those of you who know São Paulo, it was a Figueira. For those who don't it was one of São Paulo's better known restaurants and is situated on the wonderfully named Rua Haddock Lobo - which has to be worth a visit just for the name alone. Anyway, Figueira Rubayiat, to give it its full name, is a large restaurant which has been built around a massive, 130-year old fig tree which dominates the entire space. Sadly I forgot to bring my camera so you'll have to make do with a stock photo I've filched from Google, but it gives you a good idea of what the place is like.

And the food, apparently, is superb. I say apparently, not because mine wasn't, but because I am absolutely no judge of these things. Good food is wasted on me. If they'd brought me a Marmite sandwich instead of my seafood paella I probably would have been just as happy. However, they did bring me a seafood paella, and boy, did they bring me a lot of it. They set up one of those mobile trolleys beside the table and I watched as the chef filled my plate with various things with shells and exoskeletons. Then he piled up a load of rice and stuff in the middle until it began to resemble an emerging volcano, then he dumped a load more crustaceans on top and handed the whole thing across to me with a merry bom apetite.

Fortunately, I do have a bom apetite, but I have to confess to being defeated by my dinner on this occasion - although in my defence I'll say that I was conscious of having to keep some space for dessert. Working your way through a long and detailed dessert menu is one of life's great pleasures - even when it's in portuguese and you're as fussy as I am. Once I've eliminated all the delicate sorbets and fresh fruit whatevers I'm usually still left with a good three or four choices which include the word chocolate at least once and weighing up all these possibilities is a big part of enjoying the end result.

But on this occasion I got no further than the very first item on the menu: Chocolate Nemesis. Apparently this is a well-established recipe from River Cafe but to the best of my knowledge I've never had it. Clearly it was a challenge. In the past I have been singularly unaffected by a collection of Chocaholic Delights, have survived countless Deaths by Chocolate and put away numerous Ultimate Chocolate-Lovers This-and-Thats and clearly the time had come for my chocolate hubris to meet its chocolate nemesis.

I survived. Even though they brought me two slices, with ice cream, and even after my cauldron of paella I managed to clear the plate and was just putting the last mouthful to bed as Helen said, "oh, that looks nice, can I try a bit?" Oops. So, hubris intact and belly distended, I waddled off home determined to spend  a bit more time at the club and a bit less time in the kitchen for a while. But it's funny how things always look different after a good night's sleep.

Some things, perhaps, but not the rain. That still looks the same as ever.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Spring is in the air... and in the trees and all over the ground as well.

Someone once told me that here in Brazil, if you throw away an apple core then before you know it you'll find yourself with an apple tree and I can well believe it. Stuff just grows out here and especially, it would seem, in my garden. The problem is not getting it to start, it's getting it under control once it's taken root. I tell you, if John le Carré had set that novel in Brazil, the hero would have had his work cut out for him just living up to his title.

Okay, I actually thought that was quite clever, but for those of you now trying to work out exactly what Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy has to do with my overgrown greenery I'll point out that le Carré also wrote The Constant Gardener. Get it now?

Anyway, it's true. Gardens out here take a lot of work if you want to keep them under control and looking nice, and from what I see as I wander around this particular part of São Paulo, people like their gardens to look very, very nice - the area is, after all, called the Jardins (Gardens). But then most people who live around here also have the perfect solution, which is to get someone else to do your gardening for you. After all, if you have a maid or driver (or both) on hand, you may as well get them trimming the hedges and watering the pots whenever they’re at a loose end.

Sadly, I don't have a maid, or a driver - or even a penchant for gardening for that matter - and so my garden is nothing like the much-loved and carefully-manicured oases of my neighbours. In fact, there are certain parts of it that I know for a fact haven't been visited for well over a year now. And when you remember that we're talking about nothing more than a large collection of pots and an area of lawn the same size as our bedroom, that's somewhat lax on my part.

I do water it occasionally - whenever I remember before it's pitch black outside - but as far as I'm concerned, if it rained during the previous fortnight, then the garden will be fine. And if it didn't, it's bound to rain again within the next fortnight so there's nothing to worry about. And yet the thing is still thriving. Weeds are stretching up strong and bold throughout the lawn, the trees out front are so tall now they're starting to interfere with the infrared security cameras and there's a vine that's made it all the way up the pole to the power cables and is probably part of the local grid by now.

Last year I accidentally killed off all Helen's daisies by failing to realise they even existed until they no longer did. This year, they're back! We have a spindly little tree in a pot out back. Until recently it was nothing but twigs but suddenly I look at it and it's blossoming - literally - and is threatening to provide us with a seriously impressive crop of pomegranates. And the list goes on. Palms… zoom! Ferns… whiz! Herbs… well, okay, the herbs weren’t my finest hour, but they’re not actually dead yet, which is pretty impressive in itself, I think.

So, now believing that my fingers are naturally green and not just that way from all the leaking felt pens, I’ve decided to embark upon a little horticultural project on the grounds that no matter how badly it goes, the end result will probably still live to tell the tale. Basically, it involves grafting orchids onto the trunks of trees. Surprisingly, this is done quite a lot out here. Maybe it’s done quite a lot everywhere. Maybe that’s actually how orchids are supposed to grow. I have no idea. I thought they grew in little pots along with their own instruction booklet and a sachet of liquid food.

What you do is take the plant, wrap the roots in coconut fibre and then literally just tie the whole thing to a tree trunk and leave it. I suppose you probably have to water it from time to time as well, but everything else, the plant does for itself. Surely, even I can manage that?

There’s just one problem. We don’t have any trees in our garden big enough for the job. What you need is one of those good, solid things that’s been around for decades and can easily cope with a couple of parasites hanging off its trunk. The best we have is little bigger than the plants I’m going to stick on it and I suspect it will end up looking faintly ridiculous. Also, it’s tucked away in a corner where we’ll never really see the orchids anyway. Still, this is not going to stop me…

…well, I’d call that a limited success. Sadly I broke one of the stems trying to get it out of the pot so what ended up being tied to the tree was just a few leaves and a load of roots. The second one worked fine, except that I probably could have done with a spare pair of hands to help hold everything in place while I tied it. Still it’s there now, tied down to within an inch of its life with one of James’ old shoe laces. It may not look pretty, but it’s certainly not going anywhere in a hurry.

But now I come to think of it, I forgot to water them afterwards. That was yesterday, and as it’s 27 degrees today and set to get hotter over the weekend, perhaps I ought to give them a little drink before they shrivel up completely.

Anyway, this is what it should look like if you do it all properly.

And fortunately, for those whose gardening skills aren’t up to even this level of competency, Brazil offers an alternative. It’s called a árvore do jardineiro preguiçoso and as you can see, it produces a slightly odd-looking but very easy-to-maintain flower all on its own without any intervention whatsoever. Now that’s my kind of tree!

Thursday, September 29, 2011


The author of this blog is temporarily down for routine maintenance.

Normal service will resume as and when.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Weather or not

 One of the things I like about living out here in São Paulo is that the weather is so predictable. Which is not to say, sadly, that it's always hot and sunny - far from it. We have two-fleece days and hot water bottle nights out here just like we did back in Cambridge and without the comfort of central heating while we're at it. No, what I mean is that you always know what the weather is going to be doing. If it's gloriously sunny all morning but the forecast says you'll have a thunderstorm at 4.00pm, then sure enough the breeze will pick up at lunchtime and the dark clouds will put in an appearance at 3.30pm on the dot.

And this level of accuracy also holds true for the weekly forecasts as well. Last weekend we were out in shorts and tee-shirts. It was 32 degrees (a typical Spring day) and we were worrying about the boys getting too much sun. The five-day forecast said it was due to continue like that until Tuesday but that on Wednesday it would drop to 15 degrees with heavy rain - but only for the one day, after which it would be back to clear skies again, with temperatures staying low until the weekend when it would be back up in the thirties. Needless to say, this is exactly what happened. The thunderstorm began at four in the morning and it chucked it down non-stop until midday. It was dry by two, though still cold, but sure enough, come Thursday morning there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

I love this level of predictability. Back in England if you followed the five-day forecast you'd notice that it tended to change from day to day. On Tuesday it would promise a nice weekend, by Thursday it would hedge its bets and suggest possible cloud. By Friday it would have to admit that actually there was a good chance of rain on the Sunday and then come Sunday, when the rain failed to materialise, it would tell you there was a slight chance of clear skies after all.

I don't blame the forecasters - I use the BBC out here just like I did back in the UK - I blame the British Isles and their unfortunate location, wedged as they are between the stormy Atlantic and the freezing Arctic. And they're small as well. No matter what direction it's coming from, weather barely has time to get up and running before it's gone and the next lot is on its way. Over here we have lazy weather. Once it's here, it really can't be bothered to go anywhere else and is happy to sit around doing nothing until some much bigger bit of weather (generally a thunderstorm) comes alone and pushes it off the sofa.

And after such a stunning display of incisive technical expertise, I wonder that the Met Office still hasn't been in touch. But anyway, given that it is so nice and sunny - and looks set to stay this way for quite some time - I think I'll go out and enjoy it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Power struggles

This week I thought I'd say a little bit about electricity.

Back in England when you want to use something electrical, you take one of these...

...and plug it into one of these.

And that, pretty much, is that. What comes out of the wall is a nice, powerful 240volts and everything you want to plug in is also rated for 240volts - except when you need a transformer - but these days transformers are so small they're usually just built into the plug itself and so there's still nothing to worry about.

Over here in São Paulo things are not quite so simple. As a broad rule, Brazil uses a 110v supply, though in a few states it's actually 127v. This is not that big a deal as anything that runs on 110v will also run perfectly well on 127v. But sometimes they don't use 110v or 127v but prefer to go with 220v - as is the case in Fortaleza in the state of Ceará up in the Northeast.

In São Paulo, needless to say, we have all three. Some buildings, like the newer hotels and apartment blocks, seem to run on 220v. Many of the older houses are 127v. In our house we have both and unless there's something obvious I'm missing, there seems to be no way of telling which is which apart from trial and error.

The lights run on 110v, or 127v, as do most of the standard sockets around the walls. In the kitchen, it's also 127v, except for the cooker which is 220v. But then there's a socket which runs directly off the cooker supply so that's probably 220v as well - except that when I try to run something rated at 220v off it it runs as if it's actually 110v. And the water heater for the sink is also 220v which, given the wiring, must mean the water filter and the fridge/freezer are also 220v.

The fuse box is no help, unless the different colours mean more than simply that was what the electrician could get his hands on at the time. Also, the last time anyone did anything in there it was our landlord's handyman and not a qualified electrician so who knows what's going on in there?

Anyway, having gone round the house and done my best to decide that it's safe to plug things in I come across my next problem, which is... actually trying to plug them in. Some plugs are round pin, some plugs are flat pin. Some have two round pins, some have three. Some have two flat pins and a round pin. Apparently, there is now a regulation stating that all new electrical devices must have the new design three pin plug and all new sockets must be designed to accomodate it.

Which is all very well, except that we're not about to rewire the entire house and, surprise surprise, the new plug doesn't fit into any of our existing sockets.

So we turn to the ever-reliable adaptor. Now we can plug an adaptor into the old socket so we can run our new appliances. Except that there aren't enough sockets so we need extension blocks. And some of them don't take the new plugs either so we need more adaptors. And the adaptors take up lots of space so we can't use all the sockets in the multi-blocks so we need to plug a different extension into the multi-block and that has a completely different type of plug so we need a different type of adaptor and the sockets on this new block are different from the sockets on the first block so the new plugs still don't fit. But once we have the adaptor to adapt the adaptor to the extension and run this into an adaptor for the socket, we're there and we can finally run all our electrical goods.

Except the ones that only run on 240v. For these we have two options. Either pack them away in the cupboard for the next four years and buy a local version, or else use a step-up/down transformer. We've actually ended up doing both and both have been a qualified success.

Thankfully these days, most electronic equipment is capable of running on anything between 110v and 240v so as far as the computers and phone chargers go, it's just a case of finding the right adaptors and off you go. The only difference I've noticed from back in England is that certain external devices that charge off the computer via a USB cable no longer do. Or not always anyway. The iPods and iPads still charge off the desktop computer but not off the laptop. The camera now won't charge off anything except the mains.

Not all the electronic stuff is the same however. The DVD player and the Wii only run at 240v so they need transforming. This is fine as they don't really draw that much power and the rather expensive and somewhat ugly transformers you can pick up out here will do the job no problem. So far I've bought three and one of them is still going strong after eight months - the other two fell victim to a combination of overwork and user incompetence. And this would be a good point to remind anyone reading this for hints before moving out here... READ THE INSTRUCTIONS VERY CAREFULLY - even if they're written in portuguese. They only plug in one way round. And if you start to get the melting plastic smell, it's probably a good idea to unplug.

Also, things with motors just don't transform well. And this is doubly true out here where the supply comes in at 60Hz, unlike 50Hz back in the UK. A lot of stuff can work perfectly well with the different frequency, but not motors. We did know this before coming out so had the sense to leave behind all our white goods (actually, all our white goods are silver or stainless steel because we're flash) but I hadn't really thought about all the small stuff that would also struggle to work properly out here - kettle, toaster, sandwich maker, popcorn maker, hair clippers, hair dryer, etc. In fact, it was while trying to impress some of David's friends with my popcorn making magic that I burn out the second of the transformers.

And then there's the TV. We also knew before coming out that the TV wouldn't work out here as it was PAL and the system in Brazil is NTSC and anyway, our nice landlord left us with not one but five televisions and a sixth would have just been showing off. But, it's not just the TV of course. It's the DVD player as well. And the Wii. They also run on the PAL system - and they're much more fussy when it comes to running at a different frequency. We spent six months playing black and white and flickering games on the Wii and only watching DVDs on the computer before I bought my magic box of miracles. I've written about this before (back in January's "Home again, home again" post) so I won't go into details here, but it really is a fabulous piece of kit - and it even runs on 110v, 127v and 240v!

As mentioned earlier, the other solution to all these problems is simply to buy locally and we probably would have done a lot more of this if things hadn't been so stupidly expensive over here. But they are, so we didn't. As it is we've ended up having to buy a few things we really couldn't do without and I would be doing the Brazilian manufacturing industry a disservice if I said they were all rubbish, but it would have been nice if some of them could perhaps have lasted a little longer before falling apart.

But anyway, 110v is just rubbish. Our newest kettle takes so long to boil I quite often forget I've actually put it on, and as the automatic off switch packed up shortly after we bought it, it has, on occasion, merrily boiled itself dry before I remember. Our hair clippers struggles to cope with giving me even a modest trim every three months or so, despite the fact that (apparently) I'm nowhere near as 'full on top' as I once was, but it just gives up the ghost completely when we put it anywhere near the children's abundant thatch. And as for the fan heater...

Still, I really shouldn't complain. So what if it takes me a little bit of scrabbling around on my hands and knees and a bucket-full of different adaptors to get my stuff connected? At least we actually have electricity, which millions of Brazilians still don't, and we haven't even had any power cuts for, oh, weeks now!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What I did on my holidays (Part 2 - England)

This is my parents' back garden. Their house is nestled deep in rural Northumberland and it's our base while we're in England. Newcastle is just a short train ride away and Hadrian's Wall is literally just up the road. In fact, the whole region is packed full of Roman ruins, medieval castles and other places of historic interest and I try to visit as many of them as possible whenever I'm up there. Helen, however, is strangely lacking in enthusiasm for piles of stones in the middle of nowhere and is more than happy to spend her time relaxing in the conservatory (pictured) with a book and a pot of tea while the would-be Romans are off exploring.

All the above photos were actually taken by David, who appears to be both a budding photographer and keen botanist. Having helped Grandma plant all her new plants and fill up the bird feeders, he went around and recorded his handiwork in great detail. Shown here are just some of the thirty or forty photos he took.

This is Langley Castle, a fabulous building originally built in the Fourteenth Century and still in excellent condition thanks to Nineteenth Century restoration. It's actually used as a hotel and restaurant and it's almost always our first trip out as they do a fantastic afternoon tea and the plate of biscuits that comes with your pot of coffee will be remembered for many years to come.

This is the tea room, complete with tapestries, suits of armour and enough atmosphere to repel a siege. The castle even has its own ghost, but sadly she declined our invitation to join us.

Her we are waiting for our biscuits and Granddad has taken the opportunity to find out if he really can see all the way through James' head.

As well as a ghost the castle even has its own collection of peacocks, some of whom have clearly learned to take afternoon tea as well.

This little patch of river, a couple of miles or so from the house, is known as The Meeting of the Waters, or simply the confluence, and it's where the North and South Tyne rivers meet before flowing on through Newcastle and out to sea. While we were in Northumberland, James rather impressively took to accompanying his granddad on his regular early morning walks and this was one of their favourite ports of call.

 Here he is giving me the evil ninja death stare.

And here he is going through some ninja moves and most definitely not attempting a Morris dance.

And so to the Roman stuff. Here we are at Housesteads, one of the many forts built along Hadrian's Wall and although not our favourite site it's certainly one of the most impressive. You can clearly make out entire rooms, many still with doorways and good-sized walls and as the entire site is on a hill, you can stand at the top and get a great view of the entire fort and really understand the layout.

 Here David is showing you the underfloor heating system.

And here James is getting ready to join the Roman army...

...and carry out some manoevers.

And here are the professionals showing how it's really done.

This is the wall itself, with a fabulously well-preserved milecastle in the foreground. We stopped off here to look for a particularly famous little spot known as the Sycamore Gap and ended up walking up and down hills for a lot longer than we'd expected.

But we found it in the end. It's a stunning enough site anyway, but became even more famous when it was used for one of the scenes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman.

And here it is in all its glory.

This is another one of my favourites - medieval this time, not Roman. Aydon Castle dates from the Thirteenth Century and although technically it's a fortified manor house not a castle, it still has walls and battlements and is one of the finest examples of its kind still in existence.

Boy, I'm really starting to sound like a guide book now. However, it is a great place to visit, especially for the kids who spent a full half an hour or more, running up and down and round and round pretending they were medieval ninjas or whatever until they finally realised they were hungry for ice cream. We did try locking them away in what appeared to be a strong room, but the lack of bars on the window proved our undoing.

 Here are the Lord and Lady of the manor...

 ...and here are the revolting peasants.

 And this is where you go to hide when it all becomes too much.

So we did all this, and more, and shopping as well. Not bad for little over a week really. No wonder I now feel like I need a holiday to recover. Still, the boys are back at school now so I have my days to myself and plenty of time for all my little projects. After such a long break I was wondering how I would feel coming back to São Paulo and the truth is I was pleasantly surprised by how much it now feels like home. One week back and it's as if I never left.