Snow Avoidance

The adult members of the Rothwell and Braunstone sections of the family along with Jamie thoroughly enjoyed the Murder Mystery weekend in Grantham that I had bought for them as a Christmas present, way back in December. Unfortunately, Ashton was unable to accompany Jamie as she was the latest member to succumb to the Flu virus and spent a week in bed, back in Daventry. Sue and I entertained Lucas, Ellis and Mia over the weekend, though I did manage to sneak off on Saturday afternoon to watch a depressing defeat by England to a much better Scotland. I suspect that nothing will be learnt from this loss and it is France up next!

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The same day that we took charge of the grandchildren, Sue and I both had dental appointments. My broken tooth was deemed to require a crown and at Sue’s check-up she was also informed that she needed a crown (we have separate dentists). It was one unfortunate coincidence as at £244 a crown, we truly were King and Queen for the day. I guess it is fortunate that with my 65th birthday on the horizon, my first month’s pension will be going straight back to Government coffers! Both crowns were scheduled to be fitted on our return from Macedonia.

After the 24th Feb. the weather took a turn for the worse. Fierce frosts and bitingly cold winds. Much of the country was covered in snow and there were several warnings of heavy snow with a ‘danger to life’ broadcast regularly on the media. Harborough however, seemed to avoid the worst of the snow and it just became a chore to keep piling the logs on the wood burner to keep out the cold. I did manage to take advantage of a huge mountain of leaf compost left by the Council near to my Welland Park allotment. Over several days I mulched all the fruit and vines and then dug more into the raised beds at home, before transferring 12 dustbin loads up to my vegetable allotment on Douglas Drive. I would have dug this into the soil but the frost was too deep, so I scattered it on the surface in readiness for a later (warmer) date.

On the 1st of March (white rabbits) Sue and I awoke to a steady fall of snow. None was forecast! We were flying from Stansted on a 4.30pm flight to Thessaloniki and were expecting to leave for the airport around midday but we reviewed our plans and left after breakfast (8.15am). We were lucky. The snow turned into a blizzard and at a crawl we only just made it out of Harborough to the A14, passing several abandoned vehicles on the way.

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Despite hearing on the radio that chaos was reigning throughout the country with train and bus cancellations and more worryingly a growing list of closed airports, we had a relatively straight forward journey with no delays. The A14 and the M11 had little traffic, obviously most people had heeded the warnings and were staying at home. For most of our route it did not snow and there appeared to be only a thin covering in the surrounding countryside. We reached Stansted far too early so  took advantage of the close-by services on the M11 and had a leisurely lunch and a rest before proceeding to the car park and catching the shuttle-bus to Departures.

After checking in, we waiting out the last couple of hours before being first in the queue at the departure gate. Annoyingly with 30 mins to go, it was announced that the gate had been changed and a mad dash to the other end of the airport ensued with our fellow passengers. We boarded just a little late, but because we had missed our slot we sat patiently on the plane for two hours before eventually taking off. I guess we can count ourselves lucky as their appeared to a rapidly growing list of cancelled flights. It was snowing heavily as we took off.

We landed in Thessaloniki just before midnight (local time) and waited in the Arrivals Hall for our pre-booked transfer just afterwards. As the Hall slowly emptied of fellow passengers I rang the number of a text that I had received  as we landed, it was from the transfer company informing me that our driver would be waiting for us. A flustered Greek informed me that we HAD been picked up, then asked where in Athens airport we were, he then mentioned he couldn’t find my name. When I eventually got through to him that I was in Thessaloniki. he assured me it would be half an hour before our driver came. Ten minutes later the man himself arrived with a taxi driver in tow. He explained that as we were two hours late, his iPad spread sheet of pick-ups had naturally changed to the following day and he had not spotted it. Our driver had picked up someone called Thompson instead. We just wanted to get to the hotel and our bed, listening to his continuous apologies stretched my patience, but eventually we did exactly that. We were to have another problem with our return transfer, but that is for later in the blog.

DAY ONE

Our hotel was the Ilisia. We chose it because it was centrally located to all the attractions on Egnatia, one of the Roman Empire’s most important roads, and it provided breakfast. Facilities were basic, but the room was comfortable, though the shower was small.

We had done some research on what to do while in Thessaloniki, but we hadn’t decided on how we were going to get about, other than discounting hiring a car as parking looked difficult and that proved to be definitely the case. After a substantial breakfast we set off in search of a Tourist Information office. Fruitlessly we checked out the harbour, then the train station and the bus terminus. We even dropped into one of the International hotels to check with the concierge service, but no luck there either. With surprise, when we returned to our modest little hotel, the receptionist produced some brochures from which we chose a trip to some monasteries. He rang the company for us and after a brief discussion, he gave us instructions on how to find their office to book personally. He gave us a map of it location. Finding the office, we eventually booked three trips.

We next visited Thessaloniki’s iconic attraction, the White Tower. It looks small from the outside, but it is indeed a veritable ‘Tardis’ inside. It is a museum housing artefacts and a description of the city’s development over five very comprehensive floors. We both found it exceedingly interesting, usefully, we were given a gizmo that gave an English commentary on the displays. The view from the battlements gave a great view over the city and we were able to locate most of the sites described in its history from the floors below. Well worth a visit.

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Feeling peckish we walked around half a mile to the Skyline Tower, for lunch. The restaurant rotates 360 degrees over around an hour and gives another great view of the city. We discovered here that if you order food and drinks, you are most likely going to get a free bottle of water, bread and a dessert. We soon began to take this into account when we ate over the next week as a small snack ends up being not so small.

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We had a good wander around the back ways and alleyways of this very busy city, eventually stopping to  eat our evening meal at a small restaurant next to our hotel. We slept well that night.

DAY TWO

We had booked a historical tour to the ancient cities of Pella and Vergina for today so it meant an early breakfast and a short walk to the central square to catch our transport. Our minibus arrived on time at 8.15am.

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Our guide introduced himself then we the drove a short distance along Egnatia to pick up another couple who hailed from Torquay. It was a lovely sunny and warm day, just right for walking among ancient ruins. We chatted and considered the views as the  landscape changed from a bustling city to  seashore and eventually open countryside with a frame of snow capped mountains in the distance. After an hour or so we arrived in Pella. This now ruined city was once the birth place of Alexander the Great and contained the palace of his father Phillip II who constructed the city to a grid plan. It was once situated on the coast and was an important port in the ancient world, now it is several miles from the coast as the bay has silted up. Much of the site remains to be excavated, but what has been uncovered is pretty impressive. The museum located within the site has some superb artefacts, not least the stunningly beautiful oak leaf crowns found in the many graves, demonstrating that the city was very affluent. Thessaloniki was named after princess Thessaloniki of Macedon, the half sister of Alexander the Great.

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With the site and museum thoroughly inspected we boarded our minibus and travelled the 15 miles to Vergina, best known as the site of ancient Aigai, the first capital of Macedon. It is an important site as it contains several burial mounds, one of which contains the tomb of Phillip ll, and though others have been robbed out, his remained undiscovered and like Tutankhamun’s contained all the original artefacts. We entered his huge burial mound through a short tunnel that opened out into an underground complex of excavations, following a well trodden path around the increasingly ornate lesser royal tombs , until we came at last to Phillip’s resting place and it was truly majestic. A definite must for any visit to Macedonia.

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Lunch was taken at a restaurant just outside the site’s entrance before we drove back to Thessaloniki. We spent the early evening walking  with what seemed the whole population of the city along the harbour front to a very impressive sculpture containing umbrellas. The Macedonians do come out in force in the evenings, congregating in large groups intent on drinking coffee in the many cafes or strutting along the pavements in their best glad rags. We came across a variety of stalls and entertainers on our wandering, the most memorable being a man rolling inside a large hoop to classical music, his interpretation of the music was quite enchanting.

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Returning to the hotel we rested our legs before eating our evening meal in the restaurant of the previous evening.

DAY THREE

It was another early start and another lovely day, perfect for the mountains  and to discover some very special monasteries. We were going to Meteora to visit a female and a male monastery. Our tour part was much larger today and we had a coach to accommodate us. We were the only Brits on board, but there was a single American also. The guide was good and everything said in Greek was repeated in English. Our route took us past Mount Olympus, looking very impressive with its top of snow and clouds. We had been there over 30 years ago and still had good memories of this famous feature so central to Greek history and culture. After a couple of hours we stopped at a café where unfortunately Sue broke her sunglasses on a visit to the toilet. Luckily, there was a rack of them for sale by the entrance and she bought another pair.

Another hour of travelling brought us to our destination. The place is famous for the numerous ancient monasteries perched atop rock towers. There were many more than we can see today but they were destroyed by the Muslims in antiquity. The ones remaining were probably too difficult to scale. We first visited a small female monastery, the nuns run their own little shop inside the entrance and by the numbers of visitors I guess it is a little goldmine for them, Sue contributed to their coffers with the purchase of another decoration for the Christmas tree. On entering, despite wearing slacks, Sue had to cover her legs with a wrap-a-round skirt and unlike the Greeks, as foreigners, we also had to pay an entrance fee. The views from up there were suitably impressive and worth the fee alone.

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We broke our journey to the male monastery with  a scramble over one of the rock towers for photos.

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Where as at the previous location there was no climbing to enter the sanctuary, the coach and a convenient road saw to that, our next adventure entailed a steep and arduous climb up a winding staircase that clung precariously to the rock.

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This monastery was larger and had some beautiful ancient tapestries within the church. The original method of entry was via a windlass and rope that raised a box from several hundred feet below. This method is still used today, but only for the transference of goods, the windlass has been replaced by an electric motor. As there was much more to see in this place we spent quite a while wandering around. Our guide, discovered us inside the church, gave us a detailed description of the tapestries, explaining that his PhD on the Byzantium period included several of the tapestries we were looking at. Everything in them was symbolic, it was interesting to have them explained.

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Visit completed, we had lunch in the little town below the imposing towers of rocks. From our dining table we could  see the little caves that the original hermits carved out of the rock, so long ago.

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As with the outward journey, on our return we passed a Syrian refugee camp located in a particularly isolated spot next to some old quarries. Though I had only the briefest of glimpses of the place I could see that they were living in new, purpose built portakabins. Each had a solar panel on the roof and there was no fencing evident, they seemed to be able to go where-ever they liked. However, there were no other settlements nearby,  just a few isolated farmsteads. It seemed populated by mainly women as I could only see fully garbed figures in black moving about between the units. After a short stop for coffee we arrived back in Thessaloniki quite late in the evening, we opted to eat out in a restaurant down by the harbour before retiring to bed feeling rather tired.

DAY FOUR

Yesterday, whilst returning from Meteora, the guide informed us that the company had cancelled our trip planned for  a couple of days hence. We were expecting to visit a lake and enjoy a boat trip on it to see the flora and fauna. However, apparently the water was up and no boats were venturing out. So, our first trip of the day was to the Ammon Express offices to discuss what our options were. We eventually decided on a refund as the only viable option with the time remaining,  a visit to some thermal pools was available but we had no swim gear with us.

During the rest of the morning we caught the city hop-on-hop-off tour bus which began its route next to the White Tower. It is a convenient way to see the sights of the city, though we didn’t hop-off and completed a full circuit. As we arrived back at the hotel it began to rain. We took lunch in the restaurant next to the hotel watching the rain get increasingly heavier. Satiated, we spent the next few hours in our hotel room, Sue read a book and I listened to HFM (the local radio in Market Harborough) on my mobile phone.WP_20180305_12_48_53_Pro[1]

As it began to get dark, the rain ceased and we decided to visit the Thessaloniki Liverpool Supporters bar that we had discovered a few nights prior. However, it was shut.

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On our way back to the hotel we came across a bar called the ‘Rehab’. It turned out to be a rugby bar! We got chatting to the barman, he happened to be 37yrs old and played fullback for the local side. Interestingly, he explained why the bar was called ‘Rehab’; Macedonia  doesn’t have many clubs, but several years ago they were offered financial support from the RFU. To qualify they needed to have 20 playing clubs (a viable league) so in typical Greek fashion they made up the shortfall with phantom clubs. They were caught and thrown out of the RFU fold and are now officially seeking rehabilitation. It seems it is the Greek way, live for today and hang the consequences, I suppose this attitude manifests itself in every facet of life. You can see this along Egnatia; filled at all times of the day and night with myriads of smartly dressed locals scurrying along the pavement, carrying several bags of  items newly purchased from the hundreds of clothes outlets along its length. And, as evening descends, the bars, cafes and restaurants become filled to bursting with locals intent on eating and chatting. Does nobody in this city cook for themselves?

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DAY FIVE

Today was a late breakfast and under cloudy skies we took a walk up to Thessaloniki Castle, on top of the hill, or so we thought. When we reached our goal we discovered that there was an even higher hill, just half mile away. It was a steep climb and we were glad of the cloud cover keeping the sun hidden, unable to radiate our already heated bodies, then as if by magic, as we fronted the main gate, he made an appearance. On our ascent of the hill Sue unfortunately lost her new sunglasses and though we both searched for them earnestly, they remained lost.

Entrance to the castle and recently a prison is free. It has a sinister atmosphere, but provides superb views of the city below. I found the isolation cells particularly foreboding and couldn’t possibly imagine being locked away there for any length of time.

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Escaping the prison we had drinks at a small bar by its main gate before setting off down the hill back into the hustle and bustle of the city. Stopping briefly for a rest on a bench situated next to the perimeter wall of the castle, we were given a couple of oranges to eat by a Greek gentleman who had obviously chosen to take a rest too, he had completed his shopping and was carrying his groceries up the hill and home. Though he didn’t speak English, we thanked him then peeled and scoffed the fruit while he moved on. They were gorgeous!

Finding Egnatia again, Sue discovered some Africans selling sunglasses and after a bit of haggling purchased another pair. A little later she bought some nuts from the market to nibble back at the hotel. Later,  while we were resting I heard  racket going on in the street below. It was a demonstration marching up Egnatia. They were the K.K.E. (Communist Party).

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As we were searching for a restaurant to eat our evening meal, we came across the K.K.E. holding a rally in the central square. We joined them, mingling with the large crowd listening to the speeches from the platform. A TV crew were filming the event, so we may have been on Greek telly! We had no idea what was being said, and being the first political event we have ever attended it seemed more like a circus, with flags waving and fast food being vended among the crowd, most people were occupied talking to each other, seemingly oblivious to what the ‘main man’ had to say. As we left the square we came across a small group of riot police hidden round a corner. I asked them what the rally was about, they shrugged and said that they were communists complaining about America and NATO. I don’t think they were expecting trouble.

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We found our restaurant and while eating our meal, noted that the communists had peacefully ended their get-together and were dribbling past our location with their flags now carefully furled on their way home. Probably to a meal of beetroot and cabbage, washed down with Greek vodka.

DAY SIX

Another late breakfast. Venturing outside we discovered it was already hot and sunny. The morning was taken up with a visit to the Archaeological Museum located near the Skyline Tower. The Greeks obviously have a lot of artefacts, I suspect that most are stored in dozens of warehouses all over Greece, rammed to the ceiling with lots and lots of ancient nick-nacks, what else could you do with them? Lord Elgin did his bit and tried to help them out years ago. This museum must have had the pick of what he didn’t take as it houses a comprehensive collection of ‘things’ that are very well displayed. It takes ages to work your way through the exhibits and I reckon if you read every description, you would seriously wear away several layers of retina. It is very popular with the schools. I lost Sue among the exhibits for around 45 minutes, I eventually discovered her among the displays of sarcophagus. I may have already passed her several times before I noticed movement.

On a less serious activity, we boarded the Pirate ship moored alongside the White Tower. We have passed it several times this week on our way to other places, but this time we were going to sail on her and shuffled up the gang plank past the fierce looking Black Beard. Passage on her is free, but you are encouraged to purchase refreshments which are priced appropriately to make a profit. Our voyage lasted precisely half and hour and was incident free. It was pleasing to see Thessaloniki from another viewpoint.

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We returned to the hotel via a wander around the ruins of Gallius’s palace, hidden among the apartment blocks of the city.

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While Sue rested and read her book, I took to the streets and followed the ancient castle walls as far as I was able, discovering other archaeological sites on my journey. Much of the wall isn’t in good condition and there is not a recognisable route to follow it, the city is missing out on an excellent tourist opportunity here. There are a few information boards here and there, but the route I followed was rather scruffy but it wouldn’t take much to tidy things up. It’s a shame. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my few hours of wandering.

That evening we returned to the Skyline  Tower for our evening meal. A piano player was advertised as playing from 7pm –2 am (yes, this city does party 24/7). It was nice to see the city lights rotate around us while being entertained by a fine pianist.

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DAY SEVEN

It rained while we had a very late breakfast, but after packing our suit cases in readiness for our departure the sun came out to cheer proceedings up. We took the opportunity and went out to do a spot of shopping. Sue bought a pair of slacks suitable for her to do her Tai Chi with her U3A class back in Harborough, from a stall in the open-air market off Egnatia. Returning to the hotel we checked out, stored our cases in reception and then found a restaurant in a nice sunny spot near central square and had lunch.

Afterwards, while sitting in central square enjoying the sun for one last time, Sue noted a guy looking quite suspicious near a small group of Indians/Pakistanis. I thought nothing of it , but he was quite wary of our presence. A little later the group surprised us by producing a cricket bat and then set about playing the game between two lampposts.  It was at this time that the suspicious guy got involved in conversation with a young Greek looking lad on a nearby grassy patch and he gave him a bag.  I was absorbed in what was a very good game of cricket until several police started searching all around us, lifting manhole covers etc. The suspicious guy now seemed to have joined the game but had moved to the far side of the square, I don’t think the other players knew him. Sue pointed out that the young lad was now handcuffed and being led away into a van. It was obviously drug related and I guess we should have been good citizens and informed the policeman searching around our seat that the ‘pretend’ cricketer was linked to the arrested lad. However, we had a flight to catch and didn’t want to miss it. We unsuspiciously wandered out of the square. He got away with it this time.

In the photo below, the one sitting down was the drug dealer watching the cricket.

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We did a last spot of sight-seeing by visiting one of the many churches on our return to the hotel.

Our taxi pick-up was at 6.30pm. I first received a confirmation text 15 minutes before it was due, then at 6.30pm I received a call from the taxi driver saying he was 4 minutes away. A few minutes later a taxi drew up and the driver said, “Airport.” I told him yes and asked if it was for Palmer, and he replied, “Yes, airport.”

We got in. It didn’t feel right as we drove off, so I told him I have already paid for this taxi. He said, Yes.” again. I repeated, “I am not paying you for this taxi.” He stopped. He didn’t speak English, and I had already started to ring the number of the driver who had contacted me earlier. I explained that we had got into the wrong taxi and gave the phone to our new driver so they could converse. We got out of the taxi and he took a new fare and drove off leaving us at the side of the road. I rang the number I had used on our arrival at the airport and was asked where we were. I had to confess I hadn’t a clue. I gave my mobile to an old lady attempting to cross the road next to us. Though she also spoke no English, she told him. At that moment, our taxi arrived flashing his lights at us. He had been caught in a diversion and was late on his way to our hotel when he came across us. How lucky is that?

The rest of the journey was without incident.

We eventually arrived home to a very cold house at 2am.

 Reflections on Thessaloniki

The Greeks/Macedonians are undoubtedly a friendly bunch of people, extremely helpful and quick to apologise at the first hint when things aren’t quite right. They love to shop, they dress smartly and appear to adore drinking coffee,  especially in the late afternoon where if you can find a seat in the many cafes, then you are lucky (they actually advertise ‘Happy Hour’ for coffee!). The same applies in the evening, where if you wish to eat in one of the myriad of restaurants, then don’t leave it too late or you are going to be disappointed. The population city then appear to move on into the equally abundant bars where they happily drink and chat the night away until 2am.

When you consider that the Greek economy is trashed and the country relies on increasingly reluctant EU hand-outs, it seems to me that the citizens of Thessaloniki don’t take their situation very seriously. They appear very happy with their lot, with only the Communist K.K.E. (unsurprisingly) bothering to express concern on what is happening to their country. Talking to the workers in the hotel/restaurants and bars that we visited it soon became evident that most seemed to have more than one job, in fact many had more than two. Today I am a waiter, tomorrow I drive a taxi and the following day I work in a hotel seemed a quite common explanation of what they do. I already knew the Greeks are reluctant to pay their taxes and I guess this is quite an efficient way to avoid the taxman, by living a cash-in-hand existence and thus making life difficult to collect any tax.

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Being part of the EU seems to be convenience that allows them to live a life-style that otherwise would be unsustainable, they accept EU  intrusion into their lives only as far they wish. For example, as we left the plane, the steward reminded us that smoking was not allowed inside the terminal building, yet every eating establishment and bar we frequented had smokers nonchalantly puffing away, seemingly oblivious of the European wide ban on this antisocial habit. I guess, the story of the Greek RFU acquiring funding from the sports governing body through a ‘little white lie’ shows a willingness to push the limits of credibility to achieve/protect what they want or already have. I fear there will be an unpleasant end game to this and they only have themselves to blame.

Thessaloniki: a great place to visit over a week for those interested in history, archaeology and  Greek cuisine all wrapped up in a party atmosphere. If interested, I recommend a visit soon,  and certainly before the train hits the economic buffers.         

FAMILY NEWS

While we were enjoying ourselves in Macedonia, we grew increasingly concerned about Charlotte.  The family has a Messenger group that allows us to keep up to date with each others activities and we gleaned from the frequency and number of posts that our eldest daughter was in great pain from a slipped disc. This was compounded by both Ellis (tonsillitis) and Lucas (poorly tummy) falling ill. Suraj was valiantly trying to hold the fort and had taken time off work and was then being pressured by his bosses because of his absence. Charlotte was prescribed seven different types of medication, with the most worrying one being morphine, an indication of the amount of pain that she was feeling. Even with the medication, at times the pain is too much for her, and there have been many tears. There is no position that doesn’t cause excruciating pain, sitting, laying or standing seems to make no difference. It is an awful condition. Sue and I are trying to help as much as we can.

To cap it all, on the 13th March, Suraj rushed Ellis into hospital during the early hours of the morning with a high temperature and a very nasty infection of his ‘nether regions’. He was admitted onto the wards. A debilitated mother had to stay at home worrying.  When we woke up and discovered the situation,  Sue and I picked up Charlotte and relieved a very tired Suraj, to go home for some much needed sleep. We remained with Ellis until he was stabilised and released to go home, later in the day. Today (15th), We visited Rothwell again, Sue to look after the boys who were still ill and off school and I to accompany Charlotte on her doctor’s appointment. I was very keen to hear what the situation was regarding a diagnosis and also to push for an early MRI scan. I am not totally convinced that the problem is a (herniated) slipped disc and that the possibility of Spondylolisthesis has to be considered. The doctor understood my concerns and she increased the dosage of painkillers to a more effective level and promised to push for an early scan. By the afternoon a date had been received by Charlotte for 7th of April. I suggested that she rang the hospital and offered to take a cancellation if one became available, to shorten the wait. Fingers crossed.

The medical issues within the family just won’t go away! Sarah has an appointment to laser  some in-growing eyelashes that are causing severe irritation to her eyes. I have never heard of this before, but apparently it is not that uncommon, The lashes can suddenly decide to change the direction of their growth. To add to the Braunston’s woes, Lee (who never gets ill) has also come down with tonsillitis. It looks like for once that Mia is the healthiest one in the household.

On a less gloomy topic, Suraj and Sarah both have new jobs. Suraj remains within the NHS but is now working in the department that is responsible for IT security and Sarah has secured her present seconded post against stiff opposition at interview.

Jamie is enjoying riding his very noisy quad bike which he now keeps in our garage. Earlier in the month he had to charge the battery of his Aston Martin as he has ‘rested’ it for the winter. The security and engine management systems make a huge drain on its two batteries and he now knows they should be trickled charged. He and Ashton have booked a holiday to Rhodes in April. Last night, they invited us over for a meal, Jamie cooked minted lamb chops  with mash and kale. Very tasty.

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Yesterday morning, Sarah dropped off Mia while she went to work in Northampton. Sue went to the cinema and then visited Charlotte. I took Mia for lunch at Bridge 61 at Foxton Locks. We called in to see Peter who had just returned from six months in New Zealand and he joined us after coffee and a natter. On the way back we stopped at the Coach and Horses for more refreshments, but as soon as we sat down Sarah rang to say she had finished work and wanted her little doggy back. She picked Mia up around ten minutes later.

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