Chests of drawers

Mandy was three years younger than me, but always determined to keep up (and overtake where possible). Meticulous with her possessions, Mandy would dust and display her collection of ornaments on a little threepenny shaped table (having somehow negotiated the larger second bedroom) and would be indignant if one was moved even an inch. Conversely, my tiny box room over the porch of 24 Cedar Avenue was crammed with books, scattered across the carpet with some piled up on the small yellow and white bedside chest of drawers with its secret places – old cigarette packets glued to the inside back wall, tucked behind the end of the drawers. Inspired by my love of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five, the treasures tucked into these spaces included home-made membership cards and badges allocated to a limited number of close friends, depending on who was in favour at the time. Little sisters were rarely included in these clubs. Mandy’s room included a gigantic oak Victorian chest of drawers with spherical knobs that were almost too broad for little fingers, having to be tugged with considerable energy to get to our clothes stored within.

Mandy and Debbie, circa 1965, ‘twin’ stage

This was the room where we liked to play (although Mandy insisted on everything being tidied away meticulously at the end of each session). With her short blond bob cropped around cute apple cheeks and bright blue eyes, Mandy’s ‘orders’ were difficult to resist, though I would do my best to do so when it came to clearing up instructions. Wearing matching home-made cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, one wet Saturday afternoon found us both busy in the larger bedroom.

“I’m going to play my new single,” I announced, carefully placing ‘White Horses’ onto the turntable of my portable record player, a recent gift from Father Christmas.

Mandy was busy tidying the dolls’ house built by Uncle Bill, carefully pulling the sharp nail fixed as a front door handle and opening up the two front walls before getting to work, busily swapping the kitchen with the sitting room. “Again?” Mandy complained, “You’ve played nothing else since we went with Nanny and Grandad to that underground market in Allesby.” “Aylesbury,” I corrected with a superior tone, “Well, I love it so you’ll just have to put up.”

Mandy adjusted the position of the tiny dresser before carefully balancing miniature plates and dishes on its shelves. ‘On white horses let me ride away, to a place of dreams so far away, let me run, to the sun …’ warbled the vinyl at 45rpm, before getting stuck on ‘to the sun, to the sun, to the sun …’ I lifted the needle, blew off some dust and removed the record, inspecting it for scratches before carefully placing it back in its paper sleeve. Time for Freddie and the Dreamers.

“I’m bored,” Mandy announced, tucking in her vest and pulling up both knee length white socks for the third time in half an hour. This was something done so vigorously and regularly that Mandy’s socks were the only ones in our household that developed holes in the ribbing at the top as opposed to holes in the toe or heel. Totally impossible to darn.

When asked later, neither of us could remember whose idea it was – or if we did, out of typical loyalty neither was going to say. Taking it in turns to climb the oak chest of drawers using the polished knobs like a 21st century climbing wall seemed like a good plan. Who could climb the quickest? Mandy went first, at the age of four still the smaller, although likely to overtake me within the next three years (for a stretch of about 18 months we were repeatedly mistaken as twins, although Mandy always had the better hairstyle, neatly and professionally cut; my short style had a fringe that was sellotaped to my forehead whilst our mum Eve attempted to cut a straight line across the bits sticking out from underneath). “My turn,” I insisted, as Mandy sat on the bed glowing with triumph having made it to the top of the chest and then back down again in what she considered to be record time. “Bet I’ll be faster!”

Sprinting across the room and scrambling up the first set of drawer knobs, I was almost at the top when the chest began to tip, rocking back and forth slightly before the inevitable.

“Aaaagh,” I screamed, turning and leaping onto the bed next to Mandy who had shrunk back against the far wall with a look of sheer terror.

There was an almighty crash as the colossal furniture fell onto its face, causing the walls to shake and the single pane window to rattle. “What on earth is going on?” mum bellowed, racing up the stairs seeking the source of the unexpected earthquake. Two sheepish little girls stared wide eyed at the damage.

“It wasn’t me,” we chorused.

Still in use as garage storage

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The old year ends

Those of us who work in education know that the year doesn’t really end on 31st December. It ends at that moment when we wipe a tear from the corner of our eye (sometimes) as the current cohort skip out of the door at the end of the summer term. IT ENDS NOW! Or in my case, a couple of weeks ago as I finished early, enabling my first term time holiday in more than 25 years. Anyway, whenever a year ends – whether December or July – we look back.

Reflect.

Review what we meant to do.

Rejoice at our successes.

Regret what we failed to achieve.

So, at this point I opt out of writing anything and do a cheat blog. I’m sending you right back to Alphabet Soup …

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The Century Before The Millennium

Front cover illustration by Nick Ryde

One of my plans for this autumn is to write more, including additional chapters for ‘A Sixties Childhood.’ To get myself going (always the biggest stumbling block), I thought I would go back to the last century and share what, she says modestly, can only be described as a masterpiece.

As a young mother (many moons ago), I struggled for memorable gift inspiration as the new Millennium approached. Setting aside the whole world’s worries that the internet would implode at midnight and all data would vanish into the ether, I had an idea. Why not create a family book drawing on memories of the century before? Who was still alive that could help? Who did I know that could create an amazing front cover illustration?

When I look back at the end result, I must admit feeling rather proud of myself. At the time of its creation (remembering that it was many months in the making), Joe was nine and Tom a lively three year old, whilst I worked almost full time as production manager of a small design agency and studied for a psychology degree with the Open University. Recognising my time limitations, I invited older family members to send me their contributions, whilst visiting and interviewing the oldest one of all (Auntie Elsie, well into her nineties). Then I typed it all up and created the artwork, including finding, scanning and adding photographs, working out how to do a PDF version at a time when this file type was still in its infancy.

Of course, working at Right Angle Design meant I could pick the brains of experts, but it was still a steep learning curve. You will notice that somewhere along the way I ‘lost’ the Rainer family tree, though there is still a printed copy buried in a drawer which I will seek, scan, save and share at some point. Those relatives kind enough to contribute received one of the few printed copies; sadly many of them have now left us but their words live on.

Do click the link and enjoy – whether a family member or not, it’s an easy to read record of social history. If you are a Rainer, Hurford, Evans, Bingham, Lickley or Harris, share with younger members of the family and download a copy for your own archive. It is a story that deserves to be told well into the future.

Posted in 2000, Anthology, Autobiography, childhood, history, Loss, love, Memoir, Nineties, Parenting, Sixties | Leave a comment

Why do I volunteer in a bookshop? An interview …

Another purchase!

When did you start volunteering at Oxfam Books & Music, Beaconsfield? 

I signed up in September 2019 and chose to have a regular slot on a Friday morning, although I’ve also been encouraged to pop in for a couple of hours here or there. I love the flexibility of being able to do what I can when I can!

Why did you volunteer? 

Oxfam Books and Music has been on my radar for a long time – whenever I popped in as a customer I would say to myself ‘I’d love to work here one day’. There’s a fabulous atmosphere, great range of stock and working in a bookshop has always been on my bucket list! I’ve been lucky enough to have two careers – the first was as a print buyer in advertising and graphic design; the second in Primary education, this took me to headship. I loved this role but was more than ready to adjust my work life balance. Now I have the best of both worlds as I still teach part time but also get to give something back by volunteering for Oxfam. 

What do you like about working at Oxfam?

First of all, there is a great sense of teamwork and a real mix of people: some weeks follow a pattern with colleagues, familiar faces quickly become friends; other weeks you get to work with someone new. Or if you choose, you can work quietly by yourself in one of the myriad backrooms. Everyone is there because they choose to be there, not because they have to be there. No two stints are the same and I’ve learnt so much. Often the book that you think is worth a fortune isn’t, as you find out whilst researching for the online team; whilst certain collection ‘niches’ are very much in demand. Ever since I was a small child I’ve found it impossible to walk past a bookshop and I’ve always loved seeking out bargains. Penn Bookshop (now sadly closed) was a favourite haunt for many a year and their stock regularly added to my collection of Observer pocket books; now I have a new source! 

The store manager has a knack for spotting volunteer’s areas of interest and I particularly enjoy advising customers about children’s books, curating the art collection, creating window displays, and employing my lifelong love of learning to sort books in all subject areas. My addiction to social media and photography has also been spotted and my Twitter feed will often ‘cross fertilise’ with @OxfamBeacoBooks. This is an area which I sense we will develop further…

We are very fortunate in the quality of donations and there is always a thrill when sorting through new bags and boxes. Whether it’s a high-quality contemporary book or a much-loved vintage one, there are always tempting book covers and interesting contents. To be honest, the biggest risk is that volunteering will cost you money – it’s a rare week when I leave without buying something!

Favourite book? 

This is almost impossible to answer, over the years I’ve narrowed it down to my favourite three books per decade! These are always ones that have made an impression for some reason or other. I will go for one of the oldest on my bookshelf: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.


Favourite LP? 

Ones that I will always pick off the rack and flip over include David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, Roxy Music – pretty much anything from the 70s ad 80s.

Best Oxfam bargain? 

Where can I possibly begin? Everything’s a bargain, not least because the collection has been lovingly curated in the first place. I tend to swing from something I know a family member will love – Dusty Springfield vinyl for my husband, travelogues for my sons – to paperbacks on my ‘Must Read’ list such as ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne, ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith and anything by Maggie O’Farrell. Ultimately, the best bargain is yet to be found: that elusive copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds of Australia …

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My Hands

I write with a gel pen, 

commandeered from my husband.

I hold it tight in the hope of inspiration,

Creating this task.

I remember children’s fingers

Linked with mine.

Not just my own

But those belonging to others.

And sometimes

If the mood is right

I cover them with gloves

To dig in the garden,

Or carefully hold soil and seed.

But I’m proudest of my ring finger

And the family that stems from that day

When the gold band slid on.

Representing years of motherhood

Nurturing my pride and joy.

You, my hands, aren’t as young as you were

But in your grasp lie a lifetime

Past, present and future

Passing

Too fast to handle.

(15 minute task, creative writing for wellbeing course 21.2.2021)

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My Year In Books

It’s the first of January. Inevitably my thoughts turn to New Year resolutions, which you will be relieved to know I am saving for another day. Other than a sneak preview – one of them relates to books. This hints at choosing goals I know I can reach. YES! After the events of 2020, why torment yourself with aiming for the unachievable?

Talking of the dreaded year that has just come to a loudly trumpeted end, it seems wise to look backwards before heading forth. I don’t want to add to the doom and gloom so have decided to focus on the brilliant books I’ve enjoyed this year – probably the most I’ve read in any 12 months other than between the ages of 7 and 11 when I literally devoured Enid Blyton every week, alongside other stand out authors such as Mary Norton and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Volunteering for Oxfam Books and Music, Beaconsfield, has become quite expensive – it’s a rare week that I fail to purchase more books and David the manager has sussed out how to taunt and tempt, lovingly stroking Ladybird classics or 1960s Borrowers box sets right under my nose.

Anyway, alongside reading books, sorting books, rearranging books, resisting books and stacking books, I used the three-month initial lockdown to display my collection by colour (I know, I know), as well as being inspired by authors towards writing my own short stories. Although this was fun, I quickly realised that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of highly talented writers out there and the hopes of being good enough to publish are virtually zero. Publish in return for money, that is. On the plus side, technology provides a range of platforms for getting your thoughts out there in the public domain. Which is why you’re suffering this.

Sorry, I digress. One thing I do regret about 2020 is my abject failure to keep a record of my reading, other than the occasional creative picture on Instagram of books that have particularly stood out. Moving forward, I need a more cohesive plan for recording my reading, and the way fellow blogger Nicky puts a photo up on Facebook each time a book is finished is one idea I might steal; alternatively, I could simply keep a good old-fashioned list.

If I had to do a Top Five, they would be:

Macavity the Mystery Cat, TS Eliot – absolutely adored creating a scheme of work around this and teaching it to Year 3. They lapped it up and all of them learnt to recite the poem, whilst being very creative with how they performed criminal actions. Months later they could still rattle off the words without prompting, a skill which will hopefully stay with them always. It was a privilege to ignite their love of rhyme.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell – a thought provoking tale of a patient locked up in an asylum for over sixty years. Was Esme ever insane? The author’s style of writing really appeals, possibly enhanced by seeing her interviewed by the Arvon Foundation for one of those ubiquitious live stream events that popped up all over the place. My 2021 reading list will definitely include more of her books.

Becoming, Michelle Obama – I don’t usually go for autobiographies, but listening to this as an audio book kept me gripped for weeks during my various commutes. I clearly remember sitting outside a school in the Chalfonts, munching a prawn sandwich before leading a Gruffalo workshop, almost overshooting my start time as hearing the tales of a climb to presidency narrated by the author herself was so compelling.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne – adored this, the protagonist Cyril will be with me always! This was the first time I’d read this author – prompted by hearing him speak online at the Cheltenham Literary Festival – and it won’t be the last. I particularly related to the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the impact on lives of those who don’t ‘fit’. Absolutely brilliant.

The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes – again, an Audible listen (something else I’ve signed up for the first time this year, a brilliant way of expanding your ‘reading’). I knew this would be outstanding as Jojo never fails, one of my favourite authors. With the setting being a packhorse library, it was always going to tick every box!

As I conclude, I realise just how difficult it was to come up with a Top Five – there are several others I could have included. This year I have enjoyed every book at some level or other. Reflecting on this, I think it’s because I have been able to set aside time to really focus on books, rather than dropping off half way through a chapter at bedtime and muddling through. This strategy is certainly a lesson for the New Year!

Posted in 2020, Anthology, Autobiography, Books and Reading, Catholic, childhood, education, School, Sixties | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What happens on your bookshelf?

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It’s all in a week – musings of a newly qualified teacher

There is a little bit of creative licence within this memoir in that not all of the events happened in one week – although most of them did. The one exception is the Friday entry, when I am sure friends and colleagues (at least two of whom were in the Fame dance troupe) will be quick to point out I’d been teaching for longer than five years at that point …

Monday

Standing back to admire the large tree branch my husband has cantilevered from the ceiling and attached to piping, I congratulate myself. As a mature NQT attending induction day alongside three university leavers, I had shifted uncomfortably as the head spoke about the difference we would make with our youth, vitality and initiative. My youth had flown, vitality was debatable but no one could deny my initiative. The ‘changing with the seasons’ book corner would look fabulous once the children hung their autumn leaf book reviews.

Tuesday

My Year 3 class like to be helpful. “Miss …” “Just a minute,” I reply, “let me finish writing.” “Miss …” “Please be patient, I’m doing the learning objective.” “Miss!” “Not much longer, just finishing off the success criteria.” “Miss!!!” “OK Brett, what was it you wanted to say?”. “That’s a permanent marker.”

Wednesday

Andrew is an anxious child but the whole class impress me with their deliberate ignoring skills. Not one of us bats an eyelid when he arrives late and crawls the length of the classroom to his desk like a tortoise, covered by his coat. It is not so easy to ignore the school business manager who arrives soon after, clip board in hand. She spends far too long in the book corner.

Thursday

Whilst on break duty, half my class run over in a panic, they’ve seen a headless gunman on the other side of the hedge! The DHT takes their concerns very seriously and springs into action, returning at a sprint to update. Spotting a small child in his path the whole playground collectively gasps as he leaps aside, saving himself from injury with an impressive forward roll before nonchalantly standing to brush himself down. Turns out the culprit was an old man bending to weed his garden, rake still in hand.

Friday

A team of us have decided to perform a dance routine to ‘Fame’ for the Talent Show, up to now we have discussed pink tutus, leg warmers and fluorescent head bands. Today we move onto choreography and I jump up to demonstrate the final move, flinging my arms out and almost hitting a colleague who has arrived at the staffroom with good news. My book corner has passed the risk assessment.

NQT in Slough 2004

Posted in Autobiography, career, education, Memoir, new beginnings, School, Teaching, Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

AUTUMN

October passes like a breath of wind. The spiky conkers weighing down the branches seconds ago are gone, fallen amongst acorns and sodden soil. All around, those trees that aren’t joyously evergreen hang onto thinning leaves; a beautiful, almost brazen combination of yellow tinted orange, damp lime, deep green; before the colours deepen and fall.

Tinkers Treehouse, Downash Wood, East Sussex

At a time of virus inflicted uncertainty, Tim and I are lucky. We stay in a treehouse, windows on every wall framing autumn, nature’s gallery. I sit writing on the balcony, 7:30am, coffee close to hand, rug covered knees. Feint drizzle spits on the page, yet just a week or two ago it didn’t feel that far from summer. The days remain mild but increasingly short, damp on the fringes, web strings glistening, the ever-hastening creep of the dark as Halloween grows closer. But for now, I make the most of the sound of early rising families of birds past their dawn chorus, settling into a gentle tune for the day. A pair of squirrels chase one another into the ferns beyond the log bordered footpath, its route marked by wet, deep, dank leaves as it gently curves towards the firepit and log store nestled beneath Tinkers Treehouse.

Just days ago, three of us walked along a path like this – sister, nephew, friend – to that peaceful place beside a tumbling river surging down from Exmoor. The years are beginning to blur, yet it still felt like yesterday when Mandy was laid to rest. I lay a small posy, a gift from our mother. In our own ways we took time to remember, reflect, pray. We stood consolidated and consoled by silence.

Ash Pool, Debbie and Tom

Beneath the eaves of the treehouse new life is sheltered, spider sacs tucked into corners; in the wet woodland next year’s butterfly eggs are hidden on the underside of grass blades, disguised by dead looking stems.

October slips stealthily, silently, toward November, the month of remembrance. New beginnings, like spring, lie camouflaged, invisible. Yet they are always there.

29.10.2020

https://www.downashwoodtreehouses.co.uk

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How I miss adventures!

During this never ending pandemic, I cannot be the only one missing adventure. In particular, I miss spontaneous travel – not something I am prone to do (given just how much I like the reassurance of a plan), but the ‘plan’ I had for using my autumn years to see as much of the world as possible has been totally, absolutely, scuppered. At least for now as the whole world presses pause. Although the autumn years don’t seem to have got the message and insist on marching on at a cracking pace …

One thing is for sure, no matter how many travel pictures pop up on my Facebook feed, they only capture so much. Which is precisely why I blog, even if only once in a blue moon. It’s lovely to reread this.

24 hours in Paris

He could not be persuaded to buy his mother a rose!
He could not be persuaded to buy his mother a rose!

If we’d written the script we couldn’t have done it better. Our plan for fond farewells betwixt mother and son in the city of Paris really did help to take the edge off Joe’s imminent return to Melbourne. To save himself $300, number one son had booked his return flight out of Charles de Gaulle instead of Heathrow and, with his bargain £21 coach jaunt via Victoria, he was set for one last adventure before the dreaded long haul. Needless to say, his financial saving was seriously offset by my expenditure for the final 48 hours, but, hey, I love an adventure too!

One of my most serious skills gaps is the ability to read a map – and this gap has not improved with age. In fact, it’s grown considerably wider as maps are printed smaller nowadays and I have to hunt for my specs. Emerging from Gare du Nord for the ‘1000m stroll to Hotel Marena’, I was immediately accosted by a taxi pimp determined to sell me a ride. ‘Non, non, Madame! Je suis there en dix minutes’, I announced in my very best Franglais. That same blessed woman approached me again with an infuriatingly smug expression when I reappeared back round the corner twenty minutes later…

My main failing when it comes to any sense of direction is my total conviction that I know exactly which way to turn when faced with a long straight road which the map tells me leads direct to my destination. Walk in the direction of the sun, of course! One hour later, having pleaded for help from three separate sets of gendarmes, a boulangerie, two pharmacists, a group of old boys and three youngsters with their dear little grandma, I had to admit this is a poor map reading strategy. Thank goodness it was still only mid afternoon beneath a cloudless autumn sky when I finally staggered into the foyer of our petite hotel. 

It was small but perfectly formed in every way (just like me in fact. Apart from the skills gaps).

Except that Joe was missing and the interim missives from messenger were few and far between. Once I’d had a brief lay down, one blipped into my inbox stating that his coach was just outside the city and ‘go find the nearest metro, mother, how hard can that be?’ ‘Bloody hard,’ I whimpered, but had to concede he had a point. Travel tip number one – when in a foreign city, map the route to the most local underground station and stamp it indelibly on your mind. You are then free to explore, with no fear of not finding your way back to base (this truth stood me in good stead on the Sunday morning when, yet again, I followed the sun and got completely, utterly, bewilderingly lost).

Time ticked on. I sussed out the metro (St George’s, such a pretty location), sampled the local expresso and tarte limone, negotiated several heaps of dog doings, peeked into a classy secondhand shop where glamorous mesdames languishing around the counter exhaled their roll ups in my direction, muttering about my lack of style (why is it when others speak in another language one egotistically presumes they are talking about oneself?). I grew worried. No message hailing ‘get ye to the metro, mother, now!’ No welcoming bleep on the phone. Disaster. Just as I announced my fears to Facebook there was an ominous hammering on the bedroom door. Opening it cautiously (God, that was a scary film last month when the room inhabitants let in a rapist, for him to firmly lay the blame at their feet and absolve himself from all responsibility for what he was about to do by saying ‘if you stay in a hotel like this, always put the chain on’). 

My boy!

An expert on the metro

Duly reunited, Joe had a quick shower and despite having travelled for more than 12 hours (‘the perfect transport mode if you are time rich and wonga poor’), he announced we were going to hit the city lights! I was well up for reliving my depressingly unmisspent youth, so we set off, strolling aimlessly towards the Moulin Rouge and a little light refreshment. As an unexpectedly mild Friday evening in October, the locals were out in force, clearly distinguishable from the tourists anxiously clutching their maps (“10% off at La Fayette if you show this”) and pointing their smartphones at anything that moved. I could tell my son is a travellor, as he definitely veers towards the locals, deftly dodging the traffic and seeking out of the way hostelries where the young Parisians chose to gather. 

It's tough when the only way to kill time waiting for a table is with le vino ...

We finally settled on a laid back Japanese tapas (huh?) restaurant where a table wasn’t available for 30 minutes (it was now gone 9pm). What the heck! We can start on a bottle of Chardonny and take our appetite to the next level whilst waiting! That place was so relaxed about customer care that it was midnight before we left but, do you know what, it didn’t matter one jot. We had so much to talk about! Though there was a serious bit of role reversal going on with son giving me career advice. And damn good it was too!

My earlier recce meant I knew we were close to the Sacre Coeur and the best view of the French capital, so we swayed our way in a general uphill direction in pursuit of the promised bright lights. I kept expecting to reach a mountain of steps but somehow we waylaid those altogether, suddenly emerging into the artist square of Montmatre which I remembered so well from my previous visit 18 months prior, with younger son Tom. 

Sacre Coeur

That view truly is at its best beyond midnight beneath a clear night sky and an almost full moon – the crowds have gone, the Tour d’Eiffel catches you by surprise on the mid horizon and the public loos are shut. Ah. Suddenly this was a pressing problem but with his cosmopolitan ways, Joe came up with a plan. Whilst he kept the waiter chatting by requesting a ‘tiramisu table a deux’, I nipped into their loo. The guy wasn’t too happy when I emerged! 

It was now long past one and I was convinced we’d never find the Marena again, sleeping out the night on the cobblestones beneath the furnicular railway, hopefully nicking that mattress I’d spotted just behind the recycling bins. Oh me of so little faith, Joe’s homing instinct is second to none and we were tucked up well before 2am.

The next day passed in a haze of wonderful food, wine cheaper than coffee in the Luxemburg Gardens, bookshops, Boris Bikes which we couldn’t fathom out (probably just as well), culture vulturing at the Pantheon, queue jumping at the public water fountains, strolling along the bank of the Seine, and an inimitable farewell supper at the chic organic cafe we discovered at the end of Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne in the 9th arrondissement. Somewhere else I plan to return to.


All too soon our 24 hours drew to a close, at Gare du Nord we struggled to comprehend the ticket machine and Joe finally strolled confidently through the gateway en route to the airport.  Is there anything as hard as keeping that smiling face in place for the final wave? 

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