A postcard from Liguria

Dear Sam,


I enjoyed reading about the difference the Free Rice game has made to so many children and it was nice to start September with some good news!

Boat trips, food and sunshine…

For us, since W left school, the autumn has become a time to take a break and, you’re quite right that by the time you read this, we’ll be on our way home from Italy.  We’re visiting Liguria, in the north west, for the first time. I’m looking forward to exploring and our plans include a boat trip to Portofino, walks around the Cinque Terre and perhaps a visit to Boccadasse where some of my favourite Inspector Montalbano series has been filmed.

Cinque Terre

Of course, I’m also looking forward to some good food.  I gather Liguria is known for its olive oil, focaccia bread and seafood and that snacks called stuzzichini are popular, so those will all be on our menu!

Stuzzichini – snacks – perfect with a glass of wine.

When we get home, it will actually be time for me to go back to school myself as I’ve signed up for some classes, including Italian. I’ll have to try to get in some practice while we’re in Italia!

Much love,


What to do with clutter after you’ve cleared it?

Paintbrushes in a jar

Dear Sam,

I’m glad to hear the gingerbread went down well. I’ll look for some more recipes for us to try before long. Perhaps something savoury next time.

How are you getting along with cutting down on using your phone? I’ve just had an unplanned Digital Detox as we’ve been to see G’s Mum who doesn’t have Wi-Fi. I must admit, I enjoyed being away from the internet and using the time to read more, though I do seem to have slipped back into old habits now we’re home again. Perhaps the trick for me is to pretend I’m in north Wales.

Finding a new home for old furniture

Like you, I’ve been thinking lately about clearing some clutter. We’ve recently redecorated our bedroom and have had to part with some wardrobes and other furniture that was surplus to requirement. Although our local council will collect large items, I didn’t want them to go to landfill. They were serviceable but I didn’t feel confident in trying to sell them ourselves, so what to do with them? Fortunately, after searching online, I realised that the British Heart Foundation have a furniture shop nearby. They were really helpful; after sending them an email, they called me back to arrange for their staff to collect the furniture. They arrived right on time and were very professional. A couple of weeks later, we received a letter to let us know how much money the furniture had raised. Certainly better than sending it to the skip!

Your unwanted item might be perfect for someone

When something hasn’t been suitable for donation to a charity shop, the other option I’ve used in the past is Freecycle. I’m not sure if you have this in the US, but it’s a website where people can list things they no longer want or post requests for items they need, so you can also match your item to someone who is looking for that very thing. It can be really rewarding to pass possessions on to new owners; when my parents moved house we used Freecycle to rehome some large garden planters full of spring bulbs. They went to a gardening-mad couple who were thrilled with them, as the stone had aged beautifully in the time my parents had enjoyed owning them.

Window panes with snow
Snow is much more enjoyable when it stays outside the house.

I’ll be using Freecycle again soon, as during the recent wintry weather, two inches of snow ended up in our attic. Fortunately, we managed to clear it out before it melted, but it reminded us that we have far too much stored up there and now’s the time to sort it out!

Much love,


P.S I should also tell you about two acts of kindness during our renovations. We used a local carpenter and decorator and, accidentally, the decorator damaged one of our new wardrobes. Not only did the carpenter sort it out for us at no cost, but the decorator bought wine and flowers to thank us for our patience, and beer to thank the carpenter. Top customer service and all-round kind behaviour – big firms take note!


Happy new beginnings

Dear Claire,

I hope you had a lovely festive season and that 2018 is off to a good start. We had a very pretty white Christmas here, but it was so cold that some days it literally took your breath away. We still have snow on the ground, with probably more to come. So I am dreaming of spring!

That’s why I’ve posted a picture of daffodils today. They symbolize both happy memories and new beginnings – just as we look back and look ahead at the time of new year. Of course, being the national flower of Wales, they remind me of you, and I’ve been reading a bit about their meaning in other cultures as well.  In China, they represent good fortune; in Japan, mirth and joy; and in France, hope. Apparently in some Arabian countries, the daffodil flower is believed to be a cure for baldness! And is it true that in Wales, there is a legend that whoever finds the first daffodil of the year will be blessed with gold rather than silver in the months to come?

Over here, the daffodil is the symbol of the American Cancer Society – a symbol of hope that a cure might be found. At this time of year people are beginning to work on fundraisers called Daffodil Days, through which you can buy bunches or potted flowers and even chocolate daffodils in support of the Society’s work. People are taking orders from now until early February, and the daffodils are delivered in the middle of March.

I also read about the Great Daffodil Appeal in support of Marie Curie in the UK. This seems like a great volunteer opportunity if anyone has a couple of hours to spare.

I’m looking forward to continuing our letters to each other this coming year, sharing ideas and learning a little along the way.

Happy new beginnings…
and much love

Top ten ideas for gifts that do good

Dear Sam,

Happy Thanksgiving for yesterday!

I was thinking of you and how grateful I am that we can connect through our blog, too. I was delighted to hear that being kind is so good for us – that’s definitely a win-win situation.

Talking about being kind, the season of goodwill is approaching and I’ve been pondering the gifts I need to buy. This year, in the spirit of Staircase 9 17, I’ve looked for presents  which help people as well as (hopefully) making the recipient happy. I thought I’d share my Top Ten ideas with you today:

1. Buying seasonal supplies is a great way to support charities and this year I’ve ordered some cards from Book Aid and my wrapping paper from Alzheimer’s Society.

2. As well as buying online, it’s fun to keep a look out for presents at the craft fairs and fetes that are held before Christmas in support of causes close to home.

coffee Christmas

3. Gifts of food always go down well with my friends and family, so I’m planning to get some Manumit coffee, which supports victims of modern slavery. Lots of our local shops sell Fairtrade goods, too, and I might add in some biscuits, a couple of mugs and a pretty tea towel to complete the present.

4. As well as buying from charities I try to support local ventures, which help to make the area we live in more vibrant and interesting.  We have a couple of art colleges nearby and some of the students sell their work directly, so you can find a unique gift and help someone out at the start of their career.

5. I often give books as gifts and I noticed that there is a range of paperbacks for sale which support Cancer Research UK.  I also have my eye on Stressed, Unstressed, the poetry anthology produced by the ReLit Bibliotherapy Foundation.

6. Beautiful accessories are a favourite option for my friends and I like the purses, jewellery rolls and bags made by Lua, who work with craftspeople in Vietnam.


7. I love to give and receive lotions and potions and I found some lovely soaps produced by Arthouse Meath, which is a collective of artists living with disabilities.

8. We all have people on our present list who already have everything and the ‘virtual’ charity gifts like ‘give a goat to Granny’ have been popular for some time.  I like the idea of matching the gift to the person’s interests. One year I paid for stethoscopes for use in the developing world on behalf of my doctor parents and this year an option caught my eye for booklovers: to support the work of Chawton House Library (which is at the ‘Great House’ near Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire, UK) you can adopt a book  on someone’s behalf.

9. Another idea for those who seemingly have it all is tickets for an evening out. An ideal choice is a charity concert or film screening; you can find out what’s on by searching online or contacting a charity close to your heart to ask about forthcoming events.



10. And finally, why not offer a ‘voucher’ for some help? It can be anything you know the recipient would appreciate, from time to help sort through a collection of photos to babysitting for new parents. It’s easy to print a bespoke voucher and you can pair it with a suitable small gift like a lovely album for the pictures or a  bottle of wine for a pre-dinner drink.

Have you made a start on your seasonal shopping? I’d love to hear how your preparations are going.

Much love,






Free Rice

Dear Claire,

We had an amazing time in Italy, thanks! And believe it or not Duolingo was the app we used to learn a little Italian before we went. I thought it was very well designed, and definitely made the learning fun. I can’t say I took it to the gym, but putting it to use while walking around Rome in 40-degree-plus heat was perhaps as much of a workout!

I discovered something I didn’t know about Rome, too: it’s the headquarters of the United Nations World Food Programme. And since we’re on the topic of online learning, have you heard of their game called Free Rice? Their mission is two-fold:

  1. To provide education to everyone for free; and
  2. To help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free

It’s essentially a general knowledge quiz, and for every question you get right, an advert pops up – and that advert generates 10 grains of rice for the world food programme, which goes to feed the hungry.

So: an online game that helps improve your learning and benefits a good cause all at the same time. Such a clever idea.

Safe travels. I hope you have a lovely vacation!


Kids and kindness

Dear Claire.


Happy summer! I  think this is the week when the children break up from school in the UK, though they’ve been out here for a few weeks already. Which means we’re at that moment when, after those first heady days of the holidays, comes a question that I’m sure you’ll recall: ‘What can I do?’

I just read an article in Parents Magazine here that had several inspiring answers to that question, and also speaks to the mission of our blog: How to Raise Happy Kids: Commit Acts of Kindness.

Another popular activity here for kids is to set up a lemonade stand. It’s a fun way for them to get outside, learn a few business skills, earn a little pocket money for themselves … and I know a few families where the kids pick a charity to donate half their profits to. There are plenty of helpful articles online about how to set up a stand, but I quite like this one: So You Want to Start a Lemonade Stand.

Of course, it’s just the ticket for someone who needs a little refreshment after a walk in the park, and the perfect opportunity to sell some of your bake sale brownies, too!


PS We’re off on our trip to Italy soon, so will look forward to catching up again when we’re back.

Charity Miles

Dear Claire,

Thanks so much for sharing the recipe for your bake sale brownies. The challenge in my household will be making sure enough of them actually make it to the bake sale! And then of course comes the other challenge of working off the calories!

I’ve come across a solution, though, in the form of an app that I’ve just downloaded to my phone, called Charity Miles. When you walk or run or cycle, the app tracks your activity and then for every mile, a donation between 10 and 25 cents goes to a charity, depending on the activity. The money comes from corporate sponsorships, and there are several charities to choose from (the Alzheimer’s Association is one of them, as well as the Nature Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity, Autism Speaks and several others). I thought it was a fabulous idea to encourage you to exercise (which as we know has a positive effect on mood and happiness) and to make a difference to others at the same time.

For me it’s the perfect time to try this, as the good weather starts to kick in and we head out for cycle rides and walks in the park. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy summer!

With love,

Strings and things

Dear Claire,

Well, that’s something I never knew – that reading for just six minutes can reduce stress by 68%. We must have been so relaxed at Pembroke! And probably didn’t appreciate it 🙂

In answer to your question about Oxfam, while we do have Oxfam America, they don’t operate charity shops (aka thrift stores) in the same way here. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and volunteer though. And plenty of thrift stores run by other organizations such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army and ReStore, a part of Habitat for Humanity. I’ve been traveling since Easter, but this weekend we’ll be taking the results of our de-cluttering off to one of them.

Now to something else we’re doing this weekend. As you know, J is a violin player, and  on Sunday the studio he belongs to, Suzuki Violinists of Western New York, is performing a concert in support of Buffalo String Works. We have quite a diverse refugee population here in Buffalo, and the mission of Buffalo String Works is to help displaced children build community through music – a common language that they can all share, despite the different countries they have come from. Teachers volunteer their time and the children and parents in our studio have been collecting and donating used music and instruments. This is the second year of the benefit concert, and some of the children from Buffalo String Works are coming to perform as well. The concert is called From Children to Children. I’m inspired by the idea of teaching children how they might use their talents to give to and learn from each other, so that hopefully they will continue to do so as they become adults.

I hope you have an inspiring weekend ahead, too!

With love,


Give up clutter

Dear Claire,

First, I have to say a big thank you for that clip from Morecambe and Wise. Happy for sure. It brought me right back to childhood Saturdays at my grandparents’ house. A few years back now!

Just a quick post today, but I heard this the other day and thought you might like it. The conversation was around what to give up for Lent – and the idea was to give up clutter! Specifically, pick one thing a day to give up, put it in a box, and once Lent is over, take the box to a charity shop.

I thought this a rather clever way to help yourself and benefit others at the same time. And depending on one’s tradition, it doesn’t have to be tied to Lent, of course; it could work at any time of the year. It’s good for me, anyway, as I’m enlisting my other family members too, and suddenly spring-cleaning doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming….

Lots of love,


Souper Bowl

Dear Claire,

What a wonderful volunteer opportunity in Dementia Friends, and one dear to your heart, I know. I love all the different ways you can choose to participate. I checked to see whether there’s an initiative over here – and there is. Take a look at Dementia Friends USA. They are literally just beginning to put state licenses in place, so there’s rather a long way to go to match your numbers. Let’s hope it takes off!

On a very different note, I thought of you this past week when I saw a news story on the Six Nations Rugby tournament. We had the Super Bowl here last month. It won’t come as much of surprise to you that I’m not exactly a devotee of American football, but what was interesting was something they did at J’s school to benefit our Western New York food bank. They put two large bins in the entrance lobby, each representing one of the teams in the Super Bowl. Every child was asked to bring in a can of soup to deposit in the bin of the team they thought would win. As it turned out, it was a virtual tie between the two teams… quite the prediction, when you think that for the first time in Super Bowl history the teams did in fact tie and had to go into overtime! Anyway, I thought this was a clever idea for any group who might want to collect food donations for a food bank or shelter or another cause. They called it the “Souper Bowl” 😊.

You’d need something different in the UK, of course. Perhaps the Canned National (groan)! Not quite sure what you’d do with the Six Nations!

With love,


PS Guess how much food the students collected  for the food bank? A whopping 2000 lbs! So the principal rewarded the students with a late-start day, which just happened to be the day after everyone stayed up to watch the game….