A Summer with Toby

In case you don’t know, Toby is my campervan; a 1991 Talbot Express to be precise.

Having just bought Toby from a private seller I decided to take him for a brand new MOT despite his current one only being 1 month old. If I was driving him all the way to Spain I wanted him in tip top condition. He failed on loads of points that the previous MOT should have picked up on, he needed some welding and a few other bits and pieces (though by all accounts he was in very good condition for his age). I did the only sensible thing, I threw money at the problem. I was planning on leaving in 2 weeks. The guys at the garage were incredibly helpful and by the time I got him back he was driving like a dream and I felt very poor.

Road Trip to the Ferry Port

After the final packing and loading of the camper-van we finally left for Spain. Our first stop was the local Morrisons. We bought petrol, snacks and had macaroni cheese to tide us over. Having never driven Toby more than 15 miles, we were now driving to 300 miles or so to Dover to get the ferry. He drove so much better than he had before the trip to the garage, he could even cruise at 65 mph on the motorway without complaining. I think we even managed to over-take a lorry at one point, it was exciting. We didn’t make it to the ferry port until about 11:30 pm which was a bit later than I’d hoped but the ferry wasn’t until about 6 a.m. the next day. We drove around looking for a likely spot to pull up for the night and settled on a small carpark; we pulled our curtains closed ready for a few hours sleep.

Camper Margot

Things that went unexpectedly well:

  • Toby – he drove really well and used less petrol than I feared.
  • Margot – she loves being in the camper and snoozed most of the way.

Things we we should have considered earlier:

  • Toilets – the carpark did not have a toilet. Mum and I both dealt with this differently but I’ll leave out the details.
  • The bed – we hadn’t actually investigated how the bed set up; by morning we knew it wasn’t how we’d done it.

 

Driving Through France

We took the non toll road route. I had a vague outline of a plan, places I wanted  to reach each day though no actual idea about where we’d sleep. A lot of Europe is very campervan friendly so I figured we’d make it up as we went along, after all we couldn’t really know how far we’d go each day.

The roads through France are very wide and well kept, there were views of fields for miles and we eventually made it into areas of sunflower fields (my favourite). I’d hoped to make close to Bordeaux that first day but it was getting dark and late and we decided to find a campsite for the comfort of a hit shower. We made a better attempt at creating the bed, but it still didn’t seem right. We covered about 500 miles from the port to the campsite, we were hungry, grimy and a little grumpy but the campsite staff were friendly and chatty and the inevitable pouring rain came more as a relief than a problem.

dsc_1887.jpg

As the driver, I was happy to just keep driving, I would have hated to be a passenger though so I tried to keep in mind what it was like for Mum. As I mentioned before Margot was having a great time so I wasn’t too concerned about her. I’d connected my MP3 player to the sound system so we had music and we kept trying to find a coffee shop on the road but it seemed impossible. It was difficult enough to find a petrol station at times, and we really needed petrol, with Toby being so old it wasn’t a good idea to run low on Petrol.

For day 2 we decided to take a detour into Bordeaux, it seemed a shame to do all that driving and not actually visit anywhere. We were listening to “A Good Year” by Peter Mayle as an audiobook in the camper (downloadable from audible). It’s set in France with vineyards, wine and eccentric French plumbing (read unreliable French plumbing) and they went to Bordeaux at one point so we thought it fitting.

a good year

The traffic getting in was appalling, and getting out was even worse. We were in the middle of a heat wave and you may be surprised to learn that Toby doesn’t have air conditioning. In fact with the crawling pace of the traffic the engine was getting worryingly hot (I didn’t mention this to mum) the dashboard indicator was creeping closer and closer to the red zone. Once we were moving it was fine, it just needed the air flow.

We arrived in Bordeaux about 1pm, it was was beautiful. I love architecture and I could have spent weeks wandering around and sketching, but alas that wasn’t the sort of trip we were on this time so I took photos. We managed to find an open cafe eventually (everything was closed for the holidays) and spent a fortune on one creme-brulee and a single profiterole. After only and hour or so we decided to continue on our way. We wanted to reach Spain that day and that meant getting through the mountains.

bordeaux

We took one more stop before heading into the mountain at a town called Orthez. We made sandwiches and took Margot for a stroll. It was a little cooler and the town was pretty and quiet. It was as we started making our way through the Mountains that Toby started having “moments”. He had a “cough” he used to do this quite a lot before he went into the garage and usually he just snapped out of it. We made it up and through the mountains without too much concern though I was going as easily as I could. He’s quite a big heavy beast for the size of his engine and it was quite a climb. I was relieved when we made it to the decent though I hadn’t really indicated my concerns to mum (you notice it far more as the driver).

route 2

We’d driven about 400 miles that second day and had made it into Spain without me realising. I’d expected some sort of notable border, someone to check documentation etc but nope, nothing. So we carried on driving into the night.

Tune in next time to find out about where we slept and how Toby coped with a very hilly Spain.

Preparing To Leave

Before heading to Kazakhstan I had a few things to sort at home. Such as buy a camper-van, try to sell my boat, flog most of my belongings, pack Margot and any items I wanted to keep into my camper-van and drive them to Spain for safe keeping, turn 30, you know, the usual things.

Toby 1

I won’t give you a full diary account of everything, but here are a couple of highlights:

The Penny farthing

I managed to sell a lot of my belongings by carboot and online, in particular I sold my penny-farthing using Facebook Marketplace. The lady who bought it was registered blind and was coming to collect it on the train with her guide dog, I was going to meet her at the station in the afternoon.

penny farthing

  • I was late leaving school meaning I was really short on time to get the bike to the station.
  • I couldn’t find the key to unlock the bike from the bike rack, I went back and forth to the boat with handfulls of keys – non of them worked, now I had even less time.
  • I eventually got my electric drill and broke the lock off – nobody at the marina batted an eyelid.
  • I couldn’t get the flaming thing into my car!
  • I grabbed the keys to the camper-van and managed to cram it in there.
  • I drove to the train station in the camper having only driven it once up to that point.

Success!

We made it in time, we even had enough time to pump up the tires.

The Boat

Despite several promising viewings I didn’t manage to sell the boat in the time I had available, the plan was still to “move out” though. My Mum offered to come and visit and help with the clearing out and join me on the drive to Spain. I wont bore you with the details of clearing the boat, but we had several lovely picnics in the marina and ate out a lot as mum decided the first thing that needed emptying were the food cupboards and we weren’t to cook anymore.

The day we were due to leave I was sitting on the front of the boat disconnecting the gas when I heard a splash and instantly realised my whole purse had fallen in the marina and was quickly sinking below the boats. I quickly plunged my upper body over the side of the boat into the water in and attempt to grab it before it was out of reach but no luck. Mum had no idea what was going on and thought I was falling in. I explained, partially stripped and jumped in after it – it had all my bank cards and driving licence in; if I lost it we were going to be massively delayed. The water was a little chilly and extremely dark and murky. Down between the boats and under the pontoon it was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where the bottom was.

Mum secured Margot and came to assist – she was more panicked than I was as she couldn’t do anything. I bobbed about in the water trying to calm my heart rate so I could hold my breath long enough to reach the bottom. It was imperative I was slow and calm as if I stirred the silt up I would lose my purse forever and this water was incredibly silty. I dove down and slowly waved my hands around – nothing. I came back up reassuring Mum that it was under control. Up and down I went a few times until finally my hand made contact with my purse and I triumphantly made it to the surface.

margot

The purse safely on-board, the only difficulty remaining was how on Earth to get out. You have to realise the water level is maybe 70cm below the pontoons and a meter or more below anything on the boat you can grab. I tried clinging to the boat and pontoon and hoisting myself out, I tried using the ropes on my neighbours boat for a bit of leverage – it didn’t help, I tried moving further along in the hopes there was something to grab lower down and provide a bit some much needed assistance but no. Obviously I did eventually get out, using some combination of ropes , and Mum and swinging my legs up first, though not without gaining quite a scratch that seems to have left a bit of a scar, though I think it was fortunate not to get infected.

marina

Everything in my purse was laid out to dry, I changed clothes and Mum, Margot and myself went to the coffee shop for a breather. I couldn’t believe the adrenaline rush such an incident had caused.

We did manage to leave for Spain as planned, I’ll give you a few highlights from that adventure next time.

When Things Come Together

Ooh another Kazakhstan section, but you’ve turned down the job, what could possibly be happening now I hear you ask. Well, 4 days after declining the job offer in Kazakhstan, the international recruitment lady contacted me to suggest the same job, for the same group of schools, in a different city, in the same country, where I would be able to find accommodation allowing dogs, and as it’s a rural city it pays more (counter-intuitively).

s-margot.jpg

Though I would have to re-interview for the role with the staff at the new school. I now considered myself experienced with these interviews having completed one before with great success, so I thought, Why not and signed myself up for another Skype interview.

The interview seemed very much more a token interview this time. They seemed to have decided that if the previous school in the big city had wanted me then it must be their lucky day to get me out in the sticks.

After a little deliberation I decided to accept this job offer.

Team teaching grade 10-12 physics only, class size a maximum of 12 students: it sounded like a the most idyllic job I could have ever imagined.

s sketch tewkesbury

Then came the logistics. This is one of the main things about being a grown-up that I hate. Admin. Insurance, documentation, notaries, visas, vaccines, flights, council tax … and so on and so forth.

Plus I still had to get through the rest of the school term; though as the year 11’s had gone on exam leave my timetable was significantly improved and summer time on a narrowboat is wonderful, I especially enjoyed my mini veg garden.

Many of my colleagues were both envious and confused by my decision. Envious as I was leaving before what looked to be a difficult year, and confused as Kazakhstan wasn’t really an obvious choice. I don’t know the precise nuances of each of their situations, but I do believe people are rarely as trapped in their jobs as they think they are. If they really wanted a change they could do it, it might be difficult or uncomfortable but I don’t believe impossible.

I was due to start at the beginning of September alas the paperwork side of things slowed things down considerably to the point that I wasn’t entirely sure it would all come together, but , spoiler alert, it did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post.

So here is where the real tale begins, as I start my journey towards teaching physics in Kazakhstan.

s boat & margot

Exploring Your World By Urban Sketching

At the start of 2017, while living in Gloucestershire, I made a New Year’s resolution to draw more from real life, to be specific to begin urban sketching. If you aren’t sure what that means, it is simply drawing what you see in an ‘urban’ location. The aim is draw on site using whatever supplies you brought with you. Of course, no-one is going to stop you taking your sketch home and improving it or adding colour, but the intention is the sketches are created from real life.

There is a whole global art community dedicated to the practice of urban sketching; in hundreds of cities and towns in many countries sketching groups meet up to draw their environments. This community is known as USk and they have their own website listing each affiliated group around the world. That’s not to mention all of the unofficial groups around the world. It’s exciting to feel part of something so big, their website says:

“Come join us in showing the world one drawing at a time.”

and that sounds like a great adventure to be part of. Sure photos are great, but art can be so much more interesting.

At first I couldn’t find a group in Gloucestershire to join so I would go out sketching on my own. The sketch below is my first intentional Urban Sketch. I drew it sat on a bench in the middle of March, wrapped up cozy in my big coat and hat. I chose my church (Mariners) surrounded by the historic Gloucester docks as my first drawing. I sketched in pencil on location, then added colour at home using a mixture of Posca paint pens and coloured pencils from the pound shop.

Mariners

Mariners are a very friendly supportive church, and when they saw my sketch on Facebook asked if they could make postcards from it to place in the church for visitors to have and donations would go to the church. I was more than happy to do so (its a bit like the story of the talents in the bible). Of course many artists would frown on giving work away for free however I saw it more as giving back to God, he was welcome to use my work however he wanted, plus it’s nice to think there are random strangers out there in the world somewhere with a little piece of my art work (even better a piece I am pleased with).

mariners postcard

In 2018 I did eventually find a group that met once a month in Bristol, and I would join them from time to time (work permitting). We visited all sorts of locations, all free and all accessible by public transport. Museums, parks, interesting streets, markets, docks, anything and everything and the organisers were always open to suggestions.

There are so many advantages to urban sketching, and even more to meeting with a group.

1. You actually look at your surroundings.

I am not a naturally observant person, in fact many would call me oblivious. Sitting down and consciously observing your environment and the people around you really makes you notice and appreciate things you might have missed otherwise.

2. You can explore

As an extension to the first point, I particularly enjoy urban sketching when I am somewhere new. It’s a great way to explore and understand the area you are in. I try to ensure I sketch wherever I travel. Sometimes the buildings (I love buildings, they don’t move) and sometimes the people (they do move); you get to see similarities and differences and you gain some understanding.

3. You meet other people

I am also not naturally especially sociable, however the social side of urban sketching is within my comfort zone. Everyone has a common interest and there’s easy conversations to be had about art supplies, styles, and general preferences. All the events I’ve attended have ended up at a coffee shop where everyone is happy to share ideas and knowledge whilst eating cake (an obvious advantage).

4. Seeing a wide variety of art

During the coffee meet up at the end people generally pass their work around and it is fascinating (in a non-sarcastic way). You see so many ways to create an impression of your surroundings. Sure it can be daunting and you may not feel as capable as some of the others but you don’t have to share your work if you’d rather not. Either way I’ve definitely felt inspired and gained ideas from some of the pieces I’ve seen over the years.

5. You improve your skills

As with any activity, the more you practice the better you get. In this case, you get a wide range of subjects and conditions to sketch in. If you’re drawing people then maybe you’ll have a very short amount of time. If you’re drawing outside maybe the weather or lighting will be difficult. When you only have the items you brought with you, you will find a way to get along with them.

6. Its makes an interesting journal

Many people like to keep some sort of record of their lives, these days social media and photos on your phone do the job, but some people still like to keep a personal diary or journal. I love having these sketches as a travel journal. Places and people I’ve seen, events I’ve experienced. Sure they don’t have the perfect glossy finish a photo has, but I think they’re better for it. They show your personal impression of it all rather than an often impersonal, more factual representation.

Eventually an urban sketch group did form in Gloucestershire and I attended when I could. Sometimes some of the Bristol group would join us too. The Bristol group had really grown over the 2 years I’d been attending. It was good to see, though made finding a space for us all to sit together a bit tricky.

Now I am travelling again and sketching is still my way to explore and record my life and you will see some more glimpses of my life over the next few posts.

So How About Kazakhstan?

So I sent off my one and only job application for a physics teaching job in Kazakhstan of all places. Did I think I would be asked to interview? Did I know enough A-level Physics? Did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

I didn’t think at all, I didn’t need to, it was only an application not a lifetime commitment with legal contract.

A few weeks later I was asked for a Skype interview. Again I thought, Why not? Did I think I would be offered the job? Did I know enough A-level Physics? Did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

Again, I didn’t think much, I didn’t need to it was only an interview not a lifetime commitment with legal contract.

I could interview, then, if they didn’t offer me the job I  was no worse off, If they did offer me the job I could still say no, or, I could say yes, but I would have to interview to get those options, and I like options.

I gave another spectacular interview, this time sat on my boat with Margot climbing on me.

Margot
My little Margot

And on this occasion they did offer me the job.

Only one question was left, did I want the job in Kazakhstan? See how I saved myself so much worry and work by not thinking about things, now most of the questions had answered themselves without my interference.

But did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

This one I did think about. I was given 24 hours to accept the offer.

I did not accept their offer in 24 hours, after all I had barely thought about the possibility of actually getting the job. Instead I sent them a perfectly reasonable holding email as follows:

Sorry for the delay in replying. Before I can accept I need to check a few logistics at my end concerning my dog and home. I hope to be able to give a firm response early next week. I may have some questions before then, I hope that is OK.

Kind regards

Etc

LocationKazakhstan

I read the contract, it was a 1 year contract initially, the contact hours were well balanced with non contact hours, the holidays were good, the pay was great, plus there was a relocation package and accommodation and utilities paid, 2 return flights a year also paid. It seemed like a very good deal but I had questions.

My questions were as follows:

  • What does a typical timetable look like?

I was emailed a fairly unintelligible one in Russian or Kazakh, I’m not sure which.

  • Can I bring my dog? (very important)

They will negotiate with the landlord.

  • Is there a bath? (extremely important)

Maybe a bath, maybe a shower.

  • Are there cooking facilities? ( I don’t like cooking but it’s good to know)

Apartments are equipped with basic cooking facilities and the relocation allowance should cover anything else required.

  • What is the notice period if things are not working out at either end? (I like to have an escape plan in place before committing to anything)

1 month notice.

With a 1 month notice period (read escape plan), the ability to bring my dog and the possibility of a bath I thought as usual, Why not!

Approximately 102 hours after being given 24 hours to accept the job, I finally accepted the job!

15 hours later I am informed the landlords do not allow pets. I am now to reconfirm my acceptance of the job in light of this recent development.

I decide to spend the week trying to find dog friendly accommodation in the city for myself before confirming. I fail at this and so I decline the job. I had between myself and God decided that Margot was my non-negotiable, If God didn’t want me to go to Kazakhstan then this was his way to stop me.

So that was that. I bet you thought I was going to Kazakhstan. That that would be an adventure worth writing about as opposed to turning down my one and only job offer. But hey ho, that’s what happened.

 

Let’s Go Abroad

The Easter holidays had arrived, and I had decided to visit my parents in Spain (proper Spanish Spain in the mountains, I explain this every time as I subconsciously fear people imagining us as classic Brits abroad. Maybe we really are and just don’t know it). I hadn’t been out that way since I had got my dog the previous summer. I still didn’t have a post teaching plan but was very much looking forward to some down time and maybe putting in some serious thought on the subject.

xativa sketch_edit

Teaching abroad wasn’t an option I had considered seriously mostly due to being kind of over it by this point. However,  as I was in Spain anyway, I emailed the local international school and asked to have a look around. I had no frame of reference for teaching in Spain, what were the conditions like, working hours, salary, student mentality etc, it was worth looking into. The school  were more than happy for me to visit. They gave me a guided tour followed by asking me if I would come for an interview for a physics position they had available immediately. I thought, Why not?, so turned up at beautiful marbled school all shiny and slippery and expensive looking, designed to impress parents into spending large amounts of money to educate their children there.

I gave a spectacular interview.

I never heard from them again.

I didn’t want to work there anyway.

No really I didn’t. The pay was less than the UK, the working hours and holidays were similar, the workload was maybe lighter, there was a language barrier and general differences in behaviour expectations. From my point of view the pupils were chatty and rude. It didn’t seem like a great alternative to teaching in the UK.

So there you are, this isn’t a tale about taking a teaching job in Spain, rather a mini tale of being ghosted by a Spanish school after they asked me to interview.

Immediately after my Spain interview I knew it wasn’t for me so I sat outside in the Spanish sun and googled where in the world is it best to teach. On a random list, somewhere near the top was listed Kazakhstan with a link to a job advert in Astana and I thought why not? So I spent the next hour filling in their application form and sent it off.

This was the one and only application form I had submitted since handing in my notice.

So how’d that pan out? I’ll tell you next time.

bocairent sketch

The Futures I Didn’t Choose

I have a “retire by 40” plan.

It’s not very complicated.

It has 3 steps:

  • earn as much as I can
  • spend as little as possible
  • invest as securely and profitably as I am able.

Not particularly ground-breaking I hear you say, but I feel that by having this aim I am more conscious of my financial decisions and so should, in theory, at least end up retiring earlier than if I didn’t have a plan.

Now I didn’t have a job I would need to come up with a new way to earn as much as I could.

Options I considered for my future included:

  • Running away on my boat
  • Mooring somewhere permanently and tutoring
  • Starting a city farm/microgreens farm
  • Starting a small flower shop
  • Starting a small coffee bean shop
  • Teaching abroad
  • Opening an independent cinema
  • Getting another geophysics related job
  • Painting/crafting and selling at markets/online
  • Doing a Masters abroad in Big data or Remote sensing
  • Online study of Big data or Remote sensing
  • Carbooting

Running away

Running away on my boat was tempting, but sadly not a long-term solution on its own. Even without having to pay long-term mooring fees I would need to pay for diesel and the general boat upkeep and so would eventually need some sort of income. I could combine this with selling paintings and other creations or carbooting which may provide sufficient income to prevent using my savings too quickly. Tutoring was also a lucrative side-line, one I had pursued whilst teaching and could easily continue but would require a more stable location or to branch into online tutoring. Irregular methods of income like these could also provide the time for online study giving wider career options in the future, plus I just really love learning new things.

Sadly for now, this is not a tale about escaping the rat-race and living an idyllic life on the waterways, maybe one day.

watercolour boats

Starting a business

With savings in the bank it may have been the perfect time to start some form of business. I spent a fair amount of time researching various ideas. The cinema, although a dream I’ve had for a while, my savings would not cover and I couldn’t find a viable building available on the market. The flower shop idea smelt good and included the perfect perishable product but after considering the early mornings, markets and general hassle I realised I wasn’t actually that interested in flowers. It was at this stage the coffee bean shop idea occurred to me. It too smells great and is a consumable, and in the current age there is a lot of interest in different beans and roasts, I still think this idea could be a good future plan, maybe for my next adventure.

This is definitely not a tale of taking on a brave new business venture in a difficult economic climate, rather a tale of pipe-dreams without any real substance, but who knows maybe one day I’ll flesh one of them out.

A proper job

Re-entering the world of geophysics seemed to many to be the obvious choice. My degree was in geophysics and before I became a teacher I worked for a couple of companies as a geophysicist. The difficulty with this option was that most of my experience was in the oil industry and quite frankly it bored me to tears. I had no intention of returning to a dull, 9-5 office job. Consequently It would be best to gain some current training in a different area of geophysics which lead back to online or university study.

This is also not a tale about doing the sensible, grown up thing and getting a stable job in an industry I’m familiar with. Frankly who would want to write about that, let alone read about it.

magcmb
Radial magnetic field at CMB (University of Liverpool)

Studying

Going back to university was tempting as I love getting a new piece of paper with my name on, no really, not being sarcastic, I love getting qualifications. Initially I looked specifically at overseas masters as many of them have no course fees, however most would be costly in other ways, mainly living expenses. So I moved on to considering UK based courses, they weren’t free, but if I studied at a university near a canal network I could live on my boat and so save considerably on living costs. After a bit more thought and a few spreadsheets I concluded the amount spent on course fees, plus living expenses, plus the amount lost due to not earning that year, added up to a sum that would require many years to recoup in theoretical extra earnings. As I mentioned earlier, I love learning new things so I would enjoy the process, but it would likely put a dent in my “retire by 40” plan.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t a tale about becoming a mature student, retraining, fulfilling my potential and achieving my career goals. I mean that might be worth writing and reading about, but nope, just wasn’t feeling it.

So if these are the futures I didn’t choose, what did I do? I’ll tell you next time.

Daily doodles – the best of the rest

Way, way back, at the end of 2015 I started a daily doodle challenge. I did complete the challenge however never did get around to posting the doodles for the second half of the year. So here is a best of the rest from that challenge. During this time I discovered Posca pens and thoroughly enjoyed developing a new style which has become integral to a lot of what I do currently (more on this coming soon).

Quitting My Teaching Job!

At the start of these tales I was a 29 year old physics teacher in the UK. I lived happily on my narrowboat on the edge of the Cotswolds with my lovely dog Margot named after Margot Leadbetter (The Good Life). Getting to this stage had involved many spur of the moment decisions based on whims and impulse and I can’t say I regret any of them. Maybe I’ll tell you about some of them one day, but I feel I have to start somewhere so here’s as good a point as any.

cirencester market sketch

Quitting

I hadn’t always been a teacher and knew from the start I wasn’t going to be a teacher for long. As much as I enjoyed working with my colleagues, conditions in British schools are not conducive to an enjoyable career. So after a 1.5 years teaching I handed in my notice, I’d say it was on a whim, but I’d been thinking about it for a while, I was just waiting for January to pass so I could be sure it wasn’t January blues talking.

I’ve found that once people know you’ve quit they all have some variation of the same question:

“What are you going to do next?”

I didn’t have a clue and this seemed to confuse and concern them. They couldn’t grasp the idea of just quitting, it didn’t make sense. I must do something, I would need a job surely, wasn’t I worried about that. I wasn’t really. I’ve always kept an eye on my finances, lived carefully and saved a good percentage of my income. I would never have allowed myself to quit if I wasn’t confident I could support myself. I had my boat, my mooring and my savings, plus no mortgage, no kids, no partner and few bills, I was accountable to no-one and pretty much sorted.

Of course, inevitably I did do something and next post I will let you in on some of the myriad of possibilities I considered.

night docks