A week in – Routines and Flashpoints

So we are now over a week into our adventure, due to our early start, and perhaps this is a good time to look back, as well as forward. We’re now at our second main stop. Brussels, and in our fourth country, Belgium.

What have we achieved?

  • Everyone is still alive, present, and no-one is ill.
  • We have all eaten new things, and enjoyed them.
  • We have travelled over 1000 miles, by car, foot, train, metro, tram, and bus.
  • We have experienced new things, old things, sweet things, beautiful things.
  • I don’t think anyone has lost anything, although I may have lost a pair of pants. (No big story there, but it peeves me to have lost them.)

We are in the process of settling into our routines, if such a thing is possible over a journey of 26 weeks, but I wouldn’t say we have settled into them yet. Is such a thing, a cadence if you like, possible, required, or wanted?

We have tended to start the day with a short exercise programme, based on the classic Royal Canadian Air Force 5BX and XBX programmes. These have 11 and 12 minutes routines of increasing intensity. They are not too horrid, mainly because they are so short.

This is followed by breakfast, then 15 minutes of maths for Aurora, Sophie, and Magnus, using books the school provided, or science or music for Lucy, either also provided by the school or grade 5 theory. We usually do the work one to one, and it has been sold on the basis of “this is all the school you are going to get today”, which is only partly correct. It generally is the only formal structured learning they get. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, such as the day we were leaving Amsterdam for Brussels. I think this is balanced, and supplemented by, the learning they get from just being and living where we are, the conversations we have about what is around us, and what we are seeing, as well as all the interactions in shops, bell towers, galleries, metro stations, etc.

There has been conflict too, about this and more, as we find our feet on the road. Tiredness is often a contributing factor, and sleeping in different beds is always hard. Travel is tiring (I found the first three days of driving particularly draining) and not just for the driver. Later nights, especially for Magnus, and irregular daily schedules don’t help, hence the routines above.

Phones are also a bit of a flashpoint, and it is difficult for us to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as so much of what Harriet and I are doing – researching, blogging, and other things which would normally be analogue, like reading – is on phones or a tablet. I have removed all the games I had on my phone, so as not to be a complete hypocrite…

I do get annoyed when phones come out at the slightest lull in activity, particularly when it is for pointless games, in a beautiful town square, or the like, and sometimes I’ve snapped when they’ve been taken out to take a photo (snapping at snaps?) which is wrong of me.

So how to manage it?

Originally, each of the children had a phone time limit through FamilyLink, which we removed when we realised they were restricting their (our perception of) “good use” (photos, research, learning, blogging) so they could play more games and chat and message with friends. Most car journeys are phone-free, and that has worked well in general, at least until the final hour of a long journey. The car is not wifi-enabled anyway… We tried restricting apps by temporarily blocking them in FamilyLink but that took them out of their folders upon unblocking them, which didn’t go down well.

We’ve come to realise that some activities need to be “physical with a point” like climbing a windy bell-tower in Ghent, instead of “aimless and cerebral” like wandering round a museum. The Instagram photo competition we had last Friday worked well too, so that might become a regular feature.

I think it comes down to chat and compromise, and we are all still learning and adapting. They don’t have a lot of the things we have at home – no-one has watched any TV (just another screen…) since we left – so phones provide a distraction, some privacy and a connection to missed friends at home after all. And we are still talking about it in a (mostly) civil way.

Enough musings for one post, methinks.

Ben

Week 1 – Travel and Amsterdam

Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….

Where were we?

UK

This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.

A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.

France

Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.

The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.

Belgium

First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….

Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.

Four countries in two days.

The Netherlands

We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.

We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.

Home in Holland

Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.

You wait 43 years for a windmill and then 19 come along at once.

We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.

It must be time to move on.

What were our impressions? What surprised you?

Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.

Buildings. Stuck together.

Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.

Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.

“The Man with the Frizzy Hair” at the Rijksmuseum

Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.

Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.

Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.

How was the weather?

Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).

No such thing as bad weather.

What were the highlights?

Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.

Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.

Keane

Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.

Ben: Kinderdijk, the Rijksmuseum, the escalator up from Rokin metro, where all the archaeological finds from the build are beautifully displayed, the dreadful weather not stopping anything (and the joy of a cold sun yesterday).

Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.

Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!

Flipping poffertjes

Any bad bits? Did we fight?

What do you think?

We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.

Appropriate phone use?

How plastic free were we?

Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.

What did we eat?

Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).

What’s next?

Lunch in the Hague and supper in Brussels…

By everyone!

Resilience Training 101

So here we were feeling all “ready to go” and “we’ve got this”, when we heard that our ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam has been cancelled.

The very first thing we have booked has already been cancelled. Fair enough – there is going to be the mother and father of a storm this weekend – and crossing the North Sea then would have put our consitutions, and possibly minimal packing, to the test.

The alternative we have been offered is a sailing on Wednesday evening, which doesn’t work for a number of reasons –

  • We have paid for our accommodation in Amsterdam
  • We have tickets for Keane the night we arrive
  • We have tickets for Anne Frank’s house the next day
  • Our lovely friends who are staying in our house are expecting to move in on Tuesday

So, we have accepted the challenge, and will be leaving home a day before we expected. We have booked the Eurotunnel, which is not going to be wind-affected. We will stay with Granny in Essex on Sunday night, and get to The Netherlands for Tuesday via France and Belgium on Monday.

Some sleep-overs will be cut short, a nice evening with friends will have to wait half a year, and it is a very good thing I didn’t go to the Calcutta Cup.

Ben

What about work (part 1)?

As well as “What about School?” and “What about your House?“, the other question which comes up time and again is “What about your work?”.

The answer is different for each of us, and again is a mix of planning and taking opportunities when they arise. Harriet will probably write about her situation soon, so I will concentrate on mine.

What’s going on?

I have worked for a large UK telecommunications company for over 15 years, starting back in my early 30s (not the early ’30s). I’ve worked in a number of different roles in that time, and I’ve been doing what I do now for almost 3 years. I manage a contract which builds fibre broadband infrastructure to places it wouldn’t normally get to without government assistance.

Bringing Fibre Broadband to rural places is pretty glamorous, don’t you know

It has been one of the best jobs, if not the best job, I have done. It has been successful, and inspiring to see how the impact has transformed people’s lives. I work with a great team, both within my company and the government partners working on the programme.

This will change at the end of this week, when I leave my job, and step into an unpaid unknown. Not completely unknown, of course. There has been a great deal of planning about the next six months, after all! But in terms of how I will earn money once I return, I have no concrete plans.

Why?

So why did I chose to leave such a successful and rewarding role, and a steady job, working with people I like? Here are some of the reasons:

  • This trip has been a plan since long before I worked in my current job. Admittedly it was a bucket list pipe dream for much of it, but the seeds of it were sown as we watched the London 2012 Olympics from France, having declined offers of tickets, and told ourselves they would be a bit rubbish.
  • This is the right time for the trip, not just for the Olympics, but also for the children. They are old enough to enjoy it, remember it, get lots out of it, and not miss any important exams.
  • A combination of factors at work meant this was the right time to move on. The contract I work on is coming to an end. The company is going through some restructuring which would have meant compromises for how I work. We had explored the idea of a sabbatical, but that was not at all certain, at least in time for the planning we needed to do, and the timing of the trip. And I’m the sort of person who prefers to leave a party when it is still good, so it is time for a new challenge.

I suppose the main reason is that I prioritised going on a family adventure over career development at my current employment. I really am leaving to spend more time with my family.

What next?

I’m not particularly afraid about the next steps in the world of work, but I really don’t know what sort of work it will be. I would like to think that I could get another role within another big company on my return; after all, today’s job has been successful and at least I’d get an interview or two from people asking me about Tweed to Tokyo.

In terms of career development, I am also pretty confident that Tweed to Tokyo will give several examples of business-friendly terms to discuss: planning, budgeting, logistics, international customs, people management, risk management, leadership, negotiation, all that…

But I might decide that that sort of salaryman role is not for me. Maybe I will open a sushi restaurant in the Borders, or start to make cheese, or import Japanese whisky. Maybe we will think that Kyrgyzstan, or Hungary, is the place to be and start the process of emigration.

While these are all things that I have thought about, however fleetingly, not to mention unrealistically, I expect the reality will turn out to be something different. The six months that we have will give me some headspace to think about it, and to get my head around not being in today’s job. Part of the planning has been to give both of us some adjustment time when we get back too.

I’m writing this now on the early train to Edinburgh, on my way to another train to Glasgow, for my last work trip there.

A dark Tweedbank morning, albeit with an excellent advertising panel.

Whatever is next I do feel I’m not going to miss the 05h58 from Tweedbank.

Ben

Hard choices – Not this time for Nukus

Last year I read an article telling the incredible story of the Savitsky Collection at what is now the Nukus Museum of Art.

In short, Igor Savitsky was a wealthy Muscovite Russian who over a period of years amassed a stunning collection of Russian avant-garde art during the 1950s, in particular buying and collecting works by (and from) dissident artists who had been banned by Stalin, and taking them to Nukus, in what is now Uzbekistan, far from the watching authorities in Moscow and even Tashkent.

It is exactly the sort of place I would love to visit for all sorts of reasons.

I was given 3 lovely mugs from a National Gallery of Scotland exhibition of Russian avant-garde art for my 21st birthday. It is a fantastic story, and it seems like it was just the sort of place we should visit, if we are close. And why wouldn’t we do it as part of the adventure?

But here’s the thing. When Igor Savitsky took all that art far away from prying eyes, he did an extremely good job…

It turns out it is really difficult to get to Nukus and it really is a long way from anywhere else we are planning to visit. We want to stick by our no-flights-except-home rule, and this means trains.

There are 2 trains a week from Tashkent, and they take between 18 and 22 hours, depending on the route, which is fair enough when you realise that Nukus is over 1100km from Tashkent (about the same as Paris to Vienna). The days they go are not particularly convenient, and there is no child-bribing water-park, or even anything else at all, worth going to see in the surrounding area.

We could go, but it would mean missing out on some of the great Silk Road cities – Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand – as our arrival into and departure from Tashkent are fixed. That’s a lot to sacrifice for a few hours in the company of an amazing art collection and many more hours on long trains.

So it was with regret that we ejected (nuked?) Nukus from our itinerary last night.

This is not an exhibit from the Savitsky Collection.

You can check out some of the paintings here.

Maybe we will have to plan another trip there next year…

Ben

Getting Very Real Now

Over the last six weeks or so, we have taken huge steps towards making what was a pipe dream into a reality. Among other things, our first 100 days or so are almost entirely booked, we have tickets for various exhibitions and concerts, and we have shiny Chinese visas in our passports.

I am very excited.

In the words of Primal Scream, just what is it that I want to do? We want to be free to do what we want to so, we’re going to have a good time, and we’re going to have a party.

I also know that my expectations about the trip, the children on the trip, and me on the trip, are wildly optimistic. I will not get fit in 10 minutes. There will be times we will be lost, tired, bored, resentful, angry, disappointed and bicker with each other. We will miss opportunities. We will waste time and money. I will not become a perfect parent who never screams “STOP SHOUTING AT YOUR SISTER!”… Well, not immediately anyway.

We have also been writing lots of lists including kit, things to sort before we go, places to visit when we are on the road, and a long list of “things which are free and cheap, for the days when our weekly budget is gone by Tuesday morning.” Any hints and tips gratefully received.

Lots of the things on the to do lists are now ticked, which is exciting, but we do seem to add to them almost as quickly. We’re using various shared apps, in particular Cozi and Workflowy, though probably not getting the most out of either. We have a big paper file too with all sort of sections, now bursting at the seems.

Our goal is to do at least one thing every day for the trip, though often this ends up being more than one thing. My task for the day is to ring the Mongolian embassy in Paris (obvs),and Harriet has also rung our home insurance people already. We also got the children to download Cozi, GoogleTranslate and What3words, which will help with our Security Protocol, which is a grown up way of saying “what to do if our children get lost while trying not to look like that Picasso painting”.

Weeping Woman 1937

We’ve come a long way from the pipe dream. There’s a long way to go yet.

Ben

The Questions – Ben

Where are we going?

We are going to Japan. Overland.  [yadda yadda yadda list of countries]

Why are we doing this?

Lots of reasons. It’s an adventure and it could be fantastic.  We’re doing it for the children to give them a window onto the big wide world. And for ourselves for the same sort of reason.  There’s an element of educational FOMO in terms of the wider world experience and wanting to improve on what they might be missing out on.

What are you most looking forward to?

In terms of places: the ‘Stans and China. But in terms of feeling I think the headspace. The press the pause button on the daily race of work and taxi driving and the house and the grind.

And least?

I expect having to readjust when I get home.  The post holiday feeling will be quite extreme after six months.

What will you miss about home.

My bed.  Privacy.  We’re going to be very much on top of each other.

Are you worried about anything?

Yes. I’m worried about catastophes: illness, security, the car breaking down (or an accident).  I’m worried about things back home requiring our attention or intervention.  Some of those things could be really horrible.  I’m worried about losing children and I’m worried we could potentially fall out and alienate somebody in the family.

How do you think you will change?

I would like to come back healthier in body and mind.  With a plan for what I’m going to do next.

Who do you think is going to be best at eating new things?

Me

What skill do you have that will be most useful on our trip

An ability to think on my feet in challenging situations.

What will you struggle with?

Arguments, whinging, I think there are places where the language barrier will be difficult.  And how much freedom to give the children.  Budgeting.  I don’t want to be responsible every hour for everybody’s entertainment.

And how are going to try and get over that?

Trying to anticipate and plan for as many situations as possible

What do your friends think about it ?

Mostly they think it’s an amazing idea.

Are you glad we’re going?

Yes

As dictated to Harriet