I realise we are not, and probably now never will be (at least not on this trip), in Slovenia, but I had the book, so I was jolly well going to read it.
It’s the next best thing to being there, right? I’ll get a real sense of Slovenia culture and identity, right?
I didn’t so much choose a Slovenian book as have it chosen for me… I started with this list of Slovenian authors whose works have been translated into English. Guess how many of them Google had available? Yup. None.
So I outsourced the problem to my mother, who was coming to join us in Vienna and just asked her to get me any Slovenian novel she could find. Harder than you might hink, given that Slovenia is a pretty small country and has a publishing industry to match. Approximately 500 novels are published in Slovenia a year and I would suspect that relatively few of them make it into English.
Anyway, I got this one: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Evald Flisar, translated by the author and David Limon (so you’ve got to hope the translation was pretty much as the author wanted!)
It is, according to the blurb, the biggest selling Slovenian book ever. Only about two million people speak Slovenian as a first language and this book has sold over 65,000 copies. That equates to about one in every thirty Slovenian speakers who have bought a copy.
What better introduction to Slovenian culture could there be?
Only it was not at all what I was expecting. It’s set in the Himalayas for a start. I think Slovenia gets mentioned about twice. It’s the journey of a well-educated (bilingual with English) Slovenian young (ish) man on a search for enlightenment and features his musings and experiences along the way as he follows his guru up and down montains and through hill top villages and spends time in a Tantric monastery.
If it is, as I suppose it must be, given how many copies it sold, a good indication of Slovenian thought and culture, I’m expecting them all to do a lot of meditation and have an interest in Buddhism and mysticism.
I don’t think they do. But I may be wrong. Interestingly the epigraph in my current (Norwegian) book, is also by a Slovenian philosopher.
I’m being rude about the book though; which isn’t fair. For all of the mystic mumbo jumbo (and yes that is deliberately rude and there is quite a lot of that), there were many sentences that brought me up short with what felt like their apposite correctness. I rather wanted a pencil so I could underline them and come back to them.
At this historical moment in particular, what I took as the book’s central message – although it’s the sort of book that I suspect different readers would see different things in – seemed one that I need to remember: we can only be who we are now and where we are now. We cannot change the past and we cannot be in the future until we actually are there (by which time it is no longer the future). There is no point in raging against or trying to change now, you can only be in it.
We are supposed to be arriving in Paris in the next half an hour or so. We had first class tickets on the train leaving Grenoble earlier today. The car should have still been here in the village, ready to be driven back to the UK by my in-laws. We should have got rid of all our extraneous stuff and be down only to what we can carry. The adventure really should have started today.
But it hasn’t. And I am here. And now. I cannot change that. I can only live in this moment.
I’d probaby have reached that conclusion without the book, and I will undoubtedly have many, many, moments where I forget it, but I am trying to hold on to it.
Maybe this was the book I needed to read. Slovenian or not.
The lack of control that we have over being in lockdown, and what we do while we are confined, is something which I expect is affecting many of (the wider) us.
Here in France, I think we are probably a week or so ahead of the UK and about 10 days behind Italy, in terms of lockdown. I have noticed changes in my psyche and mentality over the two weeks since M. Macron instigated his restrictions.
I like being in control of what is going on. So does Harriet. As previously stated, we have been planning this trip for more than 7 years, and in earnest for several months. We had a Cozi family calendar which showed that we knew exactly where we were going to be for almost every night until leaving Tashkent, in early May. (Ironically, we were actually meant to be where I am right now, right now. We would be leaving for Paris on Wednesday, in some parallel universe.) We were very much in control of this trip.
Until COVID-19, and Corona Virus, and Lockdown, and Social Distancing, and Border Closures, and all that. Now, we are not in control of any of this. Not just the difficulty in sourcing a replacement pair of socks, or pair of glasses, but also what the restrictions will be tomorrow, or next week, or next month. And what the restrictions will be here in France, or in Russia, or whether the train will run from Paris to Moscow (currently suspended due to Poland border closure).
The FCO is advising against all foreign travel. Entry to UK citizens is currently not permitted in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, or China, although we did have a nice message from our AirBnB host in Kyoto Japan asking whether we were going to need parking in late July.
Continuing our trip, which remains our goal, is dependent on any number of current regulations and restrictions being lifted. And we are not in control of any of that. All the discussions we start turn into a great game of “ifs”, so we have stopped having them. Mostly.
I read an excellent piece, which was shared on Facebook by a wise former colleague, by a psychologist who summarised her advice, given to 31 patients over the course of a week. I recommend it to you. There are several parts in there which we have also found to ring true, by trial and error. One which struck a particular chord was the one which stated “Find something you can control, then control the heck out of it.”
I have found myself drawn to puzzles and games which have a solution, however tricky. I started and finished an epic jigsaw of the South Rose Window of Angers Cathedral, and have reinstalled Flow Free on my phone. These things are tricky, but not impossible, and they have a solution. I have enjoyed much of the maths home schooling with the children, for much the same reason (though I’m not sure the feeling is mutual).
I have enjoyed setting up and using our home “gym”, and even going on a run or two. (Those that know me can vouch that this is not a usual situation.) I have been the laundry person (monitor?, manager?, prefect?) in our family for a good few years, and the laundry here is running like clockwork.
Because until we can start really planning what on earth we are going to do with the rest of our adventure – we are only in week 7 or 8 of a 26 week trip after all – that’s one part of what I can do to stay sane. And thank you to the Kyoto AirBnB chap, who unknowingly gave us both a lift with his question about car parking. If he thinks there is every reason that we will be in Japan in late July, why shouldn’t we?
Earlier this week, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary (*refrains from political comment*) advised all British citizens “currently on holiday or business trips abroad” to come home “while they still could”.
We are not taking Mr Raab’s advice and will be staying here for the duration. There are two simple reasons for this (neither of which is related to our opinion of Mr Raab himself):
We don’t have anywhere to go. Our house is let out and the people living it wouldn’t thank us for camping in the garden. We can’t go and stay with anyone else because a) social isolation and b) there are six of us so no-one has space for us all, certainly not for an indefinite period of time.
We are not at all convinced that the French government, who won’t currently let us go for a walk more than 1km from our house, would be entirely chuffed if we decided to drive six potential Covid vectors 900 kilometres across the entire country. It has to be less risky for us and everyone else, whether in the UK or France, if we just stay here.
So what did we do?
Like parents worldwide, we have a new found admiration and respect for our children’s teachers’ patience and ability to suppress strings of four letter words…
Our rigid routine has become rather more relaxed over the last two weeks but we have discovered that some structure is definitely better than none. We are therefore trying to incorporate two periods of “academic” time into the day, one screen based and one not. With the shutting of UK schools, and despite Lucy’s school’s refusal to provide us with materials (beecause she’s officially not currently enrolled), we have now, courtesy of other parents, got a got a load of additional learning material that we are, with varying degress of enthusiasm, gradually working through.
Despite this we’re definitely being more relaxed about what constitutes learning. Magnus enjoyed “times tables tennis” over video with his best friend Joe, and scrabble, puzzles and knock out whist have all featured in our “lesson time” this week.
We also have our living biology lesson in the form of the tadpoles: one colony of which is in the outside sink (colder, shadier, not hatched yet) and one colony in the very large bird bath (shallower, sunnier and therefore warmer – all hatched and very active). Other than Ben, who actually was a biology teacher, we’re all getting very fond of them. It’s only a matter of time before they get named…
We have continued to exercise like the Canadian airforce, with their rather outdated but mercifully brief 5BX and XBX routines. This happens after “quiet time” (thank goodness for the blessed combination of JK Rowling and Stephen Fry) and invariably provokes whinging but reluctant compliance.
More successful yet was our home circuits set up, inspired by Sophie and Lucy’s judo coach and created by Ben. We’ve varied between 30 second circuits (too much faffing) and 1 minute ones (“Is that really a minute?!“), and although we have yet to set on the perfect time, we have all done it, every day this week. I call that a win.
On Wednesday a new “Attestation dérogatoire” was published. This is the formal document we have to carry with us each time we leave the house. Pleasingly (for two of the six of us) the new version makes it clear that we are allowed to go for walks, although these can be only within a kilometre of the house and for a maximum of an hour, once a day. We are now ready with our facts should the gendarmes get called again…
Our walks restarted on Friday morning and will remain part of our daily routine until we learn that we really aren’t allowed to do them.
We also tried body percussion, which further reconfirmed the adults’ suspicion that we ain’t, unlike Ella Fitzgerald or Gene Kelly, got rhythm. Not a beat.
How has it been?
Harriet: Not only have I been exercising three times a day, I have been enjoying it. Anyone who has met me at any time in the last 43 years is permitted to fall over backwards at that information. The world really clearly has been turned upside down by this virus….
I also drew a picture that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be. Another first!
Ben: Setting up and using the gym has been fun. I enjoyed the ease with which having a physical challenge improves my mood, for now at least. I’m also pleased that the French ministry of the interior has clarified that we are allowed to go on limited walks as a family. I finished a good book, ate some lovely food, and even enjoyed a run for the first time in forever.
Magnus: Sleeping. Playing with cars. Talking with Joe was by far one of the best things I have done this week. I liked getting some new socks. I think I’ve got on better with my sisters this week, towards the end at least. I’ve liked reading Dogman with Daddy.
Aurora: Actually knowing where we are, and being in this house, which I know and love. I liked getting out of the house too, to go shopping with Daddy [now unfortunately no longer allowed], because I got to step outside the routine for a bit.
Sophie: I liked winning Mexican Train. Before we would listen to everyone’s ideas but not considering actually doing them, but now we do, like not always going on walks. I think we’re getting on better as a family. Listening to Harry Potter during our quiet time has been fun.
Lucy: I enjoyed today’s walk, because it was the nicest walk we’ve been on so far. I’m enjoying Murder Offstage, by LB Hathaway, which was here in the house, and is written by a friend of Mummy’s. I like it when I get the giggles and can’t stop laughing at the dinner table.
Harriet: I have struggled with “having stuff to do” this week, especially since we have slightly relaxed the schedule. Unlike the children I don’t have the ability to disappear into my phone for hour on end: there’s only so many times you can look at the same stuff on facebook or instagram, I don’t get twitter, I’ve never been one for computer games (I was the only child I knew who never wanted a game boy) and the news is too depressing to spend more than a couple of minutes on (and that was true even before Covid). Lovely friends have sent me wool and crochet hooks (although the postman, like a watched pot, still persists in not bringing the second parcel) and I have a project on the go, but I’m conscious that I can’t do too much at once for fear of running out later. (I can’t have my wool and crochet it, perhaps). I can and have been reading, but reading has always felt like a luxury and my overdeveloped protestant work ethic won’t let me do something that doesn’t produce anything for too long before I get up and start looking for something to tidy…
I have also intermittently been devastatingly convinced that this really is it for our dream. Talking to the insurance company (more below) and methodically going through the file of booked travel and activities and cancelling everything that was so carefully planned, and with such excitement, has been soul withering and emotionally exhausting.
I’m finding it difficult not being able to help too. I want to be volunteering in the NHS or delivering food or (there’s a theme here) doing something. Here we can’t. Or if we can I don’t know what it is.
So if you are reading this and you do know of anything we can do, whether here or at a distance, please let us know.
Ben: Friday was a horrible day for me. A small argument between children about who was “entitled” to use which mat for exercising descended into a pit of family doom, with threats and sanctions and tears. I went to sleep not liking my children. I had thought we were doing better, but it’s clearly a fragile better. I expect lockdown will create these kind of pressures for many people, and I hope, but don’t expect, that this is all behind us now. If we can come out of the whole COVID-19 lockdown pain closer as a family, that will be a superb (and realistic) achievement. Saturday was better though, showing the benefit of a good night’s sleep.
The “not knowing” about the future is grim. It comes in waves for all of us I think, but the idea we might go not much further than back home, after the years of planning and dreaming, is horrible. The cancellation/postponement of the summer Olympics was another, faintly inevitable, nail in the dream coffin.
For me, Europe was the appetiser for the main adventures lying ahead in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, before China and Japan. We’ve cut short our appetiser (no Slovenia, Italy or Scandinavia) and the borders of each of the main course countries above are currently closed to UK nationals. Not knowing when or if they will reopen, at least within either our trip time frame, or for Russia at least, our visa validity time frame, is not pleasant.
Aurora: Going on walks. I didn’t like pulling the skin off my toe today. Everyone getting really stressful was annoying. Maths.
Magnus: Fighting with my sisters at the start of the week. We weren’t very nice. The Olympics being cancelled is a bit of a downer. I would have liked to see Portugal play France at Football.
Sophie: Us fighting. When I forget to put deodorant on and we go on a walk. I find “creative time” quite boring.
Lucy: Yesterday. (I don’t want to write more about it).
What about the rest of our trip?
Now that the Olympics has been postponed the ostensible purpose of our whole trip has gone. But in reality that was only ever an excuse for an adventure and we would still like to get to Tokyo overland this Summer if at all possible.
Whether that is possible will entirely depend on what happens with borders being reopened, transport links being started up again, and visas still being valid. We will know more at some point. At the moment though we keep starting conversations with “if” and then tailing off because there are so many “ifs” that trying to get your head around all of them is a pointless impossibility.
We have been trying to get some answers from our insurance company about what costs we can recover and what we can and should cancel now: we have bookings into August and who knows whether those will be possible – we don’t want to find that if we cancel them now our insurance company says we shouldn’t have. This has been a slightly frustrating experience (the email starting “Dear Helen” was a particular high point).
We finally got some answers on Friday, but in some ways they just give rise to more questions. We can “curtail” our trip at any point and the insurance company will then “consider a claim” for any expenses we have already incurred. If we do that though they will then consider our trip over and we will no longer be insured. That’s probably liveable-with while we remain in France, but should, by some miracle, we be able to carry on towards Japan in the months to come we do not want to do so uninsured. We would, in normal circumstances, simply then get another insurance policy, but we’re not sure how keen travel insurers are to take on new clients at the moment.
Equally we can leave our policy running and continue with our trip, but if we do so we cannot claim for any travel that is cancelled other than our “outward” and “homeward” journeys. There is a part of me that wants to try claiming that it is all outward journey until we get to Japan, but I’m keeping that one up our sleeve for the ombudsman.
For the moment we have cancelled all our planned travel (where possible – there is a gulf between the levels of helpfulness of the various different train companies: SNCF and ÖBB – excellent, Deutsche Bahn and DFDS – awful, others in between) and accommodation between here and Moscow. In an ideal world we would pick up our travel there, although later than planned, but as with everything else we will have to wait and see what can be done and when.
What did we eat?
It appears that one of the aims of our trip is already on its way to being achieved (it may be the only one so we will take this small mercy). Our children, who previously were very much fish finger and spag bol eaters, have become much, much more open to new foods. So this week we’ve had fondu, Tuscan bean soup, spinach and squash curry, fennel pilaf and raclette and they’ve eaten it all (although Aurora wasn’t a massive fan of the raclette). None of those is half as scary as yak butter tea or sushi, but we’re still hoping to work up to those.
How plastic free were we?
As ever, we try, with varying degrees of success.
More of the same, at least until 15 April, which is when the current lockdown ends.
I was so proud of all of our packing for this adventure. Each of us packed a minimum – clothes, toiletries, luxuries (cuddly friends, jewelry, etc.) – with the expectation that each place we were going would sell clothes appropriate to location and climate, if we needed a change, and we could replenish soap and toothpaste when required too.
Harriet wrote about her dissatisfaction with her traveling wardrobe while we were back in Brussels (that feels a long time ago…), and bought a very useful bright pink jacket there and has subsequently bought a t-shirt in a Berlin market.
There have been a few more purchases along the way – some pants for me and Lucy (different styles and sizes…), some socks for Sophie, some trainers and a cap for Magnus – and we had always planned to do a wardrobe review about now, probably involving a family trip to Decathlon in Grenoble, to get shorts, t shirts, etc. and convert our winter wear to spring/summer, and eventually to send back our heavy duty cold stuff with our car.
Being stuck in one location, with a minimum number of shops allowed to remain open by law, just as Spring is springing, has meant that this has been a little more challenging recently. Clothes shops are not “essential services”, and are closed. Supermarkets and hypermarkets remain open, but the two closest to us are pretty small and don’t run to clothes beyond slippers, bras for enormous people and awful nighties.
Constant wear, and an annoying tendency of our children to grow, has meant that some of our clothes are either worn out, or too small. And it’s not just clothes – Harriet has scratched the lenses of her glasses, making them virtually unusable (she has contacts, so it’s not catastrophic), the dishwasher here has packed in, Magnus’s headphones broke, and loads of other utterly normal and banal stuff has gone a bit awry.
And here’s the thing. Because of the lockdown, we can’t get them fixed or replaced, or at least the lockdown has made it much more difficult. While we were sitting down to our Fondue Savoyarde, Lucy made the valid point that the French Government clearly consider a cheese shop an essential service, but not an optician. Harriet has ventured into online glasses shopping.
As the UK and other areas enter lockdown too, I expect many of us will be experiencing the same thing.
I fear for the long term prospects of smaller shops, selling clothes, stationary, electronics, sports equipment, etc. if the only available source of these is either an online giant, or a hypermarket.
Until then, I shall continue to wear my grey winter kit, do the washing up by hand – this and all the handwashing is playing havoc with my skin, darlings – as will we all, and look forward to having a little splurge on something new when I am allowed.
In which our trip comes to an abrupt (and hopefully temporary) stop.
Although, as everyone knows, the world is a very strange place right now, some things go on. We have decided that our weekly post should be one of those things. The first six months of 2020 was always intended to be a life changing experience for all of us, and though it is not going to be as we planned, we do want to remember it as it was.
Our daily facebook and Instagram posts continue too, so if you want more of us (who wouldn’t ?!) have a look at those.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were nearing Ben’s parents’ house in the Chartreuse, in the foothills of the Alps.
The journey here was long (1,150 km and 11 hours and 59 minutes) but relatively (we thought) uneventful. The driving conditions were perfect: blue skies and very little traffic, with the snowy Alps looking glorious away to our left. We passed several major cities and towns on the way – Linz 🇦🇹, Munich 🇩🇪, St Gallen 🇨🇭, Zurich 🇨🇭, Bern 🇨🇭, Lausane 🇨🇭, Geneva 🇨🇭, Annecy 🇨🇵 and Chambery 🇨🇵 – without a footstep in any.
We were nervous about the four borders we had to cross (and in fact the German border was closed the same day) but again these were easy. Three were unattended. Austria to Switzerland (we had had to briefly go from Germany back into Austria to get to Switzerland round the Bodensee at Bregenz) was manned, but unconcerned with six people in a British car. We did need to get a Swiss motorway vignette there. We believe that all these borders are now closed, all the others closing the day after our drive on the Sunday.
The most eventful of our three stops was the last, at Restroute Rose de la Broye, just as the signs turned from German to French at Avenches on the Swiss A1, though we did not realise this at the time. Duplo A, Aurora’s beloved teddy, fell from the open car door and was left behind. When we realised this, upon arrival at Ben’s parents’ holiday house in France, 3 hours later, what should have been our triumphal arrival felt very hollow. Aurora has written a post about Duplo – you can find it here.
One ray of sunshine was that our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen (where we had planned to break the journey) refunded our money, even though our cancellation was too late to qualify for any refund. It is gestures like this, and the goodwill it spreads, that have led us to do the same for any of our guests who have booked to stay in our holiday cottage in Kelso.
And now we are here. In France, where we speak the language, know the village, and are familiar with the equipment in the kichen (which includes a colander, a potato peeler and a large number of sharp (and not so sharp) knives).
We arrived on Sunday night and on Monday headed to the nearest town, where there is a larger supermarket, to do a weekly shop. It is a good thing we did. On Monday night, President Macron announced sweeping restrictions on movement. We’ve written a longer post about these and our life “under lockdown”, but suffice to say that we have not left the village, other than for our hitherto permitted exercise walks, since then.
The rules here do keep shifting – our long walks earlier in the week will not be repeated, as we are now (and in fact then, but we didn’t know) not allowed to go more than 2km from our house for our daily exercise. In fact since I wrote that second sentence yesterday, we have been informed (very politely) by the gendarmes (called we believe, by a woman whose house we walked past), that in fact it is 500m from the house. We remain unconvinced that that is the case (or that walking is not a permitted form of exercise which they also told us), but we did not feel that arguing was sensible. Our walks will be futher curtailed…
We are also shifting our own understanding and expectations: non-screen academic time now includes writing letters, playing scrabble or even, we hope, listening to some classic literature. Our daily exercise routine has been moved outside (weather permitting, which it fortunately has so far) and we are settling for just being outside a bit more if we cannot walk. The not-quite-yet-tadpoles need a lot of looking at….
We can leave the house for short periods to exercise (although that apparently means “sports” and not “walks”) or go shopping and so each morning one of us (without the children) heads to the boulangerie for bread and the small supermarket for any other essentials. There seems to be no panic buying here and the shelves are all stocked.
We have not yet tried to go further afield since the restrictions on movement came in on Monday night. We may experiment with that next week.
Generally how have you found it?
Magnus: It’s been ok, being here. It’s good because we know where everything is. I don’t like the routine because I think we should have screen time in the mornings as well.
Sophie: It’s good because we know where to go and we don’t not speak the language. It’s very quiet in the village.
Aurora: I like being in France because Mummy and Daddy speak the language. I know this house and we know lots of people here. We don’t get lost on our walks.
Lucy: I enjoy it but I think over the coming weeks it will feel very strange – I have always thought of St. Pierre as a holiday home rather than a long term home but I love being here.
Harriet: Mixed (see more below). Its always lovely to be here but the village is oddly quiet and the chat is all about one thing. It’s very strange not being able to send the children for bread in the morning (we’re not sure if this is allowed or not so aren’t risking it). It’s discombobulating not knowing what is going to happen. But we aren’t the only people in the world feeling like that at the moment. My mood changes from day to day and some days are very much easier than others.
Ben: A strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar. Restrictive. It’s generally fine if I think in the present tense. I’m not enjoying considering the short and long term future, although I’m hopeful about the mid term. A lot of it is adjusting to changes and what we can and can’t do: both now and in the future.
What were the good bits?
Harriet: It is just so beautiful here. We are so fortunate to be in the mountains and to have the space to be outside. I have enjoyed every one of our walks outside. The primroses, crocuses and cowslips are all out. I’m looking forward to seeing our tadpoles grow. Also French bread.
Ben: The weather has been very nice. I’ve had good chats with many of the children. I’m glad we made it here. I have loved the beauty of the Chartreuse, particularly on our walks.
Sophie: I like French bread. We haven’t gone on massive long walks. I like playing Pictionary and other games that we haven’t had before on our trip because they’re too big to carry with us. I liked getting the tadpoles. The long journey was fine because we got to watch movies.
Lucy: Food, French and generally, walking, “listening” to Harry Potter (for the 1,200th time) with the twins, tadpoles, learning French and just being here!!!
Aurora: Getting croissants from the bakery because French bread is always the best. We’re about to have fondue! Getting my new teddy, Sandie. Listening to Harry Potter.
Magnus: I have enjoyed eating chocolate Special K and nutella. I like the Beanos and lego.
And the bad?
We are conscious how lucky we are. This could have been so much worse for us (had we got ill in a strange country or were now in lockdown on the wrong side of a strange border with nowhere to live). It’s also so, so much worse for many others, including many of our friends and loved ones. Our hearts go out to them and we are trying to remember to count our blessings.
That said, this last week hasn’t all been easy so please forgive us if we whinge, in the knowledge of how fortunate we are in the bigger context.
Ben: The constant close proximity has its challenges, as does the loss of hoped-for opportunities, whether short-, mid- or long-term. I’m worried that our trip will be much shorter or impossible. We already know we’re not going to some countries we had planned to. I’m worried about what happens when we come back, given the likely state of the economy and the fact that I don’t have a job. I am peeved that the dishwasher has broken down. I don’t like being stuck.
Sophie: I don’t want to miss out on Mongolia, because I want to do a Sophie and yak selfie. We go on tons of walks and I don’t like going uphill because it hurts my legs. I miss Duplo. It’s annoying that we can’t watch any BBC iPlayer things (Editors’ note: there is no TV here anyway).
Harriet: I had been proud of my unexpected (to me at least) resilience in the face of the loss of everything we have planned for. That all came crashing down on Friday. I’m hoping that was rock bottom.
Since this morning’s gendarme incident I have been feeling increasingly anxious again. I don’t like doing the “wrong” thing and it feels as though the parameters for what is “right” are shifting (or being interpreted differently) without warning.
I have scratched my glasses such that they are unwearable. It turns out that opticians are not an “essential” service. I do have contact lenses and I have just experimented with online glasses ordering, so this is only a minor irritation but one I could have done without.
More mundanely cancelling all our booked accommodation and travel for the next month was not fun. Some companies made it very easy. Others (including our insurance company – Hiscox – who insist, in the face of compelling evidence, that we bought through a broker and are therefore not their responsibility) not so much….
Magnus: I don’t really like the schedule. I am missing Joe and my cousin Freddie.
Aurora: I don’t like the schedule. It’s annoying because it doesn’t give me any time to talk to my friends except a bit, and I don’t have any time to do anything. Except for when I do. It’s annoying. It has limited my phone time, which is so annoying. I’ve been really missing Duplo. I had a big fight with Mummy.
Lucy: The fight a few days ago (which I will not go into detail about), the feeling of the fact that Tweed might never get to Tokyo, I’m getting slightly bored of the endless Tintin and Asterix. I was slightly disapointed not to have a St Petersburg birthday but there would be worse places to become a teenager.
What did we eat?
The contents of Ele’s cupboards (at her request and including a *lot* of spaghetti, and a jar of Sainsbury’s Thai Green Curry best before this month – not together, for the avoidance of doubt). We had duck in a tin too, and I used some of the Hungarian caraway to make a cake.
Disappointingly, the kitchen scales here have vanished so although I do have all the ingredients to make a Bled Cake, I haven’t yet been brave enough actually to do so.
Ben is currently grating the cheese for our first adventures in fondue.
How plastic free were we?
The supermarket in the village pleasingly sells refill pouches of handwash, so that was a victory, but otherwise shopping for food remains the sticking point. It is probably better here than in other countries we have passed through as we have used the boulangerie and the fromagerie for bread and cheese, so both of those come wrapped in paper rather than plastic. We continue to buy loose fruit where possible although I do wonder if I should be peeling it.
When M.Macron addressed the nation on Monday he said this would last for an initial 15 days. After four days that was increased to four to six weeks.
We fully expect to be here on Lucy’s birthday, 21 April. We hope not to be on Magnus’ which is 31 May, although where we then will be is anyone’s guess.
I wanted to write this to go with today’s pretty pictures on instagram (and head over there – or go to the bottom of the blog – if you want to see them), but it won’t let me. I’ve been too wordy as usual.
But as the UK possibly prepares to go into lockdown we thought it might help to know what is actually (in our experience) happening here in France, where strict measures were brought in earlier this week and which (some of us) were really frightened by the thought of….
Of course the situation may change but currently (day 4) the small supermarket here is open and stocked (deliveries are clearly still getting through even here in the mountains). The bakery is also open and has fresh bread. The cheese shop (yes, really) and the butchers are open. The pharmacy and newsagent are open. The doctor’s surgery remains open. What are shut are the restaurants and bars, the clothes and tourist shops, the post office and tourist office, the hairdresser’s, the library and the ski and bike hire places. In the queue, if there is a queue, we stand a safe distance apart but we chat as normal. There is a one-in-one-out policy at the bakers, where a new plastic screen has been installed and the queue stands in the street. We can travel a short distance for five specific reasons – work, health, to help family, to shop or to exercise (in our case go for walks). If we see someone on our walk we speak or smile.
We are in (by UK standards) a small town (technically in France a village, but much bigger and with better amenities than that implies) and have not yet tried to leave the village other than to go for walks. In bigger towns other shops in specific categories (DIY, technical – there’s a long list) also remain open. When we go anywhere (for instance to attempt to fix Harriet’s glasses which are badly scratched) we have to take a form with us that we have signed to say why we are going. The police can ask to see this (and are doing so in other local towns) although we haven’t yet been asked. The village is eerily quiet (unlike our children) but on a minute to minute, hour to hour basis life continues much as normal.
We realise that being here is of course not the same as being in a city, or a flat (and I am sure there are those in other parts of France who are finding this much more difficult than we are) but it is probably not that different from being in Kelso.
In China today Hubei province has reported no new cases. Not one. Lockdown can and does work. It sounds scary, but doesn’t have to be. And it is necessary for all of us. We will get through this.
A very odd day today. We are now in the foothills of the French Alps, in a lovely house belonging to my parents, where life is both very familiar, and at the same time, very strange.
It is familiar because we have been lucky enough to have holidayed here almost every year we have been a family. I lived here for 2 years, while working and studying in nearby Grenoble. Harriet and I got engaged here.
It was always the plan to be here in March, to make the switch from car to train, and to give us all a little downtime from constant travel and maybe update our minimal wardrobes with more spring-like clothes.
It is strange to be here now, a week earlier than expected, and in such unprecedented circumstances. The village itself is very quiet, only the boulangerie and tabac open (the mini-Market is normally closed on a Monday). People don’t greet each other with a handshake or a kiss. There is an air of quiet, disquiet perhaps, which is difficult to define.
We are all tired and a bit subdued too after 12 hours in the car yesterday, and the sad loss of a beloved Teddy in a Swiss motorway service station.
For all the “this is just the start of a new adventure” geeing up we can (and do) do, this is very far from the meticulously planned trip of a lifetime, and that feels a bit rubbish.
To be sure, I am very aware that we are hugely privileged in many ways (going on the trip in the first place, work situations which allowed it, a family bolt-hole to run to, not being an at-risk person for Corona, nor being medically affected by Corona, or anything bigger than the enormous splinter Sophie had in her foot).
We have had a saying on our trip to date, “it may be weird to you, but it’s normal for someone else”. This has been useful for food, dress code, manners, languages, etc., but the thing with the current COVID-19 situation is that it is nobody’s normal. Austria, where we were just yesterday, has just banned meetings if more than 5 people. We are a family of 6…
Even as I type this Ursula van der Leyen has informed me that Europe is closed to all but essential travel for at least 30 days. What does that mean for us now?
Do we have right to remain in the EU during the Brexit transition period? Is it a greater risk (to ourselves, to others) to travel, or to stay put? Is travelling home “essential”? For whom? We don’t particularly want to come home, especially when there is a chance we will be able to continue with some of the trip. At the moment the Olympics are still planning to go ahead, but last week we were planning to be in Slovenia now.
Harriet has been contacting our insurers and our Russian travel fixers, and they are scrambling as much as we are. Kazakhstan has closed its borders, the Moscow to Tashkent train has been suspended, and even one part of the insurers can’t get through to the other.
As a nice aside, our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen Switzerland, refunded our money, despite our cancelling too late to be entitled to it. There are good people doing good things, and that’s a thing to aspire to too.
Even so, it is all a bit discombobulating. Macron is speaking to France at 8pm tonight, and the rumour is that this will be to introduce more restrictions for travel, potentially for 3 months.
So what are we going to do about it?
There are some things we should do while we are here anyway:
Continue with daily exercise, and some maths.
Continue to monitor the changing situation globally.
Our friend Rose, in California, shared a “Lockdown Schedule”, which we are going to adapt and use. Lucy is writing a poster of it right now.
We are likely to be in France for at least a month, so the children could do with learding more French, even if anyone they try to speak to runs away covering their nose. Harriet and I have started talking to the children in French as much as possible (please not before breakfast, and please not at weekends, say the children. Peut-être, say the grownups.)
The children have started using Duolingo to learn French try to understand what we are saying to them. (There has also been bribery, in the form of ear piercing, which has helped this. As for when an ear-piercing studio might reopen, who knows…)
Go for walks in the beautiful mountains.
Harriet is still planning to cook Bled Cake, our missed Slovenian meal, and then there’s tartiflette, fondue montagnarde, raclette, etc.
Make this as good as it can be, and try to look on the bright side.
Because the alternative is worrying that world travel is over forever, millions are going to die, and the global economy will collapse. Sorry about that picture.
Week five has been a slightly odd one: the coronavirus, of which more later, has increased its presence across Europe and the news is changing daily. We have had to change accordingly.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were about to head into the Tatra Mountains. The children had been asking to visit a water park and we had found one fed by mineral-rich hot springs. This was everything you’d expect: loud, noisy, great fun and a chance to teach them all about the periodic table…. They enjoyed some of it more than the rest.
From there to a chalet in Zakopane. This looked very cool and stylish on AirBnB, but sadly the listing didn’t mention that a) it was up a drive that was not designed for a large and heavy Toyota van and b) once you got there the turning space was six inches deep in mud. We discovered the latter too late…
After some ingenuity, a bit of digging, use of the jack and a load of old pizza boxes, a not inconsiderable amount of sotto voce swearing and some invaluable help from a good Samaritan in the form of the astonishingly kind and English-speaking neighbour (how many random people in the UK would know the Polish for “manual transmission“?), we got out. It wasn’t a great first impression though.
The next morning though, as the sun rose over the snowy Tatra, so close we could almost touch them, and the children gambolled in what remained of the snow, it all seemed worth it.
You couldn’t, sitting in our car, quite have blinked and missed Slovakia, but if you had been better at sleeping in the car than our children are, you could probably have slept through it.
That is to do Slovakia a disservice. It was, through the car windows, beautiful, with rolling hills and snowy mountains. We stopped in Banska Bystrica (because it was on the way) for lunch, and enjoyed strolling through the centre of town.
Slovakia, we apologise for not spending longer with you. We will hopefully be back.
Ben had been to Budapest before, in 1993, and had raved about it pretty much ever since. It did not disappoint.
We stayed very centrally, in a once very grand town house, just behind the national museum, so on our first evening we strolled along the banks of the Danube, watching as Buda slowly became illuminated.
We headed for the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, which remembers the Jews of the Ghetto who were brought to the banks of the river in late 1944 and 1945, told to remove their shoes, and shot. In the twilight, it was both beautiful and very moving. In a way I think it made the horror of the Holocaust more real to the children than anything else we have done on this trip.
The next day we went out, on public transport this time, Budapest being rather bigger than we realised, first to the Donhanyi Synagogue, with its many memorials (including to Raoul Wallenburg, of whom, to our shame, we had never heard) and stunning architecture. Then on to Buda Castle. We walked up and enjoyed the instagrammable-ness (yes that is a word) of the views, the Fishermans Bastion, the Presidential Palace (the sentries gave some of us a shock when they moved) and the giant eagle up which Ben once saw someone climb.
Harriet was slightly kicking herself (sort of still is, to be honest) for agreeing to the water park, having forgotten about the baths of Budapest. We rather thought that two swimming experiences so close together would be too much. But this, on a gloriously sunny day, in the smartest public swimming pool you will ever see in your life (no slides, sorry kids), was an experience unlike any other.
The children had been asking to go to an Escape Room since Berlin, where they are also a big thing. Budapest, which has many cellars and grand ruined buildings, is also a hive of various small rooms with people paying to get out.
We found one ten minutes or so away on foot, with an Indiana Jones-style temple-themed room (in English) , and booked ourselves in, smugly thinking we would be quite good at this.
Clearly we can’t spoil it for others, but suffice to say that sadly, although we found the skull, and thus destroyed the Beast, we remain locked in the temple. We were, with hindsight, thinking too much like ourselves and not enough like Indy. We will know for next time.
It was brilliant fun though and there was some top teamwork. We’d do another one.
Thence to Austria; on the way we popped into Vienna Airport to pick up the temporary seventh member of our travelling circus – Granny. Sometimes we like our massive car (when it’s not stuck in the mud or negotiating a Belgian underground car park).
Keen, as ever, to give the children a full experience of the culture of every city we visit, once we got to our flat we dumped our bags, and headed out to the Prater.
Fourteen and a half years ago, when we got married, among our unwritten vows was that Harriet did not have to go on any roller coasters, ever (or to IKEA, if you’re interested) . Fun fairs are most definitely not her happy place, so this was an act of real love towards the children. But it’s Vienna, so you do, at least, have to go on the wheel.
And it was surprisingly fun. The Prater was clearly gearing up for its spring opening, so quite a few of the rides were having their light bulbs changed, or their mechanisms checked, and it is possible that the coronavirus kept some people away, but it was pleasantly busy without being crowded and there were no queues for any of the rides.
The wheel itself, in the glorious spring sunshine (22 degrees!) was a delight. We had a cabin to ourselves, and although Lucy was disappointed not to be able to throw tulips to small boys below (apparently she had read it in a book), we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Then on to the main attractions. Magnus managed to find (and drag Granny on to) all of the dodgem rides in the place, and Ben fulfilled what has clearly been a fourteen and a half year lack by whooping and giggling his way round a roller coaster. Lucy got the fright of her life when air was puffed at her in a fun house, much to everyone else’s amusement.
And Granny and Harriet? They held the coats. And were delighed to be able to do so. Harriet was even more delighted to win the family ball-rolling competition. The prize is going back with Granny for her other grandchildren. Their parents will be delighted.
The Hofburg and other Palaces
Bill Bryson wrote that if you were an alien who landed in Vienna for the first time you’d think it was the capital of the world. He’s not wrong. It’s stately and grand and very, very sure of itself. It is also, at the moment, shut.
All those wonderful museums and galleries, all the palaces of wondrous riches, every one, shut to visitors for fear of Corona. Even the morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School was closed – do horses get COVID-19?
Oddly though (presumably it has something to do with numbers) the guided tour of the Spanish Riding School was open. (Apparently the Emperor who founded it came from Spain, bringing his funny Spanish customs, foods and way of riding with him. In German, we were told, “It’s all Greek to me“, or “double Dutch” translate as “Spanish“.) The boys had decided not to come with us, but Granny, Harriet and the girls rather liked the idea of dancing horses, so in we went.
Ben who is deeply allergic to horses, and struggling slightly with the arrival of Spring too (streaming nose and slight cough are not a good look right now, I can tell you), would have hated it, but we throroughly enjoyed meeting the horses, seeing them exercise, (nothing spectacular but still an enjoyable watch) and getting a full explanation of what goes on. Clearly it’s simultaneously brilliant and utterly weird and ridiculously over- mannered, but that’s sort of Vienna too.
Having met up with Ben and Magnus, we ate our sandwiches in a rather windy but magnifient square and then went from the frugal to the utterly extravagant with coffee (mit schlag) and kuchen (that doesn’t do them justice at all) at Cafe Central, one of Vienna’s venerable coffee houses.
Composers and hamsters
Not far from where we were staying is Vienna’s Central Cemetery, resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others and home to several colonies of wild European hamsters.
The children had seen Seven Worlds One Planet and had been rather taken with the hamsters, so a wander around on a sunny day seemed in order. We found the composers (I’m going to resist the pun) with ease, but we possibly weren’t quite as quiet and patient as the BBC film crew as the hamsters remained resolutely out of sight.
Old (and new) Friends
Way back in 1996, Harriet spent a month in Moscow, trying to improve her (even then) woeful Russian. Staying in the same hall of residence were lots of Norwegians, one of whom has remained a friend, although of course the last time we saw him we were living in London and none of us had children.
The same Norwegian, with his wife and children, now lives in Vienna. So on Saturday morning, mindful of the new instruction not to gather inside, and having greeted each other with full on media-luvvie-style kisses from the requisite metre away, we met up for a lovely stroll round a wonderfully, if rather eerily empty, Vienna. As ever, Magnus made a new friend and we had a bonus ice ream too.
But they had shopping to do before Austria shuts up shop almost completely on Monday morning, so we left them and spent our last afternoon in Vienna variously shopping, cooking, and taking Granny back to the airport.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Girls’ responses as texted from the back of the car…
Aurora: Vienna was really not busy. It had literally no one there cause of corona but it had millions of castles and palaces.
Lucy: Budapest was very grand- I thought it couldn’t get any grander, then we went to Vienna!
Sophie: 1.Fancy, posh 2. I thought it would be much less nice and fancy.
Harriet: You, or perhaps just I, associate Vienna with the Danube. But when you’re here you never actually see it, even from the top of the Prater Ferris Wheel. It would have been a full on trip for Strauss to get anywhere near it, however beautiful and blue it may have been. In a similar vein it seemed a shame there were no waltzers at the Prater, but maybe that joke only works in English.
I was surprised by how much I loved Budapest. It just felt so beautiful and so alive. I wanted to get to know it better.
Magnus: The Prater was massive. The chimney cakes were really nice. Vienna was really grand and also crazy because it had a million rides in the Prater.
Ben: The daily changes to the news and situation regarding the Coronavirus situation, and the consequent lack of crowds, whether strolling through the majesty of Vienna, or not waiting 45 minutes to get into the Central Café (which is a lot grander than it sounds). The Mud of Zakopane (a strong contender for my future heavy metal band name), which made me appreciate the horror of World War One even more.
What were the highlights?
Magnus: I really really really really really liked the water park in Zakopane because it had slides and stuff. The Prater. I enjoyed the bumper cars. Meeting Oskar. The “No kangaroos in Austria” signs.
Ben The weather – spring has finally sprung. Budapest being as alive and glorious as when I left it (with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra 1993 Tour). Vienna is gorgeous too, but it is much more stately (and less fun as a result) than Budapest.
Aurora: The Prater was really fun when me Sophie and Lucy went on the rollercoaster and when I went on the one upside down with Daddy.
Lucy: I really enjoyed the escape room because it was my kind of thing and going on the scary rollercoaster with Daddy and Aurora because I loved the exhilaration, excitement and experience.
Sophie: Water park,escape room and fun fair. I liked the freedom of the water park and the fun fair. I liked the escape room cos it was using my brain in a fun team working way.
Harriet I could live at the Szechenyi Baths. It thought they were just brilliant. I loved our escape room too, even if I’m still kicking myself because we didn’t get out. Once again it was very lovely to see friends, albeit in rather odd circumstances – no hugs allowed. I was conscious of pure unconfined happiness watching the children in the Fun House at the Prater.
What was the weather like?
Utterly glorious. One of the great ironies of travelling while the world goes into panic mode is how wonderfully normal and glorious the arrival of Spring has been this week. The very territorial blackbird who woke us up every morning in Vienna doesn’t care about viruses of any kind…
What about the Coronavirus?
You don’t need us to tell you what’s happening on a global, or indeed European, scale, and, let’s face it, the situation is changing by the minute.
For us this has meant trying to be as safe and sensible as possible, while still trying to salvage as much of our long-held dream as possible.
The initial amended plan had us missing out Italy, and at the beginning of the week we booked accommodation in Innsbruck and St Gallen, with a view to spending four days travelling between Slovenia (where we were supposed to be going next) and France, where Ben’s parents have a house and where we are still hoping to meet them and hand over the car.
Oddly, too, although the media was very clear on the seriousness of the situation, on the streets of the major cities we have visited we were not really aware of anything out of the ordinary going on, at least until we arrived in Vienna earlier this week. We have seen perhaps half a dozen people in face masks across our entire trip. The first day in Vienna was completely normal and it wasn’t until the second day, when museums were shut and it was oddly easy to get a table in a café; and the third, when people were told that shops cannot open after Monday, that things started to change. Certainly it was eerily easy to park in central Vienna yesterday morning.
However as the advice to self-isolate becomes more pressing, and in the knowledge that some of us look with our fingers at every passing surface, and with the risk that borders may shut for an indefinite period, we decided on Friday to amend the amended plan.
Early this morning (Sunday) we therefore got in the car and this post is being written as we drive straight to France where we can stay in Ben’s parents’ house. We have cancelled our Slovenia accommodation and the apartment we booked in Innsbruck, only five days ago. It is a 12 hour journey from Vienna to France, so the then plan was to break the journey in St. Gallen, but with countries’ responses becoming ever more stringent we have decided to push through to get to France tonight. We will stay in France as long as we have to.
Since we left Austria this morning, passing through Germany, back into Austria, across Switzerland and finally to France, Germany has announced the closure of its borders with Swizerland and France, and Austria has banned gatherings of more than 5 people (how does that work for us?!). We are, therefore, as we drive along familiar French roads, very very glad we left when we did.
Even today though, as borders shut around us and there is a queue to wash your hands in the service station loos, life visibly goes on in the towns and villages we pass. Although the traffic has been relatively easy on our journey, this is perhaps no more so than you would expect on a Sunday. Planes are still arriving at Geneva airport…
Our intention was, and officially still is, to leave France at the beginning of April, and in theory Ben is also intending to spend a day at the Mongolian Embassy in Paris before then, but of course that may well all change and we will just have to review all our plans as they get nearer.
In the meanwhile it is excellent resilience training.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. There was a great plastic-free poster at the U-bahn station, but actual provision for plastic-free shopping, and indeed recycling, in Austria was woefully lacking. Budapest wasn’t much better.
We remain good about refusing straws and plastic bags and taking our reusable cups and bottles of water – thus far we are proud to have not bought a single bottle of water (although the man in the motorway services in Switzerland clearly thought refilling one was an outrageous request) – but it continues to be well-nigh impossible to shop for food without receiving it in plastic, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language.
What did we eat?
Chimney cakes. Lots of chimney cakes. Both the plain and cheap (from a kiosk in the metro) and the glam and pimped up and very expensive (from a swanky gelateria). They were all delicious but we concluded that the fresher and warmer the better. Ice cream improves a cold chimney cake, but not enough.
At the other extreme from chimney cakes in the Budapest Metro was Café Central in Vienna.
We also had great burgers in Vienna, and two lots of pizza (in Zakopane and Slovakia – although not Ben, who had a Slovakian speciality that was rather akin to macaroni cheese), as well as a lovely meal out, with requisite schnitzel, in the Palmenhaus of the Hofberg Palace.
Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before
Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄
Sophie: The bad bits were us fighting and Mummy and Daddy interrupting us while we were watching our movies
Harriet: The mud wasn’t funny, but pales into insignificancebeside the coronavirus. Our best case scenario at present has us going straight from France to Russia (Scandinavia is a no go area) which would mean missing out five of the twenty countries we planned to visit. Technically of course at present even that’s not possible (the Russians won’t let us in if we’re coming from France, and in any event the trains between the two are all cancelled). I veer from being very sanguine about this (there are people in much much worse situations than us) to being very catastrophic and depressed: the what if scenarios can spiral very quickly out of control if I let them.
Ben: Getting stuck in the mud. Not knowing how much of the trip we’re going to have to miss. I was looking forward to a run around Lake Bled.
Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.
With a sense of stepping into the unknown, we are on our way to the very familiar: Ben’s parents’ house in France. The plan was always to be there for a week at the very end of March and head on from there. As it is, we will wait there and assess the situation, moving on when we can.
In the meantime we will be communicating only in French…
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, though not for the Olympics. You can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
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Where we’ve been
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