Week 25 (France 20 – Brittany, Puy du Fou, Nantes and Le Mans)

Where were we?

This time last week we were in Brittany, with one more coastal day ahead of us.  On Monday we retraced our route south and east, past Nantes to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre.  This was chosen entirely for its proximity to Puy du Fou, allegedly the world’s best theme park, and where we spent the next three days.  We left Puy du Fou on Thursday and went back to Nantes.  A day and a half and a brief stop in Le Mans later and we are now in Paris.

Where should we have been?

After Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea, this should have been our Olympic week.  We had tickets for the judo yesterday and women’s rugby 7’s today.  We should have been based in Atami, on the coast outside Tokyo.  We had hoped to spend a bit of time on the beach too.

What did we actually do?

Mont St Michel

Mont St Michel is an icon, an almost impossible island of layers of buildings rising to a perfect point.   It’s also one of France’s major tourist attractions, with organised parking on the mainland and bookable shuttle buses to and from the island itself.

Our travels seem to have become much less obviously “cultural” since we left St Pierre de Chartreuse and it was in that vein that we decided not to visit the island itself, with its medieval streets and Abbey, but to drive around the bay at high tide and eat our sandwiches overlooking the island as the waters receded.

We did wonder whether the sight of it might inspire the children to want to visit but although there were votes in favour, the thought of the parking guddle and the compulsory masks at all times while on the island was enough to send us heading for St Malo.

The view looking the other way

St Malo

If we had wanted to avoid a guddle of parking (our preferred French phrase is bordel de merde) St Malo was the wrong choice, but happy chance and about 20 minutes of driving round and round eventually found us a space.

We were, therefore, all a bit hot and grumpy when we walked through the imposing walls.  An ice cream later, however, and St Malo began to work its charms on us.

It is set on a spit of land jutting into the English Channel/La Manche and surrounded on all sides by walls.  On the seaward side the high tide line laps at the walls themselves and in a wintry storm the waves crash over into the city.  On a beautiful day in July however, a glorious strand was revealed.  The tide was going out and what had been off-shore islands when we arrived were soon a gentle stroll away across the sand.

We settled down to hunt for worms (none), crabs (five) and other seaside delights. We enjoyed a paddle in our third salty body of water of the trip. (Is there a collective noun for sea/ocean?).  The water bubbles up through the sand and makes excellent moated castles.  Our beastie of the week (despite stiff competition later) was a determined winkle, solemnly trudging across the sand towards the receding sea.  Rumours she was hoping to find a whale for a world trip remain unconfirmed…

Ben heroically undertook to return to the car for swimming things and some of us also enjoyed a dip in the huge lido with its iconic diving platform (although no one was brave enough to take the leap).

One small leap

We had such a good time that it was after 9pm when we got back to Ploërmel.

Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre

We left Brittany on Monday, stopping first in the nearby town of Josselin. We knew nothing about it, and so its lovely château (sadly closed on Monday mornings) and multi-coloured half-timbered houses were a surprise and a delight.

After a sandwich we we on the road again, broadly following the route of the Loire towards Nantes, and round the delights of its ring road, before heading past vines being farmed on an industrial scale to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre. 

This was an unexpected treat.  We merely wanted to be near Puy du Fou for an early start the next day, but Mortagne proved (if only to Ben and Harriet – everyone else having opted to stay inside with the WiFi) to be surprisingly interesting and beautiful.  We enjoyed ancient walls, a walking route based around notable local women (including the embroiderer of Princess Grace’s wedding dress, and a counter-revolutionary martyr (not the same person)), lovely riverside gardens and a rare breeds farm.

We finally identified our plant of the week here too. A Persian Silk Tree. We wonder if it would survive in Scotland….

Puy du Fou

Where do we start talking about Puy du Fou? It’s one of craziest, most over the top, most full-on, most jaw-dropping, campest, silliest, most unbelievable and most EPIC places we have ever been.  With a permanent sound track to match.

It is, loosely, historical, although we suspect the professional historian in the family (new book coming out in September: get your copy here) might be horrified at the lack of any subtlety or nuance in how various events are presented.

We did start to notice after a while a recurring theme of traditionalist, Catholic, French victory over evil foreign invaders.  A quick google led us to its founder, Philippe de Villiers, a politician, historian, entrepreneur and author whose closest UK equivalent seems to be Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But if you can put that aside (and we did), the sheer exuberance, effort and excess is extraordinary.  There are 20 separate shows or experiences all based around a different period or event, and using an extraordinary array of actors, animals, special effects, fire, water, music, magic, costume, engineering, artistry, agility, and more.

We are not normally (whatever it may look like from this blog) a theme park sort of family but we had been told that if we were going to come to Puy du Fou we needed more than one day. So we booked into one of the history-themed hotels on site. We could have gone for a Merovingian stilted hut, a Gallo-Roman villa, a medieval citadel or a belle époque chateau (to be honest that one was a bit like a conference centre) but we ended up in the Field of the Cloth of Gold. With loos to match.

It is, of course, all in French, but English maps and daily guides are available and there was a “simultaneous” translated voiceover available on their app for most of the shows. That said, the epic soundtrack and deafening volume made the translation rather hard to hear much of the time and so our children tended to resort to us, which was sometimes fine, and sometimes very hard indeed (the Musketeers show was particularly incomprehensible, in any language).

Generally, too, there was a natural assumption that we would have a basic level of general French historical knowledge. Even though Ben has lived here and Harriet has a degree in French, we didn’t always. We didn’t, for example, know anything about counter-revolution in the Vendée or the ill-fated expedition of Laperouse. But in a way that was a good thing – at what other theme park would you end up discussing Robespierre, the Reign of Terror and the novels of Victor Hugo over lunch with your children?

A few highlights:

The evening show: so good we saw it twice.  The most ridiculous confection of classical music hits, fountains, flying cellos, floating violinists and a lake like a magician’s hat, out of which appeared lights, fire, a piano, a glowing carriage pulled by giant swans, six ballet dancers, a sparkling pagoda, and an entire organ blasting flames from its pipes and played by a man on fire. Bach will never be the same again.

The circus show wowed Magnus, Aurora and Sophie, with gladiators, a man herding geese, a parade of ostriches, a tiger and lions and a chariot race in which one of the chariots lost a wheel and another charioteer ended up dragged behind the traces.

Jacob Rees-Mogg aside, and although the children liked them, the big cats were the one part that made Ben and Harriet very uncomfortable. In 2020 using wild cats (even if all they did was run into the arena and lie down) doesn’t feel entirely appropriate. The lionesses in particular looked very cowed by their handler.

Generally though, the use of animals was astonishing in a good way. Any of them was a worthy contender for our weekly title. We will long remember the vicious Viking hound bringing down a runaway peasant (his tail giving away quite how much fun he was having), the amazing horsemanship and teamwork in the jousting and in particular the extraordinary bird show. This was far and away Harriet and Ben’s favourite with over 300 birds and 80 different species, including eagles, owls, hawks, marabou storks, spoonbills and even a secretary bird. Harriet is now wondering if it is too late to train in falconry.

Nantes

Nantes was really (sorry Nantes) a stopping point between Puy du Fou and Paris.  It does, of course, have its own rich history, being the seat of the Dukes of Brittany.

However we were shattered after our three full on days of history (however bowdlerised) and there was a vote for no more.  We couldn’t, in any event, have visited the 14th Century cathedral which is sadly currently closed following a serious fire (allegedly arson) earlier this month.

Instead we went for miracles of visible engineering, and spent an afternoon being wowed by the Machines de l’Ile.   An entire area on the banks of the Isle de Nantes has been taken over by the theatrical engineers of the Compagnie des Machines de Nantes.  In their workshops they build fantastic moving animals and plants from wood and steel.  We visited the gallery, where they display and test their prototypes and maquettes and had a glimpse into the workshops.   The current project is a 30 metre high, 50 metre wide tree which will rise from a disused quarry further along the Loire. It will be home to caterpillars, hummingbirds, sloths, predatory plants, birds of paradise, ants and two enormous herons, which will take wing each carrying up to 16 people. 

Lucy was asked to test the mini heron, and Ben and Aurora were in charge of the mating dance of a male bird of paradise,  with Magnus providing the sound effects.

The centrepiece of the machines here in Nantes though is the Elephant, extraordinarily realistic, despite the visible driver and workings, who promenades around the island, carrying up to 50 people in his palanquin.  He’s definitely a he – we saw him having a wee….  He also, understandably, gets hot, so cools himself off in an inimitably elephantine way.  If you happen to be nearby, you may get wet.

He is awe-inspiring (and free) to see but we decided to go for the full experience and ride on him too.  This was a wonderful (and wet) 25 minutes, a very smooth journey with an entourage of excited children (and adults) and an up-close view of the extraordinary feats of engineering and craftsmanship that go into creating such a fabulous beast.

Le Mans

Lying halfway between Nantes and Paris, Le Mans plays host to the annual 24 Hour motor race. When we were planning our Tour de France home-leg, one of our number had given the Le Mans 24 Hour Museum a “yes please, we must absolutely go there”, while the other three had said “meh, whatever”.

Despite all of us enjoying the Le Mans ’66 film this week, it was only Magnus and Ben who paid a visit while the girls went to the supermarket.

The museum itself was quite small, but completely packed with a history of motor racing, with cars dating back to 1889, as well as jaw-dropping supercars of today.

Magnus was particularly impressed by the Ford GT40s, which won several races from 1966 onwards, as featured in the film. There was a section of the museum dedicated to the film with cars, props and costumes.

The room containing models of every car to have raced was spectacular – a collector’s dream, and Ben gave a wistful look at the 2CV, adorned with flags, which made it to Tokyo from Paris.

We did at least make it to Paris, four and a half months later than planned, to a beautiful flat which will be our home for the next few days.

La vie est belle à Paris

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: Le Mans Museum (CARS). The Circus at Puy du Fou and the Vikings at Puy du Fou. They were cool because they had fire and excitement. I liked the chariots and the Viking longship rising out of the water.

Lucy: I enjoyed Saint Malo, it’s a lovely town and I had fun on the beach. Puy du Fou was AMAZING, I loved the birds, the evening show and the history. The mechanical animals were beautiful and really cool, I enjoyed going in the heron and the elephant.

Harriet: A week of amazing sights, as you can probably tell from some of the gushing paragraphs in this post. I could have watched the bird show at Puy du Fou over and over again. It was utterly astonishing. I loved the evening show too for its utterly shameless extravagance.

The Machines de l’Ile were extraordinary as well. I was slightly reluctant to ride on the Elephant as I thought it might be better to appreciate it from the outside but it was amazing to be inside the beast and to witness both its workings and the brilliant reactions it receives.

I adored St Malo too. I’d love to have stayed longer. It felt somehow more “real” and less tourist oriented than some of the other walled cities we have visited. As a bonus I treated myself to a Breton jumper.

The yellow one is Lucy’s..

Aurora: Everything in Puy du Fou was soo fun, the beach pool was quite cool. I liked watching loads of Friends. I thought the elephant was really great because it was so extremely big and really just cool!

Sophie: I have loved all of Puy du Fou. One of my favourite parts was the bird show because there were so many birds and they all got so close to us. I’ve also watched lots of Glee (a program I have been watching a lot) The elephant was amazing because of the view and when we were hot it sprayed water on us! Sleeping in a four poster bed was super comfy.

Ben: I thought St Malo was stunning.  I would happily come back. Our unexpected highlights – Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre – were more examples of things we would never have seen by not being stuck in France.

Puy du Fou was a riot. Huge eagles diving from a suspended balloon, over a soundtrack straight from the blockbuster school of soaring strings, pounding drums, heavy brass chords and a wordless choir, was breathtaking. Watching the horses accelerate and gallop at the chariot racing was another eyes-on-stalks moment, and the whole Baz Lurman meets Game of Thrones meets Liberace shazam of the place was great.

Engineering meets biology meets art makes smiles

The Machines de l’île joined Puy du Fou in making me appreciate the artistry and bloody-mindedness of the people who don’t just dream of these things – why don’t we make a 3-times life-size moving beautiful elephant out of wood and hydraulics? / why don’t we have vikings attack out of the water on a rising submerged longship? – but actually make them work and give people a thrill watching them. How many times must they have heard “it will never work” and still found a way to make it happen, and be beautiful and successful? There’s a lesson in there.

Bad bits:

Lucy: I got rather grumpy at the Machine place.

Sophie: There weren’t any bad bits this week really.

Ben: The increasing heat and crowds on successive Puy du Fou days didn’t sit well with my peely-wally grumpy side, and as I read about rising Covid infection rates across Europe, I started to glare angrily (from behind my correctly-worn mask) at the hordes who made no effort to socially distance / wear a mask properly / wear a mask at all. Despite the months of exile, I’m clearly still British, with all that glaring, though you will be able to guage my grumpiness by reading that I did actually ask people to keep their distance at times. By the mid-afternoon of day 3, I had had enough of Puy du Fou. It was amazing, and I would thoroughly recommend immersing yourself in the full experience, but perhaps it is like eating meringue and marshmallows, dipped in chocolate, rum and sprinkles for every meal…

Magnus: Being hot and angry at Puy du Fou.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and I am missing the Chartreuse.

Harriet: There have been times this week when my desire to do has clashed with others in the family and I have found their lack of enthusiasm very irritating and upsetting. I got very vociferously cross with Lucy for losing a brand new mask (subsequently found) and very similarly disappointed with Aurora and Sophie who spent much of our time in the Galerie des Machines on their phones looking bored. I think we are all quite weary.

It’s been too hot to wear my new jumper. Not really complaining though.

What did we eat?

It was perhaps a less exciting week for food, although we did have more pancakes and cider in St Malo (the plan was to head home for supper but we were having too nice a time). Excellent ice cream there too.

The food at Puy du Fou was probably better than your average theme park but still not enormously noteworthy. The children did though enjoy the surroundings in the 18th Century dining room, and Ben and Harriet were particularly chuffed that Sophie declared a vegetarian panini (with aubergines and courgettes) “delicious”.

What’s next?

We are into our last week. We arrived in our apartment Paris a few hours ago and plan to make the most of our three days here.

After Paris we had planned to spend our last night in Ghent, revisiting its medieval finery and its waffles.  Once again, though, Covid-19 has other plans. The infection rate in Belgium has increased, restrictions have tightened and there are rumours that quarantine will be reintroduced for those who have visited.  So instead we have one night in Angres, still in France and as close to the border as we can get. We will then drive straight through Belgium, stopping for neither petrol nor wees, and on to the Netherlands, Amsterdam and the ferry home.

Week 22 (France 17)

Where were we?

Here. For the last time.

Though we will be back.

And also here.

Carcassone, where we arrived yesterday

Where should we have been?

In that parallel Covid-free universe, this is the week that Tweed got to Tokyo.

We had a great few days in Shanghai before leaving China on Wednesday on the ferry (slow boat from China?) to Osaka. It has a mahjong room and a karaoke suite…

We got the train from Osaka – our first bullet train – to Tokyo and arrived here yesterday. Ben has enjoyed speaking Japanese, which he has been practising daily on our route here. We have a long list of things we want to do here. Including, by popular demand, Disneyland Tokyo. Some of us are terribly excited.

What did we really do?

St Pierre de Chartreuse

Ben found Harriet’s bank card. It was in Lucy’s pocket. Lucy had apparently looked everywhere.

It’s not here…

On Monday our landlords unexpectedly announced they were coming for an inspection visit and arriving on Thursday. As five of us are their direct descendants this was actually pretty good news, but we did want them to feel we had been looking after the place so a cleaning and tidying frenzy ensued.

The conservatory as no one has ever seen it before.

Shuggie and Ele, Ben’s parents and our enormously kind and generous landlords, duly arrived on Thursday evening after an epic drive from Rotterdam. It was utterly lovely to see them.

We had about 16 hours with them but we managed to cram in a swim, a garden inspection, a meal (and some wine) and a lot of chat and cuddles. Lucky us.

Earlier in the week we had another strawberry-fuelled walk. This time we headed up to the Source du Guiers. The Guiers Mort is the river which features large in many of our pictures, although possibly not quite as many as that mountain. It rises in a deep cave in the cliffs behind the village before tumbling down a waterfall and is a pleasant two or so hour walk up.

The route passes through the usual birch woods and up forest tracks, where the strawberries were thick on the ground, before opening into an enclosed meadow. Harriet and Ben did this walk on 21 July 2004, the day they got engaged, and, although it sounds like they made it up, really did find a four-leafed clover in that meadow. It hangs in a frame on the kitchen wall. A few years ago we did the walk again, as a family, and again Aurora found another clover.

Hopes were high, and we were determined, and ten minutes of searching produced not one but three good luck charms.

The cynical ex-biology-teacher among us points out that having four leaves is clearly a mutation that is simply passed to many of the clovers growing in that field but we (including the cynics) are refusing to let that ruin the magic.

Makes us all smile

We also met a lot of our tadpoles’ country cousins, happily swimming in a large puddle. It was reassuring that they too showed no sign of having legs.

The three girls spent a lot of time with their American friend Riis this week, including a movie night, a trip to the mini golf down the hill in La Diat and an ice cream party.

Aurora and Riis got on particularly well and are now trying to work out a long-distance relationship…

Harriet had her second girly drink in two weeks, again with Debbie and Carol and this time with the addition of Debbie’s daughter Chloe. It turns out that having a giggle, and a glass of rosé in the sun, is very good for you.

Magnus meanwhile discovered an ancient bottle of bubble mixture and drove everyone mad leaving a snail trail of soapy water on all the clean surfaces. Harriet then found an online guide to making bubbles within bubbles and she and Magnus had lots of fun (and some frustration) with that. In an appropriate location.

Magnus was also invited to spend an afternoon with his friend Sam. This was a great opportunity for four of the rest of us to go “climbing in the trees” and for Ben to head into Grenoble to claim back the cost of his doctor’s visit, tests and drugs, and to run some other errands.

The climbing in the trees (Is there an English word for this? – in French it’s accrobranche) was great as always, but Ben had a rather more frustrating time in Grenoble. He didn’t have exactly the right forms in exactly the right order to reclaim the money (although this can be done by post) and the china shop, where he wanted to replace some broken plates (astonishingly dating to before our arrival) wasn’t open when it said it would be, and when it did open didn’t have the plates we needed.

So he consoled himself by buying a fondue set. Retail therapy of the most cheesy kind…

At Sam’s, Magnus made a new friend: Oli, whose dad lives in the village. Oli has a trampoline and a scalextric set. Magnus was very happy there for several hours on Thursday while the rest of us cleaned and packed.

Carcassonne

On Friday morning, 117 days after arriving in St Pierre de Chartreuse, we packed up the car, left the fondue machine in the care of Shuggie and Ele, said our goodbyes to our wonderful friends and headed off South and West to Carcassonne.

This wasn’t the most fun journey we’ve had. The traffic was very heavy and it was extremely hot: 37° when we stopped outside Nîmes for a wee and an ice cream. Nonetheless we arrived safely in our home for the next three days, a very nice flat in a rather less nice corner of Carcassonne.

But this is just around the corner

It is a bit of a shock being back in a hot city and none of us slept brilliantly – the bikers of Carcassonne seemingly holding a rally at 2 a.m. didn’t help – but we were up bright and early to take advantage of the welcome overcast skies and cooler temperatures.

We have left the garden and wildflowers of the Chartreuse behind, but the agapanthus in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne were a pretty good replacement

We walked into La Cité, the medieval walled town of Carcassonne and found it just as beautiful as we remembered (but less steep, says Harriet) We were delighted that all four children asked to go and visit the castle and its ramparts.

We were hugely touched by the response to yesterday’s Instagram/Facebook post. People were enormously kind about what we have written and posted in the last 117 days and in particular about how we, especially the children, have coped with this unexpected situation.

We celebrated how proud we are of them all with a lolly/ crêpe/ very large ice cream in the shadow of the ramparts of Carcassonne.

How was it?

Good bits:

Ben: For our Friday Instagram post, I described the process of losing the dream of our transcontinental journey as conforming to the seven stages of grief. I’ve been through anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, etc. The last of these is Acceptance and Hope, and (for the moment at least) this has been my mood during our farewell to the Chartreuse.

I’m delighted my parents came to see us in our / their home, and pleased with how pleased they were with what we had done to (and in) the house.

I am very grateful to the people who discovered antibiotics. I am feeling much better than last weekend.

On a lesser note, it is good to see our “where we are” dot on the blog move, even if it’s not going to get as far as it was meant to.

Sophie: I really enjoyed Riis coming over lots, the ice-cream party was good and I had loads of fun watching a movie on Riis’s terrace and playing with his cat. I had lots of fun at Indian forest although I got lots of wedgies. I adored being able to see Ele and Shuggie.

Lucy: I enjoyed the Source du Guiers walk especially when I found a four leaf clover because I feel we need some luck in this unlucky year. I enjoyed spending time with Riis especially the film and obviously Shuggie and Ele coming was awesome. I love climbing in the trees so Indian Forest was good. Carcassonne is lovely but I don’t have much to note about it.

Magnus: Oli’s house was good because we got to play on his Scaleletrix. I had a blue Mercedes AMG.

Ele and Shuggie coming was good because, well, Ele and Shuggie are really nice. I mostly hugged Ele.

Source du Guiers is one of my favourite walks, because it has these metal crates that you jump across to get across the waterfall.

Harriet: The Source du Guiers walk is always a favourite and didn’t disappoint. I loved the climbing and in particular being aware of how much more physically able I am than I was five months ago.

It was lovely to see Ben’s parents and (honestly) a massive relief that they seemed delighted with the condition of the house. It is good too, although tinged with all sorts of regrets, big and small, to be back on the road again.

The children hate me saying it but I am so proud of how they have grown and changed over the last wee while and the people they are and are becoming.

Aurora: Hanging out with Riis made me smile loads. Indian Forest was fun but I got loads of wedgies. Seeing Ele and Shuggie. The movie with Riis was fun. I loved doing the ice cream party for Riis, skipping bits of cleaning to have lunch with Riis and making Tiktoks with Riis.

And cleaning windows with Riis…

Bad bits:

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and saying bye to Riis.

Harriet: I am sad, for lots of reasons, to be leaving the Chartreuse. There is the big picture of the fact that this really does mean we have failed to do what we set out to do. We will not get to Tokyo in 2020. There is the medium picture of the fact that we have, over the past few months, really begun to put down roots with people and place in the Chartreuse and I will miss them all. And then there is the small stuff – I didn’t see the tadpoles grown up. I never made any wild strawberry jam. There are walks unwalked and rivers unforded.

I am, and I know it’s a controversial opinion, underwhelmed by Carcassonne. The Cité is of course spectacular, but as medieval walled cities go, I think I preferred Aigues Mortes, and the more modern town feels a bit run down and depressed (though the umbrellas are lovely).

It looks great from here though

Magnus: Riis coming round. Cleaning.

Sophie: I am already missing my friends from Saint Pierre (Riis and Milly).

Strawberries can’t help with that.

Lucy: We didn’t do a red Indian Forest run which I wanted to do, there was a lot of waiting around for Daddy after our climbing and it was VERY hot yesterday.

Ben: My trip to Grenoble was a frustrating one, which made me a bit grumpy, and I didn’t enjoy the drive to Carcassonne – too hot and too many cars, and (I’m sure) nothing to do with the nice wine the evening before.

But at least the car was (briefly) nice and clean.

What did we eat?

A lot of leftovers. And the contents of the freezer.

And some very large lollies.

What about the tadpoles?

One of the many lovely things about Ben’s parents arriving is that they can take charge of the tadpoles. This had previously been a cause of concern. We will be following their progress from afar and will keep you updated.

This week they have continued to swim happily, though appearing only when the sun is off their respective pools.

It is nonetheless a sadness that we didn’t see them grow up. We knew exactly where we were going to release them and Harriet in particular was very much looking forward to having, temporarily, an actual box of frogs…

What’s next?

We are here in Carcassonne, fulfilling all Ben’s nine-year-old Dungeons and Dragons dreams, until Monday when we head to the West Coast, between Arcachon and Bordeaux for a bit of beach and wine. It’s not sake and sushi, but it could be a lot worse.

Week 21 (France 16)

Where were we?

Still here.  For our last full week.

Where should we have been?

Still in China.  We would have been wending our way North and East towards Shanghai.  Our boat from Shanghai to Osaka was planned for next Wednesday.

What did we actually do?

Ben’s birthday

It was Ben’s birthday on Thursday, the last of our three family Tweed to Tokyo birthdays, none of which has been quite as we expected.

Quite aside from the fact that we are not in Shanghai, Thursday was forecast to be rainy so we had abandoned the idea of a big walk, much to the children’s “disappointment”.

In the event it was gloriously sunny, but in order to keep the birthday peace Ben decided to go on a bike ride instead. It wasn’t too much of a hardship.

We had invited Debbie and Philippe for dinner and we had a fantastically convivial evening with them over three courses, a bit of wine, cake and even some Chartreuse.

Not all of this was drunk.

It possibly wasn’t the most exotic and well-planned birthday Ben had ever had but he says he enjoyed it.

And everything else

Last Sunday Ben and Aurora took advantage of the fact that borders are now open and drove back to Switzerland to see if they could find the long lost Duplo A, last seen at a motorway service station between Geneva and Bern.

Aurora had made a Duplo playlist, and agreed with Ben that this was at best a very long shot of recovery. There is a recurring joke in Asterix in Switzerland about Switzerland being very clean and tidy, so the chances of finding a teddy, from 15 weeks ago, still lying on the ground in a car park were vanishingly slim.

From “Asterix in Switzerland”

After 3 hours on the road, the sight of a man with a leaf blower clearing the car park on a Sunday morning was predictable. There was nothing at lost property either. We came home, knowing we had done all we could for the much-lamented Duplo A.

We started to really think think about packing up and leaving this lovely place. There are various jobs that need to be done to leave it in the best possible state.

We began by turning out the cupboard of old ski kit. A dormouse (of the large, Romans-used-to-eat-them variety) had clearly made a lovely home there over the winter so this wasn’t the nicest of jobs. It is however now done and all the ski kit has been claimed or chucked.

The after photo. Viewers of a sensitive nature might have found the before picture too distressing

Ben got to take his post birthday hangover to the tip as a reward….

The height of fashion and good taste in about 1989. These didn’t make it into the “save it” pile.

We weeded, tidied and swept the garden, cleaned all the kitchen drawers and delved so far down the back of the sofa that we found a pine cone and a very small lego superman watch. We have no idea who either of them belong to.

We also packaged up and posted (at an eye-watering cost) lots of the things we had been so kindly lent, and an even greater number of things that we don’t want to leave here or throw away but which we won’t have room for in the car.  Having arrived here with the bare minimum of winter clothes we have acquired a lot of necessary summer clothes and quite a bit of not-so-necessary stuff.  We will look forward to hopefully seeing it again in 5 weeks.

It turned out that Harriet should have been slightly more sympathetic (not one of her core skills) about the hangover as it wasn’t entirely self-inflicted.  A trip to the doctor for Ben on Saturday morning diagnosed an infection (not Covid for anyone who was wondering) and, this being France, necessitated a trip to Grenoble for blood and other tests.  It all felt a bit like overkill, but he came back with antibiotics and is beginning to get on the mend.

We had another long and fabulous walk up and round the Col de la Saulce.  Ben had cleverly planned this, which was mostly in the shade, for the hottest day we’ve had so far.  Once again we were privileged to be among extraordinary beauty, with woods and meadows and mountains.

Our wild flower stars of this week were the orchids.  We saw five different varieties, three of which were new to us on that one walk.

It is true to say that the orchids have done a great job with their branding. There a doubtless huge numbers of equally rare and wonderful flowers here, but we (aka Harriet) don’t get nearly as excited about them.

A leaky pipe about 100 metres away from the house needed fixing on Thursday (Ben’s birthday). This meant that we were without water for about six hours, although we could (and did) fill buckets from the basin of the fountain. This wasn’t hugely convenient when we were trying to prepare a birthday meal, but did mean that the children learned the important life skill of flushing a loo with a bucket.

Note the fountain itself isn’t running…

Harriet’s lovely pale blue shoes didn’t survive their first proper walk entirely intact. 

This made her unreasonably sad.

We did well on our foraging, collecting a large number of (admittedly very small) wild strawberries. We made good use of them in Ben’s birthday cake.

Harriet’s bank card has disappeared. This is irritating rather than anything more serious as we are certain it must be in the house somewhere (she gave it to Lucy to go to the boulangerie and it has clearly been abandoned somewhere Lucy-ish). It’s been temporarily frozen, so all we have to do now is find it…

The lavender is out in the garden and playing host to an array of butterflies, bees and beetles.

We have a new category: fungus of the week. The first winner is amazing, and, when you think about it, quite obviously named, yellow coral fungus.

Magnus and Harriet tackled a kit that he had been given for his birthday and made a Strandbeest.  So far we’ve only manage to make it work with the aid of a hairdryer, but we have high hopes for the Atlantic beaches.

Our best real beastie this week was a very large, very green, cricket.  Sadly he was missing a leg so we suspect he may not have been feeling his best.  It did mean he was pleasantly still for the photo though.

Harriet went out for a spontaneous (uncharacteristic), twenty minute, girly drink with friends Debbie and Carol mid-afternoon and mid-week. It was brilliant fun and she talked way too much.

Lovely friends (former colleagues of Ben’s) came up to visit on Saturday afternoon. They arrived while Ben was in Grenoble getting poked with needles but Harriet had a delightful time sitting in the sun and drinking elderflower cordial with them and their children. 

And later that day we had a party.  We realise that that seems an impossibility for anyone in the UK, but it is totally permissible here and although we did provide hand gel, we don’t think Covid was on anyone’s mind. 

The kids turned it into a pool party and the adults chatted as the sun set over the mountains.  Plentiful rosé was drunk (we will be bringing some back) and nibbles nibbled.  We have been very lucky to meet such lovely people during our time here and it was a delight to be able to spend time with them all.

How was it?

Good bits:

Sophie: I liked the tasty barbecue, and while we’re on the subject of food the naan breads and Daddy’s birthday cake. My favourite part was the party.

The teddies in the window at the tip made me smile.

Lucy: Daddy’s birthday obviously. It was very fun and I enjoyed the dinner. The party – I had some good chats and had lots of fun in the pool. The walk was nice. The strawberries were nicer. Sophie and Aurora were really kind on the day I didn’t have my phone. And I enjoyed today as well.

Magnus: The naans were really tasty and yummy. My Strandbeest was cool. I liked the walk to Perquelin with Sophie and Aurora.

Harriet: Apart from Ben being ill it has been a lovely week.  We really feel as though we have put roots down here and it is lovely feeling part of the village.  Our party was great fun and our little dinner for Ben’s birthday perhaps even better.  I feel (and those who know me will realise this is not always the case) very relaxed.  I am enjoying spending time with our children,  which also isn’t always so.  Perhaps the fact that I am writing this in the hammock and none of them is in earshot may have something to do with that…

Having an excuse to do lots of baking is always a good thing as well. It makes me very happy when people like the food I make.

I was very proud of myself for putting the Strandbeest together too.

Aurora: Going to Switzerland with Daddy was fun but we didn’t find Duplo. I enjoyed making flapjacks, brownies, popcorn and biscuits and helping Mummy make nibbles for the party. The PARTY!!! Athough I spent the whole time trying to get everyone go swimming and no one would come in. I liked going to Riis’s house and getting my new hat because I kept stealing Riis’s. Swimming was really fun and Daddy’s birthday was amazing. Fabulous, beautiful, marvellous, wonderful food. I am the best eater.

Ben: I had a lovely birthday, and am still loving being here and feeling very at home. We have made lovely friends here (whether now or my old colleagues from 20 years ago). It has been satisfying finally to do some of the tasks that I meant to do fairly early on in our stay.

I was quite proud of myself being a big brave boy during my blood test. I am never the best with needles, and I was feeling ropey too. But for goodness sake, I’m 48, and I perhaps I should grow up, and not be such a scaredy cat. Maybe all those injections against rabies and encephalitis weren’t a complete waste of time and money after all.

Bad bits:

Ben: I am rubbish at being ill, and would have liked to have been better company at our leaving party. I’m glad that as I write this (one day later) the antibiotics are having a positive effect, though the side effects of tendonitis (no running or big walks advised) and sun sensitivity, as we set off for the sunniest beachiest bit of our trip, are a bit foreboding.

Aurora: Not having Duplo. People being annoying (I can’t say who but you can probably guess).

Lucy: It all got a bit frantic before the party and there were some scratchy bits on our long walk.

Magnus: I got a massive headache at the party and went to bed in the middle of it.

Harriet: The ten minutes after Ben came back from the doctor and announced he needed to go to Grenoble when we had thirty-odd people arriving three hours later were perhaps not my finest and most supportively wifely moment.

I was disproportionately cross about getting my new shoes muddy, even though I knew it was inevitable.

Sophie: The long walk wasn’t bad if you know what I mean, but you know, it was a long walk.

What did we eat?

Snails. Ben’s birthday treat.

We also had an Eton mess birthday cake, with our foraged strawberries and redcurrants from our friends’ garden (ours aren’t ripe yet). Despite a lot of internet research Harriet yet again failed to identify a variety of French cream that will whip, so it was perhaps less stable than some cakes, but it was tasty nonetheless.

Our party required a lot of nibbles, which, with several sous-chefs (some more enthusiastic than others) and a maître pâtissier in the making (Aurora), were fun to make and even better to eat.

How are the tadpoles?

Not sure. The ones in the bird bath are being more elusive than ever. It has been hot and cloudless for much of the week and we don’t think they like that at all. We have barely seen them all week, and only when it is cloudy. The outside sink colony continue to do well but we still have no sign of legs from any of them.

The water really is that green.

On the upside the outside sink is also now home to a large number of other larval things. If these tadpoles do ever turn into frogs they won’t go hungry.

Probably baby crocodiles. Or unicorns.

What’s next?

This week will mostly be spent tidying, cleaning and packing up. We leave here next Friday.  We have planned and booked our route home and we now know where we will be every night until 6th August when we have a ferry crossing back to the UK. 

The children then go back to school on 11th.  What could possibly go wrong…?

Five tips for travelling in a post-Covid world

For those who don’t know us, we set off with four kids from Scotland in February with high hopes and meticulous plans. We were going overland to Tokyo to arrive in time for the Olympics.

Coldstream, Scotland 10 February.

Five weeks in, borders started to close and we made a dash for France, where we have been ever since.

Lockdown in France began to ease in mid-May and from 2 June we were allowed to test the travelling waters again. A week later we packed up and spent ten days staying in hotels and AirBnBs in the South of France. Next week we will pack up for good and slowly make our way across France to head back to the UK (where the Scottish school term will re-start, early, four days after we get back).

Camargue, France. Six days after hotels reopened. We were allowed to travel up to 300km.

As borders start to open up and people start to wonder about travelling again, we thought it might help to share what we learned on that brief trip and what we will be remembering as we travel onwards:

1. Check the rules for your destination and stay up to date with them

Each country has its own Covid rules. These rules change quickly and sometimes without warning. Make sure you know what they are and get the information from official government sites rather than the media.

We thought long and hard about going to Spain next week. Harriet was keen to sneak in an extra country but Ben was worried. He had read in Le Monde (highly respected newspaper in France) that there were quarantine rules between France and Spain. We checked the French Foreign Ministry website. It wasn’t true.

This ferry only goes across a river, but the ones to and from most UK ports are open now too. Check if you can travel.

For us, too, things are further complicated by the fact that we are British, living in France, and wanting to go to Spain. We therefore need to be sure what the rules are for Brits as well as the rules between France and Spain. They aren’t always the same. Different countries are treating different nationalities differently (Greece has just restricted entry for travellers from Britain – does that mean us? We don’t know…). It may also be relevant where else (if anywhere!) you have been in the last few weeks.

Check, check and check again!

In the event we aren’t going to Spain – partly because it will be too hot and partly because the rules for UK travellers coming in by land still aren’t, to our mind at least, clear – but it’s a good example of the need to check your sources and to make sure the information you’re relying on is true.

12 June. On the move again. Avignon, France

Once you are in a new country check the local rules again – Do you need masks? How many people are allowed in one place at once? What are the rules on social distancing? You will feel much happier on your travels if you know you’re not going to get pulled up for doing the wrong thing!

2. Check out the Covid policy before booking accommodation

In our normal life we manage a holiday cottage. It reopens next week and we have been bombarded with sometimes contradictory advice about how to make it safe for guests.

This has, though, given an insight into what to look for when booking accommodation. The key thing, to our mind, is to book somewhere that acknowledges Covid on its website. You can be sure then that they have at least thought about the issues. If you can, call up and ask. Facilities may be different: swimming pools may be closed, breakfast may no longer be served or there may be particular rules on the use of public spaces. Again it pays to research all this before booking.

As far as AirBnB is concerned it seems to us (and we have no proof that this is Covid- related but it may be) that more and more hosts are not providing sheets and towels. Check this! They are “essentials” in the list of amenities and it is not always made clear in the listing if they are not provided. We didn’t realise…

This AirBnB was spotlessly clean and had a private pool. We were delighted to find it available. It had sheets too

3. Check what’s open and book if you can

Many tourist sites, at least here in France, are now open, but do check before visiting. You may need to book in advance as numbers may be limited. You may well also need to bring a mask or make other preparations. At the extraordinary and highly recommended Grotte Chauvet 2 in the Ardèche we had to download their app to enable a non-guided, guided tour.

Equally some places may have different restrictions in place. During July and August for example only residents of Barcelona can get tickets for Gaudì’s Sagrada Familia.

The upside of this is that many normally very busy places are much more empty – all the Barcelonans will doubtless be delighted to have their cathedral to themselves. And for us tourists, this means that you really can get that photograph where it looks as though you are the only person there…

In a normal year, 10,000 people a day visit the Pont du Gard. When we were there it really was just us. And yes, that is Magnus shouting at his sister.

4. Carry a mask, use hand sanitiser and keep your distance

If you have a mask with you at all times you can use it if required. We have found that some places (restaurants, shops etc) require masks and others don’t. Many say they do, and then actually don’t when you are inside. You won’t necessarily know until you are there. Many restaurants in France require a mask if you are inside the building moving around. So you’re fine sitting on the outside terrace but if you don’t have a mask and you need to go inside for a wee you’re in trouble.

Masks are obligatory on public transport in France. In Spain you can be fined up to €1000 for not carrying one with you at all times.

If you enter a building and they provide hand sanitiser at the entrance, use it. You don’t know what you’ve touched since you last washed your hands and it’s only polite to the other people there.

Find out what the social distancing rules are (of course you’ve done that already because you read tip 1) and stick to them. In fact be generous with them. Just because you feel safe around other people doesn’t mean those people feel safe around you. We met several people working in shops or restaurants who didn’t seem to be comfortable being there, but who had little or no choice. It is only respectful to try to put them at as much at ease as you can.

Palais de Papes, Avignon, again almost eerily empty. Social distancing wasn’t difficult.

5. Remember opinions differ

There seem to be as many different opinions on Covid as there are people we’ve met. Some people will tell you it’s all been blown out of all proportion and some will say you are not being careful enough. One person we met in the South of France said she had given up swimming in the sea because it wasn’t safe with Covid. We never did work that one out.

Staying well away from the sea… just in case.

If you want, and feel safe, to travel, and the advice in your country and the country you want to go to is that it is safe to do so, don’t let anyone else’s opinion stop you. Listen to them, take account of their concerns, make sure your behaviour doesn’t make them unsafe (or even feel unsafe) and then go and enjoy yourselves.

Bon voyage!

We should have been in China now. We’d have seen and done amazing things. But we wouldn’t have seen this or so much else.

Harriet

Week 20 (France 15)

Where were we?

Back in the safety and familiarity of St Pierre de Chartreuse.

It doesn’t get old

Where should we have been

This should have been the end of our third week in China. By now we would have visited Xian, Chengdu (where we would have seen pandas) and Lijiang. We would probably now have been in Guilin.  We would also hopefully have been very familiar with the vagaries of Chinese trains. And very good at eating everything.  

Some of these hills are not like the other ones. Image from Pixabay.

What did we actually do?

After our early morning start to see the sunrise a month or so ago, we thought we would go bigger and better for Midsummer.  The Solstice was actually on Saturday but in Harriet’s head Midsummer’s Day is 21st June and in practice there was less than 4 seconds difference in day length between Saturday and Monday.   Sunday was, however, forecast to be cloudy, so we nominated Monday for an early start.  The intention was to see the sunrise from the top of Charmant Som (1,867m) at 5.29 am.

Alarms went off at 3.30 am and everyone headed into the car (wrapped up warm and armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and a box of biscuits) for the half-hour drive.  The skies were perfect: cloudless and studded with stars.

As with many of our well-laid plans though, it didn’t go quite as intended. As we travelled up the road, the clouds came down to meet us. By the time we were getting out of the car we were in thick fog. We know the path well, so following it wasn’t hard, one step in front of the other. Up into the cloud, we went, the pools of light from our headtorches bouncing in front of us. We could hear the jangling of the cow bells but not locate them.

There was an unspoken hope that either the cloud would clear or we would come out above it, but it was not to be. The summit was wet and cold and the view non-existent. The hot chocolate was all the more welcome for it. Sunrise was also, we discovered, not until 5.49.

Having reached the top at about 5.10, we decided not to hang around for a sunrise we were unlikely to see, and as we descended, the skies lightening around us, the sun suddenly broke through.

It wasn’t the sunrise, as such, but it was pretty close and it was very beautiful.

On Thursday we had a better attempt at Charmant Som, climbing it in blinding sunshine before having the traditional slap-up meal at the Auberge du Charmant Som. In previous years we have felt that the walk earned us the meal. It must be a sign of how much fitter we are that we weren’t entirely convinced we deserved it this time.

Later that day, Louise, a local 13-year-old came round to do some language chat with Lucy. It turns out that she is the daughter of the owner of the Auberge where we had been that afternoon. They seemed to get on OK. Mostly in English though.

Harriet did her annual cartwheel. It was fun: she might have to do more.

This week’s runners up for beasties of the week were rather bigger than usual (and further away in one case)…

The actual beasties of the week were also pretty tame. Sheep are still pastured on the high alps here and they are still moved on foot from place to place along the paths and roads. Some had been moved into Debbie and Philippe’s field (not a high alpine meadow, but still) earlier in the week. On Sunday evening we got a call – they’re on the move.

They are accompanied by big dogs, that look beautiful but which, we are told, would attack anyone who came close (we didn’t try) and, rather less obviously logically, a donkey (with a bell) and a number of long-horned goats.  The ewes are still lambing, on the hill and unattended, so there were a dozen or so day-old lambs among the flock.  These had to be tracked down and lifted into a van as they aren’t strong enough yet for the walk. They, and their mothers, weren’t delighted to be separated. Harriet and Lucy, on the other hand, were very happy to take the opportunity for a cuddle.

We had another accidental walk on Sunday courtesy of the useless new walks book.  What was supposed to be a beautiful hour’s stroll to a pass turned out to be a rather dull thirty minutes. So we kept going and were treated to spectacular meadows, flowers, woods and views. 

The children weren’t hugely impressed by the additional three hours but were nonetheless very good about the abortive ice cream (the café was useless) on the way home.

Bored with waiting for our tadpoles to do anything interesting, we embarked on a rather speedier biology experiment and are growing cress.

Day 2. The tadpoles are on week 15.

This week’s wildflowers to excite Harriet were Great Yellow Gentians, the last of the Troll (Globe) flowers, Fragrant Orchids (disappointingly un-fragrant), and fabulous Martagon Lilies like something out of the 1001 nights.

We had a fruit of the week too: the wild alpine strawberries that are glowing like sweets in the hedgerows. They’re better than sweets though.

Harriet finally discovered why her feet have been getting so wet on our walks when Sophie pointed out the multiple holes in her six-year-old walking shoes. A trip to Brun Sports in the village sourced her a pair of lovely new ones in an entirely impractical shade of turquoise. Mme Brun also provided an explanation as to why Harriet has been slipling over a lot. The soles had worn entirely smooth…

Whoever designed them clearly never goes walking in the rain.

We had a lovely meal, with ping pong, table football and the Minions movie, with Debbie and Philippe.

Top garden highlight this week were these ridiculously over-pimped (yet self-seeded) poppies.

Ben had a (sort of early birthday) treat on Tuesday, while Harriet and the children had a constructive day at home. Not just a real done-in-a-hairdressers haircut (though that did happen before breakfast), but a big-day-out-on-a-bike. Hiring a gravel bike from the local sports shop (no true road bikes available) he set out to explore some familiar and unfamiliar roads, including some of the areas we had walked on Sunday. 63km, 4 Cols, 1700 vertical metres and the bizarre Voie Sarde (a 17th century path, which enlarged a narrow gorge and greatly reduced the pain of crossing the hills between Dauphiné and Savoie) provided the scenery and adventure for a lovely (if extremely hot) first cycle of 2020. Empty roads, a lovely lunch and a cool off in the pool on a proud return made it all the better.

A warning light came on in the car as we were coming home on Thursday. Just oil needed, but irritating. We pulled in to the only garage in the area (they don’t sell fuel) intending just to see if they would sell us a bottle of oil. They get top marks for service – they came and checked it, did the statutory humming and hawing, decided it couldn’t hurt to put some in, did so, and charged us….nothing.

We gave them some money anyway.

Inspired by the cave paintings we saw in the Ardèche (ish) we went hunter-gathering for our lunch on Wednesday.  We took Magnus’ friend Sam with us too. About half an hour away you can catch (and despatch) your own trout before having it served to you, cleaned and grilled and with excellent chips.   When you stop and think about it, it’s a rather odd thing to do – the trout are clearly farmed and then put in the ponds – but it was an idyllic setting, in the shade by the river, and five of us had never caught a fish before.  Two of us still haven’t but the lunch was excellent.

On Friday – with the forecast for very hot weather – we went to one of our old stamping grounds: the Cirque de St Même. This is a natural wide and circular valley surrounded by towering cliffs. The Guiers Vif (the twin of “our” river, the Guiers Mort) flows out of a cave in the cliff, down a series of waterfalls and through the valley bottom. It was not, in the end, quite the endless sunshine we were promised: we left early afternoon with thunder echoing off the cliffs and came straight back into very heavy rain, but we still managed a good bit of guddling.

More guddling today when we decided to revisit the “fishes” walk along the old route de St Bruno towards the monastery. We had done this for the first time three weeks ago in very heavy rain with the river pounding its way through the gorge. Today was totally different. In glorious sunshine we paddled in water so clear it seemed impossible. It was bitingly cold but that didn’t stop all six of us getting our toes (and ankles, and knees…) wet.

And Ben and Harriet finally made it into the pool, to great joy and much shrieking from the rest of the family.

How was it?

Good bits:

Lucy: I loved the sheep, especially holding the baby lambs. I liked getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise. It was really beautiful, I think even prettier than when we saw the sunrise the first time. Just as we were getting in the car to see the sunrise the stars were amazing too. There were so many of them and they were so pretty. I really liked the wild strawberries on our walk. There’s something so energising about that little morsel of sweetness when you put it in your mouth. I enjoyed Cirque de St Même. I always do. I thought the walk today and the guddling today was absolutely amazing. I loved it. I liked swimming as a family together.

Magnus: I liked the sheep, climbing Charmant Som in the sunrise and table football at Debbie and Philippe’s.

Sophie: I loved the sheep because when all the baby sheep were in the car the Mummy sheep would go “maaaaa” and all the baby sheep would go “maaaaa” together like a choir. I liked climbing Charmant Som both times and the sunrise was really pretty. I loved getting Kevin (the teddy Debbie and Philippe gave us). He is a marmot. I also liked playing ping pong and the meal at Debbie and Philippe’s. They are so nice. The fishing was good fun.

Ben: It has been a good week for walks, and I’ve enjoyed each of them in different ways. I am a big fan of walking in beech woods, and the Chartreuse is full of them, even though it often looks to be all fir.

I was relieved that the sun came out on our dawn walk. It had the makings of a TweedtoTokyo classic – looks like a brilliant plan, executed in detail, ruined by factors outside our control.

Getting a haircut has been a bit overdue, and a neater head of hair has been more of a pleasure than it should be.

My bike ride was glorious, and I had been eyeing that route for years, though some saddle adjustment is needed next time – I thought there was something under the carpet when I did morning 5BX sit ups the next day, but it was just a bruised bottom…

Aurora: Fishing, guddling, seeing the sheep, Debbie and Philippe are really nice – I love being with them, getting Kevin, omelettes, making a cake, cleaning the pool, ping pong.

Harriet: My favourite moment of this week was either cuddling the lamb – we had sheep when I was a child and it was amazing how familiar it felt – or sitting on a rock in the middle of the Guiers Mort this afternoon. The water was so extraordinarily clear and fresh and seemed both eternally unchanging, almost solid, and yet endlessly different and alive. Pictures don’t do it justice.

I loved our meals out too. We had a fabulous time with Debbie and Philippe, who seem to have featured large in this weeks post. They have become fabulous friends and we are very lucky to have met them and to have been made so welcome, not just by them, but by so many others in the village. I enjoyed the fishing too – although I wasn’t allowed actually to hold a rod. I am quite proud of how unsqueamish I was about the necessary nasty bits of fishing. (Apologies to any vegetarians). And Charmant Som is always a winner.

Our sunrise expedition was a great example of snatching a victory from an experience that got very, very, close to being an utter disaster.

Bad bits:

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and moving rooms.

Sophie: I think I might have lost my Tiktok no bickering streak this morning. And my slight tan has turned into a bit of sunburn.

Ben: I was determined to be positive this morning, and smile, and sail through any complaints about needing to clean the house, but breakfast was a particular needle-fest and it took our walk and paddle up the gorge to settle things down.

I’m not looking forward to leaving here on a permanent basis. Having spent weeks and months (and some particularly bleak days) wanting to be in other places, there feels like so much more to do here before we go. I feel very at home here. I will miss it hugely.

Magnus: All the flies at Charmant Som

Lucy: It was a bit annoying having my period at Cirque de St Même.

Harriet: I’m not sure Magnus is having a great time at the moment. He seems very angry and frustrated and is very resistant to much of what we suggest, be that new foods or walks or even games. I suspect he, and we, will come out of it, but I am finding that hard and not always reacting very well.

As ever, the bickering has been getting to me too, for all that only one of the children has mentioned it this week.

I am disappointed not to be going to Spain. Ben was reluctant and I do understand why, but I just wanted to be in another country. That’s not a reason to take an unnecessary risk, and, as with the Gorge de l’Ardèche (where I was the reluctant one) we are taking the sensible path.

Separately, I feel (dull introspective thought here) that I spend too much time as an observer. I take most of the photos (although I realise I’m in three of the pictures we’ve posted this week) but that means that much of the time, I am not the one doing or living the experiences. It is interesting that my favourite experiences of the last few weeks have all been ones where, for various reasons, I have not been able to hide on the sidelines. Being me, I am beating myself up about this.

Look! In front of the camera...

How are the tadpoles?

Unbelievably still here, and still tadpoles.  We fear that the hot weather and resulting evaporation has made the water in some of the sections of the birdbath much less hospitable. This is a nice way of saying we think that quite a lot of them are dead. But they may, again, just be hiding. The ones in the increasingly murky, but cooler and shadier, sink, seem to be doing better.

What did we eat?

We enjoyed two lovely meals out (with apologies if that feels like gloating to anyone in the UK).

First, our self-caught fish and chips. 

Magnus would have preferred them battered

And then the always reliable deliciousness that is the Assiette Montagnard and Tarte aux Myrtilles at the Auberge du Charmant Som.

Back at home we were quite chuffed with our home made burger buns.

It’s the salad that makes it too tall.

Lucy and Aurora went baking-tastic and made a fabulous Victoria sponge (which we failed to photograph) and some very large (and very tasty) biscuits.

What’s next?

Tomorrow sees the start of our last full week here, and there will be lots to do to make this happen. We have started booking our stays after Chartreuse, and we will be leaving this wonderful place on 10th July. Our route (North and West in France) is planned, with our departure slightly later than we had originally thought, as we decided not to include a trip to North Spain within our plans. The risks (having problems with getting back into France, Covid uncertainty, not speaking the language – and hence not being able to fix the car or be sure what the ever changing rules are) seemed to outweigh the positives (actually going to another country, being able to find accommodation in Barcelona, churros). We need to book more next week.

Ben has already started washing duvets and bedspreads, with other cleaning (windows, cupboards) planned. It is not all sunshine and mountain views…

It mostly is, though.

There will also be two celebrations. It is Ben’s birthday on Thursday (how bizarre to have had all our TweedtoTokyo birthdays here instead of St Petersburg in April, Mongolia in May and China in July as we expected; when we arrived here we had hoped to be gone by Lucy’s birthday) and we are going to have evening leaving drinks next Saturday with many of the lovely people here who have helped us with so much, and made us feel so welcome.

Sunshine and showers. There’s a metaphor in there.

Week 18 (France 13)

Where were we?

Places! We went to places! Read on…

On the road again…

Where should we have been?

Early last Sunday we packed up again and headed for the main station in Ulaanbaatar for our last booked train. From here on in (weird mental leap here) we didn’t (in March) have much actually booked; plenty of plans and ideas but nothing concrete.

We arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and have spent the week exploring this amazing city.  We left it briefly mid-week for a night. In a tent. On the Great Wall of China.

Where did we actually go? What did we do?

St Pierre de Chartreuse

Sunday was a day of torrential rain, but we needed to get out, so we put on lots of waterproofs and drove 5 miles or so down the gorge towards St Laurent du Pont and explored a path recommended by Fabienne, whom we met last week. This path was the original path used by the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery before the late 19th century road was built.

The way was marked by painted blue fishes, and the river was in full spate, which was glorious to behold, as was the beech forest. Ben could not believe he had never been there in the 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse.

Wet river walks aside, the top excitement at home prior to our departure was the arrival of the dishwasher repair man.  Keen readers will remember that the dishwasher broke about three days into confinement and dishwasher repairs were not considered an essential service.  It has taken this long since deconfinement a) for us to ring him and b) for him to come up the hill and see us.  When he arrived Harriet had just taken a batch of biscuits out of the oven.  He had a cup of coffee and several biscuits and… turned the dishwasher on. €48 for the privilege.  Oh well.

The shepherd that relied on this red sky would have been destined for disappointment

If free French lessons and endless pots of delicious jam aren’t enough, our now-not-so-new friend Debbie went further to the top of Harriet’s list by (apparently) being genuinely astonished to discover that she (Harriet) was over 40.  As Harriet is rapidly heading for 43 and a half and hasn’t worn make up in months this was A Good Thing.

Pont du Gard

Anyway, we left the Chartreuse on Monday morning intending to head straight for the Camargue, about four hours South.

The drive was easy and those of us that were looking out of the windows enjoyed watching the landscape change entirely: the beech and fir were replaced by the iconic cypresses, the roofs became flatter and the buildings more golden, Mont Ventoux loomed over the horizon and as if we needed any more Provençal clichés, there was lavender growing in the field next to where we had our picnic.

The plan to head directly South went awry though when Harriet spotted that our route took us within five miles of the iconic Pont du Gard.

Ben had first been here thirty years ago, when there were no railings and you could walk along the top (as parents we were very pleased that is no longer possible), and Harriet and Ben came 15 years later when there was major building work going on.

Now, though, there is a swanky visitors centre, with museum and cinema, and over 1.5 million people visit each year.

Except in 2020 of course. It was both extremely eerie and an extraordinary privilege to have the place almost entirely to ourselves. There were perhaps a hundred or so other people across the entire site. That elusive tourist photo that makes it look like you are the only person there was suddenly easy.

It is also possible to walk down to the river Gardon itself and paddle (or jump, or swim, although as we hadn’t come prepared we stuck to paddling). The water is absolutely clear and the little fish will come and give you a pedicure…

Camargue

The Camargue is formed by the delta of the Rhone, which forks at Arles into two branches. The land is marshy and low-lying and famously home to wildlife found nowhere else in France: flamingos, Camarguais black bulls (no one ever mentions the cows) and white horses and infamously, hordes of particularly vicious mosquitoes.

The main town in the Camargue is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small seaside resort of the reassuringly unclassy variety. It is named after the four Saints Mary, two of whom you have never heard of (St Mary Salome and St Mary Jacob). According to legend these saints arrived in France by boat after the resurrection along with their maid Sara. Sara had dark skin and is, apparently just because of her skin colour (even writing this feels wrong now) the patron saint of gypsies. (That’s another word that feels wrong. The French use the word Tzigane which is traditionally translated as “gypsy“. We have done the same but if that is wrong we would love to be educated).

St Sara. The patron saint of bling

In any event there is a huge Spanish and Romani tradition in the town, with massive festivals twice a year, though not this year of course. The famous bulls are bred for the ring, but we were relieved to discover that in Course Camarguaises the point is to snatch a rosette from between the bull’s horns (or possibly shoulders) and not to kill it. The best bulls become local superstars.

Sadly of course the bullring is another casualty of Covid-19 but we were all agreed we would love to come back and see it.

We were staying, for the first time on this trip, in a hotel. We had wanted somewhere right by the sea in the hope that might lessen the threat from the mosquitoes. In any event AirBnB accommodation seemed thin on the ground. Whether that was Covid, short notice or just because there are so many of us we don’t know.

Location, location, location

Staying in a hotel was a useful exercise as it reminded us why we don’t stay in hotels. They are too expensive (not to mention having to eat out for every meal) and we like having our own space.

But it was lovely being so close to the sea. We couldn’t see it, but we fell asleep to the sound of the seagulls (ish, they were very noisy and there was a whiny mosquito too)  and woke to the waves on the sand.

If we are honest, we suspect that the beach was the highlight of the Camargue for the children.  A sandy, gently shelving strand with regular breakwaters and not a sunlounger in sight.  We treated Magnus to a bucket and spade and he was as happy as one of the local clams digging endless holes, making castles and burying anyone who sat still long enough.

The girls, on the other hand, turned into water babies. It may have been the Mediterranean but the water temperature was still only about 15 degrees. Nonetheless they were in it like fish, swimming, jumping and generally enjoying their new and much-longed-for bikinis.  As parents the (2 and a half year) age gap between Magnus and Aurora and Sophie has never seemed wider.

Having said that, on the beach, all four of them seemed closer than ever.  The girls were brilliant with Magnus, keeping an eye on him in the water and actively wanting him with them. This isn’t normally the case and it was lovely to see.

On our second day we dragged them away from the beach and onto a boat for a tour along the coast and up the Petit Rhone.  This was billed as a chance to see some of the wildlife up close. Although it was slightly disappointing on that front, sitting watching the world (and the many herons – which possibly would have been more exciting had we not been so used to them at home) go by was a very happy use of ninety minutes. 

We got much more up close and personal with the birdlife at the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau.  Harriet had been longing to see flamingos and this more than fulfilled her wishes.  As a protected wetland area it is home to many more species than just the pink leggy ones and we also spotted more herons, storks, avocets, oyster catchers, black kites, endless swifts and swallows and many more including a coypu, a large aquatic rodent rather like a giant swimming guinea pig.

We also enjoyed some proper frivolous shopping for the first time this year (all our Christmas presents last year were very trip-ly practical (when will we ever get to use our filtering water bottles?)). As well as the bikinis, Aurora and Sophie got new matchy-not-quite-matchy skirts and Ben treated himself to the first collar he’s worn since leaving Britain. Magnus was hugely tolerant of a morning spent waiting outside changing rooms and was rewarded with a slushie and a bucket and spade.

On Thursday we headed away from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towards Aigues-Mortes. This medieval walled city was once on the coast and was the port of embarcation for Louis IX when he set out on crusade. Now however it is some five miles inland and is surrounded by salt flats.  Baleine sea salt, the one with the whale, is extracted here (and probably other places too).

It isn’t the salt itself though that makes this area spectacular. That credit goes to a little algae called dunaliella salina which lives in the highly concentrated salty water. In Summer it blooms, turning the water in the salt pans a spectacular bruised raspberry pink.

The town of Aigues-Mortes itself rises out of the salt flats like a Disneyfied dream.  It’s lovely inside too, all little boutiquey shops and houses with hollyhocks outside and stephanotis climbing the walls.  It’s also (who knows why) stuffed with sweet shops.  It felt a bit twee and clichéd in some ways but it was lovely for a wander and lunch. There’s really not much wrong with a big salad in a plane tree-shaded square after all… and in case it all felt too predictable it also had an All Blacks Rugby shop. Who knows why?

The Campbell girls had hoped to ride the famous white horses too.  This would have been Harriet’s first time on a horse in thirty years and Aurora and Sophie’s first time ever.  Sadly though the arrival of 40 mile an hour winds meant it had to be cancelled.

Come on in, the water’s lovely.

Arles

We left the Camargue on Friday morning.  Our next “big” plan is to canoe down the Ardèche gorge but Ben was keen we should avoid the weekend for this if possible.  This forces us into a few extra days in Provence.  A bit of spontaneous AirBnB-ing saw us booked into a very glamorous and surprisingly reasonable place in the centre of Avignon.   The high winds drove us inland early in the day, and we headed for Arles, based solely on the fact that it gets a specific mention in our road atlas and Nîmes doesn’t.  This turned out to be a good thing as there was a serious police incident in Central Nîmes yesterday and we are very pleased to have been well away from that.

Arles was lovely for a wander and we enjoyed the Roman Arènes, which is now used for bullfighting of both the Camarguais and Spanish varieties.  We also wandered  through the Roman baths and the Theatre. Once again we had these almost entirely to ourselves.

We accidentally followed in the feet of Van Gogh when we found ourselves lunching feet from where he painted his Café, le soir.  Lucy recognised it, which we were most impressed by. (Though it may help that it is yellow).

Spot the difference

Avignon

We arrived in Avignon yesterday afternoon, after a traumatic (for Aurora and Sophie) bus ride from the park and ride (“But everyone will be looking at us with our rucksacks” (They weren’t, and the bus was virtually empty anyway)). The apartment is stunning and extraordinarily central. We can see the Palais des Papes as we clean our teeth.

This morning we visited both the Palais, and the famous Pont d’Avignon (where we didn’t dance but Harriet did do 25 press-ups, much to the bemusement of the only other people on it at the time).

If you look very closely they are dancing

Once again, both were virtually empty and it was an extraordinary experience to have these normally thronged and world-famous places to ourselves.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Sophie: Wearing a mask is horrible. It’s difficult to breathe.

Harriet: The overturning postcard stand surprised us all.  Chasing beautiful postcards down a narrow street in blazing sunshine felt a bit like being in a film.

I absolutely loved the Camargue. I loved the sea, the wind, the huge skies, the endless flatness (and yes, I am from East Anglia). I loved the brightness and clarity of the light and the colours. The paddy fields the most acidic green, the sea in the harbour turquoise, the salt lakes and flamingos pink, pink, pink. I found myself noticing the birds and plants more – the oleander trees, the vines, the endlessly wheeling swifts and swallows.

I was very pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t bitten at all. I am to mosquitoes as marshmallows are to my children, and everyone we had mentioned the Camargue to had said “ohh, mosquitoes“. I slathered on repellent several times a day and it worked. Maybe forewarned really is forearmed.

Aurora: Sandy, loads of shops open and masks everywhere.

Lucy: I felt St M de la M was very Spanish which was odd because we are in France. I liked all the walled cities and roman culture though I wish there were more roman mythology things. I thought the Camargue was very pretty and I like the southern france architecture. The Camargue was very pink! – pink water, pink birds and even pink high-viz!!

Ben: Travelling again has been a massive change, and I’ve been surprised how much of a mental leap it has taken to get into the cadence of it. Spending lots of money (after all these relatively frugal lockdown weeks), no washing machine, eating out, even filling the car with fuel have all been novel and a little jarring at times.

The museums, sites, shops, beaches, and all the public places were a worry – how would people act or react – but they have felt very normal, if almost empty apart from the shops, with fairly cursory attempts at post-Covid regulations.

In terms of places and sites I have enjoyed the cities – Aigues-Mortes, Arles, Avignon – and their histories. The ipad guide thing in the Palais des Papes eventually won me over, but the interminable audio guide to the half bridge that is the vastly over-egged Pont d’Avignon was daft.

It’s not all old. This is the new (incomplete) Frank Gehry building in Arles.

Magnus (in five words): Watery, sandy, busy [in Avignon, apparently] salty (because of the massive salt mountains), pink.

What were the highlights?

Sophie : The best bits were shopping and getting my bikini and skirt. I also enjoyed having meals out.

I also liked how there were lots of sweet shops in Aigues-Mortes. I adored being by the beach.

Aurora: My bikini, the sea, staying in a hotel, seeing flamingos, window shopping.

Watching flamingos

Ben: Sitting in the sun as almost the only passagers on a tourist boat up the Petit Rhône was lovely, as was watching the children be children on the beach.

Saying goodbye to all those mountains and hills has been good for my running – I achieved my fastest 10k ever in the Camargue this week, helped by being at sea level and being entirely flat (total elevation gain of 2m). I’ve realised that I need little goals to keep going with getting fitter, and looking for great backdrops for our RSABI 25 pressups challenge has been fun. So far we have had the Pont du Gard, the beach, a boat, the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon, much to the bemusement of various onlookers.

Meals out have been a treat, both with the children (now that they will eat more than just bolognaise and pizza) and without (happy anniversary to us), and being able to go to any restaurant and immediately commandeer a table for six has been a never-experienced luxury.

15 years!

Magnus: Flamingos, digging in the warm sand on the beach, and jumping in the waves, though I was quite nervous sometimes, was good fun.

Lucy: I LOVE the beach and being in the sea. I have also enjoyed pottering round and going into shops. I was pleased with my Van Gogh knowledge (I spotted the cafe) and I really liked the salt flats. This seems short but I can’t really describe the good bits because I loved all of it. And flamingos.

Harriet: Apart from the Camargue itself? I have really enjoyed the Provençale architecture and narrow streets. It was lovely having a meal with just Ben for our anniversary on Thursday. Weirdly I have rather enjoyed the press-up challenge. I enjoyed the utter pointlessness of the three-minute ferry across the Petit Rhone on the way to Aigues-Mortes (you can go the other way round on the road and it’s exactly the same distance). Every single flamingo was a thrill, whether in the bird sanctuary or just viewed from afar. I loved watching the children looking out for each other on the beach.

It has just been lovely being on the move again.

Any bad bits?

Harriet: I was surprised by how disappointed I was that our horse riding was cancelled. It sounded so wonderful – splashing through the marsh with the wildlife all around.  I hadn’t been that keen (hence leaving it to the last minute) but I wish we’d done it earlier.

I’d forgotten how expensive travelling is. Admittedly this trip was even more expensive because we were in a (very basic) hotel, but eating out, activities, shopping (forgotten about that!) all adds up very quickly. After 13 weeks where our only expenditure has been the boulangerie and a weekly trip to Intermarché the bleed of money out of our account has come as a shock. Even though that’s exactly what the money was there for.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A, not horse riding, not having all the teddies we brought and Magnus being annoying.

Lucy: It was raining today and I was wearing flip flops and looking like a baby giraffe on the (very slippy) streets of Avignon and I found it a bit boring waiting for Sophie and Aurora to try on every bikini in the shops.

Magnus: I got tired on the Pont d’Avignon and had sore feet because of blisters from my flip flops. Sharing a room with mummy and daddy was annoying, and there was sand in my bed and it was too bright and there was no duvet in the duvet cover. It was so boring going shopping for bikinis with the girls, but in the end it was finally OK, because they got bikinis, even though there were 26 million in the shops, and I did get a bucket and spade and a slushie.

Wild flower of the week: the mallow, in every gutter.

Ben: The Pont Bénézet (the famous one in Avignon) is massively over-hyped. It is half a vaguely interesting bridge.

Although I love seeing my happy family being happy on the beach and in the sea, I’m not personally a beach person – too sandy, hot, windy, wet, salty, suncreamy. I’ll stop whinging now – it has been a great week.

Within five minutes of arriving.

Sophie: Something that I would change if I could would be Magnus having a single bed not double to himself, so Lucy’s sleeping on the floor, in the house we’re in right now. [Editor’s note: This is Lucy’s choice]

What about Covid?

Part of the point of this little holiday-from-our-holiday was to see how travelling in a Covid-19 world is.  The honest answer is: Variable. All the tourist sites we have visited have been oddly empty.  On the one hand this is lovely – we really can get the perfect camera angle any time we want – but on the other they can feel very sterile and unreal without the buzz of others around.

We were worried too that we might not feel welcome: that we might be viewed with fear or distrust, as outsiders and potential carriers of the disease.  This has not at all been the case.  Perhaps not surprisingly, half-empty restaurants or quiet shops are desperate for our business.  Hand gel is everywhere but the requirement to wear masks (which is obligatory in public transport but up to individual shops) seems to be getting less and less and we certainly see very few on the streets. The only tourist site where mask wearing was strictly enforced was the Palais de Papes.

Covid remains a hot topic of conversation and attitudes to it seem to vary enormously. Most people seem to display a sort of resigned optimism: all they can do is carry on and hope things improve, but we have also had conversations with people who don’t believe it was as bad as they said, people who think we should still all be in lockdown, and one woman who said she’s given up swimming in the sea because of it. We never got to the bottom of that particular piece of logic. 

What did we eat?

Artichokes. But not this one

Although Harriet’s elderflower smelt amazing while infusing, once completed it was rather insipid and disappointing. A new recipe and the all-important citric acid are in the post from Essex.  Now we’ve just got to hope that the elderflowers aren’t all over by the time we get back.

Being in a hotel meant lots of meals out. (Restaurants here were allowed to reopen last week). Having not eaten out since Vienna (treating Granny) and only once or twice on the trip prior to that (for budgetary reasons), this was a bit of a shock.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer isn’t a particularly gastronomic destination but Ben and Harriet had a lovely meal out on their anniversary and prior to that we all enjoyed a variety of foods including octopus, Camarguais beefburgers, tellines (which may or may not be clams but were totally delicious either way) and a lot of pizza and ice cream.

The local treat is Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes, a sort of sweet focaccia-type bread with orange flower water. It is supposed to be eaten as part of the treize desserts (yes, that is what it sounds like and yes, it is a thing) on Christmas Eve but, as with mini eggs and hot cross buns is now available all year round (bah humbug). We failed to find an open boulangerie in Aigues-Mortes but one in Saintes-Maries did us proud.  After all that effort, it was, in the words of Magnus: “a bit like soap“.

It might have been better if we hadn’t bought the orange hand wash.

Lucy asked, mid-week, why there aren’t any blue foods.  She was proved wrong at a restaurant in Arles.

Does the world really need blue (or indeed pink) cauliflower?

Continuing our tradition of eating as many baked goods as we can, in Avignon we tried pompe d’huile from Bella Ciao,  a self-proclaimed boulangerie d’utopie.  It was pretty good but honestly in utopia we’d hope for something with chocolate in. 

What about the tadpoles?

Who knows? Fortunately for them it’s been raining all week in the Chartreuse so they won’t have got dehydrated.

But keen tadpole-watchers will just have to come back next week to find out how they have coped without us.

This was last Sunday. Will they have grown (legs)?

What’s next?

Tomorrow we leave Avignon and head back north, stopping on the way with Harriet’s uncle and aunt.  We plan to canoe down the Ardèche gorge on Monday and will probably head back to the Chartreuse after that.

More long term though this dip of our travelling toes in the water has made us realise that travel is possible.  At present we can’t leave France (they wouldn’t let us back in) but that may change in the next week or so. The plan is to see what happens when Macron addresses the nation (again) on Sunday and make our decisions after that.

The big picture though is that we will be on the road again soon (hopefully). It won’t be where and how we planned but it will be an adventure.

Where will we go next?

Week 17 (France 12)

Where were we?

Toujours ici.

Where should we have been?

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar late on Saturday and settled into our AirBnB flat just behind the city’s Sukhbaatar Square. The next morning, Magnus’ 9th birthday, we were up and out bright and early to meet our guide who took us out of the city, through the Gorkhi Terelj national park to the Chinggis Khaan (how they spell it here) statue. We had prepared ourselves for it being big, but even so we weren’t quite prepared for how big. In the evening, at Magnus’ request (Mummy, please can I not have yak milk on my birthday), we had burgers and chips in Ulaanbaatar’s best burger restaurant.

The next morning we set out, heading north and west out of the city for our most adventurous adventure yet – six nights of off-grid travel, exploration and family stay booked through Eternal Landscapes. Highlights were our extraordinary guide and driver, the families we stayed with, the yaks and camels, the stars and the sheer enormous emptiness of the landscape.

The best bit of all is that we haven’t cancelled this. So we really will be going one day. We’ll let you have the details (and the pictures) then.

Picture from Pixabay. For more Mongolian pictures visit the Eternal Landscapes website….

What did we really do?

Magnus’ birthday

Despite our best efforts we were unable to buy yak milk at Intermarché in St Laurent du Pont, so we had to resort to just a “normal” birthday. Insofar as anything about any of this is in any way normal.

Magnus had gone to bed in his swimming trunks on Saturday night so as to be ready for the pool first thing on Sunday morning, when it would finally be usable. Unfortunately for his sisters, the route to the pool was past the pile of presents, so swimming was, perhaps inevitably, delayed.

There are moments in our parenting life when we are struck by how old are children are becoming or, conversely how young they still are. Magnus’ nine-year-old birthday delight at lego and toy cars was an inescapable reminder that despite the teenage attitude from his sisters, he is, still, just a little boy. He couldn’t have been more delighted with his haul. Especially as it included a copy of the Beano with his cousin as the Beano Boss.

He did manage to drag himself away from his cars to be the first into the pool. Before breakfast. It was predictably glacial so there was definitely more jumping in and getting out than actual swimming.

We had planned to do his favourite walk, up Charmant Som, but a chance encounter in the boulangerie had informed us that the day before the cars were parked for over a kilometre down the road from the parking. So we went for his second favourite instead.

Lego occupied most of the day. It was hard to tell which of the males in the house was happier about this.

And in the evening, we had an actual party: burgers and chips (as requested), cake, singing, and guests. It was lovely and lasted far later into the night than any of his birthdays have in the past.

He thinks being nine is going to be fun. Can’t ask for more than that.

And the rest?

It has been a much quieter and less structured week this week. This is partly due to the weather, which has been fairly consistently wet and which has put paid to any long walks (an hour within a kilometre of the house is doable in the rain, a 15+ kilometre hike up a hill less so). But we also think a malaise has set in. We are all less energetic, less motivated. We haven’t pushed this this week but we do need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit or a pattern.

The rock harvest bore fruit (Sorry couldn’t resist that entirely wrong mixed metaphor) when we were invited, all six of us, for dinner with Jeanne and Raphael, who we had met while knee-deep in mud. Jeanne was born in Vietnam, and although she left at the age of 17 she treated us to the most amazing Vietnamese feast. We had tempura prawns and vegetables, followed by enormous bowls of noodle soup with chicken and crab, followed by sticky glazed pork so tender you could pull it apart with your chopsticks, and rice. Finally, in a nod to her adopted country, crêpes suzette and chestnut and chartreuse ice cream.

Every mouthful was a treat and the children thought so too, wolfing it down in huge quantities. Only Magnus struggled with being up past ten p.m. and ended the evening with his ice cream while snuggled on a succession of laps. We finally rolled back down the road in the dark, clear skies overhead, and into bed at just before midnight.

Over dinner the subject of music came up and Raphael mentioned that he had once tried to play the violin (his words). Harriet’s ears pricked up and she wondered if this meant he had a violin he wasn’t currently using and would be prepared to lend. He disappeared up to the attic and came back with an ancient case. The fiddle inside was short of two strings and a bridge and the bow nut didn’t work at all. But he assured us he could fix it, and fix it he has. He turned up the next day with a fully strung violin. The bow can’t be tightened or loosened and we are sure a luthier would wince at the set up but it works. Lucy and Harriet had a happy hour or two. It will remain to be seen if either of them is brave enough to attempt the Mozart and Bach sonatas he also brought round…

The mood in the house turned rather more political this week following the murder of George Floyd. The girls, with their Instagram and Tiktok feeds informing them by the minute instigated several discussions which we were glad to have, even if far from glad about the circumstances.

One of the pleasures of this trip has been, for some of us at least, taking a deliberate decision to ignore the constant depressing stream of news from politics in general and UK politics in particular. This has become increasingly harder in recent weeks and both Ben and Harriet found this, and matters in the States, affecting moods this week.

The weather hasn’t been all bad and there’s been plenty of pool-side fun. Including quite a lot in the rain. (The photographer stayed inside).

Our heavily pregnant Instagram friend Fabienne and her lovely six year old popped round for a cup of proper English tea on Thursday so we could meet In Real Life. She was as lovely as she seems online (no catfishing in the Chartreuse) and the children got on too, despite Lucy being on far from her best form.

Magnus has spent quite a bit of time with his new friend Sam, including managing despite the weather, to borrow a bike and head back down to the pump track.

Harriet was throughly spoiled to receive not one, but two, parcels. One was expected – but no less welcome for it – books from her mother to feed her voracious reading needs. The second was entirely unexpected. Her employers, Douglas Home & Co, had arranged for a box of chocolate goodies to be sent to each employee to cheer them up during lockdown. As Harriet is currently not on the payroll receiving one was hugely touching.

Disappointment for Harriet though on Magnus’ birthday when she lost a bet with Ben about whether there would still be visible snow on Chamechaude. Despite glorious weather (and the occasional heavy downpour) it was (and still was all this week – when not obscured by cloud) still there. Most irritating.

Yesterday. Grrrr.

Wild flowers of the week were the rampions, with their amazingly symmetrical curly ended petals, and the columbine. It sounds much nicer than bindweed, and in the verges really isn’t doing any harm.

Ben and Lucy headed down the hill to Grenoble on Wednesday. There was some debate about whether we should all go – Aurora and Sophie want to go shopping for “nice clothes” – but we decided that a post-Covid-19 shopping trip with everyone in tow didn’t enormously appeal and we weren’t at all sure what the shops would be like. Instead it was the intrepid duo who headed in with Ben’s broken iPod (cause of damage then unknown). The good news is that it is a damaged battery, which is not anyone’s fault but just one of those things. The bad news is that the entire iPod will have to be replaced. It’s under guarantee but Ben’s 25,000 tracks are not stored online but at home and so cannot be downloaded from here. We are also not at all sure that they can be transferred from the old iPod to the new one. We may have a rather quieter next few months.

This week’s stars of the garden are the pink roses, which have added an intoxicating scent to their already considerable charms, and these extraordinary alliums.

Now Magnus is nine it was time for the post lockdown, much needed, haircut…

And…the most exciting for last…we had an actual drink in an actual café. Cafés and restaurants were permitted to reopen from this Tuesday and the Hotel Bar Victoria, just next to us, reopened last night. We had a celebratory ice cream after our cleaning this morning. It felt wonderful.

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: MY BIRTHDAY! The pool is here, going to the pump track with Sam, elderflower.

Sophie: I loved making pizza. I also liked playing in the pool. The Vietnamese meal was really great. The rain was fun too. I found an old ski jumper of my uncle Tim’s (says Daddy), and I love wearing it.

Lucy: Magnus’ birthday obviously, I found it really fun and had some interesting conversations. The pool being up and running. The dinner party was really good especially the food and… HAVING A VIOLIN!! Having ice cream today was nice too.

Aurora: Magnus’s birthday, going shopping with daddy, having my first iced tea in ages, finally getting to go in the swimming pool, getting 100 followers on tik tok, seeing Millie and Sam and the amazing Vietnamese meal.

Ben: Sociably, it has been an excellent week, apart from a frustrating time with Houseparty on Wednesday evening. Magnus’s birthday, Jeanne’s dinner party, Fabienne’s visit, even Magnus’s haircut and an ice cream at the reopened Hotel Victoria across the square – a real pleasure from normal conversations, although it feels abnormal given our collective previous 3 months. It has been exciting to plan some travel for next week too.

Being right about the snowy patch too…

Harriet: Magnus’ birthday was a great success: and possibly the first day we have (ever?) had without any bickering at all. I was enormously touched to be sent a parcel of treats by my work. It is such thoughtful thing to do in general – is this because a majority of the management are female? – but especially given my particular (and particularly odd) circumstances. It has been lovely seing the kids in the pool, even if I haven’t braved it yet! I loved having a drink in an actual cafe and a good chat with Sandrine who owns it. I am hugely looking forward to going somewhere else next week (spoiler alert).

Bad bits:

Lucy: The weather and not much else, I’ve had a load of homework but that’s about it.

Aurora: Not having Duplo and Magnus being hyper and really annoying .

Sophie: I didn’t like the rain sometimes apart from when we were in the pool.

Magnus: not going to Charmant Som, the weather.

Ben: The weather has not helped, but a lack of longer walks, and a general laziness from us all, has made some of this week feel like a waste. The passage of time shows itself in so many ways, but I was struck this week by finishing my initial tranche of Loratidine, one of my hay-fever medicines. I have more, but in my head, these were for the very end of our trip. Just another sign of where we should have been by now. 

I am horrified by the news coming from the UK and the USA. The decisions taken by those that have been voted into power in both countries appals me. Their mendacious and aggressive rhetoric is hideous. 

As for the UK, I am not sure I want to return to a country whose character looks both destructive and shameful, and it is increasingly unrecognisable from the one I thought I knew. That’s not to say there aren’t many wonderful friends and deeds and thoughts and actions there, but the trend and direction taken and acceptance of the situation frightens me. 

In the US, there looks like there is less acceptance of the status quo, both in spite of, and because of, the response of those in power. More power to them. I hope that the ground shifts in a positive way. It needs to. 

Harriet: I have been feeling what I think a psychologist would call ” disassociated” for much of this week. I don’t really care about much and I can’t be bothered, whether that’s with current issues or future plans. Mustering up the energy to engage seems beyond me much of the time. I’m not sure if this is because it is very hard actually to have future plans and without them the present seems directionless and without point.

It feels as though we are marking time here until we go home. Going home itself is not an aim but an inevitable, inexorable marker of failure. A retrograde step. And that’s before we get into my feelings about the present and future disaster that is the UK government. Is the country even one I want to be part of?

That aside, I wanted so much for this trip. I wanted to change, to grow, to become – in ways both tangible and intangible – the person I am going to be for the rest of my life. And now I feel that the going back will be not just physical but metaphorical. I will be back where I started.

I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what direction I want to be going in, but I know (or maybe I just think I know) it isn’t that. So instead I sit. In stasis. Going nowhere.

More mundanely (or perhaps it’s part of the same thing) with the end of confinement we have lost our structure and we seem to be drifting more. Days pass without much happening. The children (and we) seem to be spending more time on our phones which isn’t good for any of us.

What did we eat?

Birthdays mean baking. So we had cake, millionaire’s shortbread, biscuits and moderately successful flapjacks made with the homemade golden syrup.

The elderflowers are out too so we risked some very strange looks from passers-by to gather them and even stranger looks in the pharmacy when we asked for citric acid.

Our cordial is made, but cooling, so we haven’t tried it yet. Without the citric acid it is more likely to ferment so expect reports on our elderflower champagne to come…

How are the tadpoles?

A side effect of having a nice clean chlorine-filled swimming pool is that we no longer have a ready supply of manky un-chemically-treated water with which to fill up the tadpoles. In direct contravention of all the advice on the Internet they have therefore had to take their chances with tap.

So far they seem to be fine (the rain will have helped), but they remain very elusive. Maybe they’ve all hopped away…

What’s next?

We have been mulling all week over the possibility of going further afield in France. We were hesitant about being unwelcome, or finding that things were shut, and we’d also agreed to babysit some rabbits next week for our friends who are going away.

But a general feeling of frustration, of boredom, of needing something to happen, plus the news that the weather here is going to be awful all next week forced a spontaneous decision while the children were having their French lesson on Friday morning. We are booked into a hotel in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the coast of the Camargue, for four nights from Monday. Where we will go after that remains to be seen.

There has been a palpable lifting of spirits. The rabbits will just have to take their chances*.

*another neighbour is looking after them. We did check.

Week 16 (France 11)

Where were we?

Same as always.  Or feels like it.

At least it’s still beautiful

Where should we have been

Last Friday we got back on the train in Almaty for our longest journey yet, 73 hours not including a four hour change.  We arrived in Novosibirsk on Sunday morning and had a few rather scratchy hours on the platform before getting on to the actual Trans-Siberian railway for our journey to Irkutsk.  We are getting good at the long distance travel now and a day and a half passed relatively quickly with Uno, Quiddler and Netflix…  We arrived in Irkutsk very late on Monday night and headed straight to our accommodation, which had been chosen entirely on the basis of proximity to the station.  The next mornng we were up and out for the easy one hour bus journey from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. 

Lake Baikal. Largest and deepest freshwater lake in the World.  Image from pixabay.

We had agonised over the timing of this part of our trip and had ended up having to cut it short to maximise time in Mongolia, so we sadly did not explore more of the shores of Baikal or into Buryatia (the area of Russia to the East of the lake).  Instead on Thursday we headed back to Irkutsk for our early morning departure to Ulaan Bator.  We arrive this evening. We are beyond excited.

What did we really do?

After our long, long, lost in the woods adventure last week, we had another full day out in the majestic Chartreuse on Wednesday, climbing Le Grand Som. At 2026m, it is not quite the highest mountain in the area (that’s Chamechaude at 2082m, which is the pointy mountain which appears all over anything we post), but it is probably the most formidable. We took what we understand to be the most approachable (but longest – it took us over seven hours including stops) of the four possible routes to the top, from Ruchère, about 30 minutes of wobbly driving from the house.

Highlights were Sophie spotting what we think was a marmot above us on some scree (although as it was rather larger than we expected it may have been a confused badger out for a midday stroll in the hills), finishing a Netflix movie over lunch at 1700m, dancing a Tiktok at the summit, making snow angels (yes, really) and Magnus enjoying his new walking shoes. In fact, Magnus enjoyed the walk so much it was declared his 5th favourite walk ever. (His 4th favourite walk is down to the river and back so the competition isn’t what you might call stiff).

Wild flowers of the week were, in no particular order: wild laburnum trees (probably stupid of her but Harriet didn’t realise they grew wild), the very odd, non-photosynthesising (really) birds nest orchid, globeflowers (buttercups on steroids), alpine pasqueflowers, and what looked like wild rhododendrons but are apparently rusty-leaved alpenroses.

On Monday we left three of our four children entirely unsupervised and headed into Grenoble. Magnus, who, you may recall, gets on splendidly with the windy road down the hill, was brought with us; mostly to prevent danger to life and limb if we left all four of them alone. We popped into Decathlon (again) so that we could get the shorts we entirely failed to buy for him last time.

Then on to the independent republic of Carrefour.  A supermarket so large you can see it from space. (It is possible that not all of that is entirely true).  Even as someone who enjoys a foreign supermarket this wasn’t much fun.  It was too big, too confusing and too hot.  It also, oddly, didn’t have lots of things that we can buy in the smaller Intermarché in the nearest town: no oats and no Special K, although it did have 75 different types of mustard and the world’s most expensive fondant icing (at €17 per kg).  It is strange too what “exotic foods” are available.  They had marmite (which we didn’t buy) but not golden syrup.  They, again, didn’t have tahini (which seems odd when you consider France’s history of involvement (to use as anodyne a word as possible) in North Africa) but they did have Thai curry paste. Great joy when we brought that home…

Is there really more of a market for lime marmelade than tahini?

In good news though, Magnus wasn’t sick.

He may, however, have come close to dying of boredom. Incidentally all those plastic bags are the biodegradable sort. The meat wrapping sadly isn’t.

Having finally managed to get Lucy back onto the school roll she has been inundated with school work. We’ve had various technical difficulties with some of it (her school-issued iPad is in a box in Kelso) but she has done what she can with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. It has been lovely seeing the quality of the work she produces.

Months of anticipation were nearly satisfied on Friday when the pool men came. This provoked a brief foreign-country-etiquette panic in Harriet (Do you offer French workmen coffee? Do they drink Nescafé? Answer a) yes and b) that might be a cultural step too far. They got a cafetière). As we type the pool is full of chemicals and still unswimmable in. We wait, tantalised, for tomorrow morning when we can use it. Sophie and Aurora say they are going in before 8 am. Given that the temperature will be about 12 degrees we expect that they will be out before 8 am too.

So near…

With a nearly nine-year-old requesting millionaire’s shortbread and a failure to be impressed by the versions without golden syrup, Harriet had a go at taking on Tate & Lyle’s finest. It was remarkably easy and turned out looking very much like golden syrup. It doesn’t, however taste much like golden syrup, being noticeably lemony (that’ll be the lemon juice). The first batch of millionaire’s made with it is nonetheless in progress.

You know what they say about the proof of the puddimg..

We enjoyed some good shorter walks too although one was enlivened by a bit of minor drama when Aurora lost her footing while clambering about in the river. No harm done but she was rather shocked and distinctly unamused to be wet.

Before the fall…

This week’s garden highlights are the roses. No idea what sort they are.

We had some real world intrusion in the form of the potential loss of over £1000 from the refund of our Russian train tickets. Having cancelled on the basis that we would get a full refund (less £90 fee) now the moment of payment has arrived (late) the company (who will temporarily remain nameless) seems to have multiplied the deduction significantly more than ten-fold. We have emails confirming how much they will pay and are in “discussion” with them about the change, but if we don’t get a positive resolution soon you can expect to see us going Defcon 1 (names included) all over Twitter.

Partly as a result of that dispute and partly because we are aware of the imminent expiry of our Russian visas (cost also in the squillions) we took a difficult decision this week and have made a claim on our travel insurance. This might seem like something we should have done months ago, and we did indeed contact the company in our first week here. However it turns out that we can only claim if our entire trip is “curtailed” (which of course in reality it has been since we arrived here in March). If we claim under this condition it brings the policy to an end and leaves us uninsured. This is not so much of a worry if we remain in France but is, of course, more of a problem if we travel further afield. Our decision to make a claim is therefore an explicit and long-resisted acknowledgement that the curtailment is not temporary, as we had hoped. It is very unlikely that we will get any further on our trip. This year at least.

We suspect it may not be a straightforward claim

In better news, one of Harriet’s wild-pipe-dream-1950s-parenting hopes for this trip was that we would all read to each other. Courtesy of JK Rowling this has actually, and rather to our astonishment, happened this week. She is releasing a new children’s story, The Ickabog, online in daily instalments. It has become part of our routine and we are enjoying the drawing prompts too.

The late lamented Mrs Dovetail. By Magnus

A real sign of normality returning to the village nearly moved Harriet to tears on Friday evening. The printed weather forecast which is normally a daily feature outside the tourist information office is back. It seems like (and is) such a tiny thing but having not been there for nearly three months its return really did feel momentous. Restaurants reopen here next week too.

And the fountain is back on.

Our walk on Thursday was less impressive on paper than Grand Som but in reality no less exciting. We drove down and across the gorge of the Guiers Mort and up into the Forêt Domaniale de la Grande Chartreuse where we headed up a (in some places terrifyingly) vertiginous path. There was, once, a road to the Col de la Charmette and after crossing the ridge and descending through the ancient beechwood we followed this back through the gloom of the long Tunnel des Agneaux to the car. We had brought head torches (Ben and Harriet had walked it once before without) but nonetheless it’s amazing how scary a dark drippy tunnel can be when you can’t see more than 10 metres in front of you.

There was no Trivial Pursuit this week. This may or may not be connected to the fact that we have acquired a Netflix account. Recommendations please?

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: I liked Grand Som and getting the pool running again. My new shoes were absolutely awesome. I am really excited about my BIRTHDAY!!!!!!

Sophie: The pool man coming was great because it means we can go in the pool tomorrow. I liked the view from the walks. And I love mine and Aurora’s new room.

Lucy: I enjoyed our walk up Grand Som it was very pretty and I had some good chats. Staying at home with Sophie and Aurora was fun. I also liked the Ickabog and doing Minecraft with Sophie, Aurora and Magnus. And having the hammock back up.

Aurora: Helping Mummy with Magnus’s cake, staying in the hammock for ages, watching the pool get cleaned and the TikTok at the top of the mountain.

Well what else would you do when you reach the top?

Harriet: Ben wondered last week if we should lose the “good bit”/”bad bit” distinction and for me this is true this week: my good bit is also a bad bit. I think I have, finally, accepted that it is likely, if not inevitable, that this is as far as we will get. This is a bad thing for obvious reasons, but it is also a good thing as it means, despite what I say below, that the actual bad moments have been fewer and further between. There has been, I think less raging at the situation in which we find ourselves and more acceptance. This is probably better for everyone.

Less philosophically, we have done amazing walks this week. The views never stop getting better, wherever we go. I love the sounds and smells too. It is all so fresh and green and alive. The wildflowers, whether familiar or less so, are a constant source of pleasure.

I have really enjoyed reading to the children and I have loved seeing them work collaboratively on Minecraft.

Ben: In 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse, I have never climbed Le Grand Som, and it was fantastic to do it with my family this week. One of the silver linings of the Covid cloud has been our chance to explore new places, climb new mountains and walk new woods. Our walk above Chartreuse de Curiere on Friday, while slightly vertiginous at times for me, was magical. The beechwood, the birdsong, the feeling of centuries of almost untouched nature – I am loving being in these places.

Bad bits

Aurora: Fighting with everyone, not having Duplo A.

Ben: Screens in general [he taps into a small screen…]. I know I’m spending too much time on a screen, and I’m pretty sure we all are. When there is something which needs to be done, from setting out the lunch table, to a small amount of academic work, or getting shoes and socks on, there is inevitably at least someone on a screen, and a necessary nag to get them off. Sometimes it’s me. And when the screen is a valid “necessity”, for insurance correspondence, or creating or printing academics, or even watching a film, it is too small, too fiddly and not as good as an alternative laptop / TV / etc.

We are also over three weeks past the midpoint of our trip with very little prospect of moving on. This is not a good thing.

Sophie: I don’t like how there were some bits on the walk where you could fall off the cliff. Also I found the tunnel creepy and that’s it.

Harriet: The bad bits are the same old, same old really, a bit like many of our days here, no matter how beautiful or varied our walks. While I have now accepted that this will probably be as far as we get I still have moments when I am terribly sad about that, and moments when I am very bitter and angry. I find thinking about where we should have been hard, but I also don’t want to let go of that. Perhaps I fear that if I let go of it then we really won’t ever go.

Most mornings I wake up to a sinking disappointment that we are still here.

Lucy: The mahoosive workload I have from school and just general scratchiness.

Magnus: Sophie moaning on the walks (all of them).

She does like it sometimes.

What did we eat?

We didn’t eat it as such but Harriet is rather pleased to have made her own golden syrup. Even if parts of it were more difficult than they should have been:

You could even call it partially inverted sugar syrup (Credit: Harriet’s brother, Seb)

On the heels of the children’s surprising approval of turnip daal, we made it again. Though with just the one turnip this time:

We accompanied it with naan bread, always a winner, but we were a little nervous about this naan as the yeast for it had sat in the car while we walked up Grand Som. We weren’t sure what seven hours in a hot car would do to all those little live yeasts. Turns out they were ok.

When the yeast mixture is frothy…

How are the tadpoles?

In a word, elusive. In two words, camera-shy They are definitely still there but we barely see them. The current theory, to add to the one about them staying away from the sun, is that as they are maturing they are much more aware of what is around them. We are now potential predators, so even if they are on the surface as soon as we approach they tend to disappear under the water.

They still have no legs though.

This one decided to pose…

What’s next?

We just don’t know.  If we are not going to go anywhere other than France, we need to have a plan of things to do here before we just drift our way through to August.  Any suggestions welcome.

We do though still remain committed to going anywhere we can if that ever becomes possible.  It just doesn’t seem likely that it will in the near future, if at all this year.

In the short term, tomorrow is Magnus’s ninth birthday, so we have presents and plans for that.

Is this as far away as we will get?

Week 15 (France 10)

Where were we?

France. Still.

Same mountain, different angle

If you have any good ideas about how to make saying that more interesting, do let us know. We may need them….

Where should we have been?

When you left us last week, we were in Karakol, on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. We spent a couple of beautiful and fascinating days there before continuing our journey east along the lake then curving north and west back into Kazakhstan. We were constantly stunned by the beauty of both countries.  On the way to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, we passed Burana Tower, the sole remnant of the ancient city of Balasagun. We arrived back in Almaty on Thursday and said a fond farewell to our trusty vehicle (and were very glad we hadn’t had to drive our own car up and over those mountains). Yesterday we packed up again and got back on the train for another epic journey. Our first stop is Novosibirsk, back in Russia, which we will reach tomorrow morning. We change trains there and get on to the “proper” Trans-Siberian. We will arrive in Irkutsk late on Monday night.

Burana Tower (11th Century), near Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Should have been here on Tuesday. Image from pixabay.

What did we really do?

Harriet finished the blanket she started in our third week here, having sent out a plea for wool and crochet hooks to friends in the UK. She’s rather pleased with the result but is debating what to do with it now.

Sophie and Aurora re-dyed their hair. One box each this time instead of sharing so the purple is, well, definitely purple.

Unwelcome beasties of the week were an army of ants that we discovered all over the kitchen on Monday. Because Harriet is (by 3 years) too old to be a Millennial, she failed entirely, when faced with a horrific scene, to whip out her phone and take their picture, so you will just have to imagine ants scurrying up and down the wall, on the work surface, in the kettle. One small sense of humour failure and the judicious application of a lot of ant powder and we have seen no further sight of them. Ben was, nonetheless, sent out for chemical reinforcements so should they decide to return we are prepared.

French lessons continued with Debbie, and on Wednesday we were joined by Riis, an American living in the village, who stayed for some stone painting afterwards.

Our new friends with twins have another great attraction – a flute – which, even better, they aren’t using. Sophie is delighted and her teacher has offered to give her some lessons over Zoom. Whether she will remain quite so delighted when she has to practice remains to be seen.

Our newly acquired rugby ball took an inevitable plummet over the edge of the terrace into the “snakey patch”. There are a lot of adders around this year and a bite can be very nasty so it was with some trepidation that Harriet (volunteered because she was wearing trousers) armed herself with a ski pole and attempted a daring, and pleasingly successful, rescue.

Thursday was Ascension Day which is a public holiday in France. We were invited to spend it with a former colleague of Ben’s in Grenoble. He and his family made us hugely welcome in their lovely flat and we enjoyed a delicious meal with them and some great chat.

When we arrived in Grenoble everything was very quiet (perhaps because everyone had headed for the hills: the number of people in the village and cars parked wherever possible en route was astonishing). After lunch we took a stroll around the streets where we felt both very strange – it was the first time we had been in a city since Vienna, ten weeks ago – and completely normal – there were now lots of people around, chatting and enjoying the sun, the parks and the river. Most shops were shut due to the holiday, but the ice cream parlours were clearly doing a roaring trade.

Poor old Magnus, having been utterly brilliant across 3,500 miles of Europe, was sick both ways on the winding mointain road. We’re taking him back to Grenoble on Monday. We might go the long way.

We were social on Friday too when our new British friends with twins (and the puppy) invited us round for a barbecue. Magnus and Sam spent about four hours shooting at each other. The girls were more interested in the puppy. And the rabbits.

Perhaps counter-intuitively (and due mostly to our busy social diary!) we have actually done fewer walks this week, but on Tuesday we took advantage of the deconfinement and the fact that the weather had improved after a week of rain to go on a massive walk. In fact it was a rather more massive walk than we had intended. We climbed up through forest and meadow to a pass, the Col des Ayes, where we had a sandwich lunch. There were lots of other walkers around and it was lovely to nod and exchange bonjours and bonne ballades.

From there we went up and over another pass, the Col de Pravouta. The wildflowers were even more stunning than we had seen before, with gentians, orchids (elder-leaved ones this time) and multicoloured forget-me-nots among the many we spotted (and have dotted around this blogpost)

From the second col our intention was to descend back to the village. However a combination of bad signage (very unusual round here where the directions on the signs are normally very reliable, even if the estimates of how long the walk should take are slightly less so), an over-excitable map app (yes there’s definitely a path there) and some blind optimism (well, it must go somewhere) saw us following a dead-end logging track for rather longer than we should have before turning back and retracing our steps.

The great consolation for this unscheduled six or so kilometre addition to our walk was spotting a chamois. None of us had ever seen one before and they are famously shy so this was a real privilege. He (or she, we didn’t ask) allowed us to stand within about 100m of him for a good five minutes before leaping up a vertiginous slope and disappearing into the trees.

In total, we walked, with honestly minimal complaining and mostly very good humour, for over 20 kilometres and up just under 1000m of vertical ascent. We’re calling it good training for Fuji. Even if it did take Harriet until Friday to stop walking as though heavily pregnant.

We had to dash in and out on our return to the house as we had been invited for drinks in the village with Alain, who is French but speaks English after 20 years in the States, Indira who is Kazakh (ironically where we should have been – so we looked at amazing photos instead) and their gorgeous little boy, who is ten months old. Social distancing clearly doesn’t apply to the under ones and we had lovely baby cuddles and giggles. Indira even put up with Harriet trying some of her execrable Russian on her.

Magnus had been angling for a ride on the pump track down the hill (French for pump track: le pump track). So on Friday we hired a bike for him and he and Ben headed off for a happy couple of hours of round and round and up and down.

Ben is now leading the Trivial Pursuit 14:9. Harriet is getting increasingly unamused.

Great excitement in the garden, where the peonies and poppies are out in full, eye-catching, breath-taking glory. More mundanely, the end of lockdown meant that we could get M. Zoé, the local handyman and proud owner of a strimmer to come and tackle the jungle around the gooseberry bush and apple tree.

On Friday morning, inspired by a list from the National Trust which had been shared as part of the children’s school work, we decided to get up to see the dawn. Everyone woke at 5.30 and, armed with hot chocolate and cookies, we headed out of the village to the nearest pass. There’s rather a time lag here between dawn and actual sunrise, due to all the mountains selfishly getting in the way so we hoped we might see more from there.

In the event we gave up before the sun got down into the valley where we were but the colours, sights and sounds were nonetheless astounding and were a real privilege to witness. Scroll to the bottom and click on our Instagram for a video of the dawn chorus….

How was it?

Good bits:

Aurora: Going to Grenoble and meeting new people. The barbecue was really fun! I really like their family they are all just really nice. 🙂 Going on the walk was quite fun but tiring. Finally getting up so I could go to the boulangerie. Seeing the Sunrise was so pretty.

Harriet: I am constantly aware of, and assaulted by, the beauty of where we are. Although I have been here many times in the 18 years I’ve known Ben, I’ve never seen Spring and early Summer and the change, the life and the sheer glory of the landscape are astounding. I am so grateful to be able to witness it.

Less-gushingly, I really enjoyed our day in Grenoble. Once again it was lovely to be social and to be made to feel so welcome.

The dawn chorus was astonishing. In fact the noisy-ness of nature generally is. I’m writing this mid-afternoon and between the wind and the crickets and the birds there’s a lot going on.

We’ve had some fun this week coming up with flight-of-fancy plans for the future. I can’t imagine that any of them will ever come to reality but it has been really nice to make plans, even of the cloud-castle variety.

Lucy: It has been lovely weather apart from today. I liked getting up for the sunrise, and baking yesterday with Mummy. The barbecue was great.

I also enjoyed the walk because it was lovely weather and I had a nice talk with Mummy. I also really liked building a house on multiplayer minecraft with Sophie, Aurora and Magnus.

Elder-flowered orchid.

Magnus: I liked the pump track and getting new shoes [Editor’s Note – Magnus went through his socks in his old walking shoes on the walk]. I also liked playing with the guns that Millie & Sam had, and playing on scooters with Luca in Grenoble.

Ben: Not a great surprise, but I absolutely loved our long walk, even the taking a wrong turn and walking further and seeing the chamois – it was bigger than I expected. It felt energising and I was very proud of those with shorter legs doing it too. I liked being fit enough to jog back to get the car (which definitely would not have been the case before this adventure). I’m planning the next trips in my head.

The exit from lockdown continues to make all the sociable interactions feel more precious than normal. I haven’t seen Piero and Aurélie for over a decade, and I loved our day with them. Our children bonding despite very little in the way of shared language (TikTok and Star Wars) was lovely. We have had good conversations with friends at home too.

The dawn raid was memorable, particularly for the birdsong, and I’m glad we did it.

Purple fluffy flower. Probably not the technical term.

Sophie: It was my turn to go to the supermarket on Monday, and that was fun. I also liked having a rest day after our walk, and I really enjoyed the sunrise, although I did get a bit cold. I’m excited that the pool people are coming next week. The view from the top of the walk was very pretty. I’m really happy that I have a flute to play. It was good meeting more English speakers too.

Bad bits:

Magnus: I hated the walk that we went on when my feet got sore, and the dog that Millie and Sam had. I didn’t like the drive to Grenoble.

Sophie: Sunburnt shoulders are sore. I got too hot and tired on our walk.

Ben: The screen on my iPod, bought just before this trip, has buckled, which is a peeve. More significantly, our (mainly Harriet’s to be fair) battles with our Russian Train fixers about the refund they promised us are a pain. Driving to and from Grenoble against the hordes of mountain day trippers was not great fun, but probably worse for the cyclists on the road – there were some crazy drivers out there – and for poor Magnus.

I’ve been trying to work out how to think about our planned trip within this bizarre situation, and I’m not sure how to do it. There is a significant possibility that we won’t be able to go anywhere further than here, but there is also the possibility that we will be able to experience some of the places we were hoping to get to before our planned return home in August. It’s a given that the world is and will not be anything like what we expected; wherever we go will be weird, and when we go home it will be weird there too. Given that, how should I act / think / plan?

Forget-me-nots. But pink and purple.

Day to day, we can enjoy the “current situation on the trip” (with lovely things, but not the lovely things we planned for) though this is blended with “waiting for future trip” (with the distinct possibility that some or all of the trip we planned will not occur) and a little more wondering about the “beyond-trip future” is creeping in too. I had made a point of not going too near this last one, but given the situation, how much priority should I give to each of them? Perhaps I should be thinking more, and living more, as if this is as far as we are going to get.

In terms of priority, I think the only thing I can do is control what I can control, and make myself aware of the significant things I cannot control. I’m not sure I’m getting this right at the moment, probably because I’m spending/wasting too much time on my phone.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A. Bickering with everyone. Getting Duplo S taken away. Getting TikTok taken off my phone. (Editor: she now has it back)

Lucy: The dog had an annoying obsession with my flip flops. I sometimes find it difficult when Mummy and Daddy have French friends and I don’t know what they’re talking about.

I am missing my violin, and have been since Brussels, but more and more. I didn’t think I would as much.

Trumpet gentian

Harriet: More of the same really: the sadness of “What if“. Of “Would have, should have, could have“. It is generally me who writes the “Where should we have been” section and I am finding that increasingly demoralising and depressing. I am aware that when we got here the aim was to be out by April. Then it was Lucy’s birthday. Then Magnus’. We are now talking about our anniversary and mid-Summer. How long will it be before we are forced to conclude that this is as far as we will get?

How are the tadpoles?

Erm. Not sure. We suspect they are not enjoying the beautiful weather we’ve had this week as much as we are. The water in both the bird bath and the outside sink has gone murky and we are no longer seeing tadpoles on the surface.

On Monday the water was scummy and in one of the bird bath sections a number of them were dead.

Come on in, the water’s lovely. Or not.

But there clearly are survivors as every now and then you see one come to the surface. Our best guess is that they are hiding at the bottom away from the horrid sun.

It’s raining now though so hopefully they’ll enjoy that.

Nice weather for tadpoles?

What did we eat?

With crochet-free time on her hands, Harriet found herself doing more baking this week. So we’ve had millionaires shortbread, brownies and speculoos biscuits (keeping that Amsterdam feeling going).

We were also treated to meals out this week. Not out out, clearly, but in other people’s houses and made by them. We didn’t take photos, because that would be weird, but we had a delicious meal in Grenoble and a fabulous barbecue last night with our twinny neighbours. Magnus was in heaven (apart from being terrified by a 12 week old puppy of course).

What’s next?

As was the case last week, and last month, until a) countries reopen their borders to foreign travellers and b) the Foreign Office lifts its advice against all foreign travel, we remain where we are. Not giving up hope. Or trying not to.

Week 14 (France 9)

Where were we?

We are both here (still). And (sort of) not here. Because this week we were deconfined and so we left the village! In fact we even went as far as Grenoble.

Where should we have been?

In the Covid-free world of our dreams, as with many dreams, things are now a little hazy. It is certain that last Sunday we got another overnight train, arriving early on Monday morning in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We think we only spent a day in Almaty before hiring a car (driving in Kazakhstan was quite an experience, and one which Harriet was more than happy to leave to Ben) and heading east out of the city towards the Charyn Canyon. It is possible that we camped there overnight. The next day we headed on east and south up the narrow winding mountain roads and over the Kegen pass into Kyrgyzstan. The road bends precariously downhill and west towards Karakol, on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul where we arrived on around Thursday. We are certain that we enjoyed the Lake and visited the Dungan Mosque. Tomorrow we plan to see the animal market. (Who knows if that will be possible in a Covid-19 world?)

What did we really do?

We celebrated déconfinement on Monday with a masked trip to the supermarket for Lucy and Ben and, much more excitingly, drinks with actual people in our actual house! Our new friends Debbie and Philippe came round, bearing all sorts of generous gifts and between us we got through rather a lot of celebratory champagne. It was utterly lovely.

Vive la Liberté

It may have been the champagne’s fault but the next morning we woke up to the realisation that we had promised Philippe that we would help move rocks in a field just outside the village. Some years ago a landslip left a huge pile of rubble on a road leading up to one of the passes. The road has been repaired but the rubble was unceremoniously dumped in the neighbouring field. It now needs to be cleared. By hand. And it appears we had agreed to help. It was cold and wet and surprisingly good fun. The other volunteers were all good-humoured and very welcoming and our children were very determined to mine out every last boulder. We had a very welcome communal meal afterwards, standing by the road, probably about 1.5m apart, and conscious of a job well done.

Déconfinement generally hasn’t though had a huge impact. We can now go 100km from the house, but we don’t really have any need to. What is noticeable is that our walks are more relaxed. We no longer have half an eye on the time – if we take an hour and a half, that’s fine (although not always with the children) – and we don’t feel a slight subconscious fear of being found out doing something wrong whenever we are out of the house.

There are lots more people around too. Today in particular it seems that lots of the local holiday home owners have headed up the hill to check on their properties. Our neighbours are back too.

We did venture 25km away on Wednesday when, because it was pouring with rain and about 6 degrees, we decided it was the perfect day to buy Summer clothes. We headed into Grenoble and to Decathlon. The drive down was quite tense: the streets in the villages we passed through seemed eerily quiet (or is that normal for a wet Wednesday?) and we weren’t sure what to expect when we got there – would we, six people together, even be allowed in the shop?

In the event, everything was surprisingly normal. We had a chat in the car about mask etiquette and making sure to leave sufficient space for other people, but although there was someone checking we all had masks at the door, once inside the shop, people were not behaving noticeably differently. Given it was mid-week and inclement it is perhaps not surprising that it wasn’t exactly heaving with shoppers, but there were plenty of people around and all perfectly good humoured. The woman at the checkout said she found it fine being back at work, although she wasn’t enjoying her mask.

Ninjas

We also found the masks rather hot and steamy, and tricky if you need to blow your nose (although we are told the tip for glasses-wearers is to buff a bit of fairy liquid into your glasses – we haven’t tried it yet) but we were delighted with our purchases and headed back up the hill in high spirits.

Unfortunately Decathlon’s policy of not letting anyone try anything on in the shop had the perhaps inevitable result and Ben and Sophie headed back to Grenoble later that day to swap most of what Ben had bought, and a yellow t-shirt Sophie had decided didn’t go with her look.

It is perhaps not entirely Ben’s fault that things didn’t fit.

Given we drove it several times it was both good and bad that the road down to Grenoble was being worked on. The new tarmac is (this is the good bit) lovely and smooth. We suspect that this was planned in preparation for the Tour de France which should have come up here on Bastille Day, 14th July. Maybe next year instead?

It was noticeable too that at 650m less altitude, Spring in Grenoble is much further ahead. The roads were lined with poppies and the elderflowers were all blooming in the hedgerows.

We had to drive through the clouds too.

We had another mighty DIY victory this week when Ben replaced the loo seat. It was a lot harder than it sounds. Swearing may have been required.

It was not only the local humans who were set free this week. The llamas who have in past years roamed the field just below our house are back, and have babies, to everyone’s delight.

The lovely Debbie foolishly offered (was it the champagne again?) to give the children some French lessons and got further in two hours than we have in two months. We are so very grateful and hoping that they may actually learn something out of this experience, even if, as with so much else, it’s not what we expected.

She also brought us some nail polish and remover. And a jar of tahini from her cupboard as it seems very difficult to find here. Happy days!

More learning on Friday when Peter and Preeti, Sophie and Lucy’s judo coaches, gave them a personal lesson by video on the use of their new uchikomi bands.

A knock on the door took us by surprise mid-week. It was a masked man bearing photocopies. It turns out that he is the leader of the local traditional music group and a keen accordionist and Scottish Country dancer (they really do get everywhere). He was part of the rock-clearing party on Tuesday and on hearing our name thought immediately of a reel called Miss Campbell. So he dropped a copy round for us. Sadly neither Lucy nor I has a fiddle with us but it was a lovely thought and another un-looked-for kindness.

We’ve made more new friends too. We were contacted through Instagram by someone on the other side of the valley who recognised that mountain in nearly all our pictures. We haven’t met up In Real Life yet but we hope to soon. In turn she put us in touch with other English speaking locals. One family, with two nine-year-olds, came round for a “quick meet up” yesterday (really so the kids could size each other up) and stayed for four hours… and we have plans to meet more people next week. We also got stopped in the street by someone we’ve passed on many of our walks, and he too has suggested getting the families together. It is clearly not just us who have been starved of new company!

They brought a friend with them too.

Having sung the praises of our routine last week, with more options of what we can do this week – have people round, or go more places – this week the routine has fallen apart a bit. We don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as the routine was there to give some structure to a fairly restricted day/week/unspecified lockdown sentence, and there are now fewer restrictions. Had we been on our travels, indeed when we were on our travels, there was no need for the same amount of structure.

Our interesting creature of the week was what we have tentatively identified as a broad-bordered bee hawk moth. The wasp that had clearly decided inside our car was a quiet and undisturbed place to make its nest also gets an honourable, but posthumous, mention. We met another adder too, and also tried to use sugar water and oranges to revive an ailing butterfly, though sadly without much success

Aurora managed a hitherto unimaginable 14 days without fighting and was rewarded with TikTok. If she keeps it up she gets an extra five minutes a day. More importantly, for her parents at least, she is a lot happier than we have seen her for some time, and not just because of TikTok.

More lovely friends sent us origami papers and an instruction book. In moments of calm Harriet has mostly been making cranes. Apparently to make 1000 is to bring good luck.

We have about 987 to go.

By the power of the Internet we took part (with varying levels of enthusiasm) in a Kelso-based tennis lockdown challenge. We were set a number of different tennis-related exercises to do each day. There was also a bonus baking round. Fortunately we are better at baking than we are at tennis. But probably not better enough actually to win anything…

The racquet is supposed to be that way up.

Today’s exercise was rather more old school. We’re not saying we expect to be here in Winter but it’s been pretty cold recently and we’ve been getting through wood rather quickly. So we thought we’d stock up. They deliver (almost) to the door.

And…leaving the best to last…after days of watching for the postman, Greg (who is never, ever, to be referred to as “New Duplo”) arrived yesterday. Aurora hasn’t stopped smiling.

How was it?

Good bits:

Lucy: I have really enjoyed doing the origami. I have found it very calming. And the llamas are out!!! I love llamas! I have enjoyed all the people who have come round. It has been nice being sociable. My birthday present from Granny finally arrived (Editor’s note: posted on 5 April). It was lots of new books and I have enjoyed all of them especially the one I have just finished, One of us is Lying by Karen M McManus. I also got an excellent tote bag from my cousins.

And I finally won the photo competition!

Sophie: I liked how because the lockdown has been lifted we have seen people. I really loved the doggie. I liked going to the shop and getting some new clothes. I loved, loved, loved Greg coming.

New clothes-tastic

Aurora: TikTok is good. I liked Greg arriving because now Sandie has another newbie to be new with her. I think it has made it easier missing Duplo too. I liked the dog coming over and Millie too. She was nice. The French lessons are OK too. I like having new clothes and having a choice of what to wear.

Magnus: I liked meeting Sam. He was nice and it was nice having another boy to play with. I am happy that Greg is here because it is nice having an actually clean teddy (Editor: For the avoidance of doubt all teddies are washed frequently). I liked going to the Casino (the mini market) to buy ice cream.

Ben: The change from confined to slightly deconfined has been a pleasure, albeit slightly bizarre. After 8 weeks of very few interactions with very few people, it sometimes jars to see lots of people. I’m sure the “rock harvest” was such good fun mainly because it was beyond the 1km limit (by about 3km), a family journey in the car (for the first time in 8 weeks), and a chance to talk to new people.

I get the impression that everyone has been aching to be a bit more sociable, too, as all the social events we have had have lasted much longer than expected, because of the pleasure of just being able to have a conversation in person.

However, selfishly, the best thing about déconfinement has been getting 2 pairs of shorts. Despite the Saints de Glace chill of the week, I have not worn trousers since.

We don’t have a picture of Ben in his new shorts (yet) but this is nearly as pretty.

Harriet: Even as someone who is (despite appearances) quite introverted, it has been absolutely lovely being able to be social. Just being able to talk to other people in a relaxed fashion has been brilliant for all of us. I’m pleased with my new clothes too (despite the irritation of all sleeveless tops having a racer back (why?)). I am also delighted that the children are getting a bit of French. While we perhaps could have, should have, been doing this ourselves (and we did try!) they are reacting much better to Debbie than they ever would have done to us.

Bad bits:

Harriet: It is perhaps a silly self-fulfilling prophecy but I have been thinking this week that I cannot imagine ever looking back on this time as anything other than a huge disappointment. However good any individual day is, and lots of them have been lovely, each of them is, at the same time, a disappointment. I am sure that good things will come out of this time – as just one example I have been so proud of Aurora recently who has totally turned her behaviour and self-control round and improved our life as a family immeasurably – but they are not the dramatic, exciting things I wanted. I was (there’s probably a German word for this) already looking forward to being able to look back on our adventures and I’ll never have that.

I also, maybe not so secretly, hoped that somehow this time would be a springboard for new things for us all – even though I don’t even know what I wanted those things to be. And now I suspect we will just go back to our lives pretty much as they were before. Even with the possible promise of less Aurora-related conflict or better French that makes me sad.

Ben: While the cracks in the dam of lockdown have started little trickles of almost-forgotten freedoms, “celebrating” 2 months of being here, combined with last week’s reaching of the halfway day of our Tweed to Tokyo adventure, is another chance to reflect on dreams not realised, and places not visited. Which is another way of saying, as much as I love this place, “I’m a bit bored with being here”.

Magnus: I didn’t like the snake. I don’t like snakes.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A still makes me sad. I don’t like that they have moved the cows into a field on our favourite walk. It’s too mucky. I don’t like not being able to fight. It’s so annoying. I want to shout at people sometimes but I can’t.

Sophie: I don’t really know. Just bickering. That’s sort of it.

Lucy: I didn’t really enjoy moving rocks.

How are the tadpoles?

As with our children we are beginning to wonder if the tadpoles will ever stop growing and start maturing.

Who ate all the pies? If lettuce were a pie.

They remain, mostly, fine, although all the heavy rain we have had this week has meant that every morning there are some washed-away casualties, not all of whom can be successfully rescued.

They remain determinedly legless.

What did we eat?

We had an unexpected foodie success. Last week Ben had been sent down to the supermarket for “a mixed selection of colourful root vegetables” for a “Golden Root Vegetable Couscous” (Thanks, Nigella). He came back with, erm, turnips.

Even Harriet drew the line at feeding the children turnip and couscous so they lingered in the fridge all week. This week though she found a website advertising 25 delicious turnip recipes (not a joke) and inflicted turnip daal on an unsuspecting public. Reader, they loved it.

More obviously successful, despite the lack of various essential pieces of equipment and blueberries, was our rainbow-themed cake for the baking section of the tennis competition.

If you include the smarties that’s your five a day

What’s next?

We now have a busy social calendar of drinks and chats to look forward to, and we may even venture further afield to see friends in nearby towns. As for getting out of either Isère or France though, that remains a distant dream.