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.

The most interesting thing we’ve learned

We were asked this question on twitter: As a teacher what is the most interesting thing the kids have learned so far?

And it seems to us that that question requires an answer in more than 280 characters. Not least because we suspect that what we think is interesting, or indeed, what we think they’ve learned, may be very different from what they think.

For us, the first thing that springs to mind that we now know they’ve learned is: the capitals of some, if not all, of the countries we’ve been to. We were a little horrified when we arrived here, from Vienna, to find that two at least of them didn’t know what the capital of Austria was. Or even that we had been in Austria. Is that the one with the kangaroos?

After some fairly intense coaching (what else is lockdown for?) we have, we think, resolved that problem, and are now confident that they do know more about Brussels than that it was where we ate mussels, or about Berlin than that the wifi was rubbish.

But are capitals and names of countries interesting? Those are facts; complete in and of themselves. They provoke no further thoughts or questions. Are they actually what we were being asked about?

We asked the children what they thought. (We made them write it down and called it “academic time”). Here, spelling mistakes and all, are their answers:

Aurora: a) There is more food than pasta balinase and choclate b) You should enjoy the experetis through your eyes not your phone

Sophie: I’ve found the world war 2 things really interesting.

Magnus: Prater because its a massive funfair.

Lucy: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony’s motif is based on a birdsong.

Those answers are, in their own way, interesting, but we then had to ask, what does “interesting” actually mean? Is it something that gets you thinking after you have experienced it, or learned about it, or is it the experience itself? Does it need to be tangible, or is it more likely to be an idea or a concept?

We asked Lucy what she would pick as an engaging subject to teach when she returned to school: her first answer was “waffles, because my class like food”, which does at least chime with Aurora’s answer above.

Because they like food

In practice once the conversation opened up – and perhaps because she wasn’t being asked a specific question – Lucy went on to make some insightful observations about lots of the places we have been. Talking about the Hergé museum and Tintin, she mentioned that the Blue Lotus was a turning point for Hergé, as it is the first well-researched book in the series. All the books are fully researched and grounded in reality after that: he even built a scale model of the moon rocket for Explorers on the Moon.

She also mentioned the drastic measures that people took to escape over the Berlin Wall, jumping from 3rd floor windows. She was struck too by how much money people spend on (admittedly very skilled) horses in Vienna. As a final thought she said how kind people have been throughout lockdown.

Sophie, when asked why she found certain things interesting talked about the techniques for graffiti, in particular the layering of the paint, then about the World Wars. She was struck in particular by how difficult it must have been to be Jewish during the Second World War, and the kindness and unkindness that that provoked in other people.

She had also noticed all the different ways people make money in the countries we passed through, such as selling at markets, or looking at wildlife. That led to talking about the laziness of the Oder Delta Sea eagles, how they loved to be fed, and how much Iwona, our host and guide, knew about different animals and plants.

Magnus was a rather less forthcoming – in Vienna, he told us, there was a thing in the street where you turned a handle and could make your own whirlpool in a tube.

For Aurora, food featured heavily in the conversation. She has, she said, realised that even if a dish doesn’t look very nice, that does not mean it is not good or tasty. This started in Brussels with mussels, but cooking and eating different things in each country was an eye-opener. Mushrooms, cheese (previously off-limits except parmesan), potatoes (yes really), “all the cakes” and the meatballs with cherries we cooked in Brussels were all really nice, and the supper at the Oder Delta, with soup, was delicious, as well as chimney cakes and a “bunch of other stuff“.

Aurora also found all the different languages interesting: “they are so annoying“; and had spotted that graffiti was cool and it is not just for “gangsters“.

But of course, while those were their replies today, we suspect we might have entirely different responses on another day. We might actually get a response from Magnus too.

What is interesting, they perhaps concluded, can be, and is, all sorts of things.

We may have to ask them again in a month.

Week 13 (France 8)

Where were we?

Yesterday was day 90 of our trip. We are now over half way through the six months of our trip.

It will surprise no one to learn that we are still in France.

Where should we have been?

Back in that alternate reality, we had a wonderful couple of days in the amazing city of Khiva before getting back on a train (a mere five hours and in the daytime too) and going from the sublime to the, well, even more sublime in Samarkand and Bukhara. Harriet had been dreaming of Samarkand for over 20 years and it was worth the wait. We spent five days between the two stunning cities before returning to to Tashkent earlier today. Another new country tomorrow.

I find it hard to express just how much I wish we were here. Image from Pixabay

What did we actually do?

The Door

Ben is not a natural DIY-er and so it was a real act of love that he suggested to his parents that he would remove, sand and revarnish the front door.

Having done the research and bought the necessary equipment a couple of weeks ago (which is sometimes as far as these things go) Sunday saw the door crowbarred off its hinges, laid flat, and sanded. Magnus, Aurora and Sophie helped with the sanding, at least where using the electric sander was involved. They were less keen on the fiddly paper hand sanding in the corners.

Wednesday saw the first coat of varnish, with another applied on Thursday. The fittings got a polish too, and overall everyone is slightly amazed at the result and utterly amazed at the lack of swearing during the job.

What else?

On Monday we headed down to the river to forage for wild garlic (not difficult, it’s everywhere) and on Tuesday we turned it into what Aurora described as “eggs and garlic” but most recipe books would call a frittata.

A minor disaster was avoided through another act of kindness when we ran out of butter for breakfast and the shop was shut. Ben asked at the boulangerie if they would sell him some (plenty of butter in your average croissant so he thought they’d probably have plenty). They flatly refused and instead gave him the largest slab of butter you’ve seen in a very long while.

But it won’t fit in the dish…

More kindness later in the week too. Word of our presence has clearly got out and an American family we didn’t know lived here popped round with armfuls of children’s books. After years of resistance Magnus has spent most of the time since in Narnia.

On Thursday night we attempted to create the feeling of all those nights we haven’t spent in long distance trains by having a family sleepover. The room is rather bigger than your average train carriage, but with six of us in it, four on the floor, it felt cramped enough. In true sleepover style we had takeaway pizza (very exciting as takeaways have only just reopened here), sweets, a film (The Goonies – the children were slightly bemused but Ben guffawed his way through it) and truth or dare. We also all got about eight hours sleep so it clearly wasn’t a real sleepover at all.

The morning after. We lured them out with croissants.

The forest must be feeling amorous as clouds of yellow pollen have been gusting around the hills and valleys like some sort of toxic waste. It settles on everything and is visible for miles. Ben and Magnus both suffer from hay-fever but either the drugs really do work or this is, fortunately, one of the few types of pollen neither of them reacts to, as apart from a slight sore throat, and a feeling of heaviness in the air, no one felt any ill effects.

That yellow haze on the hills? That’s pollen. All of it.

Great excitement on Monday evening when we were on the front page of the online edition of the Border Telegraph. The paper edition came out on Wednesday and a copy is winging its way in the (very slow) post to us.

Monday and Wednesday the Borders… Friday and Saturday the world! Yesterday we featured on the BBC Sport homepage and earlier today Harriet was interviewed live on the BBC World Service’s Sports Hour. It was surprisingly nerve-wracking, and she found herself shaking afterwards. But it was fun. We’d do it again.

And here it is. Just in case you missed it.

The weather has been quite changeable with rain and storms frequently threatening. This has made for some spectacular views and even more wonderful pictures of that mountain.

This one is going on the wall.

All that rain makes teaching science very simple – we have been able literally to see the water cycle as the early morning sun burns off the night’s rain in clouds that rise off the trees in the valley below us. The snow clings resolutely on in patches on the high ground but the rising and falling water levels in the river and over the waterfall just below us make it demonstrably clear what happens when it melts.

Ben has turned the tables in Trivial Pursuit and the score now stands at 10:9 in his favour.

In a moment of irony, the primary school distance learning topic this week was France, and, in particular, what would it be like to visit Paris. If only we had been able to find out.

Harriet had another moment of wild flower excitement this week when she spotted not one, but two different varieties of wild orchid. Everyone else remains unimpressed.

We have had moments when emotions have run very high this week, but we think, maybe, we are getting better at bringing the temperature back down when necessary.

The girls finally finished all the Harry Potter audiobooks and have moved on to The Hobbit. Stephen Fry is proving a hard act to follow.

Local “solidarity” groups have combined forces to make 60,000 masks for free distribution to all residents. Despite not officially living here, it was agreed we counted and we picked up six on Friday. We are looking forward to being ninjas.

It hopefully goes without saying that we are also enormously grateful.

Harriet had an uncharacteristic moment of technical brilliance mid-week after a black dot appeared on all her pictures. After some internet based research, she uninstalled and reinstalled the camera, reset all the settings, and diagnosed a speck of dust inside the lens. As a last resort (“By definition it’s always the last thing you try”, says Ben. He’s right.) She hit it, hard, on the table. Problem solved.

We had an interesting email from British Airways telling us that our flight home (from Tokyo to Gatwick via Qatar) has been cancelled. That’s less dramatic than it sounds as in fact it is the second leg that has been cancelled and they have automatically rebooked us on a flight at almost exactly the same times but to Heathrow. We do though have to accept the change. We haven’t done so yet (although almost certainly will). It remains the case that we can’t come home, so we continue to hope that going somewhere else (maybe even Tokyo) may become a possibility.

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: Finishing my Minecraft house (nearly completely). The barbecue was fun. The sleepover was AWESOME. Getting MarioKart back on my phone.

Lucy: The sleepover, obviously. The barbecue was lovely . It was great to get new clothes (a birthday present). I liked winning the quiz again too but my favourite bit was watching the sunset over the pool.

Sometimes she looks angelic

Harriet: The sleepover was a surprising success, despite some grumbles about the pizza. Our walks continue to be lovely and an ever more necessary part of the day. It’s not a specifially “this week” thing, but I love how Magnus skips down every hill. I enjoyed my moment of media fame (though I was suprised how adrenaline-filled the knowledge of being live was). I get a little hunter-gatherer glow out of foraging for anything (you should see me with blackberries) so I felt very pathetically smug about our wild garlic. More generally, it gets ever more beautiful here.

Skippety hop!

Sophie: I loved the sleepover and last night when Daddy, Aurora and I were in my room and she fell off the bed and couldn’t stop laughing. Watching the Goonies. The small lightning storm. Also recreating photos and watching the sun set by the pool. Last but not least finishing the Harry Potter books.

Ben: It was pleasing to have successfully completed the door project. Rather like running not particularly fast, but very fast for me, last week, this is the sort of thing that some people could do without really thinking, but was a real challenge for me, and I’m proud of the results. I was very proud of Harriet on the BBC too.

The kindness of people in the village (and in the wider world) has struck me again this week – the books, the butter, the masks, our friends sending things, or commenting on our social media, Ade with new Duplo – all acts of kindness which help bring happiness. I loved the photo recreations we did too. Looking at each of them – originals or recreations – makes me smile.

For the others, scroll down to see our Instagram feed, or head over there and check us out.

Aurora: Falling off the bed laughing. I couldn’t stop for about 30 minutes. The barbecue was fun. Watching the Goonies. The sleepover. Watching the sunset at the pool and the pink mountains. The Beeley quiz. If I do two more days of not fighting I will have tiktok.

Bad bits

Aurora: Not having Duplo A (Editor’s note: the new not-Duplo has been despatched from the eBay despatch centre and should be with us next week, although as one of Lucy’s birthday presents still hasn’t made it we are trying to keep anticipation to a minimum)

Sophie: The pollen made my throat really sore. Duplo A.

Harriet: If anything is going to drive me to madness in this whole experience it could well be the wordpress app, which consistently loses data, reverts to old versions without warnings and generally seems designed not to work. But apart from that, and the usual scuffles, it has been a pretty good week.

In bigger picture stuff, the halfway mark is both utterly depressing – how little we have done in comparison with what we had hoped and planned – and strangely encouraging – the world has changed so much in the last three months, maybe, just maybe there is room for hope that it will change again, at least enough for us to move on.

Ben: In itself this week has been fine, and apart from the odd fracas not many “bad bits”, though passing the halfway milestone, still being in lockdown, and not being somewhere unfamiliar and new, is not good. I do worry that maybe we will not be able to go further than here this year, and for all that many of our long-held dream destinations will be there for the reaching / exploring / experiencing / enjoying in future years, there will never be this opportunity for a long family trip again.

If I spend too long thinking about this, money worries, job worries, family worries, education worries, political worries, economic worries, all creep in, and they don’t serve me well, so they can all just politely “go away” for now.

Lucy: Nothing major. The hoover breaking was annoying.

Magnus: The toilet seat broke.

How are the frogs?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Not frogs. Still tadpoles. But getting there, maybe. Close up you can see where their tadpole skin is coming away from the froggy body underneath. Or at least we think that is what is happening.

Legs by next week. Maybe?

Nine out of ten storm refugees, who had managed to migrate to a smaller pool in the bird bath, have met an sad and untimely end. The tenth is still there in quarantine, waiting to be returned to the mothership.

What did we eat?

Eggs and garlic”

Ben bought strawberries. They weren’t Scottish and we hadn’t picked them ourselves, but they were nonetheless delicious.

Just add cream (Don’t worry, we did)

It was common consent that the takeaway pizza for our sleepover was not as good as the ones we made ourselves the week before.

What’s next?

We get deconfined on Monday which means we will be able to travel anywhere we like, for as long as we like, as long as it’s not further than 100km. While we are not planning a trip to the Mongolian embassy in Paris for visas yet, it does mean that if we want to go for longer on our daily walks we can.

We can also socialise, distantly, in groups of up to ten people so we will be celebrating on Monday evening with drinks with our new chums Debbie and Philippe.

Shops will reopen too so we can finally buy some clothes that either a) fit or are b) appropriate for the weather. We’re quite excited. The children will be able to go to the boulangerie too. They can finally use some of that French.

As for heading further afield, that is in the hands of the governments of the countries we want to go to. We wait and hope.

More media stars – and welcome!

If the Border Telegraph wasn’t exciting enough, today we are on BBC Sport and tomorrow (10.25ish UK time) I am going to be interviewed on SportsHour on the BBC World Service!

My school PE teachers would be utterly flabbergasted…

And if you are visiting our blog for the first time as a result – welcome! It is lovely to have you here. We really do hope you enjoy what you see. Leave us a comment to let us know – we try and reply to all of them.

If you’d like to see more we post daily on Instagram and occasionally on twitter as @tweedtotokyo . Have a look and do follow us if you’d like to.

Or if you’d like to make sure you see more of our blog posts (normally one or two a week) click the follow button (it’s right at the bottom of the page if you’re reading this on a phone).

In any event thank you for visiting and we do hope you’ll be back soon.

Stay safe. Our thoughts are with you and your families in this very strange world.

Harriet

The Daily Routine

Or What it really looks like

Here in lockdown we have – we have to have – a routine. We have worked out in the last seven and a half weeks that no routine leads to chaos and chaos leads to shouting and shouting leads to consequences that none of us will enjoy. So we have a routine. Every day, weekends included.

The routine was widely circulated online when lockdowns started worldwide.

It is supposed to look like this.

However we have no printer, and we’ve also got increasingly poor at getting up in the mornings. Plus the original routine clearly assumes that your children will either a) do all this with absolutely no adult input or supervision or b) do not require food or clean clothes.

So our routine looks like this.

But of course our days don’t really look much like that at all. In fact – with occasional additions of door sanding, supermarket shopping, cleaning and gardening – they’re rather more like this:

Sometime after 8.30:

I know, I know. Really must get up.

Despite doing very little, we are sleeping longer and later. Maybe it’s a subconscious (unconscious) way of passing the days. The children are even worse…

9ish: Time to live up to the 1950s expectations of the Royal Canadian Air Force and do our daily 12 minutes of 5BX or XBX exercises. In fact Ben and I do them twice – once first thing and once with the children later.

Ben does his in his pants. No one needs to see that.

9.23: Amend the attestation

The French government requires us to fill this in every time we leave the house: why we are leaving and when.

9.24 Off to the boulangerie. Only one of us. The other gets the fun of shouting at gently encouraging the children downstairs and laying the table.

9.26 Boulangerie trip. Shopping could be worse. Plus this is the only time in the day we speak to anyone else.

9.30 Home with the spoils

9.32. Hand wash. Obviously. Having been outside. Even if the only thing I’ve touched is the bread bag and my own bank card.

9.33 (the timetable is slipping already). Breakfast.

9.55 *voice of doom* WASHING UP.

The dishwasher broke about three days after we arrived here. Dishwasher repairs are not an essential service (though the cheese shop is). A scrupulously fair rota has been discussed and drawn up. I love it (at home guess who does all the washing up?). Some other members of the family are less enthusiastic.

Lucy is one of the more obliging ones.

10.05: Socks on. Teeth brushed. Wash your hands again.

10.09: Change the attestation. Off for a walk this time:

10.15 Quick tadpole check.

10.17 (ahead of schedule now – that’s because we didn’t stop to make pizza dough, or do laundry, or engage with the bickering). Walk. It is odd how whatever mood everyone is in when we leave the house, (and after the washing up some of us are often not at our sunniest) we are always in better fettle when we come back. So, whatever the weather, off we head on one of our walks – all within our permitted one hour, one kilometre radius.

11.16: Wash hands in case the virus has been lurking up a forest path.

11.17: Academics (no screens). Ben used to be a teacher and we both have several degrees. But none of that means we’re any good at educating our children. We attempt maths (lots of maths as it turns out our children don’t know half as much maths as their reports would have had us believe), music, writing – all sorts: we love a haiku and this was a great way of getting Lucy’s thank-you-letters done – problem solving (how to get the children to do their work) and quite a lot of pacifying and cat herding.

12 ish (depending entirely on how quick and conflict-free academic time has been): Creative time.

1pm: Lunch. Hopefully outside.

1.45: More washing up. Oh good.

1.55: Thank heavens for “Quiet Time”; it’s honestly everyone’s favourite part of the day. The large amount we’ve now spent on Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter was entirely worth it.

3.06. Or 3.08 or 3.14 or really we should go and get them now shouldn’t we? More antiquated Canadian exercises. For the whole family this time. They love it.

Knees up! 1 2 1 2…

Marshmallows are awarded for a) effort (ie actually doing something) and b) chat (ie not spending the whole time complaining about how someone else isn’t trying hard enough while simultaneously doing nothing yourself (see a)).

The mindfulness I briefly tried to introduce afterwards has been abandoned having met with too much resistance. I still think it would be an excellent thing for all of us so if anyone has any good tips on how to make cynical children enthusiastic about lying still and breathing please do let me know.

3.30: “Screen academics”. The original routine says something like “more academic time, you can use your screens if you like“, but funnily enough our kids choose screens. Every time.

It makes for a great picture.

We are in theory each still trying to learn a language on Duolingo (although my enthusiasm for Mandarin Chinese has waned slightly) and so the children do some French (despite their opportunities to practice being limited by not being allowed to talk to anyone else). There are various maths and English programmes they spend time on too. Magnus and Lucy are also adamant that Minecraft is educational. We are not entirely convinced.

4.15: More exercise. Normally our home made circuits.

Keep going….

If it’s very wet or there are vaguely physical chores to be done these are occasionally overlooked. We even did Joe Wicks once. Never again.

That was much too hard.

4.45 or as soon as possible: Free screen time. Cooking (with a different helper each day). Laundry. Instagram. Everyone in their own little corner doing their own thing. Silence reigns. Unless we can agree on a soundtrack.

Magnus normally wins

6ish: Supper. Often with cheese.

7 or so: Washing up, washing selves, family games, or perhaps a film, moods (normally Ben’s and mine) depending…

By 9: Go away the lot of you! And breathe…

With no television, it’s time for some sophisticated adult entertainment.

For those that have been following, Ben is now in the lead. I am totally fine about this.

The chocolate might make an appearance now too. It helps you sleep. Or something.

And so to bed. Tomorrow will be much the same.

Harriet

Walks within a km and less than an hour

The Chartreuse massif is a walkers’ paradise, a designated French Regional Natural Park, and as such is comprehensively signposted, with well maintained paths criss-crossing the hills, forests, streams and mountains. The signs are a distinctive shade of yellow, with small yellow stripes painted on rocks, trees and walls to tell you that you are on the right path, with crosses indicating a wrong turn or false path. There is also a trail running centre in the village, with marked trail runs too.

Without Confinement the map of available walks is enormous and looks something like this.

The Massif de la Chartreuse

During the current “Confinement”, the French authorities require us to have a written statement (attestation) when we leave the house, signed, dated and timed, and giving the reason for the excursion (déplacement) as one of seven permitted reasons. We use the shopping one, and the exercise one, and that’s it.

The full wording is “Déplacements brefs [Brief excursions], dans la limite d’une heure quotidienne [limited to a daily hour] et dans un rayon maximal d’un kilometre autour du domicile [within a maximum radius of 1km from the home], liés soit à [for either] l’activité physique individuelle des personnes, à l’exclusion de toute pratique sportive collective et de toute proximité avec d’autres personnes [individual sporting activity, excluding all team sports, and all proximity to other people], soit à la promenade avec les seules personnes regroupées dans un même domicile [or walking with only people from the same home], soit aux besoins des animaux de compagnie [or for the needs of pets].”

With the current restrictions, it looks more like this.

Not such massive options during lockdown in the Massif de la Chartreuse

So, mainly for printing out and leaving in the housebook here in my parents’ lovely house, is the definitive, exhaustive, most probably useless (given the lockdown restrictions will be eased within a week of publication) guide to walks from the house, within a radius of a kilometre and able to be completed within an hour.

The Piggy Walk and The Reverse Piggy

The Piggy Walk was our standard walk when the children were much younger. It is just about feasible with a pushchair, if it is a more rugged variety. It involves going down the path to the left of the Hotel Victoria, which descends quite steeply down to the bottom part of the village (la Diat). Watch out for dog poo on the path, and llamas sometimes in the field to the left. Having met the zig zag of the road for the second time, there is a short section of walking still downhill on the road, on the outside of the bend, then over the stream Couzon at the bridge, then immediately right, up a farm track by a yellow sign.

This is a steepish, rough track, going past a farmhouse, usually with a variety of farm animals (hence the piggy walk), zigzagging up to Bernière and a great view of Chamechaude. From here, the road surface gets better, passing Carlinière and Patassière, before it takes you back over the Couzon and up to the St Pierre to Col du Cucheron road. From here, walk down the road into the village, back to the house.

The Piggy and Reverse Piggy

There is a path which cuts across the valley about halfway from Bernière to the main road (utterly unsuitable for pushchairs), well signposted, by which you can return to the Plan de Ville at the Malissarde restaurant. When we were avoiding the farmer at the bottom of the hill, we would often take this way (in either direction), which we knew as the Reverse Piggy, even though we haven’t seen a single piggy on either route this year…

The turn to cut across the valley

The Too Steep Too Long, but Very Beautiful

One day I realised that there was another, higher, path off the Patassière Road (the Piggy route) which did not take us outside the permitted 1km radius. What we discovered, though was that it did take about 10-15 minutes longer than the permitted hour. There was some whinging due to steepness too. Harriet and I loved it, though, and it was very pretty with beautiful views back to the village and the ski slopes.

At the highest point of Patassière, there is a road leading higher still, with a yellow signpost, indicating Col du Cucheron. Following the road up a steep slope, there is a wooded path off to the left just before the last (homely?) house. This goes up and up through a steep gully, keeping left if in doubt, until it begins to turn further left, eventually cresting at a wide fork. Turning right would take you to the heady heights of Grand Som, over 2000m up, and left takes you gently down to Bernière. There are great views to your left, between the trees, with an eventual choice of left to Bernière or right to the monastery (outside the permitted km radius). Home either way on the piggy route.

The Chapel

Looking down on St Pierre de Chartreuse is a small chapel, more of a shrine really, which is often lit at night. There is a good loop to get to it. We have on occasion taken croissants up there and had breakfast looking down at the village.

Leave St Pierre along the road to Perquelin, turning right at the Mairie, Post Office, Tourist Office, and just as you reach the sign telling you that you are leaving St P, there is a path on the left, with a yellow signpost, where you can follow the Chemin des Amoureux (Lovers’ Lane) up to the Chapelle du Rosaire.

There’s only one diverging path, on up to the top of the Scia mountain (the summit of the KMV – 1km vertical – trail run), but keep to the signs and you will be fine. From the top you can head down the marked path, past a carved wooden lizard, or wander down the grassy ski slopes back into the village.

Down the Hill Variations

Turning right, straight out of the gate to the house, down to the sometimes trickling, sometimes roaring, Guiers Mort river gives the greatest variety of possible routes. Being careful to watch out underfoot on the way down, this being a regular dog walk, at the bottom of the hill, there are three options over the Pont de la Laiterie. It can be nice exploring around here too. A laiterie is a dairy, and there are good scrambles to be had, as well as wild garlic in May.

The three options follow the path of the river downstream or up, or climb the hill up to Mollard Bellet above.

The Parting of the Ways at the Pont de la Laiterie

1) Downstream leads to La Diat, where you can turn right over the bridge to climb up the road back home, but this is a bit dull and exposed, so turning up and left is preferable. There is a signed steep path, almost a staircase, which laces backwards and forwards, and very much up, eventually coming out of the woods, where the path continues up, through a small copse, arriving at the head of the direct route (2 from the Pont de la Laiterie) Just below Mollard Bellet.

2) Straight on from the Pont de la Laiterie leads steeply up through, and out of, the woods, arriving below Mollard Bellet and the road.

Straight on to Mollard Bellet

From this point on either walk we normally take the road signed towards the pretty corner at Les Antonins.

3) Upstream from the bridge at the bottom of the hill is very pretty, and tracks along as far as a small bridge, the Pont de Belmond, (almost exactly 1km from home) to the Perquelin Road. There is a signpost along this path which allows you to climb up right to Les Antonins.

The Variations Down the Hill

From Les Antonins, the options are a descent (the reverse of the path above) or continuing along the road away from Mollard Bellet. There is a marked drop off, which leads to a short sharp path down to the Pont de Belmond bridge. Return is by either side of the river, the Perquelin road being the rive droite and the reverse of the upstream (option 3) being the rive gauche.

All of these can be done (have been done during lockdown) forwards, backwards, and in multiple combinations providing a little variation within a limited palette. The full outside perimeter of these combined options takes about an hour without dawdling.

By Ben, with thanks to my parents for our extended stay here.

Week 12 (France 7)

Where were we?

You guessed it.

Where should we have been?

This is the week things were supposed to get very exciting. On Sunday evening we should have been on the 22.26 departure from Moscow to Tashkent. We were scheduled to arrive into Tashkent (having travelled through a lot of Russia and quite a bit of Kazakhstan too) on Wednesday (yes, Wednesday) at 16.58. We were to meet Russian friends there, and were all to be staying with Uzbek friends of theirs. We were hugely looking forward to the legendary plov they had promised us and to discovering Tashkent. None of us has ever been anywhere near Uzbekistan before – it’s the first country that would have been new to all of us – and we were hugely looking forward to it.

We should then be leaving Tashkent to take another overnight train to arrive in Urgench tomorrow for a couple of days in Khiva.

And if you’ve never heard of Khiva before (nor had we before we started planning this trip) this is why we wanted to go there. Image from aljanh.net

What did we actually do?

The Two Point Six Challenge

Our new focus this week was on the Two Point Six Challenge. It should have been the London Marathon last Sunday. This is the world’s biggest one day charity fundraising event and its cancellation will have a massive impact on the income of thousands of charities, small and large. Charities therefore asked people to take on a challenge, based around 2.6 or 26, and to make a donation. We each chose a challenge and a charity.

Magnus went first.  He created his own 26 minute playlist and made us all dance (like loons) around the kitchen.  He donated his £26.20 to the Shark Trust because he loves sharks.  

Harriet went next.  She chose the Cure Parkinson’s Trust, and was very proud to hold a plank for 2 minutes and 6 seconds (and actually slightly annoyed with herself for not attempting the full 2.6 minues). 

Sophie’s challenge was less, well, challenging.  She chose to go on her favourite walk, which is, coincidentally, 2.6 km.  It was possibly made slightly more difficult by the fact that it was throwing it down with rain.   Her donation went to the WWF for their work with snow leopards. 

Ben set himself the toughtest challenge of the lot: to run 5 km in 26 minutes.  As he says that is about how fast Mo Farah runs 10km, but Ben is not, for the avoidance of doubt, Mo Farah and it is very hilly here.  He found the flattest place in the village, went back and forth was delighted to achieve his time. He donated £26.20 to Mind.

Aurora’s challenge was to do twice 26 skips. She managed 64, and gave her donation to War Child.

Lucy decided to benefit Friends of the Earth but didn’t much fancy their Plank for the Planet idea. Instead she stood on one leg for 26 minutes – 13 minutes on each leg – while learning some French on Duolingo. It was surprisingly impressive.

What else?

Our new French friends brought us books. And lovely home-made jam.

It looks likely that when (probably, hopefully, in ten days time) lockdown starts to ease here we will be required to wear face masks in many public places. Clearly these are not easy to buy at the moment, so we found Ben’s granny’s sewing machine (instructions dated 1933) and got sewing. We’ve made four so far…

On Saturday night, six weeks of almost unbroken sunshine came to a dramatic end. We had thunder and lightning and torrential rain. We all ended up huddled in the conservatory watching the storm. It was all a bit Sound of Music, and rather lovely.

Very chuffed to get this picture, but disappointed the lighting wasn’t forked

The rain has continued, almost as unbroken as the sun before it, all week. We have nonetheless determinedly walked every day. Any resistance was overcome by the incentive of hot chocolate and squirty cream. Ben keeps dropping hints about a green chaud too.

Sometimes only cream in a can will do

All that rain has done amazing and dramatic things to “our” river.

And Ben has been thoroughly enjoying the “silky water” setting on his phone as a result.

With each new country we have visited we have put a new flag on the car. However, the flags were possibly not designed for 4,000 miles of travel followed by six weeks of sunshine and downpours. They have begun to look rather bedraggled and before his trip to the supermarket on Monday Ben removed them. We are determinedly refusing to see any metaphor in this at all.

These flags aren’t supposed to flutter in the breeze

On the heels of Harriet’s great sucess in identifying cowslips and oxslips last week, she was rather more horrified to spot Japanese Knotweed this week. We are now washing our feet as well as our hands when we return home from our walks. The locals however seem to be undisturbed by it. In fact we were cheerily told that you can make jam from it. Harriet is not (yet) bored enough to try that.

Apparently it tastes a bit like rhubarb

After a dramatic surge by Ben the Trivial Pursuit score stands at 8:7 to Harriet.  Rumours that Ben has been revising in the middle of the night remain unconfirmed.

Ben ignored wailing and gnashing of teeth from Aurora and Sophie and shaved off his beard.

Soft focus too…

We had lots of fun with Lucy’s birthday present of polymer clay. Harriet has been experimenting with making millefiori flowers with varying degrees of success.  She’s not going to be giving it all up and moving to Murano just yet.  She’s got to work out what to do with all the little plastic beads she’s made here first.

Not sure how this works with the no plastic thing

We found a simple solution to a simple problem and bought a cable so we can print from our phones. This has opened up a whole world of worksheet and colouring in possibilities.

On Monday, entirely on her own, Aurora identified a Duplo on eBay. Until then she had been adamant that she did not want another one. She’s still clear that Duplo A can never be replaced, but she was also clear that she did want to buy this one – despite, in the way of second-hand soft toys being held to ransom by eBay sellers, it costing way more than it would have done new. So we did.

Aurora was keen that the seller, Ade, should know how much the new Duplo (to be called Greg) would be loved, so we wrote to him explaining what had happened to Duplo A and telling him how pleased Aurora was to have found Greg.

Harriet woke up yesterday morning to an email from Ade. He had read Aurora’s email and wants to give Greg to her. He has, entirely unasked, refunded us everything we paid. He made Harriet cry. Unlooked for kindness of the most genuine sort from someone we are unlikely ever to meet. If you live in the Midlands and know someone called Ade, he (or maybe she) is a wonderful person.

The kindness of strangers: priceless

The tooth mouse, which clearly, despite what you might expect, knows absolutely nothing about good dental health, took away Sophie’s lost tooth and brought her the traditional enormous meringue.

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: I liked talking to Joe. It was fun watching the thunderstorm. It was cool. The pizzas were yummy.

Sophie: I’m super happy about the new Duplo, because he’s going to be my baby boy (even though he’s going to be Aurora’s, but we practically share our teddies now).  I’m glad we watched the movie, even though the Horrible Histories movie was a bit weird. Mummy watched (and approved) Clueless, so I’m looking forward to that.  I’ve liked listening to Harry Potter, but things have pretty much been the same.

No caption required.

Ben: This week has felt calmer, and I have felt better in my head this week, and I think been a better parent and husband too. It is good to feel that there are signs that lockdown is going to ease, at least here. We are a long way from being able to plan further travels yet, but the first steps (cracks in the dam?) are very welcome. We even had an post-deconfinement invitation to dinner at an old friend’s in Grenoble (thank you!) which is a lovely thing to look forward to.

I was delighted (and a bit surprised) to achieve my 26.2 challenge. We have had good video-chats with friends this week too. The change in the weather has been fine too – I love a walk in the rain, and the smells and surge of new greenery are some of the things which make me very happy to be here, even if I don’t really want to be here right now.

It’s more fun than it looks

Lucy: I love the fact that during our “quiet time” we have been listening to the Battle of Hogwarts scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the 2nd May, which is exactly 22 years to the day after it “happened”.

I have been enjoying making polymer clay things. Aurora’s cakes were delicious. I highly recommend The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson, which I finished this week. It was a bit like Geek Girl, by Holly Smale, but with more plot.

Harriet: I am an utterly rubbish dancer, but I have thoroughly enjoyed dancing round the kitchen on not one, but two, occasions this week.

I enjoyed our 2.6 challenge. It was really nice to have a focus for each day.

I was moved to tears by Ade’s kindness and generosity. I had hoped he might enjoy reading Auroras blog post but the idea that he might decide to forgo income, particularly now, had never occurred to me. There is something about the kindness of strangers that is particularly magical.

I think we are all getting on better and learning to be less aggressive in how we speak to each other. Aurora has shown astonishing determination and self-control in not bickering for ten days now. It is a calmer and nicer house, and I think I am a calmer and nicer person, as a result.

I felt a burst of uncomplicated happiness walking in the rain and jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Just skipping in the rain

Aurora: I liked baking the cakes and playing playing Stratego with Daddy. I liked doing my skipping. We named my new Duplo Greg, after Sandie’s husband. (Sandie gave me my new teddy and we named her after Sandie.) It was lovely that Ade decided to give the new Duplo to us.

I’m really close to getting TikTok [for 14 consecutive days of no bickering], so yay.

White chocolate and cherrry blondies. “Too sweet”, said Aurora

Bad bits:

Lucy: My pom-pom getting wet and then drying funnily on the radiator.

Aurora: Duplo not being here. Magnus not doing his exercises properly really annoys me. It’s been a pretty good week.

Harriet: In quiet moments this week I have been feeling very sad. I was really looking forward to being the person who did this astonishing thing, who had this wonderful adventure, and now I’m not that person and probably never will be. I suppose to a certain extent I am mourning the loss of that amazing person. I really wanted to be her.

Sophie: Us fighting, not much, but some squabbles.  The rain hasn’t been too bad.

Ben: The front door remains resolutely unsanded, unvarnished and challenges me every day to do something about it.

And I’d rather be in Uzbekistan today.

Magnus: I hate being interviewed for this post.

What did we eat?

Pomegranate (the first we have seen in seven weeks of looking) Pineapple. Pizzas. Naan (with a silent p?). Blondies (made by Aurora). Everyone has taken turns in helping to cook – and occasionally found out quite how frustrating it is when people don’t eat what you’ve prepared…

How are the tadpoles?

Possibly maligned… They may not have been eating each other quite as voraciously as we thought – although we did of course see them at it at least once. In any event numbers seem to be back up again. Maybe they were just hiding.

They had an exciting time in the thunderstorm too. The sudden downpour clearly took them by surprise, as the next morning we found several of them trapped in the engraved lettering on the edge of the bird bath. A bit of careful rescuing with a leaf saw them back where they belonged. One, though, has managed to get her (him) self into an entirely different section, where she remains in solitary state. Do tadpoles get lonely?

Tadpoles in their groove.

What next?

This week came the announcement of the initial lifting of the lockdown in France. After May 11 we will be allowed to go further afield and for longer than an hour. We won’t be able to leave our departement or go further than 100km, but we will be able to visit the reopened shops in Grenoble, or head into the hills for longer walks (the children are delighted).

In a sense though that gets us no further. France was never the aim, and until some of the other countries we want to visit open up, we remain stuck here. We are still, though, not yet half way through our planned six months, so we live in hope of getting somewhere, at some point, though when and where remains to be seen.

Still waiting to wake up and find out this is all a dream…