I wanted to write this to go with today’s pretty pictures on instagram (and head over there – or go to the bottom of the blog – if you want to see them), but it won’t let me. I’ve been too wordy as usual.
But as the UK possibly prepares to go into lockdown we thought it might help to know what is actually (in our experience) happening here in France, where strict measures were brought in earlier this week and which (some of us) were really frightened by the thought of….
Of course the situation may change but currently (day 4) the small supermarket here is open and stocked (deliveries are clearly still getting through even here in the mountains). The bakery is also open and has fresh bread. The cheese shop (yes, really) and the butchers are open. The pharmacy and newsagent are open. The doctor’s surgery remains open. What are shut are the restaurants and bars, the clothes and tourist shops, the post office and tourist office, the hairdresser’s, the library and the ski and bike hire places. In the queue, if there is a queue, we stand a safe distance apart but we chat as normal. There is a one-in-one-out policy at the bakers, where a new plastic screen has been installed and the queue stands in the street. We can travel a short distance for five specific reasons – work, health, to help family, to shop or to exercise (in our case go for walks). If we see someone on our walk we speak or smile.
We are in (by UK standards) a small town (technically in France a village, but much bigger and with better amenities than that implies) and have not yet tried to leave the village other than to go for walks. In bigger towns other shops in specific categories (DIY, technical – there’s a long list) also remain open. When we go anywhere (for instance to attempt to fix Harriet’s glasses which are badly scratched) we have to take a form with us that we have signed to say why we are going. The police can ask to see this (and are doing so in other local towns) although we haven’t yet been asked. The village is eerily quiet (unlike our children) but on a minute to minute, hour to hour basis life continues much as normal.
We realise that being here is of course not the same as being in a city, or a flat (and I am sure there are those in other parts of France who are finding this much more difficult than we are) but it is probably not that different from being in Kelso.
In China today Hubei province has reported no new cases. Not one. Lockdown can and does work. It sounds scary, but doesn’t have to be. And it is necessary for all of us. We will get through this.
As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.
Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.
The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.
Choosing the books
The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.
I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.
In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.
Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…
I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.
In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.
I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.
I admit it: I failed at the first country.
I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.
Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.
The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.
If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.
But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.
An actual paper book!
Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…
As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…
In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.
Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.
In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.
For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.
I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.
I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.
In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.
(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)
Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.
This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine. It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.
Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.
I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result.
I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.
Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.
So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.
Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.
By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.
The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).
Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).
It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.
Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.
As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.
Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.
A very odd day today. We are now in the foothills of the French Alps, in a lovely house belonging to my parents, where life is both very familiar, and at the same time, very strange.
It is familiar because we have been lucky enough to have holidayed here almost every year we have been a family. I lived here for 2 years, while working and studying in nearby Grenoble. Harriet and I got engaged here.
It was always the plan to be here in March, to make the switch from car to train, and to give us all a little downtime from constant travel and maybe update our minimal wardrobes with more spring-like clothes.
It is strange to be here now, a week earlier than expected, and in such unprecedented circumstances. The village itself is very quiet, only the boulangerie and tabac open (the mini-Market is normally closed on a Monday). People don’t greet each other with a handshake or a kiss. There is an air of quiet, disquiet perhaps, which is difficult to define.
We are all tired and a bit subdued too after 12 hours in the car yesterday, and the sad loss of a beloved Teddy in a Swiss motorway service station.
For all the “this is just the start of a new adventure” geeing up we can (and do) do, this is very far from the meticulously planned trip of a lifetime, and that feels a bit rubbish.
To be sure, I am very aware that we are hugely privileged in many ways (going on the trip in the first place, work situations which allowed it, a family bolt-hole to run to, not being an at-risk person for Corona, nor being medically affected by Corona, or anything bigger than the enormous splinter Sophie had in her foot).
We have had a saying on our trip to date, “it may be weird to you, but it’s normal for someone else”. This has been useful for food, dress code, manners, languages, etc., but the thing with the current COVID-19 situation is that it is nobody’s normal. Austria, where we were just yesterday, has just banned meetings if more than 5 people. We are a family of 6…
Even as I type this Ursula van der Leyen has informed me that Europe is closed to all but essential travel for at least 30 days. What does that mean for us now?
Do we have right to remain in the EU during the Brexit transition period? Is it a greater risk (to ourselves, to others) to travel, or to stay put? Is travelling home “essential”? For whom? We don’t particularly want to come home, especially when there is a chance we will be able to continue with some of the trip. At the moment the Olympics are still planning to go ahead, but last week we were planning to be in Slovenia now.
Harriet has been contacting our insurers and our Russian travel fixers, and they are scrambling as much as we are. Kazakhstan has closed its borders, the Moscow to Tashkent train has been suspended, and even one part of the insurers can’t get through to the other.
As a nice aside, our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen Switzerland, refunded our money, despite our cancelling too late to be entitled to it. There are good people doing good things, and that’s a thing to aspire to too.
Even so, it is all a bit discombobulating. Macron is speaking to France at 8pm tonight, and the rumour is that this will be to introduce more restrictions for travel, potentially for 3 months.
So what are we going to do about it?
There are some things we should do while we are here anyway:
Continue with daily exercise, and some maths.
Continue to monitor the changing situation globally.
Our friend Rose, in California, shared a “Lockdown Schedule”, which we are going to adapt and use. Lucy is writing a poster of it right now.
We are likely to be in France for at least a month, so the children could do with learding more French, even if anyone they try to speak to runs away covering their nose. Harriet and I have started talking to the children in French as much as possible (please not before breakfast, and please not at weekends, say the children. Peut-être, say the grownups.)
The children have started using Duolingo to learn French try to understand what we are saying to them. (There has also been bribery, in the form of ear piercing, which has helped this. As for when an ear-piercing studio might reopen, who knows…)
Go for walks in the beautiful mountains.
Harriet is still planning to cook Bled Cake, our missed Slovenian meal, and then there’s tartiflette, fondue montagnarde, raclette, etc.
Make this as good as it can be, and try to look on the bright side.
Because the alternative is worrying that world travel is over forever, millions are going to die, and the global economy will collapse. Sorry about that picture.
Week five has been a slightly odd one: the coronavirus, of which more later, has increased its presence across Europe and the news is changing daily. We have had to change accordingly.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were about to head into the Tatra Mountains. The children had been asking to visit a water park and we had found one fed by mineral-rich hot springs. This was everything you’d expect: loud, noisy, great fun and a chance to teach them all about the periodic table…. They enjoyed some of it more than the rest.
From there to a chalet in Zakopane. This looked very cool and stylish on AirBnB, but sadly the listing didn’t mention that a) it was up a drive that was not designed for a large and heavy Toyota van and b) once you got there the turning space was six inches deep in mud. We discovered the latter too late…
After some ingenuity, a bit of digging, use of the jack and a load of old pizza boxes, a not inconsiderable amount of sotto voce swearing and some invaluable help from a good Samaritan in the form of the astonishingly kind and English-speaking neighbour (how many random people in the UK would know the Polish for “manual transmission“?), we got out. It wasn’t a great first impression though.
The next morning though, as the sun rose over the snowy Tatra, so close we could almost touch them, and the children gambolled in what remained of the snow, it all seemed worth it.
You couldn’t, sitting in our car, quite have blinked and missed Slovakia, but if you had been better at sleeping in the car than our children are, you could probably have slept through it.
That is to do Slovakia a disservice. It was, through the car windows, beautiful, with rolling hills and snowy mountains. We stopped in Banska Bystrica (because it was on the way) for lunch, and enjoyed strolling through the centre of town.
Slovakia, we apologise for not spending longer with you. We will hopefully be back.
Ben had been to Budapest before, in 1993, and had raved about it pretty much ever since. It did not disappoint.
We stayed very centrally, in a once very grand town house, just behind the national museum, so on our first evening we strolled along the banks of the Danube, watching as Buda slowly became illuminated.
We headed for the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, which remembers the Jews of the Ghetto who were brought to the banks of the river in late 1944 and 1945, told to remove their shoes, and shot. In the twilight, it was both beautiful and very moving. In a way I think it made the horror of the Holocaust more real to the children than anything else we have done on this trip.
The next day we went out, on public transport this time, Budapest being rather bigger than we realised, first to the Donhanyi Synagogue, with its many memorials (including to Raoul Wallenburg, of whom, to our shame, we had never heard) and stunning architecture. Then on to Buda Castle. We walked up and enjoyed the instagrammable-ness (yes that is a word) of the views, the Fishermans Bastion, the Presidential Palace (the sentries gave some of us a shock when they moved) and the giant eagle up which Ben once saw someone climb.
Harriet was slightly kicking herself (sort of still is, to be honest) for agreeing to the water park, having forgotten about the baths of Budapest. We rather thought that two swimming experiences so close together would be too much. But this, on a gloriously sunny day, in the smartest public swimming pool you will ever see in your life (no slides, sorry kids), was an experience unlike any other.
The children had been asking to go to an Escape Room since Berlin, where they are also a big thing. Budapest, which has many cellars and grand ruined buildings, is also a hive of various small rooms with people paying to get out.
We found one ten minutes or so away on foot, with an Indiana Jones-style temple-themed room (in English) , and booked ourselves in, smugly thinking we would be quite good at this.
Clearly we can’t spoil it for others, but suffice to say that sadly, although we found the skull, and thus destroyed the Beast, we remain locked in the temple. We were, with hindsight, thinking too much like ourselves and not enough like Indy. We will know for next time.
It was brilliant fun though and there was some top teamwork. We’d do another one.
Thence to Austria; on the way we popped into Vienna Airport to pick up the temporary seventh member of our travelling circus – Granny. Sometimes we like our massive car (when it’s not stuck in the mud or negotiating a Belgian underground car park).
Keen, as ever, to give the children a full experience of the culture of every city we visit, once we got to our flat we dumped our bags, and headed out to the Prater.
Fourteen and a half years ago, when we got married, among our unwritten vows was that Harriet did not have to go on any roller coasters, ever (or to IKEA, if you’re interested) . Fun fairs are most definitely not her happy place, so this was an act of real love towards the children. But it’s Vienna, so you do, at least, have to go on the wheel.
And it was surprisingly fun. The Prater was clearly gearing up for its spring opening, so quite a few of the rides were having their light bulbs changed, or their mechanisms checked, and it is possible that the coronavirus kept some people away, but it was pleasantly busy without being crowded and there were no queues for any of the rides.
The wheel itself, in the glorious spring sunshine (22 degrees!) was a delight. We had a cabin to ourselves, and although Lucy was disappointed not to be able to throw tulips to small boys below (apparently she had read it in a book), we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Then on to the main attractions. Magnus managed to find (and drag Granny on to) all of the dodgem rides in the place, and Ben fulfilled what has clearly been a fourteen and a half year lack by whooping and giggling his way round a roller coaster. Lucy got the fright of her life when air was puffed at her in a fun house, much to everyone else’s amusement.
And Granny and Harriet? They held the coats. And were delighed to be able to do so. Harriet was even more delighted to win the family ball-rolling competition. The prize is going back with Granny for her other grandchildren. Their parents will be delighted.
The Hofburg and other Palaces
Bill Bryson wrote that if you were an alien who landed in Vienna for the first time you’d think it was the capital of the world. He’s not wrong. It’s stately and grand and very, very sure of itself. It is also, at the moment, shut.
All those wonderful museums and galleries, all the palaces of wondrous riches, every one, shut to visitors for fear of Corona. Even the morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School was closed – do horses get COVID-19?
Oddly though (presumably it has something to do with numbers) the guided tour of the Spanish Riding School was open. (Apparently the Emperor who founded it came from Spain, bringing his funny Spanish customs, foods and way of riding with him. In German, we were told, “It’s all Greek to me“, or “double Dutch” translate as “Spanish“.) The boys had decided not to come with us, but Granny, Harriet and the girls rather liked the idea of dancing horses, so in we went.
Ben who is deeply allergic to horses, and struggling slightly with the arrival of Spring too (streaming nose and slight cough are not a good look right now, I can tell you), would have hated it, but we throroughly enjoyed meeting the horses, seeing them exercise, (nothing spectacular but still an enjoyable watch) and getting a full explanation of what goes on. Clearly it’s simultaneously brilliant and utterly weird and ridiculously over- mannered, but that’s sort of Vienna too.
Having met up with Ben and Magnus, we ate our sandwiches in a rather windy but magnifient square and then went from the frugal to the utterly extravagant with coffee (mit schlag) and kuchen (that doesn’t do them justice at all) at Cafe Central, one of Vienna’s venerable coffee houses.
Composers and hamsters
Not far from where we were staying is Vienna’s Central Cemetery, resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others and home to several colonies of wild European hamsters.
The children had seen Seven Worlds One Planet and had been rather taken with the hamsters, so a wander around on a sunny day seemed in order. We found the composers (I’m going to resist the pun) with ease, but we possibly weren’t quite as quiet and patient as the BBC film crew as the hamsters remained resolutely out of sight.
Old (and new) Friends
Way back in 1996, Harriet spent a month in Moscow, trying to improve her (even then) woeful Russian. Staying in the same hall of residence were lots of Norwegians, one of whom has remained a friend, although of course the last time we saw him we were living in London and none of us had children.
The same Norwegian, with his wife and children, now lives in Vienna. So on Saturday morning, mindful of the new instruction not to gather inside, and having greeted each other with full on media-luvvie-style kisses from the requisite metre away, we met up for a lovely stroll round a wonderfully, if rather eerily empty, Vienna. As ever, Magnus made a new friend and we had a bonus ice ream too.
But they had shopping to do before Austria shuts up shop almost completely on Monday morning, so we left them and spent our last afternoon in Vienna variously shopping, cooking, and taking Granny back to the airport.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Girls’ responses as texted from the back of the car…
Aurora: Vienna was really not busy. It had literally no one there cause of corona but it had millions of castles and palaces.
Lucy: Budapest was very grand- I thought it couldn’t get any grander, then we went to Vienna!
Sophie: 1.Fancy, posh 2. I thought it would be much less nice and fancy.
Harriet: You, or perhaps just I, associate Vienna with the Danube. But when you’re here you never actually see it, even from the top of the Prater Ferris Wheel. It would have been a full on trip for Strauss to get anywhere near it, however beautiful and blue it may have been. In a similar vein it seemed a shame there were no waltzers at the Prater, but maybe that joke only works in English.
I was surprised by how much I loved Budapest. It just felt so beautiful and so alive. I wanted to get to know it better.
Magnus: The Prater was massive. The chimney cakes were really nice. Vienna was really grand and also crazy because it had a million rides in the Prater.
Ben: The daily changes to the news and situation regarding the Coronavirus situation, and the consequent lack of crowds, whether strolling through the majesty of Vienna, or not waiting 45 minutes to get into the Central Café (which is a lot grander than it sounds). The Mud of Zakopane (a strong contender for my future heavy metal band name), which made me appreciate the horror of World War One even more.
What were the highlights?
Magnus: I really really really really really liked the water park in Zakopane because it had slides and stuff. The Prater. I enjoyed the bumper cars. Meeting Oskar. The “No kangaroos in Austria” signs.
Ben The weather – spring has finally sprung. Budapest being as alive and glorious as when I left it (with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra 1993 Tour). Vienna is gorgeous too, but it is much more stately (and less fun as a result) than Budapest.
Aurora: The Prater was really fun when me Sophie and Lucy went on the rollercoaster and when I went on the one upside down with Daddy.
Lucy: I really enjoyed the escape room because it was my kind of thing and going on the scary rollercoaster with Daddy and Aurora because I loved the exhilaration, excitement and experience.
Sophie: Water park,escape room and fun fair. I liked the freedom of the water park and the fun fair. I liked the escape room cos it was using my brain in a fun team working way.
Harriet I could live at the Szechenyi Baths. It thought they were just brilliant. I loved our escape room too, even if I’m still kicking myself because we didn’t get out. Once again it was very lovely to see friends, albeit in rather odd circumstances – no hugs allowed. I was conscious of pure unconfined happiness watching the children in the Fun House at the Prater.
What was the weather like?
Utterly glorious. One of the great ironies of travelling while the world goes into panic mode is how wonderfully normal and glorious the arrival of Spring has been this week. The very territorial blackbird who woke us up every morning in Vienna doesn’t care about viruses of any kind…
What about the Coronavirus?
You don’t need us to tell you what’s happening on a global, or indeed European, scale, and, let’s face it, the situation is changing by the minute.
For us this has meant trying to be as safe and sensible as possible, while still trying to salvage as much of our long-held dream as possible.
The initial amended plan had us missing out Italy, and at the beginning of the week we booked accommodation in Innsbruck and St Gallen, with a view to spending four days travelling between Slovenia (where we were supposed to be going next) and France, where Ben’s parents have a house and where we are still hoping to meet them and hand over the car.
Oddly, too, although the media was very clear on the seriousness of the situation, on the streets of the major cities we have visited we were not really aware of anything out of the ordinary going on, at least until we arrived in Vienna earlier this week. We have seen perhaps half a dozen people in face masks across our entire trip. The first day in Vienna was completely normal and it wasn’t until the second day, when museums were shut and it was oddly easy to get a table in a café; and the third, when people were told that shops cannot open after Monday, that things started to change. Certainly it was eerily easy to park in central Vienna yesterday morning.
However as the advice to self-isolate becomes more pressing, and in the knowledge that some of us look with our fingers at every passing surface, and with the risk that borders may shut for an indefinite period, we decided on Friday to amend the amended plan.
Early this morning (Sunday) we therefore got in the car and this post is being written as we drive straight to France where we can stay in Ben’s parents’ house. We have cancelled our Slovenia accommodation and the apartment we booked in Innsbruck, only five days ago. It is a 12 hour journey from Vienna to France, so the then plan was to break the journey in St. Gallen, but with countries’ responses becoming ever more stringent we have decided to push through to get to France tonight. We will stay in France as long as we have to.
Since we left Austria this morning, passing through Germany, back into Austria, across Switzerland and finally to France, Germany has announced the closure of its borders with Swizerland and France, and Austria has banned gatherings of more than 5 people (how does that work for us?!). We are, therefore, as we drive along familiar French roads, very very glad we left when we did.
Even today though, as borders shut around us and there is a queue to wash your hands in the service station loos, life visibly goes on in the towns and villages we pass. Although the traffic has been relatively easy on our journey, this is perhaps no more so than you would expect on a Sunday. Planes are still arriving at Geneva airport…
Our intention was, and officially still is, to leave France at the beginning of April, and in theory Ben is also intending to spend a day at the Mongolian Embassy in Paris before then, but of course that may well all change and we will just have to review all our plans as they get nearer.
In the meanwhile it is excellent resilience training.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. There was a great plastic-free poster at the U-bahn station, but actual provision for plastic-free shopping, and indeed recycling, in Austria was woefully lacking. Budapest wasn’t much better.
We remain good about refusing straws and plastic bags and taking our reusable cups and bottles of water – thus far we are proud to have not bought a single bottle of water (although the man in the motorway services in Switzerland clearly thought refilling one was an outrageous request) – but it continues to be well-nigh impossible to shop for food without receiving it in plastic, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language.
What did we eat?
Chimney cakes. Lots of chimney cakes. Both the plain and cheap (from a kiosk in the metro) and the glam and pimped up and very expensive (from a swanky gelateria). They were all delicious but we concluded that the fresher and warmer the better. Ice cream improves a cold chimney cake, but not enough.
At the other extreme from chimney cakes in the Budapest Metro was Café Central in Vienna.
We also had great burgers in Vienna, and two lots of pizza (in Zakopane and Slovakia – although not Ben, who had a Slovakian speciality that was rather akin to macaroni cheese), as well as a lovely meal out, with requisite schnitzel, in the Palmenhaus of the Hofberg Palace.
Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before
Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄
Sophie: The bad bits were us fighting and Mummy and Daddy interrupting us while we were watching our movies
Harriet: The mud wasn’t funny, but pales into insignificancebeside the coronavirus. Our best case scenario at present has us going straight from France to Russia (Scandinavia is a no go area) which would mean missing out five of the twenty countries we planned to visit. Technically of course at present even that’s not possible (the Russians won’t let us in if we’re coming from France, and in any event the trains between the two are all cancelled). I veer from being very sanguine about this (there are people in much much worse situations than us) to being very catastrophic and depressed: the what if scenarios can spiral very quickly out of control if I let them.
Ben: Getting stuck in the mud. Not knowing how much of the trip we’re going to have to miss. I was looking forward to a run around Lake Bled.
Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.
With a sense of stepping into the unknown, we are on our way to the very familiar: Ben’s parents’ house in France. The plan was always to be there for a week at the very end of March and head on from there. As it is, we will wait there and assess the situation, moving on when we can.
In the meantime we will be communicating only in French…
Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….
Where were we?
This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.
A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.
Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.
The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.
First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….
Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.
We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.
We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.
Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.
We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.
It must be time to move on.
What were our impressions? What surprised you?
Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.
Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.
Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.
Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.
Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.
Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.
How was the weather?
Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).
What were the highlights?
Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.
Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.
Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.
Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.
Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!
Any bad bits? Did we fight?
What do you think?
We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.
What did we eat?
Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, though not for the Olympics. You can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
Where we are
Where we’ve been
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