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.
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.
One of my goals for this adventure has been to run in each country we visited, and I have managed this to date, recording each of them on Strava, a phone app which tracks your progress by GPS. Since we have been stuck in France, this challenge has changed somewhat, but that’s the nature of most things today.
The Strava app encourages you to sign up for challenges, such as “Run a 5k this month” and being a shallow sort of fellow who doesn’t like to back down (see the horrid cricket jigsaw) I have found these quite a useful way of forcing myself to run. For instance, I signed up for the March 10k badge which meant that I had a fabulous morning running along the Danube in Budapest.
The runs started with a dark evening getting lost in the wetlands north of Amsterdam. Slow, wet, meandering, getting darker with each minute, but a start which gave me hope and a small kernel of inspiration that this might just grow into something that I might enjoy.
Brussels was another exercise in getting lost, this time finding myself in the tabloid-favourite “terrorist hotbed” of Molenbeek, before heading back to Grande Place and tourist loveliness.
No picturesque windmills or guildhalls in Rommerskirchen, outside Cologne. But a couple of very impressive power stations. I did this one in my Where’s Wally carnival top too.
An early morning in Berlin gave me a beautiful view of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, before the tourist hordes (remember them?) arrived. I even remember feeling a bit like a runner on that one.
No tourists at all in the Oder Delta, but I saw my first ever wild boars in the wild – I don’t know which of us was more startled – and ran to the accompaniment of woodpecker rattles.
My run in Kraków would have been better had the bridge I wanted to cross not been completely shut due to tram works. Quite a lot of central Kraków was blocked of because of this, and it was raining. Bleurgh.
Budapest was my favourite, and longest, run. The early morning Danube, Imperial Palace, and Parliament were magnificent, and I was pleased to have completed my 10k challenge.
From one Austro-Hungarian capital to the other, and though we were much less central here, I thought I would try to spot the wild hamsters we didn’t see the day before, in the great Viennese Central Cemetery (Schubert, Beethoven, Boltzmann, Schönberg, allegedly Mozart, and countless others). I’m not sure running in a cemetery is appropriate, but it was early, so there were not many people around to be offended, and the dead did not seem to mind.
Since then, we have been locked down in the Chartreuse in France. I managed my “usual” 5km once, before the restrictions came into force, but since then the regulations are such that there is a limit of a 1km radius around the house, and a maximum of an hour.
In the spirit of challenging myself, I signed up for the April 10k badge at the end of March, so I have been plotting how to do this 10km within the time limit. This should be achievable (I can normally do a 5km within a not very impressive 28 minutes) but it means working out where to go, and how to be back in time, given that there is hardly anywhere flat here, and there are not many circular routes within the permitted radius.
The other thing is that we generally use our permitted up-to-60-minutes-outside time for a family walk, and I also signed up for an April walk challenge, so my days for running are very limited. I can generally count on the Mondays that I go to a supermarket in a neighbouring town, but not much else.
I am enjoying this though, and I’m enjoying being fitter and stronger. It’s also a chance for some headspace alone, which is always welcome.
Tomorrow is a Monday. This post is another way of making me do this. Wish me luck.
In which our trip comes to an abrupt (and hopefully temporary) stop.
Although, as everyone knows, the world is a very strange place right now, some things go on. We have decided that our weekly post should be one of those things. The first six months of 2020 was always intended to be a life changing experience for all of us, and though it is not going to be as we planned, we do want to remember it as it was.
Our daily facebook and Instagram posts continue too, so if you want more of us (who wouldn’t ?!) have a look at those.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were nearing Ben’s parents’ house in the Chartreuse, in the foothills of the Alps.
The journey here was long (1,150 km and 11 hours and 59 minutes) but relatively (we thought) uneventful. The driving conditions were perfect: blue skies and very little traffic, with the snowy Alps looking glorious away to our left. We passed several major cities and towns on the way – Linz 🇦🇹, Munich 🇩🇪, St Gallen 🇨🇭, Zurich 🇨🇭, Bern 🇨🇭, Lausane 🇨🇭, Geneva 🇨🇭, Annecy 🇨🇵 and Chambery 🇨🇵 – without a footstep in any.
We were nervous about the four borders we had to cross (and in fact the German border was closed the same day) but again these were easy. Three were unattended. Austria to Switzerland (we had had to briefly go from Germany back into Austria to get to Switzerland round the Bodensee at Bregenz) was manned, but unconcerned with six people in a British car. We did need to get a Swiss motorway vignette there. We believe that all these borders are now closed, all the others closing the day after our drive on the Sunday.
The most eventful of our three stops was the last, at Restroute Rose de la Broye, just as the signs turned from German to French at Avenches on the Swiss A1, though we did not realise this at the time. Duplo A, Aurora’s beloved teddy, fell from the open car door and was left behind. When we realised this, upon arrival at Ben’s parents’ holiday house in France, 3 hours later, what should have been our triumphal arrival felt very hollow. Aurora has written a post about Duplo – you can find it here.
One ray of sunshine was that our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen (where we had planned to break the journey) refunded our money, even though our cancellation was too late to qualify for any refund. It is gestures like this, and the goodwill it spreads, that have led us to do the same for any of our guests who have booked to stay in our holiday cottage in Kelso.
And now we are here. In France, where we speak the language, know the village, and are familiar with the equipment in the kichen (which includes a colander, a potato peeler and a large number of sharp (and not so sharp) knives).
We arrived on Sunday night and on Monday headed to the nearest town, where there is a larger supermarket, to do a weekly shop. It is a good thing we did. On Monday night, President Macron announced sweeping restrictions on movement. We’ve written a longer post about these and our life “under lockdown”, but suffice to say that we have not left the village, other than for our hitherto permitted exercise walks, since then.
The rules here do keep shifting – our long walks earlier in the week will not be repeated, as we are now (and in fact then, but we didn’t know) not allowed to go more than 2km from our house for our daily exercise. In fact since I wrote that second sentence yesterday, we have been informed (very politely) by the gendarmes (called we believe, by a woman whose house we walked past), that in fact it is 500m from the house. We remain unconvinced that that is the case (or that walking is not a permitted form of exercise which they also told us), but we did not feel that arguing was sensible. Our walks will be futher curtailed…
We are also shifting our own understanding and expectations: non-screen academic time now includes writing letters, playing scrabble or even, we hope, listening to some classic literature. Our daily exercise routine has been moved outside (weather permitting, which it fortunately has so far) and we are settling for just being outside a bit more if we cannot walk. The not-quite-yet-tadpoles need a lot of looking at….
We can leave the house for short periods to exercise (although that apparently means “sports” and not “walks”) or go shopping and so each morning one of us (without the children) heads to the boulangerie for bread and the small supermarket for any other essentials. There seems to be no panic buying here and the shelves are all stocked.
We have not yet tried to go further afield since the restrictions on movement came in on Monday night. We may experiment with that next week.
Generally how have you found it?
Magnus: It’s been ok, being here. It’s good because we know where everything is. I don’t like the routine because I think we should have screen time in the mornings as well.
Sophie: It’s good because we know where to go and we don’t not speak the language. It’s very quiet in the village.
Aurora: I like being in France because Mummy and Daddy speak the language. I know this house and we know lots of people here. We don’t get lost on our walks.
Lucy: I enjoy it but I think over the coming weeks it will feel very strange – I have always thought of St. Pierre as a holiday home rather than a long term home but I love being here.
Harriet: Mixed (see more below). Its always lovely to be here but the village is oddly quiet and the chat is all about one thing. It’s very strange not being able to send the children for bread in the morning (we’re not sure if this is allowed or not so aren’t risking it). It’s discombobulating not knowing what is going to happen. But we aren’t the only people in the world feeling like that at the moment. My mood changes from day to day and some days are very much easier than others.
Ben: A strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar. Restrictive. It’s generally fine if I think in the present tense. I’m not enjoying considering the short and long term future, although I’m hopeful about the mid term. A lot of it is adjusting to changes and what we can and can’t do: both now and in the future.
What were the good bits?
Harriet: It is just so beautiful here. We are so fortunate to be in the mountains and to have the space to be outside. I have enjoyed every one of our walks outside. The primroses, crocuses and cowslips are all out. I’m looking forward to seeing our tadpoles grow. Also French bread.
Ben: The weather has been very nice. I’ve had good chats with many of the children. I’m glad we made it here. I have loved the beauty of the Chartreuse, particularly on our walks.
Sophie: I like French bread. We haven’t gone on massive long walks. I like playing Pictionary and other games that we haven’t had before on our trip because they’re too big to carry with us. I liked getting the tadpoles. The long journey was fine because we got to watch movies.
Lucy: Food, French and generally, walking, “listening” to Harry Potter (for the 1,200th time) with the twins, tadpoles, learning French and just being here!!!
Aurora: Getting croissants from the bakery because French bread is always the best. We’re about to have fondue! Getting my new teddy, Sandie. Listening to Harry Potter.
Magnus: I have enjoyed eating chocolate Special K and nutella. I like the Beanos and lego.
And the bad?
We are conscious how lucky we are. This could have been so much worse for us (had we got ill in a strange country or were now in lockdown on the wrong side of a strange border with nowhere to live). It’s also so, so much worse for many others, including many of our friends and loved ones. Our hearts go out to them and we are trying to remember to count our blessings.
That said, this last week hasn’t all been easy so please forgive us if we whinge, in the knowledge of how fortunate we are in the bigger context.
Ben: The constant close proximity has its challenges, as does the loss of hoped-for opportunities, whether short-, mid- or long-term. I’m worried that our trip will be much shorter or impossible. We already know we’re not going to some countries we had planned to. I’m worried about what happens when we come back, given the likely state of the economy and the fact that I don’t have a job. I am peeved that the dishwasher has broken down. I don’t like being stuck.
Sophie: I don’t want to miss out on Mongolia, because I want to do a Sophie and yak selfie. We go on tons of walks and I don’t like going uphill because it hurts my legs. I miss Duplo. It’s annoying that we can’t watch any BBC iPlayer things (Editors’ note: there is no TV here anyway).
Harriet: I had been proud of my unexpected (to me at least) resilience in the face of the loss of everything we have planned for. That all came crashing down on Friday. I’m hoping that was rock bottom.
Since this morning’s gendarme incident I have been feeling increasingly anxious again. I don’t like doing the “wrong” thing and it feels as though the parameters for what is “right” are shifting (or being interpreted differently) without warning.
I have scratched my glasses such that they are unwearable. It turns out that opticians are not an “essential” service. I do have contact lenses and I have just experimented with online glasses ordering, so this is only a minor irritation but one I could have done without.
More mundanely cancelling all our booked accommodation and travel for the next month was not fun. Some companies made it very easy. Others (including our insurance company – Hiscox – who insist, in the face of compelling evidence, that we bought through a broker and are therefore not their responsibility) not so much….
Magnus: I don’t really like the schedule. I am missing Joe and my cousin Freddie.
Aurora: I don’t like the schedule. It’s annoying because it doesn’t give me any time to talk to my friends except a bit, and I don’t have any time to do anything. Except for when I do. It’s annoying. It has limited my phone time, which is so annoying. I’ve been really missing Duplo. I had a big fight with Mummy.
Lucy: The fight a few days ago (which I will not go into detail about), the feeling of the fact that Tweed might never get to Tokyo, I’m getting slightly bored of the endless Tintin and Asterix. I was slightly disapointed not to have a St Petersburg birthday but there would be worse places to become a teenager.
What did we eat?
The contents of Ele’s cupboards (at her request and including a *lot* of spaghetti, and a jar of Sainsbury’s Thai Green Curry best before this month – not together, for the avoidance of doubt). We had duck in a tin too, and I used some of the Hungarian caraway to make a cake.
Disappointingly, the kitchen scales here have vanished so although I do have all the ingredients to make a Bled Cake, I haven’t yet been brave enough actually to do so.
Ben is currently grating the cheese for our first adventures in fondue.
How plastic free were we?
The supermarket in the village pleasingly sells refill pouches of handwash, so that was a victory, but otherwise shopping for food remains the sticking point. It is probably better here than in other countries we have passed through as we have used the boulangerie and the fromagerie for bread and cheese, so both of those come wrapped in paper rather than plastic. We continue to buy loose fruit where possible although I do wonder if I should be peeling it.
When M.Macron addressed the nation on Monday he said this would last for an initial 15 days. After four days that was increased to four to six weeks.
We fully expect to be here on Lucy’s birthday, 21 April. We hope not to be on Magnus’ which is 31 May, although where we then will be is anyone’s guess.
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.
Week five has been a slightly odd one: the coronavirus, of which more later, has increased its presence across Europe and the news is changing daily. We have had to change accordingly.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were about to head into the Tatra Mountains. The children had been asking to visit a water park and we had found one fed by mineral-rich hot springs. This was everything you’d expect: loud, noisy, great fun and a chance to teach them all about the periodic table…. They enjoyed some of it more than the rest.
From there to a chalet in Zakopane. This looked very cool and stylish on AirBnB, but sadly the listing didn’t mention that a) it was up a drive that was not designed for a large and heavy Toyota van and b) once you got there the turning space was six inches deep in mud. We discovered the latter too late…
After some ingenuity, a bit of digging, use of the jack and a load of old pizza boxes, a not inconsiderable amount of sotto voce swearing and some invaluable help from a good Samaritan in the form of the astonishingly kind and English-speaking neighbour (how many random people in the UK would know the Polish for “manual transmission“?), we got out. It wasn’t a great first impression though.
The next morning though, as the sun rose over the snowy Tatra, so close we could almost touch them, and the children gambolled in what remained of the snow, it all seemed worth it.
You couldn’t, sitting in our car, quite have blinked and missed Slovakia, but if you had been better at sleeping in the car than our children are, you could probably have slept through it.
That is to do Slovakia a disservice. It was, through the car windows, beautiful, with rolling hills and snowy mountains. We stopped in Banska Bystrica (because it was on the way) for lunch, and enjoyed strolling through the centre of town.
Slovakia, we apologise for not spending longer with you. We will hopefully be back.
Ben had been to Budapest before, in 1993, and had raved about it pretty much ever since. It did not disappoint.
We stayed very centrally, in a once very grand town house, just behind the national museum, so on our first evening we strolled along the banks of the Danube, watching as Buda slowly became illuminated.
We headed for the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, which remembers the Jews of the Ghetto who were brought to the banks of the river in late 1944 and 1945, told to remove their shoes, and shot. In the twilight, it was both beautiful and very moving. In a way I think it made the horror of the Holocaust more real to the children than anything else we have done on this trip.
The next day we went out, on public transport this time, Budapest being rather bigger than we realised, first to the Donhanyi Synagogue, with its many memorials (including to Raoul Wallenburg, of whom, to our shame, we had never heard) and stunning architecture. Then on to Buda Castle. We walked up and enjoyed the instagrammable-ness (yes that is a word) of the views, the Fishermans Bastion, the Presidential Palace (the sentries gave some of us a shock when they moved) and the giant eagle up which Ben once saw someone climb.
Harriet was slightly kicking herself (sort of still is, to be honest) for agreeing to the water park, having forgotten about the baths of Budapest. We rather thought that two swimming experiences so close together would be too much. But this, on a gloriously sunny day, in the smartest public swimming pool you will ever see in your life (no slides, sorry kids), was an experience unlike any other.
The children had been asking to go to an Escape Room since Berlin, where they are also a big thing. Budapest, which has many cellars and grand ruined buildings, is also a hive of various small rooms with people paying to get out.
We found one ten minutes or so away on foot, with an Indiana Jones-style temple-themed room (in English) , and booked ourselves in, smugly thinking we would be quite good at this.
Clearly we can’t spoil it for others, but suffice to say that sadly, although we found the skull, and thus destroyed the Beast, we remain locked in the temple. We were, with hindsight, thinking too much like ourselves and not enough like Indy. We will know for next time.
It was brilliant fun though and there was some top teamwork. We’d do another one.
Thence to Austria; on the way we popped into Vienna Airport to pick up the temporary seventh member of our travelling circus – Granny. Sometimes we like our massive car (when it’s not stuck in the mud or negotiating a Belgian underground car park).
Keen, as ever, to give the children a full experience of the culture of every city we visit, once we got to our flat we dumped our bags, and headed out to the Prater.
Fourteen and a half years ago, when we got married, among our unwritten vows was that Harriet did not have to go on any roller coasters, ever (or to IKEA, if you’re interested) . Fun fairs are most definitely not her happy place, so this was an act of real love towards the children. But it’s Vienna, so you do, at least, have to go on the wheel.
And it was surprisingly fun. The Prater was clearly gearing up for its spring opening, so quite a few of the rides were having their light bulbs changed, or their mechanisms checked, and it is possible that the coronavirus kept some people away, but it was pleasantly busy without being crowded and there were no queues for any of the rides.
The wheel itself, in the glorious spring sunshine (22 degrees!) was a delight. We had a cabin to ourselves, and although Lucy was disappointed not to be able to throw tulips to small boys below (apparently she had read it in a book), we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Then on to the main attractions. Magnus managed to find (and drag Granny on to) all of the dodgem rides in the place, and Ben fulfilled what has clearly been a fourteen and a half year lack by whooping and giggling his way round a roller coaster. Lucy got the fright of her life when air was puffed at her in a fun house, much to everyone else’s amusement.
And Granny and Harriet? They held the coats. And were delighed to be able to do so. Harriet was even more delighted to win the family ball-rolling competition. The prize is going back with Granny for her other grandchildren. Their parents will be delighted.
The Hofburg and other Palaces
Bill Bryson wrote that if you were an alien who landed in Vienna for the first time you’d think it was the capital of the world. He’s not wrong. It’s stately and grand and very, very sure of itself. It is also, at the moment, shut.
All those wonderful museums and galleries, all the palaces of wondrous riches, every one, shut to visitors for fear of Corona. Even the morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School was closed – do horses get COVID-19?
Oddly though (presumably it has something to do with numbers) the guided tour of the Spanish Riding School was open. (Apparently the Emperor who founded it came from Spain, bringing his funny Spanish customs, foods and way of riding with him. In German, we were told, “It’s all Greek to me“, or “double Dutch” translate as “Spanish“.) The boys had decided not to come with us, but Granny, Harriet and the girls rather liked the idea of dancing horses, so in we went.
Ben who is deeply allergic to horses, and struggling slightly with the arrival of Spring too (streaming nose and slight cough are not a good look right now, I can tell you), would have hated it, but we throroughly enjoyed meeting the horses, seeing them exercise, (nothing spectacular but still an enjoyable watch) and getting a full explanation of what goes on. Clearly it’s simultaneously brilliant and utterly weird and ridiculously over- mannered, but that’s sort of Vienna too.
Having met up with Ben and Magnus, we ate our sandwiches in a rather windy but magnifient square and then went from the frugal to the utterly extravagant with coffee (mit schlag) and kuchen (that doesn’t do them justice at all) at Cafe Central, one of Vienna’s venerable coffee houses.
Composers and hamsters
Not far from where we were staying is Vienna’s Central Cemetery, resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others and home to several colonies of wild European hamsters.
The children had seen Seven Worlds One Planet and had been rather taken with the hamsters, so a wander around on a sunny day seemed in order. We found the composers (I’m going to resist the pun) with ease, but we possibly weren’t quite as quiet and patient as the BBC film crew as the hamsters remained resolutely out of sight.
Old (and new) Friends
Way back in 1996, Harriet spent a month in Moscow, trying to improve her (even then) woeful Russian. Staying in the same hall of residence were lots of Norwegians, one of whom has remained a friend, although of course the last time we saw him we were living in London and none of us had children.
The same Norwegian, with his wife and children, now lives in Vienna. So on Saturday morning, mindful of the new instruction not to gather inside, and having greeted each other with full on media-luvvie-style kisses from the requisite metre away, we met up for a lovely stroll round a wonderfully, if rather eerily empty, Vienna. As ever, Magnus made a new friend and we had a bonus ice ream too.
But they had shopping to do before Austria shuts up shop almost completely on Monday morning, so we left them and spent our last afternoon in Vienna variously shopping, cooking, and taking Granny back to the airport.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Girls’ responses as texted from the back of the car…
Aurora: Vienna was really not busy. It had literally no one there cause of corona but it had millions of castles and palaces.
Lucy: Budapest was very grand- I thought it couldn’t get any grander, then we went to Vienna!
Sophie: 1.Fancy, posh 2. I thought it would be much less nice and fancy.
Harriet: You, or perhaps just I, associate Vienna with the Danube. But when you’re here you never actually see it, even from the top of the Prater Ferris Wheel. It would have been a full on trip for Strauss to get anywhere near it, however beautiful and blue it may have been. In a similar vein it seemed a shame there were no waltzers at the Prater, but maybe that joke only works in English.
I was surprised by how much I loved Budapest. It just felt so beautiful and so alive. I wanted to get to know it better.
Magnus: The Prater was massive. The chimney cakes were really nice. Vienna was really grand and also crazy because it had a million rides in the Prater.
Ben: The daily changes to the news and situation regarding the Coronavirus situation, and the consequent lack of crowds, whether strolling through the majesty of Vienna, or not waiting 45 minutes to get into the Central Café (which is a lot grander than it sounds). The Mud of Zakopane (a strong contender for my future heavy metal band name), which made me appreciate the horror of World War One even more.
What were the highlights?
Magnus: I really really really really really liked the water park in Zakopane because it had slides and stuff. The Prater. I enjoyed the bumper cars. Meeting Oskar. The “No kangaroos in Austria” signs.
Ben The weather – spring has finally sprung. Budapest being as alive and glorious as when I left it (with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra 1993 Tour). Vienna is gorgeous too, but it is much more stately (and less fun as a result) than Budapest.
Aurora: The Prater was really fun when me Sophie and Lucy went on the rollercoaster and when I went on the one upside down with Daddy.
Lucy: I really enjoyed the escape room because it was my kind of thing and going on the scary rollercoaster with Daddy and Aurora because I loved the exhilaration, excitement and experience.
Sophie: Water park,escape room and fun fair. I liked the freedom of the water park and the fun fair. I liked the escape room cos it was using my brain in a fun team working way.
Harriet I could live at the Szechenyi Baths. It thought they were just brilliant. I loved our escape room too, even if I’m still kicking myself because we didn’t get out. Once again it was very lovely to see friends, albeit in rather odd circumstances – no hugs allowed. I was conscious of pure unconfined happiness watching the children in the Fun House at the Prater.
What was the weather like?
Utterly glorious. One of the great ironies of travelling while the world goes into panic mode is how wonderfully normal and glorious the arrival of Spring has been this week. The very territorial blackbird who woke us up every morning in Vienna doesn’t care about viruses of any kind…
What about the Coronavirus?
You don’t need us to tell you what’s happening on a global, or indeed European, scale, and, let’s face it, the situation is changing by the minute.
For us this has meant trying to be as safe and sensible as possible, while still trying to salvage as much of our long-held dream as possible.
The initial amended plan had us missing out Italy, and at the beginning of the week we booked accommodation in Innsbruck and St Gallen, with a view to spending four days travelling between Slovenia (where we were supposed to be going next) and France, where Ben’s parents have a house and where we are still hoping to meet them and hand over the car.
Oddly, too, although the media was very clear on the seriousness of the situation, on the streets of the major cities we have visited we were not really aware of anything out of the ordinary going on, at least until we arrived in Vienna earlier this week. We have seen perhaps half a dozen people in face masks across our entire trip. The first day in Vienna was completely normal and it wasn’t until the second day, when museums were shut and it was oddly easy to get a table in a café; and the third, when people were told that shops cannot open after Monday, that things started to change. Certainly it was eerily easy to park in central Vienna yesterday morning.
However as the advice to self-isolate becomes more pressing, and in the knowledge that some of us look with our fingers at every passing surface, and with the risk that borders may shut for an indefinite period, we decided on Friday to amend the amended plan.
Early this morning (Sunday) we therefore got in the car and this post is being written as we drive straight to France where we can stay in Ben’s parents’ house. We have cancelled our Slovenia accommodation and the apartment we booked in Innsbruck, only five days ago. It is a 12 hour journey from Vienna to France, so the then plan was to break the journey in St. Gallen, but with countries’ responses becoming ever more stringent we have decided to push through to get to France tonight. We will stay in France as long as we have to.
Since we left Austria this morning, passing through Germany, back into Austria, across Switzerland and finally to France, Germany has announced the closure of its borders with Swizerland and France, and Austria has banned gatherings of more than 5 people (how does that work for us?!). We are, therefore, as we drive along familiar French roads, very very glad we left when we did.
Even today though, as borders shut around us and there is a queue to wash your hands in the service station loos, life visibly goes on in the towns and villages we pass. Although the traffic has been relatively easy on our journey, this is perhaps no more so than you would expect on a Sunday. Planes are still arriving at Geneva airport…
Our intention was, and officially still is, to leave France at the beginning of April, and in theory Ben is also intending to spend a day at the Mongolian Embassy in Paris before then, but of course that may well all change and we will just have to review all our plans as they get nearer.
In the meanwhile it is excellent resilience training.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. There was a great plastic-free poster at the U-bahn station, but actual provision for plastic-free shopping, and indeed recycling, in Austria was woefully lacking. Budapest wasn’t much better.
We remain good about refusing straws and plastic bags and taking our reusable cups and bottles of water – thus far we are proud to have not bought a single bottle of water (although the man in the motorway services in Switzerland clearly thought refilling one was an outrageous request) – but it continues to be well-nigh impossible to shop for food without receiving it in plastic, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language.
What did we eat?
Chimney cakes. Lots of chimney cakes. Both the plain and cheap (from a kiosk in the metro) and the glam and pimped up and very expensive (from a swanky gelateria). They were all delicious but we concluded that the fresher and warmer the better. Ice cream improves a cold chimney cake, but not enough.
At the other extreme from chimney cakes in the Budapest Metro was Café Central in Vienna.
We also had great burgers in Vienna, and two lots of pizza (in Zakopane and Slovakia – although not Ben, who had a Slovakian speciality that was rather akin to macaroni cheese), as well as a lovely meal out, with requisite schnitzel, in the Palmenhaus of the Hofberg Palace.
Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before
Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄
Sophie: The bad bits were us fighting and Mummy and Daddy interrupting us while we were watching our movies
Harriet: The mud wasn’t funny, but pales into insignificancebeside the coronavirus. Our best case scenario at present has us going straight from France to Russia (Scandinavia is a no go area) which would mean missing out five of the twenty countries we planned to visit. Technically of course at present even that’s not possible (the Russians won’t let us in if we’re coming from France, and in any event the trains between the two are all cancelled). I veer from being very sanguine about this (there are people in much much worse situations than us) to being very catastrophic and depressed: the what if scenarios can spiral very quickly out of control if I let them.
Ben: Getting stuck in the mud. Not knowing how much of the trip we’re going to have to miss. I was looking forward to a run around Lake Bled.
Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.
With a sense of stepping into the unknown, we are on our way to the very familiar: Ben’s parents’ house in France. The plan was always to be there for a week at the very end of March and head on from there. As it is, we will wait there and assess the situation, moving on when we can.
In the meantime we will be communicating only in French…
We tipped the balance this week. Two weeks is a holiday. Three, or more, is something else… For Ben, at least, this is the first time since 2002 than he has had more than two weeks off in a row. (Harriet’s had more than her fair share of maternity leave, sick leave (pneumonia, 2006, since you ask) and flexi-working)
It all feels surprisingly normal.
Where were we? What did we do?
Anyway, we started this week off in Rommerskirchen. You know, Rommerskirchen, in Nordrhein-Westfalen. OK, maybe it’s not the most famous place we’ll hang our hats but it did us very nicely.
Rommerskirchen is a small town in a not very big administrative area surrounded by flat agricultural fields and dominated by two absolutely massive power stations. It also, conveniently, has a direct train into central Cologne, and a station with free parking, which was (with apologies to anyone who calls it home) its main attraction for us.
So while we may have stayed in Rommerskirchen, and frequented several of its (five, and counting) supermarkets (though not its two separate alcohol hypermarkets), we didn’t actually spend much time there at all.
We were mostly in Cologne. In fact pretty much all of the timing of the trip up to this point has been planned around the fact that we had been told Cologne Carnival was epic and we didn’t want to miss it.
We’ve written a separate post all about Carnival and our experiences, so click through to read that, but suffice to say it didn’t disappoint. Weather notwithstanding we loved it. It was exciting, welcoming, generous and just plain and simple fun. It will take a long while before any of us forgets the sight of an entire city in fancy dress. And probably only slightly less long to finish all the sweets…
Zoo and other attractions
On our final day in Cologne we did sample some of its other delights. Having forced the children to have fun and eat sweets for the previous two days we thought it only fair that they should have a say in what we did next. They picked the zoo. We were less keen, but fortunately this is the zoo we had been told was a “zoo for people who hate zoos” (and that’s not because it doesn’t have any animals in it).
We did, first, force them to work off some of the sugar with a quick march up the 533 steps of the Dom, and a stroll across and along the Rhein to get to the zoo.
It was excellent. High point definitely the interaction between the four year old male gorilla and the silverback. The small person showing off to get attention may have reminded us of someone we know. And the big chap wasn’t keen on Lucy’s hat either…
Getting to Berlin
We left Cologne on Wednesday and had our first long car journey (unless you count driving to Granny’s) of the trip to arrive in Berlin that afternoon. The journey was quite snowy in places, and was marked by our very first foray into mixing children and cars and screens.
This was something we had never tried before, for two reasons. The main one is that two of our beloved children can get car sick on a three mile journey if they try, and the other is that we are old-school luddites. The autobahn not being quite as twisty as any road in the Scottish Borders we dipped a toe in the water opened the floodgates of downloading films and TV shows.
It worked. We even subjected them to the entire album of Kraftwerk’s electronic classic Autobahn as well as Beethoven’s 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies without a whisper of discontent. (Harriet did well to put up with the Kraftwerk too.)
We have been staying in an amazing pre-war apartment with great high ceilings and big rooms. Its downside (and the reason we can afford it) is that it’s on a main road and the decor is a bit more shabby than chic. The wifi is also not living up to the children’s expectations…
On Thursday we were up and out to a pre-booked tour of the Dome of the Reichstag, or so we thought. When we arrived, we were shepherded into a different queue and sent inside the building itself. There was a moment of silent shared adult panic as we concluded we were about to sit in on 90 minutes of German Bundestag plenary session – think of the children! And us! – but this turned out not to be the case, and to be one of Ben’s favourite experiences in Germany.
Our fantastic guide, Ruth, led a very open, honest and interesting tour of the building (which you don’t get to do when the Bundestag is sitting), covering the history and present of modern Germany: warts, Russian war graffiti and all. Once it was over a lift whisked us to the roof, and to the dome for views over Berlin.
Museums and galleries
In the spirit of Berlin we tried to be a bit more out there with the museums and galleries we visited. So we didn’t go anywhere hear the Pergamon, the Charlottenburg Palace or the Dom. Instead (and while these aren’t exactly cutting edge or unknown, they were in the main, at the children’s request) we went to the Spy Museum (great fun), the DDR museum (excellent, though too crowded), the Jewish Holocaust memorial (incredible in too many ways), the East Side Gallery (well worth a wander), the Wall Museum (moving and mindblowing) and the Berlin Unterwelten Museum (expensive, but interesting).
One of Harriet’s birthday presents last year was 6 tickets to Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Komische Oper Berlin. We were honoured that she decided to go with the rest of us, so we put on our smartest clothes the same clothes we have been wearing since we left home (except for Harriet, who had brought a highly packable dress with her for the occasion) and headed out to a bizarre evening of avant-garde opera, complete with papier-maché heads, dancing clowns, monkeys, and nudity.
I’m not sure we were all convinced, but it added to the new experiences. The only other opera the children have seen was Don Giovanni last summer in Orange, so Lucy did ask if opera is all about horrid men and victim women. Maybe we should choose something a bit less #metoo next time.
On Sunday we set off early to Mauerpark, and a pre-arranged meeting with our graffiti expert. We had high hopes about our graffiti lesson, and they were well met in a couple of sun kissed and chilly hours (re-)painting a section of old Berlin Wall. Everyone contributed and enjoyed this and we are all delighted with the result. Whether it is still there as we write this on Sunday evening doesn’t really matter. We think the photos speak for themselves.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Aurora Berlin was not as crowded as I had expected. Everyone thinks Berlin is really cool, but I don’t really get that. It’s just a city. I was surprised listening to the people in their houses in the DDR museum.
Lucy It’s a bit contradictory but I was both surprised by how nice Berlin was (because I knew it had lots of dark history) and how dark the history was (because I was expecting Berlin to be a lovely city).
I was expecting the parade at Carnival to be more fancy dress but they were more like soldiers and regiments.
Harriet I knew Carnival was going to be loopy but it was way more loopy than I expected. I was really impressed (maybe I should have expected this) by the German efficiency: I’ve never seen such calm and clean motorway services; the public transport is all so easy and efficient; the Berlin tourist ticket works and is actually good value and not a total rip off as they tend to be in other places. I was surprised and delighted by how welcome we felt in Cologne.
I was hugely affected by and in awe of how open Germans are about their relatively recent history and how determined not to shy away away from it but to ensure that it is never repeated.
I was surprised (and very chuffed) by how good our graffiti was.
Sophie Carnival wasn’t as busy as I expected. I thought it was going to be like a concert when you can’t move and have barely any room. I found getting up early easier than I was expecting.
Magnus I thought it was quite a funky, creative place. The dressing up and the graffiti were out of the ordinary. I was surprised that we had to put caps on the cans before doing the spray painting.
Ben I really enjoyed Germany, and I felt that everyone we met was friendly, quite serious and thoughtful, and in general, excellent at English, in total contrast to my German. I did not enjoy being rubbish at German, but my German is brilliant compared to my Polish, Hungarian and Uzbek, so I’m just going to have to deal with that in the coming weeks and months.
There is a transparency to how Germany has reacted to the horrors of its last century of history which feels refreshing, and also honest and a bit humbling, possibly when compared to some ways we deal with elements of British history back home.
I felt I could happily live in Berlin.
What were the highlights?
Aurora The graffiti and the carnival. The Cologne carnival was great because of all the sweets, and it was fun. I enjoyed making the graffiti.
Lucy I thought the museums were better than any other museums. The spy museum was very good because it was modern – it was mainly history but it had lots of interactive things – and had good English.
The gorilla was amazing.
The graffiti. It was completely new and completely awesome. I’m not the best artist, but this wasn’t art as we do it at school.
I really enjoyed the Carnival even though it was my worst bit too.
Harriet So many highlights this week. In Cologne, other than carnival, I will remember the gorilla for a very long time. I loved the buzz of the city with everyone dressed up. I am still so touched by the man who recognised us from the train and gave us extra flowers and sweets. I’m delighted that the graffiti was such a success as it was a bit of a leap into the unknown. It was lovely to meet up (via Twitter) with friends from our choir in London who we hadn’t realised are now living in Berlin.
More seriously I thought the Berlin Wall Museum/memorial and the whole area around it were brilliantly done. The plaques in the pavement where people escaped or were killed trying to were particularly moving.
Sophie Carnival, because we got a ton of sweets and I met Colin the leopard for the first time. I liked all the different costumes and all the people who made a complete fool of themselves. Everybody was really cheery and nice. They also tried to make the police officers really nice instead of scary.
The graffiti was really good fun. I didn’t expect it to be that good. I was expecting us to get more annoyed with each other.
Magnus Graffiti and carnival. Carnival because of the sweets and graffiti was just fun.
Ben I could have watched Kim the gorilla for ages, and the short time we spent doing just that was a real highlight.
I enjoyed almost everything we did in Berlin but standouts were the visit to the Reichstag and Bundestag; learning about the wall, particularly watching footage of its demise in the Wall Museum; watching our graffiti take shape, then spotting it from the flea-market a couple of hours later.
I enjoyed the fact that we were more relaxed as a family this week.
What was the weather like?
A bit rubbish, with occasional sun. Much as you would expect for a European February.
How plastic free were we?
Variable. We forgot to write about this last week, but Brussels was pretty good particularly as we found the packaging-free supermarket. Food has remained our most difficult plastic free area. We reuse as much as we can (wrapping sandwiches in bread bags etc), but most food seems to come pre-packed and much of it can’t be reused.
Cologne Carnival was probably pretty poor for waste. And smashing one of our big plastic tubs, which take our dry staple food, games etc, was a bit of a shame.
Generally we’ve been surprised by how comparatively well the UK seems to recycle compared with the countries we’ve been in. Coffee shops are consistently surprised by our reusable cups, and two of the places we’ve stayed have had no separate recycling bins. We’ve done our best but remain suspicious that quite a bit of our carefully sorted recycling has ended up in landfill.
What did we eat?
Aside from lots of sweets and the usual home made sandwiches, pastas and risottos, we had some good food too. Amazing chocolate treats at Rausch chocolate house, and surprisingly nice Currrywust.
We had our first ice creams of the trip. We had Berliners too. But not in Berlin. We drank Kölsch beer from Cologne in both Cologne and Berlin. Sadly we’re off tomorrow and haven’t had a doner kebab, though we still have enough sweet treats left from Carnival to frighten any passing (or reading) dentists.
Any bad bits? How was the fighting?
After the ructions of Brussels, this week was much more peaceful, and despite minor quibbles, we got along with each other much better.
Aurora The car journey was much better with phones. I didn’t want to climb the thing [the Dom] in Cologne, but mummy and daddy made me.
Lucy Carnival when I was soaking wet and frozen to the bone to the point of nearly crying. I think I’ve been more tired than usual, and have felt the overwhelmingness of the trip.
Sophie We fought a bit. I didn’t like the Carnival when people were getting really wet and whinging about it.
The gorilla was good but I was really scared because I thought the glass was going to break.
I didn’t like getting bothered with dramas at home. Obviously I do want to know what’s happened but I don’t want it to stop me from having fun, which it did.
Magnus I don’t like it when we fight and end up in really bad moods with each other. I didn’t like that you couldn’t touch the walls in the underground museum but it was quite cool when he shone the light and I made a mark on the wall with my shadow.
Harriet I am slightly ashamed by how much the dreadful wifi in this flat has affected all of us. I didn’t like being in single beds in Rommerskirchen. Not for any exciting reasons but I think that the ten minutes before we fall asleep is hugely important to Ben and me as a debrief and just as time together. I think we both really struggled without that.
Ben I had been really looking forward to the Opera, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to. My inability to take the right coat for the day (from a choice of two) has gone from occasional annoyance to face-palming habit this week. I agree about single beds – rubbish… The washing machine here has been useless too.
Any hints and tips?
Films in the car work – and no one was sick, although it helped that it was all motorway. And Friends was a hit with the girls. Apparently that’s the main topic of conversation at bedtime.
The Berlin pass was great value.
The first step into the (bit more) unknown. We are off to Poland tomorrow, starting in the far North West, the Oder Delta, for a “Safari”. Up until now we have been mostly in major European cities which have felt, in the the main, familiar and manageable. Poland, and rural Poland at that, is a step farther away. Although we have many lovely Polish friends (including some we’re very excited to be visiting later this week), only Ben has been here before and we speak absolutely none of the language.
Having done a bit of research I rather fancied making kartoffelpuffer, potato pancakes (which seemed appropriate for Shrove Tuesday).
But sadly, Rommerskirchen’s kitchen was, in the end, and despite having two colanders, just not up to scratch. An array of knives all smaller and less effective than most buter knives, and a distinct lack of anything with which to grate onions or potatoes meant that we decided to postpone the cooking until we got to Berlin (although I did manage to make pancakes – which without any scales or measuring equipment turned out surprisingly well).
Kartoffelpuffer are, I’m told, traditionally from the west of Germany. This felt a little inappropriate in in Berlin but given the internet tells us the the culinary highlights of Berlin cuisine are currywurst and doner kebabs, I didn’t feel too bad about veering from the strictly local. Ben rather fancies the mix of Worcestershire sauce (does it have to be Lea & Perrins, I wonder?), curry powder and ketchup that apparently makes up currywurst but I’m not so keen.
So we’re sticking with the kartoffelpuffer and serving them with more sausages. Because sausages go with Germany, in our heads anyway. And because the children like sausages.
But we are being a bit adventurous too. I found kohlrabi in the supermarket. Kohlrabi is a bit like dragon fruit (which was also in the supermarket), in that I’ve heard of it, and even seen recipes for it, but I’ve never actually attempted to do anything with it in real life. So we bought some. And some brussels sprouts, because, to my astonishment, Magnus requested them on the grounds he likes them…. something about this travelling is clearly working.
Kartoffelpuffer mit Bratwurst
We used a recipe I found online (again), because (again) it looked easy. The website’s called Quick German Recipes but I have no idea how actually German it is. ’twill serve.
As for the kohlrabi, it appears that the easiest thing to do with it is just to roast it. Here goes.
Potatoes. Check. Onion. Check. Vegetables. Check. Sausages… but which ones?
Yet again, we have a Lidl within a five minute walk, and this Lidl has sausages. Many, many sausages. I am absolutely certain that to a native German a bockworst is as different from a bratwurst as a wiener is from a frankfurter. I however haven’t got a clue. Using the tried and tested method of going for the expensive fresh ones, we ended up with these….
They had all sorts of reassuring-looking stamps on them and I reckoned that g.g.A probably meant that a Thuringian sausage was a thing. Like a Melton Mowbray pork pie, other sausages long to be Thuringian, but simply don’t make the grade. (Pleasingly I’ve just looked it up, and that’s (almost) exactly what it means. Geschützte geografische Angabe, if you’re interested, which is not quite the same as a pork pie, but still).
My recipe also told me that I should ideally serve this with apple sauce. What Lidl had in varieties of sausage it entirely lacked in varieties of apple. Not a Bramley or other cooker in sight. Maybe Germans don’t have them? While I’m sure you can make a perfectly satisfactory apple sauce with an eating apple, it goes against all my principles to do so. So I went against an entirely different (and clearly less important) set of principles and bought a jar of apple sauce. I found it, incidentally, in the no man’s land between tinned vegetables and baby food so I have no idea which category it is intended to fall into. Maybe both.
Oh happy day! This kitchen has a grater! And a peeler! It doesn’t have a frying pan, but you can’t have everything. It also has a similar lighting problem to Amsterdam, but we have repurposed the bedside light – with no books, it wasn’t needed where it was – so no headtorch required.
The sous chef and the video
I was privileged today to have both a sous chef and a videographer. Coincidentally they were both called Aurora, and in both roles they were excellent. What we didn’t and don’t have, however, is good wifi, so while the full unedited video is, in the end, a 3 minute and 45 second riveting watch, we are only able to upload the following 10 second highlight. Enjoy.
In the absence of the full video, here’s what we did:
Baked the sausages (that’s probably utterly heretical behaviour but we did it anyway. They split their skins but were all the better for it)
We (ie Aurora) the grated the potatoes (Grater! Yay) into a large bowl (again, yay!). We added half a grated onion (I did that bit), three eggs and 4 tablespoons of flour.
While Aurora was busy grating, I chopped up the kohlrabi and stuck it on an oven tray with some garlic and oil. I put it in the oven with the sausages. The internet said 15 minutes but either that’s not enough or the oven isn’t very good. I suspect the correct answer is both.
We cut the ends off the sprouts (but no crosses, please), and stuck them in a pan ready to boil for the absolute minimum amount of time. Then we fried spoonfuls of the potato mix in butter (once again this is apparently essential. Ben was sent out for more) for about four minutes on each side. If I were doing it again I’d go for slightly lower temperature and slightly longer time. Better an overcooked than an undercooked potato, I feel.
Then onto the plate, with a sausage, some apple sauce and some veg.
Anyone who knows me will know that baking is what I do, and I am itching to have a go at recreating some of the delicious things we have eaten on our travels. I found this apparently excellent recipe for laugenbrezel (pretzels to you and me) and another for an Alsatian apple cake, but with no scales or cake tins both seem a bit beyond us at the moment.
So another bought pudding it was. Inspired by the apple cake I couldn’t make.
This is an Emsländer apple cake, not the Alsatian one I would have made. Emsland is in Lower Saxony, not that far from where we were in Rommerskirchen, so fits, entirely accidentally, with the whole meal. Quite why it’s branded “Firenze” we have no idea.
Once again it was excellent. It’s amazing what you can do with butter, sugar and flour.
Danke schön Deutschland. All mistakes are ours.
We’re off to Poland next. Let me know what we should try there….
We had read that Cologne Carnival was a Big Deal, and that people took its lack of seriousness very seriously. Certainly, when looking for accommodation in Cologne, as far back as September last year, it was in very short supply, and everything we could find was was very expensive. Harriet at one point thought she had found the perfect place, and as soon as she filled in the bit which asks you to say a little bit about the trip, saying we were on our way to Tokyo, and didn’t want to miss the Carnival, the family responded saying, “Sorry, it’s not available after all, we didn’t realise that was carnival weekend“.
(I do wonder about this bit of the AirBnB booking process. Does anyone actually say “It’s going to be me and nine mates on a stag weekend“, or “I’m pretending this is a business trip, but I’m actually meeting my lover from Budapest.” It is a bit like that part of the US Immigration forms where they ask you whether you participated in war crimes, or were a member of the Nazi party.)
In the end, we are staying in Rommerskirchen, a small town about 25 minutes on a direct train from Cologne.
This felt like the first step into properly unknown territory. This wasn’t just a museum or a pretty town, it was a big cultural event about which we knew precious little, though I do wonder whether we will feel the same after our first Boshkazi match, or yak herding), There is not a great deal of advice online about what it is like going, particularly with children.
Most of the advice we found, in English at least, seems to be written by twenty-something bloggers who have had an amazing time meeting locals and drinking copious amounts of Kolsch (the local beer) but who clearly have neither children nor hangovers. For us those days are past (and in the past they must remain) so the information they give wasn’t necessarily hugely helpful to us.
So we thought we’d write the post we wished we’d been able to read.
Should I take my children to Cologne Carnival?
Absolutely yes! It was completely brilliant and we all loved it. In fact the children are already planning a trip back next year.
It’s got massive parades, adults in loony fancy dress, marching bands, huge papier mâché (I think) effigies of world leaders we all recognised (and German ones we didn’t), an enormous sense of fun and friendliness and, most importantly for the children, free sweets and toys being thrown at them from almost every direction. (If nothing else, they’ll learn to catch pretty quickly).
How could a child not love it?!
When to go
Carnival in Cologne technically starts at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November (which feels a bit weird for a Brit) but the climax of Carnival happens in the week before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake day to my heathenous children). The first big event is Weiberfastnacht, the Women’s Carnival which takes place on the Thursday before. There are then events every day until the main parade day on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). The final day is the Tuesday, which is known as Veilchendienstag.
We were in Cologne only for the Sunday and Monday. On the Sunday schools and children’s groups normally parade through the city in the Schull-und-Veedelszöch. Sadly for us, Storm Yulia forced the cancellation of the parade at the very last minute. One or two hardy groups did come past us though and it was a useful dry run for the next day. Even that brief moment convinced our kids that this really was something they wanted to be part of.
The parade start time varies slightly between the days. The children’s parade on the Sunday starts at 11.11 although on the day we were there the (subsequently abandoned) start was brought forwards due to the weather. The Rosenmontag parade starts at 10.30 or so and takes (we think, as we didn’t see the whole thing) over two hours to pass each point. With each part takes over three hours to wend its way through the city, the whole thing goes on for something in the region of six hours.
So whenever you get there, there’s plenty of time to see it! We arrived in central Cologne at around 10ish each day. This did mean that there was some hanging around before the parade got to us, but it did mean we were able to stake out a prime spot.
Later on, and particularly near the centre, it was clear that some people had had more than the one Kolsch we allowed ourselves at lunch. While this was never scary, and police and medics were swiftly on hand where required, it was ,maybe less our thing than the more child-friendly atmosphere near the beginning of the route. We left the city at about 2pm having had enough – though the parade head was only just then nearing the end of the route – and we suspect that things probably got a bit more lively and exciting later on; maybe that’s one for the children at a slightly later stage in their lives. And probably not with their parents….
It also meant that long before things got a bit more lairy and drunken later on we had decided to call it a day and were heading away to count our haul.
Where to stay?
Cologne Carnival is, justly, hugely popular. Accommodation books up very quickly and you should expect to pay a premium. Alternatively, as we did, take advantage of the excellent public transport system and stay a little way out and come in each day. Either way don’t think about bringing a car into central Cologne.
Where to go?
The parade route forms a sort of T shape with the parade going back and forth along the top of the T a number of times. The main station and Cathedral are on the cross route and this is where the majority of revellers gather. We were advised to head away from this area and instead go South from the station along the upstand of the T. As you walk down you can’t miss the parade route as people start to stake out prime spots from early each morning.
This was excellent advice. On both days we attended we were right on the route, but without a massive press of people behind us. People were very relaxed and friendly and there were quite a few other families. Adults without kids were keen to let the children be at the front. They even handed over toys or sweets they thought the children would particularly like.
Later on we found ourselves up near the Cathedral and here it was a bit more of a crush. The crowd was six or seven deep, and were less keen to let the children through. The competition for sweets was greater too!
Who needs food when you’ve got sweets? Your children will get more sweets and chocolate than they have ever seen in their lives. So much so that they may a) not eat them and just settle for stuffing them in bags and b) turn round after a while and say “I’m hungry. Please can I have some actual food?” (I would be lying if I said that didnt make me quite happy).
What about food?
Unsurprisingly there is plenty of excellent, carb-heavy, street food to be had. Cologne also has many cafes and restaurants, however these may be very busy and you may have to queue for a while. We got very lucky when we ducked down a side street and happened upon a virtually empty and very good pizzeria. We needed somewhere to dry off, warm up, and get some proper calories and this was perfect.
Of course if the weather is dry, which sadly it wasn’t for us, sandwiches or similar would also be an excellent option.
What about loos?
Cologne Carnival is a massive event and there is clearly a huge behind the scenes effort with a team working, we suspect, all year round. We went back into Cologne the next day and there was barely a sign of any revelry: in less than 24 hours (much less given that the revelry probably went on into the wee smalls) the stands and barriers were down, the streets were clean of rubbish and virtually the only remaining sign was a slightly mournful “Welcome to Carnival”.
Whoever it is that organises all this, they sensibly put portaloos on pretty much every street corner. With over a million people on the streets, you may have to queue, but at least you can be sure your fellow queuers will be entertaining to look at.
What to bring?
Energy, good humour and lots, and lots of bags for your haul of sweeties.
What should we wear?
Fancy dress! You will honestly feel more out of place in jeans and a jumper than you will in a pig onesie, or dressed as Jack Sparrow, complete with dreads. One of the highlights of carnival for us was the sheer, brilliant incongruity of an entire city dressed up in ridiculous costumes.
That said, this is February in Northern Europe so bad weather is not unlikely. We were particularly unlucky with the weather and it was very cold and wet. Fortunately our Where’s Wally costumes fitted over many layers underneath. Gloves and hat may also be required.
What about babies and nappies?
We are long out of the nappies and pushchairs stage, but Cologne Carnival would be do-able with both. We certainly spotted a couple of in-pram nappy changes going on, and a highlight of the Sunday was a baby elephant being pushed around. There was a pair of twins in a double pushchair next to us on the Monday who seemed happier with the blueberries they had been given by their dad than with the sweets raining down on them from above.
Is it safe?
About a million people take part in Cologne Carnival. Some of them will get drunk, and some of them will try and pick your pocket.
We also live in a world where tragically any large gathering may be a target for those who wish to spread hate. This week in Germany, while we were having a wonderful, happy time in Cologne, a gunman murdered 10 in Hanau, and a carnival parade in Hesse was driven into injuring many. The parade in Cologne started with a memorial to those killed in Hanau and the German press has been full of the horrific act in Hesse. These things have shocked the nation.
But they could happen anywhere and I can honestly say that we never felt anything other than completely safe in Cologne. There was a very obvious and numerous police presence, but they were all smiling and wearing flowers on their uniforms and were happy to be approached for advice. (They all spoke excellent English). The other carnivallers were welcoming and very friendly. The absolute highlight for Harriet was when a man who had helped us with a train ticket machine on the Sunday recognised us in the crowd as he was marching in the parade on the Monday and came over and pressed flowers and chocolates into our hands. It was hugely touching and kind.
All those sweetie wrappers must have a horrible plastic footprint, although we did notice, what with all the rain, that quite a lot were wrapped in paper.
It is loud and it is busy, so if that’s not your thing, then this may not be for you.
What else can I do with my kids in Cologne?
Sadly we only had three days in the Cologne area, and two of those were taken up with Carnival. However we made the most of our final day with a visit to the Cathedral and a climb up its 533 steps.
We then walked across the Hohenzollern Bridge, adorned with tens of thousands of padlocks (after nearly 15 years of marriage we’re far too cynical for that nonsense), before spending a very happy afternoon at the excellent Cologne Zoo (The Guardian described it as a zoo for people who hate Zoos).
Sounds good! Where can I find more information?
We found the following websites in English useful:
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, though not for the Olympics. You can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
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