Week 1 – Travel and Amsterdam

Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….

Where were we?

UK

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.

France

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.

Belgium

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.

Four countries in two days.

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.

Home in Holland

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.

You wait 43 years for a windmill and then 19 come along at once.

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.

Buildings. Stuck together.

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.

“The Man with the Frizzy Hair” at the Rijksmuseum

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).

No such thing as bad weather.

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.

Keane

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.

Ben: Kinderdijk, the Rijksmuseum, the escalator up from Rokin metro, where all the archaeological finds from the build are beautifully displayed, the dreadful weather not stopping anything (and the joy of a cold sun yesterday).

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!!!!!!

Flipping poffertjes

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.

Appropriate phone use?

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).

What’s next?

Lunch in the Hague and supper in Brussels…

By everyone!

A meal from every country – The Netherlands

This was one of my key aims: to cook, and eat (or at least try and get the children to eat) a meal from every country we visit. I also want to read a book from every country, and Ben is keen to go running at least once, drink one alcoholic drink, and set foot in them all (Lucy ran once round the car in a layby about 500m from the Franco-Belgian Border to prove that particular point).

We didn’t have time to cook a meal while she was doing that, and we will be going back to both Belgium and France so our first meal challenge is the Netherlands.

Boerenkoolstamppot

The internet tells me that Stamppot is “the most quintessential Dutch dish“. Leaving aside the question of whether something can be “most” quintessential and mindful too of the need not prevent meltdowns (mostly mine) when the children refuse to eat their supper, I thought mashed potato and vegetables seemed a good place to start.

There are multiple versions of stamppot on the net, but spruce eats says this version, with kale (something the children will eat) and sausages (you guessed it) “arguably could be considered the Netherlands’ national dish”

Buy your ingredients

Kale, potatoes, sausage. Easy, right?

Kale sprinkles

The kale was indeed easy – and it even comes pre-shredded. I’m just very glad I knew what the word was before I went to the supermarket as I’d never have identified it otherwise.

The sausage I was looking for was, apparently, called rookworst. It’s a Dutch smoked variety. Turkey ones are available, but we thought pork might be preferable. Again. Not too hard to source. In fact the local Lidl (yes, we’ve managed to find a house with a Lidl in walking distance) had two varieties, fresh in the fridge (and with a helpful picture of a pig on it to prevent confusion) and something else (dried?) in a vacuum pack. I have an instinctive horror of vacuum packed sausage so bought fresh ones.

Rookworst. I was very grateful for the pig picture.

Poatoes. Easy again. As long as you want 5 kilos. It appears the Dutch must eat a lot of potatoes.

Also onions. I forgot those so had to send Ben back for them later. He loves that.

Prepare your ingredients

The cottage we are staying has not got what you would describe as a Cook’s Kitchen. Notable by their absence are a) a potato peeler, b) a potato masher and c) a pan big enough to get 1.5kg of potatoes in. Not deterred and inspired by my sister in law (who is both Irish and a potato afficionado – the two may or may not be connected), I decided not to peel the potatoes. If she can make mash with unpeeled potatoes, I decided, so can I.

The kitchen implements. All of them.

Next problem. How to cook the rookworst. They came with no instructions. Grill? Bake? Fry?. Again the internet came to my rescue. Simmer them (Really? Simmer a sausage? Don’t try that in Lincolnshire). With a lack of pans, and inspired by this site, I just stuck them on top of the potatoes.

And do you know what? It worked! I chopped the onion and gently fried it with bit of butter before mixing in the kale. I’d have called it “wilting” the kale but it was so finely chopped already it didn’t have much texture to wilt.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Then I mashed the potatoes with some more butter, a bit of milk and some of the sausagey cooking liquid. I then threw some of the liquid all over my trousers just for fun and finished off the cooking in my pants.

The kitchen isn’t very well lit either so it was quite hard to see what I was doing by this point, so to mix the mash (in a too small pan) with the kale (also in a too small pan) I wore a head torch. Don’t try this at home…

I then put the sausages on top, found another pair trousers, removed the head torch and bore our Boerenkoolstamppot triumphant to the table. And they ate it!

Boerenkoolstamppot – Harriet style
I bought a cake. I must be on holiday.

Boterkoek

Time for pudding. And this really was simple. I bought it. It was delicious.

It turns out it has beans it it. Who knew? Cake as one of your five a day.

Hagelslag

Not content with a Dutch supper, we broke out into an Dutch breakfast this morning too.

Here’s a picture.

Breakfast of champions
All your breakfast needs
And biscuit butter too!

Yes. That is sprinkles and butter on crispy bread as recommended by one of Lucy’s friends who has Dutch cousins. It really is a traditional Dutch breakfast. Apparently you can use ordinary bread or toast too if you prefer. And also apparently this is a totally normal breakfast here. Certainly the wide choice of sprinkles available would seem to suggest a high demand…

The reluctant eaters today were Ben and me, but in the spirit of “You must try everything at least once” we had some too. It was pretty much as you’d expect.

The kids, on the other hand, loved it. I’m not sure their dentist would be so keen.

Harriet

Resilience Training 101

So here we were feeling all “ready to go” and “we’ve got this”, when we heard that our ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam has been cancelled.

The very first thing we have booked has already been cancelled. Fair enough – there is going to be the mother and father of a storm this weekend – and crossing the North Sea then would have put our consitutions, and possibly minimal packing, to the test.

The alternative we have been offered is a sailing on Wednesday evening, which doesn’t work for a number of reasons –

  • We have paid for our accommodation in Amsterdam
  • We have tickets for Keane the night we arrive
  • We have tickets for Anne Frank’s house the next day
  • Our lovely friends who are staying in our house are expecting to move in on Tuesday

So, we have accepted the challenge, and will be leaving home a day before we expected. We have booked the Eurotunnel, which is not going to be wind-affected. We will stay with Granny in Essex on Sunday night, and get to The Netherlands for Tuesday via France and Belgium on Monday.

Some sleep-overs will be cut short, a nice evening with friends will have to wait half a year, and it is a very good thing I didn’t go to the Calcutta Cup.

Ben