Two months later…

It is, astonishingly, two months to the day since we returned. 

Even more astonishingly, that means we have now been back for a third of the time we were away.

Despite grand intentions of blogging our re-entry, we have failed to do so, but several (well, two) kind people have said they have missed the blog, so here is a wee update.

It turns out that Scotland has pretty rivers too.

Where were we?

Home.  And school.  And the office (briefly, that was banned again two weeks ago). And Edinburgh (Ben, once, to buy running shoes). And Essex (Harriet only, to see her father, who has been ill for years and did a valiant job of staying alive while we were away, but is likely not to be with us for much longer).

What did we do?

Our world is now as back to normal as 2020 will allow.   So we have been settling back into our Covid-compliant routines.

The children started back at school four days after our return, with Sophie and Aurora starting High School.  That has mostly gone well, although there have been occasional bumps along the way (calls from the school about refusals to wear masks mostly).

Lord help their teachers…

Some activites have resumed, so various of us have done limited rugby, judo, hockey, violin, flute, trumpet and piano coaching.  No swimming or dancing though. The brass instruments are by zoom and the flute is happening by an open door.  We will see how that works as the weather turns.

Back at Rugby Training

Harriet is back at work, and has started a Masters in Medical Law and Ethics at Edinburgh University.

The huge amount of reading for the latter has been made ever so much easier by the fact that Ben has taken up almost all the household management tasks.   He’s been doing that along with various practical things (the patio has never looked so clean) and, having given up his job prior to our trip, the ongoing hunt for a new one.

We are only allowed to see people outside.  But we are so ready for them.

We have three new chickens who are settling in nicely – although having to use a net to extract one of them from a tree on her first night with us was possibly even more traumatic for Harriet than it was for her. The guests in the holiday house in our garden thought it highly amusing.

The name’s Leia. Princess Leia.

The weather hasn’t been too awful (apart from last Saturday).  The seasons are turning and the woods are a technicolour array of greens, yellows, reds, purples and golds.

We have been treated to some spectacular sunsets too.

#nofilter. Honest. It was through the grubby windscreen too.

We resolved our differences with Real Russia (the magic words Small Claims Court may have done the trick) and have accepted vouchers to the value of the missing amount. This won’t help us if we still can’t go anywhere in the allotted 18 months, but as our argument was that if they had explained fully we would have taken vouchers in the first place it seems fair.

That’s England. The nearest we’ll get to another country for a while, sadly.

However, as fast as the karmic financial gods giveth, it appears they also taketh away. Our insurance claim has, allegedly, been settled and they are paying us….wait for it….ÂŁ113.

There may have been expletives involved. The big ticket item is our visas for both China and Russia which they seem to have entirely ignored. We have pointed this out. So far the response has been a resounding silence.

The plums, apples, sloes and blackberries (not all in the garden) have been on fine form and put to good use.

We managed, before restrictions tightened up again, to see all of our families and several of our friends. Ben and Harriet even managed a meal out.

This was the night students were told they couldn’t go to restaurants. Thankfully, Harriet’s student card still hasn’t arrived.

Our house was left in exactly the state we left it. Which was a bit of a shock as we noticed ten years of scuffs and dirt all of which were caused by us prior to departure and ignored. Harriet spent the first week we were back on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Before and after

We have created some souvenirs from our time away:

Harriet has sorted the first of three large photo books, which incorporate all our instagram posts and blogs, as well as some more photos, from our time between leaving Kelso and arriving in St Pierre de Chartreuse.

Ben has had a large print of 121 views of Chamechaude made, with photos taken each day during our time there.

Spot the difference

We also sent postcards to ourselves from each of the countries we visited, and each of the major towns in France on the way home, which are adorning our kitchen wall (although annoyingly the one from Hungary never arrived).

Postcards to Ourselves

Ben wrote this about 2 weeks after we returned, in a post which was never finished:

We are all, children and parents, much more relaxed than before the trip, which is lovely.  I’m very impressed with how the girls, two of them for the first time, have settled into their new high school terms (with new Covid-19 routines).  Magnus too is enjoying being back at school, but even more, enjoying playing with his friends, his lego and his cars. 

It has been a real pleasure seeing good friends, and it is through this that I feel the main realisation has been apparent for me.  By talking about the trip in general, I have solidified my feeling about quite what a fantastic time we had.  I already knew it was great, either with great moments or great memories, but my goodness this was a good time to be away from the UK and work and school in particular.

The forecast was awful.

How was it?

Good bits:

Ben: Seeing friends has been a joy, though given the more recent sets of restrictions, it looks as though this will be more difficult for the near future. We have had beautiful walks not far from here on the last two weekends, and we have friends who are planning to camp in the garden (rather them than me), so that we can have an outside evening in our newly cleaned and arranged outside social area.  I’m so glad we have a garden.

I have managed not to put back on the weight that I lost during our trip, and having more time to do things is a luxury I must remind myself of more. I have enjoyed exercising more, cooking more (although I’m not sure that sentiment is shared by everyone), and having more whole-family meals is definitely a welcome carry-over from being abroad.

Sadly not our garden

Aurora: Life is the same but its different at the same time: high school, friends, family and just being in the high school! I like having friends that speak your language, good wifi, friends, friends and friends.

Lucy: I am enjoying being with my friends and we have had some lovely picnics in the park and just generally enjoyed ourselves. And my bed.

Everyone has been asking me about the trip, but I never really thought about what I would be like I was just excited to be getting back home.

King’s Cross Station, c.6pm on a weekday, really.

Harriet: I think it is harder to separate “normal” life into good bits and bad bits.  It’s more just bits. But here goes:  It has been lovely to see friends and family and although my father is very far from well, I feel lucky that I have been able to see him (it was never said while we were travelling but there was always a what if plan for my hurried return and I am so glad it wasn’t required).

We live in a beautiful part of the world. It has been a privilege to be reminded of that.

I am loving, though slightly daunted by, my Masters. I genuinely do find it fascinating and I am hoping that somehow there’s a future here.

I’m also loving having a wife. I hadn’t realised quite how much time was taken up with household management. I am so grateful to Ben for taking it on. How we will cope when he gets a job remains to be seen…

Who doesn’t love a stripey field?

I think I have changed too. I am more assertive and less worried (some of the time) about getting things wrong, or, worse, upsetting people. I went way out of my comfort zone on a train last month and asked the man sitting in my seat to move…

It is a huge pleasure being back in my kitchen, even if I’m only doing 2/7 of the cooking I was before. I may be baking to compensate… Oh, and my starter survived its sojourn in the freezer, to everyone’s delight.

Makes Harriet proud, every time.

Sophie: I really missed my friends and I liked seeing them and going downtown with them. I really like school because I get to see lots of friends. I love having loads of clothes.

I feel like I have got fitter.  I feel that I have a better understanding of who are my real friends.  I’m even more fashionable than before.

Magnus: I really love being back. I like seeing Joe and Aidan and all my friends and I also like seeing my cousin Freddie. I want to stay in the same place. School is ok. We did some paintings and made some African necklaces which I liked but I don’t like doing spelling. I think as a family we are a little bit more together. We used to have children’s meals and adults’ meals and now we just have children and adult meals.

He was a day late going back, but no less happy for it.

Bad bits:

Aurora: Just not travelling in general if I didn’t have friends I would want to travel forever.

Magnus: I don’t really have any. I just like being back.

Sophie: There were some people I didn’t really want to see. Homework. It is not very good being a young one in school. When we left we were the top of the school, and now we’re not. I sort of miss travelling in general, but I don’t know why. There are some dramas at school.

With the agreement of the school, Magnus went back to school a day later, so as not to alarm people with his hayfever sneezes.

Ben: While everyone else in the family has returned to some sort of routine (at least for the next few years or so) whether work or education, I have yet to find mine.

As well as picking the worst year since 1945 to go on a world tour, 2020 has also proven (so far) to be a terrible year for finding a new job.  While we budgeted a “buffer” to see us through the time it takes me to find something new, and we spent less on our travels than our budget (because we didn’t travel as much), the supply and demand curve for jobs is horribly skewed, with a lot more people than normal chasing a lot fewer jobs than normal.  I know these are not normal times, but each rejection is a little soul-destroying. I remind myself that though there are fewer jobs out there, there are jobs, and I only need one.

Tree huggers

When we returned, and before Harriet was back at work, I often joked that if someone would sponsor me not to work, that would be ideal. I don’t think that’s the case now.

It feels very strange that we have been back for a period of time equal to a third of our travels. The memories, or possibly more the feeling of having experienced such a time, are not as sharp as upon our immediate return, and while I know it was glorious, it is also a world away. Seeing the Tour de France roll through the Chartreuse, looking glorious as ever, brought real pangs to me. I miss the Chartreuse.

Early evening, Roxburgh

Lucy: We have to sanitize before we go into class and the hand sanitizer STINKS!

Harriet: Putting together the first of three albums of photos, and remembering the optimism and excitement with which we set off was surprisingly hard. I wish…. I wish… the regret has lessened hugely and we did have an utterly wonderful time, despite everything but I still wish…

Bowmont Forest, midday

The workload for my Masters is quite large and I do want to do it justice. I’m worried not only about failing to do so but also about letting it get on top of me. The juggling is easy at the moment with Ben around and being a star but that won’t last forever (and I don’t want it to, but still).

Being back at work has been fine and it has been lovely to see the (very) few colleagues that were also in the office. However as of two weeks ago we can only use the office one at a time. For me that defeats the object of being there and so I am back at home all but one day a week. One of the reasons I left my last job is because I didn’t like the isolation of working from home. I need the feedback and reassurance of having others around, and while two weeks in it is fine, I have already had moments of struggling, both with the isolation and the weight of expectations I put on myself.

There are upsides to being the only person in the building.

What’s next?

In a triumph of optimism over experience we have booked (fully refundable) one way flights from Tokyo to London next August. We have kept our Olympics tickets and the stated aim is to do as much of the overland part of our trip as Covid and work and school will allow.  If we do get to go we will keep you posted.

More immediately life will tick on. Harriet is taking the girls down to Essex tomorrow and we will see what happens there. She will stay for the foreseeable future and if necessary the girls will put their travelling experience into practice and come back on their own.

Our gathering-of-the-clan Christmas plans have of course been Covid-cancelled so we are busily reformulating a Christmas like none we have ever had. Just us.  The current thinking is that we will have presents and our big meal (which won’t be turkey) on 24th and then we will spend 25th playing with our new presents while watching films in our Christmas PJs.  Some of us are quite excited.

Three-headed Eildon Hill. Trimontium. Home to some Romans. And us.

Week 26 (France 21 – Paris, Angres and home)

Where were we?

We arrived in Paris last Saturday and spent three days exploring. Then on to Angres, just south of Lille for a night before spending our last day driving through Belgium and most of the Netherlands. A night on a ferry and this is the penultimate sentence we will write of this post. We are back in Scotland… nine miles to go.

Where should we have been?

Even back in January, in those almost unimaginable pre-Covid days, we had plans for this week. We were to head north from Atami, to Matsumoto, and hopefully from there to see some monkeys. Ben’s brother was also planning to come to the Olympics and as a final fling, all eleven of us were going to climb Mount Fuji. We should have summited early on Wednesday morning and spent a night nearby before heading back to Tokyo and the airport for our flight home very late on Friday.

We will get here one day.

We should have got back to London at lunchtime on Saturday and the plan was to get a train – overland trip, remember – back to Berwick-upon-Tweed. We were hoping someone might pick us up and take us home…

The parallel worlds of our trip have become multiple worlds too. There’s another, also Covid-19 infected, world where we spent our last night in Ghent, eating waffles and wandering the streets. However, with cases rising in Belgium and restrictions tightened, we cancelled that booking last week and stayed in France instead. With the announcement last night that the UK government has taken Belgium off the “no-quarantine” list, that turns out to be a very good decision.

What did we actually do?

Paris

Where do you start in Paris? Silly question. You go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s so iconic it’s got an emoji đź—Ľ.

So we did. Ever mindful of the budget, and after lots of practice climbing hills and bell towers, we saved ourselves €30 and got the stairs to the second floor.

After that, the lift is the only option (a good thing), so up we went. It’s one of the most famous buildings, and views, in the worlds, but despite that, it didn’t disappoint: Paris spread out below us.

Then down, and down, and underground. Lucy had read about the Paris Catacombs and asked to visit. There was something rather pleasing about visiting Paris’ touristic high and low points in one day.

We had read the brief history, but nonetheless didn’t really know what to expect: in the late 18th and early 19th century, Paris’ cemeteries, which had been used since the 3rd century, became overfull, and faced with a threat to public health, the authorities decided to move the bodies, all the bodies, into a series of disused quarries that were then outside the city limits.

You descend a spiral staircase and then walk for what feels like a very long time through a series of gloomy subterranean tunnels before coming into an open space. There should be a series of information panels, but they were all covered up to prevent visitors standing around too long, breathing in this enclosed space.

So you enter through a door, into the empire of death:

And there are bones. Wall and walls and endless corridors of skulls and femurs, neatly, sometimes artfully, arranged and grinning at you.

It is estimated that there are more than six million (six million) people here, all jumbled up, with all the other bones piled behind the tidy structures. Some of them will be in the region of 1800 years old.

It is the most extraordinary, quiet and eerie place. Not scary as such, but an inescapable reminder of the brevity of life and very hard to forget.

Our second day in Paris took us to the Louvre, recently reopened with limited visitor numbers.

The Louvre is the biggest art collection and most visited museum in the world. It’s thus a little daunting (and this may explain why Harriet, depsite having briefly lived in Paris, had never actually been inside). Any visit, particularly one with children, can barely scratch the surface.

We gave ourselves a time limit (no more than an hour before we break for a coffee) and a target (Sophie wanted to see the Crown Jewels) and dived in.

Highlights for us: the Raft of the Medusa (Gericault), the Davids and Delacroix, the extraordinary building itself and some cheeky Roman ducks.

If you look up Paris tourist advice on line, much of it is about beating the queues. Of course this is where Covid-19 has been our friend. There were queues at the Louvre, and social distancing seems really to have been forgotten in many cases, despite prominent signage, but we had no issues in getting into anything, and once in, never felt over-crowded. (Although we did draw the line at standing in the line to look at that painting of Lisa Gheradini)

The Louvre is, bear with us on this, a bit like Las Vegas: having got you in, they are reluctant to let you go. It took us a good twenty minutes of increasingly hot wandering before we were finally spat out into the blessed cool and shade of the Tuileries gardens for our sandwiches.

Thus refreshed we went from the massive to to the tiny by visiting the Orangerie. At the best of times, this is a small gallery, but now, under renovation, it has only eight paintings available for viewing: Monet’s massive Waterlilies murals.

Back in that parallel world, we would have been coming to the end of our time in Japan, and we marked this by introducing the children to sushi, in full conveyor belt style. True to form, Magnus ate nothing, but the girls all tucked in and Lucy, in particular, was definitely a convert to the joys of raw fish.

Oddly, given Paris is one of the world’s great cities, we were slightly at a loss for an idea of how to spend our third day: too hot for a bateau mouche, not cultured enough for the MusĂ©e d’Orsay… so we headed first to Montmartre and then to the Marais for a bit of a wander and some Parisian relaxation: eating and shopping.

Sophie delighted us by chosing to come into the Basilica, where we enjoyed the splendid mosaics and were amused to find card payment an option for the votive candles, before we found a lovely shady pavement café and settled down for a good lunch.

In the Marais, we struggled to find the quirky interesting shops we had promised the children, but we eventually satisfied everyone’s end-of-trip needs for presents for friends, a new school bag, the jeans they weren’t allowed to bring with them (and given the amount they’ve all grown this was probably a necessary purchase) and some (more) toy cars.

Roubaix

We have got our packing and leaving routine pretty slick now, and leaving Paris would have been no different were it not for Harriet’s dithering desire for a beautiful cake from the pâtisserie at the end of our road. But we left eventually, with cake, and headed out north and east towards Lille.

We were actually staying in Angres, an hour or so south of Lille, but we couldn’t check in to our new house until 5pm.

Almost the first idea we had written on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, on the kitchen wall in Kelso, was La Piscine at Roubaix, a 19th century swimming pool re-purposed as a gallery and museum.

Despite this it hadn’t made the cut onto our original route, being too far out of the way. This was our opportunity.

True to form some of us liked it better than others, but we all found something to enjoy in its quirky and eclectic collection and in particular the main pool, where the tiled changing rooms are themselves windows to cabinet or tiny galleries in their own right.

Angres

Angres is a not entirely interesting small French town that is home to a reasonably priced AirBnB for six within an hour of the Belgian border.

It is, though, also the nearest town to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the French National Memorial and also the location of the Anneau de la MĂ©moire.

Almost six months ago, we were in Belgium, visiting World War 1 memorials and cemeteries, so maybe it was fitting that this was our last stop of our penultimate day.

The Anneau de la MĂ©moire was created in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the War. It is unlike any of the other memorials we have seen. It records 576,606 names of those who died in this area of France, of all nationalities and all ranks, listed in simple alphabetical order. We looked for, and found, well-known names, but there is nothing to mark them out. They are simply the fallen.

It is no reflection of how extraordinary the memorial is that we did have a small snigger to notice “Sir….” under S and “The Hon.” under T.

The North Sea and the Road Home

Another day of driving for Ben yesterday as we headed straight through Belgium to the North of the Netherlands. We had been a little concerned about the border crossings but they were so seamless that in one case (Belgium into the Netherlands) we blinked and missed it.

The boat, DFDS King Seaways, was waiting for us when we arrived and, after a little frustration when we first boarded, soothed with a drink and a cake, we had an exemplary crossing. The North Sea was bowling green flat, the bunks/double bed comfortable and all the staff charming and efficient.

The sunset (Ben and Harriet) and sunrise (Harriet only) were an extra treat.

The two hours to get through immigration (not helped by being the third last car off the boat), heavy traffic and roadworks were less of a treat, but even through the grimy car windows North Northumberland was as stunning and familiar as ever.

How was it?

Good bits:

Ben: Paris is a great city, and I have loved each of my trips here. This one was over 4 months late, and didn’t involve a trip to the Mongolian Embassy, but it was great to be there. Our Airbnb was possibly the best of all our non-St Pierre accommodation.

I am pleased we went for delicious Sushi, and pleased too that this joins the list of foods (most of) the children will eat.

I was delighted that Sophie joined me for my last TweedtoTokyo run, fetching the car from its parking at Gare d’Austerlitz.

Our journey home from Paris via Angres, then through Belgium (holding our breath!) and then on to the Amsterdam-Newcastle ferry has been straightforward and as good as it can be, particularly the beautiful flat calm sea at sunset.

The whole trip has been a fantastic privilege. Thank you to everyone who made it so, especially my family, who have been my constant companions, whether they liked it or not, over the last 181 days.

Lucy: I actually quite enjoyed the Catacombs I thought it was really cool. I enjoyed shopping and buying nice things for my friends. The flower ice creams were beautiful and delicious as was some of the sushi. I am glad to be going home.

Sophie: Paris in general was gorgeous but in particular I enjoyed going to Amorino (it’s a ice cream drinks and ice creams in the shape of flowers that’s only in London and France). I found the Louvre interesting although I thought the Mona Lisa was gonna be bigger. My run with daddy was fun. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice. I am so excited to be home.

Magnus: Going home.

In Paris I liked buying my hotwheels cars. My favourite thing in Paris was the skulls and bones because they were arranged in a cool way.

Aurora: I loved buying my new jeans even though they took ages to find. Going to get sushi was super tasty. I enjoyed shopping for my friends and family and the ice-creams. Going home will be a change but quite fun!

Harriet: It sounds silly to describe the Eiffel Tower as an unexpected pleasure, but it was, in that I wasn’t expecting it to be so pleasurable. The views were astounding and on the sheltered side, even at the top, it was warm and gentle.

Our Paris flat was probably the best we’ve stayed in.

I loved our ferry crossing, particularly watching the sunset with Ben, reflecting on the last six months and pondering the future, as the water reflected turquoise and gold and the dolphins (really) lept.

Bad bits:

Aurora:Not having Duplo and going home!

Harriet: I’m still not sure I entirely get Paris. I worked here for a couple of months when I left school and then, although I had a great time, I thought the city itself was dirty, smelly and full of dog poo. I entirely failed to see what all the fuss was about. It probably didn’t help that it was January. I did like it better this time and I can definitely see that it would be a brilliant place to live but I’m not sure it is my tourist destination of choice.

More generally I have, predictably, had moments this week where I have viewed our (very) imminent return home with dread. Sometimes that has presented as anger, sometimes as frustration, only once, briefly, as tears. I got unreasonably both indecisive and emotional over cake.

After crossing 14 international borders over six months without so much as a queue, the nearly two hours it took us to enter the UK this morning was both predictable and depressing. And that’s before Brexit. It wasn’t the best welcome home we could have wished for.

As Aurora wisely said: if I didn’t have friends [and family] I wouldn’t want to go home at all.

In some ways that’s a good thing.

Sophie: I was very sweaty after my run with daddy. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice but we have seen lots of views so if I saw it 6 months ago I would have been amazed but it was still cool.

Lucy: I am sad to be stopping our trip.

Ben: There have been times this week when our understandable nervousness about our return has simmered over into bickering, snappiness or just resentful frustration. Our souvenir shopping trip got a bit drifty too.

Paris is eye-wateringly expensive, whether parking, museums, food or delicious patisseries. Delicious cakes and melting credit cards may have loosened the belt this week, but this wasn’t the time for belt tightening – that comes next week.

Magnus: I didn’t like the sushi because the idea of raw fish wrapped in seaweed is just “no thank you”

What did we eat?

Sushi! Not in Japan, but nonetheless Japanese and utterly delicious.

We enjoyed beautiful ice creams from Amorini too. Three times in three days…

And after disappointment and indecision, we finally managed to get some astounding looking pâtisseries from the Cyril Lignac pâtisserie at the end of our road. Even eaten slightly melting in an unattractive rest stop of the side of a Northern French motorway they were as good as they looked.

What’s next?

In the next ten minutes or so we will be home, to the house we love and haven’t seen in six months.

The children go back to school on Tuesday. For Aurora and Sophie this will be the start of their High School career.

Ben, having given up his job to go on the adventure of a lifetime, has to find a new one.

Harriet has three weeks to readjust before going back to work (presumably from home) on 1 September. She is also starting to study (part-time) for a Masters in Law (LLM).

We are still determined, jobs, schools and viruses permitting, to travel overland to Tokyo. We still have our Olympics tickets, now valid for next year.

Where shall we go?

We will not be writing weekly on this blog any more, but we will be documenting some of our re-entry on instagram, so do follow us there if you don’t already. We will be blogging here intermittently too so to be sure of seeing those posts, click the blue subscribe button…

…Tokyo here we come. One day.

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 cafĂ©s 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!

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

What’s happening with your house?

This is normally about question 4 (after “Seriously?” “Why?” and “What about school?” (more on that one later)).

Simple answer: we have very lovely friends (plus children, plus dogs) who are going to live in it for us. It’s (hopefully) a win-win: they need somewhere to live for six months (they’re moving away after that) and we get someone to look after the house and pay the council tax and feed the chickens and fight off any burglars, spiders or other nasties and generally keep the insurance company happy.

Getting rid of this shipping container was supposed to have happened by Christmas 2018.

It was one of those cases where the universe really does provide; we had previously thought that someone else was going to live in it and when that fell through, a mere four months ago, we were at a loss. But a casual chat during a children’s swimming lesson became “Well, we could”, became “Shall we?”, became us meeting up last night to sign an agreement… so its official. They get to live in our house and we have to, really, go somewhere else.

But of course signing (and drafting) the paperwork is the easy bit. The tricky bit has been looking round our house and realising how much needs to be done before we can reasonably expect someone else to live in it: the back door that doesn’t open, the doorbell that doesn’t work, the broken bed (not as exciting as it sounds), the wobbly bannister, the dishwasher that requires to be sworn at in exactly the right way before it will deign to work, and even then only one time in every three, and grudgingly at that. We’ve been living with these things for years but can we really expect someone else to?

Happy New Home Goldie

But we’re getting there. And rather enjoying living in a house where nothing needs fixing. We’ve emptied cupboards too (“Oh, that’s where that was!”), rehomed the fish and provided an 8 page list of where the trip switches are and who is our preferred plumber..

The chickens will be looked after (although Marilyn (she was blond, busty and had an attitude to match) has sadly not lived to see us go – RIP Marilyn), as will the garden. We have a separate cottage in our garden (built for my parents but available for holiday lets while they’re not in it) so that needs to be planned for too.

Yesterday I made 26 jars of jam from the fruit in the freezer. Today, banana cake.

The freezer is being emptied (fish fingers and ice cream for supper tonight), and anything really precious and breakable squirrelled away. The deep litter filing system is being worked through (and mostly re-filed in the recycling).

The to do list continues… We leave four weeks tomorrow.

 

Harriet