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 🗼.

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 Musée 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 Mémoire.

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 Mémoire 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 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!

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