Week 8 – France (3)

Where were we?

Still France. Still not going more than 1km from our front door. (Apart from Ben who gets to go to the supermarket once a week).

What did we do?

More of the same, really. We have settled into our routine, which is not really a routine as such, but is at least a structure. We have agreed that we all need this, for all that there’s a statutory whinge at the mention of it. So every morning we agree on a plan of action of the day.

This normally involves some learning (screen or paper-based and mostly both), some exercise (usually a walk first thing and then two shorter sessions later on in the day (Canadian airforce XBX and our home made circuit), some “quiet time” in which the children disappear to their rooms to listen to stories or read and we crochet or do jigsaws or read or blog, and some free screen time. We are trying, too, to build in some clear family time for games or doing something else together.

When you’ve got the ace and king of trumps.

We are thinking, too, that the children should have a chance to plan this, rather than having it imposed on them. We’re going to try that next week…

Highlights (i.e. things we did this week that we didn’t do last week)

We took our croissants on a walk with us yesterday morning and sat looking down at the village in the sunshine.

What about second breakfast?

We discovered a new walking route that none of us had been on before and did it twice (clockwise and anti-clockwise).

We enjoyed collaborating to make our optical illusion photographs.

Two of us downloaded MarioKart and have been enjoying having their “arses whooped” by Magnus. One of us has occasionally been found playing it when Magnus is nowhere to be seen…

3, 2, 1… Go!

We used up the ingredients in the house (as instructed by our landlords) to make a honey cake.

We dyed each other’s hair, with varying results.

Some of us completed several jigsaws.

Also completed: the South Rose Window at Angers Cathedral.

We learned hearts, and a new form of whist, and Risk (that may or may not be considered a “good thing”)

Aurora made a washing and drying up rota (six day rotation) so that each of us only has to do one chore once a day. Most of us are very happy with it.

Spot where the system falls down.

Ben learned that nail polish and gel nail polish are not the same thing. We will be experimenting with how much UV light there is in sunlight in due course.

We watched a “family film”, pressing play on six different devices simultaneously and heading off together to Arendelle to watch Elsa and Anna battle an entirely unconvincing plot to reach a satisfactory conclusion once again. Ben played the soundtrack over and over again afterwards.

Quality family time. Honest.

We’ve added a brief period of mindfulness to the end of our daily exercise. We’re not all entirely convinced by it yet, but hoping that will change.

In the spirit of grooming (see hair dye above) Ben trimmed his beard (and pulled highly entertaining faces while doing so – hence no pictures).

We enjoyed 3D animals in the living room courtesy of google. Next week we might put a shark in the swimming pool.

How was it?

Good bits

Sophie: I liked watching the family film and I liked planning our rooms for education time. I liked eating our croissants by the chapel because we’ve done that lots of times before when we’ve been in France. I liked dyeing our hair lots, apart from mine didn’t work so I want to do it again. I’m going to do it purple. The tadpoles are quite cool as well.

It’s still beautiful and it hasn’t rained yet (famous last words)

Aurora: Good bits were watching the movie and playing Risk. I’m 100% going to beat Daddy next time. He didn’t actually win that time because we didn’t finish it.

And Mummy fed me!

Harriet: At the risk of coming over all Pollyanna. I get a little boost every morning when I come downstairs and I don’t have to empty the dishwasher. Clearly the actual reason for this could be considered a bad thing as the twenty year old dishwasher broke about three days after we got here. But Aurora has created a washing and drying rota which has simply been absorbed into the rhythm of our day, mostly (apart from once) with very little conflict and that is a good thing too.

I have lovely friends and family who have sent us, in no particular order, books, wool, crochet hooks, kitchen scales and tea. I am now set up for the long haul (and can make Lucy a birthday cake)….

My new glasses (bought online, with some trepidation) have also arrived, which means I can see properly again. I definitely need to talk to the optician about my contact lens prescription when I get back.

Remarkably similar to the old ones.

In bigger stuff I think (famous last words) we have got on better this week. The scuffles have been shorter and fewer in number and we have avoided (wait for it) a major blow out.

Magnus: Daddy joined MarioKart Tour. It’s fun because I can play against him. I liked watching Frozen II with everyone. I liked talking to my friends. I like my new lock screen on my phone.

Ben: The rhythm we have found seems to be more settled, which is definitely a good thing. I continue to be entranced by the scenery of our walks, and despite being limited to a kilometre radius we have walked trails I have never been on. I have been struck by the birdsong – its variety and its volume. Spring has definitely sprung.

If I don’t think about what we are missing, and look at what we have, we are in a lovely place, taking our days at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of lovely food, more exercise than I am used to, and mostly in the sun. I am surrounded by my family, and none of us is ill. I have very few obligations. I can play MarioKart and call it bonding with my son. There is excellent cheese here (we are about to have our second Raclette of the lockdown). We have had good chats, and social network exchanges with friends stuck in their houses. On an absolute level, life is good, and on a relative level (compared to what many other have today) we are in an amazing place.

I have had lovely times with each of my fellow inmates this week. And the soundtrack to Frozen 2 was an unexpected pleasure.

Lucy: I liked the parcels arriving. It just shows that everyone is thinking about us. I enjoyed dyeing our hair. I like the walks that we’ve been going on. The weather has been really nice. I enjoyed winning at Quiddler today.

Bad bits

Lucy: I’m not really sure. I mean we’ve argued but not as much as sometimes. There haven’t been many bad bits.

Harriet: I know I have had some very down times this week, and I’ve struggled with negativity from the children which has an immediate and extraordinary lowering effect, but now, sitting in the sun, the warmest it has yet been, with a cup of tea and my crochet to look forward to, I’m concentrating on the positive. And it has been, this week, mostly positive.

It’s going to be a blanket. I rather hope I don’t have time to finish it.

Sophie: Nothing really apart from when we fight and when Magnus tries to annoy me. I always try to ignore him but then I do get annoyed and it’s just annoying.

Magnus: I don’t like the rota. I just don’t. I didn’t like last night because I was fighting like half a million times.

Lucy feels less strongly about the rota.

Aurora: Cleaning. I don’t like all the dusting and hoovering upstairs because the hoover is rubbish. Magnus winding me up. I don’t like the mindfulness. I can’t be bothered to do it. Daddy taking my phone away when I didn’t actually do anything that was that bad.

Ben: Not knowing about the future, when the mind wanders from the present, whether that future is how on earth am I going to earn money when I return, or are we going to be able to go anywhere, is a trap I need to avoid.

Normally I go to the Intermarch茅 about 11km away in St Laurent du Pont on a Monday, for a weekly shop, when the local minimarket is closed. This week I went down to Meylan, outside Grenoble, which is about 20km in the other direction, and I don’t think I will go again. It was not an enjoyable experience, and it made me appreciate the tranquility and solitude (enforced or not) of the hills. There was more produce on offer at the People’s Republic of Carrefour (so big you can see it from space*), but more people, and it made me think that the risks to me, us, and everyone else, are probably not worth it, just for a few things which we could potentially/probably forgo. Not going to happen again.

The early morning queue outside Carrefour

*not actually true.

What about the tadpoles?

Our new babies continue to grow. The outside sink colony are gettting bigger and wrigglier but are still not quite hatched. There are quite a few eggs (is that the right word?) in there which haven’t developed and have gone cloudy. We wonder if that’s to do with it being cold. The bird bath crew are definitely hatched and very active. Some of them are losing their external gills and they are all getting more tadpole like in shape. They are about a mighty 1.5cm long. We haven’t yet started to feed them; that’s next week’s excitement.

What did we eat?

This is a bit more like being at home, in that we meal plan at the beginning of the week, before Ben heads into town to the big(ger) supermarket. We are trying to be more vegetarian, (when not eating sausages) and continue to rely on the only recipe book we brought with us, The Green Roasting Tin, to varying approval. Magnus was not a fan of the red cabbage salad.

And the plastic?

Not having glasses was not great for the plastic consumption: contact lenses seem to be all about the single use plastic and none of it seems to be recyclable. That’s another reason to be glad the new glasses have arrived.

Here is a green picture. See what we did there?

Dyeing our hair, while fun, also created quite a bit of non-recyclable waste.

We fear that with the current advice to use single use gloves and wipes and endless handwash and sanitiser, our plastic challenge (although we are not currently using the gloves or wipes) is going to get harder as this continues. We are still making an effort though, and a trip to the communal recycling bins is now a regular part of our walks.

What’s next?

This week we cancelled all our remaining plans up to and until Mongolia (scheduled for 1 June). Russia is in lockdown until 1 May at the earliest and so we wait until then to see where we can go and how.

We are very much hoping that this is not the closest we get to Japan. (It’s not Japan, for the avoidance of doubt).

We’ll let you know…

Week 7 – France (2)

Where were we?

Silly question…. still France.

Why aren’t we coming home?

Earlier this week, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary (*refrains from political comment*) advised all British citizens “currently on holiday or business trips abroad” to come home “while they still could”.

We are not taking Mr Raab’s advice and will be staying here for the duration. There are two simple reasons for this (neither of which is related to our opinion of Mr Raab himself):

  1. We don’t have anywhere to go. Our house is let out and the people living it wouldn’t thank us for camping in the garden. We can’t go and stay with anyone else because a) social isolation and b) there are six of us so no-one has space for us all, certainly not for an indefinite period of time.
  2. We are not at all convinced that the French government, who won’t currently let us go for a walk more than 1km from our house, would be entirely chuffed if we decided to drive six potential Covid vectors 900 kilometres across the entire country. It has to be less risky for us and everyone else, whether in the UK or France, if we just stay here.

So what did we do?

Learning

Like parents worldwide, we have a new found admiration and respect for our children’s teachers’ patience and ability to suppress strings of four letter words…

“Creative time”

Our rigid routine has become rather more relaxed over the last two weeks but we have discovered that some structure is definitely better than none. We are therefore trying to incorporate two periods of “academic” time into the day, one screen based and one not. With the shutting of UK schools, and despite Lucy’s school’s refusal to provide us with materials (beecause she’s officially not currently enrolled), we have now, courtesy of other parents, got a got a load of additional learning material that we are, with varying degress of enthusiasm, gradually working through.

Despite this we’re definitely being more relaxed about what constitutes learning. Magnus enjoyed “times tables tennis” over video with his best friend Joe, and scrabble, puzzles and knock out whist have all featured in our “lesson time” this week.

We also have our living biology lesson in the form of the tadpoles: one colony of which is in the outside sink (colder, shadier, not hatched yet) and one colony in the very large bird bath (shallower, sunnier and therefore warmer – all hatched and very active). Other than Ben, who actually was a biology teacher, we’re all getting very fond of them. It’s only a matter of time before they get named…

Exercise

We have continued to exercise like the Canadian airforce, with their rather outdated but mercifully brief 5BX and XBX routines. This happens after “quiet time” (thank goodness for the blessed combination of JK Rowling and Stephen Fry) and invariably provokes whinging but reluctant compliance.

More successful yet was our home circuits set up, inspired by Sophie and Lucy’s judo coach and created by Ben. We’ve varied between 30 second circuits (too much faffing) and 1 minute ones (“Is that really a minute?!“), and although we have yet to set on the perfect time, we have all done it, every day this week. I call that a win.

This, almost literally, means “Fun not allowed”.

On Wednesday a new “Attestation d茅rogatoire” was published. This is the formal document we have to carry with us each time we leave the house. Pleasingly (for two of the six of us) the new version makes it clear that we are allowed to go for walks, although these can be only within a kilometre of the house and for a maximum of an hour, once a day. We are now ready with our facts should the gendarmes get called again…

Our walks restarted on Friday morning and will remain part of our daily routine until we learn that we really aren’t allowed to do them.

We also tried body percussion, which further reconfirmed the adults’ suspicion that we ain’t, unlike Ella Fitzgerald or Gene Kelly, got rhythm. Not a beat.

How has it been?

Good bits:

Harriet: Not only have I been exercising three times a day, I have been enjoying it. Anyone who has met me at any time in the last 43 years is permitted to fall over backwards at that information. The world really clearly has been turned upside down by this virus….

I also drew a picture that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be. Another first!

Ben: Setting up and using the gym has been fun. I enjoyed the ease with which having a physical challenge improves my mood, for now at least. I’m also pleased that the French ministry of the interior has clarified that we are allowed to go on limited walks as a family. I finished a good book, ate some lovely food, and even enjoyed a run for the first time in forever.

Magnus: Sleeping. Playing with cars. Talking with Joe was by far one of the best things I have done this week. I liked getting some new socks. I think I’ve got on better with my sisters this week, towards the end at least. I’ve liked reading Dogman with Daddy.

Aurora: Actually knowing where we are, and being in this house, which I know and love. I liked getting out of the house too, to go shopping with Daddy [now unfortunately no longer allowed], because I got to step outside the routine for a bit.

Sophie: I liked winning Mexican Train. Before we would listen to everyone’s ideas but not considering actually doing them, but now we do, like not always going on walks. I think we’re getting on better as a family. Listening to Harry Potter during our quiet time has been fun.

Lucy: I enjoyed today’s walk, because it was the nicest walk we’ve been on so far. I’m enjoying Murder Offstage, by LB Hathaway, which was here in the house, and is written by a friend of Mummy’s. I like it when I get the giggles and can’t stop laughing at the dinner table.

Bad bits:

Harriet: I have struggled with “having stuff to do” this week, especially since we have slightly relaxed the schedule. Unlike the children I don’t have the ability to disappear into my phone for hour on end: there’s only so many times you can look at the same stuff on facebook or instagram, I don’t get twitter, I’ve never been one for computer games (I was the only child I knew who never wanted a game boy) and the news is too depressing to spend more than a couple of minutes on (and that was true even before Covid). Lovely friends have sent me wool and crochet hooks (although the postman, like a watched pot, still persists in not bringing the second parcel) and I have a project on the go, but I’m conscious that I can’t do too much at once for fear of running out later. (I can’t have my wool and crochet it, perhaps). I can and have been reading, but reading has always felt like a luxury and my overdeveloped protestant work ethic won’t let me do something that doesn’t produce anything for too long before I get up and start looking for something to tidy…

I have also intermittently been devastatingly convinced that this really is it for our dream. Talking to the insurance company (more below) and methodically going through the file of booked travel and activities and cancelling everything that was so carefully planned, and with such excitement, has been soul withering and emotionally exhausting.

I’m finding it difficult not being able to help too. I want to be volunteering in the NHS or delivering food or (there’s a theme here) doing something. Here we can’t. Or if we can I don’t know what it is.

So if you are reading this and you do know of anything we can do, whether here or at a distance, please let us know.

Ben: Friday was a horrible day for me. A small argument between children about who was “entitled” to use which mat for exercising descended into a pit of family doom, with threats and sanctions and tears. I went to sleep not liking my children. I had thought we were doing better, but it’s clearly a fragile better. I expect lockdown will create these kind of pressures for many people, and I hope, but don’t expect, that this is all behind us now. If we can come out of the whole COVID-19 lockdown pain closer as a family, that will be a superb (and realistic) achievement. Saturday was better though, showing the benefit of a good night’s sleep.

The “not knowing” about the future is grim. It comes in waves for all of us I think, but the idea we might go not much further than back home, after the years of planning and dreaming, is horrible. The cancellation/postponement of the summer Olympics was another, faintly inevitable, nail in the dream coffin.

For me, Europe was the appetiser for the main adventures lying ahead in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, before China and Japan. We’ve cut short our appetiser (no Slovenia, Italy or Scandinavia) and the borders of each of the main course countries above are currently closed to UK nationals. Not knowing when or if they will reopen, at least within either our trip time frame, or for Russia at least, our visa validity time frame, is not pleasant.

Aurora: Going on walks. I didn’t like pulling the skin off my toe today. Everyone getting really stressful was annoying. Maths.

Magnus: Fighting with my sisters at the start of the week. We weren’t very nice. The Olympics being cancelled is a bit of a downer. I would have liked to see Portugal play France at Football.

Sophie: Us fighting. When I forget to put deodorant on and we go on a walk. I find “creative time” quite boring.

Lucy: Yesterday. (I don’t want to write more about it).

What about the rest of our trip?

Who knows?

Now that the Olympics has been postponed the ostensible purpose of our whole trip has gone. But in reality that was only ever an excuse for an adventure and we would still like to get to Tokyo overland this Summer if at all possible.

Whether that is possible will entirely depend on what happens with borders being reopened, transport links being started up again, and visas still being valid. We will know more at some point. At the moment though we keep starting conversations with “if” and then tailing off because there are so many “ifs” that trying to get your head around all of them is a pointless impossibility.

We have been trying to get some answers from our insurance company about what costs we can recover and what we can and should cancel now: we have bookings into August and who knows whether those will be possible – we don’t want to find that if we cancel them now our insurance company says we shouldn’t have. This has been a slightly frustrating experience (the email starting “Dear Helen” was a particular high point).

We finally got some answers on Friday, but in some ways they just give rise to more questions. We can “curtail” our trip at any point and the insurance company will then “consider a claim” for any expenses we have already incurred.  If we do that though they will then consider our trip over and we will no longer be insured.  That’s probably liveable-with while we remain in France, but should, by some miracle, we be able to carry on towards Japan in the months to come we do not want to do so uninsured.  We would, in normal circumstances, simply then get another insurance policy, but we’re not sure how keen travel insurers are to take on new clients at the moment.

Equally we can leave our policy running and continue with our trip, but if we do so we cannot claim for any travel that is cancelled other than our “outward” and “homeward” journeys. There is a part of me that wants to try claiming that it is all outward journey until we get to Japan, but I’m keeping that one up our sleeve for the ombudsman.

For the moment we have cancelled all our planned travel (where possible – there is a gulf between the levels of helpfulness of the various different train companies: SNCF and 脰BB – excellent, Deutsche Bahn and DFDS – awful, others in between) and accommodation between here and Moscow. In an ideal world we would pick up our travel there, although later than planned, but as with everything else we will have to wait and see what can be done and when.

What did we eat?

It appears that one of the aims of our trip is already on its way to being achieved (it may be the only one so we will take this small mercy). Our children, who previously were very much fish finger and spag bol eaters, have become much, much more open to new foods. So this week we’ve had fondu, Tuscan bean soup, spinach and squash curry, fennel pilaf and raclette and they’ve eaten it all (although Aurora wasn’t a massive fan of the raclette). None of those is half as scary as yak butter tea or sushi, but we’re still hoping to work up to those.

How plastic free were we?

As ever, we try, with varying degrees of success.

What’s next?

More of the same, at least until 15 April, which is when the current lockdown ends.

Til then, there are worse places we could be.

Week 6 – France

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?

The drive

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 馃嚘馃嚬, Munich 馃嚛馃嚜, St Gallen 馃嚚馃嚟, Zurich 馃嚚馃嚟, Bern 馃嚚馃嚟, Lausane 馃嚚馃嚟, Geneva 馃嚚馃嚟, Annecy 馃嚚馃嚨 and Chambery 馃嚚馃嚨 – 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.

Gone but never forgotten

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.

France

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’re just going to scatter the rest of this post with pretty pictures. Because we all need pretty pictures at the moment.

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….

Definitely now more “comma” than “full stop”

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.

The pasta aisle was empty but otherwise no sign of stockpiling

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.

Not lost.

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.

This experience would be so much worse with Mothers’ Pride.

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).

Self isolation. Not a yak though.

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.

Caraway seed cake. Very Victorian and surprisingly delicious

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.

We could peel these. But it would be good to know what they were first.

What’s next?

Who knows?

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.

We are still very much hoping to get to Tokyo.

Week 5 – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria

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?

Poland

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.

Slovakia

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.

Budapest

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.

Szechenyi Baths

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.

Escape Room

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.

Before they locked us in.

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.

Vienna

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).

The Prater

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.

Cafe culture

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.

Sadly this ride was not yet open for the Season.

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 Caf茅 (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 caf茅; 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.

Nowhere to park…

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 Caf茅 Central in Vienna.

It would have been rude not to…

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.

Slovakian speciality.聽 With crackling garnish. Sadly we can’t remember its name.

We cooked Hungarian and Viennese too.

Any bad bits?

Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before

Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 馃樀馃檮

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 insignificance beside 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.

If early morning running always looked like this Harriet would go too.

Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.

What’s next?

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…

A meal from every country – Austria

The Menu

Everyone knows what they eat in Austria: crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles (and raindrops, and roses etc etc). So that’s easy.

Except apparently, the noodles are wrong. I admit that “potatoes with parsley and optional cranberry sauce”, which is what we had in a very nice and very empty Viennese restaurant last night, wouldn’t have scanned nearly so well, but that is, apparently, more authentic.

Not a noodel in sight. No copper kettles or kittens either.

Authenticity of side dishes aside, I’d even found a website which did exactly what I needed it to:strudelandshnitzel.com. No really. Schnitzel was officially on the menu (not to mention I’d effectively cooked it in Poland and it was a great success).

Despite all that, I did wonder about postponing the Austrian cookery until we are in enforced isolation in France, where we head, ten days ahead of schedule, tomorrow (post to follow). But since we got here Austria has shut all museums and goes into complete lockdown on Monday. I didn’t therefore have much else to do this afternoon. Cooking it was.

But of course we’d had schnitzel last night. So I thought I’d have a go at lentils and bacon instead. There’s a recipe on the same site, and it is also, apparently, very authentic. Menu planning. Done.

The shopping

And then I went to the supermarket.

It seems the Austrians, when faced with a crisis, buy the same things I would. The pulses and rice had all gone too. Unless you wanted organic quinoa, of course. Very Waitrose.

So my bacon and lentils were out. And so were all my other recipe ideas, all of which rely on some form of meat (with two children who claim not to eat cheese – although have no problem with a pizza, a mounain of parmesan, or, indeed, fondu, any of the cheesy options felt a bit risky).

No prizes for guessing what should be here.

Along with the quinoa, the supermarket did, though, have cinnamon, and ground almonds. And I had flour, sugar (in the flat we are staying in), butter, breadcrumbs (that box I bought in Brussels comes in handy yet again) a lemon that needs eating up and apples.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Apfelstrudel

The helpful strudelandschnitzel website did exactly what its name suggests and provided me with a recipe. And after my, honestly, very depressing trip to the supermaket, and our also quite depressing realisation that at best we will not be visiting five of the twenty countries we had planned to, I needed to spend some time in my happy place. Baking.

But first, the equipment

This is another of those confusing kitchens. On one level it is very well equipped. It has a grater and a colander. It has a fish slice. it is the first kitchen we have stayed in that thas a potato masher. But it doesn’t have a peeler or a pair of scissors. Or a set of scales. Or a rolling pin. Or, most oddly of all, a chopping board.

Baking parchment and a potato masher made me very happy. It doesn’t take much.

It is also the tenth kitchen in a row (that’s all of them) where the light above the cooker doesn’t work.

The baking

But hey, if I can take four children across the world in the midst of a pandemic, I can cook an apple strudel without a set of scales or a rolling pin…

I took 250g of flour. Ish. No scales means I estimated. It was about what I had left in the packet. I think. With a bit of an alowance for rolling out.

I made a little well in the centre and tipped in an egg. In fact I broke another egg first, because it had, oddly, got stuck to the box, so when I tried to take it out it broke. Weird. I needed it later though so it’s not the end of the world.

I added a teaspoon of butter, a pinch of salt and a bit of water. I mixed it all together and added more water, and mixed and added…. The recipe says both “quickly mix” and “knead” which seem contradictory to me. Pastry needs quick work and a light tough and kneading is neither of those. I sort of erred on the side of caution and stopped as soon as my mixture was smooth.

Well it looks ok

Now leave it for an hour.

I then chopped up (but not peeled, because I couldn’t be bothered) six apples (the recipe said fourteen, but I got to six and decided that looked like plenty), with a bit of lime juice (I had other plans in mind for the lemon), on the basis that we had an old lime too (I think it’s now been to six countries) and it was only going in the strudel to stop the apples going brown, a generous handful of raisins (50g), and half the packet of (it turns out, very rustically) ground almonds. (Note to self, never attempt to make macarons with a packet of Austrian ground almonds).

I melted two tablespoons of butter and then got thoroughly misled by the recipe, which told me, having melted the butter, to toss the breadcrumbs (6 tablespoons, for which read the rest of the packet) with the icing sugar (we had caster, one tablespoon) and a pinch of cinnamon. So I did all that, and then read further and reaslised that the tossing did not involve the butter.

Oh toss. Never mind, it’s done now.

I turned to my pasty, which had, where exposed to the air, gone a little crusty. Wishing I had wrapped it in cling film (but which the recipe hadn’t suggested) I attempted to roll it out using a water bottle and a glass, before stretching it by hand (this bit is called Strudelziehen)

There were then some rather complicated and not very clear instructions involving putting the apples and butter (which I’d obviously already mixed in) and breadcrumbs on different parts of the pastry before rolling it up, but I just spread the breadcrumbs over part of it, put the apples on top, and went for it, a bit like making a cheese wrap (something I have a lot of experience of).

Then brush (ie spread unevenly) with the other egg (see, I told you I needed it) and into the oven at 180 degrees for 40 minutes or so.

Note presence of only one oven tray. Which I needed for the main course.

A little dusting of sugar (again, icing sugar not available) and it was ready.

Tips for next time though: The pastry could be thinner (I was a bit nervous, but I think it would have taken it). and icing sugar would definitely have been better. I would put a bit more sugar into the filling too, and definitely more cinnamon. Oh, and buy ice cream…

The main course

I did not, you may be disappointed to read, only feed my children apple strudel for supper. Despite the lack of much fresh in the supermarket, I did manage to find ready made pork (so not the real deal, but lovers of baby animals will be pleased) schnitzel and a packet of frozen peas.

No picture of the peas. you know what they look like. Erbsen in German, if you’re interested.

With the remains of the potatoes we already had, plus some parsley, that made a very serviceable, and very Viennese dinner. Apart from the peas of course.

Guten appetit!

France next. I feel some duck in a tin coming on. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Oh, and in honour of countries we won’t visit, I’m going to find out what a Bled cake is.

Week 4 – Poland from top to bottom

Where were we? What did we do

Oder Delta

This was a first for us for a number of reasons – our first rural excursion, our first time to somewhere no-one had been (Ben had been to Krak贸w and Warsaw, but not to Kopice (population 135)), and our first catered stay.

The river Oder forms a lot of the border between Germany and Poland, and towards its mouth, after Szczecin, splits into a large expanse of wetland area, home to a variety of wildlife including wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boar, bison, red squirrels, as well as several resident and migratory bird species.

Our hosts at Oder Delta Safaris were Iwona Kr臋pic and Reginald 艢cie偶ka, who could not have been more welcoming or enthusiastic. They made sure we had a brilliant time, and although we were only there for one night, it felt longer, as we had three separate excursions, as well as downtime, and three enormous and delicious meals.

We were en route, a bit later than planned, when Iwona texted to say they wanted us to go eagle watching straight away to get the best of the weather. This was a great decision. We dumped our bags and rushed down to the harbour in Stepnica, where it promptly started to rain. But it eased off quickly and we spent an amazing three hours in the water with our smiley, non-English speaking boatman, who threw massive fish for the eagles and chirped at them (not always with much success) to lure them down. Seeing a bird with 2 metre wing span dive just in front of us was amazing, and the pictures don’t do it justice.

Sophie took this one. On her phone.

In the morning we were up bright and early for our fashion show. Suitably kitted up we headed out on foot to spot wildlife. Sadly only the cranes and the deer obliged, but Iwona pointed out traces of wild boar (Ben had clearly frightened them off meeting them on an early morning run) and beaver. We got very excited by dog-like tracks too, but they were, apparently, exactly what they looked like…

Even her phone is camouflaged

We then spent a night in Szczecin before heading South the next day.

Ostrzesz贸w

And now for something completely different. Our lovely friends from Kelso moved back to Poland last year and kindly invited us to stay, so we did.

So this wasn’t us being tourists, this was us seeing friends. Who also have four children, and moved countries less than a year ago. It was as noisy and crazy as you’d imagine and we had a brilliant time with wonderful hosts: they even laid on wine tasting!

Ostrzesz贸w itself is a small market town, with some beautiful churches and the remains of a medieval castle. It’s not on any tourist route but it was nonetheless lovely and a completely different pace of travel. The kids in particular really seemed to need that. We highly recommend this as a place to stay!

Tower built by Kazimirus Magnus. Much to someone’s delight.

Krak贸w

We had only two full days in Krak贸w, one of which we wanted to spend at the Wielizcka salt mine, so we had really only one day to spend in Krak贸w itself.

We are staying in a modern flat in the Jewish ghetto, just across the river Vistula from the old town. So we walked. This turns out to be a good thing as Krak贸w is installing tram lines, with Edinburgh-like levels of disruption (They’re twinned so maybe it was deliberate).

Which way home?

The centre though was just as magisterial and beautiful as I had expected. We wandered through and enjoyed Wawel castle, the dragon sculpture and the magnificence of the square. We didn’t go inside any of these: the children weren’t enthusiastic and we decided not to push it.

They were, however, keen to visit the wax works. Harriet and Lucy, with a meal to plan and cook, decided against, leaving Ben to accompany the three youngest to “the best worst museum in Krak贸w”. Ben’s impression is that there was once a very small quite good wax work museum, (Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn were quite good) which was bought by a person who was not that good at making new wax works but gave it a go (their Shrek and Donkey were a particular low point).

Salt mines

The Wieliczka salt mines were the main reason Harriet wanted to visit Krak贸w, having seen a picture about 3 years ago. They were astonishing. The whole area is now given over to tourists and to a certain extent could feel quite artificial (11,000 people a day visit in high season) but it was incredibly slick and well organised and really quite awe-inspiring. Our guide described it as a “labyrinth” and he wasn’t wrong.

We were underground for three hours and we didn’t even scratch the surface (pun intended). We saw only three of eight levels of the mine and off every corridor we went down more and more branched off. I think we all felt the vertiginous lure of these mystery passageways, although sensibly no one acted on it (although Magnus did briefly try to join a different tour group).

One astonishing fact: the stalactites in the mine grow on average 10 centimetres a month.

What didn’t we do?

After much discussion and deliberation, we have not visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. The official advice is that it is not suitable for anyone under 14. Despite this there are many people in the internet who say things like “I took my six year old and it was fine and now they have a full understanding of the Holocaust”.

We did therefore wonder about going anyway. However we, having spoken to the children, decided against. There are some things you cannot un-see. More pragmatically, I understand that there is a lot of walking and it can be cold. If there is one place you do not want your safe, privileged, part-Jewish child having a temper tantrum because they are mildly uncomfortable Auschwitz is it.

The children, Sophie in particular, do though, by their own request, want to come back. They know it’s important. So we will. Just not now.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Ben Krak贸w was the first place which felt quite touristy. Although there are loads of tourist shops in Amsterdam and Brussels (fewer in Germany), this was the place we heard the most British voices. Perhaps that is because spring is springing and there are just more tourists about, or maybe just because it was a Friday and Saturday.

No, we are not going on a horse ride.

The quality and variety of the food surprised and impressed me. We ate really well in Poland. (Karol’s duck was fabulous).

Aurora Fewer people speak English than anywhere else so far. I thought it would be warmer. I don’t know why. When I think of Poland I think of a warm place with flowers everywhere.

Lucy Poland is so flat. Especially the Oder Delta but everything is so flat. I loved the roofs on Krak贸w churches. It’s like they couldn’t decide which roof to put on, so they put them all on.

Pick a roof, any roof

Sophie The food is really good. It’s so flat here. I don’t know what I was expecting so I don’t really know what surprised me.

Harriet I was astounded by the salt mine, just the scale of it. Only one cavern was excavated using explosives: all the rest was dug out by hand, in an age before mechanical anything or electric light.

Magnus Poland is a bit like the middle of Lidl. You never know what you might find: there’s loads of wildlife and loads of other stuff. The salt mine was massive and really deep as well. I was surprised that Leon had a Nintendo Switch.

What were the highlights?

Aurora I liked just hanging with the Ciacheras and the night we stayed there. We were all mucking about and it was really fun. I liked the dumplings we ate yesterday.

Lucy The Oder Delta and dressing up like bushes. It was so amazing to see the eagles so up close. I enjoyed having the highest pompom in Greater Poland. I liked looking at all the markets, although not just in Poland. Watching them make sweets.

With the pompom this must be nearly 280m above sea level

Harriet It was absolutely lovely to see friends and they could not possibly have been better hosts. The experience of seeing the eagles was awe-inspiring. Krak贸w was as beautiful as I expected. I’d like to spend more time here. The noise the cranes made was wonderful and indescribable. We saw a red squirrel in the car park of our flat in Krak贸w. I realise that’s probably normal for Poland but for me it was wondrous.

So much better than the ones in London.

Sophie I liked seeing the Ciacheras, because it was actually someone we knew and they also had really good food. I liked all the safari. I liked our house at the safari but it was really hot. I liked the sweetie demonstration.

Magnus I liked being with the Ciacheras. It was fun because Leon and I got to play Mariokart 8 deluxe multiplayer. I liked it when the seagulls pooped on Lucy. It was funny. I liked the squirrel. I liked the dragon that breathed fire.

Those are more heads, not arms.

Ben I found the days spent in the Oder Delta really energising, in spite of being tiring, if that makes sense. I loved the closeness of nature, and the air, after all those (albeit splendid) cities.

What was the weather like?

Beautiful on the days we had lots of driving to do and a bit iffy the rest of the time.

This was Ben’s favourite road yet. Possibly ever.

How plastic free were we?

Better this week, a little. Food in the supermarkets seems to be less pre-packaged, so less plastic there. Of course being catered for helped too. We ran out of shampoo for the children so that meant more plastic.

What about the Coronavirus?

We wrote about this before we left. The plan then was to keep on keeping on until we were told we couldn’t.

Since then, although the situation in China seems to be easing, clearly there are more and more cases in other countries.

We are not stupid and we are not knowingly risk-takers. But we’ve also been planning this trip for a long time and don’t want to abandon it because of a global media panic. Practically speaking, too, if we were to come home we wouldn’t have anywhere to live…

We are, therefore, proceeding as planned and generally following the Foreign Office advice. Our route is changing a little (and of course may change further). We originally planned to come through Northern Italy on our way from Slovenia to France (where we will meet Ben’s parents and abandon the car). Italy is now out and we are trying to establish the cheapest possible route through a very expensive part of Austria and Switzerland.

Uzbekistan has recently announced sweeping travel restrictions. Currently these don’t apply to us (it will be more than 14 days since we were in an affected country when we arrive in Uzbekistan in late May) but we will be keeping an eye on them and if we have to change our plans we will. We don’t want to spend all our time in a country we’ve wanted to visit for years sitting in a hotel room unable to leave.

We will shortly be heading to the first destination we’ve been to which has confirmed cases. As we write there are 16 cases in Vienna, a city of 1.9 million inhabitants. We are heading there in a week or so’s time. Unless the situation gets notably worse we will still be going. While there we plan to wash our hands, use our sanitisers, kindly provided to us by Kelso’s own Pyramid Travel Products, try not to touch our faces and eat our body weight in sachertorte and apple strudel.

We will keep reviewing the situation but at the moment we are keeping calm and carrying on…

What did we eat?

All the food! We have eaten extraordinarily well in Poland, from a traditional spread with soup and kotlety and home made pickles in the Oder Delta, to Chinese-spiced duck (plus dumplings) with our friends, to traditional pierogi in very unglamorous surroundings in Krak贸w. We’ve eaten amazing breads with caraway bought off the street, and watched sweets being made in the world’s smallest sweet factory.

We drank Polish wines for the first time ever, and developed a taste for kompot.

We even had a go at Polish cuisine ourselves.

The one thing we haven’t worked out yet is breakfast. None of us yet has a taste for ham and cheese first thing, and as we travel east breakfast cereal is becoming rarer and rarer. There been a lot of bread and jam, and this morning I made porridge…

Polish breakfast. Not made by us.

Thank goodness for all that walking.

Any bad bits?

Lucy There isn’t anyone my age at the Ciacheras. When everyone got a bit tired and cold on the boat.

Sophie At the beginning Magnus was very jiggy but he has got better. The house at the safari was really hot and it made me feel kind of ill especially upstairs.

Harriet Like Sophie I struggled with the heat in the Kopice house, which is not something I expected to say in March in Poland. Phones remain a flashpoint. Coronavirus is a worry. Admittedly there’s nothing I can do about it but I really, really don’t want to abandon this trip.

Ben Magnus and I almost had a “bad bit” in the hairdressers in Krak贸w, when I was convinced we were both going to come out with peaky blinders hairstyles, shaved underneath and long on top, but thankfully not… I didn’t enjoy family bickers and not having a washing machine.

Aurora I am still finding it difficult being away from my friends because I’m not used to it. Sometimes when I talk to them I get very upset and start to cry. Sometimes I find Magnus really annoying.

Magnus When Aurora and I argued about who was Leon’s best friend and I got all sad.

Any hints and tips?

When eagle-watching, watch don’t try to take pictures, or not all the time at least. It was so much better with our eyes than through the lens.

What’s next?

We leave Krak贸w today and head south to Zakopane to fulfil the children’s desire for a waterpark and Ben’s desire for some hills. Then through Slovakia to Hungary.

A meal from every country – Poland

We have been in Poland for five days and we have eaten better here than in any other country so far. We were extraordinarily well fed by Oder Delta Safaris, and we chose our friends wisely in the Ciacheras, with whom we stayed in Ostrzesz贸w: Karol is a chef….

Dill. Because its traditionally Polish and we needed a picture here.

So I was rather nervous about attempting a Polish meal – not only did I know what I was attempting to live up to but I am also aware that a number of lovely Polish people are likely to read this. It is with apologies to them that I begin…

Menu planning

We are staying in central Krakow. Our Polish is absolutely, definitely, not good enough for us to shop in a market or butchers (ie anywhere I might have to speak) and we have access only to city-centre type supermarkets. So the meal had to have easily available ingredients. We’re also here for only two days so have quite a lot to pack in. Much as I enjoy cooking (if I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing this), I didn’t want to be spending two hours skimming soup or folding cabbage leaves, both of which were required by some of the “simple” recipes I found here.

The other difficulty I had was, once again, the language. I do want my cooking to be as authentic as possible. Clearly any actual Polish website or recipe book was out. And it’s hard to tell how many of the Polish-sounding people who blog about Polush cuisine actually are Polish or just have an ancestor who was. Fortunately a lovely Polish friend recommended a recipe on Spruce Eats. The writer is American, but I thought that if a real Pole (albeit one who has lived in Scotland for longer than I have) could follow her methods so could I.

This week’s cooking team

We didn’t use that recipe, because we’d been fed it in the Oder Delta, and I knew I couldn’t compete, but the same writer had a recipe for pork cutlets which Lucy rather fancied, and which we already had lots of the ingredients for, so the decision was made.

Kotlety Schabowy z Mizeria

The shopping

This was fun. I know it’s weird but I honestly love a strange supermarket or grocery store. It’s completely fascinating to see what other people cook and eat and this was no exception.

We needed boneless pork. Easy I thought. Oh no. No pre- packaged, pre-labelled (thanks Google translate) here. Just a fridge of meat and a grumpy-looking lady. We went for the tried and tested approach of pointing at the one we wanted. Yes, that lump of what we think is pork will do nicely. I’m sure she would have cut it up for us too but we didn’t dare ask. Take it, smile, move on. Dzi臋kuj臋!

Erm. That one. Point and smile.

Apparently these cutlets should be served with Mizeria. That’s a cucumber-y, sour cream-y, dill-y salad to you and me. Cucumbers I can do. And dill too, but what about the sour cream? We had a nasty dairy incident in the Netherlands when what we thought was milk turned out to be fermented and not so good on cereal. I didn’t want to risk accidentally making a cucumber and lard salad.

But it was all ok: for the n-th time since we arrived in Poland I was grateful for what remains of my Russian, as it turns out that sour cream is effectively the same in both languages (Why I can remember the word for sour cream when I can’t remember the word for drive is an entirely different question.)

You say 艣mietana, I say sour cream

We needed pickled cucumbers too. It may or may not surprise you that these were not hard to find.

How to choose? They go very nicely in sandwiches too.

The equipment

This may be the oddest kitchen  of the lot.  It has good knives, a grater and a colander. It has a variety of attractive serving dishes.  It has an egg slicer.  It has two meat tenderisers, one with axe attachment. It has a thing that I don’t know what it is.

What is this for? Answers on a postcard

It has no scissors and only one, very small, broken chopping board.

Egg slicer and axe. For all your creative needs.

But still, with a grater and a knife, I was good to go.

The cooking

If you a Polish and proud of your culinary heritage you may want to look away now.

We sliced the bit of pork (I’m 98% certain it was pork but have absolutely no idea which cut) into thin slices. We bashed them with the smaller of the two meat tenderisers (the axe seemed excessive), really just for the fun of it.

Cooking is a dangerous sport

Then we dipped them in flour (bought in Belgium), eggs (German) and breadcrumbs (also Belgium so probably different from the Polish version) before leaving them for 10 minutes.

We chopped some potatoes and put them on to boil.

For the Mizeria – which apparently literally does mean misery, I don’t know why – we grated (probably inauthentic but it would drain quicker that way) the cucumber and put it in the sieve (there’s a sieve) to drain. We chopped the dill (the whole bunch because we didn’t want leftovers) and put that in a bowl with the 艣mietana and some salt. Apparently vinegar is an optional extra but we didn’t have any so we opted not to use it.

We then fried the pork in a little oil on both sides for about five minutes until golden brown. (Figuratively.  Some of it was rather more brown than golden.  I’m choosing to blame the fact that we only have olive oil, which I’m sure is wrong for Polish cuisine). We popped the cooked ones in the oven to keep warm.

Today’s compulsory green vegetable was cabbage (seemed appropriate) which we steamed.

Smacznego!

We all loved it. This recipe’s coming home with us.

Pudding

Poland looks to have great puddings. I really fancied having a go at the cheesecake, Sernik, but the recipe I found online called for 10 eggs and over a kilo of cream cheese which seemed a little excessive. They did have it in the supermarket, along with lots of other tasty looking confections, but it was behind glass, and flushed with our success at the meat counter, we decided not to chance our luck.

Choosing was nearly as difficult as ordering

So it was another pudding in a packet, although I drew the line at jelly. We picked a fruity, strudel thing that tasted, as Aurora correctly identified, of cough sweets.

Sophie was a fan. The rest of us rather wished we’d bought the sernik.

Challenge for Hungary: do the baking myself….

Week 3 – Germany: Carnival, Walls, and so much more

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?

Rommerskirchen

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.

And there were two of these

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.

Cologne

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.

Carnival

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…

Was it the hat he didn’t like?

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.)

21 and a half minutes to go

Berlin

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…

Reichstag

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).

Opera

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-mach茅 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.

Graffiti

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.

Not sure any actual regiments dress like this these days.

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.

Russian graffiti from 1945. Preserved on the walls of the Bundestag.

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.

Double O 12 and three quarters

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.

A mother and child escaped here

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.

Teamwork. Surprised us all.

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.

We even had snow.

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 K枚lsch 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.

Wir sind kein Berliner (I suspect that doesn’t actually make sense)

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.

It was worth it.

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.

He doesn’t know what you’re talking about, Sophie.

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.

Everyone is wearing the right coat, but no one has sunglasses.

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.

What’s next?

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.

Chod藕my! Lets go!

A meal from every country – Germany

We’ve now been in Germany for nearly a week and haven’t yet made an attempt at cooking a German meal.

While you might assume that this is entirely because we have solely been eating chocolate, that’s not strictly true.

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.

A new vegetable. What could possibly go wrong?

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

The recipe

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.

The ingredients

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….

The sausages of choice

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. Gesch眉tzte 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.

It’s organic, and everything.

The equipment

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.

Did it work?

The instructions

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)

Twelve fat sausages, sizzling in the pan….

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.

They looked ok though.

Then onto the plate, with a sausage, some apple sauce and some veg.

The verdict was slightly mixed. Sophie not keen but Magnus gave it the thumbs up. Except the vegetables. Obviously.

Pudding

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.

(There’s) nothing like a bit of home baking

This is an Emsl盲nder 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 sch枚n Deutschland. All mistakes are ours.

We’re off to Poland next. Let me know what we should try there….

Week 2 – Brussels, Belgium and Battlefields

It’s the end of week 2 and this still feels like a normal holiday. The vertigo only sets in when we realise we have 24 more to go… We’ve been in and around Brussels all week and tomorrow pack up again (actually we have done most of the packing already having learnt a lesson last week when trying to leave Amsterdam), and head off to Rommerskirchen, which is as near as we could get to Cologne during Carnival week.

Here’s how this week was….

Where were we? What did we do?

Ghent

On our first day in Brussels we got in our car, ducked our heads (driving a 191cm car in and out of, not to mention round, a 190cm car park is a true adrenaline experience), and left. This is no reflection on Brussels. We had tickets booked for the Van Eyck 2020 exhibition in Ghent, which we had read about back in November (and had paid for there and then on the basis that it was 鈥淪o unlikely to be repeated that the museum might as well use 鈥榥ow or never鈥欌 Wall Street Journal). Of course the children are great afficionadoes of early 15th century masterpieces so they were terribly excited about this too.

It was well done and very informative (possibly to an over-venerating fault: thanks audio guide), but the things we noticed were the details – the angels’ wings, the hairs on Adam’s legs – panels from the Ghent altarpiece (more to come on this) are in the exhibition, allowing a really privileged close-up view – and the portrait that looks very much like one of the children’s teachers…

We then wandered along the river to Ghent’s medieval heart. Storm Denis was still puffing and blowing but that wasn’t enough to put us (inspired by Aurora) off climbing the 91m of the Belfry for a very blustery but exhilarating view from the top.

Did I mention it was quite windy?

We were keen, too, to see the Van Eyck, the world- famous and recently restored Creepy Sheep (aka Mystic Lamb). This is in St Bavo’s Cathedral, which is rightly proud of it. Long queues inside the Cathedral leave you in no doubt which way to go, so we paid up, waited and – technical art critical terms coming up – it was rubbish.

Not the altarpiece itself, because we can’t tell you about that, because we effectively didn’t see it. Too many people not going anywhere meant even those of us who are more than 5’4″ gave up after about ten minutes of standing around. We got an impression of a very large altarpiece and a very small sheep, but that was about it. Time for a waffle.

Brussels

Chocolate tour

About the third thing the children wrote on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, which has been up in our kitchen since 2018, was “Chocolate”, so we knew some form of cocoa-based activity was non-negotiable. And where else to do that than Brussels?

A quick bit of internet research throws up many, many different chocolate tour options. So far, so easy. A little more research, however reveals prices generally at about 鈧50 per person. Or 鈧300 for all of us. Now I, (Harriet), like chocolate as much as (more than) the next person – separate theory, the world divides into those who would rather give up chocolate than alcohol and those who’d hang on to their last dairy milk while all the Dom Perignon gets flushed down the drain. I’m definitely in the latter camp (though am also partial to champagne, if anyone’s wondering) but even I draw the line at spending 鈧300 on chocolate.

And the thing is, when you look at these tours, they’re mostly only walking and eating. These are two of our core skills. How hard could it be to do without help?

Not very, it turns out. Very loosely guided by this blog, we plotted out a circular route from our apartment to Grand Place and back and simply stopped in any chocolate shops that took our fancy along the way. One chocolate each, in each of six shops: Total cost 鈧49 (including a couple of cuberdons we had failed to buy in Ghent).

It must be admitted though that the blood sugar high, and resulting low, were not something we had factored in. The children were possibly slightly less impressed by our final stop in Grand Place than we might have hoped….

Museums

Museum fatigue is, in our medical lexicon anyway, a real thing. We didn’t get the balance right in Brussels, and we will need to work on this, but we did visit the Musical Instrument Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Belgian Cartoon Museum, the Design Museum (it was free and we were there) and the Atomium (not actually a museum).

Aside: We need a new word. Museum provokes only groans among our travelling companions, yet it covers a multitude of experiences. What should we call it instead?

Battlefields

This felt (no, this is) important. The children wear poppies and participate in Remembrance events every year, and while in Belgium it seemed that we would be letting them down if we didn’t expose them to a little bit of “real” history.

Having met quite a bit of resistance (no pun intended) to museums in general in the preceding days we were, however, a bit nervous about this. A child who has a strop in a museum is just an unpleasant child; a child who has a strop in a World War One cemetery is being downright disrespectful. We didn’t want that child to be our child.

So we did some serious preparatory work: we sat them down and made them watch the last ever episode of Blackadder. This wasn’t our idea, but was shamelessly cribbed from an ex-history teacher of our acquaintance.

It was a good move. They laughed, a lot, (“wibble“), engaged with the characters and poetry (“Boom, boom, boom”) and afterwards, as I sat in a heap of snot and tears (the pathos is somehow worse if you know what’s coming), they were uncharacteristically silent.

And it gave us a real reference point. A trench stops being a long, thin, not-very-deep hole in the ground if you’ve seen a film of someone living in it. It’s much easier to imagine the mud (to be fair in February in Flanders not much imagination is required) if you’ve laughed at someone making coffee from it. You understand the utterly horrendous waste of life if you’ve heard Baldrick explain it, as only he can.

We planned quite carefully too. We were not going to overload them. One museum, one trench, two cemeteries. All in, or around Ieper (Ypres), about an hour and a half away.

The In Flanders Fields museum was excellent (less dull, said Sophie). Fully interactive, with lots of videos and lived testimony displayed in an engaging way. And a Belfry, for the exercise, the views of the Menin Gate, and to make Aurora and Sophie (and Ben) jump out of their skins when the bells suddenly rang above their heads.

The museum gave us more context before we visited the Menin Gate, where the names of 56,607 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known burial place are engraved. Then to the Yorkshire Trench. This is, literally, just a trench in an industrial park on the outskirts of Ypres. There’s no visitor centre or attempt at reconstruction. It just is what it is. It’s almost inconceivable to look around at the everyday 21st century mundanity of the surroundings and imagine what it must have been like a short century ago.

Then off through the flat, fertile fields, where none of the trees is over 100 years old, to Tyne Cot cemetery. We stopped in another small cemetery on the way, by request of the children. (Is it wrong to say we were delighted by that?) We looked at the ages of those who died: 19, 23, 27, 20, 22… , we wondered if any of them was from Kelso and we spotted, between two Brits, an unknown German. Perhaps he was called Falk.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Sophie: On the first day when we arrived I thought it was really busy, but it wasn’t actually. It is quite language-judgement-free which is nice. I knew the first world war was really serious but I didn’t realise how serious until we went there. I thought the houses in Brussels would be more modern, but they weren’t.

Ben: I was far more impressed with Brussels than I expected. I’d been here a couple of times on business some years ago, but it was much larger, more magisterial, than I remembered. It felt slightly shameful to be driving through in a British-registered vehicle, when our country has so pointlessly ejected itself from this place in particular.

Then it it felt quite scary driving a 1.91m car into the 1.90m car park. Harriet had done a phenomenal job booking our accommodation right in the centre of Brussels (about 200m from Grande Place) within budget and with parking. The parking was underground in the Place Monnaie parking, and I have only just learned to drive without ducking, while in the car park. It was rammed on a Saturday afternoon too. Definitely needed a beer after that…

“How low can you go?”

The beers were, funnily enough, ubiquitous and very Belgian (yeasty and strong, in the main). I think I shall write a beery post a little later, after Cologne carnival has done its worst.

Lucy: I was surprised that we were staying so close to the centre. I thought it was a really nice city. I liked noticing the completely random people – like the man on the unicycle today. I think it was very multi-cultural.

Aurora: There are more people around during the night than the day. The manneken pis was everywhere even though it was just a weird fountain.

Caption competition…

Harriet: Arguments aside I have loved being in Brussels. We have been right in the centre and I enjoyed the hustle of a big city. It feels very prosperous here, and I have enjoyed the multi-cultural, and multi-liguistic feel. I am both surprised and simultaneously not at how relieved I have felt to be on a country where I properly speak (one of) the language(s).

Magnus: There are lots of chocolate and waffle shops. Lots of Tintin, which is not bad because I like Tintin. There are lots of souvenirs with the statue of the boy weeing.

What were the highlights?

Lucy: I really enjoyed our first night meal. I enjoyed doing the touristy things like eating too much chocolate and waffles. The food generally. I enjoyed the Atomium today because it’s an amazing thing. I have enjoyed the funny museums we’ve been to. They’ve all been slightly weird: Magritte was obviously Magritte. The Design museum was a bit random but in a good way; I liked it. The cartoon museum – some of the cartoons they had there were, just, why? I really enjoyed trying new food, mainly the mussels.

Sophie: I liked the chocolate tour. I liked climbing the Belfries. I preferred the one in Ghent, because you could take really cool photos from there. I liked our meal out.

Are you enjoying that, Sophie?

Harriet: I have loved waking up to the sound of bells from Brussels’ many churches – they sound so un-English (no peals here) but also very familiar and welcoming. Our day visiting the Battlefields will stay with me for a long time. The musical instrument museum, where they gave you a little audio machine that allowed you to hear the sound of all the individual instruments, made me very happy. There was an amazing wind instrument, from central Europe somewhere, that made quite the most beautiful noise I have heard in a long time. To my shame I have no idea what it was called.

Aurora: Waffles and our meal out. It was really nice. I liked taking photos with the graffiti.

Ben: Being right in the middle was great. Lots of food-related highlights, the fantastic musical instrument museum (an ondes-martenot up close, several lovely bassoons and dulcians, and a whole floor dedicated to traditional – non-western orchestral – musical instruments, yet again challenging me to look beyond western music – of any sort – as the “best”). The Van Eyck exhibition was brilliant. The In Flanders Fields Museum was pitched perfectly.

Magnus: Chocolate, tintin, waffles. The atomium, it’s massive and I like it.

What was the weather like?

As you’d expect for Februrary. Cold, wet, windy and sunny intermittently. Often all four.

Any bad bits? Did we fight?

This week being away from home definitely kicked in for Aurora and Sophie, both of whom had moments of really missing their friends, despite (it seems to their parents) being constantly (and often simultaneously) on the phone/facetime/WhatsApp/instagram/messenger to them. The sadness, for all that it was and is doubtless compounded by tiredness, hormones and any one of the other myriad reasons that can make an eleven-year-old teary, nonetheless real, and made us, as parents aware, once again, that this is an adventure they had no choice about….

Lucy: I didn’t enjoy it when Sophie and Aurora missed out. I know it was their choice to stay at home. I didn’t like it when one of us wouldn’t eat the food.

Aurora: Fighting. The weird sheep was weird and boring.

Sophie: Fighting. When we all got scratchy when we were bored. Exercise when we’ve just got up. I didn’t like missing out on the comic museum.

Tintin has a message for us all

Ben: The Lamb of God in Ghent was a bunfight, this time not Campbell-related, however awesome it should have been.

Any hints and tips?

Magnus: Atomium. Maybe mini-Europe. We didn’t go because it was shut. Comic museum.

Lucy: if you see something in the street, a shop or a museum, just try it out. It might be rubbish, but it never really has been. Definitely do a self-guided chocolate tour.

Aurora: Have more waffles than we did: we were here for a week and we only had three.

Harriet: Don’t bother with the Mystic Lamb, but do visit Ghent. Children are surprisingly enthusiastic about anything with lots of steps and a view.

What could be more fun?

Sophie: Try the Gaufrerie waffle shop. Eat at Chez Leon. Self guided chocolate tour.

Ben: Get a listening thing in the Musical Instrument Museum. Budget a lot for waffles, and choose your waffle shop wisely.

Not all waffles are created equal

What’s next?

We leave tomorrow for four days outside Cologne where they will be celebrating Carnival. We are told it will be quite an experience. We have our fancy dress ready.