I’m in charge of packing, organising, booking tickets, and making sure everyone has their coat, bag, teddy, toothbrush and the correct number of limbs.
In real life I’m a solicitor, working (because I don’t make anything easy) for a firm of accountants. I’ve also been an award-winning blogger, chair of the PTA (obviously), director of a housing association, and occasional (and not very tuneful) folk fiddler.
My biggest hope for the trip is that we will all get on brilliantly. My biggest fear (apart from missing limbs – see above) is that we won’t.
Oh, and I’d like the children to come back eating more than just pasta bolognaise…
Here’s something I never thought I’d struggle with: vanity.
I am not, as anyone who knows me will be surprised to hear, someone who spends a lot of time on my appearance. I wear make up for high days and work only, and I tend to tell hairdressers to “Do what you like”. (Admittedly this may be partly due to indecisiveness and lack of imagination). I’ve recently let my hair go back to its naturally curly state, and while this has required quite a bit of thought and getting used to, once it’s done, I don’t think about it, unless I catch sight of myself in a mirror.
I like clothes, but I’m terrified of being judged for what I look like, so rarely wear anything that would make me stand out in a crowd, even though those are often the clothes I love. I’m also too stingy to spend much money on clothes – although I have an unerring eye for the most expensive item of clothing in any magazine: it’s guaranteed to be the one I like. I keep my clothes for ever so they’re rarely up go date. Indeed I’m currently wearing a pair of pants I bought while pregnant with Lucy, and a t-shirt that has been carbon-dated to 2002.
In an ideal world I’d look effortlessly, and crucially, neatly, stylish. The sort of person who looks well put-together at all times, groomed and sleek. But I’m not that person. The problem is that the effortless look is, as effortless things often are, actually a lot of effort. I don’t have the budget or time for that, I’m too lumpy and bumpy to be sleek and no one ever described curls as groomed…. And mostly, at home, I’m ok with that.
So my appearance wasn’t really part of the packing and planning deal. I already had a number of black merino tops (they’re warm and wash well and were mostly bought to go under ski kit) so I bought some black bottoms to go with them. Plus a grey jumper with bright stars down the sleeves to add some (though not much) colour and stop me looking like a ninja. I stuck in a pair of zebra trainers too just because I didn’t want to be in Paris looking like I was about to tackle the North face of the Eiger.
And I hate it. I’m really struggling with the drab utilitarian nature of my clothes. I loathe all the black. In the pictures that have been taken of me I look frumpy and tired. Ben is no help as he thinks I look lovely whatever – which is obviously fabulous from a matrimonial perspective but utterly useless from an objective one.
I feel foolish and shallow for feeling like this and I feel as though I am letting my daughters, in particular, down. To them I am just “Mummy”; even Sophie, our fashionista, doesn’t notice my appearance unless I pile on the slap (red lipstick always gets a reaction), and that is perhaps as it should be. I certainly don’t want to let them start to feel that their sense of self-worth is tied up in their appearance. I never would have said that mine was, and I am disappointed in myself that this seems to be the case.
But the problem is, I don’t know what to do about it. My clothes and hair are, rightly, practical. We don’t want to spend money on new clothes and even if we did I wouldn’t know what to buy. Do practical and stylish clothes exist? Can they make a 5’4″, size 12, 43-year-old mother-of-4 look half her age and twice her height?
I could wear more make up or get a new hair cut, but again I wouldn’t know where to start and anyway is that a message I want to send the girls (and boy)?
I think part of my distress is the lack of control. The situation is what it is, I have the clothes, face and body I have and, exercise and slightly fewer waffles aside, there is little I can do about them now. This is, in a way, a metaphor for the whole trip. We are on this roller coaster and have to keep riding. Only micro adjustments allowed. There will constantly be things that are not quite right but which we will have to try to make work. Resilience will be required. I just didn’t necessarily expect it to be required so soon, and by me.
But my brand new bright pink puffer jacket (genuinely needed, and on super offer) may help too.
This was easy. We went out for dinner the night we got here and had moules. Or at least some of us did. Some (one) of us got so stressed about the prospect of even trying one that he nearly couldn’t manage the chicken and chips he had ordered…
But no. The children were delighted to hear that that wasn’t the end of the Belgian version of the new-and-unfamiliar-food torture method I have devised for them.
Again I turned to google and discovered a list of the top Belgian meals. Tempted though I was to turn the metaphorical thumb screws a little tighter, I decided against endive (even though I love them), stoemp (stamppot by another (well, almost the same) name), filet American (raw minced beef) and paling in’t groen (eels in green sauce – not least as I thought sourcing eels in the supermarket might be tricky). Meatballs, on the other hand, looked do-able.
Frikadellen met krieken
Meatballs (frikadellen or boulettes, depending on your cultural and linguistic loyalties) in Belgium seem principally to come three ways: with tomatoes, with cherries, or à la Liègois, with a rich stock. While I was tempted entirely to wimp out and just cook meatballs in tomato sauce, that really did feel a bit un-adventurous, so cherries it was.
Recipes in English for meatballs with cherries abound on the net, but they seem mostly to be written by Americans who have been to Belgium once, which lacked the authentic feel I was going for. My Flemish is definitely not up to the task, but I fortunately found this recipe, which is not only in French (so possibly inauthentic for a Flemish meal but surely more authentic than the American ones, and it has a .be address), and is also pleasingly vague. I like a recipe that allows me to freestyle a little…
Can cook, Can’t (don’t have the equipment to) cook
Because, yes, we are in another AirBnB that is not designed for cooking. A little improvisation was therefore required.
The kitchen (indeed the entire flat) is beautiful and very stylish (or was until we dumped our stuff all over it), but it is surrounded by restaurants and we are clearly expected to use them.
In a step up (down?) from our Amsterdam home, this one doesn’t even have a colander. A pan lid will suffice at times, but rinsing beans was more of a challenge.
Still, we have knives and pans. How hard can it be?
One of the things I am enjoying about this mini-project is the chance to see what is available in local shops that I probably wouldn’t ordinarily notice, and definitely wouldn’t ordinarily buy. This meal, all the recipes were agreed, wanted minced pork and veal. As a thing. Together. How unimaginable is that in Britain? Imagine my delight to find it, pre-packaged (which is obviously both good and bad) in the supermarket.
Chapelure was also on the list. I think it would probably translate as breadcrumbs and I was a bit nervous about finding that too, but there it was, even in the mini city-centre supermarket.
And it turns out that not all cherries are created equal. These are highly superior €6 (six euros?!) Cerises du Nord. Proud product of Belgium. Hungarian cherries were also available, at a sixth of the cost, but we felt our Belgian meal deserved the good stuff.
Stop wittering, how do you cook it?
The key parts to this meal, on which all the recipes I chose to slightly diverge from agreed, are a) the meat, b) the cherries, and c) that everything should be cooked in butter.
When cooking I generally choose to obey the instructions I like, so I finely (ish, the knives aren’t brilliant and I quite like my fingers) chopped an onion and sweated it in butter. I then mixed that with the mince (a kilo, since you ask), some herbes de provence (clearly entirely inauthentic but we had bought some last week) and fresh parsley, an egg, three spoonfuls of the chapelure (still not entirely sure what it is) and some pepper.
I then shaped that into meatballs and fried them gently (in the same wok) in more butter. Meanwhile I chopped up more unpeeled potatoes to make more mash (honestly, I may never bother peeling a potato again). The recipes differ on whether you serve this dish with bread or potatoes but we had had sandwiches for lunch and had potatoes left over so it wasn’t a hard choice.
Next, make your cherry sauce. This was a bit of a challenge:
Google to the rescue again, after tea towels and hot water had failed (sounds like an episode of Call the Midwife), a blunt knife (plenty of those) broke the seal and we were in business.
I drained the cherries (using the lid this time) and kept the juice. You then have to make a sauce with the juice but again the recipes all seemed to do this in different ways. I couldn’t be bothered with more onions or herbs and I definitely wasn’t buying a whole box of cornflour just to use a spoonful, as my main source required. I could, though, I reckoned, justify buying ordinary flour (as then I can justify making pancakes – win, win). So I made a very thin sauce by melting a bit more (you guessed it) butter, adding a spoonful of flour and gradually whisking (because there isn’t a word for “stirring aggressively with the same teaspoon”) in the cherry juice.
The cherries and sauce then go back in with the meatballs, the potatoes are mashed. Some cabbage (because I am a parent and do not want my children to get scurvy) is steamed in a very small pan (steaming requires less water and therefore fits better) et voilà.
Well, ish. For what is a meal without pudding? And what is a visit to Belgium without a waffle?
Astonishingly there is no waffle iron here. However there is a waffle shop within 15 steps of our front door. It seemed inevitable…
Belgian meal. Done. With apologies to any Belgians.
Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….
Where were we?
This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.
A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.
Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.
The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.
First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….
Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.
We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.
We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.
Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.
We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.
It must be time to move on.
What were our impressions? What surprised you?
Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.
Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.
Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.
Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.
Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.
Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.
How was the weather?
Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).
What were the highlights?
Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.
Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.
Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.
Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.
Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!
Any bad bits? Did we fight?
What do you think?
We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.
What did we eat?
Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).
This was one of my key aims: to cook, and eat (or at least try and get the children to eat) a meal from every country we visit. I also want to read a book from every country, and Ben is keen to go running at least once, drink one alcoholic drink, and set foot in them all (Lucy ran once round the car in a layby about 500m from the Franco-Belgian Border to prove that particular point).
We didn’t have time to cook a meal while she was doing that, and we will be going back to both Belgium and France so our first meal challenge is the Netherlands.
The internet tells me that Stamppot is “the most quintessential Dutch dish“. Leaving aside the question of whether something can be “most” quintessential and mindful too of the need not prevent meltdowns (mostly mine) when the children refuse to eat their supper, I thought mashed potato and vegetables seemed a good place to start.
There are multiple versions of stamppot on the net, but spruce eats says this version, with kale (something the children will eat) and sausages (you guessed it) “arguably could be considered the Netherlands’ national dish”
Buy your ingredients
Kale, potatoes, sausage. Easy, right?
The kale was indeed easy – and it even comes pre-shredded. I’m just very glad I knew what the word was before I went to the supermarket as I’d never have identified it otherwise.
The sausage I was looking for was, apparently, called rookworst. It’s a Dutch smoked variety. Turkey ones are available, but we thought pork might be preferable. Again. Not too hard to source. In fact the local Lidl (yes, we’ve managed to find a house with a Lidl in walking distance) had two varieties, fresh in the fridge (and with a helpful picture of a pig on it to prevent confusion) and something else (dried?) in a vacuum pack. I have an instinctive horror of vacuum packed sausage so bought fresh ones.
Poatoes. Easy again. As long as you want 5 kilos. It appears the Dutch must eat a lot of potatoes.
Also onions. I forgot those so had to send Ben back for them later. He loves that.
Prepare your ingredients
The cottage we are staying has not got what you would describe as a Cook’s Kitchen. Notable by their absence are a) a potato peeler, b) a potato masher and c) a pan big enough to get 1.5kg of potatoes in. Not deterred and inspired by my sister in law (who is both Irish and a potato afficionado – the two may or may not be connected), I decided not to peel the potatoes. If she can make mash with unpeeled potatoes, I decided, so can I.
Next problem. How to cook the rookworst. They came with no instructions. Grill? Bake? Fry?. Again the internet came to my rescue. Simmer them (Really? Simmer a sausage? Don’t try that in Lincolnshire). With a lack of pans, and inspired by this site, I just stuck them on top of the potatoes.
And do you know what? It worked! I chopped the onion and gently fried it with bit of butter before mixing in the kale. I’d have called it “wilting” the kale but it was so finely chopped already it didn’t have much texture to wilt.
Then I mashed the potatoes with some more butter, a bit of milk and some of the sausagey cooking liquid. I then threw some of the liquid all over my trousers just for fun and finished off the cooking in my pants.
The kitchen isn’t very well lit either so it was quite hard to see what I was doing by this point, so to mix the mash (in a too small pan) with the kale (also in a too small pan) I wore a head torch. Don’t try this at home…
I then put the sausages on top, found another pair trousers, removed the head torch and bore our Boerenkoolstamppot triumphant to the table. And they ate it!
Time for pudding. And this really was simple. I bought it. It was delicious.
It turns out it has beans it it. Who knew? Cake as one of your five a day.
Not content with a Dutch supper, we broke out into an Dutch breakfast this morning too.
Here’s a picture.
Yes. That is sprinkles and butter on crispy bread as recommended by one of Lucy’s friends who has Dutch cousins. It really is a traditional Dutch breakfast. Apparently you can use ordinary bread or toast too if you prefer. And also apparently this is a totally normal breakfast here. Certainly the wide choice of sprinkles available would seem to suggest a high demand…
The reluctant eaters today were Ben and me, but in the spirit of “You must try everything at least once” we had some too. It was pretty much as you’d expect.
The kids, on the other hand, loved it. I’m not sure their dentist would be so keen.
This is probably the one question everyone is asking this week. And of course while I can only speak for myself, and quite what the children feel is a bit of a mystery (see below), the answer is I don’t know. I feel everything. All the feelings. Sometimes all at the same time and sometimes in waves: a swell of one emotion followed by a surge of another.
We keep asking the children how they feel. We get a range of answers from “uh” to “dunno“. The thing is they clearly do feel something (they must, mustn’t they?) but either they’re choosing not to share it with us or they don’t have the words to do so. For a family that has always tried to be both open and articulate that feels somewhat disappointing.
Magnus alone is a bit more responsive, but only really on the subject of volcanoes. We’ve managed to convince him he should be ok in the Netherlands.
It’s a beautiful morning, and I have been watching the brds in the garden. The bullfinches (always my favourites) were fiery peaches in the tree outside the kitchen. As I watched I was conscious that I was somehow already missing them (and so much else) despite still being here.
Is there a word for this? There must be in some languages.
And oddly that feeling is still with me, while at the moment, I’m excited. No, really. I am. You know that psychologial trick that grown ups (ie anyone else) try to play on you before an exam or somewhere you have to speak in public? When they say “Tell yourself you’re not nervous, you’re excited. Those butterflies aren’t utter terror, they’re anticipation“? That thing? Well, oddly, for the first time in my life, it’s working.
I don’t normally get excited about holidays in advance. There’s too much to do and I’m normally too taken up with packing and sorting and cancelling the milk and I-don’t-know-where-your-teddy-is,-probably-where-you-left-it to get excited until we’ve actually left the house, got to the airport on time, checked in and no one has been sick. Yet now, when I stop, and think about what we are about to do. I am. I am really excited. Can’t wait to get going.
Which is possibly because what we are doing is so utterly out of character. I am absolutely not a flout convention, throw caution to the wind, leave our jobs and go travelling sort of person. This is the sort of thing that people I look at in astonished admiration do. It is categorically not what I do.
So I can’t really believe all sorts of things. I can’t believe we are (I am) actually doing this. I can’t believe it has come round so quickly. I can’t believe we are actually going in 3 days.
I think (and this is a tip for anyone else thinking that they might do this) that the massively long lead time has helped with all of that. I am absolutely certain that if we had come up with this plan in August, which is when I actually booked the first tickets for this trip (the return flights, of course), I would have said (rather less calmly than that implies) that it was impossible to plan, got into a panic and refused to go. But the drip, drip, drip incremental planning and pondering, over eight simultaneously long and very fast years, has allowed me to get my head around it, stifle the voice that says, “You can’t” and actually go.
Still don’t quite believe it though.
That voice is a bit of a constant for me. It turns out that (deep breath) I suffer from anxiety. In my case this means that despite outward appearances, I have NOT GOOD ENOUGH running through me like a stick of rock. I am terrified of not doing enough, of letting people down, of failing. And every time I do fall short, it feels meant and inevitable, the natural consquence of my inability to do the right thing. And thus the cycle turns. I don’t mention it much, not so much because I’m ashamed (although I am a bit – it is, after all not good enough that I feel like this; I should be better, more grateful for the luck and love I have) but because (and I realise the irony in this) I am very conscious of the many people out there who suffer much worse than I do. I hesitate to call what I have anxiety for fear that they will feel that I am comparing myself with them. I may be anxious but am I anxious enough..?
So this trip is a bit of a test. There are, after all, so many reasons it could go wrong. So many potential catastrophes I can imagine and mentally torture myself with. So many disaster scenarios I can concoct in my head. I am, as we are telling Magnus with his volcano worries (are his fears my fault?) just having to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Things really get on top of me when they don’t go to plan, or when I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the unending (and clearly three-dimensional) to do list.
But (thanks to the last-month-chart-of-doom) I am feeling oddly, and unexpectedly, in control. (Honestly, I have been apologising to Ben for months about how awful I am going to be this week, and I don’t think I am at all – he of course may disagree)
This of course makes me nervous. If I’m not madly rushing around doing things, that must be because I’ve forgotten something. We can’t surely be actually in control, can we? (Famous last words, tempting fate, touching wood….)
But, on balance, I do, I think, with both arms on the wooden table, bottom on the wooden seat, and eyes nervously scanning the windows for magpies, feel positive. If I’m terrified of anything at the moment, it’s that something might happen that means we can’t go.
I’m ready for this – rooms are emptied, a million conversations have been had, the “quiet” drink in the pub was last night.
Two weeks ago this wasn’t even a question. This week it’s definitely in the top ten.
Our planned route has us spending a month in China, arriving in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai to Osaka in early July. We’ve bought the map and the Lonely Planet, identified the places we really want to see and worked out an outline itinerary. I’ve even spent the last six months learning some very rudimentary Mandarin in expectation (Nihao!).
Clearly this is a minor inconvenience in comparison with what it must be like for those suffering, their families, or those trapped in their homes in Hubei province, and it is for their sake not ours that we hope very much that it passes soon.
But for the moment, the answer to the question is, “We’ll see“. We have four months before we arrive in China and we will just have to wait to find out what the situation is much nearer that time. We have a possible plan B in our heads (although that too is not without difficulties) and if it comes to it we will just have to do, and go, where we safely can.
For the moment though this is an exercise in not worrying about what we cannot change. It appears that the resilience training has started – even before we have left the country.
Today is, for me at least, the first day the trip feels real. Yesterday I packed up my desk, took my handy reminders off the wall (it’s being repainted while I’m away, which is a good thing as it turns out that blu-tak really does make holes in the paintwork – who knew?), got paid and left the building for the last time (ish, I’m actually going in again on Monday, but that doesn’t make for such a dramatic announcement) until September.
Because unlike Ben, I do have a job to come back to. Again, it’s all been very carefully (read mostly accidentally) planned.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (London, about 2009, which really does feel like a different planet) I was a mother of three children under two and rather struggling to combine that with working for the prestigious law firm I had employed by since I left law school. I was all set to resign so we could move to Scotland when my employers suggested that I could continue to work for them, but part-time, on my own hours, and from 350 miles away.
The zero hours option
It was the perfect short term solution and it lasted 9 years, through a move, another baby, and quite a few 6 a.m. trains from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Indeed, it could have been the perfect solution for this trip.
I was the Uber driver of private client lawyers, and, for a long while my zero hours contract was brilliant, not least because my managers knew about the Tweed to Tokyo plan and (with no contracted hours) time off for it was assured. But the firm changed, or I changed, or something and everything changed and, back in 2017 and 18 the job started to make me very unhappy. I’m sure I will talk about that more at another time, but suffice to say, that when a local accountancy firm approached me about possibly working for them, after a little bit of deliberation (because the institutionalising effect of only ever working for one firm should not be under-estimated), I took the job.
The sabbatical solution
And the nice thing is, when you are accepting a new job you really can ask for what you want. They can, of course, say no, but in this case they didn’t. I told them about the trip and that I would therefore need this time off and they agreed to let me have it. I think they knew that had they not done so, I would have gritted my teeth and stayed put.
So it’s all very straightforward for me: I have seven months off, unpaid, and will be back in the office on September 1st. It feels a very long way off. I hope they still want me back.
This is probably the question we get asked most often. We’ve got four children, they’re all in mainstream state education. How on earth are we getting away with taking them out of school for six months without getting fined, imprisoned or (at the very least) bringing them back functionally illiterate?
It’s taking some clever, and, in some cases, entirely accidental planning…
The first thing we did (and this was absolutely nothing to do with the trip planning itself) was move to Scotland. The law on education in Scotland is not the same as in England and, crucially, there are no fines (or anything else) for parents whose children are absent from school. That’s not to say that schools are terribly keen on it (fierce letters home for those who book holidays to Disneyland in the cheap weeks) but just that there’s no official sanction.
We have, of course we have, discussed the trip with the schools. I think I first mentioned it to the primary school about four years ago, and the high school were told before Lucy even started there. Both schools have been hugely supportive and positive about what we’re doing. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a teacher who hasn’t thought it was a brilliant idea. The schools do, naturally, have absence figures to submit and I don’t think anyone would be happy with recording six months of unauthorised absence for four children, but somehow (and I suspect there’s some bureaucratic fudge in here about which I have not enquired too deeply) all our kids are being allowed to go away and come back as though nothing has happened. We don’t (officially) need to home school during that time and nor will we, crucially, lose our school places.
That’s another lucky bit of non-planning. We live in a small town. It has two primary schools and one high school. There is, effectively, no parent choice. (You can choose one primary school over the other, but most people don’t bother, and unless you move away or go private, everyone ends up at the same high school). There’s also no pressure on places. There is space for our kids in the schools and there will be space when we come back. They will (administratively at least) just slot back in.
Time and space
We’ve been lucky with timing too. The children are currently in S1 (first year of high school), P7 (last year of primary) and P4 (somewhere in the middle). So while their education is important (especially to us!), they are not missing anything key. We’re not at the stage of exams – no dreaded SATs in Scotland – and syllabuses (Syllabi? Syllabodes?) and anything that they miss this year will be covered and re-covered in the years to come.
In addition (that’s maths, that is) they’re not actually missing that much school. We leave on 10th February, 3 weeks today (almost to the minute, as I type). Half term starts the end of that week, so they’re only missing half of this term and all of the next. The Scottish Summer term (like the Scottish Summer) is short, finishing at the end of June, so in all it’s about 12 weeks of school they’ll miss, some at least of which will be Sports Days and trips out (and, sadly, high school transition for Sophie and Aurora) and the like.
Support for learning
None of which is to say that they’re going to get away with learning nothing while we’re away. We’re rather hoping (expecting) that the trip itself will be an education (we won’t be able to get away from languages, geography, history, music and art – even “are we nearly there yet” can be turned into maths, cooking supper (and shopping for it) is home economics and walking up Mount Fuji is definitely PE) but we’ve also been pestering the schools for support so that we can be sure that when we come back the children will have covered everything that they would have done had they been sitting in their classrooms here. Lucy’s teachers have given us the syllabuses (I’m going with that one) for the year, and although I might struggle to explain a covalent bond, Ben handily has a biochemistry degree and a past life as a biology teacher, so I think we’ll be ok. The head teacher of the primary school has handed over precious maths text books so that we can make sure that all of that is covered too (No 239,356,548 on my to do list is revise long division…).
And of course in the age of the internet and phones, there’s an app for everything. One very lovely teacher has signed us up to various recommended programmes, and as I’ve already mentioned this blog is just homework in disguise. (I’m told Because, But, So, is the structure to to aim for – look out for it).
Will it be enough? Who knows?
And if you know – or if you have any suggestions – comment below!
Why, with 20-something days to go (and 833,492,756 things still remaining on the to do list) am I blogging? Why have I joined twitter (which I always said I wouldn’t). Why does Aurora delight in telling me she has more followers on her (private) instagram account than we do on our family (public) one?
In short, why not just take our family on the trip of a lifetime and enjoy it?
When we first started talking about this trip, people we talked to (and yes, there was more than one) got very over-excited about how with the right social media this could be massive and how we could change our lives and write books and be the stars in the films of our lives and I may now be slightly exaggerating, but you know what I mean.
And of course, they are right, sort of, and of course that would be lovely (and so if you are a book editor reading this then don’t let us stop you being in touch) but when we thought about it, we realised that that would be an awful lot of hard work. It’s not that we are afraid of hard work (we suspect bits of this trip might be a little tricky from time to time, and don’t get me started on the intricacies of getting visas for some of the places we’re going), but we didn’t, really didn’t, want blogging or any other sort of social media to become the point of the trip. The point of the trip is the trip, and anything that comes out of it is a bonus…
So then, why blog at all? Well for us, in the end, it’s threefold:
This is our diary, our journal and our record of the trip. When I went travelling in my teens I wrote a journal every day. Bits of it are excruciating to read back (what teenage journal isn’t?) but it’s real and it’s really important to me still to have those memories. I have an idea that when we get back I am (somehow) going to turn these words and the pictures on instagram and the witticisms and whinges on twitter into a book for each of us to keep. And to bore our grandchildren with.
This is our postcard home. Of course there will be real postcards home (I have the idea that each of my godchildren will get a postcard from each country we visit – fortunately there are only two of them) but this is how we let our Mummies know where we are and what we are up to. We’re even hoping some of our friends will want to find out too.
This is (part of) the children’s education. Again, it’s a substitute diary, in some ways, but hopefully it will keep them writing, they’ll take pictures, they’ll want to find out where we’ve been and tell the world about it. The idea is that without noticing it, somewhere along the way they’ll learn something…
And it’s with that third one that you come in, because I know that the more people they think are interested, the more followers and likes they have, the more comments they get, the more they will want to write and draw and describe. So please, do comment or like, share or retweet, and if you have thoughts or hints and tips on anything they (or I, or Ben) put up on here or anywhere else do let us know – and we will shamelessly use it to make our trip better, for all of us.
And when we write a book, we’ll mention you all in the acknowledgements. Promise.
This is normally about question 4 (after “Seriously?” “Why?” and “What about school?” (more on that one later)).
Simple answer: we have very lovely friends (plus children, plus dogs) who are going to live in it for us. It’s (hopefully) a win-win: they need somewhere to live for six months (they’re moving away after that) and we get someone to look after the house and pay the council tax and feed the chickens and fight off any burglars, spiders or other nasties and generally keep the insurance company happy.
Getting rid of this shipping container was supposed to have happened by Christmas 2018.
It was one of those cases where the universe really does provide; we had previously thought that someone else was going to live in it and when that fell through, a mere four months ago, we were at a loss. But a casual chat during a children’s swimming lesson became “Well, we could”, became “Shall we?”, became us meeting up last night to sign an agreement… so its official. They get to live in our house and we have to, really, go somewhere else.
But of course signing (and drafting) the paperwork is the easy bit. The tricky bit has been looking round our house and realising how much needs to be done before we can reasonably expect someone else to live in it: the back door that doesn’t open, the doorbell that doesn’t work, the broken bed (not as exciting as it sounds), the wobbly bannister, the dishwasher that requires to be sworn at in exactly the right way before it will deign to work, and even then only one time in every three, and grudgingly at that. We’ve been living with these things for years but can we really expect someone else to?
Happy New Home Goldie
But we’re getting there. And rather enjoying living in a house where nothing needs fixing. We’ve emptied cupboards too (“Oh, that’s where that was!”), rehomed the fish and provided an 8 page list of where the trip switches are and who is our preferred plumber..
The chickens will be looked after (although Marilyn (she was blond, busty and had an attitude to match) has sadly not lived to see us go – RIP Marilyn), as will the garden. We have a separate cottage in our garden (built for my parents but available for holiday lets while they’re not in it) so that needs to be planned for too.
Yesterday I made 26 jars of jam from the fruit in the freezer. Today, banana cake.
The freezer is being emptied (fish fingers and ice cream for supper tonight), and anything really precious and breakable squirrelled away. The deep litter filing system is being worked through (and mostly re-filed in the recycling).
The to do list continues… We leave four weeks tomorrow.
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. You can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
Where we are
Where we’ve been
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