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…
I wanted to write this to go with today’s pretty pictures on instagram (and head over there – or go to the bottom of the blog – if you want to see them), but it won’t let me. I’ve been too wordy as usual.
But as the UK possibly prepares to go into lockdown we thought it might help to know what is actually (in our experience) happening here in France, where strict measures were brought in earlier this week and which (some of us) were really frightened by the thought of….
Of course the situation may change but currently (day 4) the small supermarket here is open and stocked (deliveries are clearly still getting through even here in the mountains). The bakery is also open and has fresh bread. The cheese shop (yes, really) and the butchers are open. The pharmacy and newsagent are open. The doctor’s surgery remains open. What are shut are the restaurants and bars, the clothes and tourist shops, the post office and tourist office, the hairdresser’s, the library and the ski and bike hire places. In the queue, if there is a queue, we stand a safe distance apart but we chat as normal. There is a one-in-one-out policy at the bakers, where a new plastic screen has been installed and the queue stands in the street. We can travel a short distance for five specific reasons – work, health, to help family, to shop or to exercise (in our case go for walks). If we see someone on our walk we speak or smile.
We are in (by UK standards) a small town (technically in France a village, but much bigger and with better amenities than that implies) and have not yet tried to leave the village other than to go for walks. In bigger towns other shops in specific categories (DIY, technical – there’s a long list) also remain open. When we go anywhere (for instance to attempt to fix Harriet’s glasses which are badly scratched) we have to take a form with us that we have signed to say why we are going. The police can ask to see this (and are doing so in other local towns) although we haven’t yet been asked. The village is eerily quiet (unlike our children) but on a minute to minute, hour to hour basis life continues much as normal.
We realise that being here is of course not the same as being in a city, or a flat (and I am sure there are those in other parts of France who are finding this much more difficult than we are) but it is probably not that different from being in Kelso.
In China today Hubei province has reported no new cases. Not one. Lockdown can and does work. It sounds scary, but doesn’t have to be. And it is necessary for all of us. We will get through this.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Café (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 café; 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.
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 Café Central in Vienna.
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.
Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before
Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄
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 insignificancebeside 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.
Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
It is also the tenth kitchen in a row (that’s all of them) where the light above the cooker doesn’t work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kraków 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 Krępic and Reginald Ścieżka, 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.
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…
We then spent a night in Szczecin before heading South the next day.
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!
Ostrzeszów 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!
We had only two full days in Kraków, one of which we wanted to spend at the Wielizcka salt mine, so we had really only one day to spend in Kraków 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 Kraków is installing tram lines, with Edinburgh-like levels of disruption (They’re twinned so maybe it was deliberate).
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 Kraków”. 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).
The Wieliczka salt mines were the main reason Harriet wanted to visit Kraków, 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 Kraków 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.
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 Kraków churches. It’s like they couldn’t decide which roof to put on, so they put them all on.
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.
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. Kraków 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 Kraków. I realise that’s probably normal for Poland but for me it was wondrous.
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.
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.
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 Kraków. 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.
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…
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 Kraków, 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.
We leave Kraków 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.
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 Ostrzeszów: Karol is a chef….
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…
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.
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
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. Dziękuję!
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.)
We needed pickled cucumbers too. It may or may not surprise you that these were not hard to find.
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.
It has no scissors and only one, very small, broken chopping board.
But still, with a grater and a knife, I was good to go.
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.
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 śmietana 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.
We all loved it. This recipe’s coming home with us.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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…
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).
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-maché 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kölsch 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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….
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. Geschützte 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.
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.
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)
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.
Then onto the plate, with a sausage, some apple sauce and some veg.
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.
This is an Emsländer 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 schön Deutschland. All mistakes are ours.
We’re off to Poland next. Let me know what we should try there….
We had read that Cologne Carnival was a Big Deal, and that people took its lack of seriousness very seriously. Certainly, when looking for accommodation in Cologne, as far back as September last year, it was in very short supply, and everything we could find was was very expensive. Harriet at one point thought she had found the perfect place, and as soon as she filled in the bit which asks you to say a little bit about the trip, saying we were on our way to Tokyo, and didn’t want to miss the Carnival, the family responded saying, “Sorry, it’s not available after all, we didn’t realise that was carnival weekend“.
(I do wonder about this bit of the AirBnB booking process. Does anyone actually say “It’s going to be me and nine mates on a stag weekend“, or “I’m pretending this is a business trip, but I’m actually meeting my lover from Budapest.” It is a bit like that part of the US Immigration forms where they ask you whether you participated in war crimes, or were a member of the Nazi party.)
In the end, we are staying in Rommerskirchen, a small town about 25 minutes on a direct train from Cologne.
This felt like the first step into properly unknown territory. This wasn’t just a museum or a pretty town, it was a big cultural event about which we knew precious little, though I do wonder whether we will feel the same after our first Boshkazi match, or yak herding), There is not a great deal of advice online about what it is like going, particularly with children.
Most of the advice we found, in English at least, seems to be written by twenty-something bloggers who have had an amazing time meeting locals and drinking copious amounts of Kolsch (the local beer) but who clearly have neither children nor hangovers. For us those days are past (and in the past they must remain) so the information they give wasn’t necessarily hugely helpful to us.
So we thought we’d write the post we wished we’d been able to read.
Should I take my children to Cologne Carnival?
Absolutely yes! It was completely brilliant and we all loved it. In fact the children are already planning a trip back next year.
It’s got massive parades, adults in loony fancy dress, marching bands, huge papier mâché (I think) effigies of world leaders we all recognised (and German ones we didn’t), an enormous sense of fun and friendliness and, most importantly for the children, free sweets and toys being thrown at them from almost every direction. (If nothing else, they’ll learn to catch pretty quickly).
How could a child not love it?!
When to go
Carnival in Cologne technically starts at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November (which feels a bit weird for a Brit) but the climax of Carnival happens in the week before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake day to my heathenous children). The first big event is Weiberfastnacht, the Women’s Carnival which takes place on the Thursday before. There are then events every day until the main parade day on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). The final day is the Tuesday, which is known as Veilchendienstag.
We were in Cologne only for the Sunday and Monday. On the Sunday schools and children’s groups normally parade through the city in the Schull-und-Veedelszöch. Sadly for us, Storm Yulia forced the cancellation of the parade at the very last minute. One or two hardy groups did come past us though and it was a useful dry run for the next day. Even that brief moment convinced our kids that this really was something they wanted to be part of.
The parade start time varies slightly between the days. The children’s parade on the Sunday starts at 11.11 although on the day we were there the (subsequently abandoned) start was brought forwards due to the weather. The Rosenmontag parade starts at 10.30 or so and takes (we think, as we didn’t see the whole thing) over two hours to pass each point. With each part takes over three hours to wend its way through the city, the whole thing goes on for something in the region of six hours.
So whenever you get there, there’s plenty of time to see it! We arrived in central Cologne at around 10ish each day. This did mean that there was some hanging around before the parade got to us, but it did mean we were able to stake out a prime spot.
Later on, and particularly near the centre, it was clear that some people had had more than the one Kolsch we allowed ourselves at lunch. While this was never scary, and police and medics were swiftly on hand where required, it was ,maybe less our thing than the more child-friendly atmosphere near the beginning of the route. We left the city at about 2pm having had enough – though the parade head was only just then nearing the end of the route – and we suspect that things probably got a bit more lively and exciting later on; maybe that’s one for the children at a slightly later stage in their lives. And probably not with their parents….
It also meant that long before things got a bit more lairy and drunken later on we had decided to call it a day and were heading away to count our haul.
Where to stay?
Cologne Carnival is, justly, hugely popular. Accommodation books up very quickly and you should expect to pay a premium. Alternatively, as we did, take advantage of the excellent public transport system and stay a little way out and come in each day. Either way don’t think about bringing a car into central Cologne.
Where to go?
The parade route forms a sort of T shape with the parade going back and forth along the top of the T a number of times. The main station and Cathedral are on the cross route and this is where the majority of revellers gather. We were advised to head away from this area and instead go South from the station along the upstand of the T. As you walk down you can’t miss the parade route as people start to stake out prime spots from early each morning.
This was excellent advice. On both days we attended we were right on the route, but without a massive press of people behind us. People were very relaxed and friendly and there were quite a few other families. Adults without kids were keen to let the children be at the front. They even handed over toys or sweets they thought the children would particularly like.
Later on we found ourselves up near the Cathedral and here it was a bit more of a crush. The crowd was six or seven deep, and were less keen to let the children through. The competition for sweets was greater too!
Who needs food when you’ve got sweets? Your children will get more sweets and chocolate than they have ever seen in their lives. So much so that they may a) not eat them and just settle for stuffing them in bags and b) turn round after a while and say “I’m hungry. Please can I have some actual food?” (I would be lying if I said that didnt make me quite happy).
What about food?
Unsurprisingly there is plenty of excellent, carb-heavy, street food to be had. Cologne also has many cafes and restaurants, however these may be very busy and you may have to queue for a while. We got very lucky when we ducked down a side street and happened upon a virtually empty and very good pizzeria. We needed somewhere to dry off, warm up, and get some proper calories and this was perfect.
Of course if the weather is dry, which sadly it wasn’t for us, sandwiches or similar would also be an excellent option.
What about loos?
Cologne Carnival is a massive event and there is clearly a huge behind the scenes effort with a team working, we suspect, all year round. We went back into Cologne the next day and there was barely a sign of any revelry: in less than 24 hours (much less given that the revelry probably went on into the wee smalls) the stands and barriers were down, the streets were clean of rubbish and virtually the only remaining sign was a slightly mournful “Welcome to Carnival”.
Whoever it is that organises all this, they sensibly put portaloos on pretty much every street corner. With over a million people on the streets, you may have to queue, but at least you can be sure your fellow queuers will be entertaining to look at.
What to bring?
Energy, good humour and lots, and lots of bags for your haul of sweeties.
What should we wear?
Fancy dress! You will honestly feel more out of place in jeans and a jumper than you will in a pig onesie, or dressed as Jack Sparrow, complete with dreads. One of the highlights of carnival for us was the sheer, brilliant incongruity of an entire city dressed up in ridiculous costumes.
That said, this is February in Northern Europe so bad weather is not unlikely. We were particularly unlucky with the weather and it was very cold and wet. Fortunately our Where’s Wally costumes fitted over many layers underneath. Gloves and hat may also be required.
What about babies and nappies?
We are long out of the nappies and pushchairs stage, but Cologne Carnival would be do-able with both. We certainly spotted a couple of in-pram nappy changes going on, and a highlight of the Sunday was a baby elephant being pushed around. There was a pair of twins in a double pushchair next to us on the Monday who seemed happier with the blueberries they had been given by their dad than with the sweets raining down on them from above.
Is it safe?
About a million people take part in Cologne Carnival. Some of them will get drunk, and some of them will try and pick your pocket.
We also live in a world where tragically any large gathering may be a target for those who wish to spread hate. This week in Germany, while we were having a wonderful, happy time in Cologne, a gunman murdered 10 in Hanau, and a carnival parade in Hesse was driven into injuring many. The parade in Cologne started with a memorial to those killed in Hanau and the German press has been full of the horrific act in Hesse. These things have shocked the nation.
But they could happen anywhere and I can honestly say that we never felt anything other than completely safe in Cologne. There was a very obvious and numerous police presence, but they were all smiling and wearing flowers on their uniforms and were happy to be approached for advice. (They all spoke excellent English). The other carnivallers were welcoming and very friendly. The absolute highlight for Harriet was when a man who had helped us with a train ticket machine on the Sunday recognised us in the crowd as he was marching in the parade on the Monday and came over and pressed flowers and chocolates into our hands. It was hugely touching and kind.
All those sweetie wrappers must have a horrible plastic footprint, although we did notice, what with all the rain, that quite a lot were wrapped in paper.
It is loud and it is busy, so if that’s not your thing, then this may not be for you.
What else can I do with my kids in Cologne?
Sadly we only had three days in the Cologne area, and two of those were taken up with Carnival. However we made the most of our final day with a visit to the Cathedral and a climb up its 533 steps.
We then walked across the Hohenzollern Bridge, adorned with tens of thousands of padlocks (after nearly 15 years of marriage we’re far too cynical for that nonsense), before spending a very happy afternoon at the excellent Cologne Zoo (The Guardian described it as a zoo for people who hate Zoos).
Sounds good! Where can I find more information?
We found the following websites in English useful:
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?
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 “So unlikely to be repeated that the museum might as well use ‘now or never’” 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.
We were keen, too, to see the Van Eyck, the world- famous and recently restoredCreepy 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.
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 €50 per person. Or €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 €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 €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….
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we were on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, one day, though not this year. Now back home, you can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
Click here to get all our posts emailed direct to you!