The most interesting thing we’ve learned

We were asked this question on twitter: As a teacher what is the most interesting thing the kids have learned so far?

And it seems to us that that question requires an answer in more than 280 characters. Not least because we suspect that what we think is interesting, or indeed, what we think they’ve learned, may be very different from what they think.

For us, the first thing that springs to mind that we now know they’ve learned is: the capitals of some, if not all, of the countries we’ve been to. We were a little horrified when we arrived here, from Vienna, to find that two at least of them didn’t know what the capital of Austria was. Or even that we had been in Austria. Is that the one with the kangaroos?

After some fairly intense coaching (what else is lockdown for?) we have, we think, resolved that problem, and are now confident that they do know more about Brussels than that it was where we ate mussels, or about Berlin than that the wifi was rubbish.

But are capitals and names of countries interesting? Those are facts; complete in and of themselves. They provoke no further thoughts or questions. Are they actually what we were being asked about?

We asked the children what they thought. (We made them write it down and called it “academic time”). Here, spelling mistakes and all, are their answers:

Aurora: a) There is more food than pasta balinase and choclate b) You should enjoy the experetis through your eyes not your phone

Sophie: I’ve found the world war 2 things really interesting.

Magnus: Prater because its a massive funfair.

Lucy: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony’s motif is based on a birdsong.

Those answers are, in their own way, interesting, but we then had to ask, what does “interesting” actually mean? Is it something that gets you thinking after you have experienced it, or learned about it, or is it the experience itself? Does it need to be tangible, or is it more likely to be an idea or a concept?

We asked Lucy what she would pick as an engaging subject to teach when she returned to school: her first answer was “waffles, because my class like food”, which does at least chime with Aurora’s answer above.

Because they like food

In practice once the conversation opened up – and perhaps because she wasn’t being asked a specific question – Lucy went on to make some insightful observations about lots of the places we have been. Talking about the Hergé museum and Tintin, she mentioned that the Blue Lotus was a turning point for Hergé, as it is the first well-researched book in the series. All the books are fully researched and grounded in reality after that: he even built a scale model of the moon rocket for Explorers on the Moon.

She also mentioned the drastic measures that people took to escape over the Berlin Wall, jumping from 3rd floor windows. She was struck too by how much money people spend on (admittedly very skilled) horses in Vienna. As a final thought she said how kind people have been throughout lockdown.

Sophie, when asked why she found certain things interesting talked about the techniques for graffiti, in particular the layering of the paint, then about the World Wars. She was struck in particular by how difficult it must have been to be Jewish during the Second World War, and the kindness and unkindness that that provoked in other people.

She had also noticed all the different ways people make money in the countries we passed through, such as selling at markets, or looking at wildlife. That led to talking about the laziness of the Oder Delta Sea eagles, how they loved to be fed, and how much Iwona, our host and guide, knew about different animals and plants.

Magnus was a rather less forthcoming – in Vienna, he told us, there was a thing in the street where you turned a handle and could make your own whirlpool in a tube.

For Aurora, food featured heavily in the conversation. She has, she said, realised that even if a dish doesn’t look very nice, that does not mean it is not good or tasty. This started in Brussels with mussels, but cooking and eating different things in each country was an eye-opener. Mushrooms, cheese (previously off-limits except parmesan), potatoes (yes really), “all the cakes” and the meatballs with cherries we cooked in Brussels were all really nice, and the supper at the Oder Delta, with soup, was delicious, as well as chimney cakes and a “bunch of other stuff“.

Aurora also found all the different languages interesting: “they are so annoying“; and had spotted that graffiti was cool and it is not just for “gangsters“.

But of course, while those were their replies today, we suspect we might have entirely different responses on another day. We might actually get a response from Magnus too.

What is interesting, they perhaps concluded, can be, and is, all sorts of things.

We may have to ask them again in a month.

Week 11 (France 6)

Where were we?

Still here.

Where should we have been

After five lovely days in St Petersburg, where we celebrated Lucy’s birthday, we got a very late overnight train to Moscow, arriving early on Wednesday morning. We’ve had a great few days in Moscow, visiting friends and Harriet has bored everyone rigid visiting old haunts and talking about things she did here as a student over twenty years ago and how it was all very different then. (But it was). We had a fantastic Georgian meal too. We leave on Sunday on our first epic train journey.

What did we really do?

Lucy’s Birthday

There’s a video with singing too. But we thought we’d spare you.

On Tuesday we acquired a teenager! Any other parents will understand that your children’s constant insistence on getting older is, despite everything, always a surprise. And just like that Lucy is suddenly 13.

It obviously wasn’t the day we had planned, but it was, we think, a good day nonetheless. We broadly stuck to the routine, but with more food and less exercise (we are aware that that’s not how it’s supposed to work).

Lucy chose our walking route, and Magnus very grown-up-ly didn’t object, though he wanted to. We did some birthday learning, with poems and acrostics about Lucy. Aurora wrote her a coded message (although given the date it wasn’t enormously difficult to decipher). Lunch had the bonus treat of a pudding, cobbled together from a tin of pears (still in date) we found in the cupboard, some ice cream and the caramel sauce Ben had bought in the hope it would substitute for golden syrup (it won’t).

Sun in the glass, if not in the sky.

More Harry Potter in the afternoon, and then a long chat for the birthday girl with her friends before a special birthday treat of no circuits. Then more chats with family in the UK before cocktails, a barbecue (as mostly requested by Aurora), marshmallows, singing and cake.

Then a family film. We all started to watch The Hate U Give, which was Lucy’s choice of film, as she’d read the book. Magnus gave up fairly quickly (it’s a 12 so that was perhaps to be expected) but the rest of us enjoyed it and it has given rise to some interesting conversations with the girls on our walks over the next couple of days.

All in all, hopefully not the worst way to turn 13. And at least she probably got a better night’s sleep than she would have done on the 11.52 departure from St Petersburg to Moscow.

And the rest

Harriet learned the difference between a cowslip and an oxslip. This was exciting for her but no-one else.

Lots of parcels arrived- many for Lucy but also randomly, unexpectedly and generously from friends, and Ben’s long awaited t-shirts. He’d bought Harriet one too. It is worryingly appropriate for present activities. As is Ben’s. Sadly.

No prizes for guessing what Harriet will be doing which she waits for the adventure.

Ben had a horrid trip down the hill to the DIY shop to buy the wherewithal to sand and re-varnish the front door. He got most of what he wanted but came back unenthusiastic about any further shopping trips.

The beech trees are coming into leaf, and at a distance the uniform dark blue-green of the pines is now interspersed with acid brightness. Close up they flash in patches of light that make the woods look pixilated.

We met – at a safe social distance – a very nice Anglo-French couple. Ben was particularly delighted that they didn’t spot he wasn’t French for the first five minutes of chat.

We did round two of our quiz with friends in Yorkshire. Sophie and Lucy tied for first place and after a nail-biting tie-breaker (How many rooms in Buckingham Palace?), Lucy was declared the winner. Useful lessons on many levels (and none about Her Majesty’s interior decor).

The trivial pursuit score stands at 8:4. Harriet remains in the lead.

Magnus has started reading to his cousin by video link. The book of choice is Bad Dad by David Walliams. They both seem to be enjoying it…

Ben discovered a new app which told him about a walk we hadn’t yet been on. It appeared to be well within our 1 kilometre radius and doable within our hour time limit. One of those things was true. The children preferred the downhill to the up.

Our photo completion was selfies. It was utterly hilarious but proved that we are very definitely two different generations.

We met all sorts of interesting creatures: an adder, some stunning lizards, massive beetles, and the mouflon again. She’s now six weeks old.

In further generation-gap news, we had an Instagram related incident. It turns out that the lure of more followers is greater than the fear of breaking the “don’t let anyone who you don’t know in real life follow you” rule. No actual harm was done, but words were had. Whether we yet understand each other’s motivations, hopes and fears is still to be seen.

We all watched Star Wars Episode IX. Magnus thought it was amazing. The rest of us are pleased to be able to say we’ve seen it.

We were interviewed by the Border Telegraph. We wait with bated breath to see what they say about us. We should hit the newsstands next Wednesday or possibly the one after. No news from the BBC though.

We had fun with dandelion clocks. Sorry, gardeners of the Chartreuse.

We discovered, somewhat to our horror, that two of our children don’t know where half the places we’ve visited are (“Is that the capital of Vienna?”). Some fairly intensive geography/recapping is planned.

When asked to write about our time in Amsterdam (capital of the Netherlands, if you’re wondering), Sophie came up with: As long as your mother doesn’t make you a salad sandwich with butter in it, it is a wonderful, inspiring city with lots to do.

Ben took on the jelly baby jigsaw and won.

How was it?

Good bits

Lucy: My birthday, especially talking to my friends. I got some really nice books that I’m really enjoying. I have enjoyed reading to Sophie and Aurora.

Painting rocks has been fun, and I want to do a llama and a turtle soon.

Meeting a real mouflon was a treat, though it didn’t look at us in a trusting fashion, I think because it had only come into human society when people didn’t talk to each other.

Because I am 13, I can now access YouTube, which is great, though I haven’t seen it all yet.

I enjoyed winning the quiz.

Sophie: I liked watching The Hate U Give – it’s a really good film. I also liked being the person who spotted the snake.

I loved Lucy’s birthday because we did lots of fun stuff. The marshmallows, Aurora’s face when she broke her cocktail glass,

I had fun facetiming my good friend.

Ben: Lucy’s birthday was a great pleasure, and I hope and think she enjoyed it too. I don’t think it mattered that some of the presents had not arrived, indeed some still haven’t, and the arrivals later in the week were nice too. The Hate U Give was easily the best film we have watched together since the trip started (Star Wars 9 was pants).

Our long walk was lovely, despite being too long by 14 minutes, with views I have never seen, and great fauna too.

I have not laughed as much as during our selfie photo competition day for a long time, which was very welcome.

It is nice to finally have a new t-shirt too.

Aurora: Lucy’s birthday was awesome. I just liked making the mocktails – I crushed the ice, and was taster. I’d been waiting to have marshmallows for about 100 years, and they were finished in, like, 5 days.

I liked both the movies, although in Star Wars loads of dead people came alive and it was really weird. The Hate U Give was really good. I liked it.

Magnus: Lucy’s birthday was probably the best thing that happened this week because of the cake, chocolate and burgers. Star Wars was good.

Harriet: This remains a beautiful place to be. Lucy’s birthday was good fun and we had a lovely meal together. It was incredibly touching that so many friends and family made the effort to make it special for her. Our walks continue to be the highlight of my day. My crochet is coming on very nicely.

Bad bits:

Magnus (very reluctantly): This blog post. It’s so boring. I want to go home because home is much better. Our house is much better because it’s got a bigger garden we can run around in. This garden is just flowers.

Aurora: Duplo, still.

It’s really hard not bickering with Lucy and Magnus, but I really want Tiktok. If I don’t bicker with them for two weeks, I can have Tiktok. I’m up to 5 days, and I hate it because it’s so difficult.

I didn’t like the big walk – Sophie kept whinging.

Geography was just so annoying. I just can’t get it.

Harriet: I think I have generally found this week easier (famous last words). Of course neither travelling nor lockdown means that “ordinary” parenting stops and with a new teenage and two pre-teen girls in the house we have many moments. Education has been the top worry this week, along with the near-constant, low-level bickering. I don’t cope with either very well, but am trying to take a long view. I find it very hard, when the children are in a bad mood, to work out whether this is a symptom of a real underlying unhappiness that needs properly to be addressed, or just a momentary grumpiness that will pass long before I’ve managed to get over the mood of gloom it has introduced to the house.

Sophie: I’m missing my friends a lot, and I didn’t like the big steep walk. I don’t like when we fight.

Lucy: We have run out of yellow paint, which makes rock painting more difficult, especially when I want to do an Easter chick for someone.

Ben: My moods have veered between acceptance and some fairly low moments.

I think I’ve not been the best parent or husband I can be this week, which doesn’t fill me with pride.

The trip to the DIY store was stressful in ways I had not expected. I’m not a natural DIY person (more of a YDI person, really), so that didn’t help, but there was 5-person-only in the shop policy, with a large queue outside (politely) awaiting the one-in-one-out. Lots of face masks, no poster or acrylic paint, and a failed credit card transaction which then showed up as paid twice (all ok now), then a trip to a supermarket which doesn’t exist anymore, and I came home lower than (I) expected.

After the realisation that at least two of us couldn’t name the capital of Belgium, didn’t know the difference between a continent and a country, could in no way accurately describe where we had been, and more importantly didn’t appear to care, I had a couple of sleepless nights worrying about our children’s education – past, present and future – before taking some steps to remedy bits of this. They now know the capital of Belgium, which is a step in the right direction.

How are the tadpoles?

Eating each other. Although we had read about this it was quite disturbing to see.

Viewers may find some scenes distressing.

The two groups in the bird bath are much fewer in number than they were – and we actually spotted them mid-munch earlier this week. The outside sink crew are still very numerous so I am wondering if the “right thing” to do is to release some of them into the wild. We can’t take them back to where we found them as it is beyond our permitted area, but we have identified a suitable puddle. Hmm. The responsibility is weighing on us.

No legs yet either.

What did we eat? How much plastic did we use?

Cake. Lots of cake. And burgers and millionaire’s shortbread (condensed milk in France comes in a tube) and marshmallows. Ice cream “sundaes” too.

We had cocktails and champagne as well (if you can’t drink champagne when your eldest child turns 13, when can you?)

Plus the usual round of veggie curries and tagines, croissants and pasta. Oh and cheese.

What’s next?

More of the same, probably.

Week 10 (France 5)

Where were we?

Still the same view, still sunny. Forecast is wet though…

For the fifth week in a row we remain in exactly the same place. Tomorrow we will have been here for the same amount of time as we were previously travelling.

Where should we have been?

When you left us last week we should have been staying in Oslo with friends. Aurora in particular was totally delighted to be with her BFF. We celebrated Easter with them, before heading off on two trains and a rail replacement bus service (have to admit to not being entirely devasted to miss that one) from Oslo to Stockholm.

Better than the bus

Then two days in Stockholm, staying in a hostel which would have been a new experience on this trip (and a new experience full stop for four of us). On Wednesday night we got another overnight ferry to Turku, which is on the West Coast of Finland (as recommended by Harriet’s brother). An afternoon in beautiful Turku (where the weather was stunning) and then a bus to Helsinki.

On Friday we got a train to St Petersburg, where we are until Lucy’s birthday on Tuesday.

What was new and exciting this week?

None of the above, clearly: no trains, no boats, no galleries, no friends.

But we have not done nothing:

The Easter bunny came, leaving little offerings all round the garden. We have, now, just about finished all of them, although an excess of yeast (sounds unpleasant) means that we may accidentally have to make some more not cross buns later this week or next.

We received lovely letters from friends. And some parcels to be opened by Lucy next week.

Sophie and Aurora dyed their hair magenta.

It goes very nicely with Aurora’s socks

After a request for “no more circuits” we tried Joe Wicks’ PE lesson. It was universally agreed that it was harder and he was more annoying than circuits. We will be going back to circuits.

The flag irises are out in the garden and looking stunning.

Our walks continue to provide exercise, distraction and endless beauty. Top interesting moment this week: half a snake.

Magnus’ godfather organised an online quiz with his kids. The Campbells sadly failed to claim the coveted Loo Roll Trophy but a great time (and a lot of shouting) was had by all, even if Magnus disputed a key answer on the Superhero round….

Sophie and Lucy each had a day “in charge”. Lucy gave everyone a notional £500 to buy presents for everyone else (more generous than her parents) and we enjoyed seeing what we were “bought”. Ben is going to be playing a lot of lego.

We earned our keep by doing lots, and lots, of gardening. Some of us are more enthusiastic than others.

When we made our epic dash here from Vienna we had the idea that the children would use this time to learn French. Of course what we failed to realise is that as the children aren’t allowed to talk to anyone other than us, they’re not exactly getting much exposure to French. They’ve been rather unimpressed by our brief moments of speaking only French (although given that French is what we use when we don’t want them to understand, there could be benefits or other consequences to this, which they don’t seem to have worked out). This week we tried a new tactic and Ben has now labelled all the important things in the house….

Oddly some important things did not get labelled.

Magnus has started reading a story to his cousin by video.

We started gathering and painting stones to put in one of the newly cleared flower beds (as approved by our landlords!)

The Trivial Pursuit score is currently 5:2 to Harriet. She is not smug about this at all. Ben is not at all peeved about it either.

Ben decided enough hair was enough and got his father’s ancient set of clippers out.

Aurora has done a deal: if she doesn’t bicker with her siblings for two weeks she can download tiktok. This is day 2 (and day one went through on a whisper and a prayer).

How was it?

Good bits

Lucy: Easter. Because Easter. It’s got chocolate. Stone painting. I felt it was really nice, especially when we were doing it all together. I enjoyed my day in charge and I think everyone else did too. I tried to make sure that everyone had something that they would enjoy. The weather has been lovely.

Sophie: I liked Easter. We got chocolate. I liked painting rocks. I also liked getting letters from and writing to Jo and Harry. I like my hair. I didn’t like the dying process because Mummy pulled my hair and my head went slightly pink but I love it now. I love Daddy being a dog.

Ben: The weather has continued to be lovely, as have the food, the drink and the panorama. I’m thoroughly enjoying my current book (Lotharingia, by Simon Winder), though I should have probably read it during our time in the Netherlands, Belgium or western Germany, given that’s what it is about. None of us is ill, which is certainly to be welcomed, and Isère remains relatively lightly affected by COVID-19.

I was pleased to be able to complete my target 10km within the legally prescribed hour-limit on Monday morning, scraping home by the skin of my teeth with 18 seconds to spare. I might have to try to improve. I’m still enjoying getting fitter and stronger and losing weight, despite eating lots (and Easter).

Magnus: I liked Easter. Definitely. Because we eat chocolate and chocolate is yummy. I liked the brightly coloured lizard we saw. I enjoy reading to Amos because it is Bad Dad which is a good book about cars. I like painting rocks. My new t-shirt is awesome.

Aurora: When Daddy ate all my chocolate. It was really funny. I gave him a tiny bit and he just took the rest of my bunny. It was so funny. I liked dying my hair. I liked Easter because we had loads of food. Simon’s quiz was fun and it was good to talk to Isabel and Olivia.

Harriet: Pollyanna alert: the extra four weeks of lockdown gives us a better chance of seeing our tadpoles fully mature (this was a small but real concern). In a similar making-the-most-of-it-vein, not being able to sleep one night meant I saw the mountain at its most spectacular. The weather has continued to be glorious. This would be so much worse if it was pouring every day. I really enjoyed painting stones. I am definitely fitter than I was (not difficult, really.)

It really isn’t all bad!

Bad bits

Sophie: Not having any ankle socks that aren’t in the wash. The French labels are fine but it’s a bit annoying because everywhere you look there’s one and I don’t like it.

Lucy: The glitchiness of WordPress is really annoying.

Ben: Confirmation that we will be here for at least another 4 weeks took a while to sink in, despite not being unexpected, but has not been pleasant. I don’t expect that I’m alone in feeling a bit trapped and uncomfortable, as the worldwide lockdowns continue, but I have found myself being a bit petulant and grumpy. I think that has contributed to poor reactions on my part to some niggly situations.

I have been excessively checking the post for a pair of t-shirts I ordered over 2 weeks ago, and reacting with slightly shameful jealousy when packages arrive for others, especially when Magnus’s t-shirt (which I ordered after mine) arrived. [But thank you to all of you for letters – they bring joy to us all.]

I cooked a tartiflette this week, which I normally love, but I didn’t boil the potatoes for long enough, so it was a bit rubbish, and given the reaction it got, we probably won’t have it again. Grrr.

There’s something too about having achieved various lockdown goals I’ve set myself – whether it’s the running thing, or getting to the top league on Duolingo (a language app) – and being a bit “prowly” looking for something else to fill the days, and trying not to think about the missed / postponed / longed-for / receding possibility of the countries we had planned to visit. That jellybaby jigsaw is keeping me occupied in fits and starts, but let’s face it, jigsaws are just jigsaws.

I might well bite off more than I can chew and attempt to renovate the heavy wooden front door next week. That should shut me up.

Aurora: I am still missing Duplo. I didn’t like Joe Wicks it was really boring and hard. Some of my friends at home are annoying me and so is Magnus. My knee hurts.

Magnus: I have no idea. Fighting, but I don’t want to say that because I say fighting every week. I don’t have anything else bad to say.

Harriet: I found Macron’s announcement of a further one month extension to our lockdown (which, if anyone is comparing, will mean that France has been locked down for 8 weeks as against the UK’s 6) very difficult to take. I know it is the right thing, but on a personal level it makes the hope of our travels continuing recede ever further. This is not something we can easily postpone until next year (for all that we could then go to the Olympics) – there were years of planning and saving and negotiating with employers to get to this point. We can hardly take the children out of school again. This was a once in a lifetime event and it has been, at best, changed beyond recongntion. There is a part of me that is very angry about that.

Even the things that some people are enjoying about lockdown aren’t necessarily “good things” to us: My brother-in-law said to us that he is quite enjoying not having to get on a commuter train or travel for work and instead having time to spend with his family; many of the children’s friends are loving not having to go to school. We can of course see that these are good things and at home we would be enjoying them too. Indeed we are enjoying them here, but we had set aside this six month period to do exactly that.  So while it is a good thing, for us it is not a consolation for the dreams we have lost.

“It is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it.” (Dennis Potter. If you haven’t seen the interview, go and watch it now. You’ve got time.)

Generally my emotions are very variable. Mostly (my family may disagree) my rational, sensible side is to the fore and I know, and believe, how fortunate we are. Sometimes, particularly if the children are fighting or being difficult (unhappy, recalcitrant, argumentative unenthusiastic, sullen, phone-obsessed, delete as applicable) I sink into what can feel very much like despair. It passes, as these things do, but it’s not much fun for any of us.

The passing overhead of military aircraft which we believe are transporting the ill to Grenoble and other nearby hospitals (Isère has a comparatively low infection rate), was a timely reminder of how lucky we are.

How are the tadpoles?

Our frogs-to-be are continuing to thrive, although oddly one of the groups of bird bath residents seems to be fewer in number. We can’t work out if they’re just shy and hiding at the bottom or if something is eating them (possibly at night), or even, horrors, if they’re eating each other. There’s no sign of bodies so they may just be hiding.

They certainly don’t seem traumatised. Their eyes are visible and they are becoming more froggy in shape. In the sunlight they are flecked golden and shimmer. They seem to enjoy turning upside down at the surface and their mouths open and shut, presumably as they eat microscopic things off the surface of the water. They remind me of lambs as they butt up to the side of the pond to feed and wiggle their tails.They are (proud mother – honestly, it’s like having another baby) visibly pooing.

Any new foods? Plastic update?

A lot of Easter chocolate, of varying quality, a mediocre tartiflette, some good vegetable curries, excellent cheese (a Tomette de brebis was/is a winner), saucissons from the still-open local Sunday market, and plenty of beans. The live yeast naan breads that we are having this evening are exploding as I type.

La Crystal IPA from the Brasserie de Mont Blanc is going down well, better than the tizer-like Aperol mix I thought might work well. Lots of tea.

Squadrons of fruit pots and yoghurts as well as plastic bottles of milk is not helping the eco-friendliness situation, but it remains much as previous weeks.

What’s next?

The French lockdown has been exended for another four weeks (from last Monday) so we will be here until 11 May at the earliest. What happens then will depend on what is then allowed in France and all the other countries we still hope to travel to.

Week 9 – France (4)

Where were we?

Same hill, rather less snow

No prizes….

But we remain safe and healthy and we continue to comply with all lockdown requirements. The surroundings could be a lot worse.

Where should we have been?

We hesitate slightly to put this in here, but we sort of want to keep track of what could have, should have happened. If it starts to depress us too much. We’ll stop.

So, in the Covid-19 free parallel universe, on Sunday, after a lovely five days in Paris (where we enjoyed meeting friends) and armed with new Mongolian visas, we got a late train to Mannheim. We changed trains there (at about 11.30 pm – no one was scratchy and tired at all) and got our first overnight train (all six of us in one compartment) arriving in Hamburg for breakfast (some of us had hamburgers – because we “had to!”).

“Pine-ing” for the fjords? (Sorry)

Then on to another train to arrive in Copenhagen for lunch, as you do.  Two and a half great days with friends there who we hadn’t seen since we got married.   Then on to an overnight boat to arrive in Oslo yesterday morning.  We are staying with more friends –  including one of Aurora’s best friends: she’s been waiting for this bit all trip.

What did we do?

Much of this week was the same as the previous three, but here are the bits that were different, and the things we learned:

Gel nail polish does not set properly in the sun.

The brief moment when I thought it would work

At our sister-in-law’s suggestion, we filled in one of those “tell us your story” boxes on the BBC sport website: Have your plans to go to the Olympics changed because of the Coronavirus? We got a very speedy email back from a journalist and Harriet ended up being interviewed over Skype on Tuesday. We will let you know as and when we have a moment of fame.

Wearing make up!

Ben completed a jigsaw that is so hard it is only attempted once every twenty years.   Actual fact.

“The Cricket Match” by Sisyphus (probably)

The tooth mouse (we’re in France, no fairies here) is still operating despite Coronavirus. We do not know if mice are suceptible to the virus, but we trust it washed its hands.

Some years ago we were here on holiday and Sophie’s tooth fell out. The tooth mouse came and left her a €2 coin (excellent exchange rate from the tooth mouse there) and in the morning, a parent, who shall remain nameless, took her to the boulangerie and, in the spirit of excellent dental health, allowed her to spend her new coin on anything she liked. She came back with a meringue the size of her head which she proceeded to eat for breakfast….

Apparently this is now a tradition.

Five out of six of us have now downloaded MarioKart. We compete against each other.  Some of us consistently come last.

We spent a lot of time and had a lot of fun exploring the river at the bottom of the hill. Shoes and socks don’t dry as quickly in the sun as you might think.

After you…

Skipping is like riding a bike. You really don’t forget, even after a thirty year hiatus.

The hawthorn on the way down to the river is bursting into a froth of white blossom.

Aurora had a day in charge. She set her own schedule (presentation not her finest point), designed an academic schedule (write about your dream holiday… Erm… Not having a pandemic would be a start), planned and helped cook the meals and sadly didn’t manage to beat Ben at Risk.

Magnus wowed us with his holiday descriptions. Spelling notwithstanding.

Non-screen academics at its best.

Ben met a baby mouflon (prehistoric sheep) in the mini-market.

It has been too hot to sit in the sun without burning (we are factor 50 types and that was another thing we planned to buy en route – even we didn’t need it in Germany in February).  We could call that a bad thing, but our vitamin D stores are loving it.

The 1984-era Trivial Pursuit set has come out for late-night competitiveness.  Harriet is currently 2:1 up.

About seven and a half years ago, and about three weeks after we came up with the idea of this trip, Harriet bought herself an Olympic t-shirt in Sainsbury’s. It was on sale as the Olympics were over. It has sat, unworn, in her drawer and then rucksack ever since waiting to be worn at the Olympics this Summer. With the Olympics now postponed, and the weather really too warm for merino, it came out this week. It already has hair dye (Aurora and Sophie) on it.

Magnus also had a day in charge. We’re in the middle of it as we type.  We’re having fondu for supper and then challenging each other on Mario Kart.  Plus ça change…

Our photo competition this week, in which we were inspired to recreate classic paintings, was a huge success and lots of fun to do.

How was it?

Good bits

Harriet: The weather has been glorious.  It is so good to spend time outside in the sun.  Some of our walks have been wonderful as a result, albeit short.  It has been fantastic watching the children explore down by the river  – we are so lucky to have that within five minutes (downhill anyway) of the front door.  Our photo competition was brilliant.  I’m so chuffed with all of the results and they really were all properly collaborative efforts.   I was very proud of my hot cross buns!

Sophie: We’re about to have Fondue tonight. Aurora’s day was more fun than normal days, I’m not sure exactly why, but it just was. Being a cherub was fun, and clambering about in the river to get Lucy’s photo was good too. My friend Zara sent us girls some nice bracelets.

Thank goodness for goretex

Ben: Having little variation to the days, and very few obligations, has been both a blessing a curse. As far as the blessing part goes (this is the good bits bit after all) our walks, the weather, the food, and the views remain spectacular. I loved our recreations of artworks, and the reactions they got.

My runs have been getting longer, and I have enjoyed feeling healthier. The simple pleasure of a clean house is also not to be sniffed at, especially when you have as many allergies as me.

Saturday is cleaning day.

Lucy: It was lovely to feel thought about getting bracelets. It seems daft but I enjoyed Daddy bringing Head and Shoulders 2in1 from the supermarket. The river has been really fun and an enjoyable way to spend the morning. The video call to Ele was a nice way to see them [Ben’s parents]. We found the best way to listen to Harry Potter during quiet time without arguing – with Sophie and Aurora on the bed drawing and me making pom-poms on the armchair. Hot Cross Buns.

Aurora: Hot Cross Buns, and I liked bossing people about on my day in charge. Watching Jumanji was fun. I am looking forward to Fondue tonight. I had a good facetime with Maia and others. I enjoyed dressing the same as Sophie for a day.

Monochorionic Diamniotic at its best

Magnus: I enjoyed everyone joining MarioKart tour and racing against them. I waited so long to be boss for a day, and it happened today. Playing cars with Daddy was good. I liked eating tarts with Ele on the video call for her birthday. It was funny because it was a bit crazy. Throwing rocks in the river was the best part of our walks.

The thinker?!

Bad bits

Sophie: I had to climb up from the river twice (once for a walk and once for Lucy’s photo) which I did not appreciate. This week has been better though.

Aurora: I still miss Duplo A loads. Sometimes my family annoy me.

You are going to get very familiar with pictures of this river

Harriet: If I’m honest – and this is me putting myself out to be judged here, which is not something I do lightly or with any degree of comfort – I am finding the increased contact with home, which in many ways is so delightful, a challenge too. I am realising that I find being (or perhaps feeling) under an obligation difficult – if people expect me to do things, albeit something as simple as calling them at an agreed time – there is the risk that I may let them down; Be late; Say the wrong thing; Not have good enough internet; Not do what they expected me to do; Be not good enough. By taking myself away from our usual life I took myself out of all obligation to anyone other than the five people I live with and I now realise that that lifted a huge weight of anxiety and pressure off me. I cannot live as a hermit and so this is something I have to learn to deal with: I suspect that people’s expectations of me are not quite as high as mine are of myself.

I also worry slightly that we are becoming a group of people who are living separate lives (jigsaws, crochet, books, Instagram, lego) in the same place and not really interacting with each other at all. Or at least enough.

Daddy, did I tell you about MarioKart?

Lucy: I haven’t enjoyed when anyone has been scratchy generally. It’s slightly scary that we are already a good way through the Half Blood Prince and have finished the massive Order of the Phoenix.

Ben: Last week I wrote about enjoying the slower pace, and the lack of obligations. This week I have enjoyed those aspects less, particularly passing both the 60 days and 2 month milestones without seeing an end to lockdown on the horizon. We still have almost two thirds of our trip ahead of us, in terms of time, and there’s a lot of adventure to be had in four months, or even two or three if that’s what we get.

This sounds like a whinge when I read it again. Many people are in much worse situations, whether health, company, job, location or any other aspect of this bizarre situation. I am very grateful for what I and we have.

Whether it’s sakura or fleurs de cerisier, it’s still pretty.

Magnus: Fighting. I hate it but it seems like I’m at the centre of every bit, and I don’t know why.

How are the tadpoles?

Doing well, thank you for asking.  They don’t seem particularly interested in our lovingly frozen and defrosted manky ends of salad, preferring to nibble at the algae and other things (lots and lots of tiny worms) that appear naturally in their various pools.  The outside sink colony are properly hatched and swimming busily. They still have their external gills.  The bird bath crew are growing well (maybe now 3 cm long) and are getting more of a frog-like shape to their bodies.  Up close you can see that they are becoming more greeny grey and spotty too.

What did we eat?

A mouflon was, actually, the second most exciting thing that Ben found in the mini-market that morning. He also found live yeast.

So we made pizzas.  And hot cross buns.

And we had lovely tarts too.

And the plastic?

Again, more of the same really.  We have redisovered “pot pots” (ie fruit puree in yoghurt pots – why don’t we have these in the UK (other than branded as weaning food – that’s business idea number 3,857 by the way) which are delicious but do generate more plastic waste, as do yoghurts.   We need to wean (pun intended) ourselves off them.

What’s next?

The French government has confirmed that lockdown here will continue beyond 15 April, although we don’t yet know when it will be extended to.

Coming up: Another masochistic jigsaw

Lucy’s birthday is on 21st April so we are busy plannning that. the original intention was for us to be in St Petersburg then (and then on an overnight train to Moscow) so the reality will be slightly different, but at least this way she will get a home made cake. We’ve even located some candles. Like everyone else we’ve had lots of practice at singing happy birthday recently…

Marsh marigolds. We’re hoping for real Buttercups by her birthday.

Week 8 – France (3)

Where were we?

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

What did we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about second breakfast?

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

We enjoyed collaborating to make our optical illusion photographs.

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

3, 2, 1… Go!

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

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

Some of us completed several jigsaws.

Also completed: the South Rose Window at Angers Cathedral.

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

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

Spot where the system falls down.

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

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

Quality family time. Honest.

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

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

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

How was it?

Good bits

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

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

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

And Mummy fed me!

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

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

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

Remarkably similar to the old ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad bits

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy feels less strongly about the rota.

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

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

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

The early morning queue outside Carrefour

*not actually true.

What about the tadpoles?

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

What did we eat?

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

And the plastic?

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

We’ll let you know…

Week 7 – France (2)

Where were we?

Silly question…. still France.

Why aren’t we coming home?

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

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

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

So what did we do?

Learning

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

“Creative time”

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

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

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

Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has it been?

Good bits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad bits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the rest of our trip?

Who knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did we eat?

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

How plastic free were we?

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

What’s next?

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

Til then, there are worse places we could be.

A week in – Routines and Flashpoints

So we are now over a week into our adventure, due to our early start, and perhaps this is a good time to look back, as well as forward. We’re now at our second main stop. Brussels, and in our fourth country, Belgium.

What have we achieved?

  • Everyone is still alive, present, and no-one is ill.
  • We have all eaten new things, and enjoyed them.
  • We have travelled over 1000 miles, by car, foot, train, metro, tram, and bus.
  • We have experienced new things, old things, sweet things, beautiful things.
  • I don’t think anyone has lost anything, although I may have lost a pair of pants. (No big story there, but it peeves me to have lost them.)

We are in the process of settling into our routines, if such a thing is possible over a journey of 26 weeks, but I wouldn’t say we have settled into them yet. Is such a thing, a cadence if you like, possible, required, or wanted?

We have tended to start the day with a short exercise programme, based on the classic Royal Canadian Air Force 5BX and XBX programmes. These have 11 and 12 minutes routines of increasing intensity. They are not too horrid, mainly because they are so short.

This is followed by breakfast, then 15 minutes of maths for Aurora, Sophie, and Magnus, using books the school provided, or science or music for Lucy, either also provided by the school or grade 5 theory. We usually do the work one to one, and it has been sold on the basis of “this is all the school you are going to get today”, which is only partly correct. It generally is the only formal structured learning they get. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, such as the day we were leaving Amsterdam for Brussels. I think this is balanced, and supplemented by, the learning they get from just being and living where we are, the conversations we have about what is around us, and what we are seeing, as well as all the interactions in shops, bell towers, galleries, metro stations, etc.

There has been conflict too, about this and more, as we find our feet on the road. Tiredness is often a contributing factor, and sleeping in different beds is always hard. Travel is tiring (I found the first three days of driving particularly draining) and not just for the driver. Later nights, especially for Magnus, and irregular daily schedules don’t help, hence the routines above.

Phones are also a bit of a flashpoint, and it is difficult for us to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as so much of what Harriet and I are doing – researching, blogging, and other things which would normally be analogue, like reading – is on phones or a tablet. I have removed all the games I had on my phone, so as not to be a complete hypocrite…

I do get annoyed when phones come out at the slightest lull in activity, particularly when it is for pointless games, in a beautiful town square, or the like, and sometimes I’ve snapped when they’ve been taken out to take a photo (snapping at snaps?) which is wrong of me.

So how to manage it?

Originally, each of the children had a phone time limit through FamilyLink, which we removed when we realised they were restricting their (our perception of) “good use” (photos, research, learning, blogging) so they could play more games and chat and message with friends. Most car journeys are phone-free, and that has worked well in general, at least until the final hour of a long journey. The car is not wifi-enabled anyway… We tried restricting apps by temporarily blocking them in FamilyLink but that took them out of their folders upon unblocking them, which didn’t go down well.

We’ve come to realise that some activities need to be “physical with a point” like climbing a windy bell-tower in Ghent, instead of “aimless and cerebral” like wandering round a museum. The Instagram photo competition we had last Friday worked well too, so that might become a regular feature.

I think it comes down to chat and compromise, and we are all still learning and adapting. They don’t have a lot of the things we have at home – no-one has watched any TV (just another screen…) since we left – so phones provide a distraction, some privacy and a connection to missed friends at home after all. And we are still talking about it in a (mostly) civil way.

Enough musings for one post, methinks.

Ben

Week 1 – Travel and Amsterdam

Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….

Where were we?

UK

This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.

A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.

France

Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.

The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.

Belgium

First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….

Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.

Four countries in two days.

The Netherlands

We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.

We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.

Home in Holland

Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.

You wait 43 years for a windmill and then 19 come along at once.

We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.

It must be time to move on.

What were our impressions? What surprised you?

Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.

Buildings. Stuck together.

Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.

Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.

“The Man with the Frizzy Hair” at the Rijksmuseum

Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.

Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.

Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.

How was the weather?

Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).

No such thing as bad weather.

What were the highlights?

Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.

Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.

Keane

Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.

Ben: Kinderdijk, the Rijksmuseum, the escalator up from Rokin metro, where all the archaeological finds from the build are beautifully displayed, the dreadful weather not stopping anything (and the joy of a cold sun yesterday).

Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.

Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!

Flipping poffertjes

Any bad bits? Did we fight?

What do you think?

We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.

Appropriate phone use?

How plastic free were we?

Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.

What did we eat?

Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).

What’s next?

Lunch in the Hague and supper in Brussels…

By everyone!

My Worries about Volcanoes 😶 🤯 🌋 ⛩

Hi it’s Magnus,

One of my worries is Volcanoes and we are planning to climb Mount Fuji!!! In case you didn’t know Mount Fuji is a volcano!

So i did some research on wikipedia and found out that it was an active volcano not dormant like i thought. Its last eruption was from 1707 to 1708.

The experts thought it might erupt soon becacase of an earthquake in 2011 but this was “speculative and unverifiable” which means they don’t know and they can’t tell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think it’s less likely Mount Fuji will erupt because the last eruption was  312 years ago!!!👴

bye, Magnus 🙃

What about school?

This is probably the question we get asked most often. We’ve got four children, they’re all in mainstream state education. How on earth are we getting away with taking them out of school for six months without getting fined, imprisoned or (at the very least) bringing them back functionally illiterate?

When we told them they were going to miss six months of school

It’s taking some clever, and, in some cases, entirely accidental planning…

Geography

The first thing we did (and this was absolutely nothing to do with the trip planning itself) was move to Scotland. The law on education in Scotland is not the same as in England and, crucially, there are no fines (or anything else) for parents whose children are absent from school. That’s not to say that schools are terribly keen on it (fierce letters home for those who book holidays to Disneyland in the cheap weeks) but just that there’s no official sanction.

We have, of course we have, discussed the trip with the schools. I think I first mentioned it to the primary school about four years ago, and the high school were told before Lucy even started there. Both schools have been hugely supportive and positive about what we’re doing. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a teacher who hasn’t thought it was a brilliant idea. The schools do, naturally, have absence figures to submit and I don’t think anyone would be happy with recording six months of unauthorised absence for four children, but somehow (and I suspect there’s some bureaucratic fudge in here about which I have not enquired too deeply) all our kids are being allowed to go away and come back as though nothing has happened. We don’t (officially) need to home school during that time and nor will we, crucially, lose our school places.

S1 science. Every day’s a school day. Probably for me too.

That’s another lucky bit of non-planning. We live in a small town. It has two primary schools and one high school. There is, effectively, no parent choice. (You can choose one primary school over the other, but most people don’t bother, and unless you move away or go private, everyone ends up at the same high school). There’s also no pressure on places. There is space for our kids in the schools and there will be space when we come back. They will (administratively at least) just slot back in.

Time and space

We’ve been lucky with timing too. The children are currently in S1 (first year of high school), P7 (last year of primary) and P4 (somewhere in the middle). So while their education is important (especially to us!), they are not missing anything key. We’re not at the stage of exams – no dreaded SATs in Scotland – and syllabuses (Syllabi? Syllabodes?) and anything that they miss this year will be covered and re-covered in the years to come.

In addition (that’s maths, that is) they’re not actually missing that much school. We leave on 10th February, 3 weeks today (almost to the minute, as I type). Half term starts the end of that week, so they’re only missing half of this term and all of the next. The Scottish Summer term (like the Scottish Summer) is short, finishing at the end of June, so in all it’s about 12 weeks of school they’ll miss, some at least of which will be Sports Days and trips out (and, sadly, high school transition for Sophie and Aurora) and the like.

Support for learning

I am relieved to report I can just about manage Primary 4 maths

None of which is to say that they’re going to get away with learning nothing while we’re away. We’re rather hoping (expecting) that the trip itself will be an education (we won’t be able to get away from languages, geography, history, music and art – even “are we nearly there yet” can be turned into maths, cooking supper (and shopping for it) is home economics and walking up Mount Fuji is definitely PE) but we’ve also been pestering the schools for support so that we can be sure that when we come back the children will have covered everything that they would have done had they been sitting in their classrooms here. Lucy’s teachers have given us the syllabuses (I’m going with that one) for the year, and although I might struggle to explain a covalent bond, Ben handily has a biochemistry degree and a past life as a biology teacher, so I think we’ll be ok. The head teacher of the primary school has handed over precious maths text books so that we can make sure that all of that is covered too (No 239,356,548 on my to do list is revise long division…).

PE. Obviously.

And of course in the age of the internet and phones, there’s an app for everything. One very lovely teacher has signed us up to various recommended programmes, and as I’ve already mentioned this blog is just homework in disguise. (I’m told Because, But, So, is the structure to to aim for – look out for it).

Will it be enough? Who knows?

And if you know – or if you have any suggestions – comment below!

Harriet