Week 4 – Poland from top to bottom

Where were we? What did we do

Oder Delta

This was a first for us for a number of reasons – our first rural excursion, our first time to somewhere no-one had been (Ben had been to 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.

Sophie took this one. On her phone.

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

Even her phone is camouflaged

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

Ostrzeszów

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!

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

Kraków

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).

Which way home?

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

They were, however, keen to visit the wax works. Harriet and Lucy, with a meal to plan and cook, decided against, leaving Ben to accompany the three youngest to “the best worst museum in 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).

Salt mines

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.

No, we are not going on a horse ride.

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

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

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

Pick a roof, any roof

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

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

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

What were the highlights?

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

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

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

Harriet It was absolutely lovely to see friends and they could not possibly have been better hosts. The experience of seeing the eagles was awe-inspiring. 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.

So much better than the ones in London.

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

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

Those are more heads, not arms.

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

What was the weather like?

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

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

How plastic free were we?

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

What about the Coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did we eat?

All the food! We have eaten extraordinarily well in Poland, from a traditional spread with soup and kotlety and home made pickles in the Oder Delta, to Chinese-spiced duck (plus dumplings) with our friends, to traditional pierogi in very unglamorous surroundings in 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.

We even had a go at Polish cuisine ourselves.

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

Polish breakfast. Not made by us.

Thank goodness for all that walking.

Any bad bits?

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

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

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

Ben Magnus and I almost had a “bad bit” in the hairdressers in 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.

What’s next?

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.

On vanity

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.

It is surprisingly difficult to take a picture of the back of your own head.

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?

This is me. Woah, oh, oh, oh. Note moderately successful attempt at flattering selfie angle.

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.

Harriet

How Do You Feel? – Lucy’s view

How do you feel about the trip? Are you scared? What will you miss? These are all frequently asked questions. I don’t know how to answer this because obviously, I have never been on a “round-the-world-trip” before. Because the ferry has been cancelled I am a bit worried because we have done all this planning and before we even set of our first big move is cancelled.

Some bits I am really worried about include forgetting anything, missing important trains and arguing. As a family I think we all have a really good variety of skills which is why there couldn’t be a better way to “bond” than on on this trip, however I do think we may argue more than some families, so no I am not worried.

As for what will I miss, friends is a really big one. Yesterday all my friends came round for a pizza lunch: this is when I think it all started to get REALLY real. Amid hugs and presents I feel a weird not quite sadness that I will not be at school on Monday morning.

High quality photo minus Sophie (not the sister)

However this will go down in my memory books forever and anyone I know would love to go on a trip like this.

Lucy

Resilience Training 101

So here we were feeling all “ready to go” and “we’ve got this”, when we heard that our ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam has been cancelled.

The very first thing we have booked has already been cancelled. Fair enough – there is going to be the mother and father of a storm this weekend – and crossing the North Sea then would have put our consitutions, and possibly minimal packing, to the test.

The alternative we have been offered is a sailing on Wednesday evening, which doesn’t work for a number of reasons –

  • We have paid for our accommodation in Amsterdam
  • We have tickets for Keane the night we arrive
  • We have tickets for Anne Frank’s house the next day
  • Our lovely friends who are staying in our house are expecting to move in on Tuesday

So, we have accepted the challenge, and will be leaving home a day before we expected. We have booked the Eurotunnel, which is not going to be wind-affected. We will stay with Granny in Essex on Sunday night, and get to The Netherlands for Tuesday via France and Belgium on Monday.

Some sleep-overs will be cut short, a nice evening with friends will have to wait half a year, and it is a very good thing I didn’t go to the Calcutta Cup.

Ben

How do you feel?

This is probably the one question everyone is asking this week. And of course while I can only speak for myself, and quite what the children feel is a bit of a mystery (see below), the answer is I don’t know. I feel everything. All the feelings. Sometimes all at the same time and sometimes in waves: a swell of one emotion followed by a surge of another.

I’m feeling….

Unapproachable

We keep asking the children how they feel. We get a range of answers from “uh” to “dunno“. The thing is they clearly do feel something (they must, mustn’t they?) but either they’re choosing not to share it with us or they don’t have the words to do so. For a family that has always tried to be both open and articulate that feels somewhat disappointing.

They don’t look too miserable to be leaving school at least.

Magnus alone is a bit more responsive, but only really on the subject of volcanoes. We’ve managed to convince him he should be ok in the Netherlands.

Pre-emptive nostalgia

It’s a beautiful morning, and I have been watching the brds in the garden. The bullfinches (always my favourites) were fiery peaches in the tree outside the kitchen. As I watched I was conscious that I was somehow already missing them (and so much else) despite still being here.

Is there a word for this? There must be in some languages.

Excited

And oddly that feeling is still with me, while at the moment, I’m excited. No, really. I am. You know that psychologial trick that grown ups (ie anyone else) try to play on you before an exam or somewhere you have to speak in public? When they say “Tell yourself you’re not nervous, you’re excited. Those butterflies aren’t utter terror, they’re anticipation“? That thing? Well, oddly, for the first time in my life, it’s working.

Excited? Us?

I don’t normally get excited about holidays in advance. There’s too much to do and I’m normally too taken up with packing and sorting and cancelling the milk and I-don’t-know-where-your-teddy-is,-probably-where-you-left-it to get excited until we’ve actually left the house, got to the airport on time, checked in and no one has been sick. Yet now, when I stop, and think about what we are about to do. I am. I am really excited. Can’t wait to get going.

Uncharacteristically brave

Which is possibly because what we are doing is so utterly out of character. I am absolutely not a flout convention, throw caution to the wind, leave our jobs and go travelling sort of person. This is the sort of thing that people I look at in astonished admiration do. It is categorically not what I do.

Disbelieving

So I can’t really believe all sorts of things. I can’t believe we are (I am) actually doing this. I can’t believe it has come round so quickly. I can’t believe we are actually going in 3 days.

I think (and this is a tip for anyone else thinking that they might do this) that the massively long lead time has helped with all of that. I am absolutely certain that if we had come up with this plan in August, which is when I actually booked the first tickets for this trip (the return flights, of course), I would have said (rather less calmly than that implies) that it was impossible to plan, got into a panic and refused to go. But the drip, drip, drip incremental planning and pondering, over eight simultaneously long and very fast years, has allowed me to get my head around it, stifle the voice that says, “You can’t” and actually go.

Still don’t quite believe it though.

Anxious

Sometimes every direction feels like the wrong direction.

That voice is a bit of a constant for me. It turns out that (deep breath) I suffer from anxiety. In my case this means that despite outward appearances, I have NOT GOOD ENOUGH running through me like a stick of rock. I am terrified of not doing enough, of letting people down, of failing. And every time I do fall short, it feels meant and inevitable, the natural consquence of my inability to do the right thing. And thus the cycle turns. I don’t mention it much, not so much because I’m ashamed (although I am a bit – it is, after all not good enough that I feel like this; I should be better, more grateful for the luck and love I have) but because (and I realise the irony in this) I am very conscious of the many people out there who suffer much worse than I do. I hesitate to call what I have anxiety for fear that they will feel that I am comparing myself with them. I may be anxious but am I anxious enough..?

I did it too. But no one took my picture.

So this trip is a bit of a test. There are, after all, so many reasons it could go wrong. So many potential catastrophes I can imagine and mentally torture myself with. So many disaster scenarios I can concoct in my head. I am, as we are telling Magnus with his volcano worries (are his fears my fault?) just having to feel the fear and do it anyway.

In control

Things really get on top of me when they don’t go to plan, or when I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the unending (and clearly three-dimensional) to do list.

But (thanks to the last-month-chart-of-doom) I am feeling oddly, and unexpectedly, in control. (Honestly, I have been apologising to Ben for months about how awful I am going to be this week, and I don’t think I am at all – he of course may disagree)

Nervous

This of course makes me nervous. If I’m not madly rushing around doing things, that must be because I’ve forgotten something. We can’t surely be actually in control, can we? (Famous last words, tempting fate, touching wood….)

The daily to do chart for January (as at about yesterday lunchtime). See how much we have crossed off.

Positive

But, on balance, I do, I think, with both arms on the wooden table, bottom on the wooden seat, and eyes nervously scanning the windows for magpies, feel positive. If I’m terrified of anything at the moment, it’s that something might happen that means we can’t go.

I’m ready for this – rooms are emptied, a million conversations have been had, the “quiet” drink in the pub was last night.

Let’s do this. Watch out world…

Harriet

 

What about the Coronavirus?

Two weeks ago this wasn’t even a question. This week it’s definitely in the top ten.

Our planned route has us spending a month in China, arriving in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai to Osaka in early July. We’ve bought the map and the Lonely Planet, identified the places we really want to see and worked out an outline itinerary. I’ve even spent the last six months learning some very rudimentary Mandarin in expectation (Nihao!).

Coronavirus. Quite pretty if you don’t think about it. image from Wikimedia Commons

That was all before Coronavirus. In the last week the World Health Authority has declared the outbreak a global health emergency and the Foreign Office is advising against all non-essential travel to China. Even if we were to ignore that advice (which we won’t), Japan has closed its border to travellers from China so we would be turned away there.

Clearly this is a minor inconvenience in comparison with what it must be like for those suffering, their families, or those trapped in their homes in Hubei province, and it is for their sake not ours that we hope very much that it passes soon.

But for the moment, the answer to the question is, “We’ll see“. We have four months before we arrive in China and we will just have to wait to find out what the situation is much nearer that time. We have a possible plan B in our heads (although that too is not without difficulties) and if it comes to it we will just have to do, and go, where we safely can.

For the moment though this is an exercise in not worrying about what we cannot change. It appears that the resilience training has started – even before we have left the country.

Preparing 🙄

Hi it’s Sophie,

Here I’m writing my first blog post 🙂 about the dreaded packing and preparing in the kids point of view. To begin with I think that we are really organised and set to head off but apparently not because it feels like every week we are getting taken away to find a new pair of shoes or some gloves and hat or something along those lines AND we have at least booked two thirds of the travel and accommodation so i don’t see what the fuss is about.

We already have started clearing the shelves, cupoards and surfaces

Sophie’s (mine) day one
Aurora’s with bin bag on the top

We have also got most of the clothes we need👚👖such as the 3 legging/joggy bottoms,3 tops and four or five pairs of underwear and socks also one pair of walking boots🥾and I think a pair of flip flops as well but am not sure??I already have my legging, tops and boots so I don’t see why I have to go on all the shopping trips.

Injections 💉

To begin with I was SUPER scared and thought you would feel what ever it was going down your arm but I was wrong it is painful but not as bad as I was expecting apart from the hepatitis B. I feel like you could feel it going in to the muscle but the rest was not bad. The order we went in was adults, Magnus, Lucy, me then Aurora.

Nerves😬

I don’t think it’s just me but I am SO nervous because i am pretty sure that last time I checked it was four years until we were mabye going to go on a mad trip aroud the world. BUT (there has to be a but) it’s just more than a week in till we go!!!!!!!😬🤯😄😮😲

🧳packing

The thing with me is that I love to tidy and fold, fold and pack but say I was going away for I don’t know a week I would make everything really neatly and perfect but then when I am actually on the trip. I will just stuff everything in my bag then on the last day I would take as long as it needs to pack it all back in neatly and perfect. So for the packing part I will need lots of time to repack all of my things.

Sophie

What about work? (part 2)

My turn. What about my work?

Today is, for me at least, the first day the trip feels real. Yesterday I packed up my desk, took my handy reminders off the wall (it’s being repainted while I’m away, which is a good thing as it turns out that blu-tak really does make holes in the paintwork – who knew?), got paid and left the building for the last time (ish, I’m actually going in again on Monday, but that doesn’t make for such a dramatic announcement) until September.

Because unlike Ben, I do have a job to come back to. Again, it’s all been very carefully (read mostly accidentally) planned.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (London, about 2009, which really does feel like a different planet) I was a mother of three children under two and rather struggling to combine that with working for the prestigious law firm I had employed by since I left law school. I was all set to resign so we could move to Scotland when my employers suggested that I could continue to work for them, but part-time, on my own hours, and from 350 miles away.

The zero hours option

It was the perfect short term solution and it lasted 9 years, through a move, another baby, and quite a few 6 a.m. trains from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Indeed, it could have been the perfect solution for this trip.

Sometimes the 6 a.m. train from Berwick had its advantages.

I was the Uber driver of private client lawyers, and, for a long while my zero hours contract was brilliant, not least because my managers knew about the Tweed to Tokyo plan and (with no contracted hours) time off for it was assured. But the firm changed, or I changed, or something and everything changed and, back in 2017 and 18 the job started to make me very unhappy. I’m sure I will talk about that more at another time, but suffice to say, that when a local accountancy firm approached me about possibly working for them, after a little bit of deliberation (because the institutionalising effect of only ever working for one firm should not be under-estimated), I took the job.

The sabbatical solution

Employers are more likely to want you back if you bribe them with cake.

And the nice thing is, when you are accepting a new job you really can ask for what you want. They can, of course, say no, but in this case they didn’t. I told them about the trip and that I would therefore need this time off and they agreed to let me have it. I think they knew that had they not done so, I would have gritted my teeth and stayed put.

So it’s all very straightforward for me: I have seven months off, unpaid, and will be back in the office on September 1st. It feels a very long way off. I hope they still want me back.

Harriet

What about work (part 1)?

As well as “What about School?” and “What about your House?“, the other question which comes up time and again is “What about your work?”.

The answer is different for each of us, and again is a mix of planning and taking opportunities when they arise. Harriet will probably write about her situation soon, so I will concentrate on mine.

What’s going on?

I have worked for a large UK telecommunications company for over 15 years, starting back in my early 30s (not the early ’30s). I’ve worked in a number of different roles in that time, and I’ve been doing what I do now for almost 3 years. I manage a contract which builds fibre broadband infrastructure to places it wouldn’t normally get to without government assistance.

Bringing Fibre Broadband to rural places is pretty glamorous, don’t you know

It has been one of the best jobs, if not the best job, I have done. It has been successful, and inspiring to see how the impact has transformed people’s lives. I work with a great team, both within my company and the government partners working on the programme.

This will change at the end of this week, when I leave my job, and step into an unpaid unknown. Not completely unknown, of course. There has been a great deal of planning about the next six months, after all! But in terms of how I will earn money once I return, I have no concrete plans.

Why?

So why did I chose to leave such a successful and rewarding role, and a steady job, working with people I like? Here are some of the reasons:

  • This trip has been a plan since long before I worked in my current job. Admittedly it was a bucket list pipe dream for much of it, but the seeds of it were sown as we watched the London 2012 Olympics from France, having declined offers of tickets, and told ourselves they would be a bit rubbish.
  • This is the right time for the trip, not just for the Olympics, but also for the children. They are old enough to enjoy it, remember it, get lots out of it, and not miss any important exams.
  • A combination of factors at work meant this was the right time to move on. The contract I work on is coming to an end. The company is going through some restructuring which would have meant compromises for how I work. We had explored the idea of a sabbatical, but that was not at all certain, at least in time for the planning we needed to do, and the timing of the trip. And I’m the sort of person who prefers to leave a party when it is still good, so it is time for a new challenge.

I suppose the main reason is that I prioritised going on a family adventure over career development at my current employment. I really am leaving to spend more time with my family.

What next?

I’m not particularly afraid about the next steps in the world of work, but I really don’t know what sort of work it will be. I would like to think that I could get another role within another big company on my return; after all, today’s job has been successful and at least I’d get an interview or two from people asking me about Tweed to Tokyo.

In terms of career development, I am also pretty confident that Tweed to Tokyo will give several examples of business-friendly terms to discuss: planning, budgeting, logistics, international customs, people management, risk management, leadership, negotiation, all that…

But I might decide that that sort of salaryman role is not for me. Maybe I will open a sushi restaurant in the Borders, or start to make cheese, or import Japanese whisky. Maybe we will think that Kyrgyzstan, or Hungary, is the place to be and start the process of emigration.

While these are all things that I have thought about, however fleetingly, not to mention unrealistically, I expect the reality will turn out to be something different. The six months that we have will give me some headspace to think about it, and to get my head around not being in today’s job. Part of the planning has been to give both of us some adjustment time when we get back too.

I’m writing this now on the early train to Edinburgh, on my way to another train to Glasgow, for my last work trip there.

A dark Tweedbank morning, albeit with an excellent advertising panel.

Whatever is next I do feel I’m not going to miss the 05h58 from Tweedbank.

Ben

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