A meal from every country – Hungary

Warning. The obvious pun will appear in this post..

We are in Hungary for only two days, so didn’t have much time for research or planning.

Unlike in Poland there was an obvious meal I wanted to cook: goulash. Or gulyás to spell it correctly (in Hungarian, a langauge that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to a native English speaker). I am absolutely certain that there are many, many, other delicious Hungarian dishes that I could have cooked, but in my mind gulyás and Hungary are inextriably linked, so gulyás it was.

Gulyás

The recipe

A quick google brings up the inevitable multiple gulyás/goulash/gulasz recipes (spelled all ways and none), but in my quest for authenticity (to be comprehesively ruined later), I went for this one.

The writer is not only Hungarian, but she runs tasting tours of Budapest. Surely if anyone knows their gulyás she does. She’s certainly very adamant that she knows exactly what it should be like (a soup, not a stew). No poor subsitutes here.

The problem was that this recipe (as often seems to be the way with recipes written by or for Americans), catered for a cast of thousands. There are six of us here and we like our food but just as that wasn’t enough to eat a cheesecake made with 1.3 kg of cream cheese, or a gulyás containing 1.5 kg of beef. She does helpfully say that it freezes well, but that wasn’t much use to us. Unless it travels well too.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of me cooking for them in the UK will know that I tend to view a recipe more as a guideline than a hard and fast set of rules to be followed. I amend and substitute as required by how bothered I can be to buy the actual ingredients in the actual quantities required.

So I thought I’d do the same here. I didn’t know exactly how many people “a very large pot of soup” would feed, so I went for broadly, sort of, halving it.

The other problem was that this is definitely slow cooking, and with a hungry (no pun), post Szechenyi bathing family to feed, I didn’t really have the “several hours” cooking time it perhaps ideally would have had.

After swimming you need a chittery bite. Or some gulyas.

The equipment

This kitchen passes muster. Ish. The roasting tins weren’t clean (eurgh) and the dishwasher doesn’t work. But fortunately I brought a dish washer with me. He does roasting tins too.

It has, though, got everything I needed for this recipe – even a peeler. It’s blunt, but you can’t have everything.

The shopping

I was rather nervous about this one. As I’ve mentioned, Hungarian is totally unrecognisable as a language, so ensuring that I bought the right ingredients was trickier than it had yet been. I certainly vetoed the idea of buying anything at an actual market and headed for the supermarket, which was oddly familiar:

Will it take our clubcard?

It was an odd mix of the very familiar and the definitely not. There’s certainly a separate product list for the Hungarian market.

Ingredients-wise I needed the usual trio, onions, carrots and garlic, two of which I had already and the third was easily identifiable. Tomatoes and parsnips I could do too, although I learned in Poland that what looks like a parsnip may, in Poland at least, actually be a parsley root.

Beef was nice and easy. Aldi (yes, they’re here too) helpfully put a nice picture of a cow on on the packet, and even better, it was marked gulyás.

With hindsight (and possibly I could have worked this out before) I think we would translate this as “stewing steak”

Then the spices. Our flat in Budapest had pepper and salt, so I needed caraway and (funnily enough) paprika.

Google translate told me that caraway was kömény and seed was mag. Should have been easy. However, I had four increasingly bored children with me (no leisurely wander round the supermarkets of Hungary sadly) and was looking out for small glass jars. It was only when, Ben was already through the tilll, that I found it. In a little packet. And with many more letters than I was expecting.

What the additional letters mean I have no idea. It definintely was caraway (Google agrees).

And then there was sweet paprika. Now this is where I get really inauthentic. It is probably a good thing we are leaving the country tomorrow. Because I used this:

It looks inoffensive enough…

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a jar of paprika I bought in Brussels (“product of Germany”). It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Hungarian and, most importantly, it does not even say on it whether it is sweet or hot. (As an aside, I’m never sure whether “sweet” and “smoked” paprika are the same thing. And as for “sweet smoked” I’m totally clueless.) At home I have both, but the Belgians clearly don’t differentiate. I should, I know, have bought some more, but although I cook with paprika quite often, carrying two different jars of it round Europe and beyond seemed silly. Perhaps had I known it came in packets I’d have decided otherwise. In addition, though, there was an entire paprika aisle and faced with a difficult choice I went for the easy option: none of the above.

So this is Hungary’s national dish, made with Hungary’s national spice. From Belgium.

The cooking

No sous chef today, sadly. They were too busy washing slightly suphorous minerals out of their hair and arguing about the wifi.

I chopped two largish onions and sweated them slowly in oil (with a bit of water, which is a new tip I learned yesterday to stop them browning). This was supposed to take twenty minutes, but as with everything else in this recipe, in the interests of not letting low blood-sugar (no pun) be the cause of World War Three, I cut some corners on time.

They’re translucent. They really are.

In the meanwhile I chopped up two medium carrots, a large parsnip (both of which I’d peeled), a relatively sizeable tomato five small potatoes and the rest of a pack of cherry tomatoes that were kicking around the fridge. I also chopped a couple of cloves of garlic (we have yet to stay in a house with a garlic press).

Mmm, spicy

Once the onions were sort of vaguely the translucent colour they were supposed to be, I added a tablespoon of paprika (erring on the side of caution in case it was hot), half a teaspoon ish) of black pepper and two teaspoons of caraway seeds. I mixed that around a bit and then turned the heat up and added 800 grams of the gulyás beef (I sort of wanted about 600g or 700g but it came in packs of 400g and I didn’t want left overs. I browned that over a high heat and then added quite a lot of water. More than enough to cover it. I brought it to a boil and turned it down to simmer gently.

Then I read the recipe properly and realised I was supposed to cook it until it was tender. At least an hour. And the ravening (still no pun) wolves were at the door.

After 50 minutes it was sort of there or thereabouts and I decided that feeding the (wait for it) masses was more important than my quest for authenticity. So I added the vegetables and a bit more paprika (because I decided it needed it).

Fifteen more minutes of cooking and the hungary (there it is) crew were ready, as was my gulyás.

It looked much nicer before I smeared it up the side

And while it could probably have done with more time, they loved it. Another one for the home recipe books.

Pudding

Research into Hungarian puddings tells me they go in for very elaborate gateaux and layered cakes. Now, this house does have a cake tin. It does not, however, have a set of scales, a palette knife or and oven I know and trust. So it was another bought pudding.

This one was from the Spar, I having visited four shops in search of a pudding. Pre-cooked, refrigerated puddings don’t seem to have arrived in Hungary yet. We bought two different versions. They both disappeared: “tastes like Sainsbury’s”. Is that a compliment?

A bit of both, please

On the upside, I now have a load of caraway and nothing to do with it. I feel a cake coming on. Maybe.

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.

A meal from every country – Poland

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

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

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

Menu planning

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

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

This week’s cooking team

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

Kotlety Schabowy z Mizeria

The shopping

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

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

Erm. That one. Point and smile.

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

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

You say śmietana, I say sour cream

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

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

The equipment

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

What is this for? Answers on a postcard

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

Egg slicer and axe. For all your creative needs.

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

The cooking

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

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

Cooking is a dangerous sport

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

We chopped some potatoes and put them on to boil.

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

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

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

Smacznego!

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

Pudding

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

Choosing was nearly as difficult as ordering

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

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

Challenge for Hungary: do the baking myself….

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

We tipped the balance this week. Two weeks is a holiday. Three, or more, is something else… For Ben, at least, this is the first time since 2002 than he has had more than two weeks off in a row. (Harriet’s had more than her fair share of maternity leave, sick leave (pneumonia, 2006, since you ask) and flexi-working)

It all feels surprisingly normal.

Where were we? What did we do?

Rommerskirchen

Anyway, we started this week off in Rommerskirchen. You know, Rommerskirchen, in Nordrhein-Westfalen. OK, maybe it’s not the most famous place we’ll hang our hats but it did us very nicely.

Rommerskirchen is a small town in a not very big administrative area surrounded by flat agricultural fields and dominated by two absolutely massive power stations. It also, conveniently, has a direct train into central Cologne, and a station with free parking, which was (with apologies to anyone who calls it home) its main attraction for us.

And there were two of these

So while we may have stayed in Rommerskirchen, and frequented several of its (five, and counting) supermarkets (though not its two separate alcohol hypermarkets), we didn’t actually spend much time there at all.

Cologne

We were mostly in Cologne. In fact pretty much all of the timing of the trip up to this point has been planned around the fact that we had been told Cologne Carnival was epic and we didn’t want to miss it.

Carnival

We’ve written a separate post all about Carnival and our experiences, so click through to read that, but suffice to say it didn’t disappoint. Weather notwithstanding we loved it. It was exciting, welcoming, generous and just plain and simple fun. It will take a long while before any of us forgets the sight of an entire city in fancy dress. And probably only slightly less long to finish all the sweets…

Zoo and other attractions

On our final day in Cologne we did sample some of its other delights. Having forced the children to have fun and eat sweets for the previous two days we thought it only fair that they should have a say in what we did next. They picked the zoo. We were less keen, but fortunately this is the zoo we had been told was a “zoo for people who hate zoos” (and that’s not because it doesn’t have any animals in it).

We did, first, force them to work off some of the sugar with a quick march up the 533 steps of the Dom, and a stroll across and along the Rhein to get to the zoo.

It was excellent. High point definitely the interaction between the four year old male gorilla and the silverback. The small person showing off to get attention may have reminded us of someone we know. And the big chap wasn’t keen on Lucy’s hat either…

Was it the hat he didn’t like?

Getting to Berlin

We left Cologne on Wednesday and had our first long car journey (unless you count driving to Granny’s) of the trip to arrive in Berlin that afternoon. The journey was quite snowy in places, and was marked by our very first foray into mixing children and cars and screens.

This was something we had never tried before, for two reasons. The main one is that two of our beloved children can get car sick on a three mile journey if they try, and the other is that we are old-school luddites. The autobahn not being quite as twisty as any road in the Scottish Borders we dipped a toe in the water opened the floodgates of downloading films and TV shows.

It worked. We even subjected them to the entire album of Kraftwerk’s electronic classic Autobahn as well as Beethoven’s 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies without a whisper of discontent. (Harriet did well to put up with the Kraftwerk too.)

21 and a half minutes to go

Berlin

We have been staying in an amazing pre-war apartment with great high ceilings and big rooms. Its downside (and the reason we can afford it) is that it’s on a main road and the decor is a bit more shabby than chic. The wifi is also not living up to the children’s expectations…

Reichstag

On Thursday we were up and out to a pre-booked tour of the Dome of the Reichstag, or so we thought. When we arrived, we were shepherded into a different queue and sent inside the building itself. There was a moment of silent shared adult panic as we concluded we were about to sit in on 90 minutes of German Bundestag plenary session – think of the children! And us! – but this turned out not to be the case, and to be one of Ben’s favourite experiences in Germany.

Our fantastic guide, Ruth, led a very open, honest and interesting tour of the building (which you don’t get to do when the Bundestag is sitting), covering the history and present of modern Germany: warts, Russian war graffiti and all. Once it was over a lift whisked us to the roof, and to the dome for views over Berlin.

Museums and galleries

In the spirit of Berlin we tried to be a bit more out there with the museums and galleries we visited. So we didn’t go anywhere hear the Pergamon, the Charlottenburg Palace or the Dom. Instead (and while these aren’t exactly cutting edge or unknown, they were in the main, at the children’s request) we went to the Spy Museum (great fun), the DDR museum (excellent, though too crowded), the Jewish Holocaust memorial (incredible in too many ways), the East Side Gallery (well worth a wander), the Wall Museum (moving and mindblowing) and the Berlin Unterwelten Museum (expensive, but interesting).

Opera

One of Harriet’s birthday presents last year was 6 tickets to Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Komische Oper Berlin. We were honoured that she decided to go with the rest of us, so we put on our smartest clothes the same clothes we have been wearing since we left home (except for Harriet, who had brought a highly packable dress with her for the occasion) and headed out to a bizarre evening of avant-garde opera, complete with papier-maché heads, dancing clowns, monkeys, and nudity.

I’m not sure we were all convinced, but it added to the new experiences. The only other opera the children have seen was Don Giovanni last summer in Orange, so Lucy did ask if opera is all about horrid men and victim women. Maybe we should choose something a bit less #metoo next time.

Graffiti

On Sunday we set off early to Mauerpark, and a pre-arranged meeting with our graffiti expert. We had high hopes about our graffiti lesson, and they were well met in a couple of sun kissed and chilly hours (re-)painting a section of old Berlin Wall. Everyone contributed and enjoyed this and we are all delighted with the result. Whether it is still there as we write this on Sunday evening doesn’t really matter. We think the photos speak for themselves.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Aurora Berlin was not as crowded as I had expected. Everyone thinks Berlin is really cool, but I don’t really get that. It’s just a city. I was surprised listening to the people in their houses in the DDR museum.

Lucy It’s a bit contradictory but I was both surprised by how nice Berlin was (because I knew it had lots of dark history) and how dark the history was (because I was expecting Berlin to be a lovely city).

I was expecting the parade at Carnival to be more fancy dress but they were more like soldiers and regiments.

Not sure any actual regiments dress like this these days.

Harriet I knew Carnival was going to be loopy but it was way more loopy than I expected. I was really impressed (maybe I should have expected this) by the German efficiency: I’ve never seen such calm and clean motorway services; the public transport is all so easy and efficient; the Berlin tourist ticket works and is actually good value and not a total rip off as they tend to be in other places. I was surprised and delighted by how welcome we felt in Cologne.

I was hugely affected by and in awe of how open Germans are about their relatively recent history and how determined not to shy away away from it but to ensure that it is never repeated.

I was surprised (and very chuffed) by how good our graffiti was.

Sophie Carnival wasn’t as busy as I expected. I thought it was going to be like a concert when you can’t move and have barely any room. I found getting up early easier than I was expecting.

Magnus I thought it was quite a funky, creative place. The dressing up and the graffiti were out of the ordinary. I was surprised that we had to put caps on the cans before doing the spray painting.

Ben I really enjoyed Germany, and I felt that everyone we met was friendly, quite serious and thoughtful, and in general, excellent at English, in total contrast to my German. I did not enjoy being rubbish at German, but my German is brilliant compared to my Polish, Hungarian and Uzbek, so I’m just going to have to deal with that in the coming weeks and months.

There is a transparency to how Germany has reacted to the horrors of its last century of history which feels refreshing, and also honest and a bit humbling, possibly when compared to some ways we deal with elements of British history back home.

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

I felt I could happily live in Berlin.

What were the highlights?

Aurora The graffiti and the carnival. The Cologne carnival was great because of all the sweets, and it was fun. I enjoyed making the graffiti.

Lucy I thought the museums were better than any other museums. The spy museum was very good because it was modern – it was mainly history but it had lots of interactive things – and had good English.

Double O 12 and three quarters

The gorilla was amazing.

The graffiti. It was completely new and completely awesome. I’m not the best artist, but this wasn’t art as we do it at school.

I really enjoyed the Carnival even though it was my worst bit too.

Harriet So many highlights this week. In Cologne, other than carnival, I will remember the gorilla for a very long time. I loved the buzz of the city with everyone dressed up. I am still so touched by the man who recognised us from the train and gave us extra flowers and sweets. I’m delighted that the graffiti was such a success as it was a bit of a leap into the unknown. It was lovely to meet up (via Twitter) with friends from our choir in London who we hadn’t realised are now living in Berlin.

More seriously I thought the Berlin Wall Museum/memorial and the whole area around it were brilliantly done. The plaques in the pavement where people escaped or were killed trying to were particularly moving.

A mother and child escaped here

Sophie Carnival, because we got a ton of sweets and I met Colin the leopard for the first time. I liked all the different costumes and all the people who made a complete fool of themselves. Everybody was really cheery and nice. They also tried to make the police officers really nice instead of scary.

The graffiti was really good fun. I didn’t expect it to be that good. I was expecting us to get more annoyed with each other.

Teamwork. Surprised us all.

Magnus Graffiti and carnival. Carnival because of the sweets and graffiti was just fun.

Ben I could have watched Kim the gorilla for ages, and the short time we spent doing just that was a real highlight.

I enjoyed almost everything we did in Berlin but standouts were the visit to the Reichstag and Bundestag; learning about the wall, particularly watching footage of its demise in the Wall Museum; watching our graffiti take shape, then spotting it from the flea-market a couple of hours later.

I enjoyed the fact that we were more relaxed as a family this week.

What was the weather like?

A bit rubbish, with occasional sun. Much as you would expect for a European February.

We even had snow.

How plastic free were we?

Variable. We forgot to write about this last week, but Brussels was pretty good particularly as we found the packaging-free supermarket. Food has remained our most difficult plastic free area. We reuse as much as we can (wrapping sandwiches in bread bags etc), but most food seems to come pre-packed and much of it can’t be reused.

Cologne Carnival was probably pretty poor for waste. And smashing one of our big plastic tubs, which take our dry staple food, games etc, was a bit of a shame.

Generally we’ve been surprised by how comparatively well the UK seems to recycle compared with the countries we’ve been in. Coffee shops are consistently surprised by our reusable cups, and two of the places we’ve stayed have had no separate recycling bins. We’ve done our best but remain suspicious that quite a bit of our carefully sorted recycling has ended up in landfill.

What did we eat?

Aside from lots of sweets and the usual home made sandwiches, pastas and risottos, we had some good food too. Amazing chocolate treats at Rausch chocolate house, and surprisingly nice Currrywust.

We had our first ice creams of the trip. We had Berliners too. But not in Berlin. We drank Kölsch beer from Cologne in both Cologne and Berlin. Sadly we’re off tomorrow and haven’t had a doner kebab, though we still have enough sweet treats left from Carnival to frighten any passing (or reading) dentists.

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

Any bad bits? How was the fighting?

After the ructions of Brussels, this week was much more peaceful, and despite minor quibbles, we got along with each other much better.

Aurora The car journey was much better with phones. I didn’t want to climb the thing [the Dom] in Cologne, but mummy and daddy made me.

It was worth it.

Lucy Carnival when I was soaking wet and frozen to the bone to the point of nearly crying. I think I’ve been more tired than usual, and have felt the overwhelmingness of the trip.

Sophie We fought a bit. I didn’t like the Carnival when people were getting really wet and whinging about it.

The gorilla was good but I was really scared because I thought the glass was going to break.

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

I didn’t like getting bothered with dramas at home. Obviously I do want to know what’s happened but I don’t want it to stop me from having fun, which it did.

Magnus I don’t like it when we fight and end up in really bad moods with each other. I didn’t like that you couldn’t touch the walls in the underground museum but it was quite cool when he shone the light and I made a mark on the wall with my shadow.

Harriet I am slightly ashamed by how much the dreadful wifi in this flat has affected all of us. I didn’t like being in single beds in Rommerskirchen. Not for any exciting reasons but I think that the ten minutes before we fall asleep is hugely important to Ben and me as a debrief and just as time together. I think we both really struggled without that.

Ben I had been really looking forward to the Opera, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to. My inability to take the right coat for the day (from a choice of two) has gone from occasional annoyance to face-palming habit this week. I agree about single beds – rubbish… The washing machine here has been useless too.

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

Any hints and tips?

Films in the car work – and no one was sick, although it helped that it was all motorway. And Friends was a hit with the girls. Apparently that’s the main topic of conversation at bedtime.

The Berlin pass was great value.

What’s next?

The first step into the (bit more) unknown. We are off to Poland tomorrow, starting in the far North West, the Oder Delta, for a “Safari”. Up until now we have been mostly in major European cities which have felt, in the the main, familiar and manageable. Poland, and rural Poland at that, is a step farther away. Although we have many lovely Polish friends (including some we’re very excited to be visiting later this week), only Ben has been here before and we speak absolutely none of the language.

Chodźmy! Lets go!

A meal from every country – Germany

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

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

Having done a bit of research I rather fancied making kartoffelpuffer, potato pancakes (which seemed appropriate for Shrove Tuesday).

But sadly, Rommerskirchen’s kitchen was, in the end, and despite having two colanders, just not up to scratch. An array of knives all smaller and less effective than most buter knives, and a distinct lack of anything with which to grate onions or potatoes meant that we decided to postpone the cooking until we got to Berlin (although I did manage to make pancakes – which without any scales or measuring equipment turned out surprisingly well).

Kartoffelpuffer are, I’m told, traditionally from the west of Germany. This felt a little inappropriate in in Berlin but given the internet tells us the the culinary highlights of Berlin cuisine are currywurst and doner kebabs, I didn’t feel too bad about veering from the strictly local. Ben rather fancies the mix of Worcestershire sauce (does it have to be Lea & Perrins, I wonder?), curry powder and ketchup that apparently makes up currywurst but I’m not so keen.

So we’re sticking with the kartoffelpuffer and serving them with more sausages. Because sausages go with Germany, in our heads anyway. And because the children like sausages.

A new vegetable. What could possibly go wrong?

But we are being a bit adventurous too. I found kohlrabi in the supermarket. Kohlrabi is a bit like dragon fruit (which was also in the supermarket), in that I’ve heard of it, and even seen recipes for it, but I’ve never actually attempted to do anything with it in real life. So we bought some. And some brussels sprouts, because, to my astonishment, Magnus requested them on the grounds he likes them…. something about this travelling is clearly working.

Kartoffelpuffer mit Bratwurst

The recipe

We used a recipe I found online (again), because (again) it looked easy. The website’s called Quick German Recipes but I have no idea how actually German it is. ’twill serve.

As for the kohlrabi, it appears that the easiest thing to do with it is just to roast it. Here goes.

The ingredients

Potatoes. Check. Onion. Check. Vegetables. Check. Sausages… but which ones?

Yet again, we have a Lidl within a five minute walk, and this Lidl has sausages. Many, many sausages. I am absolutely certain that to a native German a bockworst is as different from a bratwurst as a wiener is from a frankfurter. I however haven’t got a clue. Using the tried and tested method of going for the expensive fresh ones, we ended up with these….

The sausages of choice

They had all sorts of reassuring-looking stamps on them and I reckoned that g.g.A probably meant that a Thuringian sausage was a thing. Like a Melton Mowbray pork pie, other sausages long to be Thuringian, but simply don’t make the grade. (Pleasingly I’ve just looked it up, and that’s (almost) exactly what it means. Geschützte geografische Angabe, if you’re interested, which is not quite the same as a pork pie, but still).

My recipe also told me that I should ideally serve this with apple sauce. What Lidl had in varieties of sausage it entirely lacked in varieties of apple. Not a Bramley or other cooker in sight. Maybe Germans don’t have them? While I’m sure you can make a perfectly satisfactory apple sauce with an eating apple, it goes against all my principles to do so. So I went against an entirely different (and clearly less important) set of principles and bought a jar of apple sauce. I found it, incidentally, in the no man’s land between tinned vegetables and baby food so I have no idea which category it is intended to fall into. Maybe both.

It’s organic, and everything.

The equipment

Oh happy day! This kitchen has a grater! And a peeler! It doesn’t have a frying pan, but you can’t have everything. It also has a similar lighting problem to Amsterdam, but we have repurposed the bedside light – with no books, it wasn’t needed where it was – so no headtorch required.

The sous chef and the video

I was privileged today to have both a sous chef and a videographer. Coincidentally they were both called Aurora, and in both roles they were excellent. What we didn’t and don’t have, however, is good wifi, so while the full unedited video is, in the end, a 3 minute and 45 second riveting watch, we are only able to upload the following 10 second highlight. Enjoy.

Did it work?

The instructions

In the absence of the full video, here’s what we did:

Baked the sausages (that’s probably utterly heretical behaviour but we did it anyway. They split their skins but were all the better for it)

Twelve fat sausages, sizzling in the pan….

We (ie Aurora) the grated the potatoes (Grater! Yay) into a large bowl (again, yay!). We added half a grated onion (I did that bit), three eggs and 4 tablespoons of flour.

While Aurora was busy grating, I chopped up the kohlrabi and stuck it on an oven tray with some garlic and oil. I put it in the oven with the sausages. The internet said 15 minutes but either that’s not enough or the oven isn’t very good. I suspect the correct answer is both.

We cut the ends off the sprouts (but no crosses, please), and stuck them in a pan ready to boil for the absolute minimum amount of time. Then we fried spoonfuls of the potato mix in butter (once again this is apparently essential. Ben was sent out for more) for about four minutes on each side. If I were doing it again I’d go for slightly lower temperature and slightly longer time. Better an overcooked than an undercooked potato, I feel.

They looked ok though.

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

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

Pudding

Anyone who knows me will know that baking is what I do, and I am itching to have a go at recreating some of the delicious things we have eaten on our travels. I found this apparently excellent recipe for laugenbrezel (pretzels to you and me) and another for an Alsatian apple cake, but with no scales or cake tins both seem a bit beyond us at the moment.

So another bought pudding it was. Inspired by the apple cake I couldn’t make.

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

This is an Emsländer apple cake, not the Alsatian one I would have made. Emsland is in Lower Saxony, not that far from where we were in Rommerskirchen, so fits, entirely accidentally, with the whole meal. Quite why it’s branded “Firenze” we have no idea.

Once again it was excellent. It’s amazing what you can do with butter, sugar and flour.

Danke schön Deutschland. All mistakes are ours.

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

Cologne carnival with kids

We had read that Cologne Carnival was a Big Deal, and that people took its lack of seriousness very seriously. Certainly, when looking for accommodation in Cologne, as far back as September last year, it was in very short supply, and everything we could find was was very expensive. Harriet at one point thought she had found the perfect place, and as soon as she filled in the bit which asks you to say a little bit about the trip, saying we were on our way to Tokyo, and didn’t want to miss the Carnival, the family responded saying, “Sorry, it’s not available after all, we didn’t realise that was carnival weekend“.

We never noticed this sign when Carnival was actually going on.

(I do wonder about this bit of the AirBnB booking process. Does anyone actually say “It’s going to be me and nine mates on a stag weekend“, or “I’m pretending this is a business trip, but I’m actually meeting my lover from Budapest.” It is a bit like that part of the US Immigration forms where they ask you whether you participated in war crimes, or were a member of the Nazi party.)

In the end, we are staying in Rommerskirchen, a small town about 25 minutes on a direct train from Cologne.

This felt like the first step into properly unknown territory. This wasn’t just a museum or a pretty town, it was a big cultural event about which we knew precious little, though I do wonder whether we will feel the same after our first Boshkazi match, or yak herding), There is not a great deal of advice online about what it is like going, particularly with children.

The “odd” ones are in “normal” clothes.

Most of the advice we found, in English at least, seems to be written by twenty-something bloggers who have had an amazing time meeting locals and drinking copious amounts of Kolsch (the local beer) but who clearly have neither children nor hangovers. For us those days are past (and in the past they must remain) so the information they give wasn’t necessarily hugely helpful to us.

So we thought we’d write the post we wished we’d been able to read.

Should I take my children to Cologne Carnival?

Absolutely yes! It was completely brilliant and we all loved it. In fact the children are already planning a trip back next year.

It’s got massive parades, adults in loony fancy dress, marching bands, huge papier mâché (I think) effigies of world leaders we all recognised (and German ones we didn’t), an enormous sense of fun and friendliness and, most importantly for the children, free sweets and toys being thrown at them from almost every direction. (If nothing else, they’ll learn to catch pretty quickly).

How could a child not love it?!

When to go

Carnival in Cologne technically starts at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November (which feels a bit weird for a Brit) but the climax of Carnival happens in the week before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake day to my heathenous children). The first big event is Weiberfastnacht, the Women’s Carnival which takes place on the Thursday before. There are then events every day until the main parade day on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). The final day is the Tuesday, which is known as Veilchendienstag.

Wet and cold, but still smiling (and playing)!

We were in Cologne only for the Sunday and Monday. On the Sunday schools and children’s groups normally parade through the city in the Schull-und-Veedelszöch. Sadly for us, Storm Yulia forced the cancellation of the parade at the very last minute. One or two hardy groups did come past us though and it was a useful dry run for the next day. Even that brief moment convinced our kids that this really was something they wanted to be part of.

The parade start time varies slightly between the days. The children’s parade on the Sunday starts at 11.11 although on the day we were there the (subsequently abandoned) start was brought forwards due to the weather. The Rosenmontag parade starts at 10.30 or so and takes (we think, as we didn’t see the whole thing) over two hours to pass each point. With each part takes over three hours to wend its way through the city, the whole thing goes on for something in the region of six hours.

So whenever you get there, there’s plenty of time to see it! We arrived in central Cologne at around 10ish each day. This did mean that there was some hanging around before the parade got to us, but it did mean we were able to stake out a prime spot.

Later on, and particularly near the centre, it was clear that some people had had more than the one Kolsch we allowed ourselves at lunch. While this was never scary, and police and medics were swiftly on hand where required, it was ,maybe less our thing than the more child-friendly atmosphere near the beginning of the route. We left the city at about 2pm having had enough – though the parade head was only just then nearing the end of the route – and we suspect that things probably got a bit more lively and exciting later on; maybe that’s one for the children at a slightly later stage in their lives. And probably not with their parents….

It also meant that long before things got a bit more lairy and drunken later on we had decided to call it a day and were heading away to count our haul.

It would have been rude not to have one.

Where to stay?

Cologne Carnival is, justly, hugely popular. Accommodation books up very quickly and you should expect to pay a premium. Alternatively, as we did, take advantage of the excellent public transport system and stay a little way out and come in each day.  Either way don’t think about bringing a car into central Cologne.

Where to go?

The parade route forms a sort of T shape with the parade going back and forth along the top of the T a number of times. The main station and Cathedral are on the cross route and this is where the majority of revellers gather. We were advised to head away from this area and instead go South from the station along the upstand of the T. As you walk down you can’t miss the parade route as people start to stake out prime spots from early each morning.

This was a great spot. Right on the route with a rain proof overhang.

This was excellent advice. On both days we attended we were right on the route, but without a massive press of people behind us. People were very relaxed and friendly and there were quite a few other families.  Adults without kids were keen to let the children be at the front. They even handed over toys or sweets they thought the children would particularly like.

Later on we found ourselves up near the Cathedral and here it was a bit more of a crush. The crowd was six or seven deep, and were less keen to let the children through.  The competition for sweets was greater too!

Who needs food when you’ve got sweets? Your children will get more sweets and chocolate than they have ever seen in their lives. So much so that they may a) not eat them and just settle for stuffing them in bags and b) turn round after a while and say “I’m hungry. Please can I have some actual food?” (I would be lying if I said that didnt make me quite happy).

What about food?

Doughnuts are one of the major food groups.

Unsurprisingly there is plenty of excellent, carb-heavy, street food to be had. Cologne also has many cafes and restaurants, however these may be very busy and you may have to queue for a while. We got very lucky when we ducked down a side street and happened upon a virtually empty and very good pizzeria. We needed somewhere to dry off, warm up, and get some proper calories and this was perfect.

Of course if the weather is dry, which sadly it wasn’t for us, sandwiches or similar would also be an excellent option.

What about loos?

Cologne Carnival is a massive event and there is clearly a huge behind the scenes effort with a team working, we suspect, all year round. We went back into Cologne the next day and there was barely a sign of any revelry: in less than 24 hours (much less given that the revelry probably went on into the wee smalls) the stands and barriers were down, the streets were clean of rubbish and virtually the only remaining sign was a slightly mournful “Welcome to Carnival”.

Whoever it is that organises all this, they sensibly put portaloos on pretty much every street corner. With over a million people on the streets, you may have to queue, but at least you can be sure your fellow queuers will be entertaining to look at.

Just your average queue for the loo.

What to bring?

Energy, good humour and lots, and lots of bags for your haul of sweeties.

We were there for maybe a quarter of the total parade and this is what we got. The toy leopard has been christened Colin.

What should we wear?

Fancy dress! You will honestly feel more out of place in jeans and a jumper than you will in a pig onesie, or dressed as Jack Sparrow, complete with dreads. One of the highlights of carnival for us was the sheer, brilliant incongruity of an entire city dressed up in ridiculous costumes.

All the commuters at Cologne Hauptbahnhof always look like this. Maybe

That said, this is February in Northern Europe so bad weather is not unlikely.  We were particularly unlucky with the weather and it was very cold and wet. Fortunately our Where’s Wally costumes fitted over many layers underneath. Gloves and hat may also be required.

What about babies and nappies?

We are long out of the nappies and pushchairs stage, but Cologne Carnival would be do-able with both. We certainly spotted a couple of in-pram nappy changes going on, and a highlight of the Sunday was a baby elephant being pushed around. There was a pair of twins in a double pushchair next to us on the Monday who seemed happier with the blueberries they had been given by their dad than with the sweets raining down on them from above.

These twins did not prefer the blueberries

Is it safe?

About a million people take part in Cologne Carnival. Some of them will get drunk, and some of them will try and pick your pocket.

We also live in a world where tragically any large gathering may be a target for those who wish to spread hate. This week in Germany, while we were having a wonderful, happy time in Cologne, a gunman murdered 10 in Hanau, and a carnival parade in Hesse was driven into injuring many. The parade in Cologne started with a memorial to those killed in Hanau and the German press has been full of the horrific act in Hesse. These things have shocked the nation.

Generosity and kindness really are what Carnival is all about.

But they could happen anywhere and I can honestly say that we never felt anything other than completely safe in Cologne. There was a very obvious and numerous police presence, but they were all smiling and wearing flowers on their uniforms and were happy to be approached for advice. (They all spoke excellent English). The other carnivallers were welcoming and very friendly. The absolute highlight for Harriet was when a man who had helped us with a train ticket machine on the Sunday recognised us in the crowd as he was marching in the parade on the Monday and came over and pressed flowers and chocolates into our hands. It was hugely touching and kind.

Any downsides?

All those sweetie wrappers must have a horrible plastic footprint, although we did notice, what with all the rain, that quite a lot were wrapped in paper.

It is loud and it is busy, so if that’s not your thing, then this may not be for you.

What else can I do with my kids in Cologne?

Sadly we only had three days in the Cologne area, and two of those were taken up with Carnival. However we made the most of our final day with a visit to the Cathedral and a climb up its 533 steps.

We then walked across the Hohenzollern Bridge, adorned with tens of thousands of padlocks (after nearly 15 years of marriage we’re far too cynical for that nonsense), before spending a very happy afternoon at the excellent Cologne Zoo (The Guardian described it as a zoo for people who hate Zoos).

Sounds good! Where can I find more information?

We found the following websites in English useful:

https://www.cologne.de/events/cologne-carnival

http://www.cologne-tourism.com

This was a handy blogpost https://www.thecrowdedplanet.com/cologne-carnival-practical-guide/

And this, which is the German official site, was good for up to date news and information, even with my 25 year old GCSE https://www.koeln.de/tourismus/karnevalhttps://www.koeln.de/tourismus/karneval

Kölle Alaaf!

Ben and Harriet

Week 2 – Brussels, Belgium and Battlefields

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

Here’s how this week was….

Where were we? What did we do?

Ghent

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

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

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

Did I mention it was quite windy?

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

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

Brussels

Chocolate tour

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

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

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

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

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

Museums

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

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

Battlefields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

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

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

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

“How low can you go?”

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

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

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

Caption competition…

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

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

What were the highlights?

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

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

Are you enjoying that, Sophie?

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

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

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

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

What was the weather like?

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

Any bad bits? Did we fight?

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

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

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

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

Tintin has a message for us all

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

Any hints and tips?

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

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

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

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

What could be more fun?

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

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

Not all waffles are created equal

What’s next?

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

A meal from every country – Belgium

This was easy. We went out for dinner the night we got here and had moules. Or at least some of us did. Some (one) of us got so stressed about the prospect of even trying one that he nearly couldn’t manage the chicken and chips he had ordered…

But no. The children were delighted to hear that that wasn’t the end of the Belgian version of the new-and-unfamiliar-food torture method I have devised for them.

Again I turned to google and discovered a list of the top Belgian meals. Tempted though I was to turn the metaphorical thumb screws a little tighter, I decided against endive (even though I love them), stoemp (stamppot by another (well, almost the same) name), filet American (raw minced beef) and paling in’t groen (eels in green sauce – not least as I thought sourcing eels in the supermarket might be tricky). Meatballs, on the other hand, looked do-able.

Frikadellen met krieken

Meatballs (frikadellen or boulettes, depending on your cultural and linguistic loyalties) in Belgium seem principally to come three ways: with tomatoes, with cherries, or à la Liègois, with a rich stock. While I was tempted entirely to wimp out and just cook meatballs in tomato sauce, that really did feel a bit un-adventurous, so cherries it was.

Recipes in English for meatballs with cherries abound on the net, but they seem mostly to be written by Americans who have been to Belgium once, which lacked the authentic feel I was going for. My Flemish is definitely not up to the task, but I fortunately found this recipe, which is not only in French (so possibly inauthentic for a Flemish meal but surely more authentic than the American ones, and it has a .be address), and is also pleasingly vague. I like a recipe that allows me to freestyle a little…

Can cook, Can’t (don’t have the equipment to) cook

Because, yes, we are in another AirBnB that is not designed for cooking. A little improvisation was therefore required.

The kitchen (indeed the entire flat) is beautiful and very stylish (or was until we dumped our stuff all over it), but it is surrounded by restaurants and we are clearly expected to use them.

In a step up (down?) from our Amsterdam home, this one doesn’t even have a colander. A pan lid will suffice at times, but rinsing beans was more of a challenge.

Still, we have knives and pans. How hard can it be?

Ingredients

One of the things I am enjoying about this mini-project is the chance to see what is available in local shops that I probably wouldn’t ordinarily notice, and definitely wouldn’t ordinarily buy. This meal, all the recipes were agreed, wanted minced pork and veal. As a thing. Together. How unimaginable is that in Britain? Imagine my delight to find it, pre-packaged (which is obviously both good and bad) in the supermarket.

Chapelure was also on the list. I think it would probably translate as breadcrumbs and I was a bit nervous about finding that too, but there it was, even in the mini city-centre supermarket.

And it turns out that not all cherries are created equal. These are highly superior €6 (six euros?!) Cerises du Nord. Proud product of Belgium. Hungarian cherries were also available, at a sixth of the cost, but we felt our Belgian meal deserved the good stuff.

Stop wittering, how do you cook it?

The key parts to this meal, on which all the recipes I chose to slightly diverge from agreed, are a) the meat, b) the cherries, and c) that everything should be cooked in butter.

When cooking I generally choose to obey the instructions I like, so I finely (ish, the knives aren’t brilliant and I quite like my fingers) chopped an onion and sweated it in butter. I then mixed that with the mince (a kilo, since you ask), some herbes de provence (clearly entirely inauthentic but we had bought some last week) and fresh parsley, an egg, three spoonfuls of the chapelure (still not entirely sure what it is) and some pepper.

Mix in a large bowl. In the absence of a large bowl, use a wok.

I then shaped that into meatballs and fried them gently (in the same wok) in more butter. Meanwhile I chopped up more unpeeled potatoes to make more mash (honestly, I may never bother peeling a potato again). The recipes differ on whether you serve this dish with bread or potatoes but we had had sandwiches for lunch and had potatoes left over so it wasn’t a hard choice.

Next, make your cherry sauce. This was a bit of a challenge:

Man versus jar.

Google to the rescue again, after tea towels and hot water had failed (sounds like an episode of Call the Midwife), a blunt knife (plenty of those) broke the seal and we were in business.

I drained the cherries (using the lid this time) and kept the juice. You then have to make a sauce with the juice but again the recipes all seemed to do this in different ways. I couldn’t be bothered with more onions or herbs and I definitely wasn’t buying a whole box of cornflour just to use a spoonful, as my main source required. I could, though, I reckoned, justify buying ordinary flour (as then I can justify making pancakes – win, win). So I made a very thin sauce by melting a bit more (you guessed it) butter, adding a spoonful of flour and gradually whisking (because there isn’t a word for “stirring aggressively with the same teaspoon”) in the cherry juice.

The cherries and sauce then go back in with the meatballs, the potatoes are mashed. Some cabbage (because I am a parent and do not want my children to get scurvy) is steamed in a very small pan (steaming requires less water and therefore fits better) et voilà.

Gaufres

Well, ish. For what is a meal without pudding? And what is a visit to Belgium without a waffle?

Astonishingly there is no waffle iron here. However there is a waffle shop within 15 steps of our front door. It seemed inevitable…

Belgian meal. Done. With apologies to any Belgians.

Harriet

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!