Week 14 (France 9)

Where were we?

We are both here (still). And (sort of) not here. Because this week we were deconfined and so we left the village! In fact we even went as far as Grenoble.

Where should we have been?

In the Covid-free world of our dreams, as with many dreams, things are now a little hazy. It is certain that last Sunday we got another overnight train, arriving early on Monday morning in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We think we only spent a day in Almaty before hiring a car (driving in Kazakhstan was quite an experience, and one which Harriet was more than happy to leave to Ben) and heading east out of the city towards the Charyn Canyon. It is possible that we camped there overnight. The next day we headed on east and south up the narrow winding mountain roads and over the Kegen pass into Kyrgyzstan. The road bends precariously downhill and west towards Karakol, on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul where we arrived on around Thursday. We are certain that we enjoyed the Lake and visited the Dungan Mosque. Tomorrow we plan to see the animal market. (Who knows if that will be possible in a Covid-19 world?)

What did we really do?

We celebrated déconfinement on Monday with a masked trip to the supermarket for Lucy and Ben and, much more excitingly, drinks with actual people in our actual house! Our new friends Debbie and Philippe came round, bearing all sorts of generous gifts and between us we got through rather a lot of celebratory champagne. It was utterly lovely.

Vive la Liberté

It may have been the champagne’s fault but the next morning we woke up to the realisation that we had promised Philippe that we would help move rocks in a field just outside the village. Some years ago a landslip left a huge pile of rubble on a road leading up to one of the passes. The road has been repaired but the rubble was unceremoniously dumped in the neighbouring field. It now needs to be cleared. By hand. And it appears we had agreed to help. It was cold and wet and surprisingly good fun. The other volunteers were all good-humoured and very welcoming and our children were very determined to mine out every last boulder. We had a very welcome communal meal afterwards, standing by the road, probably about 1.5m apart, and conscious of a job well done.

Déconfinement generally hasn’t though had a huge impact. We can now go 100km from the house, but we don’t really have any need to. What is noticeable is that our walks are more relaxed. We no longer have half an eye on the time – if we take an hour and a half, that’s fine (although not always with the children) – and we don’t feel a slight subconscious fear of being found out doing something wrong whenever we are out of the house.

There are lots more people around too. Today in particular it seems that lots of the local holiday home owners have headed up the hill to check on their properties. Our neighbours are back too.

We did venture 25km away on Wednesday when, because it was pouring with rain and about 6 degrees, we decided it was the perfect day to buy Summer clothes. We headed into Grenoble and to Decathlon. The drive down was quite tense: the streets in the villages we passed through seemed eerily quiet (or is that normal for a wet Wednesday?) and we weren’t sure what to expect when we got there – would we, six people together, even be allowed in the shop?

In the event, everything was surprisingly normal. We had a chat in the car about mask etiquette and making sure to leave sufficient space for other people, but although there was someone checking we all had masks at the door, once inside the shop, people were not behaving noticeably differently. Given it was mid-week and inclement it is perhaps not surprising that it wasn’t exactly heaving with shoppers, but there were plenty of people around and all perfectly good humoured. The woman at the checkout said she found it fine being back at work, although she wasn’t enjoying her mask.

Ninjas

We also found the masks rather hot and steamy, and tricky if you need to blow your nose (although we are told the tip for glasses-wearers is to buff a bit of fairy liquid into your glasses – we haven’t tried it yet) but we were delighted with our purchases and headed back up the hill in high spirits.

Unfortunately Decathlon’s policy of not letting anyone try anything on in the shop had the perhaps inevitable result and Ben and Sophie headed back to Grenoble later that day to swap most of what Ben had bought, and a yellow t-shirt Sophie had decided didn’t go with her look.

It is perhaps not entirely Ben’s fault that things didn’t fit.

Given we drove it several times it was both good and bad that the road down to Grenoble was being worked on. The new tarmac is (this is the good bit) lovely and smooth. We suspect that this was planned in preparation for the Tour de France which should have come up here on Bastille Day, 14th July. Maybe next year instead?

It was noticeable too that at 650m less altitude, Spring in Grenoble is much further ahead. The roads were lined with poppies and the elderflowers were all blooming in the hedgerows.

We had to drive through the clouds too.

We had another mighty DIY victory this week when Ben replaced the loo seat. It was a lot harder than it sounds. Swearing may have been required.

It was not only the local humans who were set free this week. The llamas who have in past years roamed the field just below our house are back, and have babies, to everyone’s delight.

The lovely Debbie foolishly offered (was it the champagne again?) to give the children some French lessons and got further in two hours than we have in two months. We are so very grateful and hoping that they may actually learn something out of this experience, even if, as with so much else, it’s not what we expected.

She also brought us some nail polish and remover. And a jar of tahini from her cupboard as it seems very difficult to find here. Happy days!

More learning on Friday when Peter and Preeti, Sophie and Lucy’s judo coaches, gave them a personal lesson by video on the use of their new uchikomi bands.

A knock on the door took us by surprise mid-week. It was a masked man bearing photocopies. It turns out that he is the leader of the local traditional music group and a keen accordionist and Scottish Country dancer (they really do get everywhere). He was part of the rock-clearing party on Tuesday and on hearing our name thought immediately of a reel called Miss Campbell. So he dropped a copy round for us. Sadly neither Lucy nor I has a fiddle with us but it was a lovely thought and another un-looked-for kindness.

We’ve made more new friends too. We were contacted through Instagram by someone on the other side of the valley who recognised that mountain in nearly all our pictures. We haven’t met up In Real Life yet but we hope to soon. In turn she put us in touch with other English speaking locals. One family, with two nine-year-olds, came round for a “quick meet up” yesterday (really so the kids could size each other up) and stayed for four hours… and we have plans to meet more people next week. We also got stopped in the street by someone we’ve passed on many of our walks, and he too has suggested getting the families together. It is clearly not just us who have been starved of new company!

They brought a friend with them too.

Having sung the praises of our routine last week, with more options of what we can do this week – have people round, or go more places – this week the routine has fallen apart a bit. We don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as the routine was there to give some structure to a fairly restricted day/week/unspecified lockdown sentence, and there are now fewer restrictions. Had we been on our travels, indeed when we were on our travels, there was no need for the same amount of structure.

Our interesting creature of the week was what we have tentatively identified as a broad-bordered bee hawk moth. The wasp that had clearly decided inside our car was a quiet and undisturbed place to make its nest also gets an honourable, but posthumous, mention. We met another adder too, and also tried to use sugar water and oranges to revive an ailing butterfly, though sadly without much success

Aurora managed a hitherto unimaginable 14 days without fighting and was rewarded with TikTok. If she keeps it up she gets an extra five minutes a day. More importantly, for her parents at least, she is a lot happier than we have seen her for some time, and not just because of TikTok.

More lovely friends sent us origami papers and an instruction book. In moments of calm Harriet has mostly been making cranes. Apparently to make 1000 is to bring good luck.

We have about 987 to go.

By the power of the Internet we took part (with varying levels of enthusiasm) in a Kelso-based tennis lockdown challenge. We were set a number of different tennis-related exercises to do each day. There was also a bonus baking round. Fortunately we are better at baking than we are at tennis. But probably not better enough actually to win anything…

The racquet is supposed to be that way up.

Today’s exercise was rather more old school. We’re not saying we expect to be here in Winter but it’s been pretty cold recently and we’ve been getting through wood rather quickly. So we thought we’d stock up. They deliver (almost) to the door.

And…leaving the best to last…after days of watching for the postman, Greg (who is never, ever, to be referred to as “New Duplo”) arrived yesterday. Aurora hasn’t stopped smiling.

How was it?

Good bits:

Lucy: I have really enjoyed doing the origami. I have found it very calming. And the llamas are out!!! I love llamas! I have enjoyed all the people who have come round. It has been nice being sociable. My birthday present from Granny finally arrived (Editor’s note: posted on 5 April). It was lots of new books and I have enjoyed all of them especially the one I have just finished, One of us is Lying by Karen M McManus. I also got an excellent tote bag from my cousins.

And I finally won the photo competition!

Sophie: I liked how because the lockdown has been lifted we have seen people. I really loved the doggie. I liked going to the shop and getting some new clothes. I loved, loved, loved Greg coming.

New clothes-tastic

Aurora: TikTok is good. I liked Greg arriving because now Sandie has another newbie to be new with her. I think it has made it easier missing Duplo too. I liked the dog coming over and Millie too. She was nice. The French lessons are OK too. I like having new clothes and having a choice of what to wear.

Magnus: I liked meeting Sam. He was nice and it was nice having another boy to play with. I am happy that Greg is here because it is nice having an actually clean teddy (Editor: For the avoidance of doubt all teddies are washed frequently). I liked going to the Casino (the mini market) to buy ice cream.

Ben: The change from confined to slightly deconfined has been a pleasure, albeit slightly bizarre. After 8 weeks of very few interactions with very few people, it sometimes jars to see lots of people. I’m sure the “rock harvest” was such good fun mainly because it was beyond the 1km limit (by about 3km), a family journey in the car (for the first time in 8 weeks), and a chance to talk to new people.

I get the impression that everyone has been aching to be a bit more sociable, too, as all the social events we have had have lasted much longer than expected, because of the pleasure of just being able to have a conversation in person.

However, selfishly, the best thing about déconfinement has been getting 2 pairs of shorts. Despite the Saints de Glace chill of the week, I have not worn trousers since.

We don’t have a picture of Ben in his new shorts (yet) but this is nearly as pretty.

Harriet: Even as someone who is (despite appearances) quite introverted, it has been absolutely lovely being able to be social. Just being able to talk to other people in a relaxed fashion has been brilliant for all of us. I’m pleased with my new clothes too (despite the irritation of all sleeveless tops having a racer back (why?)). I am also delighted that the children are getting a bit of French. While we perhaps could have, should have, been doing this ourselves (and we did try!) they are reacting much better to Debbie than they ever would have done to us.

Bad bits:

Harriet: It is perhaps a silly self-fulfilling prophecy but I have been thinking this week that I cannot imagine ever looking back on this time as anything other than a huge disappointment. However good any individual day is, and lots of them have been lovely, each of them is, at the same time, a disappointment. I am sure that good things will come out of this time – as just one example I have been so proud of Aurora recently who has totally turned her behaviour and self-control round and improved our life as a family immeasurably – but they are not the dramatic, exciting things I wanted. I was (there’s probably a German word for this) already looking forward to being able to look back on our adventures and I’ll never have that.

I also, maybe not so secretly, hoped that somehow this time would be a springboard for new things for us all – even though I don’t even know what I wanted those things to be. And now I suspect we will just go back to our lives pretty much as they were before. Even with the possible promise of less Aurora-related conflict or better French that makes me sad.

Ben: While the cracks in the dam of lockdown have started little trickles of almost-forgotten freedoms, “celebrating” 2 months of being here, combined with last week’s reaching of the halfway day of our Tweed to Tokyo adventure, is another chance to reflect on dreams not realised, and places not visited. Which is another way of saying, as much as I love this place, “I’m a bit bored with being here”.

Magnus: I didn’t like the snake. I don’t like snakes.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A still makes me sad. I don’t like that they have moved the cows into a field on our favourite walk. It’s too mucky. I don’t like not being able to fight. It’s so annoying. I want to shout at people sometimes but I can’t.

Sophie: I don’t really know. Just bickering. That’s sort of it.

Lucy: I didn’t really enjoy moving rocks.

How are the tadpoles?

As with our children we are beginning to wonder if the tadpoles will ever stop growing and start maturing.

Who ate all the pies? If lettuce were a pie.

They remain, mostly, fine, although all the heavy rain we have had this week has meant that every morning there are some washed-away casualties, not all of whom can be successfully rescued.

They remain determinedly legless.

What did we eat?

We had an unexpected foodie success. Last week Ben had been sent down to the supermarket for “a mixed selection of colourful root vegetables” for a “Golden Root Vegetable Couscous” (Thanks, Nigella). He came back with, erm, turnips.

Even Harriet drew the line at feeding the children turnip and couscous so they lingered in the fridge all week. This week though she found a website advertising 25 delicious turnip recipes (not a joke) and inflicted turnip daal on an unsuspecting public. Reader, they loved it.

More obviously successful, despite the lack of various essential pieces of equipment and blueberries, was our rainbow-themed cake for the baking section of the tennis competition.

If you include the smarties that’s your five a day

What’s next?

We now have a busy social calendar of drinks and chats to look forward to, and we may even venture further afield to see friends in nearby towns. As for getting out of either Isère or France though, that remains a distant dream.

The most interesting thing we’ve learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnus: Prater because its a massive funfair.

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

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

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

Because they like food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We may have to ask them again in a month.

Week 13 (France 8)

Where were we?

Yesterday was day 90 of our trip. We are now over half way through the six months of our trip.

It will surprise no one to learn that we are still in France.

Where should we have been?

Back in that alternate reality, we had a wonderful couple of days in the amazing city of Khiva before getting back on a train (a mere five hours and in the daytime too) and going from the sublime to the, well, even more sublime in Samarkand and Bukhara. Harriet had been dreaming of Samarkand for over 20 years and it was worth the wait. We spent five days between the two stunning cities before returning to to Tashkent earlier today. Another new country tomorrow.

I find it hard to express just how much I wish we were here. Image from Pixabay

What did we actually do?

The Door

Ben is not a natural DIY-er and so it was a real act of love that he suggested to his parents that he would remove, sand and revarnish the front door.

Having done the research and bought the necessary equipment a couple of weeks ago (which is sometimes as far as these things go) Sunday saw the door crowbarred off its hinges, laid flat, and sanded. Magnus, Aurora and Sophie helped with the sanding, at least where using the electric sander was involved. They were less keen on the fiddly paper hand sanding in the corners.

Wednesday saw the first coat of varnish, with another applied on Thursday. The fittings got a polish too, and overall everyone is slightly amazed at the result and utterly amazed at the lack of swearing during the job.

What else?

On Monday we headed down to the river to forage for wild garlic (not difficult, it’s everywhere) and on Tuesday we turned it into what Aurora described as “eggs and garlic” but most recipe books would call a frittata.

A minor disaster was avoided through another act of kindness when we ran out of butter for breakfast and the shop was shut. Ben asked at the boulangerie if they would sell him some (plenty of butter in your average croissant so he thought they’d probably have plenty). They flatly refused and instead gave him the largest slab of butter you’ve seen in a very long while.

But it won’t fit in the dish…

More kindness later in the week too. Word of our presence has clearly got out and an American family we didn’t know lived here popped round with armfuls of children’s books. After years of resistance Magnus has spent most of the time since in Narnia.

On Thursday night we attempted to create the feeling of all those nights we haven’t spent in long distance trains by having a family sleepover. The room is rather bigger than your average train carriage, but with six of us in it, four on the floor, it felt cramped enough. In true sleepover style we had takeaway pizza (very exciting as takeaways have only just reopened here), sweets, a film (The Goonies – the children were slightly bemused but Ben guffawed his way through it) and truth or dare. We also all got about eight hours sleep so it clearly wasn’t a real sleepover at all.

The morning after. We lured them out with croissants.

The forest must be feeling amorous as clouds of yellow pollen have been gusting around the hills and valleys like some sort of toxic waste. It settles on everything and is visible for miles. Ben and Magnus both suffer from hay-fever but either the drugs really do work or this is, fortunately, one of the few types of pollen neither of them reacts to, as apart from a slight sore throat, and a feeling of heaviness in the air, no one felt any ill effects.

That yellow haze on the hills? That’s pollen. All of it.

Great excitement on Monday evening when we were on the front page of the online edition of the Border Telegraph. The paper edition came out on Wednesday and a copy is winging its way in the (very slow) post to us.

Monday and Wednesday the Borders… Friday and Saturday the world! Yesterday we featured on the BBC Sport homepage and earlier today Harriet was interviewed live on the BBC World Service’s Sports Hour. It was surprisingly nerve-wracking, and she found herself shaking afterwards. But it was fun. We’d do it again.

And here it is. Just in case you missed it.

The weather has been quite changeable with rain and storms frequently threatening. This has made for some spectacular views and even more wonderful pictures of that mountain.

This one is going on the wall.

All that rain makes teaching science very simple – we have been able literally to see the water cycle as the early morning sun burns off the night’s rain in clouds that rise off the trees in the valley below us. The snow clings resolutely on in patches on the high ground but the rising and falling water levels in the river and over the waterfall just below us make it demonstrably clear what happens when it melts.

Ben has turned the tables in Trivial Pursuit and the score now stands at 10:9 in his favour.

In a moment of irony, the primary school distance learning topic this week was France, and, in particular, what would it be like to visit Paris. If only we had been able to find out.

Harriet had another moment of wild flower excitement this week when she spotted not one, but two different varieties of wild orchid. Everyone else remains unimpressed.

We have had moments when emotions have run very high this week, but we think, maybe, we are getting better at bringing the temperature back down when necessary.

The girls finally finished all the Harry Potter audiobooks and have moved on to The Hobbit. Stephen Fry is proving a hard act to follow.

Local “solidarity” groups have combined forces to make 60,000 masks for free distribution to all residents. Despite not officially living here, it was agreed we counted and we picked up six on Friday. We are looking forward to being ninjas.

It hopefully goes without saying that we are also enormously grateful.

Harriet had an uncharacteristic moment of technical brilliance mid-week after a black dot appeared on all her pictures. After some internet based research, she uninstalled and reinstalled the camera, reset all the settings, and diagnosed a speck of dust inside the lens. As a last resort (“By definition it’s always the last thing you try”, says Ben. He’s right.) She hit it, hard, on the table. Problem solved.

We had an interesting email from British Airways telling us that our flight home (from Tokyo to Gatwick via Qatar) has been cancelled. That’s less dramatic than it sounds as in fact it is the second leg that has been cancelled and they have automatically rebooked us on a flight at almost exactly the same times but to Heathrow. We do though have to accept the change. We haven’t done so yet (although almost certainly will). It remains the case that we can’t come home, so we continue to hope that going somewhere else (maybe even Tokyo) may become a possibility.

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: Finishing my Minecraft house (nearly completely). The barbecue was fun. The sleepover was AWESOME. Getting MarioKart back on my phone.

Lucy: The sleepover, obviously. The barbecue was lovely . It was great to get new clothes (a birthday present). I liked winning the quiz again too but my favourite bit was watching the sunset over the pool.

Sometimes she looks angelic

Harriet: The sleepover was a surprising success, despite some grumbles about the pizza. Our walks continue to be lovely and an ever more necessary part of the day. It’s not a specifially “this week” thing, but I love how Magnus skips down every hill. I enjoyed my moment of media fame (though I was suprised how adrenaline-filled the knowledge of being live was). I get a little hunter-gatherer glow out of foraging for anything (you should see me with blackberries) so I felt very pathetically smug about our wild garlic. More generally, it gets ever more beautiful here.

Skippety hop!

Sophie: I loved the sleepover and last night when Daddy, Aurora and I were in my room and she fell off the bed and couldn’t stop laughing. Watching the Goonies. The small lightning storm. Also recreating photos and watching the sun set by the pool. Last but not least finishing the Harry Potter books.

Ben: It was pleasing to have successfully completed the door project. Rather like running not particularly fast, but very fast for me, last week, this is the sort of thing that some people could do without really thinking, but was a real challenge for me, and I’m proud of the results. I was very proud of Harriet on the BBC too.

The kindness of people in the village (and in the wider world) has struck me again this week – the books, the butter, the masks, our friends sending things, or commenting on our social media, Ade with new Duplo – all acts of kindness which help bring happiness. I loved the photo recreations we did too. Looking at each of them – originals or recreations – makes me smile.

For the others, scroll down to see our Instagram feed, or head over there and check us out.

Aurora: Falling off the bed laughing. I couldn’t stop for about 30 minutes. The barbecue was fun. Watching the Goonies. The sleepover. Watching the sunset at the pool and the pink mountains. The Beeley quiz. If I do two more days of not fighting I will have tiktok.

Bad bits

Aurora: Not having Duplo A (Editor’s note: the new not-Duplo has been despatched from the eBay despatch centre and should be with us next week, although as one of Lucy’s birthday presents still hasn’t made it we are trying to keep anticipation to a minimum)

Sophie: The pollen made my throat really sore. Duplo A.

Harriet: If anything is going to drive me to madness in this whole experience it could well be the wordpress app, which consistently loses data, reverts to old versions without warnings and generally seems designed not to work. But apart from that, and the usual scuffles, it has been a pretty good week.

In bigger picture stuff, the halfway mark is both utterly depressing – how little we have done in comparison with what we had hoped and planned – and strangely encouraging – the world has changed so much in the last three months, maybe, just maybe there is room for hope that it will change again, at least enough for us to move on.

Ben: In itself this week has been fine, and apart from the odd fracas not many “bad bits”, though passing the halfway milestone, still being in lockdown, and not being somewhere unfamiliar and new, is not good. I do worry that maybe we will not be able to go further than here this year, and for all that many of our long-held dream destinations will be there for the reaching / exploring / experiencing / enjoying in future years, there will never be this opportunity for a long family trip again.

If I spend too long thinking about this, money worries, job worries, family worries, education worries, political worries, economic worries, all creep in, and they don’t serve me well, so they can all just politely “go away” for now.

Lucy: Nothing major. The hoover breaking was annoying.

Magnus: The toilet seat broke.

How are the frogs?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Not frogs. Still tadpoles. But getting there, maybe. Close up you can see where their tadpole skin is coming away from the froggy body underneath. Or at least we think that is what is happening.

Legs by next week. Maybe?

Nine out of ten storm refugees, who had managed to migrate to a smaller pool in the bird bath, have met an sad and untimely end. The tenth is still there in quarantine, waiting to be returned to the mothership.

What did we eat?

Eggs and garlic”

Ben bought strawberries. They weren’t Scottish and we hadn’t picked them ourselves, but they were nonetheless delicious.

Just add cream (Don’t worry, we did)

It was common consent that the takeaway pizza for our sleepover was not as good as the ones we made ourselves the week before.

What’s next?

We get deconfined on Monday which means we will be able to travel anywhere we like, for as long as we like, as long as it’s not further than 100km. While we are not planning a trip to the Mongolian embassy in Paris for visas yet, it does mean that if we want to go for longer on our daily walks we can.

We can also socialise, distantly, in groups of up to ten people so we will be celebrating on Monday evening with drinks with our new chums Debbie and Philippe.

Shops will reopen too so we can finally buy some clothes that either a) fit or are b) appropriate for the weather. We’re quite excited. The children will be able to go to the boulangerie too. They can finally use some of that French.

As for heading further afield, that is in the hands of the governments of the countries we want to go to. We wait and hope.

More media stars – and welcome!

If the Border Telegraph wasn’t exciting enough, today we are on BBC Sport and tomorrow (10.25ish UK time) I am going to be interviewed on SportsHour on the BBC World Service!

My school PE teachers would be utterly flabbergasted…

And if you are visiting our blog for the first time as a result – welcome! It is lovely to have you here. We really do hope you enjoy what you see. Leave us a comment to let us know – we try and reply to all of them.

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In any event thank you for visiting and we do hope you’ll be back soon.

Stay safe. Our thoughts are with you and your families in this very strange world.

Harriet

Walks within a km and less than an hour

The Chartreuse massif is a walkers’ paradise, a designated French Regional Natural Park, and as such is comprehensively signposted, with well maintained paths criss-crossing the hills, forests, streams and mountains. The signs are a distinctive shade of yellow, with small yellow stripes painted on rocks, trees and walls to tell you that you are on the right path, with crosses indicating a wrong turn or false path. There is also a trail running centre in the village, with marked trail runs too.

Without Confinement the map of available walks is enormous and looks something like this.

The Massif de la Chartreuse

During the current “Confinement”, the French authorities require us to have a written statement (attestation) when we leave the house, signed, dated and timed, and giving the reason for the excursion (déplacement) as one of seven permitted reasons. We use the shopping one, and the exercise one, and that’s it.

The full wording is “Déplacements brefs [Brief excursions], dans la limite d’une heure quotidienne [limited to a daily hour] et dans un rayon maximal d’un kilometre autour du domicile [within a maximum radius of 1km from the home], liés soit à [for either] l’activité physique individuelle des personnes, à l’exclusion de toute pratique sportive collective et de toute proximité avec d’autres personnes [individual sporting activity, excluding all team sports, and all proximity to other people], soit à la promenade avec les seules personnes regroupées dans un même domicile [or walking with only people from the same home], soit aux besoins des animaux de compagnie [or for the needs of pets].”

With the current restrictions, it looks more like this.

Not such massive options during lockdown in the Massif de la Chartreuse

So, mainly for printing out and leaving in the housebook here in my parents’ lovely house, is the definitive, exhaustive, most probably useless (given the lockdown restrictions will be eased within a week of publication) guide to walks from the house, within a radius of a kilometre and able to be completed within an hour.

The Piggy Walk and The Reverse Piggy

The Piggy Walk was our standard walk when the children were much younger. It is just about feasible with a pushchair, if it is a more rugged variety. It involves going down the path to the left of the Hotel Victoria, which descends quite steeply down to the bottom part of the village (la Diat). Watch out for dog poo on the path, and llamas sometimes in the field to the left. Having met the zig zag of the road for the second time, there is a short section of walking still downhill on the road, on the outside of the bend, then over the stream Couzon at the bridge, then immediately right, up a farm track by a yellow sign.

This is a steepish, rough track, going past a farmhouse, usually with a variety of farm animals (hence the piggy walk), zigzagging up to Bernière and a great view of Chamechaude. From here, the road surface gets better, passing Carlinière and Patassière, before it takes you back over the Couzon and up to the St Pierre to Col du Cucheron road. From here, walk down the road into the village, back to the house.

The Piggy and Reverse Piggy

There is a path which cuts across the valley about halfway from Bernière to the main road (utterly unsuitable for pushchairs), well signposted, by which you can return to the Plan de Ville at the Malissarde restaurant. When we were avoiding the farmer at the bottom of the hill, we would often take this way (in either direction), which we knew as the Reverse Piggy, even though we haven’t seen a single piggy on either route this year…

The turn to cut across the valley

The Too Steep Too Long, but Very Beautiful

One day I realised that there was another, higher, path off the Patassière Road (the Piggy route) which did not take us outside the permitted 1km radius. What we discovered, though was that it did take about 10-15 minutes longer than the permitted hour. There was some whinging due to steepness too. Harriet and I loved it, though, and it was very pretty with beautiful views back to the village and the ski slopes.

At the highest point of Patassière, there is a road leading higher still, with a yellow signpost, indicating Col du Cucheron. Following the road up a steep slope, there is a wooded path off to the left just before the last (homely?) house. This goes up and up through a steep gully, keeping left if in doubt, until it begins to turn further left, eventually cresting at a wide fork. Turning right would take you to the heady heights of Grand Som, over 2000m up, and left takes you gently down to Bernière. There are great views to your left, between the trees, with an eventual choice of left to Bernière or right to the monastery (outside the permitted km radius). Home either way on the piggy route.

The Chapel

Looking down on St Pierre de Chartreuse is a small chapel, more of a shrine really, which is often lit at night. There is a good loop to get to it. We have on occasion taken croissants up there and had breakfast looking down at the village.

Leave St Pierre along the road to Perquelin, turning right at the Mairie, Post Office, Tourist Office, and just as you reach the sign telling you that you are leaving St P, there is a path on the left, with a yellow signpost, where you can follow the Chemin des Amoureux (Lovers’ Lane) up to the Chapelle du Rosaire.

There’s only one diverging path, on up to the top of the Scia mountain (the summit of the KMV – 1km vertical – trail run), but keep to the signs and you will be fine. From the top you can head down the marked path, past a carved wooden lizard, or wander down the grassy ski slopes back into the village.

Down the Hill Variations

Turning right, straight out of the gate to the house, down to the sometimes trickling, sometimes roaring, Guiers Mort river gives the greatest variety of possible routes. Being careful to watch out underfoot on the way down, this being a regular dog walk, at the bottom of the hill, there are three options over the Pont de la Laiterie. It can be nice exploring around here too. A laiterie is a dairy, and there are good scrambles to be had, as well as wild garlic in May.

The three options follow the path of the river downstream or up, or climb the hill up to Mollard Bellet above.

The Parting of the Ways at the Pont de la Laiterie

1) Downstream leads to La Diat, where you can turn right over the bridge to climb up the road back home, but this is a bit dull and exposed, so turning up and left is preferable. There is a signed steep path, almost a staircase, which laces backwards and forwards, and very much up, eventually coming out of the woods, where the path continues up, through a small copse, arriving at the head of the direct route (2 from the Pont de la Laiterie) Just below Mollard Bellet.

2) Straight on from the Pont de la Laiterie leads steeply up through, and out of, the woods, arriving below Mollard Bellet and the road.

Straight on to Mollard Bellet

From this point on either walk we normally take the road signed towards the pretty corner at Les Antonins.

3) Upstream from the bridge at the bottom of the hill is very pretty, and tracks along as far as a small bridge, the Pont de Belmond, (almost exactly 1km from home) to the Perquelin Road. There is a signpost along this path which allows you to climb up right to Les Antonins.

The Variations Down the Hill

From Les Antonins, the options are a descent (the reverse of the path above) or continuing along the road away from Mollard Bellet. There is a marked drop off, which leads to a short sharp path down to the Pont de Belmond bridge. Return is by either side of the river, the Perquelin road being the rive droite and the reverse of the upstream (option 3) being the rive gauche.

All of these can be done (have been done during lockdown) forwards, backwards, and in multiple combinations providing a little variation within a limited palette. The full outside perimeter of these combined options takes about an hour without dawdling.

By Ben, with thanks to my parents for our extended stay here.

Media stars!

Very excitingly we are in this week’s Border Telegraph.

Many thanks to them for featuring us – and for picking a picture of me to headline it with (maybe!).

If you’re here for the first time, perhaps from the Border Telegraph link, you can see lots more pictures (of all of us) on Instagram where we post daily as @tweedtotokyo We’d love it if you followed us!

We’re on twitter too, also @tweedtotokyo so do follow there too if twitter is your thing.

We hope you’ve enjoyed what we’ve posted on this blog. We hope to have some more adventurous adventures to write about soon…

Harriet

Week 12 (France 7)

Where were we?

You guessed it.

Where should we have been?

This is the week things were supposed to get very exciting. On Sunday evening we should have been on the 22.26 departure from Moscow to Tashkent. We were scheduled to arrive into Tashkent (having travelled through a lot of Russia and quite a bit of Kazakhstan too) on Wednesday (yes, Wednesday) at 16.58. We were to meet Russian friends there, and were all to be staying with Uzbek friends of theirs. We were hugely looking forward to the legendary plov they had promised us and to discovering Tashkent. None of us has ever been anywhere near Uzbekistan before – it’s the first country that would have been new to all of us – and we were hugely looking forward to it.

We should then be leaving Tashkent to take another overnight train to arrive in Urgench tomorrow for a couple of days in Khiva.

And if you’ve never heard of Khiva before (nor had we before we started planning this trip) this is why we wanted to go there. Image from aljanh.net

What did we actually do?

The Two Point Six Challenge

Our new focus this week was on the Two Point Six Challenge. It should have been the London Marathon last Sunday. This is the world’s biggest one day charity fundraising event and its cancellation will have a massive impact on the income of thousands of charities, small and large. Charities therefore asked people to take on a challenge, based around 2.6 or 26, and to make a donation. We each chose a challenge and a charity.

Magnus went first.  He created his own 26 minute playlist and made us all dance (like loons) around the kitchen.  He donated his £26.20 to the Shark Trust because he loves sharks.  

Harriet went next.  She chose the Cure Parkinson’s Trust, and was very proud to hold a plank for 2 minutes and 6 seconds (and actually slightly annoyed with herself for not attempting the full 2.6 minues). 

Sophie’s challenge was less, well, challenging.  She chose to go on her favourite walk, which is, coincidentally, 2.6 km.  It was possibly made slightly more difficult by the fact that it was throwing it down with rain.   Her donation went to the WWF for their work with snow leopards. 

Ben set himself the toughtest challenge of the lot: to run 5 km in 26 minutes.  As he says that is about how fast Mo Farah runs 10km, but Ben is not, for the avoidance of doubt, Mo Farah and it is very hilly here.  He found the flattest place in the village, went back and forth was delighted to achieve his time. He donated £26.20 to Mind.

Aurora’s challenge was to do twice 26 skips. She managed 64, and gave her donation to War Child.

Lucy decided to benefit Friends of the Earth but didn’t much fancy their Plank for the Planet idea. Instead she stood on one leg for 26 minutes – 13 minutes on each leg – while learning some French on Duolingo. It was surprisingly impressive.

What else?

Our new French friends brought us books. And lovely home-made jam.

It looks likely that when (probably, hopefully, in ten days time) lockdown starts to ease here we will be required to wear face masks in many public places. Clearly these are not easy to buy at the moment, so we found Ben’s granny’s sewing machine (instructions dated 1933) and got sewing. We’ve made four so far…

On Saturday night, six weeks of almost unbroken sunshine came to a dramatic end. We had thunder and lightning and torrential rain. We all ended up huddled in the conservatory watching the storm. It was all a bit Sound of Music, and rather lovely.

Very chuffed to get this picture, but disappointed the lighting wasn’t forked

The rain has continued, almost as unbroken as the sun before it, all week. We have nonetheless determinedly walked every day. Any resistance was overcome by the incentive of hot chocolate and squirty cream. Ben keeps dropping hints about a green chaud too.

Sometimes only cream in a can will do

All that rain has done amazing and dramatic things to “our” river.

And Ben has been thoroughly enjoying the “silky water” setting on his phone as a result.

With each new country we have visited we have put a new flag on the car. However, the flags were possibly not designed for 4,000 miles of travel followed by six weeks of sunshine and downpours. They have begun to look rather bedraggled and before his trip to the supermarket on Monday Ben removed them. We are determinedly refusing to see any metaphor in this at all.

These flags aren’t supposed to flutter in the breeze

On the heels of Harriet’s great sucess in identifying cowslips and oxslips last week, she was rather more horrified to spot Japanese Knotweed this week. We are now washing our feet as well as our hands when we return home from our walks. The locals however seem to be undisturbed by it. In fact we were cheerily told that you can make jam from it. Harriet is not (yet) bored enough to try that.

Apparently it tastes a bit like rhubarb

After a dramatic surge by Ben the Trivial Pursuit score stands at 8:7 to Harriet.  Rumours that Ben has been revising in the middle of the night remain unconfirmed.

Ben ignored wailing and gnashing of teeth from Aurora and Sophie and shaved off his beard.

Soft focus too…

We had lots of fun with Lucy’s birthday present of polymer clay. Harriet has been experimenting with making millefiori flowers with varying degrees of success.  She’s not going to be giving it all up and moving to Murano just yet.  She’s got to work out what to do with all the little plastic beads she’s made here first.

Not sure how this works with the no plastic thing

We found a simple solution to a simple problem and bought a cable so we can print from our phones. This has opened up a whole world of worksheet and colouring in possibilities.

On Monday, entirely on her own, Aurora identified a Duplo on eBay. Until then she had been adamant that she did not want another one. She’s still clear that Duplo A can never be replaced, but she was also clear that she did want to buy this one – despite, in the way of second-hand soft toys being held to ransom by eBay sellers, it costing way more than it would have done new. So we did.

Aurora was keen that the seller, Ade, should know how much the new Duplo (to be called Greg) would be loved, so we wrote to him explaining what had happened to Duplo A and telling him how pleased Aurora was to have found Greg.

Harriet woke up yesterday morning to an email from Ade. He had read Aurora’s email and wants to give Greg to her. He has, entirely unasked, refunded us everything we paid. He made Harriet cry. Unlooked for kindness of the most genuine sort from someone we are unlikely ever to meet. If you live in the Midlands and know someone called Ade, he (or maybe she) is a wonderful person.

The kindness of strangers: priceless

The tooth mouse, which clearly, despite what you might expect, knows absolutely nothing about good dental health, took away Sophie’s lost tooth and brought her the traditional enormous meringue.

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: I liked talking to Joe. It was fun watching the thunderstorm. It was cool. The pizzas were yummy.

Sophie: I’m super happy about the new Duplo, because he’s going to be my baby boy (even though he’s going to be Aurora’s, but we practically share our teddies now).  I’m glad we watched the movie, even though the Horrible Histories movie was a bit weird. Mummy watched (and approved) Clueless, so I’m looking forward to that.  I’ve liked listening to Harry Potter, but things have pretty much been the same.

No caption required.

Ben: This week has felt calmer, and I have felt better in my head this week, and I think been a better parent and husband too. It is good to feel that there are signs that lockdown is going to ease, at least here. We are a long way from being able to plan further travels yet, but the first steps (cracks in the dam?) are very welcome. We even had an post-deconfinement invitation to dinner at an old friend’s in Grenoble (thank you!) which is a lovely thing to look forward to.

I was delighted (and a bit surprised) to achieve my 26.2 challenge. We have had good video-chats with friends this week too. The change in the weather has been fine too – I love a walk in the rain, and the smells and surge of new greenery are some of the things which make me very happy to be here, even if I don’t really want to be here right now.

It’s more fun than it looks

Lucy: I love the fact that during our “quiet time” we have been listening to the Battle of Hogwarts scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on the 2nd May, which is exactly 22 years to the day after it “happened”.

I have been enjoying making polymer clay things. Aurora’s cakes were delicious. I highly recommend The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson, which I finished this week. It was a bit like Geek Girl, by Holly Smale, but with more plot.

Harriet: I am an utterly rubbish dancer, but I have thoroughly enjoyed dancing round the kitchen on not one, but two, occasions this week.

I enjoyed our 2.6 challenge. It was really nice to have a focus for each day.

I was moved to tears by Ade’s kindness and generosity. I had hoped he might enjoy reading Auroras blog post but the idea that he might decide to forgo income, particularly now, had never occurred to me. There is something about the kindness of strangers that is particularly magical.

I think we are all getting on better and learning to be less aggressive in how we speak to each other. Aurora has shown astonishing determination and self-control in not bickering for ten days now. It is a calmer and nicer house, and I think I am a calmer and nicer person, as a result.

I felt a burst of uncomplicated happiness walking in the rain and jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Just skipping in the rain

Aurora: I liked baking the cakes and playing playing Stratego with Daddy. I liked doing my skipping. We named my new Duplo Greg, after Sandie’s husband. (Sandie gave me my new teddy and we named her after Sandie.) It was lovely that Ade decided to give the new Duplo to us.

I’m really close to getting TikTok [for 14 consecutive days of no bickering], so yay.

White chocolate and cherrry blondies. “Too sweet”, said Aurora

Bad bits:

Lucy: My pom-pom getting wet and then drying funnily on the radiator.

Aurora: Duplo not being here. Magnus not doing his exercises properly really annoys me. It’s been a pretty good week.

Harriet: In quiet moments this week I have been feeling very sad. I was really looking forward to being the person who did this astonishing thing, who had this wonderful adventure, and now I’m not that person and probably never will be. I suppose to a certain extent I am mourning the loss of that amazing person. I really wanted to be her.

Sophie: Us fighting, not much, but some squabbles.  The rain hasn’t been too bad.

Ben: The front door remains resolutely unsanded, unvarnished and challenges me every day to do something about it.

And I’d rather be in Uzbekistan today.

Magnus: I hate being interviewed for this post.

What did we eat?

Pomegranate (the first we have seen in seven weeks of looking) Pineapple. Pizzas. Naan (with a silent p?). Blondies (made by Aurora). Everyone has taken turns in helping to cook – and occasionally found out quite how frustrating it is when people don’t eat what you’ve prepared…

How are the tadpoles?

Possibly maligned… They may not have been eating each other quite as voraciously as we thought – although we did of course see them at it at least once. In any event numbers seem to be back up again. Maybe they were just hiding.

They had an exciting time in the thunderstorm too. The sudden downpour clearly took them by surprise, as the next morning we found several of them trapped in the engraved lettering on the edge of the bird bath. A bit of careful rescuing with a leaf saw them back where they belonged. One, though, has managed to get her (him) self into an entirely different section, where she remains in solitary state. Do tadpoles get lonely?

Tadpoles in their groove.

What next?

This week came the announcement of the initial lifting of the lockdown in France. After May 11 we will be allowed to go further afield and for longer than an hour. We won’t be able to leave our departement or go further than 100km, but we will be able to visit the reopened shops in Grenoble, or head into the hills for longer walks (the children are delighted).

In a sense though that gets us no further. France was never the aim, and until some of the other countries we want to visit open up, we remain stuck here. We are still, though, not yet half way through our planned six months, so we live in hope of getting somewhere, at some point, though when and where remains to be seen.

Still waiting to wake up and find out this is all a dream…

A book from each country – Norway, Sweden, and more

As with Slovenia, I realised fairly shortly after we arrived in France that our Scandinavian plans were doomed. So rather than carry my Norwegian book all the way home with me unread, I thought I’d read it here.

Norway

After my French book, which I read in both English and French, and felt, in English, slightly patronised by the translator (more of him later) giving me all sorts of information that wasn’t in the French original, here I had to eat my words (in whatever language they were).

Will and Testament, by Vigdis Hjorth and translated by Charlotte Barslund, is about, in the sense that is about anything, an inheritance dispute between an estranged daughter and the rest of her family. The problem is, and this may be just because I’m a private client lawyer, so if there is one topic I know anything about it is inheritance disputes, it didn’t make sense to me. I wanted a brief primer on Norwegian inheritance and gift tax law because without it the actual reason for the argument was meaningless. There were tax implications that everyone got very het up by, but if you don’t understand the tax rules in question it is perhaps difficult to empathise or indeed understand.

But that is perhaps both not the point, and also not true for the majority of readers who aren’t private client lawyers. I could see why it won awards – Berglot (I wish someone had told me how to pronounce her name too) is a very believable character, perhaps because at times her narration is so unreliable, contradictory and, indeed, unbelievable. Something awful has happened to her, years ago (and I did believe that, although not everyone in the book does), and she is still trying to process it. She goes over and over both it and the actions she has taken as a consequence, taking decisions that she then doesn’t follow through on, and repeating herself, but changing the facts as she does. We all know people like that. We are all like that, although hopefully without the trauma. I felt very sorry for her, while finding her hugely irritating. I am ashamed to say that I suspect in that situation I would have been one of her sisters. If you read it you will see what an admission that is.

Sweden

I didn’t bring this with me. It was here already. In fact I had read it before, although had forgotten. But it is Swedish and it was in English and it was nice and tightly plotted with a neat resolution at the end. I’m not a fan of gruesome murder (give me a tidy Agatha Christie where they all gather over a cup of tea in the drawing room at the end) but this passed the time. I thought the title was anoying though. Wallander kept saying that he had been Sidetracked but it seemed to me that what he was actually doing was reasonably following clues. This strikes me (from a position of absoutely no knowledge) as being more Sensible Policing but I guess that’s not such a snappy title.

All, and none, of the above

David Bellos

Top title. And what wouldn’t I give for a bit of Douglas Adams…?

In one of my many parallel universes (there’s one where I’m a doctor, one where I own a cake shop, one where I don’t have any children. There’s coronavirus in none of them) I am a literary translator from French. (There’s another one where I’m a literary translator from French and Russian but that’s so far-fetched as to be almost beyond even the parallel worlds theory).

Anyway, the point is that I am in a very small minority of people who think that literary translation is a cool thing to do. I actually remember fondly (no really) my finals paper which required us to translate a page of Tintin. If I’d had more confidence maybe I’d have expressed that interest to my lecturers…. I didn’t though, and here we are…

Anyway, after my mini-rant about translation, my brother sent me this book. It is all about that dark art of and is, not entirely conicidentally, by David Bellos, the translator of the French book I took slight issue with.

I found it fascinating. There are times when he was, to my taste, too philosophical on the question of the difference between what translation is and what it does, and he was occasionally a little disingenuous, bolstering his argument by reference to books he himself had translated. I also found the (it seemed to me) entirely random use of italics in the chapter headings extremely irritating. Maybe I was just missing something.

But hot on the heels of my frustration at not having the knowledge of Norwegian tax law necessary fully to appreciate Vigdis Hjorth’s book, and living in a country where I sort of speak the language, but not quite well enough, I found most of it riveting. How do I make myself understood and what am I missing when I fail to catch one word in twenty? How much of an “original” is “lost in translation”? What does that even mean? It was interesting too to have the difficulty I have found in obtaining English translations from minority languages put into numbers: in the decade to 2009, 80% of all translations from seven major world languages were from English. 8% were into English. No wonder I couldn’t find a Slovenian book. Wish me luck with Kyrgyz.

The UK and other anglophone places

And now we’re into “I need something to read, what can I find to read? Oh no, that’s a book I brought here and left three years ago and I didn’t much like it then” territory. So I am reading what I can get my hands on, and writing about it here as much for something to do as anything else.

I read this.

I should have known really. I wanted something light and easy and look at the cover. The Daily Mail said it was “wonderful”. It is certainly wondrous that it was a bestseller.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

This, on the other hand, was excellent. A friend sent it to me, with a pile of books for the children too. I’m usually much more a reader of fiction (the cliché of the middle-aged, middle-class woman) but this I thought really was “wonderful”. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” it, as it’s a series of horrific stories of lives undervalued, abused and wasted, even before they were brought to an end by brutal murder. It made me think a lot about who we value, and why, and about naming the perpetrators of crimes. It did feel, in places, rather speculative, which is no reflection on the clearly enormous amount of scholarship, and mounds of archives that Hallie Rubenhold has clearly gone through, but more that these lives weren’t valued enough to be recorded. So we can never know what happened to these women for periods of months or years, or how they felt or what they said. It is understandable therefore that there were some sections that felt perhaps too presumptive of what “must have” happened.

This notwithstanding, I came away convinced that whatever they were or did (and three of them were not and had never been prostitutes – and in any event even if they were that should not then, or now, have mattered), or where they went and who with, they deserved to have their stories told.

From real murder to fictional. Nicci French is (are? She is really a husband and wife team) hugely popular but I had never read one of her novels before. Parts of this I thought were brilliant. There is a minor character who talked about anxiety and panic in a way that rang terrifyingly true. But I felt let down by the denouement. Perhaps, in this uncertain time, I just wanted a resolution, but it felt as though she didn’t bring the plot to an end because she knew there was another book coming (and another, and another). As I won’t be reading any of them, I felt slightly cheated. Ironically, if she had resolved it, I probably would have picked up more of her books in future. But now I’m cross. So I won’t.

Where next?

Both geographically and literarily: who knows? I do still have my Russian book (Anna Akhmatova), my Uzbek book (The Devil’s Dance) and my Japanese book (The Pure Land – the only one not actually written by someone from the country, but given to me by a friend as a leaving present) but I am still, perhaps foolishly, hoping that I may one day read those in their countries and so haven’t picked them up yet. That may change.

For now though, it’s more of whatever I can find.

Harriet

Week 11 (France 6)

Where were we?

Still here.

Where should we have been

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

What did we really do?

Lucy’s Birthday

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

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

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

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

Sun in the glass, if not in the sky.

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

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

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

And the rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben took on the jelly baby jigsaw and won.

How was it?

Good bits

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

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

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

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

I enjoyed winning the quiz.

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

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

I had fun facetiming my good friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad bits:

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

Aurora: Duplo, still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are the tadpoles?

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

Viewers may find some scenes distressing.

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

No legs yet either.

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

More of the same, probably.

Week 10 (France 5)

Where were we?

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

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

Where should we have been?

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

Better than the bus

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

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

What was new and exciting this week?

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

But we have not done nothing:

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

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

Sophie and Aurora dyed their hair magenta.

It goes very nicely with Aurora’s socks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oddly some important things did not get labelled.

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

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

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

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

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

How was it?

Good bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really isn’t all bad!

Bad bits

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

Lucy: The glitchiness of WordPress is really annoying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are the tadpoles?

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

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

Any new foods? Plastic update?

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

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

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

What’s next?

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