Life under lockdown (Day 4)

I wanted to write this to go with today’s pretty pictures on instagram (and head over there – or go to the bottom of the blog – if you want to see them), but it won’t let me. I’ve been too wordy as usual.

But as the UK possibly prepares to go into lockdown we thought it might help to know what is actually (in our experience) happening here in France, where strict measures were brought in earlier this week and which (some of us) were really frightened by the thought of….

Of course the situation may change but currently (day 4) the small supermarket here is open and stocked (deliveries are clearly still getting through even here in the mountains). The bakery is also open and has fresh bread. The cheese shop (yes, really) and the butchers are open. The pharmacy and newsagent are open. The doctor’s surgery remains open. What are shut are the restaurants and bars, the clothes and tourist shops, the post office and tourist office, the hairdresser’s, the library and the ski and bike hire places. In the queue, if there is a queue, we stand a safe distance apart but we chat as normal. There is a one-in-one-out policy at the bakers, where a new plastic screen has been installed and the queue stands in the street. We can travel a short distance for five specific reasons – work, health, to help family, to shop or to exercise (in our case go for walks). If we see someone on our walk we speak or smile.

We are in (by UK standards) a small town (technically in France a village, but much bigger and with better amenities than that implies) and have not yet tried to leave the village other than to go for walks. In bigger towns other shops in specific categories (DIY, technical – there’s a long list) also remain open. When we go anywhere (for instance to attempt to fix Harriet’s glasses which are badly scratched) we have to take a form with us that we have signed to say why we are going. The police can ask to see this (and are doing so in other local towns) although we haven’t yet been asked. The village is eerily quiet (unlike our children) but on a minute to minute, hour to hour basis life continues much as normal.

We realise that being here is of course not the same as being in a city, or a flat (and I am sure there are those in other parts of France who are finding this much more difficult than we are) but it is probably not that different from being in Kelso.

In China today Hubei province has reported no new cases. Not one. Lockdown can and does work. It sounds scary, but doesn’t have to be. And it is necessary for all of us. We will get through this.

Stay safe xxx

A book from every country – Weeks 1-6

As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.

Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.

The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.

Choosing the books

The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.

I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.

In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.

Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…

I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.

In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.

I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.

The Netherlands

I admit it: I failed at the first country.

I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.

Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.

Belgium

The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.

If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.

But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.

Germany

An actual paper book!

Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…

As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…

In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.

Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.

In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.

For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.

I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.

Poland

I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.

In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.

(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)

Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.

This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine.   It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.

Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.

I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result. 

I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.

Hungary

Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.

So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.

Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.

Austria

By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.

The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).

Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).

It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.

Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.

France

As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.

Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.

What we like about Guest Apartments

Over the past month we have stayed in lots of guest apartments. No one under the age of 18 has booked one but we’ve all had our favourites. So here is my view on an ideal apartment.

Washing

One of the worst things you can have in a guest house is that you are staying there fore a week with a limited number of clothes and the is no washing machine! On air bnb it will tell you if there is a washing machine but when Mummy or Daddy booked they never thought to check the washing limits. So quality no. 1 is there a washing machine?

You would think that with a family of 6 there would be a lot of squabbles over the bathroom especially when we are used to the luxury of 6 lavatories at home but the only thing to say about the bathrooms is plan carefully if you make it very clear that “I am going to have a shower tomorrow morning” you should be okay.

Bedrooms

Being a large family we do always end up sharing a room or sleeping on a sofa. It was quite a shock for me when I found out I was going to have to share a bed with Magnus however we are a creative family and magnus ended up sleeping in a cot. For some reason I don’t quite understand some family apartments don’t have one single bed in them where as others don’t have a double however there was nothing really wrong with the beds in any apartments that we stayed in.

Kitchens

For some reason no one seems to understand that people do cook nowadays and so some kitchens have been a slight struggle to cook with. When we get home everyone we meet will be weirded out by our obsessing over garlic peelers and colanders. Mummy did enjoy Krakow’s “kitchen of a real cook”. But we (Mummy) have always managed to make a delicious meal in every kitchen we have stayed in

Placement

We have really enjoyed some of the apartments that were in the centre of the city yet would have missed the amazing experience of a train to Cologne with Pink Panther and two fairies

If you look closely this train is not all it seems

Lucy

First Day of TweedtoTokyo COVID-19 Diversion

A very odd day today. We are now in the foothills of the French Alps, in a lovely house belonging to my parents, where life is both very familiar, and at the same time, very strange.

It is familiar because we have been lucky enough to have holidayed here almost every year we have been a family. I lived here for 2 years, while working and studying in nearby Grenoble. Harriet and I got engaged here.

It was always the plan to be here in March, to make the switch from car to train, and to give us all a little downtime from constant travel and maybe update our minimal wardrobes with more spring-like clothes.

It is strange to be here now, a week earlier than expected, and in such unprecedented circumstances. The village itself is very quiet, only the boulangerie and tabac open (the mini-Market is normally closed on a Monday). People don’t greet each other with a handshake or a kiss. There is an air of quiet, disquiet perhaps, which is difficult to define.

We are all tired and a bit subdued too after 12 hours in the car yesterday, and the sad loss of a beloved Teddy in a Swiss motorway service station.

Duplo S is missing Duplo A

For all the “this is just the start of a new adventure” geeing up we can (and do) do, this is very far from the meticulously planned trip of a lifetime, and that feels a bit rubbish.

To be sure, I am very aware that we are hugely privileged in many ways (going on the trip in the first place, work situations which allowed it, a family bolt-hole to run to, not being an at-risk person for Corona, nor being medically affected by Corona, or anything bigger than the enormous splinter Sophie had in her foot).

We have had a saying on our trip to date, “it may be weird to you, but it’s normal for someone else”. This has been useful for food, dress code, manners, languages, etc., but the thing with the current COVID-19 situation is that it is nobody’s normal. Austria, where we were just yesterday, has just banned meetings if more than 5 people. We are a family of 6…

Even as I type this Ursula van der Leyen has informed me that Europe is closed to all but essential travel for at least 30 days. What does that mean for us now?

Do we have right to remain in the EU during the Brexit transition period? Is it a greater risk (to ourselves, to others) to travel, or to stay put? Is travelling home “essential”? For whom? We don’t particularly want to come home, especially when there is a chance we will be able to continue with some of the trip. At the moment the Olympics are still planning to go ahead, but last week we were planning to be in Slovenia now.

Harriet has been contacting our insurers and our Russian travel fixers, and they are scrambling as much as we are. Kazakhstan has closed its borders, the Moscow to Tashkent train has been suspended, and even one part of the insurers can’t get through to the other.

As a nice aside, our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen Switzerland, refunded our money, despite our cancelling too late to be entitled to it. There are good people doing good things, and that’s a thing to aspire to too.

Even so, it is all a bit discombobulating. Macron is speaking to France at 8pm tonight, and the rumour is that this will be to introduce more restrictions for travel, potentially for 3 months.

So what are we going to do about it?

There are some things we should do while we are here anyway:

  • Continue with daily exercise, and some maths.
  • Continue to monitor the changing situation globally.
  • Our friend Rose, in California, shared a “Lockdown Schedule”, which we are going to adapt and use. Lucy is writing a poster of it right now.
Rose’s Daily Schedule. We will let you know how we get on.
  • We are likely to be in France for at least a month, so the children could do with learding more French, even if anyone they try to speak to runs away covering their nose. Harriet and I have started talking to the children in French as much as possible (please not before breakfast, and please not at weekends, say the children. Peut-être, say the grownups.)
  • The children have started using Duolingo to learn French try to understand what we are saying to them. (There has also been bribery, in the form of ear piercing, which has helped this. As for when an ear-piercing studio might reopen, who knows…)
  • Go for walks in the beautiful mountains.
Lots of walks
  • Harriet is still planning to cook Bled Cake, our missed Slovenian meal, and then there’s tartiflette, fondue montagnarde, raclette, etc.
  • Make this as good as it can be, and try to look on the bright side.
Some things remain lovely

Because the alternative is worrying that world travel is over forever, millions are going to die, and the global economy will collapse. Sorry about that picture.

A meal from every country – Austria

The Menu

Everyone knows what they eat in Austria: crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles (and raindrops, and roses etc etc). So that’s easy.

Except apparently, the noodles are wrong. I admit that “potatoes with parsley and optional cranberry sauce”, which is what we had in a very nice and very empty Viennese restaurant last night, wouldn’t have scanned nearly so well, but that is, apparently, more authentic.

Not a noodel in sight. No copper kettles or kittens either.

Authenticity of side dishes aside, I’d even found a website which did exactly what I needed it to:strudelandshnitzel.com. No really. Schnitzel was officially on the menu (not to mention I’d effectively cooked it in Poland and it was a great success).

Despite all that, I did wonder about postponing the Austrian cookery until we are in enforced isolation in France, where we head, ten days ahead of schedule, tomorrow (post to follow). But since we got here Austria has shut all museums and goes into complete lockdown on Monday. I didn’t therefore have much else to do this afternoon. Cooking it was.

But of course we’d had schnitzel last night. So I thought I’d have a go at lentils and bacon instead. There’s a recipe on the same site, and it is also, apparently, very authentic. Menu planning. Done.

The shopping

And then I went to the supermarket.

It seems the Austrians, when faced with a crisis, buy the same things I would. The pulses and rice had all gone too. Unless you wanted organic quinoa, of course. Very Waitrose.

So my bacon and lentils were out. And so were all my other recipe ideas, all of which rely on some form of meat (with two children who claim not to eat cheese – although have no problem with a pizza, a mounain of parmesan, or, indeed, fondu, any of the cheesy options felt a bit risky).

No prizes for guessing what should be here.

Along with the quinoa, the supermarket did, though, have cinnamon, and ground almonds. And I had flour, sugar (in the flat we are staying in), butter, breadcrumbs (that box I bought in Brussels comes in handy yet again) a lemon that needs eating up and apples.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Apfelstrudel

The helpful strudelandschnitzel website did exactly what its name suggests and provided me with a recipe. And after my, honestly, very depressing trip to the supermaket, and our also quite depressing realisation that at best we will not be visiting five of the twenty countries we had planned to, I needed to spend some time in my happy place. Baking.

But first, the equipment

This is another of those confusing kitchens. On one level it is very well equipped. It has a grater and a colander. It has a fish slice. it is the first kitchen we have stayed in that thas a potato masher. But it doesn’t have a peeler or a pair of scissors. Or a set of scales. Or a rolling pin. Or, most oddly of all, a chopping board.

Baking parchment and a potato masher made me very happy. It doesn’t take much.

It is also the tenth kitchen in a row (that’s all of them) where the light above the cooker doesn’t work.

The baking

But hey, if I can take four children across the world in the midst of a pandemic, I can cook an apple strudel without a set of scales or a rolling pin…

I took 250g of flour. Ish. No scales means I estimated. It was about what I had left in the packet. I think. With a bit of an alowance for rolling out.

I made a little well in the centre and tipped in an egg. In fact I broke another egg first, because it had, oddly, got stuck to the box, so when I tried to take it out it broke. Weird. I needed it later though so it’s not the end of the world.

I added a teaspoon of butter, a pinch of salt and a bit of water. I mixed it all together and added more water, and mixed and added…. The recipe says both “quickly mix” and “knead” which seem contradictory to me. Pastry needs quick work and a light tough and kneading is neither of those. I sort of erred on the side of caution and stopped as soon as my mixture was smooth.

Well it looks ok

Now leave it for an hour.

I then chopped up (but not peeled, because I couldn’t be bothered) six apples (the recipe said fourteen, but I got to six and decided that looked like plenty), with a bit of lime juice (I had other plans in mind for the lemon), on the basis that we had an old lime too (I think it’s now been to six countries) and it was only going in the strudel to stop the apples going brown, a generous handful of raisins (50g), and half the packet of (it turns out, very rustically) ground almonds. (Note to self, never attempt to make macarons with a packet of Austrian ground almonds).

I melted two tablespoons of butter and then got thoroughly misled by the recipe, which told me, having melted the butter, to toss the breadcrumbs (6 tablespoons, for which read the rest of the packet) with the icing sugar (we had caster, one tablespoon) and a pinch of cinnamon. So I did all that, and then read further and reaslised that the tossing did not involve the butter.

Oh toss. Never mind, it’s done now.

I turned to my pasty, which had, where exposed to the air, gone a little crusty. Wishing I had wrapped it in cling film (but which the recipe hadn’t suggested) I attempted to roll it out using a water bottle and a glass, before stretching it by hand (this bit is called Strudelziehen)

There were then some rather complicated and not very clear instructions involving putting the apples and butter (which I’d obviously already mixed in) and breadcrumbs on different parts of the pastry before rolling it up, but I just spread the breadcrumbs over part of it, put the apples on top, and went for it, a bit like making a cheese wrap (something I have a lot of experience of).

Then brush (ie spread unevenly) with the other egg (see, I told you I needed it) and into the oven at 180 degrees for 40 minutes or so.

Note presence of only one oven tray. Which I needed for the main course.

A little dusting of sugar (again, icing sugar not available) and it was ready.

Tips for next time though: The pastry could be thinner (I was a bit nervous, but I think it would have taken it). and icing sugar would definitely have been better. I would put a bit more sugar into the filling too, and definitely more cinnamon. Oh, and buy ice cream…

The main course

I did not, you may be disappointed to read, only feed my children apple strudel for supper. Despite the lack of much fresh in the supermarket, I did manage to find ready made pork (so not the real deal, but lovers of baby animals will be pleased) schnitzel and a packet of frozen peas.

No picture of the peas. you know what they look like. Erbsen in German, if you’re interested.

With the remains of the potatoes we already had, plus some parsley, that made a very serviceable, and very Viennese dinner. Apart from the peas of course.

Guten appetit!

France next. I feel some duck in a tin coming on. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Oh, and in honour of countries we won’t visit, I’m going to find out what a Bled cake is.

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….