Week 18 (France 13)

Where were we?

Places! We went to places! Read on…

On the road again…

Where should we have been?

Early last Sunday we packed up again and headed for the main station in Ulaanbaatar for our last booked train. From here on in (weird mental leap here) we didn’t (in March) have much actually booked; plenty of plans and ideas but nothing concrete.

We arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and have spent the week exploring this amazing city.  We left it briefly mid-week for a night. In a tent. On the Great Wall of China.

Where did we actually go? What did we do?

St Pierre de Chartreuse

Sunday was a day of torrential rain, but we needed to get out, so we put on lots of waterproofs and drove 5 miles or so down the gorge towards St Laurent du Pont and explored a path recommended by Fabienne, whom we met last week. This path was the original path used by the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery before the late 19th century road was built.

The way was marked by painted blue fishes, and the river was in full spate, which was glorious to behold, as was the beech forest. Ben could not believe he had never been there in the 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse.

Wet river walks aside, the top excitement at home prior to our departure was the arrival of the dishwasher repair man.  Keen readers will remember that the dishwasher broke about three days into confinement and dishwasher repairs were not considered an essential service.  It has taken this long since deconfinement a) for us to ring him and b) for him to come up the hill and see us.  When he arrived Harriet had just taken a batch of biscuits out of the oven.  He had a cup of coffee and several biscuits and… turned the dishwasher on. €48 for the privilege.  Oh well.

The shepherd that relied on this red sky would have been destined for disappointment

If free French lessons and endless pots of delicious jam aren’t enough, our now-not-so-new friend Debbie went further to the top of Harriet’s list by (apparently) being genuinely astonished to discover that she (Harriet) was over 40.  As Harriet is rapidly heading for 43 and a half and hasn’t worn make up in months this was A Good Thing.

Pont du Gard

Anyway, we left the Chartreuse on Monday morning intending to head straight for the Camargue, about four hours South.

The drive was easy and those of us that were looking out of the windows enjoyed watching the landscape change entirely: the beech and fir were replaced by the iconic cypresses, the roofs became flatter and the buildings more golden, Mont Ventoux loomed over the horizon and as if we needed any more Provençal clichés, there was lavender growing in the field next to where we had our picnic.

The plan to head directly South went awry though when Harriet spotted that our route took us within five miles of the iconic Pont du Gard.

Ben had first been here thirty years ago, when there were no railings and you could walk along the top (as parents we were very pleased that is no longer possible), and Harriet and Ben came 15 years later when there was major building work going on.

Now, though, there is a swanky visitors centre, with museum and cinema, and over 1.5 million people visit each year.

Except in 2020 of course. It was both extremely eerie and an extraordinary privilege to have the place almost entirely to ourselves. There were perhaps a hundred or so other people across the entire site. That elusive tourist photo that makes it look like you are the only person there was suddenly easy.

It is also possible to walk down to the river Gardon itself and paddle (or jump, or swim, although as we hadn’t come prepared we stuck to paddling). The water is absolutely clear and the little fish will come and give you a pedicure…

Camargue

The Camargue is formed by the delta of the Rhone, which forks at Arles into two branches. The land is marshy and low-lying and famously home to wildlife found nowhere else in France: flamingos, Camarguais black bulls (no one ever mentions the cows) and white horses and infamously, hordes of particularly vicious mosquitoes.

The main town in the Camargue is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small seaside resort of the reassuringly unclassy variety. It is named after the four Saints Mary, two of whom you have never heard of (St Mary Salome and St Mary Jacob). According to legend these saints arrived in France by boat after the resurrection along with their maid Sara. Sara had dark skin and is, apparently just because of her skin colour (even writing this feels wrong now) the patron saint of gypsies. (That’s another word that feels wrong. The French use the word Tzigane which is traditionally translated as “gypsy“. We have done the same but if that is wrong we would love to be educated).

St Sara. The patron saint of bling

In any event there is a huge Spanish and Romani tradition in the town, with massive festivals twice a year, though not this year of course. The famous bulls are bred for the ring, but we were relieved to discover that in Course Camarguaises the point is to snatch a rosette from between the bull’s horns (or possibly shoulders) and not to kill it. The best bulls become local superstars.

Sadly of course the bullring is another casualty of Covid-19 but we were all agreed we would love to come back and see it.

We were staying, for the first time on this trip, in a hotel. We had wanted somewhere right by the sea in the hope that might lessen the threat from the mosquitoes. In any event AirBnB accommodation seemed thin on the ground. Whether that was Covid, short notice or just because there are so many of us we don’t know.

Location, location, location

Staying in a hotel was a useful exercise as it reminded us why we don’t stay in hotels. They are too expensive (not to mention having to eat out for every meal) and we like having our own space.

But it was lovely being so close to the sea. We couldn’t see it, but we fell asleep to the sound of the seagulls (ish, they were very noisy and there was a whiny mosquito too)  and woke to the waves on the sand.

If we are honest, we suspect that the beach was the highlight of the Camargue for the children.  A sandy, gently shelving strand with regular breakwaters and not a sunlounger in sight.  We treated Magnus to a bucket and spade and he was as happy as one of the local clams digging endless holes, making castles and burying anyone who sat still long enough.

The girls, on the other hand, turned into water babies. It may have been the Mediterranean but the water temperature was still only about 15 degrees. Nonetheless they were in it like fish, swimming, jumping and generally enjoying their new and much-longed-for bikinis.  As parents the (2 and a half year) age gap between Magnus and Aurora and Sophie has never seemed wider.

Having said that, on the beach, all four of them seemed closer than ever.  The girls were brilliant with Magnus, keeping an eye on him in the water and actively wanting him with them. This isn’t normally the case and it was lovely to see.

On our second day we dragged them away from the beach and onto a boat for a tour along the coast and up the Petit Rhone.  This was billed as a chance to see some of the wildlife up close. Although it was slightly disappointing on that front, sitting watching the world (and the many herons – which possibly would have been more exciting had we not been so used to them at home) go by was a very happy use of ninety minutes. 

We got much more up close and personal with the birdlife at the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau.  Harriet had been longing to see flamingos and this more than fulfilled her wishes.  As a protected wetland area it is home to many more species than just the pink leggy ones and we also spotted more herons, storks, avocets, oyster catchers, black kites, endless swifts and swallows and many more including a coypu, a large aquatic rodent rather like a giant swimming guinea pig.

We also enjoyed some proper frivolous shopping for the first time this year (all our Christmas presents last year were very trip-ly practical (when will we ever get to use our filtering water bottles?)). As well as the bikinis, Aurora and Sophie got new matchy-not-quite-matchy skirts and Ben treated himself to the first collar he’s worn since leaving Britain. Magnus was hugely tolerant of a morning spent waiting outside changing rooms and was rewarded with a slushie and a bucket and spade.

On Thursday we headed away from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towards Aigues-Mortes. This medieval walled city was once on the coast and was the port of embarcation for Louis IX when he set out on crusade. Now however it is some five miles inland and is surrounded by salt flats.  Baleine sea salt, the one with the whale, is extracted here (and probably other places too).

It isn’t the salt itself though that makes this area spectacular. That credit goes to a little algae called dunaliella salina which lives in the highly concentrated salty water. In Summer it blooms, turning the water in the salt pans a spectacular bruised raspberry pink.

The town of Aigues-Mortes itself rises out of the salt flats like a Disneyfied dream.  It’s lovely inside too, all little boutiquey shops and houses with hollyhocks outside and stephanotis climbing the walls.  It’s also (who knows why) stuffed with sweet shops.  It felt a bit twee and clichéd in some ways but it was lovely for a wander and lunch. There’s really not much wrong with a big salad in a plane tree-shaded square after all… and in case it all felt too predictable it also had an All Blacks Rugby shop. Who knows why?

The Campbell girls had hoped to ride the famous white horses too.  This would have been Harriet’s first time on a horse in thirty years and Aurora and Sophie’s first time ever.  Sadly though the arrival of 40 mile an hour winds meant it had to be cancelled.

Come on in, the water’s lovely.

Arles

We left the Camargue on Friday morning.  Our next “big” plan is to canoe down the Ardèche gorge but Ben was keen we should avoid the weekend for this if possible.  This forces us into a few extra days in Provence.  A bit of spontaneous AirBnB-ing saw us booked into a very glamorous and surprisingly reasonable place in the centre of Avignon.   The high winds drove us inland early in the day, and we headed for Arles, based solely on the fact that it gets a specific mention in our road atlas and Nîmes doesn’t.  This turned out to be a good thing as there was a serious police incident in Central Nîmes yesterday and we are very pleased to have been well away from that.

Arles was lovely for a wander and we enjoyed the Roman Arènes, which is now used for bullfighting of both the Camarguais and Spanish varieties.  We also wandered  through the Roman baths and the Theatre. Once again we had these almost entirely to ourselves.

We accidentally followed in the feet of Van Gogh when we found ourselves lunching feet from where he painted his Café, le soir.  Lucy recognised it, which we were most impressed by. (Though it may help that it is yellow).

Spot the difference

Avignon

We arrived in Avignon yesterday afternoon, after a traumatic (for Aurora and Sophie) bus ride from the park and ride (“But everyone will be looking at us with our rucksacks” (They weren’t, and the bus was virtually empty anyway)). The apartment is stunning and extraordinarily central. We can see the Palais des Papes as we clean our teeth.

This morning we visited both the Palais, and the famous Pont d’Avignon (where we didn’t dance but Harriet did do 25 press-ups, much to the bemusement of the only other people on it at the time).

If you look very closely they are dancing

Once again, both were virtually empty and it was an extraordinary experience to have these normally thronged and world-famous places to ourselves.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Sophie: Wearing a mask is horrible. It’s difficult to breathe.

Harriet: The overturning postcard stand surprised us all.  Chasing beautiful postcards down a narrow street in blazing sunshine felt a bit like being in a film.

I absolutely loved the Camargue. I loved the sea, the wind, the huge skies, the endless flatness (and yes, I am from East Anglia). I loved the brightness and clarity of the light and the colours. The paddy fields the most acidic green, the sea in the harbour turquoise, the salt lakes and flamingos pink, pink, pink. I found myself noticing the birds and plants more – the oleander trees, the vines, the endlessly wheeling swifts and swallows.

I was very pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t bitten at all. I am to mosquitoes as marshmallows are to my children, and everyone we had mentioned the Camargue to had said “ohh, mosquitoes“. I slathered on repellent several times a day and it worked. Maybe forewarned really is forearmed.

Aurora: Sandy, loads of shops open and masks everywhere.

Lucy: I felt St M de la M was very Spanish which was odd because we are in France. I liked all the walled cities and roman culture though I wish there were more roman mythology things. I thought the Camargue was very pretty and I like the southern france architecture. The Camargue was very pink! – pink water, pink birds and even pink high-viz!!

Ben: Travelling again has been a massive change, and I’ve been surprised how much of a mental leap it has taken to get into the cadence of it. Spending lots of money (after all these relatively frugal lockdown weeks), no washing machine, eating out, even filling the car with fuel have all been novel and a little jarring at times.

The museums, sites, shops, beaches, and all the public places were a worry – how would people act or react – but they have felt very normal, if almost empty apart from the shops, with fairly cursory attempts at post-Covid regulations.

In terms of places and sites I have enjoyed the cities – Aigues-Mortes, Arles, Avignon – and their histories. The ipad guide thing in the Palais des Papes eventually won me over, but the interminable audio guide to the half bridge that is the vastly over-egged Pont d’Avignon was daft.

It’s not all old. This is the new (incomplete) Frank Gehry building in Arles.

Magnus (in five words): Watery, sandy, busy [in Avignon, apparently] salty (because of the massive salt mountains), pink.

What were the highlights?

Sophie : The best bits were shopping and getting my bikini and skirt. I also enjoyed having meals out.

I also liked how there were lots of sweet shops in Aigues-Mortes. I adored being by the beach.

Aurora: My bikini, the sea, staying in a hotel, seeing flamingos, window shopping.

Watching flamingos

Ben: Sitting in the sun as almost the only passagers on a tourist boat up the Petit Rhône was lovely, as was watching the children be children on the beach.

Saying goodbye to all those mountains and hills has been good for my running – I achieved my fastest 10k ever in the Camargue this week, helped by being at sea level and being entirely flat (total elevation gain of 2m). I’ve realised that I need little goals to keep going with getting fitter, and looking for great backdrops for our RSABI 25 pressups challenge has been fun. So far we have had the Pont du Gard, the beach, a boat, the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon, much to the bemusement of various onlookers.

Meals out have been a treat, both with the children (now that they will eat more than just bolognaise and pizza) and without (happy anniversary to us), and being able to go to any restaurant and immediately commandeer a table for six has been a never-experienced luxury.

15 years!

Magnus: Flamingos, digging in the warm sand on the beach, and jumping in the waves, though I was quite nervous sometimes, was good fun.

Lucy: I LOVE the beach and being in the sea. I have also enjoyed pottering round and going into shops. I was pleased with my Van Gogh knowledge (I spotted the cafe) and I really liked the salt flats. This seems short but I can’t really describe the good bits because I loved all of it. And flamingos.

Harriet: Apart from the Camargue itself? I have really enjoyed the Provençale architecture and narrow streets. It was lovely having a meal with just Ben for our anniversary on Thursday. Weirdly I have rather enjoyed the press-up challenge. I enjoyed the utter pointlessness of the three-minute ferry across the Petit Rhone on the way to Aigues-Mortes (you can go the other way round on the road and it’s exactly the same distance). Every single flamingo was a thrill, whether in the bird sanctuary or just viewed from afar. I loved watching the children looking out for each other on the beach.

It has just been lovely being on the move again.

Any bad bits?

Harriet: I was surprised by how disappointed I was that our horse riding was cancelled. It sounded so wonderful – splashing through the marsh with the wildlife all around.  I hadn’t been that keen (hence leaving it to the last minute) but I wish we’d done it earlier.

I’d forgotten how expensive travelling is. Admittedly this trip was even more expensive because we were in a (very basic) hotel, but eating out, activities, shopping (forgotten about that!) all adds up very quickly. After 13 weeks where our only expenditure has been the boulangerie and a weekly trip to Intermarché the bleed of money out of our account has come as a shock. Even though that’s exactly what the money was there for.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A, not horse riding, not having all the teddies we brought and Magnus being annoying.

Lucy: It was raining today and I was wearing flip flops and looking like a baby giraffe on the (very slippy) streets of Avignon and I found it a bit boring waiting for Sophie and Aurora to try on every bikini in the shops.

Magnus: I got tired on the Pont d’Avignon and had sore feet because of blisters from my flip flops. Sharing a room with mummy and daddy was annoying, and there was sand in my bed and it was too bright and there was no duvet in the duvet cover. It was so boring going shopping for bikinis with the girls, but in the end it was finally OK, because they got bikinis, even though there were 26 million in the shops, and I did get a bucket and spade and a slushie.

Wild flower of the week: the mallow, in every gutter.

Ben: The Pont Bénézet (the famous one in Avignon) is massively over-hyped. It is half a vaguely interesting bridge.

Although I love seeing my happy family being happy on the beach and in the sea, I’m not personally a beach person – too sandy, hot, windy, wet, salty, suncreamy. I’ll stop whinging now – it has been a great week.

Within five minutes of arriving.

Sophie: Something that I would change if I could would be Magnus having a single bed not double to himself, so Lucy’s sleeping on the floor, in the house we’re in right now. [Editor’s note: This is Lucy’s choice]

What about Covid?

Part of the point of this little holiday-from-our-holiday was to see how travelling in a Covid-19 world is.  The honest answer is: Variable. All the tourist sites we have visited have been oddly empty.  On the one hand this is lovely – we really can get the perfect camera angle any time we want – but on the other they can feel very sterile and unreal without the buzz of others around.

We were worried too that we might not feel welcome: that we might be viewed with fear or distrust, as outsiders and potential carriers of the disease.  This has not at all been the case.  Perhaps not surprisingly, half-empty restaurants or quiet shops are desperate for our business.  Hand gel is everywhere but the requirement to wear masks (which is obligatory in public transport but up to individual shops) seems to be getting less and less and we certainly see very few on the streets. The only tourist site where mask wearing was strictly enforced was the Palais de Papes.

Covid remains a hot topic of conversation and attitudes to it seem to vary enormously. Most people seem to display a sort of resigned optimism: all they can do is carry on and hope things improve, but we have also had conversations with people who don’t believe it was as bad as they said, people who think we should still all be in lockdown, and one woman who said she’s given up swimming in the sea because of it. We never got to the bottom of that particular piece of logic. 

What did we eat?

Artichokes. But not this one

Although Harriet’s elderflower smelt amazing while infusing, once completed it was rather insipid and disappointing. A new recipe and the all-important citric acid are in the post from Essex.  Now we’ve just got to hope that the elderflowers aren’t all over by the time we get back.

Being in a hotel meant lots of meals out. (Restaurants here were allowed to reopen last week). Having not eaten out since Vienna (treating Granny) and only once or twice on the trip prior to that (for budgetary reasons), this was a bit of a shock.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer isn’t a particularly gastronomic destination but Ben and Harriet had a lovely meal out on their anniversary and prior to that we all enjoyed a variety of foods including octopus, Camarguais beefburgers, tellines (which may or may not be clams but were totally delicious either way) and a lot of pizza and ice cream.

The local treat is Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes, a sort of sweet focaccia-type bread with orange flower water. It is supposed to be eaten as part of the treize desserts (yes, that is what it sounds like and yes, it is a thing) on Christmas Eve but, as with mini eggs and hot cross buns is now available all year round (bah humbug). We failed to find an open boulangerie in Aigues-Mortes but one in Saintes-Maries did us proud.  After all that effort, it was, in the words of Magnus: “a bit like soap“.

It might have been better if we hadn’t bought the orange hand wash.

Lucy asked, mid-week, why there aren’t any blue foods.  She was proved wrong at a restaurant in Arles.

Does the world really need blue (or indeed pink) cauliflower?

Continuing our tradition of eating as many baked goods as we can, in Avignon we tried pompe d’huile from Bella Ciao,  a self-proclaimed boulangerie d’utopie.  It was pretty good but honestly in utopia we’d hope for something with chocolate in. 

What about the tadpoles?

Who knows? Fortunately for them it’s been raining all week in the Chartreuse so they won’t have got dehydrated.

But keen tadpole-watchers will just have to come back next week to find out how they have coped without us.

This was last Sunday. Will they have grown (legs)?

What’s next?

Tomorrow we leave Avignon and head back north, stopping on the way with Harriet’s uncle and aunt.  We plan to canoe down the Ardèche gorge on Monday and will probably head back to the Chartreuse after that.

More long term though this dip of our travelling toes in the water has made us realise that travel is possible.  At present we can’t leave France (they wouldn’t let us back in) but that may change in the next week or so. The plan is to see what happens when Macron addresses the nation (again) on Sunday and make our decisions after that.

The big picture though is that we will be on the road again soon (hopefully). It won’t be where and how we planned but it will be an adventure.

Where will we go next?

Week 17 (France 12)

Where were we?

Toujours ici.

Where should we have been?

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar late on Saturday and settled into our AirBnB flat just behind the city’s Sukhbaatar Square. The next morning, Magnus’ 9th birthday, we were up and out bright and early to meet our guide who took us out of the city, through the Gorkhi Terelj national park to the Chinggis Khaan (how they spell it here) statue. We had prepared ourselves for it being big, but even so we weren’t quite prepared for how big. In the evening, at Magnus’ request (Mummy, please can I not have yak milk on my birthday), we had burgers and chips in Ulaanbaatar’s best burger restaurant.

The next morning we set out, heading north and west out of the city for our most adventurous adventure yet – six nights of off-grid travel, exploration and family stay booked through Eternal Landscapes. Highlights were our extraordinary guide and driver, the families we stayed with, the yaks and camels, the stars and the sheer enormous emptiness of the landscape.

The best bit of all is that we haven’t cancelled this. So we really will be going one day. We’ll let you have the details (and the pictures) then.

Picture from Pixabay. For more Mongolian pictures visit the Eternal Landscapes website….

What did we really do?

Magnus’ birthday

Despite our best efforts we were unable to buy yak milk at Intermarché in St Laurent du Pont, so we had to resort to just a “normal” birthday. Insofar as anything about any of this is in any way normal.

Magnus had gone to bed in his swimming trunks on Saturday night so as to be ready for the pool first thing on Sunday morning, when it would finally be usable. Unfortunately for his sisters, the route to the pool was past the pile of presents, so swimming was, perhaps inevitably, delayed.

There are moments in our parenting life when we are struck by how old are children are becoming or, conversely how young they still are. Magnus’ nine-year-old birthday delight at lego and toy cars was an inescapable reminder that despite the teenage attitude from his sisters, he is, still, just a little boy. He couldn’t have been more delighted with his haul. Especially as it included a copy of the Beano with his cousin as the Beano Boss.

He did manage to drag himself away from his cars to be the first into the pool. Before breakfast. It was predictably glacial so there was definitely more jumping in and getting out than actual swimming.

We had planned to do his favourite walk, up Charmant Som, but a chance encounter in the boulangerie had informed us that the day before the cars were parked for over a kilometre down the road from the parking. So we went for his second favourite instead.

Lego occupied most of the day. It was hard to tell which of the males in the house was happier about this.

And in the evening, we had an actual party: burgers and chips (as requested), cake, singing, and guests. It was lovely and lasted far later into the night than any of his birthdays have in the past.

He thinks being nine is going to be fun. Can’t ask for more than that.

And the rest?

It has been a much quieter and less structured week this week. This is partly due to the weather, which has been fairly consistently wet and which has put paid to any long walks (an hour within a kilometre of the house is doable in the rain, a 15+ kilometre hike up a hill less so). But we also think a malaise has set in. We are all less energetic, less motivated. We haven’t pushed this this week but we do need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit or a pattern.

The rock harvest bore fruit (Sorry couldn’t resist that entirely wrong mixed metaphor) when we were invited, all six of us, for dinner with Jeanne and Raphael, who we had met while knee-deep in mud. Jeanne was born in Vietnam, and although she left at the age of 17 she treated us to the most amazing Vietnamese feast. We had tempura prawns and vegetables, followed by enormous bowls of noodle soup with chicken and crab, followed by sticky glazed pork so tender you could pull it apart with your chopsticks, and rice. Finally, in a nod to her adopted country, crêpes suzette and chestnut and chartreuse ice cream.

Every mouthful was a treat and the children thought so too, wolfing it down in huge quantities. Only Magnus struggled with being up past ten p.m. and ended the evening with his ice cream while snuggled on a succession of laps. We finally rolled back down the road in the dark, clear skies overhead, and into bed at just before midnight.

Over dinner the subject of music came up and Raphael mentioned that he had once tried to play the violin (his words). Harriet’s ears pricked up and she wondered if this meant he had a violin he wasn’t currently using and would be prepared to lend. He disappeared up to the attic and came back with an ancient case. The fiddle inside was short of two strings and a bridge and the bow nut didn’t work at all. But he assured us he could fix it, and fix it he has. He turned up the next day with a fully strung violin. The bow can’t be tightened or loosened and we are sure a luthier would wince at the set up but it works. Lucy and Harriet had a happy hour or two. It will remain to be seen if either of them is brave enough to attempt the Mozart and Bach sonatas he also brought round…

The mood in the house turned rather more political this week following the murder of George Floyd. The girls, with their Instagram and Tiktok feeds informing them by the minute instigated several discussions which we were glad to have, even if far from glad about the circumstances.

One of the pleasures of this trip has been, for some of us at least, taking a deliberate decision to ignore the constant depressing stream of news from politics in general and UK politics in particular. This has become increasingly harder in recent weeks and both Ben and Harriet found this, and matters in the States, affecting moods this week.

The weather hasn’t been all bad and there’s been plenty of pool-side fun. Including quite a lot in the rain. (The photographer stayed inside).

Our heavily pregnant Instagram friend Fabienne and her lovely six year old popped round for a cup of proper English tea on Thursday so we could meet In Real Life. She was as lovely as she seems online (no catfishing in the Chartreuse) and the children got on too, despite Lucy being on far from her best form.

Magnus has spent quite a bit of time with his new friend Sam, including managing despite the weather, to borrow a bike and head back down to the pump track.

Harriet was throughly spoiled to receive not one, but two, parcels. One was expected – but no less welcome for it – books from her mother to feed her voracious reading needs. The second was entirely unexpected. Her employers, Douglas Home & Co, had arranged for a box of chocolate goodies to be sent to each employee to cheer them up during lockdown. As Harriet is currently not on the payroll receiving one was hugely touching.

Disappointment for Harriet though on Magnus’ birthday when she lost a bet with Ben about whether there would still be visible snow on Chamechaude. Despite glorious weather (and the occasional heavy downpour) it was (and still was all this week – when not obscured by cloud) still there. Most irritating.

Yesterday. Grrrr.

Wild flowers of the week were the rampions, with their amazingly symmetrical curly ended petals, and the columbine. It sounds much nicer than bindweed, and in the verges really isn’t doing any harm.

Ben and Lucy headed down the hill to Grenoble on Wednesday. There was some debate about whether we should all go – Aurora and Sophie want to go shopping for “nice clothes” – but we decided that a post-Covid-19 shopping trip with everyone in tow didn’t enormously appeal and we weren’t at all sure what the shops would be like. Instead it was the intrepid duo who headed in with Ben’s broken iPod (cause of damage then unknown). The good news is that it is a damaged battery, which is not anyone’s fault but just one of those things. The bad news is that the entire iPod will have to be replaced. It’s under guarantee but Ben’s 25,000 tracks are not stored online but at home and so cannot be downloaded from here. We are also not at all sure that they can be transferred from the old iPod to the new one. We may have a rather quieter next few months.

This week’s stars of the garden are the pink roses, which have added an intoxicating scent to their already considerable charms, and these extraordinary alliums.

Now Magnus is nine it was time for the post lockdown, much needed, haircut…

And…the most exciting for last…we had an actual drink in an actual café. Cafés and restaurants were permitted to reopen from this Tuesday and the Hotel Bar Victoria, just next to us, reopened last night. We had a celebratory ice cream after our cleaning this morning. It felt wonderful.

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: MY BIRTHDAY! The pool is here, going to the pump track with Sam, elderflower.

Sophie: I loved making pizza. I also liked playing in the pool. The Vietnamese meal was really great. The rain was fun too. I found an old ski jumper of my uncle Tim’s (says Daddy), and I love wearing it.

Lucy: Magnus’ birthday obviously, I found it really fun and had some interesting conversations. The pool being up and running. The dinner party was really good especially the food and… HAVING A VIOLIN!! Having ice cream today was nice too.

Aurora: Magnus’s birthday, going shopping with daddy, having my first iced tea in ages, finally getting to go in the swimming pool, getting 100 followers on tik tok, seeing Millie and Sam and the amazing Vietnamese meal.

Ben: Sociably, it has been an excellent week, apart from a frustrating time with Houseparty on Wednesday evening. Magnus’s birthday, Jeanne’s dinner party, Fabienne’s visit, even Magnus’s haircut and an ice cream at the reopened Hotel Victoria across the square – a real pleasure from normal conversations, although it feels abnormal given our collective previous 3 months. It has been exciting to plan some travel for next week too.

Being right about the snowy patch too…

Harriet: Magnus’ birthday was a great success: and possibly the first day we have (ever?) had without any bickering at all. I was enormously touched to be sent a parcel of treats by my work. It is such thoughtful thing to do in general – is this because a majority of the management are female? – but especially given my particular (and particularly odd) circumstances. It has been lovely seing the kids in the pool, even if I haven’t braved it yet! I loved having a drink in an actual cafe and a good chat with Sandrine who owns it. I am hugely looking forward to going somewhere else next week (spoiler alert).

Bad bits:

Lucy: The weather and not much else, I’ve had a load of homework but that’s about it.

Aurora: Not having Duplo and Magnus being hyper and really annoying .

Sophie: I didn’t like the rain sometimes apart from when we were in the pool.

Magnus: not going to Charmant Som, the weather.

Ben: The weather has not helped, but a lack of longer walks, and a general laziness from us all, has made some of this week feel like a waste. The passage of time shows itself in so many ways, but I was struck this week by finishing my initial tranche of Loratidine, one of my hay-fever medicines. I have more, but in my head, these were for the very end of our trip. Just another sign of where we should have been by now. 

I am horrified by the news coming from the UK and the USA. The decisions taken by those that have been voted into power in both countries appals me. Their mendacious and aggressive rhetoric is hideous. 

As for the UK, I am not sure I want to return to a country whose character looks both destructive and shameful, and it is increasingly unrecognisable from the one I thought I knew. That’s not to say there aren’t many wonderful friends and deeds and thoughts and actions there, but the trend and direction taken and acceptance of the situation frightens me. 

In the US, there looks like there is less acceptance of the status quo, both in spite of, and because of, the response of those in power. More power to them. I hope that the ground shifts in a positive way. It needs to. 

Harriet: I have been feeling what I think a psychologist would call ” disassociated” for much of this week. I don’t really care about much and I can’t be bothered, whether that’s with current issues or future plans. Mustering up the energy to engage seems beyond me much of the time. I’m not sure if this is because it is very hard actually to have future plans and without them the present seems directionless and without point.

It feels as though we are marking time here until we go home. Going home itself is not an aim but an inevitable, inexorable marker of failure. A retrograde step. And that’s before we get into my feelings about the present and future disaster that is the UK government. Is the country even one I want to be part of?

That aside, I wanted so much for this trip. I wanted to change, to grow, to become – in ways both tangible and intangible – the person I am going to be for the rest of my life. And now I feel that the going back will be not just physical but metaphorical. I will be back where I started.

I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what direction I want to be going in, but I know (or maybe I just think I know) it isn’t that. So instead I sit. In stasis. Going nowhere.

More mundanely (or perhaps it’s part of the same thing) with the end of confinement we have lost our structure and we seem to be drifting more. Days pass without much happening. The children (and we) seem to be spending more time on our phones which isn’t good for any of us.

What did we eat?

Birthdays mean baking. So we had cake, millionaire’s shortbread, biscuits and moderately successful flapjacks made with the homemade golden syrup.

The elderflowers are out too so we risked some very strange looks from passers-by to gather them and even stranger looks in the pharmacy when we asked for citric acid.

Our cordial is made, but cooling, so we haven’t tried it yet. Without the citric acid it is more likely to ferment so expect reports on our elderflower champagne to come…

How are the tadpoles?

A side effect of having a nice clean chlorine-filled swimming pool is that we no longer have a ready supply of manky un-chemically-treated water with which to fill up the tadpoles. In direct contravention of all the advice on the Internet they have therefore had to take their chances with tap.

So far they seem to be fine (the rain will have helped), but they remain very elusive. Maybe they’ve all hopped away…

What’s next?

We have been mulling all week over the possibility of going further afield in France. We were hesitant about being unwelcome, or finding that things were shut, and we’d also agreed to babysit some rabbits next week for our friends who are going away.

But a general feeling of frustration, of boredom, of needing something to happen, plus the news that the weather here is going to be awful all next week forced a spontaneous decision while the children were having their French lesson on Friday morning. We are booked into a hotel in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the coast of the Camargue, for four nights from Monday. Where we will go after that remains to be seen.

There has been a palpable lifting of spirits. The rabbits will just have to take their chances*.

*another neighbour is looking after them. We did check.

Week 16 (France 11)

Where were we?

Same as always.  Or feels like it.

At least it’s still beautiful

Where should we have been

Last Friday we got back on the train in Almaty for our longest journey yet, 73 hours not including a four hour change.  We arrived in Novosibirsk on Sunday morning and had a few rather scratchy hours on the platform before getting on to the actual Trans-Siberian railway for our journey to Irkutsk.  We are getting good at the long distance travel now and a day and a half passed relatively quickly with Uno, Quiddler and Netflix…  We arrived in Irkutsk very late on Monday night and headed straight to our accommodation, which had been chosen entirely on the basis of proximity to the station.  The next mornng we were up and out for the easy one hour bus journey from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal. 

Lake Baikal. Largest and deepest freshwater lake in the World.  Image from pixabay.

We had agonised over the timing of this part of our trip and had ended up having to cut it short to maximise time in Mongolia, so we sadly did not explore more of the shores of Baikal or into Buryatia (the area of Russia to the East of the lake).  Instead on Thursday we headed back to Irkutsk for our early morning departure to Ulaan Bator.  We arrive this evening. We are beyond excited.

What did we really do?

After our long, long, lost in the woods adventure last week, we had another full day out in the majestic Chartreuse on Wednesday, climbing Le Grand Som. At 2026m, it is not quite the highest mountain in the area (that’s Chamechaude at 2082m, which is the pointy mountain which appears all over anything we post), but it is probably the most formidable. We took what we understand to be the most approachable (but longest – it took us over seven hours including stops) of the four possible routes to the top, from Ruchère, about 30 minutes of wobbly driving from the house.

Highlights were Sophie spotting what we think was a marmot above us on some scree (although as it was rather larger than we expected it may have been a confused badger out for a midday stroll in the hills), finishing a Netflix movie over lunch at 1700m, dancing a Tiktok at the summit, making snow angels (yes, really) and Magnus enjoying his new walking shoes. In fact, Magnus enjoyed the walk so much it was declared his 5th favourite walk ever. (His 4th favourite walk is down to the river and back so the competition isn’t what you might call stiff).

Wild flowers of the week were, in no particular order: wild laburnum trees (probably stupid of her but Harriet didn’t realise they grew wild), the very odd, non-photosynthesising (really) birds nest orchid, globeflowers (buttercups on steroids), alpine pasqueflowers, and what looked like wild rhododendrons but are apparently rusty-leaved alpenroses.

On Monday we left three of our four children entirely unsupervised and headed into Grenoble. Magnus, who, you may recall, gets on splendidly with the windy road down the hill, was brought with us; mostly to prevent danger to life and limb if we left all four of them alone. We popped into Decathlon (again) so that we could get the shorts we entirely failed to buy for him last time.

Then on to the independent republic of Carrefour.  A supermarket so large you can see it from space. (It is possible that not all of that is entirely true).  Even as someone who enjoys a foreign supermarket this wasn’t much fun.  It was too big, too confusing and too hot.  It also, oddly, didn’t have lots of things that we can buy in the smaller Intermarché in the nearest town: no oats and no Special K, although it did have 75 different types of mustard and the world’s most expensive fondant icing (at €17 per kg).  It is strange too what “exotic foods” are available.  They had marmite (which we didn’t buy) but not golden syrup.  They, again, didn’t have tahini (which seems odd when you consider France’s history of involvement (to use as anodyne a word as possible) in North Africa) but they did have Thai curry paste. Great joy when we brought that home…

Is there really more of a market for lime marmelade than tahini?

In good news though, Magnus wasn’t sick.

He may, however, have come close to dying of boredom. Incidentally all those plastic bags are the biodegradable sort. The meat wrapping sadly isn’t.

Having finally managed to get Lucy back onto the school roll she has been inundated with school work. We’ve had various technical difficulties with some of it (her school-issued iPad is in a box in Kelso) but she has done what she can with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. It has been lovely seeing the quality of the work she produces.

Months of anticipation were nearly satisfied on Friday when the pool men came. This provoked a brief foreign-country-etiquette panic in Harriet (Do you offer French workmen coffee? Do they drink Nescafé? Answer a) yes and b) that might be a cultural step too far. They got a cafetière). As we type the pool is full of chemicals and still unswimmable in. We wait, tantalised, for tomorrow morning when we can use it. Sophie and Aurora say they are going in before 8 am. Given that the temperature will be about 12 degrees we expect that they will be out before 8 am too.

So near…

With a nearly nine-year-old requesting millionaire’s shortbread and a failure to be impressed by the versions without golden syrup, Harriet had a go at taking on Tate & Lyle’s finest. It was remarkably easy and turned out looking very much like golden syrup. It doesn’t, however taste much like golden syrup, being noticeably lemony (that’ll be the lemon juice). The first batch of millionaire’s made with it is nonetheless in progress.

You know what they say about the proof of the puddimg..

We enjoyed some good shorter walks too although one was enlivened by a bit of minor drama when Aurora lost her footing while clambering about in the river. No harm done but she was rather shocked and distinctly unamused to be wet.

Before the fall…

This week’s garden highlights are the roses. No idea what sort they are.

We had some real world intrusion in the form of the potential loss of over £1000 from the refund of our Russian train tickets. Having cancelled on the basis that we would get a full refund (less £90 fee) now the moment of payment has arrived (late) the company (who will temporarily remain nameless) seems to have multiplied the deduction significantly more than ten-fold. We have emails confirming how much they will pay and are in “discussion” with them about the change, but if we don’t get a positive resolution soon you can expect to see us going Defcon 1 (names included) all over Twitter.

Partly as a result of that dispute and partly because we are aware of the imminent expiry of our Russian visas (cost also in the squillions) we took a difficult decision this week and have made a claim on our travel insurance. This might seem like something we should have done months ago, and we did indeed contact the company in our first week here. However it turns out that we can only claim if our entire trip is “curtailed” (which of course in reality it has been since we arrived here in March). If we claim under this condition it brings the policy to an end and leaves us uninsured. This is not so much of a worry if we remain in France but is, of course, more of a problem if we travel further afield. Our decision to make a claim is therefore an explicit and long-resisted acknowledgement that the curtailment is not temporary, as we had hoped. It is very unlikely that we will get any further on our trip. This year at least.

We suspect it may not be a straightforward claim

In better news, one of Harriet’s wild-pipe-dream-1950s-parenting hopes for this trip was that we would all read to each other. Courtesy of JK Rowling this has actually, and rather to our astonishment, happened this week. She is releasing a new children’s story, The Ickabog, online in daily instalments. It has become part of our routine and we are enjoying the drawing prompts too.

The late lamented Mrs Dovetail. By Magnus

A real sign of normality returning to the village nearly moved Harriet to tears on Friday evening. The printed weather forecast which is normally a daily feature outside the tourist information office is back. It seems like (and is) such a tiny thing but having not been there for nearly three months its return really did feel momentous. Restaurants reopen here next week too.

And the fountain is back on.

Our walk on Thursday was less impressive on paper than Grand Som but in reality no less exciting. We drove down and across the gorge of the Guiers Mort and up into the Forêt Domaniale de la Grande Chartreuse where we headed up a (in some places terrifyingly) vertiginous path. There was, once, a road to the Col de la Charmette and after crossing the ridge and descending through the ancient beechwood we followed this back through the gloom of the long Tunnel des Agneaux to the car. We had brought head torches (Ben and Harriet had walked it once before without) but nonetheless it’s amazing how scary a dark drippy tunnel can be when you can’t see more than 10 metres in front of you.

There was no Trivial Pursuit this week. This may or may not be connected to the fact that we have acquired a Netflix account. Recommendations please?

How was it?

Good bits

Magnus: I liked Grand Som and getting the pool running again. My new shoes were absolutely awesome. I am really excited about my BIRTHDAY!!!!!!

Sophie: The pool man coming was great because it means we can go in the pool tomorrow. I liked the view from the walks. And I love mine and Aurora’s new room.

Lucy: I enjoyed our walk up Grand Som it was very pretty and I had some good chats. Staying at home with Sophie and Aurora was fun. I also liked the Ickabog and doing Minecraft with Sophie, Aurora and Magnus. And having the hammock back up.

Aurora: Helping Mummy with Magnus’s cake, staying in the hammock for ages, watching the pool get cleaned and the TikTok at the top of the mountain.

Well what else would you do when you reach the top?

Harriet: Ben wondered last week if we should lose the “good bit”/”bad bit” distinction and for me this is true this week: my good bit is also a bad bit. I think I have, finally, accepted that it is likely, if not inevitable, that this is as far as we will get. This is a bad thing for obvious reasons, but it is also a good thing as it means, despite what I say below, that the actual bad moments have been fewer and further between. There has been, I think less raging at the situation in which we find ourselves and more acceptance. This is probably better for everyone.

Less philosophically, we have done amazing walks this week. The views never stop getting better, wherever we go. I love the sounds and smells too. It is all so fresh and green and alive. The wildflowers, whether familiar or less so, are a constant source of pleasure.

I have really enjoyed reading to the children and I have loved seeing them work collaboratively on Minecraft.

Ben: In 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse, I have never climbed Le Grand Som, and it was fantastic to do it with my family this week. One of the silver linings of the Covid cloud has been our chance to explore new places, climb new mountains and walk new woods. Our walk above Chartreuse de Curiere on Friday, while slightly vertiginous at times for me, was magical. The beechwood, the birdsong, the feeling of centuries of almost untouched nature – I am loving being in these places.

Bad bits

Aurora: Fighting with everyone, not having Duplo A.

Ben: Screens in general [he taps into a small screen…]. I know I’m spending too much time on a screen, and I’m pretty sure we all are. When there is something which needs to be done, from setting out the lunch table, to a small amount of academic work, or getting shoes and socks on, there is inevitably at least someone on a screen, and a necessary nag to get them off. Sometimes it’s me. And when the screen is a valid “necessity”, for insurance correspondence, or creating or printing academics, or even watching a film, it is too small, too fiddly and not as good as an alternative laptop / TV / etc.

We are also over three weeks past the midpoint of our trip with very little prospect of moving on. This is not a good thing.

Sophie: I don’t like how there were some bits on the walk where you could fall off the cliff. Also I found the tunnel creepy and that’s it.

Harriet: The bad bits are the same old, same old really, a bit like many of our days here, no matter how beautiful or varied our walks. While I have now accepted that this will probably be as far as we get I still have moments when I am terribly sad about that, and moments when I am very bitter and angry. I find thinking about where we should have been hard, but I also don’t want to let go of that. Perhaps I fear that if I let go of it then we really won’t ever go.

Most mornings I wake up to a sinking disappointment that we are still here.

Lucy: The mahoosive workload I have from school and just general scratchiness.

Magnus: Sophie moaning on the walks (all of them).

She does like it sometimes.

What did we eat?

We didn’t eat it as such but Harriet is rather pleased to have made her own golden syrup. Even if parts of it were more difficult than they should have been:

You could even call it partially inverted sugar syrup (Credit: Harriet’s brother, Seb)

On the heels of the children’s surprising approval of turnip daal, we made it again. Though with just the one turnip this time:

We accompanied it with naan bread, always a winner, but we were a little nervous about this naan as the yeast for it had sat in the car while we walked up Grand Som. We weren’t sure what seven hours in a hot car would do to all those little live yeasts. Turns out they were ok.

When the yeast mixture is frothy…

How are the tadpoles?

In a word, elusive. In two words, camera-shy They are definitely still there but we barely see them. The current theory, to add to the one about them staying away from the sun, is that as they are maturing they are much more aware of what is around them. We are now potential predators, so even if they are on the surface as soon as we approach they tend to disappear under the water.

They still have no legs though.

This one decided to pose…

What’s next?

We just don’t know.  If we are not going to go anywhere other than France, we need to have a plan of things to do here before we just drift our way through to August.  Any suggestions welcome.

We do though still remain committed to going anywhere we can if that ever becomes possible.  It just doesn’t seem likely that it will in the near future, if at all this year.

In the short term, tomorrow is Magnus’s ninth birthday, so we have presents and plans for that.

Is this as far away as we will get?

Week 15 (France 10)

Where were we?

France. Still.

Same mountain, different angle

If you have any good ideas about how to make saying that more interesting, do let us know. We may need them….

Where should we have been?

When you left us last week, we were in Karakol, on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. We spent a couple of beautiful and fascinating days there before continuing our journey east along the lake then curving north and west back into Kazakhstan. We were constantly stunned by the beauty of both countries.  On the way to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, we passed Burana Tower, the sole remnant of the ancient city of Balasagun. We arrived back in Almaty on Thursday and said a fond farewell to our trusty vehicle (and were very glad we hadn’t had to drive our own car up and over those mountains). Yesterday we packed up again and got back on the train for another epic journey. Our first stop is Novosibirsk, back in Russia, which we will reach tomorrow morning. We change trains there and get on to the “proper” Trans-Siberian. We will arrive in Irkutsk late on Monday night.

Burana Tower (11th Century), near Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Should have been here on Tuesday. Image from pixabay.

What did we really do?

Harriet finished the blanket she started in our third week here, having sent out a plea for wool and crochet hooks to friends in the UK. She’s rather pleased with the result but is debating what to do with it now.

Sophie and Aurora re-dyed their hair. One box each this time instead of sharing so the purple is, well, definitely purple.

Unwelcome beasties of the week were an army of ants that we discovered all over the kitchen on Monday. Because Harriet is (by 3 years) too old to be a Millennial, she failed entirely, when faced with a horrific scene, to whip out her phone and take their picture, so you will just have to imagine ants scurrying up and down the wall, on the work surface, in the kettle. One small sense of humour failure and the judicious application of a lot of ant powder and we have seen no further sight of them. Ben was, nonetheless, sent out for chemical reinforcements so should they decide to return we are prepared.

French lessons continued with Debbie, and on Wednesday we were joined by Riis, an American living in the village, who stayed for some stone painting afterwards.

Our new friends with twins have another great attraction – a flute – which, even better, they aren’t using. Sophie is delighted and her teacher has offered to give her some lessons over Zoom. Whether she will remain quite so delighted when she has to practice remains to be seen.

Our newly acquired rugby ball took an inevitable plummet over the edge of the terrace into the “snakey patch”. There are a lot of adders around this year and a bite can be very nasty so it was with some trepidation that Harriet (volunteered because she was wearing trousers) armed herself with a ski pole and attempted a daring, and pleasingly successful, rescue.

Thursday was Ascension Day which is a public holiday in France. We were invited to spend it with a former colleague of Ben’s in Grenoble. He and his family made us hugely welcome in their lovely flat and we enjoyed a delicious meal with them and some great chat.

When we arrived in Grenoble everything was very quiet (perhaps because everyone had headed for the hills: the number of people in the village and cars parked wherever possible en route was astonishing). After lunch we took a stroll around the streets where we felt both very strange – it was the first time we had been in a city since Vienna, ten weeks ago – and completely normal – there were now lots of people around, chatting and enjoying the sun, the parks and the river. Most shops were shut due to the holiday, but the ice cream parlours were clearly doing a roaring trade.

Poor old Magnus, having been utterly brilliant across 3,500 miles of Europe, was sick both ways on the winding mointain road. We’re taking him back to Grenoble on Monday. We might go the long way.

We were social on Friday too when our new British friends with twins (and the puppy) invited us round for a barbecue. Magnus and Sam spent about four hours shooting at each other. The girls were more interested in the puppy. And the rabbits.

Perhaps counter-intuitively (and due mostly to our busy social diary!) we have actually done fewer walks this week, but on Tuesday we took advantage of the deconfinement and the fact that the weather had improved after a week of rain to go on a massive walk. In fact it was a rather more massive walk than we had intended. We climbed up through forest and meadow to a pass, the Col des Ayes, where we had a sandwich lunch. There were lots of other walkers around and it was lovely to nod and exchange bonjours and bonne ballades.

From there we went up and over another pass, the Col de Pravouta. The wildflowers were even more stunning than we had seen before, with gentians, orchids (elder-leaved ones this time) and multicoloured forget-me-nots among the many we spotted (and have dotted around this blogpost)

From the second col our intention was to descend back to the village. However a combination of bad signage (very unusual round here where the directions on the signs are normally very reliable, even if the estimates of how long the walk should take are slightly less so), an over-excitable map app (yes there’s definitely a path there) and some blind optimism (well, it must go somewhere) saw us following a dead-end logging track for rather longer than we should have before turning back and retracing our steps.

The great consolation for this unscheduled six or so kilometre addition to our walk was spotting a chamois. None of us had ever seen one before and they are famously shy so this was a real privilege. He (or she, we didn’t ask) allowed us to stand within about 100m of him for a good five minutes before leaping up a vertiginous slope and disappearing into the trees.

In total, we walked, with honestly minimal complaining and mostly very good humour, for over 20 kilometres and up just under 1000m of vertical ascent. We’re calling it good training for Fuji. Even if it did take Harriet until Friday to stop walking as though heavily pregnant.

We had to dash in and out on our return to the house as we had been invited for drinks in the village with Alain, who is French but speaks English after 20 years in the States, Indira who is Kazakh (ironically where we should have been – so we looked at amazing photos instead) and their gorgeous little boy, who is ten months old. Social distancing clearly doesn’t apply to the under ones and we had lovely baby cuddles and giggles. Indira even put up with Harriet trying some of her execrable Russian on her.

Magnus had been angling for a ride on the pump track down the hill (French for pump track: le pump track). So on Friday we hired a bike for him and he and Ben headed off for a happy couple of hours of round and round and up and down.

Ben is now leading the Trivial Pursuit 14:9. Harriet is getting increasingly unamused.

Great excitement in the garden, where the peonies and poppies are out in full, eye-catching, breath-taking glory. More mundanely, the end of lockdown meant that we could get M. Zoé, the local handyman and proud owner of a strimmer to come and tackle the jungle around the gooseberry bush and apple tree.

On Friday morning, inspired by a list from the National Trust which had been shared as part of the children’s school work, we decided to get up to see the dawn. Everyone woke at 5.30 and, armed with hot chocolate and cookies, we headed out of the village to the nearest pass. There’s rather a time lag here between dawn and actual sunrise, due to all the mountains selfishly getting in the way so we hoped we might see more from there.

In the event we gave up before the sun got down into the valley where we were but the colours, sights and sounds were nonetheless astounding and were a real privilege to witness. Scroll to the bottom and click on our Instagram for a video of the dawn chorus….

How was it?

Good bits:

Aurora: Going to Grenoble and meeting new people. The barbecue was really fun! I really like their family they are all just really nice. 🙂 Going on the walk was quite fun but tiring. Finally getting up so I could go to the boulangerie. Seeing the Sunrise was so pretty.

Harriet: I am constantly aware of, and assaulted by, the beauty of where we are. Although I have been here many times in the 18 years I’ve known Ben, I’ve never seen Spring and early Summer and the change, the life and the sheer glory of the landscape are astounding. I am so grateful to be able to witness it.

Less-gushingly, I really enjoyed our day in Grenoble. Once again it was lovely to be social and to be made to feel so welcome.

The dawn chorus was astonishing. In fact the noisy-ness of nature generally is. I’m writing this mid-afternoon and between the wind and the crickets and the birds there’s a lot going on.

We’ve had some fun this week coming up with flight-of-fancy plans for the future. I can’t imagine that any of them will ever come to reality but it has been really nice to make plans, even of the cloud-castle variety.

Lucy: It has been lovely weather apart from today. I liked getting up for the sunrise, and baking yesterday with Mummy. The barbecue was great.

I also enjoyed the walk because it was lovely weather and I had a nice talk with Mummy. I also really liked building a house on multiplayer minecraft with Sophie, Aurora and Magnus.

Elder-flowered orchid.

Magnus: I liked the pump track and getting new shoes [Editor’s Note – Magnus went through his socks in his old walking shoes on the walk]. I also liked playing with the guns that Millie & Sam had, and playing on scooters with Luca in Grenoble.

Ben: Not a great surprise, but I absolutely loved our long walk, even the taking a wrong turn and walking further and seeing the chamois – it was bigger than I expected. It felt energising and I was very proud of those with shorter legs doing it too. I liked being fit enough to jog back to get the car (which definitely would not have been the case before this adventure). I’m planning the next trips in my head.

The exit from lockdown continues to make all the sociable interactions feel more precious than normal. I haven’t seen Piero and Aurélie for over a decade, and I loved our day with them. Our children bonding despite very little in the way of shared language (TikTok and Star Wars) was lovely. We have had good conversations with friends at home too.

The dawn raid was memorable, particularly for the birdsong, and I’m glad we did it.

Purple fluffy flower. Probably not the technical term.

Sophie: It was my turn to go to the supermarket on Monday, and that was fun. I also liked having a rest day after our walk, and I really enjoyed the sunrise, although I did get a bit cold. I’m excited that the pool people are coming next week. The view from the top of the walk was very pretty. I’m really happy that I have a flute to play. It was good meeting more English speakers too.

Bad bits:

Magnus: I hated the walk that we went on when my feet got sore, and the dog that Millie and Sam had. I didn’t like the drive to Grenoble.

Sophie: Sunburnt shoulders are sore. I got too hot and tired on our walk.

Ben: The screen on my iPod, bought just before this trip, has buckled, which is a peeve. More significantly, our (mainly Harriet’s to be fair) battles with our Russian Train fixers about the refund they promised us are a pain. Driving to and from Grenoble against the hordes of mountain day trippers was not great fun, but probably worse for the cyclists on the road – there were some crazy drivers out there – and for poor Magnus.

I’ve been trying to work out how to think about our planned trip within this bizarre situation, and I’m not sure how to do it. There is a significant possibility that we won’t be able to go anywhere further than here, but there is also the possibility that we will be able to experience some of the places we were hoping to get to before our planned return home in August. It’s a given that the world is and will not be anything like what we expected; wherever we go will be weird, and when we go home it will be weird there too. Given that, how should I act / think / plan?

Forget-me-nots. But pink and purple.

Day to day, we can enjoy the “current situation on the trip” (with lovely things, but not the lovely things we planned for) though this is blended with “waiting for future trip” (with the distinct possibility that some or all of the trip we planned will not occur) and a little more wondering about the “beyond-trip future” is creeping in too. I had made a point of not going too near this last one, but given the situation, how much priority should I give to each of them? Perhaps I should be thinking more, and living more, as if this is as far as we are going to get.

In terms of priority, I think the only thing I can do is control what I can control, and make myself aware of the significant things I cannot control. I’m not sure I’m getting this right at the moment, probably because I’m spending/wasting too much time on my phone.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A. Bickering with everyone. Getting Duplo S taken away. Getting TikTok taken off my phone. (Editor: she now has it back)

Lucy: The dog had an annoying obsession with my flip flops. I sometimes find it difficult when Mummy and Daddy have French friends and I don’t know what they’re talking about.

I am missing my violin, and have been since Brussels, but more and more. I didn’t think I would as much.

Trumpet gentian

Harriet: More of the same really: the sadness of “What if“. Of “Would have, should have, could have“. It is generally me who writes the “Where should we have been” section and I am finding that increasingly demoralising and depressing. I am aware that when we got here the aim was to be out by April. Then it was Lucy’s birthday. Then Magnus’. We are now talking about our anniversary and mid-Summer. How long will it be before we are forced to conclude that this is as far as we will get?

How are the tadpoles?

Erm. Not sure. We suspect they are not enjoying the beautiful weather we’ve had this week as much as we are. The water in both the bird bath and the outside sink has gone murky and we are no longer seeing tadpoles on the surface.

On Monday the water was scummy and in one of the bird bath sections a number of them were dead.

Come on in, the water’s lovely. Or not.

But there clearly are survivors as every now and then you see one come to the surface. Our best guess is that they are hiding at the bottom away from the horrid sun.

It’s raining now though so hopefully they’ll enjoy that.

Nice weather for tadpoles?

What did we eat?

With crochet-free time on her hands, Harriet found herself doing more baking this week. So we’ve had millionaires shortbread, brownies and speculoos biscuits (keeping that Amsterdam feeling going).

We were also treated to meals out this week. Not out out, clearly, but in other people’s houses and made by them. We didn’t take photos, because that would be weird, but we had a delicious meal in Grenoble and a fabulous barbecue last night with our twinny neighbours. Magnus was in heaven (apart from being terrified by a 12 week old puppy of course).

What’s next?

As was the case last week, and last month, until a) countries reopen their borders to foreign travellers and b) the Foreign Office lifts its advice against all foreign travel, we remain where we are. Not giving up hope. Or trying not to.

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.

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…

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.