On Control

The lack of control that we have over being in lockdown, and what we do while we are confined, is something which I expect is affecting many of (the wider) us.

Here in France, I think we are probably a week or so ahead of the UK and about 10 days behind Italy, in terms of lockdown. I have noticed changes in my psyche and mentality over the two weeks since M. Macron instigated his restrictions.

I like being in control of what is going on. So does Harriet. As previously stated, we have been planning this trip for more than 7 years, and in earnest for several months. We had a Cozi family calendar which showed that we knew exactly where we were going to be for almost every night until leaving Tashkent, in early May. (Ironically, we were actually meant to be where I am right now, right now. We would be leaving for Paris on Wednesday, in some parallel universe.) We were very much in control of this trip.

Until COVID-19, and Corona Virus, and Lockdown, and Social Distancing, and Border Closures, and all that. Now, we are not in control of any of this. Not just the difficulty in sourcing a replacement pair of socks, or pair of glasses, but also what the restrictions will be tomorrow, or next week, or next month. And what the restrictions will be here in France, or in Russia, or whether the train will run from Paris to Moscow (currently suspended due to Poland border closure).

The FCO is advising against all foreign travel. Entry to UK citizens is currently not permitted in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, or China, although we did have a nice message from our AirBnB host in Kyoto Japan asking whether we were going to need parking in late July.

Continuing our trip, which remains our goal, is dependent on any number of current regulations and restrictions being lifted. And we are not in control of any of that. All the discussions we start turn into a great game of “ifs”, so we have stopped having them. Mostly.

I read an excellent piece, which was shared on Facebook by a wise former colleague, by a psychologist who summarised her advice, given to 31 patients over the course of a week. I recommend it to you. There are several parts in there which we have also found to ring true, by trial and error. One which struck a particular chord was the one which stated “Find something you can control, then control the heck out of it.”

I have found myself drawn to puzzles and games which have a solution, however tricky. I started and finished an epic jigsaw of the South Rose Window of Angers Cathedral, and have reinstalled Flow Free on my phone. These things are tricky, but not impossible, and they have a solution. I have enjoyed much of the maths home schooling with the children, for much the same reason (though I’m not sure the feeling is mutual).

I have enjoyed setting up and using our home “gym”, and even going on a run or two. (Those that know me can vouch that this is not a usual situation.) I have been the laundry person (monitor?, manager?, prefect?) in our family for a good few years, and the laundry here is running like clockwork.

Because until we can start really planning what on earth we are going to do with the rest of our adventure – we are only in week 7 or 8 of a 26 week trip after all – that’s one part of what I can do to stay sane. And thank you to the Kyoto AirBnB chap, who unknowingly gave us both a lift with his question about car parking. If he thinks there is every reason that we will be in Japan in late July, why shouldn’t we?

Ben

Fair Wear and Tear

I was so proud of all of our packing for this adventure. Each of us packed a minimum – clothes, toiletries, luxuries (cuddly friends, jewelry, etc.) – with the expectation that each place we were going would sell clothes appropriate to location and climate, if we needed a change, and we could replenish soap and toothpaste when required too.

Very proud of my minimlist packing

Harriet wrote about her dissatisfaction with her traveling wardrobe while we were back in Brussels (that feels a long time ago…), and bought a very useful bright pink jacket there and has subsequently bought a t-shirt in a Berlin market.

There have been a few more purchases along the way – some pants for me and Lucy (different styles and sizes…), some socks for Sophie, some trainers and a cap for Magnus – and we had always planned to do a wardrobe review about now, probably involving a family trip to Decathlon in Grenoble, to get shorts, t shirts, etc. and convert our winter wear to spring/summer, and eventually to send back our heavy duty cold stuff with our car.

Being stuck in one location, with a minimum number of shops allowed to remain open by law, just as Spring is springing, has meant that this has been a little more challenging recently. Clothes shops are not “essential services”, and are closed. Supermarkets and hypermarkets remain open, but the two closest to us are pretty small and don’t run to clothes beyond slippers, bras for enormous people and awful nighties.

Constant wear, and an annoying tendency of our children to grow, has meant that some of our clothes are either worn out, or too small. And it’s not just clothes – Harriet has scratched the lenses of her glasses, making them virtually unusable (she has contacts, so it’s not catastrophic), the dishwasher here has packed in, Magnus’s headphones broke, and loads of other utterly normal and banal stuff has gone a bit awry.

And here’s the thing. Because of the lockdown, we can’t get them fixed or replaced, or at least the lockdown has made it much more difficult. While we were sitting down to our Fondue Savoyarde, Lucy made the valid point that the French Government clearly consider a cheese shop an essential service, but not an optician. Harriet has ventured into online glasses shopping.

As the UK and other areas enter lockdown too, I expect many of us will be experiencing the same thing.

I fear for the long term prospects of smaller shops, selling clothes, stationary, electronics, sports equipment, etc. if the only available source of these is either an online giant, or a hypermarket.

Cousin Freddie in the UK also has a worrying tendency to grow

Until then, I shall continue to wear my grey winter kit, do the washing up by hand – this and all the handwashing is playing havoc with my skin, darlings – as will we all, and look forward to having a little splurge on something new when I am allowed.

Stay home, stay safe, stay well.

Ben

A week in – Routines and Flashpoints

So we are now over a week into our adventure, due to our early start, and perhaps this is a good time to look back, as well as forward. We’re now at our second main stop. Brussels, and in our fourth country, Belgium.

What have we achieved?

  • Everyone is still alive, present, and no-one is ill.
  • We have all eaten new things, and enjoyed them.
  • We have travelled over 1000 miles, by car, foot, train, metro, tram, and bus.
  • We have experienced new things, old things, sweet things, beautiful things.
  • I don’t think anyone has lost anything, although I may have lost a pair of pants. (No big story there, but it peeves me to have lost them.)

We are in the process of settling into our routines, if such a thing is possible over a journey of 26 weeks, but I wouldn’t say we have settled into them yet. Is such a thing, a cadence if you like, possible, required, or wanted?

We have tended to start the day with a short exercise programme, based on the classic Royal Canadian Air Force 5BX and XBX programmes. These have 11 and 12 minutes routines of increasing intensity. They are not too horrid, mainly because they are so short.

This is followed by breakfast, then 15 minutes of maths for Aurora, Sophie, and Magnus, using books the school provided, or science or music for Lucy, either also provided by the school or grade 5 theory. We usually do the work one to one, and it has been sold on the basis of “this is all the school you are going to get today”, which is only partly correct. It generally is the only formal structured learning they get. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, such as the day we were leaving Amsterdam for Brussels. I think this is balanced, and supplemented by, the learning they get from just being and living where we are, the conversations we have about what is around us, and what we are seeing, as well as all the interactions in shops, bell towers, galleries, metro stations, etc.

There has been conflict too, about this and more, as we find our feet on the road. Tiredness is often a contributing factor, and sleeping in different beds is always hard. Travel is tiring (I found the first three days of driving particularly draining) and not just for the driver. Later nights, especially for Magnus, and irregular daily schedules don’t help, hence the routines above.

Phones are also a bit of a flashpoint, and it is difficult for us to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as so much of what Harriet and I are doing – researching, blogging, and other things which would normally be analogue, like reading – is on phones or a tablet. I have removed all the games I had on my phone, so as not to be a complete hypocrite…

I do get annoyed when phones come out at the slightest lull in activity, particularly when it is for pointless games, in a beautiful town square, or the like, and sometimes I’ve snapped when they’ve been taken out to take a photo (snapping at snaps?) which is wrong of me.

So how to manage it?

Originally, each of the children had a phone time limit through FamilyLink, which we removed when we realised they were restricting their (our perception of) “good use” (photos, research, learning, blogging) so they could play more games and chat and message with friends. Most car journeys are phone-free, and that has worked well in general, at least until the final hour of a long journey. The car is not wifi-enabled anyway… We tried restricting apps by temporarily blocking them in FamilyLink but that took them out of their folders upon unblocking them, which didn’t go down well.

We’ve come to realise that some activities need to be “physical with a point” like climbing a windy bell-tower in Ghent, instead of “aimless and cerebral” like wandering round a museum. The Instagram photo competition we had last Friday worked well too, so that might become a regular feature.

I think it comes down to chat and compromise, and we are all still learning and adapting. They don’t have a lot of the things we have at home – no-one has watched any TV (just another screen…) since we left – so phones provide a distraction, some privacy and a connection to missed friends at home after all. And we are still talking about it in a (mostly) civil way.

Enough musings for one post, methinks.

Ben

What about work (part 1)?

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

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

What’s going on?

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben

Hard choices – Not this time for Nukus

Last year I read an article telling the incredible story of the Savitsky Collection at what is now the Nukus Museum of Art.

In short, Igor Savitsky was a wealthy Muscovite Russian who over a period of years amassed a stunning collection of Russian avant-garde art during the 1950s, in particular buying and collecting works by (and from) dissident artists who had been banned by Stalin, and taking them to Nukus, in what is now Uzbekistan, far from the watching authorities in Moscow and even Tashkent.

It is exactly the sort of place I would love to visit for all sorts of reasons.

I was given 3 lovely mugs from a National Gallery of Scotland exhibition of Russian avant-garde art for my 21st birthday. It is a fantastic story, and it seems like it was just the sort of place we should visit, if we are close. And why wouldn’t we do it as part of the adventure?

But here’s the thing. When Igor Savitsky took all that art far away from prying eyes, he did an extremely good job…

It turns out it is really difficult to get to Nukus and it really is a long way from anywhere else we are planning to visit. We want to stick by our no-flights-except-home rule, and this means trains.

There are 2 trains a week from Tashkent, and they take between 18 and 22 hours, depending on the route, which is fair enough when you realise that Nukus is over 1100km from Tashkent (about the same as Paris to Vienna). The days they go are not particularly convenient, and there is no child-bribing water-park, or even anything else at all, worth going to see in the surrounding area.

We could go, but it would mean missing out on some of the great Silk Road cities – Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand – as our arrival into and departure from Tashkent are fixed. That’s a lot to sacrifice for a few hours in the company of an amazing art collection and many more hours on long trains.

So it was with regret that we ejected (nuked?) Nukus from our itinerary last night.

This is not an exhibit from the Savitsky Collection.

You can check out some of the paintings here.

Maybe we will have to plan another trip there next year…

Ben

Getting Very Real Now

Over the last six weeks or so, we have taken huge steps towards making what was a pipe dream into a reality. Among other things, our first 100 days or so are almost entirely booked, we have tickets for various exhibitions and concerts, and we have shiny Chinese visas in our passports.

I am very excited.

In the words of Primal Scream, just what is it that I want to do? We want to be free to do what we want to so, we’re going to have a good time, and we’re going to have a party.

I also know that my expectations about the trip, the children on the trip, and me on the trip, are wildly optimistic. I will not get fit in 10 minutes. There will be times we will be lost, tired, bored, resentful, angry, disappointed and bicker with each other. We will miss opportunities. We will waste time and money. I will not become a perfect parent who never screams “STOP SHOUTING AT YOUR SISTER!”… Well, not immediately anyway.

We have also been writing lots of lists including kit, things to sort before we go, places to visit when we are on the road, and a long list of “things which are free and cheap, for the days when our weekly budget is gone by Tuesday morning.” Any hints and tips gratefully received.

Lots of the things on the to do lists are now ticked, which is exciting, but we do seem to add to them almost as quickly. We’re using various shared apps, in particular Cozi and Workflowy, though probably not getting the most out of either. We have a big paper file too with all sort of sections, now bursting at the seems.

Our goal is to do at least one thing every day for the trip, though often this ends up being more than one thing. My task for the day is to ring the Mongolian embassy in Paris (obvs),and Harriet has also rung our home insurance people already. We also got the children to download Cozi, GoogleTranslate and What3words, which will help with our Security Protocol, which is a grown up way of saying “what to do if our children get lost while trying not to look like that Picasso painting”.

Weeping Woman 1937

We’ve come a long way from the pipe dream. There’s a long way to go yet.

Ben