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.

Walks within a km and less than an hour

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

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

The Massif de la Chartreuse

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

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

With the current restrictions, it looks more like this.

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

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

The Piggy Walk and The Reverse Piggy

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

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

The Piggy and Reverse Piggy

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

The turn to cut across the valley

The Too Steep Too Long, but Very Beautiful

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

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

The Chapel

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

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

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

Down the Hill Variations

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

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

The Parting of the Ways at the Pont de la Laiterie

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

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

Straight on to Mollard Bellet

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

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

The Variations Down the Hill

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

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

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

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

Resilience Training 101

So here we were feeling all “ready to go” and “we’ve got this”, when we heard that our ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam has been cancelled.

The very first thing we have booked has already been cancelled. Fair enough – there is going to be the mother and father of a storm this weekend – and crossing the North Sea then would have put our consitutions, and possibly minimal packing, to the test.

The alternative we have been offered is a sailing on Wednesday evening, which doesn’t work for a number of reasons –

  • We have paid for our accommodation in Amsterdam
  • We have tickets for Keane the night we arrive
  • We have tickets for Anne Frank’s house the next day
  • Our lovely friends who are staying in our house are expecting to move in on Tuesday

So, we have accepted the challenge, and will be leaving home a day before we expected. We have booked the Eurotunnel, which is not going to be wind-affected. We will stay with Granny in Essex on Sunday night, and get to The Netherlands for Tuesday via France and Belgium on Monday.

Some sleep-overs will be cut short, a nice evening with friends will have to wait half a year, and it is a very good thing I didn’t go to the Calcutta Cup.

Ben