One of my goals for this adventure has been to run in each country we visited, and I have managed this to date, recording each of them on Strava, a phone app which tracks your progress by GPS. Since we have been stuck in France, this challenge has changed somewhat, but that’s the nature of most things today.
The Strava app encourages you to sign up for challenges, such as “Run a 5k this month” and being a shallow sort of fellow who doesn’t like to back down (see the horrid cricket jigsaw) I have found these quite a useful way of forcing myself to run. For instance, I signed up for the March 10k badge which meant that I had a fabulous morning running along the Danube in Budapest.
The runs started with a dark evening getting lost in the wetlands north of Amsterdam. Slow, wet, meandering, getting darker with each minute, but a start which gave me hope and a small kernel of inspiration that this might just grow into something that I might enjoy.
Brussels was another exercise in getting lost, this time finding myself in the tabloid-favourite “terrorist hotbed” of Molenbeek, before heading back to Grande Place and tourist loveliness.
No picturesque windmills or guildhalls in Rommerskirchen, outside Cologne. But a couple of very impressive power stations. I did this one in my Where’s Wally carnival top too.
An early morning in Berlin gave me a beautiful view of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, before the tourist hordes (remember them?) arrived. I even remember feeling a bit like a runner on that one.
No tourists at all in the Oder Delta, but I saw my first ever wild boars in the wild – I don’t know which of us was more startled – and ran to the accompaniment of woodpecker rattles.
My run in Kraków would have been better had the bridge I wanted to cross not been completely shut due to tram works. Quite a lot of central Kraków was blocked of because of this, and it was raining. Bleurgh.
Budapest was my favourite, and longest, run. The early morning Danube, Imperial Palace, and Parliament were magnificent, and I was pleased to have completed my 10k challenge.
From one Austro-Hungarian capital to the other, and though we were much less central here, I thought I would try to spot the wild hamsters we didn’t see the day before, in the great Viennese Central Cemetery (Schubert, Beethoven, Boltzmann, Schönberg, allegedly Mozart, and countless others). I’m not sure running in a cemetery is appropriate, but it was early, so there were not many people around to be offended, and the dead did not seem to mind.
Since then, we have been locked down in the Chartreuse in France. I managed my “usual” 5km once, before the restrictions came into force, but since then the regulations are such that there is a limit of a 1km radius around the house, and a maximum of an hour.
In the spirit of challenging myself, I signed up for the April 10k badge at the end of March, so I have been plotting how to do this 10km within the time limit. This should be achievable (I can normally do a 5km within a not very impressive 28 minutes) but it means working out where to go, and how to be back in time, given that there is hardly anywhere flat here, and there are not many circular routes within the permitted radius.
The other thing is that we generally use our permitted up-to-60-minutes-outside time for a family walk, and I also signed up for an April walk challenge, so my days for running are very limited. I can generally count on the Mondays that I go to a supermarket in a neighbouring town, but not much else.
I am enjoying this though, and I’m enjoying being fitter and stronger. It’s also a chance for some headspace alone, which is always welcome.
Tomorrow is a Monday. This post is another way of making me do this. Wish me luck.
As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.
Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.
The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.
Choosing the books
The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.
I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.
In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.
Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…
I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.
In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.
I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.
I admit it: I failed at the first country.
I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.
Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.
The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.
If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.
But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.
An actual paper book!
Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…
As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…
In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.
Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.
In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.
For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.
I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.
I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.
In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.
(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)
Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.
This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine. It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.
Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.
I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result.
I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.
Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.
So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.
Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.
By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.
The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).
Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).
It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.
Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.
As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.
Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.
Today is day 7 of our trip. Here’s how the first week was….
Where were we?
This time last week we were in Kelso, contemplating our last bits of packing (and the blog post about that will forever languish uncompleted), and slightly wishing we didn’t have two days left before our departure. As it turned out the wise woman (but of course) who once advised, “Be careful what you wish for” knew her stuff because one cancelled ferry and fifteen rather rushed hours later we had a Eurotunnel crossing booked and were on our way South for an unscheduled night with Granny and Bumpa in Essex.
A bright and early start on Sunday and favourable gods on the M25 meant we were at Folkestone in plenty of time to drive onto the train – is it just me or is that still weirdly both incredibly exciting and a complete let down – and head for mainland Europe.
Blink and you missed it: we drove straight through the top right corner of France, stopping only in a layby about 200 yards from the Belgian border so that Lucy could run around the car and we could say we’d been in France.
The rest of us were feeling lazy (and it was cold and wet) so stayed put.
First stop Waasmunster (no, me neither, but it’s conveniently located about half way between Calais and Amsterdam, about ten minutes off the motorway). A quick cross check between Google maps and AirBnB while heading South the day before had led us to book Johan’s house, which has gone straight to the top of our list of best accommodation. Plenty of room, nice and quiet, a wifi password written on the wall and pasta’n’sauce bought in Tesco’s in Saffron Walden a million years earlier that morning. Everyone’s happy….
Then up and off. Past Ghent (we’ll be back) and on to the Netherlands.
We arrived on Monday as planned, although after nearly 1,000 extra miles of unscheduled driving (well done Ben). It’s now Saturday and we leave later today.
We’ve been staying just outside Amsterdam, in Oostzaan, in a little (very) cabin, with a view of a windmill (did we mention we were in the Netherlands?), canals, pigs and two (very traditional these) alpacas. For Lucy at least the alpacas go some way towards compensating for the lack of space.
Not content with one windmill, we saw 19 more on the way from Wassmunster when we stopped just outside Rotterdam at the UNESCO world heritage site of Kinderdijk.
We’ve settled in nicely here, with daily trips into Amsterdam: Keane concert, Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Cuyp market and lots (and lots) of sweet treats (researching Dutch cuisine, don’t you know). Less excitingly we’ve got familiar with the local Lidl (we love Lidl) and the launderette in the petrol station forecourt.
It must be time to move on.
What were our impressions? What surprised you?
Aurora: Windmills and the reeds everywhere are really pretty. All the buildings in the towns are stuck together and are all different colours. They’re really weird shapes and really pretty. I’d find it difficult to live here because I can’t speak the language. I’m missing my friends.
Sophie: Windmills, the big black piggy. Miffys. I love the beds but I hate how they have to go up in the morning because they’re in the living room.
Magnus: I like the Amsterdam flag. Tree art, like fancy trees. I was surprised that the windmills pump water. The food was nice, and some bits in the Rijksmuseum were kind of funny, like the man on the pillar with the frizzy hair.
Harriet: I hadn’t expected Belgium to be so flat. I was fascinated by the extraordinarily groomed and trained trees in both the Netherlands and Belgium. I’m ashamed to say I thought windmills were for milling flour so the idea that they were a massive drainage operation was news.
Lucy: I thought Amsterdam was a very interesting city because it was definitely a European city but so different and so civilised it was weird! It was really beautiful and a lovely start to the trip.
Ben: The sheer amount of water in the Netherlands. Quite how the country survives when so much of it is below sea-level I don’t know. The Dutch also appear to be very good at separating wet from dry; despite the water, water everywhere, the houses and shops and streets and cafés did not feel damp. The frequent wafts of dope. The courtesy and friendliness of the Dutch. No bike helmets.
How was the weather?
Two words: Storm Ciara. It has been windy. And when it wasn’t windy it was wet. The zip on Aurora’s jacket breaking was a low point, though l (Ben) enjoyed testing my new waterproof (in splendid Dutch orange).
What were the highlights?
Aurora: I liked the market. I thought it was cool how there was, like, everything everywhere. It smelt amazing: of waffles and fun stuff. The driving up was fun because I was sitting in the back with Lucy and we were playing with Mummy Sheep and Duplo.
Sophie: Taking photos generally. I liked making up a quiz. I liked hearing Somwhere Only We Know. The Miffys. I loved the food: my favourite was the Poffertjes. I prefer the normal stroopwafels. They’re really good.
Harriet: Kinderdijk, definitely. We found it by chance and had never heard of it before. I’m so glad we went, and that it was February so not busy. It was so atmospheric and so bleakly beautiful. The Rijksmuseum was even better than I expected (Warning: mum chat coming up) not least because of the practical things which made it so easy to spend a long while there: a picnic room, free lockers, free entry for the children, unlimited re-entry on your ticket day. I found the pencilled height chart and posters on the wall in Anne Frank’s house incredibly moving; She grew 13 cm in hiding, and liked the same things our children do : contemporary megastars and cute teddies.
Magnus: Poffertjes, definitely. Miffy. The snake trombone in the Rijksmuseum.
Lucy: The food and the way they make it; sprinkles for breakfast and stroopwafels for a snack! The cleverness of their civilisation like the windmills that regulate the water levels and the dykes. I also enjoyed the Rijksmuseum especially the instruments they were cool! Then there was Miffy! And there were ALPACAS in the garden!!!!!!
Any bad bits? Did we fight?
What do you think?
We are definitely having to come to terms with spending lots of time together. Phones have been a particular flash point. The morning exercise routine (oh yes) has taken a little getting used to (especially for Aurora). Interestingly the morning school-work routine (an entire school day in 15 minutes) has been less of an issue.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. We have tried but when it comes to food it has been surprisingly hard. Neither supermarket we visited seemed to go in for loose fruit and vegetables and so for all we took our own bags there was a lot of unavoidable plastic. There is a separate plastic bin here though so we are telling ourselves that maybe it is recycled. We’ve been good about repurposing the plastic we’ve been given.
What did we eat?
Lots of sweet treats: Poffertjes (the children’s favourites), cookies and stroopwafels (the adults’ favourite). Boerenkoolstamppot. A shameful Old El Paso fajitas kit that was in the larder at home and got brought with us. Sprinkles for breakfast. Spicy eggs and vegetables that were “surprisingly nice” (thanks). Ben’s French beans (recipe doubtless to follow).
This was one of my key aims: to cook, and eat (or at least try and get the children to eat) a meal from every country we visit. I also want to read a book from every country, and Ben is keen to go running at least once, drink one alcoholic drink, and set foot in them all (Lucy ran once round the car in a layby about 500m from the Franco-Belgian Border to prove that particular point).
We didn’t have time to cook a meal while she was doing that, and we will be going back to both Belgium and France so our first meal challenge is the Netherlands.
The internet tells me that Stamppot is “the most quintessential Dutch dish“. Leaving aside the question of whether something can be “most” quintessential and mindful too of the need not prevent meltdowns (mostly mine) when the children refuse to eat their supper, I thought mashed potato and vegetables seemed a good place to start.
There are multiple versions of stamppot on the net, but spruce eats says this version, with kale (something the children will eat) and sausages (you guessed it) “arguably could be considered the Netherlands’ national dish”
Buy your ingredients
Kale, potatoes, sausage. Easy, right?
The kale was indeed easy – and it even comes pre-shredded. I’m just very glad I knew what the word was before I went to the supermarket as I’d never have identified it otherwise.
The sausage I was looking for was, apparently, called rookworst. It’s a Dutch smoked variety. Turkey ones are available, but we thought pork might be preferable. Again. Not too hard to source. In fact the local Lidl (yes, we’ve managed to find a house with a Lidl in walking distance) had two varieties, fresh in the fridge (and with a helpful picture of a pig on it to prevent confusion) and something else (dried?) in a vacuum pack. I have an instinctive horror of vacuum packed sausage so bought fresh ones.
Poatoes. Easy again. As long as you want 5 kilos. It appears the Dutch must eat a lot of potatoes.
Also onions. I forgot those so had to send Ben back for them later. He loves that.
Prepare your ingredients
The cottage we are staying has not got what you would describe as a Cook’s Kitchen. Notable by their absence are a) a potato peeler, b) a potato masher and c) a pan big enough to get 1.5kg of potatoes in. Not deterred and inspired by my sister in law (who is both Irish and a potato afficionado – the two may or may not be connected), I decided not to peel the potatoes. If she can make mash with unpeeled potatoes, I decided, so can I.
Next problem. How to cook the rookworst. They came with no instructions. Grill? Bake? Fry?. Again the internet came to my rescue. Simmer them (Really? Simmer a sausage? Don’t try that in Lincolnshire). With a lack of pans, and inspired by this site, I just stuck them on top of the potatoes.
And do you know what? It worked! I chopped the onion and gently fried it with bit of butter before mixing in the kale. I’d have called it “wilting” the kale but it was so finely chopped already it didn’t have much texture to wilt.
Then I mashed the potatoes with some more butter, a bit of milk and some of the sausagey cooking liquid. I then threw some of the liquid all over my trousers just for fun and finished off the cooking in my pants.
The kitchen isn’t very well lit either so it was quite hard to see what I was doing by this point, so to mix the mash (in a too small pan) with the kale (also in a too small pan) I wore a head torch. Don’t try this at home…
I then put the sausages on top, found another pair trousers, removed the head torch and bore our Boerenkoolstamppot triumphant to the table. And they ate it!
Time for pudding. And this really was simple. I bought it. It was delicious.
It turns out it has beans it it. Who knew? Cake as one of your five a day.
Not content with a Dutch supper, we broke out into an Dutch breakfast this morning too.
Here’s a picture.
Yes. That is sprinkles and butter on crispy bread as recommended by one of Lucy’s friends who has Dutch cousins. It really is a traditional Dutch breakfast. Apparently you can use ordinary bread or toast too if you prefer. And also apparently this is a totally normal breakfast here. Certainly the wide choice of sprinkles available would seem to suggest a high demand…
The reluctant eaters today were Ben and me, but in the spirit of “You must try everything at least once” we had some too. It was pretty much as you’d expect.
The kids, on the other hand, loved it. I’m not sure their dentist would be so keen.
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.
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we were on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, one day, though not this year. Now back home, you can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
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