Where were we?
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.
What did we really do?
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.
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?
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).
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…
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.