Quick update, 9 months in

imageWe’re currently sitting in a car park in Algeciras, waiting to cross to Morocco. The ferry has been delayed by 6 hours or so due to wind (good thing we got up early and rushed down here to be nice and early, huh?) so I’ve had time to tinker with this photo sketching app, and have a look back on the last 9 months.

Light purple: late May to early July.
Red: July to early August.
Orange: rest of August.
Green: campervan joins us. September to late October.
Blue: November to early December.
Dark purple: end of the year to mid January.
Pink: rest of January.
Blue texta: to now, late February.

The pencil line is a rough sketch of what might come next between here and end of June. This is all a rough sketch as the back seat is getting rowdy, and anything that isn’t done hastily isn’t done at all.

The conversation from the back  just now went:
T: Ooh, I’ve got one. When we get home (home is wherever we’re staying tonight) can we watch How It’s Made: Telescopes? (These are clips we watch on YouTube. Pasta, pianos, tofu, kazoos, you name it, there’s a video on how it’s made or how it works..)
F: How It’s Made: Spaceships!
T: How It’s Made: Microwaves! And batteries.
F: Cameras. Blood. (This stems from a recent discussion about iron, and why it’s good to eat vegetables.) I know! How it works: the body.
Me: Which part?
F: Everything. Every single bit. I tried explaining that it takes about 7 years at med school to learn How It Works: The Human Body, but a sceptical stare informs me this answer won’t suffice.
A, shouting to be heard over this explanation: How it’s Made: Monsters!

This is them in a nutshell really.

T will design a way to make the world work better.

F will design a new world. On Mars. He has it all planned out, and can’t wait to be old enough to get started.

As for A, it’s a little early to tell yet, but it looks like he’ll tag along for the ride, sabotage anything he can get his hands on, and make everyone laugh along the way.

Advertisements

Day 220: First impressions of Albania

image

Albania is a real experience. We passed through briefly in November on our way to Greece and Turkey and were pleasantly surprised, so we’ve come back to see a bit more, and to stretch out our Schengen zone time so we can delay our return to the UK until the chill has receded a little.

We read around quite a bit before deciding to come here the first time as Albania has rather dodgy a reputation. However the more we read, the clearer it became that the rumors were greatly exaggerated. From first impressions, the country is the most friendly we’ve visited yet, except perhaps Greece. And it’s a beautiful country.

image
The road up from the coastal border crossing from Greece shows some of the variety in the landscape.
image
Driving up the peninsula from Sarandë to Ksamil.
image
Some creative excavation work by the roadside. It’s either an immovable object, or between a rock and a hard place.

So far we’ve consistently met with an amazing welcome. People are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful.

The first night we were tossing up between a supermarket and a cafe for dinner, and the latter won out. We wandered into the nearest place that looked warm and met a genuinely friendly welcome (in English, no less, as the family’s daughter was home for the holidays), and had a huge meal for €13. For all 5 of us. The family quickly befriended the kids, and the elder boys settled into a game of Uno with their kids, while the mother fed mandarin segments into A like a fireman stoking a fast moving steam train. They sent us off with a bag of oranges, a pack of Uno, a toy Santa, and hearty dose of goodwill all round. We bumped into the elder daughter outside the supermarket and she said her parents had invited us to join them for New Year’s Eve.

The second night, we found ourselves in a pizza bar (courtesy of the kids) which turned out not to be doing pizzas in the off season, looked a bit average, and our shared vocabulary with the owners was about 10 words, but by the end the boys were dancing, playing a round of catch with the grandson of the house, and laughing themselves silly. And the food was great.

There are people on the streets everywhere. Sitting round nursing cups of coffee, chatting on phones, snappy dressers taking the ritual post-prandial promenade or just standing around. (Snappy dressing seems to be the norm actually, which must make us look that bit more out of place.) Maybe it’s because it’s winter and the sun is shining, so it’s probably warmer than inside the concrete-and-tile homes, but I get the sense it’s more than that.

Admittedly the roads are highly variable. They can go from easy to primitive with no notice whatsoever. A good road will end abruptly and morph into farm track at the drop of a hat, and roads marked on our various map apps are frequently little better than goat tracks, which makes navigating.. interesting. Speed limits vary equally abruptly, but are generally so low enough to keep the road toll to a minimum. And low speeds are reasonable given most roads seem to be used as much by flocks of animals as by automobiles. Beware of speeding sheep however. And the occasional gopher.

image
Roads seem to be a ‘shared use’ zone. Still for the most part they’ve been much better than we expected from prior reading. Follow the road signs though, they are much better informed than your average map app.

Random explosions echo round the town day and night. Some of these are from kids letting off occasional firecrackers, so maybe this is the lead up to New Years Eve, but the rest..? Who knows.

Here in Ksamil, there is a big playground attached to a cafe bar. The care doesn’t serve food, and is full of men sitting round drinking coffee all day, and the equipment is all supersize so maybe it’s a grown up playground, but the kids love the giant ship swings and happily play on the gondolas for hours. The cafe makes coffee strong enough to curl your toenails, so it’s as good a place to work and research as anywhere else.

image
Pirates on the High Seas in the giant playground.

Sarandë has a different feel again, the Amalfi of Albania, but a whole lot more chaotic and developing. We made one visit there looking for a heater, and decided not to go back in the van if we could help it, bit it would be fun to explore of foot. There’s a large open air Roman ruin smack bang in the model of it too’ adding another layer to the bubbling maelstrom of life going on here.

Albania seems to be a budget traveller’s dream.

image
The ratio seems to be approximately 1 supermarket to 10 residents. Car washes are more like 1:1.

The place we are staying is swish by our standards but still cheaper than the campsite we stayed at in Lago di Garda, in Italy. (Admittedly the bathroom smells like a ripe blue cheese, but hey, we like blue cheese so why hold that against it?) There seems to be a strong general pride in possessions. Cars, driveways, terraces and footpaths are hosed off daily and houses are scrupulously clean. The streets, on the other hand, are.. well, not. (Sitting outside a supermarket, I watched a man spend a good half an hour hosing off his 2 car driveway, styrofoam balls and other detritus sluiced out onto the road for all the traffic to enjoy.) But then road surfacing and rubbish collection take money..

image
The view from our door comes complete with lolling sunbather.

Granted, these are just first* impressions, and we are still running on coffee and sunshine to make up for traveling 1000k in 3 days on very broken sleep. Also we are traveling as a family, maybe young kids make us that bit more approachable? I don’t know. No doubt we will learn more as we go.

image

So Happy New Year from Ksamil!

*Technically second impressions as we did stop in Tirana for a night in October, our 10th wedding anniversary, as it happens. However we didn’t get to see much as I’d had an accident the day before and J spent most of the afternoon finding a pair of crutches, and we left early the next day. Our main impressions then were that Tirana was very interesting, very colourful, and a great place to buy crutches!

Day 213: Hibernating in Turkey

image

Six months of being almost constantly on the move seems to have caught up with us.

We have been in the Ida Mountains of Turkey for about five weeks now and hardly stirred. J is working on a big update to the app, I’ve been cramming in as much work as possible, and the boys are doing regular school hours and making cubbies and inventing games. A is getting into everything, as usual.

image
A kindly agreed to model a hat for me. But only on the condition that he was a ‘doddy’. One of the local stray dogs frequently accompanies us on our walks, and A chases him around happily and generally gets his dose of zoomorphism.

The days have blurred together into a sort of perpetual Thursday. So we have been doing very little besides working, eating and feeling sleepy.

The first week here we had a bout of TV watching brought on by sheer lethargy. First we watched the film My Family and Other Animals, then the miniseries from the ’80’s. It’s surprisingly fitting really, so now we’re reading the book, and it seems to have caught their imagination. The boys have taken to acting out little scenes from the stories, and making up games around them.

They have also been really taken with the Greek Myths, which we started reading back in November while in Greece. I love listening to how our books inform their play, it’s fascinating.  Like the Greek Gods game. The conversation I overheard went like this:

T: ‘I’m going to pretend to be the little god who crawled out of the cave when he was just a year old and made a musical instrument out of a turtle shell.’
F: ‘The dummy god?’
T: ‘The demi god!’
F: ‘No, the demi god was the one with one eye.. Or maybe that one was the semi god..’
T: ‘Anyway, I love that one who was just a little baby’…

At this point I had to sneak away in case they heard me giggling.

The boys have loved playing out on the hillside, and invented various games. One that sounded particularly interesting was about a team of spaceships called the Jolly Rogers and the Jolly Ramplings, set in a place called the Stream of St Dumps. (Littering isn’t a consideration around these parts..)

We did manage to make it to Assos/Behramkale for a look around at Athena’s temple and the deserted theatre.

Another day we made it to Troy. On the drive there, we retold the legends and analysed motivations and ethics in a very high-minded way. Then we arrived, and after enthusiastically climbing the big wooden horse, T spent the rest of the time there counting squirrel sightings, and A trying to make friends with all the stray cats. F found part of a defunct hearing aid case and from then on could talk of nothing but what he might invent with it, how it all worked, and wishing he was a grown up already so he could make all the stuff he intends to make. I don’t doubt he will someday.  And I’m sorry to say the thing I got most excited over was the acorn caps.. (They were the size and semblance of tarantulas. Honest!) Fortunately J redeemed us all by being very impressed by the craftsmanship of the stonework and reading as much of each sign as he could before A ran off and tried to fall off a precipice.

However we haven’t really wanted to go anywhere as the area we are in, near the Kazdagi mountains, is quite spectacular. The little town of Yesilyurt is nestled in a stony pine forest gully, surrounded by olive groves, and is fascinating, like stepping back in time.

imageimage

image
The boys have a theory that a giant lived here once upon a time and left this footprint in the road.

image

The last few days have been focussed on trying to make a memorable Christmas for the kids. We went on a tree hunting mission and managed to cull a respectable branch from a tree overhanging the road that would have needed pruning sooner or later anyway. This has been thoroughly decorated with cardboard decorations and tinfoil chocolate wrappings (I’ve had to work diligently on the stash to provide these) and we’ve dipped into a little comparative religion, which is always interesting. A insists on calling it the Father Christmas tree, and Father Christmas Eve and so on. He didn’t quite know what was coming ‘Father Christmas Day’ morning, but he cottoned on fast! At one point, T handed him a present, and after tearing off the wrapping, we reminded him to say thank you. ‘Teshekkur edrim’ he slurred, in imitation Turkish.

 

imageimageimageimageimage

We have just a few more days here, then we hare across Greece on the tail end of our Schengen time, and hang out in Albania for a couple of weeks before making our way to Spain, via a variety of ferry and land hops.

General observations:

Driving here is fun. There is a high degree of tolerance and it seems like you can do just about anything as long as you look both ways first. And maybe sideways and behind too.. Speed signs appear to be more suggestions than limits, and stop lights are for those who aren’t in a hurry. Double parking is normal, and even driving the wrong way down the main street is ok, as long as you watch out for pedestrians. People just move over a little to make room.

Turkish food is amazing, even from what little we’ve tried. The glacé olives in particular struck the boys as a truly inspired invention. And we’re all very taken with etsiz cig kofte, something we’ll have to try making at home. The boys have been really getting into trying new foods. They vie to choose new cheeses, and inspect each new supermarket with relish. They help us whip up huge batches of humus and tzatziki, and sneak cucumbers away from the the kitchen to make caches in various places like squirrels. (Each time at the supermarket we buy a larger bag than the time before – a full standard sized grocery bag now – and by the third day, they’re all gone. If not the second.)

English is not common in these parts. We are all trying to learn some Turkish, but mostly doing a pretty abysmal job of it. In 7 months, we’ve picked up a smattering of French, Dutch, German, Greek and Srpski, and at this stage our heads seem to be full. J and I can manage hello and thank you, and A manages to get by anywhere by smiling endearingly while mangling a word or two. The boys have learnt what they think to be the most essential basics though, and run down to the local shop every morning to buy a loaf of bread. If the owner isn’t there, they pick the warmest loaf and leave the money on the shelf. This seems to be the way it’s done..? As far as we can tell, anyway..

Turkey seems to be remarkably self-sufficient. We’ve had to do a bit of shopping lately, for winter gear and various other things, and it’s surprisingly unusual to find something that isn’t made here. Impressive.

We saw a non-Turkish car yesterday. This was notable because it was the first time we’ve seen one since we drove away from the border crossing nearly six weeks ago.

Mastic. We had a fun surprise the other night when I opened a spur-of-the-moment package of instant rice pudding from the supermarket, and found it to be flavoured with mastic. The boys were right into this, being budding cavemen, and having loved the little ‘tears’ of mastic we had bought in Greece as chewing gum, and then gone out to raid the local pine trees for sap (yes, it’s safe, I checked..) then began eating pine needles like the Moomins preparing for hibernation (not such an odd idea, it turns out, if you start reading about the many uses of pine in cold climates.)

So, we will be sorry to say goodbye to Mt Ida, even to the dyspeptic rooster outside our bedroom window. (Ok, dyspepsia is just a guess, but he’s the most mournful rooster I’ve ever heard, sounding like a cross between a slowly opened door and the last dying wheeze of a bagpipe when some drunken reveller trips over it at 2 in the morning. If he wasn’t quite so pathetic he’d be pretty annoying – crowing as he does, anytime between midnight and 4 am – but instead he makes us laugh. Mostly. My pet theory is that he does it to keep warm as it’s pretty jolly nippy out there of an evening..)

Halfway update

It’s been nearly 6 months since we packed our house into storage and left home. Since then we’ve been through 17 countries, stayed in over 30 different places (not counting the camping spots) and taken about 9000 photos.

It’s been amazing, exhausting, relentless, educational and memorable. It’s often been hard work, but it’s always really, really interesting. And when you look back on an experience in later years, the difficulties tend to pale in comparison with the interesting bits.

Learning to pace things is an ongoing process. We are constantly torn between wanting to make the most of our time over here and wanting to take it easy enough to avoid being too tired to enjoy it. This is harder than it sounds. To have come so far and not make the effort to see as much as we can seems a crazy waste. But sometimes ‘as much as we can’ is really not very much.

I’ve started this post many times now. Between the demands of parenting, travelling, homeschooling and working there isn’t much left at the end of the day for reflection and the distilling of experiences into neat little packages with pretty pictures. I have lots of notes though and will still write them up sometime.

In the meantime, a few photos will have to suffice.

These are all from the last month I think, and completely out of order.  I was going to explain them all, but maybe I’ll leave that for now and try out this ‘sleep’ thing everyone’s always raving about.

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage image image image image image image

Oh, and several people will be glad to know that A has finally had a hair cut.

It seems to be a mullet.

Poppy, you can thank a lump of blue tack.

Day 110: Off the camera

image

J has taken pity on me and pulled out some photos off the camera. These are the first installment, mostly from the first week. More soon (ish). We’ve just arrived in Croatia today and are sleeping in a car park in Poreč tonight, so I’ll keep this short.

image
Beautiful architecture around the tiny harbor in the old town in Desenzano del Garda, Lake Garda.
image
Oberalp Pass. Most of the passes have lakes like this somewhere near the top, always in improbable shades of jade or mint or sometimes icy blue. This one is the source of the Rhine.
image
A was determined to eat all the snow on the mountaintop and set to work methodically scooping up handfuls and crunching away.
image
Castles, like goats, seem to like heights. This valley had a castle or tower perched atop every craggy peak. This particular valley was an unexpected treat while hunting for a quiet spot to go to the toilet. (I don’t think we’ve seen a single public toilet here in Switzerland, Italy, Austria or Slovenia. Signs for them occasionally, but never the real thing. The difficulty this presents is easily imagined, especially when there are fountains gushing away on every second street corner. After all, what child can resist running water?)
image
Down an alley in Innsbruck, Austria.
image
In a latteria, Bormio, Italy.
image
Bormio by night

A variety of arches in Bormio.image image image image image image

I’ll try to get the next lot up soon.

Day 99: Zigzagging through the Alps, or The Highs and Lows of Camping.

image

We were all so blown away by our first drive across into the Alps that we decided to do it again, and again, and again, zigzagging our way in a very indirect way towards Croatia, slowly. So we’ve been exploring the mountains of Switzaly.

Photos, as usual, to be added later. They’ll be speccy, if they’re in focus, that is.. And if you don’t mind peering through the blurry bit from the smear of bird poo I keep meaning to clean off the windscreen.

So how is the campervan going? Everywhere!

Night 1: We we nervous and excited. Would we really fit? Would we find somewhere to camp? Would anyone get any sleep? After such an exhilarating day driving up into the Swiss Alps, did we care? The answers were Just, sort of, sort of and not as much as we expected.

After not too much trekking around we found a spot near a large dam on the way up towards Grand St Bernard’s Pass. There were raspberries and red currants, fun rocks to climb, and all the excitement of setting up, the kids hustled us all off to bed half way through dinner, and 11 hours of light-but-valid sleep ensued.

Night 2:  On the road to goodnessknowswhere, one of those tiny towns with 5 houses and a dog. This place looked like somewhere a film version of Heidi could be made. There was a tall alpine forest with mossy rocks, meadows full of long grass and buttercups, a stream just far enough away to be pleasant background noise but not an immediate temptation to a 2 year old. It was beautiful. Admittedly lots of people walked past carrying big sticks (looking for mushrooms?) but we did meet a sweet family with a little boy who hurled himself into the camper with unstoppable curiosity and went through it like a dose of salts, exploring every cupboard and niche, and making us all laugh.

The sound of cowbells rang through the night.

Night 3: Under the Grenselpass. This spot was unspeakably amazing, even having spent the day driving across the Furka Pass and Julierpass. There were scented woods, a rocky river bed for the boys. We met a lovely group of Swiss climbers who had been wild camping for 30 years and were extremely helpful.

Night 4: A field outside ? above Turino on the Swiss/Italian border with a primordial mossy forest, dripping with intermittent light rain, a storm looming, and hunting season opening in the morning, according to the guy in camo with the binoculars and the very muscular dog who came to stand nearby and peer up at the hills for 20 mins, looking for deer.

No internet except when a strong blast of wind blows the odd slow wave in, and a good chance to test how the camper goes in the rain. (The answer is ok, but definitely preferable to avoid it if we can help it.)

Night 5: After a few days, sheer desperation and a heavy rain front sent us to an official campground so we could all shower and do washing. This was an experience.

We were wedged between a group of 8 young German poker players on one side and a heavy sleeper on the other. Then there was the disco that started up nearby at 8pm, and curiously morphed into a quiz night round 10 (it was all in Italian, so who knows really) That finally wound up round 11, so the poker players turned their music up so they’d have something to talk over. On the rare moments when the card players were quiet, the bear man beside us would snore loudly. He’d thoughtfully had a good long (loud) nap that afternoon so that he could go the distance Somewhere round 4 am the Germans finally staggered off to bed, but not before waking young Asher, so by the time he was asleep again, but J and I were wide awake again. Ah well, we had 2 showers each, and the privilege of paying 12 euros for a single load of washing.

Our next purchase will be a portable solar shower.

Night 6: This involved driving around for 2 hours in the mountains above Trento, almost losing a mirror to a tight pinch between two buildings, and getting bogged in front of a castle. Eventually we found what seemed to be the perfect spot. Beautiful view, flat parking spot, sink with running water, internet, and right beside a fantastic playground to boot! We even met a lovely local who was both welcoming and helpful. It was perfect. Until we turned off the lights and were drifting off to sleep. That was when the dirt bikes arrived. And the van thumping techno and the other car with everybody’s mates in it. We’d stumbled across the local youth hangout spot. Joy.

Well, you can’t have everything, and having a playground on hand sure made set up, meals and everything else easier.

Tonight we head towards Stelvio pass because their webcam shows that it’s been snowing. A new adventure!

image

Cultural observations:

Toilets in Italy.
Uomani and Donne. Figuring that uomani sounded a little but like woman, I went for that one, and J took donne. ‘Aren’t men are called Don in Spanish? Think of Don Quixote’, I said.

Retrospectively I ought to have wondered why the seat was up. That’s what I get for trying to be clever.

National Standard Decoration Colours.

Just my observation here, but I’m really curious about this.
The national standard decorating colour in Switzerland is clearly red. Red window shutters and boxes of red and pink geraniums abound. Consequently they like to grow lAnn everywhere to make the red stand out.
Italy seems to be more biased towards terracotta or salmon pink with green accents.
France used shades of blue everywhere.
Wales and Belguim both like to use turquoise
The Netherlands prefers orange.

Why? How do these things come about?

Church towers in Switzerland are awesome. In surprising contrast to the needle sharp spires of everywhere else so far, here they go a little wild and have alost sorts of interesting shapes, often in lovely verdigris shades that contrast beautifully with the clouds and the dark brown of the rooftops.

Day 94: Travelling Home

image

Today we finally began the second phase to the trip, the ‘real’ bit! We left town this morning and said goodbye to France and other people’s houses for a while.

Driving towards the Swiss Alps was an amazing experience. At first we glimpsed them in the distance and doubted. White streaks of snow, impossibly high like clouds, yet more crisp and defined had us on the edges of our seats craning at windows. As we travelled further south these coalesced into distant blue forms like paper cut outs. As we reached Lac Leman and turned left, these opened out like a pop up book into massive behemoths, ancient and shaggy, wearing last year’s snow in their beards. We wove a path between them and sometimes under them, threading our way up into the St Bernard’s Pass, and eventually setting up camp.

We found wild raspberries and red currants growing, much to everyone’s delight.

Maybe this is another turning point. It’s been pretty full on so far. Amazing, full of discovery, with many moments of happiness and confirmation that yes, this is a good thing to be doing, but at the same time it’s been incredibly challenging, relentless and frequently (too frequently) exhausting. Many times I’ve wondered if it’s worth it. In 3 months, we’ve come a long way, both literally and in terms of acclimatising to this very foreign lifestyle. Loading ourselves into the van was our 18th move. This is our 9th country. The most stable thing in this journey for all of us is our family unit. Now we have a home to carry it in.

Tonight after dinner, the boys raced up and down a short stretch of road pretending to be dirt bikes, A trotting along behind them, all letting out joyous whoops, with the last rays of the sun on the mountains turning the snow caps a warm gold in the distance. There is a stream babbling away nearby which grows louder as the traffic noise gradually dwindles for the night. I will post this in the morning because the reception, like the sun, is on the other side of the alps. Even the Internet has yet to reach its long arm into this particular valley.

image
One bed across the front seats. Impressively, the cot just fits in between the back of these seats and the bottom bed. The boys were trying to hustle everyone off to bed before dinner was even over – a first!
image
We camped just off a dirt road, beside a large tooth of rock that snaggled up, supporting a couple of little fir trees and an interesting assortment of stunted succulents.

Postscript. Day 94.

Surprisingly, a sufficient amount of sleep was had by all, slightly hogged by the younger generation. (Don’t worry, I don’t imagine this will be the case every night!). Breakfast, pack up and a quick look at the map told us we were only 4 km from the Italian border. How could we resist such a temptation? None of us have been to Italy before. We are now on the Grand St Bernard Pass and and it is absolutely mind blowing! I am at risk of melting the camera. (Which, as usual, means you’ll have to wait for those pics..)

In moments like like this, the answer is a resounding YES, it is worth it!

image
Mostly packed up, having breakfast.
image
Visiting places you’re read of in books is such a curious feeling. Like meeting online friends in person for the first time. New, yet already familiar and warm because you share a past experience. Even if it’s fictional. (Dad, do you remember Thonon-les-Bains from Nine Coaches Waiting? It’s on the opposite bank of the lake. I remember Mum introducing me to Mary Stweart when I was a teen, and that was the first one I read.)

Day 92: Bouncing around Europe

We have a van! It seems to have been named the Trurtle, because it’s a transforming turtle due to its dual nature of day and night mode. For something no bigger than you’re average people mover/4 child family type van, it’s surprisingly well equipped and comfortable. Of course we’ve yet to try and have a night’s sleep in it, so perhaps I should wait before raving too much. On a happier note, the people we bought it from are absolutely amazing. Ted went far far beyond average to be helpful to us. If you’re every looking to buy a camper in the Netherlands (No?) I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them. We can even sell it back to them in 10 months for 4K less than we bought it, or we can sell it independently, and this option significantly simplifies the other end of our trip.

image
Much fancier than we originally planned. Here it is with the top bunk popped open, testing out night mode in the day time. We figured that was sensible.

However.

While we were waiting for the van, we’ve been filling in the time pretty comfortably. It’s been such a relief to get out of cities and out into the backwaters after so long.

We had a few days in Belgium in a beautiful gite run by a lovely Dutch couple with a young family, who made our stay a real pleasure. The boys loved the chance to make friends and there was a trampoline and bikes (it’s so easy to underestimate how big a difference such simple things would make) and directly behind the house was a thorough assortment of farm animals including a sheep who struck up an instant friendship with A, and the most tolerant kitten I’ve ever met who kept everyone entertained. It was the closest we’d come to being relaxed the whole trip to date.

A made a friend in Hotton, a Great Dane who was taller than he was.
A was very excited to make a friend in Fronville, a Great Dane who was taller than he was. Here he is telling J all about it.
This slice of rock in Durbuy beautifully reveals what lies beneath the Ardennes.
This slice of rock in Durbuy beautifully reveals what lies beneath the Ardennes.

Next we ventured into North Eastern France (via Luxembourg, because again, it’s hard to resist visiting another country when it’s only an hour or so out of out route. There we explored Castle Vianden, a really interesting mix of architecture spanning from the 12C to the 15th, and built into the craggy peak in an intriguingly organic way. I’ll put those pics at the bottom of the post as there are lots of them, but I couldn’t help myself. I am weak when it comes to castles.

Want to feel like an awkward twit? Stand on a bridge in a scenic spot and wave a fancy shawl around while tourists gawk openly at you. It will be a brief photo session, I promise. I'm posting this because I've been copping flack for not sharing the camera around more.
Want to feel like an awkward twit? Stand on a bridge in a scenic spot and wave a fancy shawl around while tourists gawk openly at you. It will be a brief photo session, I promise. The hills were alive indeed.  I’m posting this because I’ve been copping flack for not sharing the camera around more.

We’ve spent the past few days in Fontaines St Clair, a tiny, dwindling village of 47 people and almost as many natural springs. While it may be just a ghost of what it once was, all the window shutters, door, railings any other trimmings that stand still (grain silos included) painted a muted riot of colours from sky, celandine, duck egg and cornflower happily fight it out with the ever-present siege of geraniums pots. The first evening we went for a promenade (apparently it’s not a walk when you do this activity in France, it’s officially a promenade) and came across an icy spring gushing from the ground. Around the corner we found another, and another till we lost count. I still haven’t found out who St Clair was, but he must have done something pretty remarkable.

Budding stone workers in Fontaines St Clair
Budding stone workers in Fontaines St Clair

The owners (another Dutch couple) run workshops in the summer months, and Ferdinand soon got the boys busy with some soap stone to shape which kept them occupied for the better part of the time we were there. The town is a sleepy cul de sac where tractors outnumber cars by about 2:1. Here we have been genuinely able to relax more than since we first started packing our home into boxes.

The local laundromat courtesy or yet another spring, and communal telephone booth. Not convinced that placing a public phone beside a noisy gushing double headed fountain was the most sensible idea, but I'm sure there was method in it somewhere.
The local laundromat courtesy or yet another spring, and communal telephone booth. Not convinced that placing a public phone beside a noisy gushing double headed fountain was the most sensible idea, but I’m sure there was method in it somewhere.
Straight from the Source. Well, one of them.
Straight from the Source. Well, one of them.

On the drive to Mulhouse to meet up with Nanna and Poppy we went through Verdun, and in fact we have been intentionally travelling along the western front for quite a bit of our course. J has been reading up on WW1 and it is impossible not to be affected by the numbers. We drove past a cemetery and the forest of tiny white crosses there sparked a long discussion with the boys about the War to end all wars. We drew analogies to a large family of siblings in a sandpit disputing turf and calling in friends and the boys wanted to know why somebody didn’t come in and stop it all. It was fascinating to trace out the arcs of one war and see how it led to the second.

I’ll catch up on Mulhouse when I’ve had a bit more sleep and done the thing with the camera again. On second thought, if I wait that long it won’t happen for at least 2 weeks.

General musings:

Always summer and never Christmas. Occasionally it strikes me how curious it is to be always summer and yet not to have the locus of Christmas as a marker.
No bushfires! On hot days my nose automatically listens for the smell of smoke, or I see people burning off, or see a blue column of smoke and immediately turn into something resembling a dog on point, but here fires aren’t an issue.
Milk seems to be a second class citizen compared to its cultured cousin holy cheese. Most of the time it’s UHT, and I’ve only seen sizes larger than a litre 2 or 3 times.
Belgian drivers are mad. Absolutely mad. some of them, anyway.

Now for lots of photos of Castle Vianden.


image image image image image image image image image image

Day 80: Now we are six

image
Under Dom tower.

Running a week behind here, but operating on the principle that something is better than nothing, and that I really will get the photos off the camera some day, here’s a glimpse of the last few weeks.

Much of the first week was spent catching up with family, and chasing the elusive campervan dream – which quickly devolved into a debacle as one thing after another fell through. And the second week was decidedly slowed by a common cold. However, hanging out with Jonathan was wonderful, and seeing the boys spending time with their cousin was a real joy.

In between van missions, we managed to squeeze in some fun stuff: a trip to the Louwman Museum, an amazing zoo, the science Museon to meet the dinosaurs, sailing round the canals north of Leiden, some great playgrounds in the woods, plus a 6th birthday party and visit to Madurodam.

image
Looking out over The Hague.
image
Boating round the canals.
image
Little Roo trying his very hardest to fall in. (We tied a rope to his lifebelt before we even left the harbour.) Note the Onceler-esque hand holding on, just in case.
image
T and I had 2 very happy afternoons playing Monopoly (the game that never ends) while the others were off van hunting. Turns out it’s an excellent way to sneak in some maths homework as well as strategic thinking and finance management. We take a photo of the layout when we stop so we can pick up where we left off next time.

We didn’t explore much of the rest of the Museon because the dinosaur exhibit kept us enthralled for several hours. I’ll have to come back with the rest of the pics later, I’m afraid.

This 'little' guy was particularly cute.
This ‘little’ guy was particularly cute.

Madurodam, where models of Holland’s most notable structures have been recreated in miniature, right down to the stained glass windows and gargoyles. This was where we went for F’s 6th birthday, and he was very impressed that we could all be ‘giants for a day’ as he put it.

Giants for a day.
Giants for a day.

The Louwman museum, famous for cars, yes, but the cafe was really cool, stepping you back in time to a perpetual twilight somewhere in the early last century. I’m not a car person but the museum was surprisingly interesting, tracing the history of cars right back as far as the thingy boxes lugged around by people, and with an impressive collection of fancy cars.

image
The Louwman Museum cafe. The boys were very excited to see their name up in lights.

And after this followed a peaceful week in Utrecht, a very colourful and lively university town where every evening summer parties spilled out onto the streets as far as the labyrinth of canals would let them. In our case we were there because it was a good base to sort out the campervan situation. Here we stayed in a funky family home and the boys spent many happy hours playing with Lego and on the swings while J caught up on some research and I managed to get some work done at last.

image
Move over Venice. Utrecht might not have singing gondaliers, but it’s a whole lot more affordable and less crowded.
image
Perfecting campervan design up in the studio.
image
400 metres and counting, mostly thanks to the amazing Krupps machine.

We also trekked out to an enormous camping shop (as in 60,000 sq metres – our entire house would fit inside 600 times!) to stock up on gear. And Ikea. Shopping for domestic stuff like quilts and cutlery made a strange contrast point after 3 months of restlessness and moving. Today we made our 15th move in less than 3 months.

Happily, it looks as though we have got a van at this stage. I suspect we won’t quite breathe easily until all the paperwork is through, but it all looks promising. Phew!

image
A sneak peak at our travelling tortoise shell. Believe it or not, yes we will all fit. We measured it and there were at least 3 mm to spare.

Today we arrived in Belgium after a brief side trip into Aachen in Germany because the kids were getting ratty, and well, it’s not like you can take a 10 minute detour and be in another country at home.. Aachen had a surprisingly different feel to the Netherlands too, and the old town was a study in interesting architecture. This cathedral is the oldest in Northern Europe, build in the late 700’s. The boys’ eyes glittered as they gazed up as the intricate golden ceiling. They both seem to have the dragon gene and get very excited about gold.

Now we are on the outskirts of a small town with chickens, cows, and a very friendly sheep for neighbours. There’s a trampoline too. 🙂

From our back door.
From our back door.