Ou est le ‘grater’ du fromage?

NB. This was originally written in September, but I completely forgot to post it!!

The most interesting thing about houseswapping is getting an opportunity to see how people live from day to day. Every house we’ve gone to has had its own little quirks and idiosyncracies. Like the flat in Copenhagen, where the bathroom was cupboard sized with only a handheld shower and a basin with a waste water pipe that wasn’t actually connected up! Or the flat in Barcelona with a fridge that emitted the strangest smell. Or the house we have just stayed in, whose owners did not appear to possess a cheese grater – bit of a nightmare the evening we planned to cook macaroni cheese.

7 Aug 15 - a rainy evening in Ecully (5)

We’re on our 7th home exchange, and feel like old hands now. We were introduced to the joys of it by a friend of a friend who said she would never consider swapping with anyone who didn’t have a pool. We certainly started out with considerably lower expectations about the exchange rate for our small semi-detached in Forest Hill, but the places we’ve been offered have never ceased to amaze us. An immense ancient farmhouse in the rolling hills of southern Belgium, with an outbuilding bigger than our home, set in its own valley, with horses for the children to ride, for instance.

House swapping is incredibly easy, though a touch scary the first time you do it. I have lost count of the friends who, on being told about the idea, have looked aghast at the thought of a family of strangers staying in their house. But then you too are strangers staying in their property, so there is an element of quid pro quo and mutual trust. It’s a simple concept. You join a home exchange website, and there are many of them (including some quite specialist ones – Jon’s brother told us of one exclusively for architects!) You pay an annual fee to join (around £30 a year; usually extended for another year if you don’t exchange in the first) and then create your own page with photos and details of your home and its amenities, plus info on the local area and a bit of background on you and your family. You can also specify where you’d like to go and when.

Then you either sit back and wait for offers to come in – we got over 20 in the first few months we were on the site. Or you can proactively search the site and send out your own emails. Once you find willing swappees, you exchange emails with the owner and agree dates – mostly these will be at the same time, although some people swap their holiday homes too, so there may be more flexibility. We got a free week in a holiday home just north of Sydney this way. Sometimes your dates might not meet exactly – I know friends who have had an evening with their prospective swappees before they left for the other house… the closest we got was bumping into the family we swapped with in Copenhagen at Kastrup Airport on our way home. Finally, you can also negotiate to swap other aspects of each other’s lives, such as cars. I suspect everyone draws the line at children and spouses though!

So this year we went to Lyon. The email offer came a year ago; extremely organised for the French we thought. We figured then that after six months travelling around the world, a couple of weeks in France would be a perfect (and cheap) antidote holiday. It did seem slightly strange to be planning it so far in advance, but then again if we hadn’t done so I’m not sure we could have brought ourselves to organise anything once we had returned from our big trip. As the date drew near, it did feel slightly surreal to be going away again so soon. In our defence, it was actually over 4 months since our return, and I’d been working flat out for 3 months. The excitement of our return had now worn off, we’d caught up with most of our friends and had all the travelling conversations we were likely to get away with having, I already felt knackered and very stressed again, and we were all starting to feel a bit flat.

29 July 15 - Lunch in Le Square Aramis, Lille (1)

What I love about going to France is that it is just ‘next door’ to England and therefore easy to get to, but scenically, culturally and culinarily, it feels a world away, French people appear more sophisticated and exotic to me, and I love attempting to speak another language – even if I do it badly. And because it’s so close, you can make getting there part of the journey. Not for us an anonymous flight, that in any case would have ended up with us either having to get up at 5am, or arriving in Lyon at 9pm. We also rejected driving, thankfully, as we’d probably have spent at least a week stuck on the M2! So the train… as it turned out the most expensive option, but by far my favourite. You can now get a train direct from London to Lyon, although not on a Wednesday apparently, which was the day that we happened to be going. Anyway, when we had been in Thailand and really missing our family, we had hatched a mad plan (in the words of my father in law) to travel via Lille with our parents and spend the night there with them. As it turned out, with dad’s hospital stay now in its sixth month, it was only Jon’s parents who came with us, but it was a fabulous start to the holiday. Incidentally, on the way back we went via Paris and had a fantastic lunch of snails and lobster and a cheeky glass of rose – before boarding our Eurostar to London.

Our Lyonnais family had 5 children – but they were very definite that they would be happy in our compact 3 bedroom semi. This meant that in exchange we were in a 6 bedroom detached tower, well that’s what it felt like, with its winding staircase and stone walls.

So spacious was it that friends of ours, another family of 4, came to stay for the second week and it still felt like there was room for more people… I nicknamed it the house that kept on giving. And surrounded by a pool, table tennis, a trampoline, baby-foot (table football), a Wii-U, the kids would have been happy never to leave the property.

However, there was much to explore. Lyon itself, split in 3 by the Rhone and the Saone rivers. With the glorious Parc de la Tete d’Or, including a free zoo; 3 Aug 15 - La Parc de la Tete d'Or, Lyon (10)

its old town with its winding streets leading up to the glorious Notre Dame on the top of the hill; and some great shopping opportunities.

We also spent a Sunday exploring the delights of the most brilliant outdoor ‘brocante’, Les Puces du Canal; 2 Aug 15 - La Puce du Canal (2)

a day languishing by a stunning lake set at the foot of the Alps,7 Aug 15 - at the Lac d'Aiguebelette (5)

and a morning in a hilltop medieval village, where Joe managed to forget his shoes (and had to wear fluffy slippers which we purchased from a tourist shop) and we had the most glorious lunch of frogs legs washed down with cider.

It was a great two weeks, and perhaps because our previous trip had been for 6 months, it passed unbelievably quickly. House-swapping is perhaps not for everybody, but we love it. The generosity of families who swap – this time we were left a bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne and the most amazing chocolates (that Jon continues to dream about); the experience of living the life of another family, and getting to go to places you may not have even considered, works for us.

Although we never did find the cheese grater!

Vive les échecs, Vive l’entente cordiale!

Sel in Cappelle 2

WP_20150522_014Most people associate the French town of Dunkirk with Operation Dynamo, the rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers from the northern French beaches during World War II. Indeed, apart from this amazing slice of history, there’s possibly not a whole lot to recommend Dunkirk as a holiday destination. After our plucky lads left in 1940, it was occupied by the Germans and then bombed to pieces; not much remains today of the beautiful original old town – the 50s & 60s style buildings that rose from its ashes are non-descript at best. But year after year I come back to Dunkirk – me, a raggle taggle collection of friends and family, and a large gold cup… so my association with Dunkirk is for an entirely different reason – chess / les échecs!

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Thirty years ago, a well-known London chess club, the Kings Head, was invited to play a weekend match against a team from Cappelle-La-Grande, a small town on the outskirts of Dunkirk. Twenty or so young men arrived on a Friday night at the end of May, played chess and drank beer for all they were worth for two solid days and then left again. So was born the annual tradition of the May Bank Holiday Kings Head Chess Club jaunt to France. Its longevity has owed much to the chess loving late Mayor of Cappelle-La-Grande, Roger Gouvart’s ongoing willingness to bankroll the whole experience. We’ve never quite understood how somewhere with a population of 8,329 has its own planetarium, a massive sports complex and every February attracts chess masters from all over the world to its International Chess Tournament, but it does, and that’s part of its idiosyncratic charm!

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I started coming on the Dunkirk trip in 1990. My parents, whose local just happened to be the Kings Head (at that time the social venue to the eponymous club), had been going on the trip for a few years. My boyfriend at the time had taken up chess and was playing for the club. So I tagged along, mainly for the beer (the chess came later).

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The sheer scale of the French’s hospitality was overwhelming; a champagne reception, long lunches involving endless bottles of red wine (Lirac – the French appeared to have unlimited boxes of the stuff squirreled away in a cellar somewhere!), and huge quantities of beer served during the games of chess.

WP_20150523_054I also discovered that chess players weren’t all middle aged, didn’t all wear cardigans or smoke pipes (OK, well some of them did), but were in fact really friendly and quite a laugh. I was hooked… and by the following year I was also playing chess, so was part of the team as opposed to a ‘hanger-on’ (the affectionate term for partners who came but didn’t play, long before the term WAG was invented). And I now organise the whole shebang!

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It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated what is so amazing and addictive about chess that you can happily sit immersed in a game for 4 hours. In my 20s I played what’s called blitz chess every night of the week (that’s games played out over a period of 10 minutes; 5 minutes for each player to make their move), and a ‘proper’ long game against another club one or two nights a week. I love the endless possibilities of the game, the fact that you can sit down at this black and white chequered board, with 32 pieces in front of you, and just not know what is going to happen.

Sel in CappelleYes, many players, especially the super-strong, learn openings, so that the first 5-10 moves may be entirely ‘out of the book’, which means following a set series of moves. But I’ve always got my enjoyment from sitting and making it up as I go along. Sometimes this worked to my advantage (I’ve seen grown-men crumble when I thrash them off the board, and then admit that I hadn’t really got a clue what I was doing); sometimes I lost embarrassingly quickly, caught out by some trap or trick that I’d completely missed. I can never take it very seriously for very long, which is probably why I’ll never be as strong as those chess players who really, really care (sometimes too much – best not go into too much detail about the ex-club member who became so enraged at losing a game, that he launched himself across the board and smashed his opponent over the head with a chess clock!).

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WP_20150524_027The Kings Head tends to win the match most years – that’s three long games, one on Saturday and two on Sunday (each lasting on average 2-3 hours). The French continue to ply us with alcohol, and, bizarrely, after all these years, they don’t seem to have quite copped onto the fact that for a chess club that has a long tradition of playing in a pub, the beer only makes us stronger. It’s perhaps not our proudest boast that many of our players sit down to the board hardly able to focus on the pieces in front of them, or to stay awake between moves, but still win. And yet, the French’s preferred ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is bottles of Lirac! A few years ago now, when I could actually play chess half decently (before children ruined my ability for cogent thought), I was drawn against the Cappelle captain, Michel Gouvart, the Mayor’s son, for the last game of the match on Sunday afternoon. He is what’s known as a solid club player (in other words, pretty handy with a pawn), and (like all chess players) hates to lose (especially to a woman, I suspect). As we finished our meal, a full bottle of wine appeared in front of me. ‘Pour vous’, said a smirking Michel. I enjoyed the wine, and promptly lost my game, but I am sure it did wonders for Anglo-French relations.

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Sadly, things are changing… Roger Gouvart died in 2013. There is a new mayor in town, who clearly wants the tradition to continue, although whether he has the same fondness for chess and beer remains to be seen. On our visit this year the Cappellois spent a lot of time shaking their heads and talking about ‘austerity times’. We are also all a bit (OK, quite a lot) older – we’ve played our way through three generations of Cappelle chess-playing dynasties since we’ve been coming! There’s no longer the race to see who can have their first beer of the day on Sunday morning, or the drinking sessions in someone’s room after the last bar has shut til the sun is coming up. This year our youngest player was in his late 30s, our oldest 75 (he only took up chess 18 months ago). We’ve also lost quite a few club stalwarts over the years – RIP Andrew Whiteley, John McVicar and Baz Dennis, amongst others. But we’ll keep coming for as long as the French will have us.

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The town of Dunkirk has also grown on me over the last 25 years, it may not be most people’s top choice for somewhere to return to year after year, but there is comfort in returning to the familiar. Following a bit of a dip in fortunes in the 1990s, when ferries to Dunkirk stopped taking foot passengers, and many hotels, restaurants and bars in the town closed down, it’s having something of a renaissance.

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It still holds the anniversary celebration of Operational Dynamo and the ‘Little Ships’ (the boats that sailed the Channel to rescue the men from the beaches) – a bit sobering to realise that I had been there for the 50th, and this year was the 75th. There’s also the busy Saturday local market, the harbour that stretches around the town, the sculpture park with its concrete sheep, and the stunning beach.

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And having been coming for years, we have our regular haunts, where we are remembered by the patron year after year, and each of which has been affectionately rechristened by us – the Flemish bar, the Glass House, the Pub and the Hat bar (the bizarre late night hang-out for the transsexuals of Dunkirk). Many an amazingly memorable evening has been spent in these weird and wonderful bars playing Perudo or cards (yes, even for chess players other games are available), dancing and being chatted up by French sailors.

Cappelle cake      on the ferry

It’s not everybody’s tasse de thé… a hardcore group of us go every year, but there are lots who come once, spend the weekend in state of utter bemusement and never return (Jon being one of them!). I guess you either get it or you don’t. A few years ago, desperately in need of some female solidarity, I brought my friend Sarah along. She drinks, she has a husband who plays chess… pourqoui pas? As we arrived at our rendezvous point for the start of the weekend, I immediately left her with a group of club members, while I went off to check everybody had arrived, and, as organising chess players is a little akin to herding cats, I didn’t come back for quite a long time. When I finally returned, I found her in the centre of a group of adoring males, chatting away happily, beer already in hand. She looked at me and smiled, “Yup”, she said, “I totally get this!”. She’s been back every year since. As the French would say “A l’annee prochaine”!

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*with thanks to Alex Bourke and Steve Coles for some great photos!

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Its been 5 weeks, 6 days and 10 hours…

Sels baggy trousers. …since we returned, and I have really missed writing this blog. As somebody who religiously keeps a diary, the desire to write about the minutiae of my life was clearly already there, but writing a blog gives it a bit more structure, and means you cannot be too over-indulgent. Jon and I have talked about whether we keep this blog going, probably not to record the ins and outs of our everyday lives (mainly far too tedious), but certainly as a record of future adventures – two trips to France are already on the horizon this summer.

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A weekend in Rutland (at Mike & Tamsin’s)

It has certainly been a real rollercoaster ride since we returned. By the end of our third week back we were all going a little bit mad, I wasn’t back at work and the children weren’t back at school, so I think we felt we were living in a bit of a void, an odd grey area between the amazing and random experience of travelling and the routine of normal life. But thankfully that passed and it’s actually been a pretty momentous return to reality…

Charlie has started a new school and absolutely loves it (a huge tick in the ‘right decision, thank goodness’ box), and has also started to teach himself to play the piano…

20 April 15 - piano practice (2)

Joe is also back at school, and is now deep within preparation for SATS, and rueing the fact that, for his schoolfriends, the novelty of him having gone travelling has worn off.

13 April 15 - boys back to school

Jon has discovered his inner domestic god, and has become a fully fledged house husband and is absolutely loving it. Have to admit so do I!

9 April 15 - gardening  22 April 15 - Sels desk (2)

I meanwhile have returned to work in an organisation which feels the same, but at the same time has changed beyond all recognition in 6 months, doing the same thing but in a different job with a different boss (make sense of that if you can); and with possibly a completely new job in the offing!

. 19 April 15 - lunch at Abi & Ds  12 April 15 - G&T for lunch

It has, as we thought it would be, been absolutely brilliant to catch up with our friends and family, each and every one of whom has greeted us with a bottle of bubbly of some description and the exclamation “Has it really been 6 months?”. It’s a relief to now be able to admit to people how much I didn’t really want to go travelling before we went and how terrified I was, but objectively how much I realised it was something I had to do and how glad I am that I’ve done it. My fear came from the fact that I quite liked my life as it was, and was scared that somehow leaving it for 6 months would mean that everything would change and our lives would not be the same again. Somewhat over-dramatic perhaps, and actually I now know that it’s quite possible to step out of your life for a period of time, and it will all be waiting for you when you come back. Well, sort of anyway. Yes, our house is still standing and our cat is alive, and we have slotted back into our old lives, but some things will never be the same. Dad is still in hospital, and thankfully recovering slowly, but I’ve now found out that he nearly didn’t make it, and that’s a sobering thought.

7 April 15 - trip to Tower of London (2)   6 April 15 - trip to Crystal Palace (3)

What has also been great about being back is being able to cook again, to go out and walk around London (we’ve been doing a lot of that), to get space from each other and to inhabit our own space (without continually needing to pack up all our stuff in a suitcase and go somewhere else). There is also the feeling that we actually did it, yes we’re £35,000 the poorer, but (if this is not too much of a cliché) so much richer in other ways. It may be too early to really understand how much the trip has changed us. Certainly Jon is happier than I have seen him in ages. We’ve definitely got an easier relationship with the kids – although their feral travelling ways continue to take a while to wear off, so it’s not been the easiest adjustment. I am definitely far more laid back about most things, and situations don’t get to me in the way that they did and I don’t feel the need to control every aspect of my life in the way I did before. I hope I can hang on to that one.

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Of course there is also the joy that we came back in one piece, without any major disasters happening to us. This feeling was brought into stark relief last week, when I read a news item about a Welsh BBC journalist, who had drowned in Laos when the boat she was on hit a rock and literally split in two. It was the very same slow boat journey that we had taken down the Mekong from Thailand to Laos only a couple of months previously. A very strange feeling, and probably not something we’ll share with the boys!

Our therapy, whenever we miss the wonderful experiences of being somewhere different, and that is still every day for me, is making a film of the pictures we took on the trip. It’s been brilliant to relive our experience, remember things about the trip we’d forgotten and live vicariously through the suntanned smiling happy family in the photos (was that really us, there, doing that!?). Films to follow soon on this blog page (you have been warned!).

When I was travelling, I had a recurring dream that I would wake up and find myself back in England, the trip over, with this feeling that it was too soon and I hadn’t done everything that I wanted to. That’s probably the best way to describe how I’ve felt almost every day since I’ve returned. Although the travelling part is starting to feel more like a dream now, as I learn to embrace the reality of now and look back on those 6 months and think “How brilliant were they, where next…?”

The best… and the rest

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So, just over a week back in Blighty now… and already it’s feeling like the trip was something that happened to some other family a long time ago… The UK has greeted us with grey skies and temperatures a solid 30 degrees lower than we’d grown used to. Oh, and presented us with colds too. Still, at least we were back in time for the solar eclipse (what solar eclipse?). We really did miss friends and family, though, and catching up with them, and a little bit of domestic normality has actually been wonderful.

This week has involved a lot of cleaning, sorting and organising, inevitably. It will take some time to rationalise the 6000+ photos we took (Don’t worry – no-one will be subject to more than 1000 in one sitting…), but we have already had a go at metaphorically boxing up our memories in the lists below.

Best towns and cities

* LA, USA     LA

* Christchurch, NZ     Christchurch

* Queenstown, NZ     Queenstown

* Oamaru, NZ     Omaru

* Sydney, Australia     Sydney

* Broken Hill, Australia      Broken Hill

* Adelaide, Australia     Adeleide

* Kuching, Malaysia     Kuching

* Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia  Georgetown

* Chiang Mai, Thailand     Chiang Mai

* Luang Prabang, Laos     Luang Prabang

* Hoi An, Vietnam      Hoi An

* Hanoi, Vietnam      Hanoi (2)

Best towns that are anagrams of each other

* Hanoi          * Hoi An

Best accommodation

* Campervanning New Zealand!  IMG_7909

* Hot Water Beach (rental house), Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

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* Brides Chalet (rental house), Margaret River, Australia

* Good Times Resort, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

* Lanta Residence, Ko Lanta, Thailand

* Chatrium, Bangkok, Thailand    10 Mar 15 (26)

* Suntisook Resort, Ko Yao Noi, Thailand

12 Jan 15 (4)

* Four Seasons (not the luxury chain!), Hue, Vietnam

(The last two were two of the cheapest places we stayed, but with undoubtedly the best, most personal service.)

Amazing (often unexpectedly) places

* Kuang Si Falls, Laos – extremely tough climb, rewarded by amazing views at the top

10 Feb 15 - Kuang Si Falls (35)

* The White Temple, Chiang Rai – insane Buddhist wedding cake fantasy

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* The Getty Centre, Los Angeles – just beautifully done, a building amazing to walk around even without the art

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* Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest, California – 4000-year-old trees

* Auckland Art Gallery – we were jet lagged, and had low expectations

* The Waterworks, New Zealand – bizarre collection of water-related games and exhibits, kept us amused for hours

* Oamaru & the Steam Punk Museum, New Zealand – not an obvious sightseeing destination, but we loved it (and it was also the place where we found Kattee mk2!)IMG_8100

* The Moeraki Boulders, and Castle Hill Rocks, New Zealand – beautifully bizarre freaks of nature

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* Busselton Jetty, Australia – the 2km pier that keeps on giving

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* Conspicuous Beach, Australia – those amazing sand dunes

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* The Treetop Walk, Australia – as good as Bill Bryson said it was

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* Flee 60, Penang – bonkers escape room fun

* 7 Levels waterfall, Langkawi – cooling off was never so necessary!

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* Mu Lanta National Park, Ko Lanta, Thailand – along with the roller coaster bike ride to get there

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* COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos – life affirming and impressive

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* An Bang Beach, Hoi An, Vietnam – serious contender for best beach of entire holiday

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* Night Market, Luang Prabang, Laos – best market of the trip (and believe me, we went to a few!)

. 21 Feb 15 - The Citadel (22) * The Citadel, Hue – a mini Forbidden City

* The Ho Chi Minh complex, Hanoi – slightly bonkers but fascinating

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* Lumpini Park, Bangkok – a mini version of NY’s Central Park

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Best wildlife

* Giant monitor lizard, Ayutthaya, Thailand (close on croc size!)

* Assorted other monitor lizards in Malaysia and Thailand

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* Orang-utans, Borneo, Malaysia                                  * Long-tailed macaques, Thailand

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* Tree vipers, Langkawi, Malaysia

* Dugite (snake), Cape Naturaliste, Aus (disappointingly the only deadly creature we saw in the wild in Oz!)

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* Wallaby, Broken Hill, Australia                                      * Emus, Outback NSW, Australia

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IMG_8141  * Yellow-eyed Penguins, nr Dunedin, NZ

 Best trees

* South-west Australia (The majesty of those giant Karris, Jarrahs and Tingles lives with us still…)

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Bravest food moments

* Jon & Sel eating brains congee (a sort of rice porridge) and Joe and Charlie eating chilli-packed giant snails in Hoi An, Vietnam

28 Feb 15 - Street Food Tour (5)   28 Feb 15 - Street Food Tour (23)

Where would we love to return to?

Not many places – we’re not really returners, but… we’re already dreaming of going back to…

* New Zealand – in 10 years time. Believe the hype.

* SE Asia, generally… We thought we’d had our fill of pho a week or so ago, but we’re already thinking wistfully about those wonderful landscapes, the warmth of the people, the balmy climate, the fabulous food… Next time: Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia…

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…and where would we not?

* Langkawi (Nice enough, but proof to us that we’re really not ‘resort people’; in fact, we would definitely have reduced the length of our ‘island hopping’ leg given our time again)

Comedy/nadir moments

WIN_20141021_230021* Almost missing our Milford Sound cruise because the campervan got stuck in mud; it took 3 hefty NZ-ers to help shift it, and we made it with minutes to spare

* Sel’s two -hour leg wax on a Thai Beach, cold wax heated by hairdryer (not very efficient really!)

* Being welcomed at our Hanoi Airport guesthouse by an owner almost incoherently drunk on whisky (‘You are English. You must get me Wayne Rooney shirt – not a copy, only original!’)

* Day 1 of our Laotian Mekong cruise – Sel was extremely annoyed at the lack of family provision in the seating arrangements; if looks could have killed, only half the passengers would have made it to the half way point of Pak Beng

* Charlie throwing chopsticks across a restaurant in Hue, Vietnam, in fit of pique (though perhaps only in retrospect!)

Phil Inn!! * Walking into our sub-hostel room at Phil Inn, Singapore; Sel immediately bursting into tears and making us leave to find the nearest bar

 

Magic/zenith moments

* Seeing our lovely friends Jim & Elaine and Lesley & James again (after almost 10 years in both cases!) in California, USA

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* Joe learning to boogie board at Stinson Beach (notorious for sharks!), California

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* Morro Bay, California – morning mist, the untamed Pacific, boys running into the waves

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IMG_7490   * Universal Studios, LA – not just for the kids!

* Being miraculously located by our Kiwi friend Kyra in a random campsite on the edge of Lake Dunstan in New Zealand

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* The entirety of the campervanning experience in NZ… just do it!!

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* Zip-lining in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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* Powerboating in Queenstown, NZ

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* Many wonderful, life-affirming walks – Mount Aspiring, Glenorchy and the volcanic Waimangu Valley in NZ, Sentinel Point in Yosemite, USA, and the short trek in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand (because it far exceeded expectations!)

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* Charlie’s infatuation with acoustic guitar duo Brittany and Georgia, and sublime pizza, in the Church Bar in Bathurst, Australia

* Day 2 of the Mekong cruise, we bagged a table and all was right with the world

8 Feb 15 - Slow boat to Luang Prabang (10)

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* The awesomely desolate Dubbo to Broken Hill drive through the NSW Outback – the joys of the wide open road

* Unexpectedly finding the most amazing Thai food in a tiny café in Sangkhlaburi, and watching the owner cycling off to pick up beer and groceries for our meal (we were the only customers)

* Driving the astonishing coast road from Hue to Hoi An – rightly dubbed “a deserted ribbon of perfection” by Jeremy Clarkson

* Stargazing in the Outback with Linda from Broken Hill

* Sunday morning spent with Mina learning to cook the Thai way, in Ko Yao Noi11 Jan 15 - Mina's (31)

* Scuba diving in Thailand (Jon & Joe)

* Releasing Chinese lanterns into the night sky over the River Kwai with the boys and another Charlie, the lovely owner of Good Times Resort in Kanchanaburi

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* Swimming in the Andaman Sea off Ko Sukorn on Christmas Day

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* The night train to Ayutthaya, watching Dr Who with the boys and seeing the sun come up

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* Supping Singapore Slings in Raffles Hotel, Singapore (a much needed antidote to the Phil Inn catastrophe – see above)

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* Dancing around our suite (free upgrade!) in the divine Chatrium hotel in Bangkok

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Most annoying moments/things we WON’T miss

8 Mar 15 (10)* How low the convenience of pedestrians is ranked in parts of SE Asia (Georgetown, Hanoi, etc)

* The ubiquity of litter, and the obliviousness of the locals to it in most of SE Asia

* For Joe: Being (repeatedly) asked if he and Charlie were twins

7 Mar 15 - the House of Uncle Ho etc (20)

* For Charlie: Being (repeatedly) photographed by SE Asian tourists/locals because he is “So cute!!!”

* For both boys: Being (repeatedly) hailed with “Hello baby!” (“I’m NOT a baby. I’m 10 years old!”)

* For Sel: trying to buy a bra and being laughed out of a department store in Chiang Mai when they couldn’t find one nearly big enough!

Biggest mistakes

* Assuming that island hopping up the Andaman coast of Thailand would be cheap and easy; it was complicated and expensive

* Not realising that Lunar New Year knocked out half the transport options between Laos and Vietnam, necessitating expensive flights

* Not clocking that we needed a visa for the US (you all know that story by now), nearly scuppering our trip before it had started

* Getting the public bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in Laos – took almost twice as long as advertised and Sel spent most of it being sick

* Sel’s baggy trousers (we said “You can’t touch those” – she didn’t agree!)

Sels baggy trousers

Currencies used

* Dollar (US), Dollar (NZ), Dollar (Aus), Dollar (Singapore), Ringgit (Malaysian), Baht (Thai), Kip (Lao), Dong (Vietnamese)

Most ridiculous currency conversion rate

£1 = 32,000 Dong

No of times, in Thailand, we said ‘What do you expect, it’s Thailand?’

We lost count…

Illnesses

(We got off very lightly)

Sel: 1 cold (subsequently passed on to Joe & Jon in USA)

Joe: 1 cold (USA); ear infection (resulting in interesting ear syringing experience in health clinic on Ko Lanta, Thailand); projectile vomiting one night in Hue (Vietnam), recovered by the morning.

Charlie: 1 slightly poorly tummy (Thailand)

Jon: 1 cold (USA); 1 inexplicable temporary blindness/dodgy stomach/weird heat rash (Malaysia) (quickly recovered!)

Things lost

* 1 Catty (replaced with Kattee mk2); 1 hairbrush; 2 T-shirts; 4 teeth (Joe); 1 tooth (Charlie); 16 kg (Sel)

Katty miawhou

 Things acquired

* Soft toys: 5 (doubling the already high initial toy quotient – Charlie can be very persuasive…)

* Sel’s clothes: also doubled (she packed light for a reason)

* 4 Chinese lanterns, 6 reclining Buddhas, one waving cat, one wooden spatula, one block of wood (source of an ongoing Sel/Jon debate: ‘Why exactly are we lugging this around?’), 5 fridge magnets plus assorted presents

Modes of transport taken

* Flights: 15

* Hire cars: 7 (including one campervan)

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* Boats: many (including 6 ferries, 1 slow boat down the Mekong, 1 power boat and countless longtails)

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* Buses and minivans: 12

11 Jan 15 (3)

* Songthaews and tuktuks: countless (including motorbike tuktuks – bonkers, dangerous but quintessentially SE Asian)

* Taxis: countless

14 Jan 15 - Elephant Trekking (20)   * Elephants: 1

* Bicycles: 2

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* Motorbikes: 5 (would have been more if Sel hadn’t fallen off her 5th bike while travelling at below walking speed and deciding she’d had enough)

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* Gondola: 1   IMG_8355

The best of times, and sometimes the worst of times too…

3 Jan 15 - Long Beach (12)   2 March 15 - Nu (8)

But we’d do it all again like a shot!

Here’s to planning the next trip…

Back to life…

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It’s been exactly 72 hours since we touched back down on British soil… and I can still hardly believe we are back. The British weather, the greyness of everything, the lack of lovely smiley women serving up delicious food on street corners, the sun (where’s that exactly?), I was expecting that. But what I wasn’t expecting to feel was this nagging sense that we shouldn’t be here, that in a day or so time we’ll be packing up and going somewhere else. No idea if this is normal, but being here certainly doesn’t feel like my reality at present.

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Our homecoming, the details of which we’d talked through with the boys as a distraction when we were feeling particularly homesick on our trip, was amazing.

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Stepping off a 14 hour flight, less than 10 hours sleep had between us, we were emotional and far too excited for exhaustion. Despite getting in an hour early, our parents (sadly minus my dad) were there, and whisked us back home to welcome home banners on the door, flowers, gifts (even though I thought we were supposed to be the ones bearing these!), a fully stocked fridge and a full English breakfast.

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Later when Jon’s brother and family arrived, plus our friend Philippa (who done an amazing job keeping a close eye on our house and checking our post during our absence), the champagne came out. I remember looking at the clock and feeling slightly puzzled that it was actually still 10.30am.

homecoming... But it’s nearly 5.30pm and beer o’clock in SE Asia a sad voice said in my head. Then, because we’d decided that our first day back shouldn’t be a day for reality and normality, as soon as everyone left, we headed over to another friend’s house for lunch (roast dinner and a cheese board – something we’d all been craving – thanks Sarah & Xav) and more fizzy stuff. We lasted until 6pm, then suddenly we all crashed, went home and went straight to bed.

Our old friend jet lag has certainly reared its head with a vengeance, probably contributing to my ongoing slightly spaced feeling of unreality… Still, the 5am starts have done wonders for our productivity, even if we continue to be ready for bed by 7pm, and there’s a lot of sort out! Mountains of washing and unpacking, which 3 days later we have still not finished. Another challenge is sorting out a house, which doesn’t feel quite like our home anymore.

IMG_3950We’d rented to a couple and their young daughter for 3 months, and 4 girls for the rest of the time, so it was hardly surprising to feel that nothing was quite where we had left it, and it was a real challenge to try to remember where on earth we put everything we had packed away – it took poor Jon 3 days to locate his slippers, which I am sure we had deliberately put somewhere they would be easy to find!

Then there’s the car to get back on the road, school places to reapply for (a whole other story of complicated red tape in itself), haircuts (and beard trimming!), dental and health check-ups to arrange for everybody, a boiler to get serviced… all extremely exciting, and exactly the kind of tasks we’d gone away for 6 months to escape.

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The boys of course are in their element, they are just delighted to be back – as we knew they would be. They can run amok and make noise without worrying about hotel neighbours – our first afternoon back at our friend Sarah’s, who has two boys the same age, Jon and I were wincing at the sheer amount of volume created by 4 excitable boys, and Sarah reminded us that this was in fact perfectly normal!!!

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Then there’s Sparky… we are all utterly delighted to see our 5th (or should I say 6th along with Kattee) member of our family again. Contrary to my fears he did not ignore us, or spend the first few days sulking and giving us the cold-shoulder. He’s clearly been well-looked after, and we’ve quickly been reminded of just what it is about him that melted even Jon’s hardened cat-loathing heart. Although, I had also forgotten about the sitting on my head at 5 in the morning thing that he does!

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And how are we easing ourselves back in to reality? Well, with daily 5am starts (although Joe slept in until 7am yesterday), we’ve got lots of time on our hands. We’ve done a walk around Forest Hill – one legacy from travelling and exploring is that we are all very used to long ambles around places and the boys being a bit more interested in their environment. We’ve been to see my dad, the toughest part of our homecoming as none of us recognised him and I wanted to run weeping from the ward, but had to hold it together because I could tell the boys were extremely shocked. We’ve shopped – Charlie was dying to walk around our local Sainsbury’s (!?), and cooked – something we all missed, and cleaned and tidied.

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So if you see me in the next few days, I’ll be the one grinning and yawning, and with a faintly perplexed expression on my face.

Thank you…

1 16 Sep 14 - LA

Day 1: 16 September 2014 – LA

…To each and every one of you who has read even just one of our blogs over the last six months; to all of you who have taken the time to comment; to everyone who has shown any interest in what we’ve been up to. Writing this blog has been hugely useful to us in terms of making us really THINK about what we’ve been doing and why and what it all means. Yes, in one sense (well, OK, in most senses) it has been one massive self-indulgence (both the blog and the trip), and we’re under no illusion that it may have been fairly annoying at times to read about the latest place we’ve been or experience we’ve had. Thank you for your patience.

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View from our balcony at the Chatrium, Bangkok

Today is our last day in Bangkok. This evening, at 6.30pm, we’ll be boarding a plane to take us to Singapore, and there changing to another to return us home to Heathrow for 6am UK time on Sunday. Our amazing parents (sadly minus Sel’s dad, still in hospital) will be there at Terminal 2 to meet us! Tears will most definitely be shed…

 We are all feeling immoderately excited now about being back with our family and friends. It’s been tough at times, particularly for the boys, to be away from the familiar for so long, but, right now, we’re all choking down the lumps in our throats at the prospect of our adventure being over. So long and complex in the planning, so thrilling and tough and surprising in the execution. This time together, just the four of us, has been a unique experience in all our lives and one that will always live with us.

59 - 14 March 15 - Bangkok

Day 180: 14 March 2015 – Bangkok

 We’re planning another couple of blogs to round everything off – something on what we’ve learned from the experience, and a summing up of all the most memorable bits, the highs, lows and comedy moments (although this blog may live on once we are back in the UK, in one form or another). Until then, once more… thank you for accompanying us on this odyssey.

 

One more pack until London

12 Feb 15 - Mekong by the bamboo bridge (1)

For the past few weeks, every time we move to a new place, I have calculated the number of times left that I have to re-pack our bags. That’s not to say I have been desperate to return home, or have been counting the number of days until we arrive at Heathrow; more that I am fed up to the back teeth of getting all our stuff together and cramming it into our rucksacks (over 50 times at last count)!!

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Getting yourself from one place, one country, one continent to another is difficult enough; doing it with a husband and 2 small boys, and all the associated ‘stuff’ in tow is another challenge entirely. The responsibility for our possessions and their transportation around the world has, for this entire trip, fallen solely at my feet. This was, I have to admit, my choice. I decided when we set off that if I wasn’t going to be a control freak about what we were doing and where we were going (and, believe me, it’s been good for my psyche to not be), then I needed somewhere to channel my slightly obsessive, some might say neurotic, tendency to want to control situations. Looking after our worldly goods for 6 months seemed a good place to focus my energy, because, let’s face it, Jon wasn’t that keen and left to the boys it just wouldn’t have happened. It did pay off – we have only lost a hairbrush and 2 T-shirts during the course of this trip. As long as you don’t count the passport (that was found) and Catty who ‘regenerated’ anyway! (See ‘Worse than losing a passport, or forgetting a visa’.)

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Of course, this was made easier by us packing reasonably light in the first place. This was on the basis of advice we received (not sure from where now) that, however long you are travelling for, pack like you are going on holiday for a couple of weeks. Boys are easy in this sense – my kids would happily wear the same clothes day in day out for months at a time, until they became more dirt than clothes, and Jon can cheerfully rotate the same two outfits. I took more items of clothing than the 3 boys combined, but it was still very little – and I am proud to say that I have worn the same pair of shoes for 6 months (Teva sandals – I cannot recommend you highly enough, but you will be going into the washing machine the minute we get back!).

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Our gigantic stash of malaria tablets took up almost more space than our clothes. But, in fact, I don’t think there is anything we took that I regretted (apart from a clothes line that we never used), or anything that we left behind that I wished we’d had with us (apart from a spare bra perhaps; that’s another story!!). To be honest, in packing so little myself, I was working on the premise that if I moaned enough about how bored I was with my clothes, I’d get to buy more, because, “Clothes are MUCH cheaper here!” (wherever ‘here’ might be). (This tactic worked.)

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But, if on this one, my boys were very supportive, in other ways I perhaps got the short straw in being the lone female of the party. Boys don’t do tidying up or organising, or at least my boys don’t; and when you are on the road for 6 months, staying in different places, what helps is creating order and calm in the places you stay. I certainly noticed that, as time went on, we ‘inhabited’ the places we stayed more and more, we spread our stuff around, tried to make each place ours, even if we were only there for a night or two. Making the grimmest of hotel rooms feel like home was my job, and, to be honest, it was helpful therapy for me, particularly at the times where I was most acutely homesick or just utterly fed up with the rest of my family.

28 Dec 14 - Lanta Old Town (20)Joe and Charlie would certainly say that the hardest part of this trip has been staying in different places all the time, having to get used to different rooms, different beds and everything else that goes with being somewhere new (and this was despite us deliberately planning it so we stayed for a good few days in most places). So creating routine and normality for them was pretty important, and something we tried hard to do.

25 Jan 15 - Ban Boonchu (1)  15 Feb 15 (6)  2 March 15 (3)

What Jon has found difficult has been the lack of privacy and personal space. We very quickly learned the importance of a room with a balcony or some outside space for him to go to when he got up earlier than the rest of us in the morning, as he invariably did, or when he just wanted to do a Marlene Dietrich on the rest of us!

Planet Borneo  (1)  IMG_0460  12 Jan 15 (11)IMG_0053. 21 Jan 15 - small room! (1)  11 Feb 15 (1)4 Dec - Planet Borneo Lodge (7)  25 Feb 15

IMG_8461For me, other than my obsessive worry about our possessions, the worry that something would happen to one of us, or something would go wrong at home was constantly at the back of my mind. For us, we got off lightly – nothing much worse than a handful of colds (in the US – I blame the long haul flight), an ear infection (for Joe in Ko Lanta), some short-lived vomiting (Joe again, in Hue) and Jon’s bizarre temporary blindness in Kuching. However, back at home my worst fear was realised when Dad was diagnosed with cancer in January, for which he had to have surgery in early February. One operation turned into three, followed by a month long stint in Intensive Care, where he remains – thank God for Skype, and Dad’s very sympathetic consultant, who reassured us that he would be OK eventually and on no account did I need to cut the trip short and come home; although I was sorely tempted at times.

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Now, here we are in Bangkok, one final pack away from coming home, and I can I hardly believe it. The massive space left by the malaria tablets (now all taken, thank goodness) has been filled by my new clothes. Plus an extra rucksack purchased for presents, and random stuff we have bought for ourselves – the duvet cover (from Laos), 4 lanterns (hopefully not a foolish purchase from Vietnam), and various prints and wall hangings.

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Here, in our last destination, it feels as if we have all let out a collective sigh of relief. It has been helped (hugely) by being in a 5-star hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river (thanks Booking.com for giving us a price, unbelievably, on a par with the hideous Phil Inn in Singapore – ‘Nearer but still very far away‘), and being upgraded to a suite (I take the credit on that one, aided and abetted by the hotel slightly messing up our booking).

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But Bangkok has exceeded our expectations, perhaps because we know this is it, our last stop on a very long and incredible journey. So we need to make the most of it, and we are. Cruising up and down the river, some light shopping at the myriad of malls and markets, wandering through shady parks, popping into a temple or two, checking out Jim Thompson’s House, and, of course, swimming, eating and drinking – the mainstays of this trip, the activities that have always been guaranteed to make us feel better.

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In two nights’ time I’ll be cramming our 6 months’ worth of possessions into our ever growing number of bags for the last time. Jon’s promised me a glass of champagne while I do it – well earned for sure, but I think it will also taste kind of bittersweet…