Mexico is not in Europe

“Cancun?”

“Yeah.”

“As in Cancun, Mexico?”

“Yeah, but hear me out…”

Our latest ludicrous plot-twist was – as always – sponsored by Francis. Having returned home to the UK for Christmas with my family, we were beginning to worry that our trip might be over after only 3 months. People were already saying things like ‘you could just call it a day here – you’ve had a few months’ or ‘probably wise to just wait until all this covid stuff is out of the way before you set off again’; which are really easy things to say, but more difficult and impractical even, to do. 

Before we set off, we gave up our house, sold all of our furniture and nearly everything we had accumulated during our 10 years of cohabitation. All that is left of the life we lived before this trip is a pile of clip-lock boxes full of memories, one white dresser and the kitchen equipment I couldn’t bear to part with. These are all currently taking up one half of my sister’s garage. Pausing our trip, stopping after our locked down month in Germany, would essentially mean that we shouldn’t have gone in the first place (not an uncommon view, granted). I suspected that dismantling our home had been much quicker and easier than rebuilding it would be. 

We were holed up in my parent’s very cosy house at the seaside, the reliable British weather making it impossible to be outside, and everytime we turned on the TV or looked at our phones, there was yet more bad news. Covid was spreading, a new variant had been found, Boris’s ‘oven-ready deal’ seemed to have vanished and sombre European leaders were lining up to talk about how difficult it would be for Britons to move around the continent once we were out. 

On the day that Mexico was floated as a possibility, I had actually spent the day on Rightmove. Teasing out the pros and cons in my head of attempting to find somewhere new to settle or giving our current tenants their three months notice. Francis had been very quiet all day. The notion that our trip was over before it had really begun was getting him down more than any of us – it had been his dream, after all. So when he passed me his phone, I assumed he too had been house hunting and had one to show me. 

Mexico is not in Europe

He did at least agree with me on that. I thought this was among his more ridiculous ideas and I told him so; listing myriad reasons emphatically. 

“We could go and hide in the sun though,” he said. 

“We could do that in Cyprus without having to travel to central America,” I countered. 

“But they have ziggurats and snorkeling in Mexico!”

“They have snorkelling in Cyprus.”

“Yes, but you won’t find turtles and stingrays and whale sharks.”

It turns out, as I’d assumed he was quiet because of his resignation to the reality of our situation, he had in fact just been researching Mexico – in particular, the Yucatan peninsula which is where most of the worry-free travel and tourism happens. 

“Everything’s still open in Yucatan – they’re welcoming travellers. All of the covid precautions are in place – it’ll be just like staying here… except it’ll be hot and sunny and there’s loads to see!”

He was already sold – he now just needed to convince me. 

As we’re currently in Mexico, I won’t bother asking you who you think won that argument. In very early January, we gathered only our essentials (we wouldn’t have the car for storage this time) and headed to the airport. For this leg of the trip the plan had always been for Hannah -Francis’s little sister – to join us. Being a lot like her brother, she barely batted an eyelid at the change in destination, showing up with passport in hand ready to go. 

I Bloody Hate Flying

Somewhere over Bermuda, whilst simultaneously wondering if the Bermuda Triangle was still a thing and listening to Barack Obama read me his autobiography through my headphones (FYI – always listen to Obama’s lovely voice if you’re a nervous flyer), it struck me that we had actually done it. We had been convinced, right up until the wheels lifted from the tarmac, that someone – even Boris himself – might intervene at Gatwick and tell us we couldn’t go. It’s a strange position to be in; hilariously, athough we are British, we have no permanent UK residence anymore. Having booked accommodation in Mexico, we were – technically – on our way home. 

Ten hours later, we landed in Cancun. After a long wait for our one suitcase and a shorter one for our transfer, we were finally within striking distance of rest. 

Playa del Carmen

The first couple of days here were spent in a very basic hotel in the centre of Playa del Carmen; a region popular with tourists and for good reason. It’s fairly quiet during the day, with local shop owners lazily coming out to say hello to try and entice you into buying something (we ALWAYS want to buy something – everything is amazing here). However, at night the streets of Playa del Carmen become insanely busy. Loud music, fairy lights, break-dancing kids, street-food and more cocktails than you can shake a stick at. Restaurants take your temperature at the door, you wear a mask and you sanitise your hands at every place you stop. They are definitely taking the pandemic seriously – but it’s still so strange after this year to see so many people in one place. 

After a couple of nights, we were able to move into our new apartment. We have spent the last 48 hours settling in; attempting to cook some of the Mexican dishes we sampled in town and playing in the complex pool across the street. The beautiful weather has – as predicted – lifted everyone. 

So what’s the plan?

Ha. We’re not planning ever again. We were fairly meticulous in our planning for Europe. As I type this, I should be in Rome; tired from a day of exploring the Vatican and eating fresh pasta. In fact, right from the start I had been adamant that Rome was the only month we could not compromise on. Having spent a long weekend there about 10 years ago, we were so keen to go back and get to know the city properly; to go down all the alleyways and investigate all the nooks we hadn’t had time for all those years ago. Sadly, Italy looked headed for another lockdown too; and travelling in Europe – though not impossible – looks hard for the forseeable future. Without good weather to look forward to, we would just have been signing up for another cold lockdown – but we’d also have been adding a language barrier and unfamiliarity to the mix for fun…

No. This year is now about not planning anything. When the time comes to make a decision, we will weigh up our options on the spot and go for whatever makes sense; acknowledging and respecting that the world neither knows nor cares what our plans are and therefore cannot be relied upon to accommodate.

Coming Home and Coming Home

That’s not a typo – I meant to write ‘Coming Home’ twice. I played around with the title for this post, but that was the only one that made sense (or will make sense to you after you’ve read the post – if my rambling doesn’t immediately prompt you to hit the ‘back’ button on your phones…)

The First ‘Coming Home’

A figurative home-coming; how it feels to be back in Germany – particularly Bavaria – after some 30 years away. These forests and mountains that frame so many of my childhood memories now seen again as an adult – the experience is joyful, powerful and disquieting all at once. It’s like I blinked and all of those interim years happened in the time it took me to open my eyes again. Moving back to the UK, finishing primary school, starting and finishing secondary school, college, university, career false-starts and mistakes; friends made, loved, lost, weddings, funerals, birthdays and Christmasses. So much life has happened since I last stood on these hillsides and wondered at these views; so much that it all seems dreamlike and unreal now. 

Having had two weeks here to contemplate it, I can’t quite decide if Germany provokes this nostalgia in me because I spent a good deal of my childhood here, or because of its enduring place in the folklore of fairytales – or a combination of the two. I had forgotten how deep and rich this country is in breathtaking natural beauty and magic. The Brothers Grimm gave us all of our most popular children’s stories; Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretal and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and so many more. Their inspiration was largely the German countryside; forests dark and silent where the pine trees are so densely packed together that no light makes it to the forest floor, mountain lakes and peaks that are at once beautiful and intimidating depending on whether the clouds have moved in to cast everything into shadow. It feels magic here. Houses are painted with intricate frescos and wood carvings are a way of life. At any given point on a walk in the middle of nowhere, you can expect to be surprised with the sudden sight of a children’s play park, blending flawlessly into its surroundings; so creatively designed that even Frank and I can’t help getting involved in whatever game the kids dream up. Frank has said more than once that despite never having been to this area, it feels familiar. Like the landscape for those fairytales became more like real memory than simple bedtime stories. 


I have so loved watching my children react to Bavaria. They are utterly enraptured by it all and don’t even complain when we tell them we’re hiking up yet another mountain just to see the view from the top. Consider southern Germany for your next family holiday – I promise you will not be disappointed. You may, however, never want to come home!

The Second ‘Coming Home’

It wasn’t the original plan, but we’re excited now to be heading back to the UK for Christmas in early December. The Love side of our family have had their roughest year to date (even by 2020’s standards) and we’re all feeling the draw to come home and seek comfort in our own little traditions as December 25th gets closer. It will be a month full of making decorations and gingerbread houses, watching Christmas films and playing games – a very welcome wind-down after months of adventure before the next bit starts in January. With a bit of luck our planned month in Rome will still be possible, but if coronavirus makes that unlikely then we will probably head off into the Balkans for some exploring instead. 


I imagine Christmas will be hard for everyone this year, with so many norms having been scrapped for the necessity of infection control. I can only tell you that in order to counterbalance the disappointment I intend to cover literally everything in fairy-lights, wrap myself from head to foot in tinsel and drink Egg-nog while watching The Muppets Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life on repeat. I suggest you all do the same ❤

Human Factors

Humans get in their own way a lot. I’ve been surprised recently by how easy it is to fall into complacency and expectation. How readily we forget how privileged we are and how much we have to be thankful for. In the lead-up to this year away; the months of planning and packing, hysterical late night chatter and nervous morning butterflies, we assumed that our excitement and gratitude for the adventure we were embarking on would always be there to fuel our enthusiasm; that the whole year would be a day-to-day study in technicoloured wonder (think Dorothy arriving in Oz – a full romp down the yellow-brick road complete with songs and the odd spontaneous dance number). So we were all a little surprised when we kind of stalled; when our appetite for exploration and adventure fizzled out for a while and was replaced by a weird, lazy complacency that had us all feeling grumpy and tired. Our slow mornings became slower. Often we weren’t getting out of the house until gone lunchtime, by which point everyone was teetering on the edge of a bad mood and not at all sure they wanted to go out anyway.

Here we were, 10 minutes away from Split, bathed in sunshine, literally tripping over history everywhere we went, and yet our mood was lacklustre at best. We still managed some wonderful experiences, but our momentum seemed to have disappeared. It’s got me thinking about human factors and how we will always find a way to turn the extraordinary into the norm. I remember asking Frank once if he wanted to go sky-diving for his birthday. When he said no, it was because he’d done a lot of it during adventure training in the military and well, as he put it, “anything becomes less exciting if you do it all the time.” Realistically, I know our rutt was triggered by some bad chicken that took a little while to recover from and some communication from the RAF that sent Frank into a bit of a twirl for a couple of days. Just normal life stuff that interrupted the dream and settled in like a heavy old blanket – putting us to sleep under its dusty, familiar weight. I’m pleased to report that we snapped out of it, and we’re back to marching up mountains and marvelling at everything we can find within a drivable distance from our little apartment.

I have to say though, it bothers me a lot. That we can so easily forget how extraordinary this experience is. That we have all of this time with our kids, all of this freedom and opportunity and we can still have days where we feel fed-up or hard-done-by. But then, even before all this it was there. I’m positive everyone else feels it too. That need to have more than you have. Desperately trying to keep up with your peers by getting the right house, the right stuff to fill it with, the right car, the right clothes. And what happens when you get them? Do the heavens burst open with song and rainbows while angels descend to bestow eternal happiness on your hard working shoulders? No. Of course not. The happiness lasts mere moments or days before it becomes your new normal, all the while the next ‘right thing’ is already lining itself up in your periphery. Everyone gets caught by it – I know we did. We bought our first house and lived with pretty grim second-(maybe fiftieth)-hand furniture for years; walking on carpet tiles that looked like they’d have been new when Alexander the Great was still in action. We were pretty happy with our shabby-but-comfortable existence for a really long time until we got caught in it. I’m sure there was a probably a payrise involved and talk of updating certain things – but before we knew it, we had over-stretched ourselves with a new car, a new bed, several arty pieces to decorate the walls with and the world’s most uncomfortable sofa from DFS (which, incidentally we’re still paying for despite no longer owning).

I guess then, that this is our new normal. And while I’d love to think we’re impervious to falling back into old habits and attitudes, we’re most definitely not.

So we’re practicing some proactive gratitude at the moment, to try to counterbalance the constant threat of complacency. It’s very difficult to look around here and think not enough. It’s near impossible to count the ways in which we’re lucky and not immediately feel like a giant arse for ever having a second where we feel anything less than full and complete gratitude.

Homeschooling with Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” ~ Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Anyone who knows us will be shocked to hear that I am not a natural home-schooler. Frank is the teacher here; I am the one who hides in the bathroom when it’s all kicking off because Izzy doesn’t understand why she needs to know the area of a triangle. While Frank patiently outstares Sam when he doesn’t care who the Ottomans were or why they’re important, I am the one happily delivering drinks and snacks, saying something encouraging before scuttling back to my hole to utter up silent thanks to the homeschooling gods that a very small portion of this particular burden lies on my shoulders. I’m perhaps painting an unfair picture. Frank loves teaching. He gets joy out of all the ‘a-ha!’ moments and spends hours finding ways to teach that keep the kids engaged and enthusiastic. I am extremely invested in the whole process. Just… from down the hall.

Having said all that, I occupy one small corner of our home-schooling world, and yesterday I experienced some of what Frank must feel everytime the kids really get something that he’s teaching them.

I am a very keen reader and always have been. I love books more than TV or cinema or even shopping. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go simultaneously, as well as whatever I’ve bought from Audible to listen to when I don’t have time to sit down. Happily, this is a passion I (we – Frank loves reading too) have managed to pass on to both Izzy and Sam.

I heard once, a long time ago, that while the books children read themselves should be appropriate for their reading age, the books we read to them should be much more challenging. Reading more complex texts aloud to kids increases their vocabulary and allows them to find the story – even when it’s embedded in unfamiliar or complicated language. They comprehend so much more than we think they do.

Now eleven and nine, Izzy and Sam still end each day with one of us reading to them. Frank and I each have separate chapter books for the occasion and we read on alternate nights. Up until the last year or so, we’ve had favourites from Roald Dahl, Michael Mopurgo or Enid Blyton. We even have an impressive collection of Templar children’s classics (exquisitely illustrated and beautifully produced if you ever want a collection of your very own). We have loved reading every one of them; The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden – etc. Even when the text is challenging (I’m looking at you, Secret Garden), the kids get wrapped up in the story, excited about plot development and invested in the characters. And still, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be ready for more.

For my own book consumption, I try to throw in a couple of classics for every three or four modern books I read. I have a list that I’m working my way through – something cheerful like ‘100 classics to read before you die‘ that I found on the internet somewhere. So back in August when I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sam sidled up to me to ask what I was reading, I was surprised by how excited he got about it. I tried to explain that though it was a creepy, gothic story (they’re both very keen on cheap scares at the moment), it was also quite difficult to digest having been written in the early 1800s, with unfamiliar syntax and long swathes of figurative prose. Undeterred by this, Sam leapt off the sofa to tell Izzy that our next bedtime chapter book would be ‘Frankenstein.’

I’ll be honest, I could never have predicted their reaction to this story. Right from the beginning, where Walton rescues an exhausted and dying Victor from an icy sea, they were fully in. I read, expecting to have them stop me every few sentences to explain something, but what I got instead were exclamations – dismay at Victor’s selfishness, shock at the injustices delivered to the characters around him – we even had tears from Izzy at the end of the monster’s story, so fully invested was she in the misery and sadness of his life. At the end of each chapter we’d stop and I’d ask a few questions to get an idea of their comprehension – each time they told me exactly what had happened. Each time, they had opinions and incredulity – Frankenstein became the best thing I’d ever read them.

We finished the book a couple of days ago and after giving them a little time to digest the whole story, I jotted down some discussion questions – having my first real go (save for some seaside art lessons) at playing teacher. During a walk on the beach, I began to throw my questions out: What do you think Mary Shelley was trying to say with the story? What part does the monster play in Victor’s life? Is Walton a trustworthy narrator? What themes run all the way through the book?

Joy. Complete joy. They talked for ages. They discussed compassion and empathy; how humans treat things that don’t look like them or are in some way unfamiliar. They were insensed by Victor’s irresponsibility; his play-acting god, his refusal to accept that his actions had consequences – his performative outbursts of love for his family while his actions consistently told a very different story. No other book I have ever read them has provoked a reaction like it. So it looks like the kids will be completing my classics list with me.

If you’re homeschooling your kids – or even if you aren’t – I really recommend having a go at some of the more difficult texts with them. Our obsession with infantilising children gets in the way of their developing brains. They pick up complex and subtle themes so quickly and have to work much less hard at it than I do at 36. Comprehending stories is instinctive to the young brain and I’m ecstatic that not only do they a real love for them, they are getting real preparation for secondary school or even college-level English.

Don’t underestimate your kids, folks – they’re a lot sharper than you think they are!

5 Things to do in Zadar with Kids

If you’re anything like me, your daydreams of city excursions will consist of artisan bakeries with delicious coffee, lazy strolls down narrow streets, cocktails and fine-dining. If you’re a lot like me, these dreams will likely have been dashed by the realisation that you have a couple of kids in tow -and even if they could entertain themselves long enough for you to down a Mojito, your experience of it would likely not live up to the hazy, sophisticated picture you’d painted in your head.

When we stayed in Vir, Zadar was our nearest city. It doesn’t get anywhere near the attention of Split or Dubrovnik, but I think it’s one of the most charming and beautiful cities I’ve ever set foot in. Zadar became our go-to option if we wanted an easy day out; history just lying about the place, museums and icecream parlours and show-stopping sunsets. Izzy and Sam loved daytrips to Zadar as much as we did so it has gone down in the books as one of the stand-out locations of our trip so far.

There are obviously far more than this, but here are our top 5 things to do in Zadar with kids…


1. St. Donatus Church and the Roman Forum

I feel like I’m cheating by putting this all in the same place… but it actually is all in the same place. Whether you’re meandering along the sea-front, or exploring Zadar through its maze of narrow lanes, you will eventually see the Church of St Donatus (with the bell tower of St Anastasia Cathedral nearby) and the remains of the Roman Forum spreading out in front of you. The church, which was built straddling the 8th and 9th centuries, is unique because of it’s simple, circular shape (as was very much the style in early medieval Dalmatia). It is striking now because it looks so unlike any of its surrounding structures. The church itself was built using the materials gained from deconstructing the Roman Forum – the remains of which lay across the square, sprawling right down towards the sea.

For the kids, these old stone blocks and walls were the most fun. They were so entertained by running around, jumping and climbing the ruins that we got into the habit of leaving them to it while we slunk off to one of the nearby bars for a drink. In fact, if your kids are as impressed with the forum as ours were, you’ll even get away with having a full grown-up dinner at the tiny little Italian restaurant, Bello, whose terrace tables overlook the square. We did feed them too – I promise – and they were much more impressed by the giant pizza slices from the bakery than they would have been with fine Italian cuisine…

For a few kuna, you can go into the Church and have a good nose around. It’s an incredibly simple structure, but with so much history it’s difficult to wrap your head around. Since it was last used as a church, the building has worn many different hats; a warehouse, an archeological museum, an exhibition centre and music hall. It is preserved beautifully, with only a few sparse information displays within showing photographs and drawings of the building throughout the ages.


2. The Sea Organ and ‘Greeting to the Sun’

I could write poems about the sea at Zadar (don’t worry – I won’t). In fact according to the menu of our favourite sea-view restaurant, Tromonto, Alfred Hitchcock once described this particular stretch of coastline as ‘the most beautiful place in the world.’ Some of my very favourite memories are now wrapped up in either listening to soulful music while the kids joyfully leapt off the sea-wall into the vibrant teal water below, or sitting in a line snarfling pastries as the sun disappeared behind the mountains; water sparkling, soundtrack provided by nearby buskers, joining the crowds of people who flock here to fall silent and watch the day come to an end.

But if even that doesn’t convince you down to the seafront at Zadar, maybe the sea organ will…

The sea-organ is an intricate network of tubes which open onto large marble steps down to the water. It is an architectural sound art installation by Nikola Bašić, who essentially designed a musical instrument the sea could play itself. The waves, as they beat against the steps, push air into the tubes and down into an enormous underground cavern. The result is a haunting and beautiful panpipe like sound to sit and listen to as you watch the sea.

If you’re in this area at night, be sure to also visit Bašić’s ‘Greeting to the Sun’ (Pozdrav Suncu in Croatian) nearby which is a circular structure of three hundred multilayered glass plates built into the pavement. Light elements within the glass store up solar energy during the day, switch on to provide a stunning light-show when the sun sets. If we were ever in Zadar early evening, this was a must – the atmosphere is wonderful as all of the kids take to the solar-panelled ‘dancefloor’ as soon as it lights up.


3. The Illusion Museum

This museum is responsible for our funniest day in Zadar – principally because we couldn’t actually find it and had begun to worry that it was all an elaborate joke played on foreign tourists.

Google maps was absolutely no use, leading us down blind alleyways and into private gardens (Sam speculated that because it was an illusion museum, maybe its entrance was similar to that of Platform 9¾ – though unsurprisingly, no-one volunteered to run headfirst into the wall).

After much exploration (and happily seeing a lot more of the city due to our quest), we did eventually find the museum near the top of the city walls on a hill. I worried, given how small it looked, that we had spent the day trying to find what was geared up to be palpable disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. Full of fun activities, magic-eye puzzles, rooms that make you dizzy (or nauseous, depending on your age), logic games and much much more, we spent a good few hours here and had a wonderful time. Quite a lot of brain power was needed for some of the puzzles, so we even got to count it as an afternoon of home-school – huzzah!


4. Zadar’s Archeological Museum

As home-schooling parents, this place was an absolute gift. In the same square as St Donatus’s Church, this museum spans three floors and human history in its entirety.

Much like Greece and Italy, the climate here (and by that, I mean lack of severe rain and wind) means that the preservation of archeological and architectural relics is much more possible. The artifacts in Zadar’s Archeological Museum are beautifully presented and restored. Often, if only parts of an object have been recovered, the rest of the object has been created around it to give you a proper sense of what it would have looked like completed.

It’s best to work your way through the museum chronologically; starting on the top floor where you’ll find objects pertaining to Zadar’s history from Prehistory through to the first Croatian settlements. The floor below then details and gives examples of the expanse of the Roman empire, as well as smaller exhibitions on the goths, glassware, and the development of Christianity. The ground floor then covers the early middle ages, with impressive exhibitions of Croatian graves and stonework taken from the church while restoration projects were ongoing.

You don’t need a serious love of history to enjoy an afternoon here – it’s well thought out and engaging throughout. The kids really loved it and both picked out an artifact to write a fictional background for when we got home.


5. The Bell Tower of St Anastasia’s Cathedral

The hardest climbs are always rewarded with the very best views. Regardless of which city we’re in, we’ve made a habit of finding a high thing to climb so we can see the area from above. We were not disappointed with the view from the bell tower.

Hundreds of steps winding around the inside of the tower will take you up past the bells suspended inside an old wooden frame, and then eventually onto an outside platform. The view is breath-taking. Tiny red-topped houses, ancient buildings and intricate streets for as far as the eye can see, framed by the dramatic back-drop of the Dinaric Alps.

You can walk right around the top of the tower, providing you with a full 360 degree view of the city, the Adriatic and the islands in the distance. Well worth the cardio! The tower is open until late, so you can even climb the tower and watch the sunset.


So they’re our top five! Do let us know if we’ve missed anything blindingly obvious – we’re always looking for a reason to go back!

Travelling with kids in a pandemic: One month in

This sounds ridiculous, but when I used to think about being away for the whole year, this was the time-stamp I was worried about. I would wake up, usually around 2-3am thinking but what about when the holiday period is over? What about 1 month in when the novelty has worn off and you just want your own bed and your own stuff around you? Even while booking accommodation for 2021, I worried that my brain didn’t get that I would be away for a year; without a solid base for a year. I definitely wouldn’t be fitting my own bed in the car (unless I balanced it on top with the kayak, the paddle board and the pink flamingo).

So one month in, how’re we doing? Let’s start with the obvious:

The Pandemic

It will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has ever visited Croatia, that the Croats aren’t letting Coronavirus have much of an impact on their daily lives. There is a beautiful simplicity in the way people see life here and I have to wonder if it’s because the climate just allows them more space. In the UK, your lockdown options are greatly hindered by the weather. Being locked inside is giving you cabin fever, but the weather is horrendous and so your ‘going out’ options are actually limited to ‘going somewhere else in options – like the pub – but that now comes with a whole extra layer of hassle, with social distancing, track and trace, and the worry that your mate’s wife’s sister has a cough and you’re not sure if you want to open that particular can of Covid into your life. It’s hard and it’s frustrating.

Here though, just by virtue of the sun being out for 80% of the year, suddenly space isn’t an issue. Social distancing isn’t an issue, because on any given day you can take a walk up a hill and spend the entire day not seeing anyone else. Sure, you can do that in Britain, but the weather stops you from wanting to.

Croats are also big champions of young people; they occupy the universities, keep the cities open, keep the life going. In turn, the young people are looking after their elders – the sense of community here starts so early and is completely immersive. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the UK, where our youth are constantly battered by accusations of inconsiderate non-compliance, loathed for illegal parties and shouted at for daring to try and utilise our outdoor spaces. Bear with me, because I know a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have a point – I promise! Since March, we have cut young people off from their friends – in some cases the only source of emotional and social support they have access to – and told them to stop whining about it. After months of isolation we then, in a stunningly transparent display of trying to win favour with the frequent voter demographic, opened garden centres, pubs and hunting (Ha. That last one actually made me lol). In comparison with the Croats, we have done nothing to support and help young people through this pandemic – and it shows in the reciprocal behaviour we now see in return. Just a thought…

For us, the pandemic has not hindered our ability to move about in public spaces. We wear masks indoors, we’re mindful of social distancing, but the inevitable doom we were warned of from countless people who thought we were irresponsible for heading out during the pandemic has not materialised (yet – there’s still time and it is 2020 after all).


Travelling and kids

This one was a bit of a suprise to be honest. I did research and made notes on helping Izzy and Sam adjust to this invariably unstable way of life. I made sure I knew how to support them, prepared myself with inner-coaching about having patience in the face of difficult behaviour, because it would likely be them manifesting insecurity and worry. However, whenever I sidle up next to one of them, ready to do some of my most exemplary and impressive parenting by asking – “So how are you feeling about all this? Is there anything you want to talk about?” – they look at me like I’m having a senior moment, fob me off with a generic answer and ask if they can be excused to go and throw themselves in the sea.

I have watched, through the ever-increasingly sentimental eyes of a mother watching her children become less tethered to her, as both of my kids have flourished in this banishment of routine. It occurred to me as I watched them during week one, doubled over with mirth and laughing in the kind of paralytic way you only ever do during your childhood, that I hadn’t seen either of them this happy in years. Not since they started school and became worried about how they were supposed to act. Not since it became important what clothes they wore, which football team they liked, what hair-cut they had. Because it turns out, neither of my kids give a shit about any of these things now that we’ve left the race. It’s all I can do to enforce washed and ironed clothes so they don’t look completely homeless.

The unbridled freedom of those long summer holidays has had one hell of an extension for Izzy and Sam. I am concerned for the future; that this limits our possibilities – because I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to take it away from them again by settling down somewhere.


Frank and his PTSD

It has become quite clear – and this has been a difficult thing for him to admit – that Frank’s days of ever having a career are over. This trip has done for him exactly what we hoped it would do, in that his brain is clearing and he’s now writing and reading for fun again (something he hasn’t done either of since returning from Afghanistan 11 years ago). But whenever there is something official he has to concentrate on – filling out forms, talking on the phone, even booking accommodation – his mind fogs, he becomes glassy-eyed and I find him turning circles in hallways, distressed and disoriented.

So we’re concentrating on just letting his brain enjoy its R&R. Admin has been handed over to me and we’re learning what he needs to avoid. We thought that maybe, having broken away completely from that military environment, that his symptoms would resolve, but that hasn’t been the case. What it has given him though, is the opporunity to define himself by something other than being a soldier, or an officer, or a veteran. He is starting to look as I know he’s always seen himself in his head; a disheveled and contented hippy. In a way, he has done exactly what the kids have done; let go of all that outside pressure – decided it isn’t for him – simply opted out.

It’s a strange thing to get ok with – this notion that life will necessarily have to look very different to the way we just assumed it would be. But on the other hand, this trip has shown us that you absolutely can throw the rulebook out of the window completely and still be happy. Happier.


And me? Is the one-month mark as scary as I thought it would be?

Absolutely not. One month in and all I can think is that there will never be enough time in the world to see everything I want to see.

Some people have described this trip as mine and Frank’s midlife crisis and if that’s the case, I couldn’t be more in love with it. Trite as it sounds, this is a life-changing and rich experience – one that doesn’t depreciate like a sports-car or come with the hassle of trading each other in for younger models.

Plitvice Lakes

Way back in the depths of January 2020, I came across a photo of Plitvice Lakes online while researching what to do in the Lika region of Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has attracted many keen photographers and travel journalists from across the globe – all of them unanimously agreeing that the outstanding natural beauty of Plitvice cannot be captured – with any real satisfaction – digitally. You need to see it with your own eyes was the general consensus. The very popular image that caught my attention had been taken from a high vantage point, looking down onto the upper Plitvice ledges. From this, you could see staggered lakes, almost forming steps down the side of a mountain – breaking only for the dramatic waterfalls in between. It went straight on the list of things to see in this first month away.

You’d think, that with that much lead-time and excitement about this excursion, we would have been more able to cope with a 06.45 alarm. Unfortunately, having pretty much had free reign to lazily start each day nursing coffee and reading books, this was a shock to the system. We have all retired from normal productive hours. The leisurely Dalmation lifestyle agrees with us entirely.

So with all the enthusiasm of a zombie herd from The Walking Dead, we piled into the car – (my name being taken in vain for the early hour and the insistence that we don’t cancel the day trip in favour of yet another visit to the seaside).

A two hour drive, watching the sparse, rocky coastal landscape give way to lush green forests and hills, we finally started to see signs for Plitvička Jezera.

The first thing you’ll need to know upon arriving, is what kind of route you would like to take around the lakes. The park spans miles of landscape, so doing the whole thing in one day is unrealistic. There are two entrances to the park, so you pick your route before hand and then park at the correct one for your starting point.

Map of Plitvice Lakes

We chose route H, which had us start at entrance 2 and catch the shuttle bus up to the very top of the lakes. The trail is well thought-out; board-walks winding around the best views, across the top of waterfalls and through the trees. Even when it’s overcast, the colour of the water here is incredible; a turquoise you’d expect only to see in the Maldives. It is arguably what makes these lakes so famous and is apparently due to the mountain water rushing over limestone rocks, moss and algae on it’s way down the mountains. This coats the floor of each lake with a fine white chalk, which beautifully reflects the sky on to the water.

Not known for ever doing things the easy way, we decided we wanted to see the lakes from above so deviated from the trail and hiked up into one of the surrounding mountains for a better view of the lakes from above. Dreaming of the perfect picnic spot, we rambled up through bushes and thorns until we were satisfied and could look out over the valley. Unfortunately for me, my particular route must have seen me bulldoze straight through a spider’s web because upon stopping, I found a sizable, bright orange spider clinging to my knee (picture below). Anyone who follows our Instagram account will already be aware of my arachnophobia and The Incident of the Ear Spider. So 2020 continues to harass and torture me in ever more inventive eight-legged ways.


Spiders dispatched back to the undergrowth and bakery goods consumed, we decided to keep going on our path along the top of the mountain in the hope that we’d see more beautiful aerial views of the lakes along the way. It took us about an hour of happily marching deeper into the forest to realise that we were in fact moving quite far away from the main attraction, and despite having discovered very impressive lizards on our detour, we were in real danger of spending the day ignoring what we had paid to come and see.

After a short discussion about whether the path would eventually lead back down to the lakes anyway, we decided to double back to where we had had lunch, descend to our original trail and pick up where we had left off (we discovered much later in the day, completely by accident, that at the time of this decision we were only minutes away from the viewpoint that famous image had been taken from, and but a few minutes more from a natural path leading back down to the main trail 🙄).

The path through the smaller lakes and waterfalls is truly spectacular and like something out of a fairytale. The colours are so vivid and there are hundreds of fish in even the smallest pools. For a family who loves swimming, we were initially disappointed that swimming has been banned in these lakes for a number of years now, but seeing how nature is thriving when humans are kept at a safe distance, it’s easy to see why that decision was made. It was also blissfully quiet. We had deliberately left our visit here until late September, having heard horror stories about the crowds it attracts in the summer and the misery of not having a choice but to move across the boardwalks like cattle, nose-to-nose with everyone else. Even during the height of the pandemic, tourists came in their thousands over the summer months, so we were delighted that our decision paid off – we largely had the place to ourselves.

Over approximately 10miles we ambled about, taking in the scenery and stopping for breaks when there was a quiet place to sit or an interesting beast to look at. Eventually making it to the lake at the end of our route, we decided to take another trip up into the hills before getting on the ferry which would take us back to the start. I had rough instructions I’d found online about how to access the hidden viewpoint which would give us a full unhindered look at the upper lakes from above. We climbed once again, with the kids marching ahead and Francis playing ‘Hi-Ho’ from Snow White loudly on his phone. After several false trails we finally found it, nestled in a very small rock ledge jutting out from the trees. It was every bit as beautiful as we hoped it would be; dramatic and breathtaking. I have included the photos below, though they don’t do the scene even an ounce of justice. We sat here for a long time letting it all soak in, until eventually descending back down for the final leg of our trip across Kozjak Lake to where we started.

This was a beautiful trip and I’m so glad we went. I really recommend doing it out of season and on a weekday if you can manage it. The quiet and the space really made this day magical for us – one of the real stand-out experiences of our travels so far. The kids had a fantastic time rushing about unhindered from boardwalk to boardwalk, with no one to worry about and no one to dodge.

We will definitely grab the opporutnity to go again – even with the reluctant early start!

Zlatko’s Octopus Peka

Seafood was a big draw for us when we came to the Dalmatian coast. Luckily, our host in Vir, Zlatko, is just as enthusiastic about it as we are and offered up his recipe for Octopus Peka. Frank was keen to learn how to use the beautiful wood-fired oven in the garden, so he played chef while I took notes.

This is a one-pot slow-cooked dish and takes about 4-6 hours to cook (depending on how caramelised you like your vegetables). Zlatko is also keen to emphasise that the Octopus in this dish can be substituted with any other meat for a completely different density and tastes – he particularly recommends lamb or chicken!

Here, the dish has been cooked in a Peka, which is a cast iron dish with a bell-like domed lid. The Peka is placed in an outside wood-fired oven, though I suspect the recepie would also work in an oven on a consistent heat (between 160-180 degrees).

Serves 4-6


Ingredients


2kg Octopus (or meat of your choice)
2kg Potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
1kg Carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
4-6 Large onions, peeled and chopped into quarters
4 tbsp of good quality olive-oil
Liberally applied glug of white wine (red if using for red meat)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp granulated garlic
1-2 tsp of fine sea salt


Method


  1. Light your fire, then leave to reduce to embers
  2. While you are waiting, mix all herbs and spices together and prepare your vegetables
  3. Put all of your meat and vegetables into one dish, drizzle with the olive oil and mix to ensure everything is well coated.
  4. Add all of your herbs and spices and mix again so that they’re evenly distributed.
  5. Place in the Peka with the lid on and leave to sit for half an hour.
  6. Place the Peka into the oven. Stack the embers around and on top of it, leaving some to one side to replace any that go out while cooking.
  7. Check after 30 minutes to see if you can smell the aroma of the meat cooking forcing it’s way out of the pot (Zlatko is quite emphatic here about not lifting the lid). Once you can smell it, leave for another 30 mins before checking by lifting the lid.
  8. Thereafter, check on the dish every 30 minutes. Stir – only if you have to – to prevent sticking.
  9. Repeat until you are satisfied that the dish is cooked to your liking!
  10. Serve with fresh bread (to dip in the gravy) and salad!



The tentacles might stress some people out with the octopus, but this was absolutely delicious – even the kids loved it! Very much looking forward to recreating it with lamb or beef in the near future…

All credit for the recipe goes to Zlatko!

A brief history of bad ideas…

Hello!

WordPress assures me that it’s best practice to start with an introductory post when starting a blog. I am nothing if not compliant, so consider us introduced.

We are Frank, Gemma, Izzy and Sam. This blog is serving (along with our instagram account) as an online diary of our year away travelling. When we were planning our trip we found it really helpful to read and follow the accounts of other families doing a similar thing, so we’re now adding ours to the mix.

First, a little background…

In a nutshell, we are a family of four who made the controversial decision to sell everything and set off traveling for a year around Europe during a pandemic. Our nearest and dearest are now very used to our sudden and dubious life-choices, though I’m pretty certain there was a collective Mexican-wave style eye-roll when we made the announcement.

Most adult relationships seem able to strike a balance between spontinaity and rationality, but Frank and I enthusiastically encourage each other and get swept up in each other’s ideas (often at the expense of practicality). Our lives are very much the victory of blind optimism over common sense. This is how we’ve managed, in a fairly short space of time, to get through a range of occupations (Royal Marine, Pirate Hunter, Marketer, Midwife, RAF Officer, Online start-up), acquire a menagerie of interesting beasts (including dogs, ducks, tortoises, frogs, mice, etc) and the full exasperation of our long-suffering parents and siblings.

As a background to our story, Frank suffers from PTSD following an ill-advised expedition to Hellmand Province with the Royal Marines – courtesy of Mr Blair – in 2009. We had no idea about his condition until a family suicide in 2018 triggered vivid and debilitating flashbacks that would not be ignored. A complete mental health crisis and two years of intense CBT and EMDR therapy later, we were wrung out and fed up.

Frank had to leave the military, which meant we were obliged to leave our house (provided by the MOD). At the same time, Izzy was nearing the end of primary school and Sam still liked to let us know every day that school was pointless and he’d rather be at home. Without being too philosophical about it, the world handed us an opportunity to completely reset – and of course, being the head curators of the Ropey Ideas Museum, we decided to go for it.

Lockdown, coronavirus and that lack of common sense we were talking about…

When Boris shouted ‘lockdown’ back in March, we already had a rough schedule, travel plans and even some accomodation booked up until mid-2021. We were certain that if we delayed this trip, even for a couple of months, we were unlikely to ever go. We would need a new house, a new school, etc and these ties would be expensive to create and difficult to sever. There was very little we could do but sit back and wait to see if the borders reopened.

I’ll be honest, we had a pretty great lockdown. We were accutely aware that we had a lot to be grateful for. We lived in a beautiful part of the country (Buckinghamshire), with a big back garden, countryside to get our hour of exercise in, and plenty of people to talk to (including two of the younger Wyatt siblings who lived with us and made the experience so much more fun than it would have been otherwise). Instead of putting us off, Covid-19 spurred us on with the promise of more time, more experience, more life.

Excellent idea. How are you going to afford it?

Firstly, living is expensive. Renting even a shed in South Bucks would cost you around £1,400 a month and that’s without gas, electric, council tax, water, wifi, and all the other things a good shed needs. So giving up our address and effectively making ourselves homeless automatically freed up almost £2000 a month. If you’re happy to live like locals and treat it as a living experience instead of a holiday, it’s very possible to get by comfortably.

It’s true that we were about to lose our biggest source of income, but with a decent severence package and the house we own happily rented out, we could just about afford to put these ludicrous wheels into motion.

With that kind of optimism, what could possibly go wrong?

Ha. [Definition: (also hah) the sound people make when they are surprised or pleased, or when they have discovered something. Eg. “Ha! It serves you right!”] How apt.

With everything sold and what little we were keeping hold of stored away in my sister’s garage (special thanks to Kelly and Danny here), we moved out of our house and made sure our various pets were safely delivered to their holiday homes (more thanks to Marie, Dave, Amy and Neal). With final farewells, we set off for Dover – so excited that we didn’t even mind that the sat-nav took us through central London for no reason whatsoever. So excited, in fact, that it took us a really long time to notice that the car was shuddering like it had just exited the North Sea and forgotten its towel. So excited, that the clutchy smell coming from the engine, was of no concern to us at all. Until we realised what it was, of course.

Now, for normal grown-ups, this would have been a disappointing delay to the trip of a lifetime. Any adult with any sense whatsoever, would have taken the hit and watched the ferry sail away as they muttered expletives from the reception area of a local mechanic’s workshop. Surely no one is stupid enough to attempt a 2000 mile journey, weighed down with kayaks, paddle-boards, luggage and pink flamingos, in a broken car?

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Watching Dover’s iconic white cliffs get smaller from our vantage point on deck, we promised ourselves that we would get the car checked in Calais. We asserted that as long as we were actually on the continent, our trip had officially begun and we would be less disappointed than we would have been eating Tesco meal-deals for dinner in a Travel Lodge box room and dealing with two hyperactive kids. But when we disembarked at Calais, the car was quote: ‘feeling ok’ (disclaimer: it wasn’t AT ALL), so we decided – of course – to chance it and carry on.

Over the course of three days, we drove through France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and a good portion of Croatia. Every time the engine started, we celebrated. Every time we got into sixth gear and could simply cruise along, we breathed a sigh of relief. I really feel like Bon Jovi must have had a similar roadtrip as he wrote ‘Livin on a Prayer’.

So now we’ve been out here for three weeks, the car is at least fixed now, right?

Ha. No. It turns out that Dalmations (the people, not the dogs) are less concerned with the constricts of time and urgency than even we are. But, that is a story for another day – one where I document for you exactly how difficult it is to get a car fixed in Croatia (it’s a great story, I promise).

But everything else is going ok so far, yes?

Well, since arriving on Vir, that poor old car has been walloped at a junction by a speeding road demon. The heating system in our rented house has gone up in smoke, effectively deleting our financial safety-net from underneath us, and we’ve had some bad news about the health of a beloved family member back home. So you could say that everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong so far.

Still, for as long as we’re able to stay out here, we remain very grateful for the opportunity to chase our adventures around – even if they refuse to work out the way we had planned.