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 ❤

Frank’s (not quite a) review of Schloss Neuchwenstein

For those of you who follow our Instagram account you will have seen that on Monday, the sun was shining down on our little piece of the planet, so us four weasels took a cycle across from our cosy little hidey hole in South Bavaria to the impressive dreamlike Schloss Neuschwanstein. Now rationally you might expect a review of the palace and the surroundings and that is what I had sat down to write. Instead I have ended up giving you a look into my head and some of the discussions me and Gemma had, inspired by this colossal beautiful folly.

We had taken the scenic route to Schloss Neuschwanstein, choosing to follow the winding course the shallow Vils Fluß as it joins up with the power of the Lech river. 

We took this route in part to soak in the breathtaking grandeur of the northernmost Alps as we crossed in and out of Austria and in larger part because my firstborn daughter, though bright and intelligent in many ways has all the road survival skills of a hedgehog and can often be seen happily daydreaming on a main road, bike vearing from side to side as she weaves her merry way along, mindless of cars and trucks hurtling past. So in order to prevent her from being flattened, or Gemma becoming so stressed that she bleeds from the eyes, we continued our cycling training away from the traffic.

When the sun is shining the November mountains are awe inspiring, the deep oranges and fiery reds of Autumn mixed in with the dark evergreen pines that cling to their slopes. Being an experienced mountaineer I understand the importance of a map and good navigation yet being a complete klutz I had neglected to bring one. So with the help of google maps on Gemma’s phone (mine was back with the map) we felt rather than navigated our way towards the castle. 

Thankfully the Germans are rather better organised than us and we soon found signs for the castle along a footpath that we rode along merrily enough, me and the kids on sturdy mountain bikes, Gemma on a rather striking blue bike that you might imagine an old lady cycling to the shops on to get a loaf of bread in 1920’s Paris. Fair play to Gemma though she kept up just fine on an increasingly treacherous footpath that was becoming narrower and steeper all of the time. Children have an inbuilt resistance to spotting danger so Izzy and Sam spent a good deal of time chatting as they rode merrily beside sheer drops and had to be ordered off of their bikes when the terrain became truly dangerous. We pushed our bikes therefore along what we had now realised was in fact a fairly challenging walking route, plowing on regardless (as is our wont) riding some of the down hills but pushing for the most part. 

As we progressed following the signs towards the castle we squeezed our way past better prepared german hikers with boots and poles etc and tried out our faltering German, to always be responded to in perfect English. During one of these conversations we were told “you cannot bring bicycles on this track” we thanked them for the information and were forced to immediately prove them wrong as by now we were a good couple of miles in and didn’t fancy turning back. 

This got us thinking about how we use language. ‘You cannot’ is often used when ‘I’d prefer you didn’t’ or ‘it is a bad idea to’ would be more accurate, but the latter would not have the moral force implicit in the former.

Gemma observed that there hadn’t been a sign which pushed us deeper down the same rabbit hole of thought. Had the nice German man with opinions about bicycles (who I will call Fredrik as I failed to get his name) been in a uniform would our reactions have been different? I think they could have been.

A sign, in this instance saying no bicycles would likely have been obeyed, but that sign itself would merely represent the wishes of another person or at most a small group of people. This drew our musings onto why we obey authority. What if there was a sign saying Fahrräder sind unter keinen Umständen erlaubt (no bicycles allowed under any circumstance). There is a real chance we would have turned back at this point. Yet the only real difference would have been that Fredrik would have taken the time to make a sign – it would show his commitment but would not really change the power of his argument.

We wrestled our bikes along the wholly unsuitable terrain and discussed the ways we change our behaviour dependent on how we regard authority when through the trees, glistening in the midday sun, we caught our first glimpse of King Ludwig II’s Castle. It is straight from the pages of a fairytale (deliberately designed to be so) designed for beauty rather than any practicality and like nothing I have ever seen or am likely to see again. Nestled near the top of a steep ravine its main spire reaches up high over its high walls and smaller conical towers all built of white limestone designed to catch the bright sunlight and throw it into the eyes of the observer. Gemma, who had come here as a child and cherished the memory amongst her most precious, actually danced a happy jig of joy and made noises that the English language does not have enough vowels to properly explain.

My thoughts however were still on the subject of power, of authority. This amazing gem of a building is there for one reason alone,  in 1864 a 19 year old boy called Ludwig became king of Bavaria and he wanted it built (along with other grand palaces) . It came at crippling cost, with credit being taken on top of credit to build his “authentic” (the word as meaningless then as it is now) medieval castle. It seems that everyone else involved in constructing this folly knew the project to be mad and ruinous but the man in charge said it should continue, so continue it did. 

This was at a point in Bravarian history where the state was in deep financial difficulty and poverty was rife and these extravagances were extremely unpopular and damaging to both the state and the people. Yet at every step the stone mason laid the stone because the foreman told him to, the forman instructed the builders because the site manager told him to, he worked for the architect who worked for the aide who worked for the king. Ludwig ended his days tragically committing suicide after being deposed due to insanity. 

It seems that good sensible rational individuals will come together and do entirely irrational things if they are told to by the system even if they understand it to be foolish and even if the system is headed up by a certifiable madman.

As I drank in the splendor of Ludwig’s idealised castle I couldn’t help but see these thoughts through the lens of the history of some of the places we have been. Back in Croatia we visited a village that had been massacred by the Serbs in the early 1990’s (when we had Britpop and shell suits they had shortages and war crimes) those crimes were horrendous but would the individual Serbs, if not taken into the apparatus of war, have murdered innocent Croats? Every person over the age of 40 could tell us stories of that ravaging civil war but without a man (and it does mainly seem to be men) in charge to say to start the killing would it have ever begun? 

Now I must confess to a bias here. I am an ex soldier writing this on Armistice Day, I swore an oath to the Queen and went abroad to do things, in other people’s countries that would be unconscionable in my normal life. The reason we went and did these things was simply because we were told to by other people. My thinking then went no further than that.

I’m not a total pacifist by the way, I don’t think that tyrants always respond to reasoned arguments and I’m pretty sure that no petition, no matter how popular, would have convinced ISIS to stop their campaign of terror. I just couldn’t help to draw the comparison between this extraordinary sky palace and the decisions we make and the people we unthinkingly obey.

Back in the 19th Century many still believed that kings and rulers were set over us by God and that their decisions were therefore the ones God planned and should not be resisted. Modern thinking has largely moved away from this view and most of us understand that it is an accident of birth that puts some at the top and some at the bottom but our compliance has not reduced. 

In the USA they spent the last 4 years with a president that most of the people hadn’t chosen and many thought was dangerous but in that great democratic empire they obeyed regardless. In Britain our prime minister won the votes of 43.6% of those who voted (the largest share of the since 1979) thus representing the choice of 29% of those eligible to vote: Yet we give him the authority to speak for all and can make laws to be followed and act in any way he sees fit on our behalf.

And here’s the bit that blew my mind, we all obey.

 A topical example, the responses to the Covid 19 pandemic have been a mix of reasonable precautions and lunacy. Those in charge of each country claim to “follow the science” but this is completely disingenuous. Science can tell you what is likely to happen to infection rates if teachers wear masks or if they move university lectures online and ban students mingling with each other. It cannot however tell you whether keeping infection rates low is more or less valuable than a future well socialised society.

 Science does not tell us if a generation of teenagers missing out on their social life and the life memories that come then is worth more or less than a given number of new infections and deaths. These are not scientific extrapolations from data, they are value judgments. Judgements made ultimately by people most of us have never met, nor are likely to.

Yet we obey, we comply and we do so without duress. 

There was no threat of violence that compelled the Bavarians builders to impoverish the regency and build that amazing turret, but they just got on with it. Not many had a clear view on why Saudi terrorists attacking the USA ended up with Britain invading Iraq, but off we went. It is not obvious why garden centres full of over 60’s are so much safer than nightclubs full of under 30s when tackling a virus that preys on the old (a cynic would say this reflects a mad king, protecting oil and the average age of voters and their interests).

This is not a call for anarchy, we were soaking in the glory of a splendid castle so obeying the rules can give us great things. We are told to drive on the left hand side of the road and this stops us all crashing into one another, society needs rules; but in an era where the home secretary is telling people to inform on their neighbors for not complying with laws passed on the hoof, when we are told to stop the things that make life rich and fulfilling in order to preserve quantity of life over quality it is at least worth stopping and asking the question why.

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!