The pest in Budapest (or, my new favourite city)

We arrived in Budapest late afternoon, on a perfect spring day, as the sun was starting to think about setting in that glorious golden way it has. Our boy had slept all the way from Bratislava and our girl was singing happily to herself next to him. The drive towards the city was lined with flowering trees and rolling hills, full with the lush green of recent rain. We drove up a rise and around a corner and then there it was: the magnificent Budapest, straddling the Danube. Hoo boy, what a welcome.

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I’d heard fabulous things about the city: some good friends were married there and talk of it fondly, several other friends had recently visited and reported back in highly favourable tones. I was prepared to dig it, or maybe even be slightly underwhelmed. I was not prepared for it to become my new favourite city in about fifteen minutes flat.

The city is actually relatively new if you consider it as a sum of its two ancient parts, Buda (on the ornate park land west bank of the river) and Pest (the throbbing, funky hub on the east bank). Officially joined in 1867, they were physically united by the first permanent bridge built across the Danube, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Named for its major benefactor, the Chain Bridge not only linked the two previously separate cities and provided a symbolic unification, it served a pragmatic purpose: Széchenyi had lamented the lack of simple passage to his father’s funeral, and thus was a visionary behind and champion for the bridge.

We stayed in the city centre, and on our first day walked across said bridge and up a steep hill (scrambled admirably by the three year old) to Buda Castle which sits proudly atop the city. From there it was a short walk to the colourful Matthias Church, a destination we visited not for religious purposes but rather due to the castle-themed playground situated directly behind it. Despite being tuckered out after all that playing, we scored a fun night out with Dom and Ro in one of the city’s Ruin Bars – abandoned buildings repurposed to become small venues. Ours was a tribute to all things red: Communists, punk, and shots of the local spirit, Palinka.

The following day was Mother’s Day and we had two in our midst – myself and my lovely mother in law, who spent the day with two of her four kids, and two of her four grandchildren. We started it in manner grand: a boat trip down the Danube.

With bubbles, of course.

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The cruise took us down the river, past the many spectacular buildings and alongside Margaret Island, a 4km long nature reserve in the middle of the Danube, then back again. Remembering my university days and multiple all-you-can drink harbour cruises, and apparently forgetting that I am now a 40 year old mama of two, all I could think of was shouting ‘bridge skol’ when we passed underneath the many Budapest structures.

In a (futile?) attempt to retain some level of dignity, I instead opted to enjoy my champagne far more sedately and sipped instead of chugged as we chugged past the gothic gloriousness of Parliament House.

Next on the agenda: Mother’s Day lunch. Outside, with puddles to play in and statues at whose feet to kneel. (And delicious Hungarian fare and wine but these were of zero interest to the kids. Until dessert arrived, and then it was ON.)

I mentioned previously our love of visitors. There was another reason for this love that I failed to discuss: babysitting. Later that night, after a muddy afternoon of park play, Tim and I hit the town for a wander. If I’d not already fallen for it hard, I’d have been won over by Budapest by night.

We strolled the banks of the river, marvelling at the light (you can’t see it in the snaps, but the sky was a deep smoky blue as we set out) and the throb of people out enjoying the city. There were bars with music drifting through the air, people perched alongside the river in makeshift chairs enjoying a drink, restaurants spilling out on the streets, fellow travellers strolling casually along soaking it all in, just like us. There was also this guy.

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One of the main reasons I’d wanted to head out (apart from freeing the shackles from my beloved offspring, which is always totes appropriate and even more so on Mother’s Day) was to visit the Shoes on the Danube Bank. A sculpture along the bank of the river, just down from the Parliament, the iron sculpture is a memorial to those slaughtered in World War Two. Thousands of individuals, primarily Jewish people, were made to line up on the bank of the river and remove their shoes before being shot. Unshod, their bodies would be swept away by the river’s unforgiving current and the shoes – a valuable commodity during the war – taken and repurposed. I’d seen it from a distance during the day but at night, with the darkness closing in and the powerful river only metres away, it was eerie, frightening, powerful.

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Somewhat subdued we walked to our late dinner  – paprika and dumplings aplenty! I love Hungary! – enjoying even more breathtaking views.

Over our meal, we discussed what made the city so attractive. Its beauty and history were a no brainer; the place blew our socks off. It was impeccably clean and felt completely safe, and now that we’ve been Swissified this apparently matters to us. There was a lot of green space and the playgrounds were next level, which appealed to 50% of my family (Ok, let’s face it: 100%, since Tim and I like park downtime as much as anyone). The food was good, the atmosphere amazing and we were blessed with stellar weather which makes anywhere a billion times better. But our little pests had it pegged: there was ice cream on every corner, and it was thoroughly enjoyed.

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We barely scratched the surface of this incredible city. There are thermal baths (hundreds of natural ones apparently; Addie is still asking to go to the pool as we foolishly promised), galleries, an island, more amazing architecture, about a bazillion parks and restaurants we didn’t even spy, and no doubt a bunch of other treats I don’t even know about. I don’t care. I will take any excuse to go back.

The brat in Bratislava

We love having guests, and have been fortunate to have had a huge range of family and friends visit us since we’ve moved here. We enjoy it for a number of reasons. Visitors make us feel far less isolated, still in touch with Australia and our lives there (especially when said guests have arrived with non-European delicacies such as vegemite, brown sugar and most deliciously Twisties). When people stay we have the chance to spend time with them after the kids have gone to bed and feel like actual social adults (and we have an excuse to eat raclette and drink wine, purely in the name of hospitality, of course). I love the different kind of interaction my children have with guests; sure, they might not see people regularly but a concentrated visit brings its own advantages (also, Adelaide thinks pretty much everyone is her aunt, which is adorably narcissistic). But perhaps most of all, we love the opportunity to see our adopted home through the eyes of others, and enjoy relishing new sights and new experiences with them. Which is really just a convoluted way of saying that we like to crash other people’s holidays.

Tim’s parents are currently on their third visit here since we relocated, and while keen to visit us in Lucerne they naturally wanted to explore a little further afield as well. We arranged to meet them, as well as Tim’s sister and her partner, in the East. First stop: Slovakia.

Of course, technically that was not the first stop. There was a picnic and park break for lunch in beautiful Salzburg, several refuelling stops and even more three-year-old-related breaks. But eventually, amidst a haze of pollen that seemed to be drifting with us across Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Germany, Austria again and finally Slovakia, we pulled up at our new digs just outside Bratislava and settled in for the evening.

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The rest of the travellers arrived late that night – they had driven from Berlin – and the following day we hit the city of Bratislava. Situated on the Danube, we could spy the city’s centrepiece from miles away: Bratislava Castle. We started our wandering there, at the top of the city.

The castle itself was quite austere; not only had it been relatively recently rendered and painted white (we weren’t sure how traditional that was) the courtyard and surrounds were quite barren. A baroque-style garden, with manicured shrubs and swirling rock gardens, was in the process of being sculpted, which was beautiful but added to the confusion a little. After a brief castle playground interlude we made our way down into the old town, walking along the city wall briefly before meandering down the ornate winding streets.

The old town itself was beautiful, perhaps surprisingly so given the industrial feel of the city just outside its inner hub. As we had driven in the previous night, I was a little shocked at the number of towers pumping out smoke, the fleet of cranes hovering over the working docklands, and the unusually high number of trucks carrying cars around the city. It turns out that Slovaks are not terrible drivers who need lots of tow-truck action, but that Slovakia is a huge producer of cars: some 43% of the economy (which is apparently the fastest growing in Europe) is attributable to car manufacturing. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the ornate, pristine buildings lining the streets, the wide cobbled alleys, or the relaxed feel of the city centre. (I will acknowledge it is possible that the relaxation came from the icy cold beverages you see below.)

While our children – the littlest sister and brother present – fought over plastic toys, the older set of Purtell siblings were far better behaved. They barely bickered at all (not surprisingly given Dommie is the most chilled person in the world) so it was up to our small people to properly put the brat in Bratislava.

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We spent the rest of the day wandering the city – stopping at the famous Blue Church (Gera speculating that it was an Normal Coloured Church until recently when it realised the boon of tourism) and then purchasing some local wines (and some not so local prosecco) for the evening ahead. For the record, the Slovak cabernet franc blend was one of the loveliest wines we’ve sampled in a while.

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The following day we went to Devin Castle, a well preserved ruin again on the Danube just outside the city. Or, as Addie called it, the ‘Broken Castle’.

It was a glorious spring morning, and we climbed the formidable looking hill to get to the top. Due to some medieval-style amusements along the way, it was a lot easier than anticipated.

The castle was strategically built at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Morava; it dates back to 856 and was most recently occupied in the 17th century when it was blown up during the Napoleonic Wars. Later, the Iron Curtain ran in front of the ruined castle, marked by heavy artillery and fortified with barbed wire and watchtowers. Apparently the name of the castle – Devin – means watchtower or observation, closing a kind of ironic circle around its history. On the sunny morning when we visited, the remaining shell of the watchtower felt peaceful, giving little indication of the Broken Castle’s tumultuous past.

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Our walking over for the morning, we enjoyed a picnic lunch at the base of the castle (which sounds lovely since I’m not pointing out it was also right in front of the car park). We then bundled our exhausted little adventurers into the car to move onwards, deeper down the Danube.

The Netherlands created The Netherlands

We are many things as a family. Adventurous (we all love the outdoors), fairly hungry (we all love grills in said outdoors, and maybe a tasty beverage while you’re at it), fond of belting out the Frozen soundtrack in the car. We are also opportunistic. When we heard that Tim’s cousin was christening her lovely little daughter in The Netherlands, we figured it was the perfect opportunity to meet up with family, see a part of the world we’d not yet been to, and have fourteen uninterrupted hours to Let It Go.

We left Switzerland last Thursday, and stopped for a night in Cologne. I had been to the city, sort of by accident, many years previously. A friend and I were travelling around Germany by train, and had no intention whatsoever of visiting ‘Köln’, despite seeing references to it everywhere. We arrived at our intended destination, which I have long forgotten, and went to get a coffee (or let’s face it, probably a beer) and work out our action plan (it was the days before readily available internet, which dates me something shocking). As we were walking there, my friend dropped to the ground, and started hitting it furiously while shrieking ‘noooooo!’. Initially assuming the cafe was out of beer, it became apparent that he’d left one of his bags on the train: the one holding his passport, wallet, tickets and minidisk player (gah, again with the aged references). We trotted back to the station, knowing that there was no chance of getting them back but wanting to work out the next steps. After half an hour of muddled English-German explanations, a diagram of the train to show where we were sitting, and much head-clutching we were advised that the bag and all its contents were safe and en route to Köln (I recall an unemotional German rail employee saying ‘hurrah’ with either complete lack of feeling or complete mastery of sarcasm). To get them back, we promptly changed our plans and made our way there too. As we disembarked at the Cologne main station, bag and minidisk player happily returned to their owner, the sun shone through the massive cathedral in the centre of town and we were greeted by the brassy tones of the annual marching band competition. Cologne, it turned out, was awesome.

This trip was much less dramatic: a night in the centre of town, dinner (it’s asparagus season, so we all feasted on sweet, juicy white asparagus) (much to Tim’s chagrin; he was more interested in the fried potatoes) and tiny kölsch beers, which even this beer-hater liked (not that I had a choice – the waiter at the brewhouse where we had dinner refused my request for wine and insisted I drink the local ale). The following day Tim worked while the kids and I explored the town and the local chocolate museum. After letting the kids (and myself) indulge in way more samples than is wise pre-road trip, we left Cologne. As we crossed the border from Germany to The Netherlands, a few things became quickly apparent. We were driving underneath sea level, it was unbelievable flat, and for some reason their fields were multicoloured.

We were (very generously) staying with extended family of Tim’s cousin (she married a guy from Friesland, a province in the northern part of The Netherlands). We stayed in a little town called Rosterhaule, which was 600 people strong, one of many charming little towns dotted across the province. We were welcomed into the Dutch fold: our hosts welcomed us for meals, gave us lots of information about the area, and took us on a marvellous day of Friesland tourism.

The first stop was the Wouda Steam Pumping Station, which is the largest steam pumping station ever built. Intended to prevent the flooding of the reclaimed land, which makes up 60% of the Netherlands, it is a marvel of hydraulic engineering.

It is also an excellent place to play chaseys and hide-and-seek.

We were taken on a tour which explained how the station operated, as well as giving some history on the surrounding lands. We were shown the intersection of the sea (salt water) and the canals (cutely called sweet water) as well as the astounding network of dykes in place to keep the water from the land. Our host, Harry, said that when he was growing up his parents had a magnet on their refrigerator that read: ‘God created the earth, but The Netherlands created The Netherlands.’ Looking out over the expanse of land that should have been sea, one could see their point.

Friesland-017The pump house itself was a well preserved – and at times, still operational – marvel.

Our hosts were the kind of people that, following a trip to the pump house and just before a visit to the tulips, give you hot coffee and local almond cake piled high with whipped cream. They were also the kind of people who encourage your three year old to take another piece when she’s looking longingly at the cake box, and laugh when your one year old schmears cream all over everything. That is to say, the very best kind of people.

It will come as no surprise that the rainy drive through the tulip fields was a hit with this flower loving family. There’s a signposted tulip route which we drove, convoy style, stopping with a break in the weather to enjoy coloured patch after rainbow coloured patch.

Despite their perfect looks, we played spot-the-odd-tulip-out as we wandered the manicured fields.

And made jokes about tip-toeing (or in this case, joyfully stomping) through the tulips.

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The following day was little Freyja’s christening, held in the stained-glass-windowed church in which her Dutch grandparents had been married. Adelaide, fascinated by the tiny baby, watched from the front row as her head was wet while little Teddy preferred using the prayer pews at the back as a makeshift playground. We all went to a nearby park, edged by the forest, for a picnic where we caught up with family, made new friends, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It was the sort of event that Tim and I both remember from our childhoods (although admittedly neither of our family get-togethers were flanked by so many flowers) but this time our role had changed slightly: it was our kids running around, eating too much salami, and wailing when they were told it was time to leave, only to conk out in the car in an exhausted and sticky haze.

We left later that night, stopping again in Cologne on the way home, in order to get back to Switzerland for Tim to work on Monday. Despite all the driving – and operatic Frozen singing – it was a lovely slow weekend, spent doing our favourite things with people we love (I mean, look at our girl’s grin with her Auntie Dommie. Ridiculous.)

Frickin’ lovely

I’ve written before about the joys (and I am sure I have mentioned the woes; if not here then over a drink to anyone who’ll listen and a few who’d really rather not) (also, sorry) about small town and small child living. One of my favourite aspects of both of these, and one that marks our days and weeks and seasons, is treading the same small paths, following the same insignificant routines, beating our continual rhythms. A week or so ago, as Teddles and I were doing our Tuesday afternoon stroll from town to home via Lake Lucerne, I saw that most terrifying harbinger of spring: the first swan nest. As you probably know, swans mate for life and are also very territorial; each swan couple builds their nests in the same spot each year. The following day we set out to visit the other swan nest in our neighbourhood, built in a disused boatshed on the shore of the lake near the Richard Wagner museum. It’s my favourite (if the horror of protective mama and papa swans can be considered as such) as it’s positioned perfectly: at the end of an alley of cherry blossoms, Alps in the background and lake right in front (there’s also a fenced in park right next door, so this mama can relax while her own chicks run amok). It’s totally Swiss spring in one picture postcard image.

I was surprised when, the next day, we arrived at the shed to find…nothing. No nest, no evidence of nests past, and no swans or eggs. Now I’m no bird expert – quite the opposite, I’m pathetically scared of all of them – but this did not bode well to me. Some googling advised that although swans mate for life, they can ‘divorce’, often following nesting troubles. Or of course it’s possible that one of the couple died, in which case the remaining swan will find a new partner and start a new family elsewhere. I am choosing not to believe either. Instead, I reckon that the lucky swans who’ve been nesting happily together at the boatshed have decided that a dozen clutches of kids is enough, and now it’s their time for themselves. Maybe they’ve gone to sunny Spain for a long-awaited holiday, or perhaps they’ve taken a round-the-world trip to finally meet some of their back swan cousins found down under.

Either way, it felt like a slight downer in a string of recent spring failures. Needing a pick-me-up following a week of tantalising warm weather, we decided to head to somewhere we were guaranteed spring loveliness: Insel Mainau. It is a small island in Lake Constance, just over the German border from Switzerland. The island is a private botanical garden famous for its spring bulbs and, later in the year, its dahlia collection. We loaded the unsuspecting kids into the car, drove the hour and a half to the island and walked across the bridge from the mainland.

It was a spring wonderland (not exactly the ‘magical island’ I may have promised the three year old when she started querying our destination, but pretty close).

We wandered around the island – it’s only one kilometre long and just over half a kilometre wide, so it was perfectly manageable for the small people and allowed their flower loving mama plenty of time to ooh and aah.

The island was quite popular – not only with other spring loving tourists, but also with thousands of teeny tiny flies. If you squint, you can see them in the first snap below. You wouldn’t have needed to squint to get an understanding of our Adelaide’s thoughts on the flies; her flailing of arms and screeching could be seen and heard on the mainland.

The island also has a butterfly enclosure, a petting zoo and an epic adventure playground for little people. After I had tested my family’s floral limits to the max we enjoyed the latter, the kids tuckering themselves out for the return drive to Switzerland.

As we left the island – in the early afternoon, as our little ones still need a nap (and in an ideal world their parents would get one too) – we heaved a sigh of relief that we had gone early. The queues to get onto the island were astounding; I’d forgotten about European Summer Madness. Patting ourselves on the back all the way out of the shockingly congested car park (we have also gotten used to Swiss efficiency) we decided to try our luck one last time at the cherry blossoms. This time, we decided to head to Frick, a tiny town known for its cherry blossom trail. As the children slept, I kept everything crossed as we approached the town, glancing out the window in the hopes that the blossoms would be there.

I was not disappointed. Mainau & Frick-280The Cherry Trail (Chriesiwäg) is a signposted walk that is most popular during the 6-8 day period in spring where the cherry trees flower, although it can also be walked in early summer when you are allowed to sample the fruit from the trees (Ads has demanded that we return for this. I am telling myself it is due to a love of nature, but really I know it’s due to a love of the eats). It starts in the town of Gipf-Oberfrick and follows a mostly dirt trail up a hill, looping around the town and through the cherry orchards which have close to 10,000 fruit trees. The walk is around 5km long and was the perfect spring Sunday afternoon stroll.

Because this blossom-following lark seems to be an inexact science, the trees were a mixture of green leaves (finished the bloom), half-and-half (which was most of the trees along the way) and a few brilliant white fully blooming wonders. We – and all the other people on the trail – used the latter as our best photo-posing spot.

Like everything here, the path is well maintained and well marked. There are 11 information panels along the way, giving tips about the trees, the uses of cherries, and the bees that make honey from the flowers whose hives were symbiotically mingled amidst the orchards. This did not go down so well with the little miss: flies on one outing and buzzing buzzing bees on another did not a happy three year old make.

Three year old, schmee year old: I loved the whole day, and my spring-lust has almost been sated. We’re due a trip to the Netherlands, home of the tulip, in the coming days so I am sticking with the ‘almost’, just in case. (Also, I’ll be using the holiday to look out for that old tourist swan couple, the long suffering swan husband indulging his swan Mrs in her love for all things floral.)

Flashback

Can one really flashback to only a week ago? In my defence, Easter seems like a bazillion years ago, or at least the laundry piles in my house imply that a significant amount of time has passed. (Yeah, I know that could also be chalked up to bad Hausfrau-ing. Or excellent Hausfrau-ing, depending on which way you look at it.) Our Easter was also extended this year: we had some lovely Irish houseguests which elongated the standard four days of celebration to a whole happy week. At any rate, get yourselves set for a festive blast from the (very recent) past.

I remember many years ago – when I still talked about kids with slight disdain and would snort audibly if anyone asked if I would ever have one – a friend of mine had recently had her first squawker and was talking about the things she most liked (I’m not sure if she discussed the things she didn’t rate. I certainly remember her being far more zen than I was as an early mother am). One of the things she was most excited about was creating family specific traditions, based on things she herself had cherished but with her new family’s own twists, knitting them together in shared experience and memories. I always thought this concept was appealing and sweet, but had little idea how much I would totally embrace it once my own (no longer disdained or snorted-about) offspring arrived.

Like the vast majority of human beings, I eat and enjoy food. I want my family to do the same. I particularly want my family, and all the people around us, to do this when there is some sort of reason to celebrate, to spend time together, to reflect on and savour where we’re at. Seasons, and seasons of life, pass so quickly. Recognising and acknowledging this passage while grounding the change in familiar senses – taste, smell, touch – is for me reassuring, secure. I hope that it will have the same effect, one day, for my two little snotters.

This year, we busted out again our favourite Easter bread: Aachener Poschwek.6D386717-9E13-4F26-B07D-10CE0E506954.jpgIt’s a German bread, rich with butter, almonds, sultanas and whole sugar cubes that is served to break the fasting of Lent (which we totally observe in our household, yikes). It’s heaven warm with (even more) butter, and tastes even better still when made by your eleven year old house guest.

Jack, said eleven year old, had already proved his culinary prowess a few days previously when for Gründonnerstag – Green Thursday (or Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, depending on what your background is) he commenced what I hope will become a delicious tradition for both our families. I’d seen a recipe for the German Grüner Kuchen (green cake), a savoury dish made with a range of greens – spring onions and parsley, in this case – meant to herald the arrival of spring and refresh the body and soul following the winter. I was super keen to try it, and no sooner had I mentioned it than Jack volunteered his services. Never one to miss the opportunity to watch another person labouring in my kitchen, I was delighted for him to give it a go. He made a yeasted bread base, over which he poured the greens-based custard, and topped it off with a bread crumb and bacon crust. It was heavenly, and I hope it graces our Easter table for years to come, especially as our little baker copied Jack’s every move.

No Easter – and especially one in Switzerland – could in good conscience (or good taste) be complete without….DIY chocolate, courtesy of the local chocolate factory. I’d intended the activity to be for primarily for Jack and Alex – the two older kids – but of course there was no way my little bunnies were going to let the action pass them by. While Addie decorated (how creepy, but also how logical, are those eye-ears?), cheeky Teddles crammed his little cheeks with as many candies as he could get past his mother’s (not so watchful, as I was equally busy cramming) eye.IMG_3405.jpgAfter all this feasting there was another Easter tradition to observe: Mount Titlis. We’d first gone up two years ago at Easter, and Tim ventured up for a terrifying day of Easter skiing last year. This year, Good Friday was the perfect day for the ascent, with clear blue skies after a week of rainy days. The braver of the crew (ie not me, as evidenced by the coffee below) embarked on the Titlis cliff walk, Europe’s highest suspension bridge which frankly is pure Easter idiocy (they were obviously all fine, and all duly impressed).

We also ventured inside the surprisingly dry glacial cave, carved out of 5000 year old ice, complete with creepy ice monsters (aka my offspring).

Following the departure of our guests, we took our chickens to see some chickens. A tradition in Luzern, every year the Natur-Museum hosts eggs that hatch into chicks over the Easter weekend. In years past, children were able to pick up the teeny tiny birds, but due to (completely reasonable) changes in animal rights requirements, they are now no longer able to be kid-handled. We still got to see all the action: eggs hatching in front of our eyes, baby birds clumsily moving with still-wet feathers, little birds flocking around their mama and playing tumble, just like our littles do most evenings.

The final Easter event was again aimed at counteracting the chocolates found on the slightly early Saturday egg hunt: a hike over the Zugerberg. Tim’s work is slap bang between Luzern and Zug; we tossed up for a while which town would better suit our family when we first moved here (sorry, Rotkreuz, you were never even in the running). Obviously we ended up in Luzern, but we’re shameless enough to still cash in on all Zug has to offer. The Zugerberg is a mountain rising above Lake Zug which we’d previously  discounted given the proximity of Pilatus and Rigi. Joke was on us, as we soon found out.IMG_5064.jpg A kids’ trail which loops around the peak of the mountain opened late last year. It has a dozen or so stations which tell the story of forest animals whose houses were destroyed by a storm, the cave dwarves who helped them rebuild their homes, and a stolen diamond haul. Kids have to hunt for the diamonds throughout the walk, following clues and completing physical tasks as they go. Ads loved it, following the tale and trail with much excitement. She has been talking about the villainous thieving frog Amadeus ever since, with little attention given to the boring do-gooders of the story. I’m secretly proud, but suspect this speaks badly of us both.

Foolishly, we hadn’t expected there to be much snow left, but it also made for an idyllic walk. Tim’s favourite weather is the crispy snow in the gleaming sun, and this beautiful day did not disappoint.

And of course, to round out the Easter weekend and help with walk-related bribes (evil Amadeus only got us so far) we had to turn back to our old faithful: food. Happily the Easter Bunny left enough treats to see us well into the hike, and dodgy ol’ Amadeus didn’t get his hands on any of these treasures.IMG_5120.jpgAlthough the celebration is long over (and my laundry long ignored), we have many memories tucked away from this weekend to pull out and cherish. We’re still making our way through Easter eggs, although not through lack of asking on the kids’ part. There’s a chunk of the Aachener Poschwek in the freezer, biding its time until it’s rediscovered and summons forth recollections of little Jack baking, of kind Alex playing with our tiny Teddy, of our friends and their favourite rosé, and of the melting snow dripping away, changing seasons in front of our eyes.

For the love of alliums

This post was supposed to be about the glorious Thurgau apricot blossoms. In news which may not surprise you, I have become / continue to be a little spring obsessed. I am doing regular rubber-necked drives past the nearby bulb farm to time my visit with maximum blumage. There’s a cherry blossom walk in Frick, a town not too far away, that I’ve been contacting a couple of times a week to make sure we capitalise on the eight day delicate pink flower window for our cherry farm hike. And there’s a tulip barometer on Mainau island just over the German border that I am watching with borderline mania. So when I heard about the apricot trees a few hours away, I rehearsed my best German to call Madame Bluescht, the keeper of the blossoms. It turns out her English was excellent (so I can’t blame translation) and she assured me that although the cherries and apples were yet to flower, the apricots were out all over the valley and were worth a visit. We were heading roughly that way anyway – Tim is currently in Sicily ‘working’, the lucky bugger – and we bundled the poor unknowing children into the car to allow me to get my weekend’s quota of oohs and aahs.

I’m not blaming the good Madame, and nor will I reflect on my own ability to cross check information, however there was nary an apricot bloom to be seen. There were hundreds of trees, laden with buds, that will be spectacular in a few weeks but obviously that didn’t deliver much happiness to a spring hungry mama and her two now confused and grumpy children (Sicily-bound Tim knew not to push his luck with any remonstrating, and kept sensibly quiet throughout the whole debacle).

Therefore, instead of the white froth of gorgeousness that is apricot trees flowing en mass in spring, I am pleased to bring you….garlic.

IMG_5226.jpgNaturally it’s not any old garlic. This enormous crop is bärlauch, or bear’s leek, which is available for a few weeks this time of year. I’ve bought it a few times at the market – it makes heavenly pesto and soup and risotto – but that was before I realised it was available for the taking if you don’t mind a bit of a walk in the forest.

Yesterday, a ridiculously perfect spring day in die Schwyz, saw a group of us doing this garlic-laden circular walk around the Walensee waterfall. It was an adventure packed day, starting with a terrifying one-way drive, which was timed to make sure no cars met en route as a total impasse would have been reached. As we finally pulled into the already packed parking area, several nails bitten down to the quick (ok, all of them belonging to me), we saw people mobilising for the day ahead. Hikers with their poles barged forward, a few carrying gear that implied an overnight stay was intended. Many people were laying rugs and eyeing off the hammock hung scenically towards the lake. A few people were setting out in canoes and one very brave couple was donning drysuits and tanks to explore the startlingly clear depths of the lake.

Much more prosaically, we got walking.

The track was broad and well maintained and easy to follow. It took us gently uphill – the two older toddlers managing the two kilometre climb admirably, pausing only occasionally for Easter-egg-banana-bread bribes. As we walked we spotted treasure chests along the way – a feature set up to keep kids entertained – as well as many spring delights for the flower loving mama in the crowd.

At the top of the hill the trail flattened out to a grassy plain. On one side, the waterfall:

and on the other, the lake.

We didn’t need much convincing to put down the rug and pull out the thermos. As we explored the area close to the waterfall, we could smell the garlic well before we’d registered what it was. As it turns out, I am totally into the aroma of stinky ol’ garlic but if it’s not your favourite treat, this is not the time of year for you. IMG_5227.jpgWe were treated to one blooming tree – and to be fair, it’s a pretty good one, strategically placed across the lake with mountains in the background. But would you eat a pesto made from those flowers? I think not. Garlic, you’re my true spring love after all. IMG_5232.jpg

The Western Front

Since returning home from our holidays – a solid six weeks ago –  we’ve been on the down low. All is quiet, as they say. It was necessary for multiple reasons: my liver’s health, our bank account’s health, the fact that I am now a bazillion years old, extensive expected and unexpected travel for Tim, and the absolutely ridiculous weather that accosted us there for a spell.

We have always enjoyed visitors but last month we had our first unwelcome one: the Siberian front, or ‘the Beast from the East’, which hit most of Europe. We had lows of -12 and highs of -1, and there was a snow / ice / snow ice thing going on for the better part of a fortnight. I try to observe the ‘no bad weather only bad clothes’ mantra, but to be frank: it’s bloody bollocks. Sadly the three year old did not agree, so most days saw me reluctantly spending half an hour rugging us all up, heading into the biting cold for maybe a lap of the block during which Teddles would manage to take off and throw away three quarters of his warm clothing, and then heading back home to disrobe again. Exciting stuff. (Don’t get me wrong: I love the snow days, but only when I am not outnumbered by the clothes-shedding terrors. We’ve had some fab mountain times this winter, but they are not our every day. I shall not let that deter me from visually representing it as such, however.)

The quiet life has suited us, though. Always one for routine, I’ve appreciated the return to our (possibly dull and predictable, but I’ll go with cosy and satisfying) rhythm. It’s been good for the brats too. They travel marvellously, but have clearly been relieved to return home. (Addie had been concerned that ‘The Family’, the creepy Manson-esque moniker of the doll house occupants, had been crying as they had missed her.) Baby Bear has punched out his first few words. Like his sister, I am furious to note that his first was ‘Dad’. I am not sure about my thoughts on his second; I oscillate between amusement and pride that he has chosen to say ‘cracker’ before he says ‘mum’. We’ve also spent a lot of time utilising our newly acquired Swiss Pass, which lets us into a bunch of galleries and museums, most of which I wouldn’t even have known about let alone bothered with, and that’s given us a pleasant distraction from Old Beasty as well.

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We’ve started a family routine of completing a nature journal each night. It’s a guided diary that helps you set nature-related goals (drinking outside totally counts, FYI), be aware of simple changes around you, and gives you basic things to observe (this week, the change in daylight. We need to mark the sun rise and sunset and note the different light, the different feel of our days). During dinner we discuss something we’ve seen or done, and we draw it. I am no artist but there is something liberating about judgement- and pressure-free drawing. We’re three months in and it’s still a pleasure. (What is not so enjoyable is the children’s clear favouritism for their father’s artwork. Ingrates.)

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We’ve also fallen into a particularly delightful period where we have our own family lingo and understandings. As you might note in the snap above, we love to look at ‘croissant moons’. We also carry ‘rainbrellas’ and ‘packbacks’, drink ‘cup-of-chinos’, and countless other little not-quite-right things that have now become our daily parlance. Nothing about this is remotely unusual, I know, but it makes the mundanity of our day-to-day feel special, ours.

Just in case I thought this slowness would last, suddenly in the last few days: it’s spring. SPRING! We saw the snowdrops emerging a few weeks ago, that first hint that there’s something new around the corner. Now there are the nubs of daffodils poking through the ground – no glorious yellow quite yet, but the telltale bulging tips are ripe for blooming any time now. We spied the first cluster of crocus (croci? crocuses?) the other day at the Glacier Garden in town (Addie was particularly excited by this as she has decided her favourite colour is purple and thus any purple anything is specifically put there for her enjoyment. As you can appreciate, seeing purple foil wrapped Easter eggs is currently a very difficult negotiation point). And on Friday afternoon, returning back from Spielegruppe, Ads ran over to me and proudly presented me with a dandelion. I was totally delighted, not least because the mother next to me was given a rock from her kid.

It feels that this stirring and rumbling is reflected in everything. The anticipation of warmer weather, the idyllic Swiss lakeside summer. The kids, who are – almost impossibly – every day more and more their own wee wonderful selves. (And sometime their own wee horrifically screamy selves.) Exciting new prospects for Tim, and also for me; nothing major but enough to have us scheming and planning and feeling alive. And just like that – with that first badly-drawn snowdrop – the ol’ Western front is no longer feeling quiet.