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.

We came, we ate, we conquered

A few weeks ago, in a moment of rare downtime on our Australian adventure, I was sitting on a balcony overlooking Manly Cove. Dozens of tiny white sail boats skitted around, eclipsed occasionally by the lumbering green and gold ferry puling into port. The waves gently lapped against the rocks and there was a light breeze carrying the faintest whiff of frangipani perfume. The sun, for once not overwhelmingly hot during the down-under heat wave, was on my toes and a Zooper Dooper (my second, or possibly even third) was in my gob. Our holiday, while wonderful, was not even remotely relaxing and this moment was a delicious stolen treat, just for me.

In hindsight, our first trip home as a family of four could never have been anything other than epic. We road tripped close to 4500kms, dissecting the south eastern part of Australia, primarily in order to see our assorted grandparents and introduce little Bear to his great-grandparents. The road trip had the additional advantage of taking us close to dear friends all around the country, so although exhausting – at one stage Tim declared ‘I think we’ve reached our limits as a family’ – it was absolutely worth it.

We were not alone in our endeavours, as we were joined by Addie’s two imaginary friends, BetterBird and Ton. We have no idea where these guys came from but can only assume she met AverageBird and didn’t much care for him, and maybe didn’t hear Tom’s name quite correctly. We got to know the pair of them reasonably well during the many hours spent together in the car. BetterBird does not like to wear sunscreen, apparently, but he’s nowhere near as frightening as my friend’s son’s imaginary buddy Crazy Jack, who lives in the drain and has slime for arms.

January flew by. We greeted 2018 in Our Nation’s Capital, where we prepared our offspring for future political greatness (or at the very least, nepotism).

We swang by Melbourne, where our lass indulged in her love of amusement parks, giving her first ever roller coast a whiz. Although somewhat dubious at first, by the time she’d made it halfway through the first lap she was sold, possibly due to the support of BetterBird and Ton in the seat right behind her.Melbourne-085The last few weeks were spent – hectically – in our old stomping ground of Sydney where we tried to maximise beach time, catch ups and eating as much as possible. The kids got wholeheartedly on board. Teddy drew a crown of stunned waiters at his first yum cha experience, marvelling at the sheer amount of dumplings and noodles being shoved in his tiny face (or perhaps they were shocked at his mama, who was doing similar). Some days later, in a complete non sequitur, Laides declared happily to her uncle ‘I love yum cha’. I’ve rarely been more proud.

There were tough times, of course: teething Ted, tantrumming Ads, a Weird Mouth Disease I suffered for most of the holiday, Sydney traffic and general busyness, a wallet lost on our very last day. Downtime was infrequent, and restful it most certainly was not. As always, the highlights far outweighed these pickles. A weekend ‘away’ on Sydney’s Northern beaches with the kids’ Guidefather and a bunch of other good friends. Addie laughing uproariously as she learned to jump waves. A stolen afternoon where Tim and I were kid free and saw a really bad movie in the middle of the day, followed by a truly excellent (and, amusingly, Swiss) art exhibition. Watching the cousins play together in their abstract, frantic way. A play! In English! An Australia Day wreck dive just off South Head, where we saw shark eggs and schools of catfish, and Tim spied an enormous cuttlefish doing its crazy cuttlefish thing. And in possibly the most indulgent of all treats, I was surprised with a birthday party with all my favourite people present (except my kids, which of course made it even sweeter). We lunched, and boozed, and carried on until well into the early hours. It was heavenly. (Although the following morning I felt every year of the age I was about to turn.)

And now we’re home, back in Luzern. The return flight, while dastardly, is becoming a distant memory and will likely only linger as long as the jetlag remains (which, fingers crossed, has now been nailed). It’s my actual birthday today and, all things considered, 40 isn’t feeling too horrid. Sure, I’m on a post-holiday detox, and it’s sludge-snowing, and half of my offspring won’t let go of my leg, but I’m feeling optimistic – in a way I’ve not in a long time – about the year ahead. We’re happy to be home, to have had valuable breathing and contemplating space away, and to have another wonderful home to return to whenever we like. Not that there will be much yum cha left to eat there, after my two bottomless pits came and ate and conquered.

The Plains

In a tale I am slightly embarrassed to recount, last summer we had to take an emergency trip to the doctor for little Ads. She had woken up with a nasty bite on her hand. We could see fang-like puncture marks, and her little wrist had puffed with the glossy shine of early infection. Not being able to recall the various German topical creams we’d purchased, and fairly sure she had been bitten by something poisonous, we decided to leg it to the paediatrician. We secured an emergency appointment and I carefully monitored the ever swelling limb as we waited. Our doctor – an older Swiss gentleman who does medical volunteer work on his holidays, and who told me with gentle concern that in Switzerland ‘Teddy’ is also a child’s toy – saw my worried face and ushered us in. He inspected little Addie’s tender arm and after a few questions turned to me seriously. ‘In Switzerland the most dangerous creature is the bumble bee. And it’s only dangerous if you’re allergic to it. Adelheid has a mosquito bite and is perfectly fine.’ The wrist deflated there and then as my paranoia was completely cured.

He had me pegged though: Australia is a land of the vicious and brutal. This morning, stepping out of our self-titled luxury (disclosure: it wasn’t) motel room on the outskirts of Hay, a barefoot Addie foolishly skipped outside, prompting an unholy scream when she stepped on a bindi-eye almost the size of her brother’s fist. A few days ago, at our combined family Christmas holiday on the south coast of NSW, Tim was taking a dip in the tidal Shoalhaven river when a fluther of lightly stinging jelly fish casually drifted past him. The flies are the size of Cessners and some of them actually bite you. Late last night, driving between my home town and the illustrious establishment where we ended up staying the night, a kangaroo the size of an enormous Australian double fridge bounded in front of the car, with a slight, seemingly smug, sideward glance as he narrowly missed turning us into roadkill. Unlike our adopted home, where the worst that can be mustered is a fuzzy striped-sweater-wearing buzzer, my country has balls. That doesn’t justify my hypochondria, I realise, but perhaps goes a little way to explaining it.

We’ve been back almost two weeks. The flight went better than we could have hoped. The youngest family member slept for a significant part of it. There was an excellent playground during our layover, allowing for tiny person exhaustion. The food was, well, airplane food, but due to the excellent slumbering of my bear I even managed a drink on board. Once we arrived in brutally hot Sydney, the kids had celebrated  birthdays. (One! Three! How?!) Aunty Soph and Uncle Pip were both birthday cake champions, with birthday morning deliveries on consecutive days and a gasp-inducing ice-cream cake (its predecessor made for last year’s birthday inspires discussion to this day).

Our week long family bonanza was an exercise in cultural assimilation for our brats. Slap bang on the Shoalhaven, we were serenaded at 5am not only by by my teething boy but also by a cackle of kookaburras which delighted Addie as she gleefully identified the Old Gum Trees in which they sat. Kangaroos flocked the premises at dawn and dusk (even boxing a few times in a display of most excellent caricaturisation) and one delightful night we spied a wombat plodding his way to the river banks. There was a splendid day at the beach where the gentle lapping of Honeymoon Bay was similar enough to the lake at home not to terrify my wave-phobic children, and endless hours of Lord of The Flies cousin time.

We are currently also bang in the middle of possibly the most foolhardy part of our trip: driving the Hay Plains with two small children. As a kid, we’d often spend our holidays with my grandparents in the Barossa Valley. We’d be bundled, semi conscious pre-dawn, into the already packed family van and my parents would drive through the wee hours. I remember waking, eyes as dry as the surrounding land and limbs as craggy as the lonely trees on the horizon, to watch the sun rise across the Hay Plains. There’s a particular scent to the area. It’s in the reddish dust, as if the colour has somehow seeped into an odour. It’s the memory of rain, or perhaps the hope for it. It’s the heat, heavy and immobile, and the dry grass, shrubs, bindi-eyes. The second I left the motel (responding to the shrieks of my first born) I was greeted by it, an old friend long forgotten yet so familiar. On these family road trips, we were allowed the rare and exciting treat of Fruit Loops, a ludicrously sweet and impossibly coloured cereal. In years since I have wondered at the wisdom of loading kids in enclosed space up with sugar, a position I flagrantly ignored this morning when buying breakfast at the local completely country bakery. I couldn’t help but fall into the same trap when Adelaide turned to me, eyes wide and excited, and asked ‘Mummy! Is that a…lamington?’Barossa-023This first half of the road trip is 1300kms. We had originally planned to leave the south coast, stop for dinner and drive the long barren stretch overnight (much like the blacked out van rumoured to do a drug run from Adelaide to Wagga in the early naughties, lights off in full stealth mode), however a non-sleeping child got the better of us and we opted instead to stay overnight in that salubrious establishment previously mentioned. I’m pleased we did. Although this lengthy trip is taking a chunk of time of our precious holiday, we’re spending it in the thick of the country, with nothing to do but gaze across the elusive horizon. We’ll roll into the lovely Barossa around lunch, see my sweet grandmother and introduce her to our sticky little boy (thanks, travel snacks), and ensure we have time to sample at least a few hearty Aussie reds. Then we’ll turn around and drive back again tomorrow, stopping for the night in my home town. It’s a lot of road time, but it’s filled with a mix of nostalgia and awe. Nostalgia for the many trips I made as a kid – those sugary breakfasts, mango Weiss bars at the border, dumping uneaten fruit at quarantine zones, driving the Plains tediously on my Ls – and later, with Tim for family Christmases, a few annualversaries and cheeky winery getaways. Awe, of course, for the beauty that is outback Australia.Barossa-008-2

It’s the exact opposite of the alps. Flat, brown, expansive. The sky is everything. You can see weather brewing miles away, grey smudges here and pockets of powdery blue there, but the vast deception of the heavens never allows you to pinpoint where – or even if – it’s actually occurring. It’s been two and a half years since we relocated, and much longer since we’ve driven the Plains. But now that we’ve spent the last few hours getting reacquainted it feels like we never left. And maybe that’s the best part of holidays of all.