A week in Provence

My husband had a migraine yesterday. He’s started getting them periodically over the last year, and we’re still trying to work out the triggers, but one of them seems to be release of stress – he’s fine while the adrenalin is still pumping, but when things calm down his body protests. Apparently this is quite common, and the phenomenon is sometimes known as ‘weekend headaches’. In this case, however, the migraine came the day after we got home from a week’s holiday. I suggested that this time it could be straightforward nerves, as he is not only back to work today, but also starting a new job. He said it wasn’t, it was actually the release of stress after successfully completing our holiday, in particular the nine hour journey back from the South of France by train. Holiday planning and booking is very much husband’s job in our household, and apparently he was so stressed out by how annoyed I would be if he had messed up the bookings and we found ourselves stranded in Lille that it triggered a migraine. Oops. Note to self: Be nicer.

I wouldn’t say the journey home will go down as one of my favourite ever days. For a start we had been inadvertently booked in the quiet coach, and ‘quiet coach’ isn’t a concept you can really convey to a fifteen month old. Not an English one anyway. French children, apparently, not only refrain from throwing food, they have all taken a vow of silence. My attempts to exchange conspiratorial eye-rolls with other parents were met with frosty glares, and I actually thought the middle-aged woman across the aisle was going to spit on us. I felt slightly guilty about disrupting her journey, until I was pacing the vestibule area with Sophia and discovered that being a stickler for the rules on quiet carriages didn’t prevent her sneaking off to the loos for a sneaky fag or eight. Puh. However, none of this was my husband’s fault. And I didn’t shout at him. I just drip-fed Sophia raisins whilst internally exercising my A-level French to the max in order to compose cuttingly sarcastic comebacks which I would obviously never have the nerve to utter.

The week preceding the journey home was lovely, though. For a start we broke the outward journey with a blissful 24 hours in Paris, managing to cram in a walk along the Seine, people-watching and listening to live jazz in a street cafe, a sneaky coupe de champagne or deux, and a very decent amount of croissants, pains aux chocolats, quiche and profiteroles. Oh, and a four-hour stint kneeling on the wooden floor awkwardly leaning over the side of a travel-cot to which Sophia had taken exception, and would only consent to lie in if I stroked her tummy. Every 20 minutes or so she would look so deeply asleep I would think it was safe to withdraw, and every time eyes and mouth immediately snapped wide open. Finally, I discovered that singing to her had the same soothing effect without crippling me, so I lay in bed next to her, singing lullabies until fell asleep, and I assume she must have done too.

We were staying  the rest of the week in Marseille. Anna is now a huge fan of Marseille, largely because the flat we were staying in had a hammock in the bedroom and a treehouse in the garden. I was slightly less sure. The people were so warm and friendly, and the views from the many hills were spectacular, but there was a bit too much graffiti, noise, dog poo and dangerous driving for my lamentably Northern European sensibilities. However. We ate some truly fantastic food. Fresh seafood in a cafe where you chose what you wanted from an enormous ice-chipped counter, and then they cooked it for you fresh. With mountains of the best chips I’ve ever tasted. And home-made alioli. Stuffed vegetables and gratin dauphinoise from our local traiteur. Mille-feuille. Local strawberries. Cheese. Pate. Fresh bread and pastries. Ratatouille. Crepes. To be honest I’ve never totally ‘got’ French food before this trip, always finding it a little bit too rich and heavy and lacking in vegetables. Maybe my tastes have changed, but I also think that Provencal cooking has much more emphasis on loads of fresh vegetables to accompany the inevitable cheese/butter/cream fest, and I prefer it for that. Anyway, I came home 1lb lighter, despite eating like a pig all week!

We also had fantastic trips to Les Calanques – the dramatic rocky cliffs and coves around Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. The weather was mixed, but good enough that my beloved Saltwater sandals got their first outing of 2016 and we could introduce Sophia to the delights of paddling.

The nicest thing about the week, though, was some proper family time uninterrupted by the demands of housework, paid work, school and all our various mobile devices. Absolute bliss. And now my husband has recovered from the migraine seemingly brought on by terror of me losing my temper, we all feel refreshed and ready for the new term. salawaters


That was the summer

It’s been a long time since my last blog, and the summer holiday has passed in a whirl with barely a chance to catch my breath, let alone do any writing. It was Anna’s first day back at school this morning, and walking through the gates it felt as though the last six weeks hadn’t happened. It definitely did, though, and has been an incredibly busy time.

We travelled to seven different European countries by train (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, Spain), in a crazy, action-packed, fun-filled sixteen days which encompassed learning (and then rapidly forgetting) how to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you in five different languages, eating schnitzel, strudel, goulash, sheeps cheese filled dumplings, mussels, pizza, spaghetti, paella, salt cod croquettes, tortilla, custard filled croissants, sea snails and a LOT of gelato, swimming in the sea, exploring Roman remains and a mountain top theme park, Venetian calle and Spanish ramblas, and journeys by high speed train, sleeper train, metro, coach, bus, taxi, boat, gondola, tram, funicular railway, trolley bus and aeroplane. We were variously attacked by vicious mosquitos, over-active automatic doors and poisonous seaweed. We watched the sun set over the river Danube, took a boat the length of the Grand Canal and ate tapas in candlelit Spanish squares. It was utterly magical, and we created a lot of very happy family memories.

There were lots of adventures back in the UK too, with trips to Liverpool, New Brighton, Speke Hall, Chester Zoo, the Museum of Childhood, innumerable playgrounds, and the Festival of Love on the South Bank. Anna completed the Magical Maze summer reading challenge at our local library and a week’s crash course of swimming lessons, baked a chocolate hedgehog cake, picked and ate vegetables from Grandad’s garden, and built a zoo’s worth of Lego animals with Uncle Matt. We had playdates with friends (ours and Anna’s!), I met my oldest friend’s gorgeous new baby boy and we said goodbye to my cousins-in-law who moved to the US a few weeks ago. We went to our twenty week scan together and Anna had her first, rather grainy, view of her new sibling. Lest all this sound too blissful, we also had no less than six increasingly fractious trips to different shoe shops in what seemed like a doomed attempt to find school shoes which fitted Anna’s feet and both mine and Anna’s practical and aesthetic requirements. After all that, the weather is so nice today that she has gone back to school in slightly-too-small sandals! There were also a few sessions with the nit comb and then a trepidatious visit to the hairdressers where, thankfully, we were declared nit-free and Anna had a hair cut which should hopefully enable her to actually be able to see her new teacher today.

So now I’ve got that back to school feeling. We waved Anna off in the playground – she and all her classmates seeming to have grown several inches over the summer – and although I’ve been looking forward to school starting and a little time to myself, I’m now counting the minutes until 3.10pm when I can find out how her first day in Year One went. 

If all continues to go well with my pregnancy (twenty-four weeks, five days and counting!) then I have a window of a little over three months to get our lives sorted out. In no particular order I have to: edit my short story, write the first draft of my third novel, get our old baby stuff down out of the loft, discover it’s been attacked by mice and/or moths and replace half of it, transform the spare room into a nursery, start taking some kind of pregnancy-friendly exercise, stock the freezer with wholesome meals to minimise our reliance on takeaways come January and make sure all our preparations for Christmas completed by the end of November so that I’m not trying to wrap presents while breastfeeding a newborn. Oh yes, and try and stock up on the naps and early nights which will soon be in short supply, whilst also spending lots of quality time with Anna in her last few months as an only child. Which all sounds perfectly do-able. Happy September everyone! 


Summer holidays

chateau-de-pornic-201-1A couple of months ago the seven weeks of school holidays loomed very large in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter to bits, but now she’s used to the stimulation and companionship of nursery I was worried that seven weeks home alone with mummy would prove rather wearing for both of us. In my panicked efforts to avoid this, and to catch up with various friends and relatives, I seem to have inadvertently organised the Helen & Anna Summer Roadshow.

Two weeks into the holidays and we’ve already clocked up a day trip to Cambridgeshire and a week in Nantes. Tomorrow we set off for the North West leg of the show – a weekend in Manchester with my brother and sister-in-law, and then five days in Liverpool with my parents, sans husband as he doesn’t get a seven week holiday. There’s then two days to catch our breath before we set off for a week’s family holiday, another home exchange, in Corsica. After that we have ten days at home before rounding things off with a couple of days on the Kent coast.

Our day trip to St Neots gave me the opportunity to catch up with my best friend and her husband and baby son, and then (almost as exciting) a trip to the Cath Kidston Factory Shop which is a 10 minute drive from hers. I acquired a red spotty tray, some baby blue melamine salad servers, a retro luggage-label style travel first aid kit and a strawberry print purse. Very restrained, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Nantes is a really vibrant city, which actually reminded us quite a lot of East London, and my Liverpool home, with its self-confident reincarnation of an old dockside economy into an artistic and cultural hub. It’s also only a half hour drive from the seaside – beautiful stretches of sandy, salty beaches. This meant I could indulge my passion for swimming in the sea which was fabulous, but had a downside in Anna’s throwaway comment of “Isn’t it funny the way wearing a swimming costume makes your tummy look like there’s a baby growing in it, Mummy?”. In an older child that might have been cheeky, but this was said with complete innocence and, thank God, a complete lack of consciousness that a rounded stomach might not necessarily be a positive thing. I’ve decided to take comfort from the fact that this observation clearly means that I don’t look pregnant the 98% of the time I’m not in swimwear, and to renew my resolution to do more exercise once Anna starts school.

We went with friends whose little boy is Anna’s best friend from nursery, and they had such a lovely time playing together:

“Daddy, when me and S are staying in the same house, it’s just like we’re twins, isn’t it?”

Add that to the fact that the home exchange family whose house we were staying in had left us with custody of their two cats, two chickens, two fish and one bunny rabbit, not to mention sandpit, paddling pool, trampoline, swing and slide, and you begin to see why we’re developing a miserable conviction that no other holiday we take Anna on will ever quite match up to this one. Although I was reassured yesterday when she confided, “Mummy, I really, really, really like holidays, but I like our house most of all.” Phew.




Home Exchange


When I decided not to go back to work after Anna was born we had to do a lot of very careful budgeting to ensure that we could still afford to live. Everything we spent money on got listed, and we worked out what we could still afford. Some things – mortgage, council tax, fuel bills etc were a given, as was food, although the way I shop and cook had to change significantly. We allocated sums of money for clothes, shoes, one-off household expenses, mobile phone bills, travel costs within London etc, and with a few tweaks here and there (and me coming to the painful realisation that clothes shopping could no longer feature as one of my primary recreational activities), it all looked as though it was working out.

Then we realised that we’d failed to allocate any money for holidays, and that, no matter which way we looked at it, there just wasn’t going to be a lot of money left over. On Twitter this would no doubt be hashtagged as a first worldproblem, and of course it is. However, travel is very important to us, and we want Anna to grow up with a sense of adventure too, so finding a solution mattered.

I’d just been reading India Knight’s fabulous book Thrift (my go-to solution to any problem being to read a book on the subject), and she suggested home exchanges as a great way of holidaying for virtually nothing. I suddenly thought that maybe we could give that a whirl. The more we considered it, the more advantages there seemed to be. Hotels with small children are miserable – who wants to be confined to their room, eating an over-priced room service burger, unable to talk above a whisper every night of their holiday? Or even downstairs in the hotel restaurant, baby monitor balanced precariously on table, refusing to talk in case you miss something, and sending your husband up to ‘just check’ every five minutes anyway. No, of course I’m not speaking from experience…

With a home exchange you can put your child to bed and retire to a comfortable living room, and then maybe cook dinner with some lovely local ingredients you picked up at the market earlier. You don’t have to worry about finding restaurants which cater to picky toddler appetites, because if all else fails you can pop to the supermarket and buy a bag of pasta. And, as it often seems to be families with young children who go in for home exchange, your little darling has a whole set of new toys to play with, and you don’t have to worry about carting all the changing mat/highchair/travel cot paraphenalia with you.

It’s absolutely fascinating getting a window into someone else’s way of living, and you get far more of a handle on the country’s culture by actually living it. Our first home exchange was to Paris, and it went perfectly. Despite my panics about the house being trashed in some way, it was left immaculate, and our exchange partner even fixed a dodgy hinge on a cupboard door for us. Then we had a non-simultaneous exchange last summer – we went to Santa Margarita on the Italian Riviera for a blissful 1o days in May, and then descended on first my parents and then my husband’s during the Olympics so that the Italian couple could stay in our house (in a host borough, I might add). The Italian Riviera is notorious as a playground of the rich and famous, and accommodation prices are eyewateringly expensive – we could never have afforded that holiday in any other way, and yet it was one of the best we’ve ever had. We had a week in Strasbourg last autumn, staying in a city centre apartment with views of the cathedral. And now we’ve just got back from an impulsive bank holiday weekend in Amsterdam, organised just a week in advance.

In every case, our exchange partners, with whom we communicate by email, text and phone prior to and, if necessary, during, the exchange have been totally charming and friendly, and have taken impeccable care of our house. The website we use is basically internet dating for houses, with enticing photos and glowing descriptions galore. My biggest worry at first was that no-one would want to swap with us – how exciting can a bog-standard Victorian terrace in East London be? Very, turned out to be the answer. Living in London it is easy to forget that it is one of the most visited cities in the world for a reason, and we are surrounded by amazing attractions and sights which people will travel vast distances to experience. And as London is also an incredibly expensive city, with even the most basic hotel room costing upwards of £100 a night, the attraction of staying for free in a comfortable family home is suddenly a little clearer.

And although we haven’t gone far afield, with exchanges to France, Italy and The Netherlands, nonetheless the culture shocks can be quite amazing, and I’m sure that works both ways. The house we stayed in in Amsterdam was very modern, and kitted out with every mod con. Turning on the downstairs lights required a page of instructions and a remote control with fourteen buttons. The self-cleaning whirlpool bath had a whole booklet of instructions. And one of the highlights of the holiday was speculating on just what the robot, which the note from our hosts informed us came out between 1330 and 1430, might get up to. We found some of these gadgets slightly intimidating, but the poor Dutch family arriving at our house must have felt they were plumbing the depths of Dickensian squalor. Our most modern gadget is probably the microwave, and given that I inherited that from my nan, and  it wasn’t new when she died nearly eight years ago, it isn’t exactly the latest model. We have no walk-in shower, no jacuzzi bath, and the only thing with a remote control is our tiny 12 inch telly. I did leave them some homemade muffins, though.

We’re currently planning an August exchange to Corsica, and have grand plans for venturing beyond Europe next year, and frankly it is down to home exchange that we can afford these breaks, and aren’t looking forward to another long weekend in Skegness.