Returning home: a month of school later….

It’s been back to school for nearly a month now after our almost-year away in a campervan. What’s it like to come home and settle into the old/a new routine again?

A friend asked me yesterday if our wanderlust had returned yet. To be honest, for me it never goes away. It just needs to be kept in check from time to time. Time. It’s an awfully precious, never to be repeated thing. So what we are trying to do right now, is make the most of it.

French stone house


It’s a loooong day to get reused to, 8am to 6pm, and there seems slightly less toleration on the part of the kids at the many examples of time wasted; study classes because there are not enough teaching hours to fill every day, producing or doing very little in a lesson (less so for Adam, because I think by that age all the students have chosen to be there). Generally, it’s working for now.

All three have had umpteen continuous assessment tests. Matt came top of his class in his French test (French school so one of the main subjects) which suggests a year away can’t have done that much harm. The other two are the same. Both boys are enjoying the team element of sports. Katie is adjusting well to the jump from a 10-kid school to a 350-kid school (not including the few hundred at the upper part), with a year off in the middle. Kids generally adapt well if they know what’s coming.

The kids also know they have the option of homeschooling. We and they both now feel confident about that possibility, but for now, seeing friends and fitting in to normal school is what they want.


It’s nice to be back. It seems awfully fancy having a shower and a phone and a washing machine. It’s great to be with the dog again, we really missed him. The rooms seem huge and I feel a little sad when everyone disperses to their respective areas. It seems less together. It seems quite an effort to get everyone to the tea table at the same time. I miss weaving in and out one another to get from one side of the campervan to the other.

I’ve totally abandoned ironing. Probably forever.

We’ve set about making the living room warmer before the winter sets in, because we’re going to have a winter this year. Houses are harder to heat that campervans.

Campervan washing travelling
In the days of a manageable quota of underwear.

We feel as though we have an inordinate amount of clothes. I have at least 10 pairs of pants (underpants that is). Probably we have 50 pairs between us. Pants alone would have filled the campervan. We took a load of clothes to the charity shop before we left, knowing they’d be too small for the growing kids on our return. But even though, we hadn’t expected growth spurts of 6 inches, so there was more sorting to do. There is more washing because we have more stuff, it’s inevitable no matter how hard you try.

We’ve not played scrabble as much. In fact, not at all. School seems to be what is draining the energy.

Gardening vegetable patch France
Nice getting stuck into the veg patch again.
Cutting the grass.
Cutting the grass.

Getting back to a recycling system and recycling boxes has been good. It was something we missed when travelling, as there was very often little opportunity to dispose of rubbish let alone recycle it.

Watch out for toads crossing

I’ve watched telly once since I got back. And that was an all nighter for the Scottish referendum count. Strictly Come Dancing and X-Factor seem well off the radar.


Yeah, there’s heaps of that. It is France after all, where you need a 6-inch thick dossier just to get a family rail card. I reckon the paperwork must be the most off putting part of either moving abroad or going away for a year. The “system” just doesn’t like it. It can’t cope. It asks the same questions over and over as if you can’t possibly have survived doing something as radical as changing countries for a bit.

You need to re register for school – and boy are there lots of forms for that. You need to change all you insurances, the travel insurance, the health insurance, the school insurance, the bla bla bla. You need to reregister if you have children to receive child allowances if they exist where you are. You need to sort out a year of “pending” mail. We did a lot en route so that wasn’t too bad.

You need to be made of stern stuff to get through the paperwork mountain. You’ve got to take it a day at a time and remember how worth it doing something not on the “standard” list can be.


… so far things are good. The routine is still novel. I still want to see the Aurora Borealis up close.

Patchwork wool
On closer inspection, are we the only ones who keep inspection lights on the window ledge?

by Jen

Japanese bento box

Japan: The story of lunchboxes

In Japan lunchboxes are called bento boxes. Forget cheese sandwiches, a bag of crisps, a yoghurt and a brownish banana. Bento boxes are food and art combined. The food is served cold and is savoury, with a couple of bites of something sweet for the end.

Bento box Japanese
Food and art combined.

The bento box above comes from Imahan, one of the oldest and most famous bento box producers. They are famous for their beef boiled in soya sauce, but you can get fish options too.

The word “bento” originates from the word “convenient”. They have been on the go since the 12th century. Some can be very formal and are eaten in wooden or lacquered boxes in fancy restaurants, some are daily lunchboxes for work. Ekiben are bento boxes in train stations. Kyaraben are cute bento boxes for children, made with themed characters or in the shape of pandas or other animals. These days there are even competitions to see how artistic or cute a bento box can get. No pressure on a school morning then….

Picture by Melissa,
Picture by Melissa,

Have a look at this great blog post about “insanely cute” bento boxes…

This bento box is made around the time of a full moon. The “picture” is made of fish (tastes a bit like crab sticks) and the moon, cheese.

Bento box Japan
A bento box celebrating the full moon. Gee I love Japan.

The round balls to the right are made by boiling rice flour and adding red food colouring or green tea. They are “dessert” along with the apricot jelly mould and fruit just behind. One trick with a bento box is to work out first what the dessert is – it’s not always obvious. Thank you, Sayuki, for keeping me right.

The sticky rice in the centre is sprinkled with salt and poppy seeds.

Here are some more….. Almost too pretty to eat.

Japanese bento box

Japanese bento box

Japanese bento box


Japan: Tokyo – the wacky world of the maid cafe

Once you’ve tried a cat café, the next logical step is to try a maid café. There are lots of unusual places to have a coffee or a beer in town but one of the wackiest places must surely be a maid cafe. But Tokyo is Tokyo and I stand to be corrected on that.

From the minute you arrive in Japan you notice the massive cute culture. Everyone, from little ones to businessmen in suits, love cute. The initial idea with maid cafés was to cater for fans of anime and manga, and the idea behind the one we visited is to let you become “residents of the dream land” and provide something far removed from daily life. It was absolutely that, without a doubt.

Maid cafe Tokyo Japan
Maid waving from balconies to attract your attention.

Maid cafés started in Akihabara, the Electric Town area of Tokyo, in 2001. Nearly 300 sprung up amidst the computer gaming shops and electrical stores in a very short space of time. Too many, too quickly, because half of them shut down again pretty soon after. But the rest have remained and are a very popular attraction. Maids in ever cuter costumes line the streets encouraging you to visit their cafe. They also wave at potential customers from balconies along the main street.

Maid cafe Tokyo japan
Being led to the maid cafe.

Thinking there was safety in numbers, a friend and I took our first steps together into the totally loopy world of the maid cafe.

We were led to the cafe, one of the more “famous” ones, by a girl in full maid regalia. Another took over at the lift, with a big fluffy rabbit bag strapped to her back.

Maid cafe Tokyo Japan
Inside the maid cafe (picture courtesy of Gwilym)

You’re allowed to take pictures of the food and your table, but you are supposed to pay extra for a photo with the maids. This picture (of our table and more) tells many stories.

The blue candle in the foreground was our magic candle. When lit we were princess and master for the evening (or at least for the hour we had paid to stay).

The first and main rule you are told is that the girls “will go boom and vanish in magic” (complete with boom actions) if you touch them. Phew.

The second rule, and something you can’t see from the photo, is that to order drinks you need to miaow. Yes. Miaow. My half-hearted miaow didn’t really cut it. But Gwilym was a natural, and his miaow had maids running over in seconds. He had clearly been practising in private.

We couldn’t quite work out the Japanese couple in the picture. The girl looked as bewildered as us. We’re not sure if she was looking at her new boyfriend through new, stunned eyes, or if she was having as much fun as him (and us).

Boyfriend, straight from the office in his full business suit, is learning a song and accompanying actions that you should join in with when your drink arrives. It kind of involved making half hearts with each hand and joining them together. In a very fluffy way. The girls really want you to be in their dreamland.

Maid cafe Tokyo Japan
The fluffy menu.

If you go the whole hog and order food (we didn’t but the couple next to us were in for the lot, so we got to look on), the maids create art right in front if your eyes. More accurately they draw a tomato ketchup cat face on a rice omelette.

Maid cafe Tokyo japan
We were lucky to see maids drawing.

We were just about to leave, as gobsmacked as we thought we could get, when a show started. One girl just stood (an apprentice I think) and another, with fluffy bag on her back and rabbit ears, started spinning her arms round and round. Literally, as fast as a helicopter. I though she was either going to severely injure herself on the bar counter or take off. One quiet patron in the corner, clearly waiting for this moment, (a female aged about 50?) leapt out of her chair to join in with light flares in both hands and music blaring. It was surreal to watch.

You really have to be there to believe it.

As much of a bizarre exposure to modern Japanese culture as a cat cafe, a maid cafe has to be a must on your Tokyo to do list. Do both on one night like we did and you will wonder what hit you.

Our cafe was called Maidreamin and is here….

Zeniya BLDG.3F 1-8-4 Sotokanda Chiyoda-ku Tokyo 101-0021 Japan

Location maid cafe Tokyo Japan

Entry was 1200¥ (just under £7), or ¥700 for an hour. One drink is compulsory (normal bar prices) and basic “fluffy” food is also served.

The link for the cat cafe just along the road, within easy walking distance, is here….

By Jen

Cat cafe Tokyo Japan

Japan: Tokyo – a cat cafe

I’ve been wanting to go to a cat cafe for a while, if I am honest more to see who else goes to cat cafés than to see the cats.

Cat cafe Tokyo japan
Closed for cleaning

At the last attempt, it was closed, for cleaning the cafe or the cats I’m not sure.

But THIS time, I got a little peek into the surreal world that is cat cafe culture. Apartments in Tokyo are tiny so not many people have pets of their own. But there’s no need, you can pop along to one of the many car cafés in town and meet….

Cat cafe Tokyo
The Manager.

I was a bit nervous that I would meet Hina instead…..

Cat cafe Tokyo Japan
The Moody one.

Unfortunately I was too late to meet Lala, but she is still remembered fondly.

Cat cafe Tokyo Japan
Lala, the Founder of Cafe Jalala.

So what do you do? First, you enter a double door system a bit like a bank. I’m not sure if that’s to keep the cats from running out onto the road or to prevent imposters trying to worm their way in to this surreal life of luxury.

Next, in a process akin to entering a neonatal or intensive care unit, you must wash your hands. Not on the way out, only the way in. A “beginners” entry free for half an hour – seemed enough especially if Hina was on the go – is around £3, and you have to buy at least one drink.

Cat cafe Tokyo japan
Wash both hands on the way in.
Cat cafe Tokyo japan
Hot and cold drinks are served to the humans.
Cat cafe Japan Tokyo
There are rules to be followed.

Rule number one is that you must not do a cat violently. After studying the rule book, I think you are allowed to do a cat in a non violent manner. The ones on duty that day, however, said with their eyes, “Hello. Welcome. Go away. I’m busy.”

Cat cafe Tokyo japan
Toys for the cats.

The job of the luckiest cat lover in Tokyo is to keep the wall mounted array of cat toys in an orderly fashion and to play with the cats for an ?8 hour shift. Hats off to him, he was good. He managed a few flurries of excited cat movement. They looked at me in utter disdain when I tried. If you want a cat on your lap you need to ask for help, and one guy was happily sat in euphoric cat bliss reading a book with, I think, the manager, on his knee. I just had one, high above me, looking ready to leap onto my head at any moment.

Cat cafe Tokyo Japan

Cat cafe Tokyo Japan

It did look, potentially, quite a nice way to relax, and we have/had cats at home. I love cats. Mine do stuff like bring in half mouse corpses and lay them at my feet. These Tokyo cats have attitude.

Here are the details of this cat cafe, Neko Jalala…..

Tokyo, Chiyoda, Sotokanda, 3 Chome−5−5, 末広町ハイム 1F
+81 3-3258-2525

Directions cat cafe Jalala Tokyo Japan

To conclude, let’s just pay our last respects to Lala after whom this cafe was named.

By Jen


Japan: What a tuna looks like and how to buy one.

Unless you want to accidentally acquire a hundred grand’s worth of tuna, keep control of any fingers prone to waggling or wandering at the Tokyo Tuna Auction.

The Tsukiji fish market is the largest in the world. It’s estimated that 17% of the world’s caught fish pass through its gates. My cod! It has been operating at the same site since 1935. There’s been word for a while that it’s moving to new out of town premises in 2016, so if you want to experience an about-to-be unexperiencable part of Japanese  life you need to get down there soon.

Overhead picture of the fish market, just south of Tokyo Central station.
Overhead picture of the fish market, just south of Tokyo Central station.

The plan was hatched to book a taxi for 3.45 to go to the Fish Centre because I was wide awake jetlagged at 3am anyway. The subway doesn’t start running till 5.20am. In theory the registration for a visit to the auction starts at 5am but on the day I was there (and according to other reports) all places were full by 4.20am.

It’s a bit like queuing overnight for the January sales, except a bit fishier and more exciting.

Tourists on way to tuna auction
Forgive the blurryness but it was 3.45 in the morning.

It’s certainly the plaice to be. No sooner had the taxi stopped than a Western looking guy came up and said “You going to the fish auction too?” This was Gustav from Sweden who’s a chef. The last couple of hundred meters to the registration office was a bit like a movie, with an ever increasing number of foreign faces merging from side streets to form a moving mass of tuna fans heading for registration.

Tuna fish auction tourist registation
Nearly full and it’s only 4am. Nearly can’t contain excitement. Remind myself it’s fish.

We got there at just after 4am. There are 120 places for tourists. It was practically full. The green vest team were due to set off first, with their tour starting at 5.25am. The next 60, the blue team, were due to start at 5.50.  You have to be really dedicated to watching the sale of fish to be in the green team.

This gave us a couple of early morning hours to spare sat on the floor of a fish centre with strangers, so we got chatting. The guide suggests you get into mini subgroups of 5 to avoid large crowds getting in the way of what is after all a working fish market. We decided that Doy from the Philippines, a fireworks expert, would be our leader because he’d already managed to sneak into a restricted zone before arriving at the registration office. It was a little surreal chatting to other tuna tourists in the early hours of a Tokyo morning, all with varying degrees of sleep deprivation.

Not a single beam from the girl in yellow for the whole tour.

The girl in the one and only yellow vest at the back of the above picture was number 121. She must have arrived with number 120 and they didn’t want to say one could go and one couldn’t. She didn’t even look ECSTATIC. Or she hid it very well.

Tokyo tuna auction
You snooze, you lose.  Be there by 4 am at the latest.
Tuba fish auction
Watch out for the trucks.

The tour set off. Auction workers in police-like uniforms led us to the auction room, dodging in and out of speeding carts, forklifts and mini pallet truck things. He got awfully anxious if anyone stopped to take a picture, not because pictures are not allowed but because there was a very high risk of getting squished by a fish truck in so doing.

We noticed an unvested tourist amidst the bustle and Doy and the green gang gave her a respectful nod and a wink.

When we reached the fish room it was cold and so so quiet, and it didn’t smell of fish at all. Much better than my muggy hotel room.  In relation to the heat, not the fish smell (I can’t work the aircon machine). Why wasn’t there a cacophone of bidding and hammers and shouting?

They’re big not in a tin.

First a bit about tuna.  For a long time I thought that tuna were a bit like sardines because they came in the same size of tin. I did learn a while back that they are in fact pretty big – 1.5m+ long ish – but it was still a surprise to see them for real.  You get a lot of tuna for your tin.  They are overfished and some species are now endangered :(.   That, is sad.

Tuna can swim up to 60 miles an hour.

Each female spawns up to 30 million eggs in a breeding season, two (that’s two) of which, on average,  will mature into adults.  The lifespan of those two adults can be 15 years.

Tuna auction tokyo
Inspecting the tuna.

On the trading floor, there were clearly highly experienced tuna experts in welly boots poking sample tunas with spiky hooks. The tail is cut off and this exposed fleshy part is the bit under investigation. There’s also a flap cut just above the tail which gets flicked back and inspected for I’m not sure what. Fat? The consistency of the flesh?

Only the best of the best buyers are here. It’s a bit like a wellies stock exchange floor. From here the bought fish immediately goes into an intermediary auction for onward sale.

Tuna auction Tokyo
Keeping an eye on the tourists (I think possibly this one?)

Without much warning, after much prodding and poking, a little plastic stool appears near the fish and the welly-booted auctioneer climbs on top of it. He starts ringing a bell, slowly at first, and the silence is broken. The ringing gets faster and faster as auction time approaches and interested buyers with fast as lightening fingers gather round the lots. This is the point where you have to watch what your own fingers do, and flash photography is also forbidden to ensure the quick fingered bids can be seen.

Tuna auction Tokyo
The auction about to start.

The auctioneers does a little dance, shouts unintelligible things (even to Japanese people in our green team), and all of a sudden he doffs his baseball cap and the deal is done. Here’s a little clip, it’s something to behold.

Then, another little plastic stool appears, another auctioneer jumps on top, and the process starts again in another area of the room.

At 6.15 you are shepherded out by the fish police and led back along alleyways to the entrance.

You can, if you want stay in the cafe section of the market and enjoy some sushimi. Can’t get much fresher than that. Even at 6.15am it was delicious.

Tuna auction Tokyo sushimi

If you need any more information about the tuna auction, let minnow. Here’s a link to the Fish Centre.

By Jen

Funicular railway Hallstatt

Austria: Hallstatt, the oldest salt mine in the world

Fun and education at the same time? Do they mix? For sure they do. Either on the road travelling or in the back garden.

One of the best examples we’ve seen of a “museum” getting it that fun, history and education go together is the 7000 year old salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria. The oldest salt mine in the world.

If you ever get anywhere close to this part of the world (a bit south of Salzburg in Austria) , it’s well worth the visit. Young or old. 4 is the minimum age, and so long as you’re fit and able to do a bit of walking and sliding, there’s no upper age. You will entirely regret wearing high heels if that’s your thing.

People have been mining at Hallstatt for 7000 YEARS. That’s 5000 years before Christmas. But it’s not just a boring old museum. It’s an underground network of tunnels connected by slides which you can hurtle down at 30 km per hour, an underground lake with a history lesson in lights, life sized models, demonstrations and films of how it all works. It takes several hours, and the five of us (aged 10 to 47) eagerly took it in right until the end, when a tiny open train speeds you though tunnels back to daylight.

We didn’t pay for many organised tours on our trip – we could count them on one hand over a year – but this one was worth it. For the mine itself it costs 19€ for adults and 9€50 for children up to 16 (family tickets are discounted and you pay a few euros extra for a combined ticket to get up the mountain by funicular train).

Funicular Hallstatt
Funicular Railway, Hallstatt
The top of the mountain and the restaurant.
Hallstatt viewing platform
The “UNESCO” view from the top of the mountain.


Full details of opening times etc are on the mine’s website at

We took the funicular railway up to the mine entrance because it was pouring. The views from the top overlooking the Hallstatt lake are mighty impressive even in the rain. We’ve done a separate post on the town of Hallstatt which is one of the prettiest places in Austria. If you are under 4 it’s free with a parent to go up in the funicular, you just can’t go into the mine.

Hallstatt overalls
Protective overalls – there are cloakrooms for bags etc

First you’re kitted out with overalls, mainly to protect your clothing and keep you warm (it’s about 10 degrees centigrade all year deep underground). They are colour coded by size. Most of the people on the tour were South Korean (Hallstatt is really popular with Korean, Chinese and Japanese visitors). Amidst a sea of  green, we were in burgundy.

The Entrance to the Mine

Hallstatt mine entrance
The entrance to the mine and the miner’s jacket.

A tour guide first takes you to the entrance of the mine. Their uniform is a typical mining one with 29 buttons, 3 of which are always left open. That was an interesting tale in itself: Saint Barbara is the patron saint of miners. She was locked in a tower by her dad to protect her from the Christians when she was 26. He flew into a rage when 3 years later, after planning to marry her off to a non Christian, he heard that she had secretly converted to Christianity. He killed her and was then struck by lightening.

Hence 26 buttons and 3 of them closed. The tour was underway with a bang.

The tunnels

Tunnel Hallstatt mine
Tunnel getting narrower.

We walked along ever narrowing tunnels as we worked our way into the mountain. The guide at this point tells you it’s quite normal and OK to turn back if you’re getting a bit claustrophobic. We stuck together and no one in our group turned back. Then the guide (who combined just the right amount of fact with fun) tells you that there’s a 50m drop between the tunnel we are in and the one we are going to next. There’s a wooden slide. It’s how the miners used to get about between tunnels.

Hallstatt mine tour
Fascinating tour

There’s a great film which explains pictorially how so much salt came to be in the mountain in the first place. Despite 7000 years of mining, there’s still a massive amount left.

Until the early Middle Ages, salt was collected as “rock salt” and physically chipped out by hand using deer antlers as picks. Nowadays, automated saline extraction methods mean that the salt is dissolved in water which is pumped deep into the ground, and then the salty water is sucked back up. Before automation, buckets were used to scoop up the brine (26% salt and water) and take it to the surface.

At ground level, the water is boiled off in big brine coppers (you can see some at the mine entrance) and it’s turned back to salt. Underground you can watch a film of the process and see demonstration pipework. The brine coppers are no longer used. Although Hallstatt is still a working mine and will be for a long time to come, the brine is now transported to a modern salt plant at Ebensee.

Slide number one it turns out was a practice slide for slide number 2 to get even deeper into the mountain. It’s 64m long and is the longest wooden slide in the world apparently. On this slide, your descent is timed. It becomes a question of honour. Who can go the fastest. I can’t remember who was the fastest in our group. Oh yes, that was me. 30km per hour much to the chagrin of my teenage boys. My heart was in my throat.


Slide at Hallstatt mine
The slide!

The underground lake and the Man in Salt

There’s a saline lake at the deepest point of the tour, and there you are shown a pretty impressive slide show reflected in the water, about the mining process and the Man in Salt.

The archaeogical term, Hallstatt Culture, comes from Hallstatt. Because salt preserves, there were incredibly well preserved finds of clothing, tools and general life found all around the mine. In 1734, a corpse was found by working miners. There had been a mine collapse previously and based on the clothing, hair and skin it was estimated that the miner had died at least a few hundred years before. The tools and clothing found on and with the man were described at the time as “quite strange but well preserved”.

Turns out the “Man in Salt” was Neolithic and lived around 1000BC. The whole tour revolves around this salt miner coming to life and explaining the process from the salt getting into the ground in the first place to how it is extracted in modern times.

The train ride home

Without any warning of the surprise which awaits, as you are reeling at the enormity of the historical finds and the salt mining process, you are asked to hop aboard an open wooden train.

This is the way out. You’re asked to keep your hand and legs well in. It’s fast and quite an adrenalin rush whizzing though a tunnel which doesn’t actually look wide enough to fit your head. I had only just recovered from my mega slide adrenalin rush. What a great way to end a fantastic tour.

Train at Hallstatt mine
A hurl back to daylight on the open train

Matt (14): “I had loads of fun, it was a really interesting tour, well for me anyway. Most of the time tours can be pretty boring but this was really good.”

Adam (16): “It was well explained and the slides were excellent. The video about how salt forms and is covered over by land was really well done.”

Katie (10): “Walking into the tunnel was exciting and my favourite part was the mini train on the way out – it was fast, like being on a horse, in really narrow tunnels. Or maybe it was the slides. How they take salt out of the ground was really cool. I thought you had to dig it out of the rocks in big lumps.”

Neil (47): “Remember to duck on the way out in the train or you’ll be decapitated! Must have been hard and dangerous work being a miner.”

Jen (21 3/4): “Who was it that won the mega slide race again?”


Are there any museums or sights you have visited which do a great job of mixing education and fun? Can they, or should they, be mixed?

By Jen

Pasta with pesto. Enjoy.

Pesto for Dummies

I’m not the best cook in the world. I need simple. This pesto recipe is super tasty and super easy.

I got the recipe from my son, who got it from his friend, Ascanio in Italy, who got it for his mum, who got it from her mum.

Pesto ingredients
Pesto ingredients

After looking at the great long list of ingredients on a jar of pesto, it was nice to see a little list of 5: basil leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

Collect or buy a big handful of basil. About as much as is in this bowl.

Fresh basil
Fresh basil

Chop it up, removing the fatter stems. Chop up a couple of garlic cloves too.

Chopped basil leaves and garlic
Chop the basil leaves and garlic.

Chop up pine nuts into tiny pieces – we have a choppy thing, but a knife or a herb chopper will do.

Chopped pine nuts
Chopping pine nuts.

Put all of this into a bowl and add a little grated Parmesan. And then, as Ascanio explained, add olive oil until you think you might have added too much. Then add some more. Mix and season. Done.

Ingredients for pesto
Add olive oil to the rest of the ingredients.

Delicious with plain pasta. Can be stored for while in the fridge if you don’t eat it all in one go.


5 big pairs of feet, one little campervan.


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