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Family Travel

Croatia’s National Parks: Bears, waterfalls and figs

29 September, 2013

We were soaked to the bone, mother, baby and toddler standing on the corner with an outstretched arm and hopeful thumb. Fortunately the first car responded and picked up this little hitchhiking trio of drowned rats. We had been caught out by both a raging storm and a mythical local bus in the middle of one of Croatia’s National Parks, Plitvice. Our campsite, the beautiful Korana, was six kilometres away along a crazily unwalkable road, but thanks to the two Israeli tourists who picked us up, we we were soon zipped back in to our tent drinking hot chocolate. At one point on the ride home they said “We saw your little family earlier, in the rain, by the waterfalls and thought it was so cruel/cool…” We still don’t know which it was and I guess it could really be either depending on your view of weather/ children/ raincoats. We all enjoyed ourselves a lot more than if we’d opted to sit in our tent exhausting Ramona’s one book of fairytales! (Gah, just admitted we only bought one book with us.) (Also… we all do tend to have a but of fun when things go awry… I think it’s a part of my personality – the more dire a situation is the more cheerful I become; you know we are in a right pickle if you hear me belting out “You’re never fully dressed without a …. SMIIIIILE” in a broad American accent and busting out a bit of tap dancing.)

The fact that we first encountered Plitvice in a torrential downpour, while squished between tour bus group after tour bus group of tourists, and still found it to be singly the most beautiful place on earth, attests to its flipping awesomeness. (I originally had “breathtaking wonder” but then remembered I wasn’t David Attenborough.)

It is a series of lakes connected by waterfalls, lakes that are so clear that when you are standing on the shore the ducks appear to be floating in mid air, and when you are standing on a cliff looking from above there is a perfect mirror image of the waterfalls reflected on its surface. A wooden path weaves over and alongside the waterfalls, making you feel almost a part of it. As you trace the lake’s shoreline from one waterfall to another the sound fades until you are left with simply the chorus of crickets… Then you approach the next connecting fall and the sound builds gradually until you are right amongst the cascades, it’s ferocious noise causing you to shout.

“SHALL WE TAKE A PICTURE?” “NAH, LET’S KEEP GOING SO WE CAN GAIN TIME ON THIS TOUR GROUP!” “BUT WE’LL WISH WE HAD MORE PHOTOS!” “WE’LL GOOGLE IMAGE IT!”

We were so pleased we got the two day pass (about £15 per person) as the next day was bright and sunny and we explored the upper lakes at leisure. The upper lakes seem to be free from the cumbersome tour groups but are just as spectacular.

Someone we met later on in our trip told us they skipped Plitvice because of all the tourism and “Seen one waterfall, seen ’em all right?!” We nodded, not wanting to break it to him. But the answer in this case is really Heck No. The falls of Plitvice are gobsmacking in their seeming endlessness; everywhere you look there is cascading water, their scope; enormous, tiny, wide like someone busted up a damn, gentle trickles, and the water; like every Evian advert ever made melted together, like the water all water on earth would be like if we actually lived in heaven.

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It was water that lured… Tempting throatily like the serpent… “Come in, splash here, dive down in my divine depths… OH COME ON YOU BORING OLD TOAD AT LEAST DIP A TOE”

But alas, Plitvice’s only bad point (apart from an unreliable bus service and crowds) – you can’t swim! Honest! It is a travesty that there isn’t even a tiny little designated area. Croatia, please sort this out. We won’t even wee in it, PROMISE.

(Also, another major downer: you probably won’t actually see a bear here. Even if you read about Plitvice and bears on the Internet and that was the main reason you came, really, that still doesn’t make it likely that you’ll see a bear because, hello?! They are so right in the middle of All The Nature not hanging out with all the tourists on the paths, okay, hahahaha SILLY! *weeps for self and lack of bear viewing*)

Back to the swimming thing… You can’t swim at Plitvice but swimming in other Croatian National Parks is ALL ON. Which is why we pootled a couple of hours south down to Krka (pronounced Krka) for more waterfalls.
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Krka National Park was a fair bit less crowded and seemed to be loads more family friendly. Something about being able to swim there made it all feel as if everyone was there to participate in outdoorsy activity rather than just take photos of the outdoors. Like Plitvice, it was fall after fall. Any single one of them would have done the country proud but yet again there they were gushing all over the place. A bit showy offy there, Croatia, with all this breathtaking wonder.
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The swim was majestic, just as you’d imagine swimming under an enormous waterfall to be. We all went in and all thought it was pretty cool. Ramona calls waterfalls “mountains” – rationally i figure it is because they are like “fountains” but massive and with added grandeur. She still talks about swimming under the mountain, a week later.

The path was lined with fig trees too, so we got to partake in my favourite hobby, and foraged our way from waterfall to waterfall. They were tiny and juicy and we scoffed them like we scoff blackberries on our walks in England.

We spent four days in the Krka region, two of them in the park (a two day pass was £12) as we just really liked it. At the southern end of the National Park, in actual Krka town you can swim in the river and it is the point at which it meets the sea. It is a crazy feeling; the chill of the river water on top, the warm, salty buoyant water below. We found a walnut tree and got about a billion and just sat munching walnuts and figs feeling that beautiful foragey contentedness.

Juno, at five months old, is really swiping at all our food now. You should see her trying to get our figs, she bustles about, purple with determination, pivoting 180 degrees on her rotund belly. She managed to hustle Ramona’s cheese sandwich yesterday, I’m unsure if that’s better or worse than the twigs and dirt she is usually scoffing. And then there is Ramona who is thriving on our “Pick Every Ripe Fruit You Pass” and “Ice Cream Every Other Day” policies.

We have been on an Island for the last few days, can’t wait to tell you about it…

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Family Travel

Campervan Catastrophes (and avoiding tourists) in Italy

19 September, 2013

We didn’t mean to stop in Italy, we were going to crawl along the bottom of Germany, down to Croatia through Austria. But we had a last minute change of heart and decided to explore Lake Como on our way through. (Yes, we are having the least well planned trip in the whole History of Trips, organising our destinations solely through the use of Google Images.)

Sadly, it was at Lake Como, perhaps through a mixture of too many Italian carbs and red wine, that Betty (our camper, in case any newcomers think I am flippantly talking about my alcoholic, pasta loving gran’s demise) breathed her last, for this trip at least.

It was almost certainly the turbo, many conversations with our London mechanic made it quite apparent, but the local one who towed it away declared it to be a £900 clutch problem. We were out of our depth; facing a huge bill (and still leaving us with a smoking engine and no turbo power) and very little means to communicate properly. We were also gutted that we’d use up all our AA benefits only one third of the way in to our trip.

Pretty reluctantly we took up the AA’s offer of shipping Betty home to fix her up. We are now finishing off this leg with a tent, a rental car and some flights home. Then we’ll be able to pick Betty up and head to Spain for the last leg.

We were so sad to say Bye to Betty but no way on earth are we letting a little old thing like not having a Campervan stop our Campervan Roadtrip! *sings* Don’t stop us now… We’re having such a good tiiiime…

So, we hung around Lake Como for a week sorting this out. So blinking beautiful. We found the local gelato dealer pretty pronto, scoops of LITERALLY THE BEST ICE CREAM I’ve ever tasted for One Measley Euro. The warmest lake, we swam every day.

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Then we hooned (you can hoon in a zippy little car, it’s a definite benefit) down to Venice. Venice really appealed to me, the history and mystery of this funny little place. I wanted to be charmed by it in real life, not just through films (and google images.) We stayed at Camp Fusina, you get the ferry over to Venice, makes it much cheaper.

The first hour, from 9am, was lovely; just as enchanting as it was meant to be. It was peaceful and quiet and we meandered about a pretty empty, beautiful town.
20130919-083819.jpg Then gradually it filled up with cruise ship tours and, like, tourists and things and it was hard to enjoy it as much.

We are clearly tourists, touring around, doing touristy things, but tourists WELL ruin a place! I think it’s a kind of “I’ve come to CONSUME this city, to GRAB it and take it home” kind of attitude. Like a massively cynical version of that song from Oliver “Who will buy this wonderful morning… Me, oh my! I don’t want to lose it! Who will tie it up in a ribbon? And put put it in a box for meeee…” and very much without the Victorian nannies dancing with prams and chimney sweeps prancing with brooms and little orphan trying to make his fortune (to my utter disappointment… hello, Venice? Next time, jiving chimney sweeps, right?)

People were taking pictures of the actual mankiest pigeons, the homeless people and MY CHILDREN. Literally, just snapping away, at Ramona walking along, Juno and I sitting down eating crisp sandwiches (Venice on a shoestring, folks!) and Ramona asleep in her buggy. As if every sight was one for them to scoff in their faces.

(It was nearly as bad as Luzern, Switzerland, an absolutely stunning town but our view of it tainted by people taking photos of us and one guy actually coming up, seriously, get this, while we were chilling on a bench, and asking if we were “An act? A publicity act, of some kind?!” ERRR?!!! We reckoned it was a mixture of babywearing and having a toddler with half a face painted like a cat and half naked from splashing in the lake, but still, Shiver my Timbers, leave a family alone, peeps!)

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We spent a bit of time discussing how you can visit places without being a tourist. We don’t really have many answers but I think a lot of it is about attitude.

While we were in Venice, I pulled out a cross-stitch my friend from the Craftivist Collective did and tied it on a bridge. I thought the words, about a kind of global citizenship, would click in a place so jammed with visitors from across the world.

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And now, after 5 weeks of travelling, our sanity mostly in tact and with only one member of the party down, we’ve made it to Croatia!! We’ve only been here for 3 days but am already overawed with the beauty- will post again soon. (Yep, free wifi at this campsite, they love wifi here. And meat.)

Family Travel, Parenting

32 things I know

12 September, 2013

Ah, hello there, old friends. You know, it was my birthday yesterday. If there are any days in the year when you are allowed to wallow in a little introspection a birthday is one, eh? Here is a list of things I have come to be certain of over the last year. There are 32, one for every birthday. Except that I am actually only 31 – I had already compiled the list at the point at which my Grandad wrote on my Facebook wall with my actual age. I’ve officially reached the age where it is possible to respond “Somewhere between 30 and 33ish” when people ask how old you are. So, here we go….

1- Joy is contagious.

2- Kids have fun when their parents have fun.

3- So, always zoom down the zip wire, leap about on the trampoline and paddle in the sea.

4- Everything tastes better when you pick it yourself; strawberries, tomatoes, figs, apples, blueberries, bogies. (Ramona fed me one of hers earlier, so not as good.) (I kid.) (Kind of.)

5- Luck is a state of mind.

6- Counting your blessings, going with the flow and looking on the bright side are three naïve adages that will actually make you feel pretty jammy.

7- There is a vast chorus book of songs that can be played by the lazy ukulele tinkerer with just 3 chords, G, D and C. They won’t always sound beautiful but a nice rhythmic strum is probably more important for a singalong.

8- Sometimes a singalong is exactly what you need.

9- Facepainting can transform a rubbish day. It also makes people in the street happy. Embrace facepainting. Even if your child asks for a horse and you do this… it’s okay. 32 things I know

10- Horses are a hard one to depict in facepaint.

11- Almost everything in the world can be bought second hand. Potties, beds, make up.

12- But there is a reason brand new shoes end up in charity shops. They will nearly always be uncomfortable. Everyone should own one good pair of shoes that were bought for their feet and their feet alone.

13- There is a natural version of almost everything and it is nearly always better than the collection of toxins we can buy in a tube.

14- Banana peel is an AMAZING soother for mosquito bites.

15- Banana (also rosemary leaves and porridge oats) however is a rubbish and messy alternatives to shampoo.

16- A tidy house is much easier to keep tidy than a messy house. (I have learnt this through the process of having viewers stoping into check out our home when we were selling it.

17- Just because I now know and understand many of these things doesn’t mean I am going to do them all OKAY GOSH. *lives contentedly in squalor*

18- Getting older is a Good Thing. I don’t really envy the young ‘uns with their insecurities and doubts. I am sure with every year I become more ME and more okay with who that ME is.

19- There is very little funnier than an enormously ferocious trump coming from the bottom of a tiny wee baby.

20- Life is a lot more enjoyable if you try hard to think the best of everyone.

21- It is pretty hard to do that sometimes, so having a Someone you can talk things through with is really, really important.

22- It is really excellent if you Someone is able to figure out the perfect balance between listening and soothing and helping you think the best of people.

23- Garlic and fresh air is the prevention and cure for a lot of illness.

24- Fears can be conquered.

25- Once you are a parent, you should try and conquer fears, lest you pass them on.

26- Labour and childbirth, and the extreme challenge and ecstasy that come with them, assures me I can do anything. There isn’t a challenge left in this world I couldn’t overcome.

27- A generation of children nurtured in love and peace will spend their lives building a fair and beautiful world.

28- Parenting is A LOT more important than I ever thought it was. I always imagined I’d take as little time out to “parent” as possible, in order to spend more time building a fairer world.

29- The relationship between childhood and social justice is crucial and inextricable.

30- Trying to save time and effort by putting wasabi right in the middle of your pre-rolled home made sushi doesn’t work. There is a reason this ancient Japanese cuisine has deigned wasabi on the side, applied to each bit, as the best way. >WASABI HEADACHE< 31- Every child is born good and lovable and with an investigative mind. If given freedom and love they will learn all they need without even a dash of interference. 32- Even a baby just four months old is able to wriggle enough to grab a biro and draw all over their forehead while you are doing a bit of Twitter. 32 things I know
(A naughty number 33: Photos where the perspective makes some people look little and others big never get old. Hehehehe. Look. Hehe. It’s tiny little Ramona sitting there. Hehehehe.)

PS – We are still in Lake Como, Northern Italy, and it actually looks as if we might have to send the lovely Betty back home to Blighty for repairs. It wasn’t just a little fix she needed, but some major jobs that the local mechanic wants to charge us over £1000 for. We’ll follow in a couple of weeks and set off again, in a new direction. But we are still trying to make our minds up about it all…

Family Travel

The forest Kindergarten: Autonomy, wilderness and sharp knives

6 September, 2013

There is a flash of movement in the pine tree above my head; a young lad has climbed high up one of the dark, wizened trees the Black Forest is famous for. All around me are little pockets of children- some are digging into the stream, carefully constructing a dam, others are sitting on a bench with perfectly sharp knives, whittling boats out of wood. They are so young, between two and a half and six, yet all are absorbed in their activities, discovering and learning with mud and tools without any adults disturbing their flow. It is an official German preschool but feels a lot more like Neverland. There are grown ups here, but they help only when invited and mediate only when necessary. They are often as equally absorbed in their own activities, crafting photo frames out of sticks or something, and the kids might join them if they are inclined. The adults “see with their ears” – knowing the impact grown up eye balls can have on kids and their ability to resolve problems.

We have spent this week at the Waldkindergarten outside of Freiberg, in south Germany. It really translates as Forest Kindergarten, but in my head I call it the Wild Kindergarten. It is as wild as it gets- I don’t think you’d even believe most if it!

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There is no plumbing- each tot heads into the trees with a spade to deal with their toilet needs, there is no electricity, and just one tiny shed to store tools, musical instruments and art supplies. Every single season is spent out here under the pine trees.

The mornings begin at 8:30 and last until 1:30 and of that time only one and a half hours is structured (a story, some music, some food, some meditation) – the rest of the time is the child’s. What incredible and accurate faith this puts in a child’s ability to learn without our assistance. I saw a bunch of girls building a mud hut, fishing rods being crafted (sharp knives were involved) and used, a group playing on a rough seesaw made of two logs and a million mud pies being baked; they are playing but learning more than we could teach them, I’m sure.

There are several big reasons for why a preschool like this is important.

The adults who work here seem to often come from a social work background- they have worked with addicts or delinquents and have felt unequivocally that an early grounding in nature is the key to preventing these behaviours.

One of the founders, Franz, who has been there the whole 15 years, mentioned the importance of “empty space” – the idea that when we are young we need to learn to be okay when faced with unfilled space and time, to learn how to be content with it. This builds a resilience against addiction, which can so often be people trying to fill a void.

Another worker, Louisa, talks of how it is only children who have come to love nature who will grow up to be its protectors. Forests and rivers will only be kept out of the hands of greedy corporations if upcoming generations truly recognise its value.

There is a lot of talk here about the relationship between mind and body, and how children who spend all this time outdoors have a real grounding, they are connected. The adults here instil confidence in the child’s physical ability, never stopping them from climbing and not intruding on a child’s progress onto their feet after a tumble. And these kids are SO physically able! We went on a trip out yesterday, up the mountain on a gondola for a hike (a HIKE? What teacher in their right minds organises a hike for a preschool day trip?!) and it was wonderful seeing them all walking for miles together, being allowed to investigate plants, the big ones helping the tinies carry their rucksacks – while the tinies carried all manner of things- one a clump of moss half the way. We went under electric fences and found our way to a lake where everyone stripped off for a splash. (Yep!)

Autonomy is nurtured here. A pair of girls found what looked like an ediblemushroom in the woods today and picked a mushroom encyclopaedia (these exist) off the shelf to check. Patrick, the other founder and the brilliant fellow whose farm we are currently encamped on, tells a tale of when one kid went on to primary school and a strict old teacher told him off for writing the wrong way. The little chap replied “It’s not the wrong way, it’s MY way.” Even the littlest kid is trusted here, allowed to express their power, their way, and in turn they become confident and secure.

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And then there are smaller, little bonuses I notice. There is hardly any gender divide. Leaves, sticks, rocks- they don’t come in pink or blue. Every child does every activity, nothing is prescribing who can use it or how to play with it.

There is also a real peace here, evident in the atmosphere and relationships. The workers say it is the forest; nature has a calming effect on both the adults and children.

They are wonderfully sociable too. Patrick says they arrive at school with social skills way beyond their peers. He puts it down to the fact that there is so much imagination required when playing with nature that you have to explain what you are doing. With a whole load of toy cars, kids can just join in and brooooom around. But when you are digging, carving (did I mention how properly sharp the knives are?!), mixing with leaves and mud, if someone wants to participate a conversation has to take place “Ah, yeah, we are just baking the most badass cake here yeah, then we’ll cook it in this oven…”

Suffice to say we are shall-we-stay-here inspired. Or maybe we have found the thing we might do in New Zealand. Anyone want to join in? Just bring a sharp knife, yeah?

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Family Travel

France and Switzerland with two kids, a Campervan and one pot

1 September, 2013

Last night Tim, after a meal preparation that involved me angrily pouring cooked macaroni into the sink because I’d used up all the containers and needed the pan for the sauce, ever so sensitively, asked if he could mention something… “You’re kind of swinging from mood to mood Lu- intense happiness to extreme annoyance… What’s the story?” I haven’t been getting much sleep- Juno is waking a lot at night at the moment- but there is more to it than tiredness. This kind of living seems to provoke big emotions in me. Being in these wild and glorious places with startling beauty on our doorstep and the freedom to roam and explore makes me SO FLIPPING HAPPY. Like dance around, laugh out loud, shout WOOHOOOOO in a tunnel happy. But the fact is, that to experience this we have to live in a tiny van with one pan, a host of mosquitoes and two kids with needs (NEEDS! It’s absurd!) There is also the sometimes stress of trying to find a place to stay each night, weighing up free but possibly risky riversides and car parks against the security but crazily high prices of campsites.

It’s hard to believe we only left England 16 days ago. It feels like we’ve done SO much; how are we possibly going to survive the next 80 days?! We’ll combust with the combination of extreme feelings of joy and frustration and contendedness and stress!

We have just entered Germany. France and Switerland have been amazing… Here is the run down:

Our holiday really began once we got to Troyes, somewhere Northish in France. We went to the little lake about 20k north of there and camped and swam for two days. Bliss. We planned to go far on the third day but fell a little bit in love with Lac De Liez just in Langres where we had just stopped for lunch. It was truly gorgeous so lunch turned into an afternoon visit which turned into a night time free camp which turned into two lovely days! We then drove up to a tiny village Mouthier Haute Pierre about half an hour away from Besancon where we swam in the freezing river and climbed a waterfall. We drove an hour South to Lake Ilay and free camped in the most tranquil spot on the south of the lake, having campfires and cooking potatoes and melting cheese on there. After a couple of days we had an epic drive over the mountains through HAIL, yes! HAIL, to a village called Le Grand Bornand in the Alps by Annecy. There we met up with my sister and her family and enjoyed the biggest kid’s festival in Europe. It was spectacular- so much creativity and not a jot of consumer culture. A hand crafted merrygoround and an enormous musical garden made of recycled stuff. It was brilliant to have so much space dedicated to kid’s autonomous play and we think we might try and pull something off like this one day…. Watch this space! We were really sad to say good bye to my sister and my nephews and nieces – Ramona shed all our tears for us.

We beat a hurried path into Switzerland through Geneva and up to Gruyere where we explored this cheesey village in the pouring rain. Such an enchanting place with a castle and mountains with musical cows (well, bells) that Ramona loved. We camped in the car park there with a couple of other motorhomes- killing our first massively rainy afternoon by making hot chocolates, reading and playing our Ukelele squished in the van.

We went to drive by Lake Gruyere but spotted an island in the middle with the ruins of a monastery, that, coupled with the azure waters enticed us in. We stripped off and with a few hoots waded in completely in the nick. Gosh, skinny dipping makes your lungs explode with life!

We meandered up to Bern and after a bit of deliberation handed over £25 for a night at the campsite on the river. It gave us space to stretch out and we were able to walk in to town and float down the river and explore the free zoo right over bridge. We were only going to stay for an afternoon and night but once again just couldn’t leave! I think it might be my favourite European city. It is worth going just to sail yourself for miles down the cold, clear waters of the Aare alone. Food and accommodation is super expensive in Switzerland but there are plenty of free things for a family to enjoy.

We popped to Basel, another lovely city, free camping just on the outskirts. But Switzerland was making us feel pretty skint so we were pleased to arrive in Germany yesterday. Freiberg is where we’ll be for a little while now.

Perhaps we have come too far too quickly; perhaps for our own sanity we need to stay for longer in a place, to create microhomes and adventure from a base. And perhaps we need to invest in another pan.

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Photos take forever to upload so sorry there aren’t more! X

Family Travel

Intentional Nonpurpose (we are rubbish at it)

23 August, 2013

We had been at our very first campsite for an hour or so. Ramona was busy filling her bag with the bare necessities- a balloon, a shoe, a tiny hippo. She looked up and, with her bag in hand, hand on hip, said “RIGHT! Let’s go!” “Where to?” I replied (confused, as she seemed to have much more of a clue than I) “To see what we can see!”

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Tim and I have found it a bit harder than we thought we would, this settling in to doing nothing business. We spent the first couple of days almost down in the dumps, intimidated by the gaping hole of three empty months – where our biggest achievement is getting to the end of the day having bumped our heads less than the day before. (Becoming used to living in a van is a headache- I feel like how Ramona’s Cabbage Patch Kid feels being made to hang out in her tiny doll’s house.)

We realised on our third day that we’d be a lot happier if we just acted as if we were on a short holiday- something about knowing you’re going back to Real Life and Work in a few weeks somehow frees you up for nonpurposeful living. (And then strangely, sometimes holidays can be hard to get into because there is so much pressure to relax and have fun BECAUSE you are going home soon. At least we don’t have to worry about that…)

So we are trying to take each day as it comes, to get used to being aimless. And just by waking up and “seeing what we can see” we have come across some cool stuff-

A campsite where every tent had a caged parrot (we obviously didn’t get the memo about the BYO parrot thing) – one of them kept chatting away and Ramona totally didn’t believe me when I told her it was the parrot; “You’re tricking me!”

Some amazing azure lakes and crystal clear rivers (and one flipping MAHOOOSIVE LEECH- it’s a whole blog post in itself) where we have swum and swum and swum.

Loads of incredible free camping spots, with views and forests and swimming- the French are well cool when it comes to wild camping.

A perfect nest of swallows who all slept with their bums straight up, poking right out.

A little family from the Midlands whom we spent the afternoon with, drinking tea and talking about childhood, attachment theory and emotional health (some of my favourite things)

A forest full of the tiniest frogs, we chased them around and around for an afternoon.

A path up a waterfall that we could climb and splash and float twigs, leaves and berries down.

A meal with a French couple of fish baked on the campfire – we had very little shared language (I did French for 3 years at school but there’s a limit to how many times you can say J’aim le tennis) so it was a conversation made up almost entirely of hand gestures and wild facial expressions.

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We’re not quite good enough at this intentional nonpurpose yet but fortunately we are with Ramona who is the PROFESSOR of it. Most children are perfectly expert at simply BEING- hopefully we’ll learn a thing or two from her.

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We have been following Dan Start’s Wild Swimming France around the Jura region but we’re about to gatecrash my sister’s family hols in the Alps. Will try and get to a McDonald’s soon (we are totally abusing their free wifi) to tell you about the leech, as I know you are on the absolute edge of your seat waiting to hear about that little sucker…