Borsch and Bolshoi

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I didn’t plan to spend my 34th birthday alone. Why would I? I’ve got a husband, a daughter and friends who love a reason to celebrate the good stuff in life…yet there I was after work, roaming the streets in the rain, trying to decide if and how I should mark the occasion.

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But before I sound all self-pitying and maudlin…I was in Moscow. The reason I was alone? A business trip. And whilst I ran around the city every night checking out fancy metro stations, iconic buildings, scary red walls and marching soldiers, hubby was at home with Lal Lass keeping everything in order, tucking her in at night and sending me updates. Lieverd.

So, satisfied that all was well at home, how did I solve the dilemma of celebrating a birthday solo in a strange place? Well, it turned out, the same as I would back home…by treating myself right!

First stop, Tretyakov Gallery for some fine art and culture. Spending a couple of hours in a quiet environment, being allowed to stare at art works and read about the story behind them undisturbed isn’t something that happens often in the life of a working mama so it was an experience to be savoured, despite having little knowledge of the art works involved or understanding of the technique behind them.

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After leaving the gallery, I made my way to the Bridge of Kisses, a cute pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River where tradition dictates that newly married couples go to kiss and add a lock with their wedding vows to a lock tree. A romantic, colourful place in the middle of a cold city on a rainy day.

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Mu-Mu supplied my birthday dinner. Not exactly a glitzy place, it’s a Russian chain, almost fast food-like though the food is traditional Russian cuisine rather than a paper hot dog. I went for a bowl of my new favourite soup, Borsch, accompanied by a shot of vodka. The only place I visited that offered service with a smile.

Around the corner from this particular Mu-Mu I came across the Bolshoi Theatre. And wow. It was dark by then, and still raining, but sitting outside the Bolshoi in front of the fountain after a heartwarming vodka made me feel like a very lucky girl.

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It was around 10pm and I still hadn’t had birthday cake, so I headed back to the neighbourhood I was staying in, Kitai-Gorod (China Town), and found the cute cafe Volkonsky where I had the thickest, gooiest, hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

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I needed to lie down after that. Yes, it was that good. But before I could, I felt I had to visit the bar next to my hotel. The bar that I had heard live music coming from every night since I’d arrived in Moscow. And there I found an unlikely looking trio ranging from 18-50 playing not bad music, headed by the Russian equivalent of Mark E. Smith, or Bad Santa.

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So I sat down, gave my aching feet a rest and raised a final birthday toast to myself, with a White Russian.

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And that’s how you make the most of celebrating solo in a strange city. до свидания москва – and thanks for the memories. Here’s to another year of new experiences, life lessons and surprises!

Glamping with Grandparents in South Limburg

In June we took our first family holiday, a trip down to South Limburg to meet my folks, who had been travelling around Germany. It was exciting times – Ewoud got to drive his little family to the destination, I got to mess up the map directions and do some impromptu shouting and backseat driving and Lola got to hum along to the Cramps while we negotiated strange motorways.

With only a 20-minute detour needed, we got to our destination, Rozenhof, early afternoon, conveniently after everything had been set up for us (thanks Dad!) He’d also managed to find an empty field, with cows on one side and horses on the other and in front, a gorgeous view overlooking Epen. Lal Lass was so excited to arrive that as soon as her seatbelt was off, she jumped out of the car, ran across the field and threw herself into a hedge.

As we watched this happen, I thought that the hedge would bring her to a halt, by perhaps bouncing her back cartoon-style, but unfortunately it was camouflaging a small ditch, which Lola ended up headfirst in. Fortunately, she is from strong Northern stock, and she was hauled out only slightly annoyed and dishevelled and ready for round 2.

The location, views and general “fresh air” vibe made me feel like we were back in the Lake District (minus the lakes) which was just what I needed. Whilst packing, I had made sure we took something for every kind of weather – and we needed it. One day it was sunburn alert and the next flood warnings. The best purchase I made for the trip were EUR10 wellies from Hema for Lola, which she loved and put on and took off every 20 minutes.

I’ve never been much of a camper, in fact this Smudge cover played by Evan Dando could have been written about me, and the last time I went camping was probably 10 years ago and would have involved more than my fair share of White Lightning. But when you have a double air mattress, satellite TV and, of course English tea bags, burgers and sausages, it’s hardly Into The Wild.

I had two concerns about a camping trip with a toddler – how she would sleep and bathroom facilities. The first was tested that evening, when we placed Lal Lass in the spare bed in the caravan whilst the adults drank wine in the awning. After giving us an hour of false hope, she began the fitful sleep that would continue until morning.

That night she kept herself and the rest of us awake, rolling around, hitting things with flailing arms and legs, sitting up and whispering to me, laughing to herself and generally doing anything besides sleeping. The following night and every night after, she slept with us in the extension and actually it was quite cosy to lie between my snoring hubby and daughter.

The second concern was addressed the next morning when I told my mam I was taking Lal Lass for a shower and she handed me a coin that entitled us to a full 4 minutes of hot water, which, judging from the smile on her face, was very impressive. I have never before succeeded in doing any task with a toddler in less than 20 minutes so 4 was unthinkable at that point, especially with the dreaded hair wash…which was more than necessary after the previous day’s hedge dive.

Fortunately there was a larger cubicle for people with disabilities, or in my case, person with a toddler. So I nabbed it and as I got her undressed, Lal Lass was so busy exploring the fascinating space she didn’t notice it was a shower until we were both under it and I’d squeezed shampoo on her head. And lo and behold – a full shower for two can be achieved in 4 minutes!

Later that morning we decided to drive to Aachen, mainly because we wanted to cross the border into Germany, and it was the closest city. We didn’t know a lot about the place before we went and we left knowing little more, other than it appeared to be 70s-style modern with a couple of interestingly old cathedrals. Shopping wasn’t too bad and we stocked up on wine to bring back to the van.

That night brought in a pretty impressive storm, perfectly timed for when Ewoud had taken Lal Lass and I out for a drive around the country lanes. The one-hour drive was a test on Ewoud’s driving skills, my controlling nature and our second-hand Merc’s brakes.

We made it back in one piece and all the excitement knocked Lal Lass out for the night. In fact, despite thunder and lightning, everyone slept pretty well that night, except my dad who was awake worriedly calculating how many inches of rainfall it would take for us to be swept down the field into the Hedge of Doom.

As a busy googler and longterm resident of both Northern and Western Europe, I had already made some plans in case of crappy weather and the following day we set off for Gulpen, home to Gulpener brewery and Mosaqua.

It was the first time Lal Lass had been to a swimming pool, which at 19 months of age seems a bit ridiculous. But there just hadn’t been an opportunity to visit our local pool, so this was pretty exciting. Mosaqua has water slides, lane swimming, wave pools, sun beds and an outdoor water park. But our mission was to conquer the Jungle Pool….warm water up to your calves, a frog slide…toddler’s paradise. And she did love it, for about 2 hours, which was pretty good going for a first-timer.

After that, we decided to go for a drive to Valkenburg and surrounds, but as Lal Lass passed out in the back of the car after her swimming extravaganza, we didn’t get out to explore and instead drove back to Gulpen for pancakes at De Pannekoeken Molen.

This is definitely one for families. A great pancake place where they make their own pancake flour and the eggs are provided by the chickens in the garden and there’s a full playground outdoors. Inside, there’s plenty of space, high chairs, toys and placemats to colour in. The pancakes were a little more expensive than usual, but the surroundings and child-friendliness of it all made it worthwhile.

The campsite itself was fine and Lal Lass was kept amused by her grandparents, the horses in the field next door and a little outdoor playground, but the restaurant/bar closed around 8pm and so that night we went for another drive. This time to Drielandenpunt (3 Lands Point), where Holland meets Germany meets Belgium…

The views from there are stunning and the local gemeente have definitely put some time and effort into the tourist spot – there are several restaurants “with panoramic views”, playgrounds and shops. We basically did a drive-by with a pause for running around the rock…job done.

All that fresh air worked wonders for Lola’s sleep patterns, as she slept through every night after that first one until 7am. Bliss. And Thursday was our day off as nanna and grandad wanted some quality time with her so we could go and explore. Our first child-free destination was to Liège in Belgium, a 45-minute drive through more winding roads and gorgeous countryside.

As Liège is so far north, we were surprised to find the local language was French. The city itself wasn’t much to write home about, but again, good shops and it was nice to walk around the centre, stopping for coffee without having to think about children’s facilities and naps.

After a couple of hours of exploring the backstreets of Liege we decided to squeeze in a visit to Maastricht, which was 30 minutes’ drive away and just what I needed. And how cute?

The streets were lined with nets filled with orange balloons, which hadn’t been released due to Holland’s disappointing defeat in the previous night’s football match. The atmosphere of the city wasn’t spoiled by this though and we had a great time wandering around the centre.

Maastricht is also home to my new favourite bookstore location. The bookstore itself is part of the Selexyz chain and it’s home, a former Dominican church. The bookshop or library was always my favourite place as a kid, and as an adult, I’m happy that this church offers more fiction than just the bible.

After gawping at high ceilings, stained glass windows and the occasional book, it was time to head back to have dinner with the rest of the family back at Rozenhof and this time the sun stayed out all day for us.

If you’d have told me 10 years ago, or even 5, that I’d be holidaying with my parents, husband and baby daughter in a caravan somewhere in Holland, I’d have thought you’d taken some pretty illegal substances. But here I am, having just returned from a pretty successful trip, despite the occasional gale-force wind, and a few weeks away from our second such holiday. South Walney…watch out!

5 Days of Summer

As the weather becomes….mixed…I thought I’d share the photos I took during our mini heatwave a couple of weeks ago. It’s been bucketing it down all day today, so allow me to indulge in the memories of those real summer days, the first Lal Lass has experienced. The ones featuring grazed knees, ice lollies and paddling pools.

Summer days equals no shoes outdoorsSummers day sailing at Gaasperplas

Happy as a pig in shit!

Happy as a pig in shit!

Lola runs free round Nellesteincalm before the storm...

When its like this in Amsterdam, everyone’s off to picnic or BBQ in the park (Vondel, Westerpark, Amstel and the smaller neighbourhood parks), head to the beach (Zandvoort, Bloemendaal, Wijk aan Zee) or cool off in one of the public paddling pools in Amsterdamse Bos. We stayed local for the most part – Gaasperplas is a gorgeous place to be on a sunny day, and with large fields, playing areas and a local beach, we’re pretty sorted.

We did take a day trip to Het Twiske on the hottest day. It was the first time I’ve been there and surprisingly Ewoud had never heard of it before. If you haven’t, it’s a huge recreational area in Amsterdam Noord, with lots of beaches, lakes, open fields, a farm and restaurants/cafés. Basically, a larger version of Gaasperplas, but with more going on.

Photo taken 5 minutes before seeing a sign asking the people not to feed the horse…

sells organic low-sugar icecream and has an honesty box!

hanging out by the sailing club at Twiske

It’s been raining here all day but now the sun is out again for the evening. I have hope that we’re going to get more days like these this year. Until then, the deflated paddling pool is leaning against the wall of the balcony, waiting.

Mama & Daughter Mondays

Mondays have quickly turned into one of my favourite days. I know. It’s weird. Or perhaps not so much. Every Monday is my free day with the Lal Lass, and if the weekend is taken up with housey stuff I try to make sure we do something special on this day to get the week off to a wicked start.

A couple of weeks ago we went to Artis zoo, where we spent an inordinate amount of time watching fish, and ate pancakes. Last Monday, we went for a bike ride around Gaasperplas, which always makes me feel happy we moved here, and stopped off at Boerderij Langerlust for dinner (I’m still northern at heart, if you aren’t, you’ll know it as lunch).

It’s been a while since we were last there, but I won’t leave it so long until our next visit. There is a great outdoor play area for kids, a spacious outdoor terrace and they have their own greenhouse and vegetable plot. But I was most impressed with the service. We ordered a cheese and ham toasty and after 5 minutes the waitress came back and said it would unfortunately take another 10 mins and did I want a free drink while we waited?

Errr… I have pretty low expectations of service in Amsterdam, and was beyond surprised that they: a) thought 10 minutes was a long time to wait and b) felt it should actually be compensated in some way. Result! On top of that, they brought out books and toys for Lola to play with, which was the equivalent to massaging my shoulders whilst I drank the free coffee.

Our toasted sandwiches followed immediately and were molten cheese-tastic and just enough to fuel us for the return journey. If I had to complain – and I really don’t want to – I would say that the lunch menu isn’t very adventurous. But I’m more than happy to pay for the service and the surroundings…and a happy Lal Lass.

And now for today! As we were given a free pass by the sun gods today, I thought another bike ride would be a good idea. So today we biked to Weesp, home of van Houten chocolate and separated from Amsterdam by the Amsterdam-Rhine canal.

We biked through Gaasperpark, passed Boerderij Langerlust and followed the Provincialeweg to Weesperbrug and then stayed left into Weesp. Despite the fact that some of this journey is close to the main road, the ride was peaceful and relaxed and we both really enjoyed it.

The first thing we did was find a playground so Lal Lass could shake loose after being sat on the bike. This was easy enough and after a run-around there, we biked on to Molen t’Haantje, which was cute but not exciting enough right now for Lal Lass.

 So we had a bike through the town, which is small and cute, just as I like ‘em.

Many of the shops were closed, as is the case around these parts on a Monday, so after a wander around town and along the river Vecht, we got back on the bike to go towards home. Only we weren’t quite ready for home. The sun was still shining, we were still singing (badly) and so I decided to take a detour at Gein-Noord and follow the river down through the farmlands towards Abcoude.

We carried on to Hoge Dijk, and picked a few buttercups, and then Lal Lass started yawning, so it was time to head home and we headed back to Gaasperplas via Gaasperzoom. All in all, the bike ride was around 15km and really relaxing. So much so, that Lal Lass has been asleep now for almost 3 hours. Aaaahhh….the wonders of fresh air! You can see a map of our bike ride here.

Mother’s Day, Mini-Golf & Muiden

As an expat mama, I get to acknowledge Mother’s Day twice a year, like some kind of Queen. UK and Netherlands celebrate this fine day at different times of the year, with the UK going for it in March and the Netherlands (and most other countries), opting for May.

Last year, Mother’s Day was a quiet one, as I recovered from one of my many post-partum illnesses, so this year we decided to make it a date. Minus our daughter. A little ironic maybe, but it had been a while since the hubby and I had been on a date and it just so happened that Oma wanted to spend a sunny Sunday with her kleindochter. All good!

First stop was to my favourite park in Amsterdam, Amstel Park, for Puremarkt. We had a pretty tasty lunch there of pulled pork sandwiches, bio sausages and chocolate cake and bought some smoked eel for my schoonouders (in-laws). But the highlight of the park was playing mini golf…and I totally kicked my husband’s arse on it! (I’m not competitive…)

The look of concentration didn’t help, unfortunately…

After a devastating defeat on the golf course (which would have been more so, had we finished it…even in the midst of victory, it was going on a bit), we went for a drive to Muiden. Now this was pretty exciting for us both, as I just like visiting cute little towns and hubby had been wanting to visit the historic Muiderslot castle for a while.

The castle looked pretty impressive (even more so when you realise it has been around since 1285) but on getting closer we saw it was 12.50 per person to go onto the grounds and decided to get as close as possible for free and then go and get icecream instead.

It was the right decision.

If you visit Nelis’ IJssalon, try the whiskey cream and chocolate icecream. Heerlijk!

Afterwards, we picked up our little one, who had slept blissfully all afternoon (of course) and went back home to watch a movie and eat popcorn on the couch together.

Sweet Enough

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Photo credit: Sytske_R

I have a sweet tooth and I love indulging it from time to time, going for high tea and other such loveliness and I could quite easily get in the habit of having muffins for breakfast and chocolate on the couch for supper. The balance between treating and full-on sugar-gorging is one I am only just finding for myself as I indulge less often, make sugar-free versions of my faves, and generally try to eat more healthfully.

Since I became a parent, I’ve become more interested in the sugar and the whole healthful eating topic. I determined early on that I wanted Lola to have as little sugar as possible at this age and support her natural belief that treats in these early years (before anyone tells her otherwise) are fruit and vegetables. Why not start her off on that track in the early days and then later she can decide herself how much sugar she wants to eat?

It’s surprising the hurdles you come across on the path to awareness – who knew so many types of teething biscuit would include sugar?? Another of the hurdles I discovered on the way is crèche. I’ve only had experience with two crèches in Amsterdam so far, but both give ontbijtkoek or bread (with cream cheese, or jam or nutella) for a morning snack. They also have warm meals every lunchtime and fruit in the afternoon, which is nutritious and I’m totally into that. But ontbijtkoek and chocolate spread at 18 months old, or younger?

If you’re not familiar with ontbijtkoek, it’s a spiced cake bread made with cloves, ginger, cinnamon and brown sugar and treacle. It’s also pretty dry so butter is spread on it to moisten it. I didn’t see this as something that was particularly nutritious every morning, so agreed with the crèche that she have either wholemeal bread or alternative snacks that I’d bring in myself.

This week, one member of staff told me they didn’t like to give my daughter her alternative (organic cookies or fruit bar) as other children sometimes wanted it too and it’s unfair on them if they can’t have it. Errrmmm…..?

I’m fine with providing snacks for my daughter, and I’m also fine with other kids eating them if they’re interested. Not a problem. However, rather than make my daughter’s ”alternative” snacks an issue, maybe think about why I’m bringing them in? Why not offer only healthful, real food and then every kid has the same, and no-one needs to bring an alternative? It seems like a simple solution, and also a logical one given that there is mounting concern over sugar consumption and resulting health issues.

So…what to do? Get all food-fascist about it? Accept that they’re doing their best and a bit of sugar every day is OK? Does added sugar have to feature in the daily lives of toddlers and younger?

Oh and good timing for this post – today is Food Revolution Day, an awareness day dreamed up by Jamie Oliver to highlight health and education issues around food. He’s already pioneering change in school menus, perhaps we can get started even earlier and bring crèche leaders up to speed too!

On yet another sidenote, I was so not into Jamie Oliver in his younger TV years with the over-used, annoying catchphrases and the trendy lifestyle the producers were trying too hard to depict. But, these days, with all his public campaigning,  and his more relaxed presenting of shows, I’m onboard. Check out his stance on sugar in schools here.

What snacks are given at your daycare? Do you have any thoughts on the sugar debate?

Life’s a Beach

In preparation for our family holiday to Walney in the Summer, we took Lola to the beach for the first time a couple of weeks ago. There’s a fair few beaches to choose from, including Zandvoort, Bloemendaal and Wijk aan Zee, but as the weather was so good and we wanted to have plenty of space to run around, we opted for IJmuiden.

There’s not so much going on there, but when you’re a toddler and its sunny and you have a stick, there’s not a lot more you need.

Of course she wrote that herself, with the stick. Ahem….

We topped off the afternoon with a stop at the nearby snackbar for some patat and kroketten before doing an Alan Partridge-style Sunday drive home. Note to self: buy Ewoud some decent leather driving gloves for extra purchase on the steering wheel.