In our determination to experience a white Christmas, our obliging Dutch family headed for the hills – literally. An extended caravan of cars (with our little Opel Astra whining at high revs out of sight at the rear) transported us from the lowlands of central Netherlands to the modest, wooded mountains of Olsberg and the picturesque village of Elpe. Yet another postcard-worthy cluster of white houses, adorned with strings of soft yellow fairy lights (no multi-coloured flashing light extravaganzas here), surrounded by pine forests and farmland.
The house was an old, rambling affair with enough room for the thirteen of us whilst being sufficiently cosy to give it the ‘gezelligheid’ that makes a winter Christmas feel like, well, Christmas. The table tennis and pool tables got a work out, and our days and nights were interspersed with much cooking, eating, coffee, biscuits, games, carols and a wild variety of alcohol. Needless to say, having us all together under one roof made for a very special time.
The Dutch and Aussie kids were given a detailed lesson in the differences between Sinterklass (serious Spanish dude in red who gives gifts to good Dutch kids) and Santa Claus (jolly North Pole dude in red who gives gifts to all the other good kids who are not Dutch). Bug was up at 3:30am on Christmas Eve morning and again on Christmas morning in anticipation. In our sleepless fog, we groggily threatened to email the North Pole an instruction to place him on the naughty list. Due to the necessity of long-term travel, the stockings were the size of one of my bed socks, but the kids were very content with their miniscule loot. Lisa and I were just relieved it was over and Bug would go back to *%&@! sleep.
Alas, snow did not come to Elpe, but the slopes around Winterberg, a 20-minute drive away, are peppered with snow making machines. We carved some serious snow on sleds, careened down a luge ride and both won and lost in a monster snow fight. After Christmas, we headed back to the snow where Bug, Squirt, Koala and their cousins bravely clipped into skis to learn the art of falling over, umm, I mean skiing. One of the lessons was on a plastic ‘carpet’ that mimics snow and they all showed lots of pluck trying to master those unwieldy planks of fibreglass. There were turns, hops, and stops that they were all very proud of.
One thing we reckon Europe does to wonderful excess are indoor swimming pools. To relieve the skiing muscles, our two families journeyed to one of the best yet; a centre complete with spas, bubble beds, sauna, an outdoor heated pool topped with swirls of steam, and a tube ride. Hilarious was the sight of multiple, giggling kids tumbling in a mess of tubes, arms and legs from the black hole of the water slide into the pool below before racing up the stairs for yet another sortie. And in total defiance of the season, the kids topped off a perfect afternoon with ice creams.
While our relatives had a relatively simple return journey to Holland, we had to return our car to its owner in a small town near Frankfurt Airport. We had a non-refundable train journey booked back to Zeist and just had to make the 11:37am train from Frankfurt. With a racing heart and beaded sweat we drove over three hours through mist and rain (and two traffic jams), manically cleaned the car by hand at a frigid roadside petrol station, parked it on a suburban street (the right one?) and ran like rabbits to the nearest local bus stop. We’d missed a No. 58 bus to the airport by a whisker and time was excruciatingly tight with 20 minutes to wait for the next one. Travelling without mobile connectivity on this particular day was now the stupidest decision of BussAbout. The kids played and cavorted on the sidewalk without a care in the world while Lisa and I stood rooted to the spot, stiff with anxiety and dread. Then a miracle happened and our wild inner pleading was answered in the form of a taxi on that out-of-the-way street. We made it with 10 minutes to spare (with salami baguettes and butter pretzels in hand) and four trains and seven hours later were safely back with family in Zeist.