The long and winding road.

Over the half term holiday, I met up with a friend and we found ourselves discussing journeys with kids.  Specifically, lengthy journeys with kids. Now I may have mentioned my fairly gung-ho approach to parenting which often consists of momentarily questioning the wisdom of my plans with my children and then just doing it anyway and hoping for the best. I find that with long journeys, that is all you can ever do.  No amount of planning, preparation or clever purchases with ever take away the fact that you just have to suck it and see.  It might be fine.  It might not.  To segue seamlessly from Paul McCartney to Abba, you just have to ‘Take a chance’. And we have taken many….

1. When Ana was a mere 12 weeks old, we went on a family holiday to Cuba. An 8 hour flight away. Now can I just add here that exotic Caribbean holidays are not the norm in our house hold.  In fact, the very reason we were going when Ana was 3 months old was because I was on maternity leave from my teaching job and I knew this was my only chance to holiday out of peak season so I was going to grab it with both hands!

So back to the journey.  I read up a little about taking young babies on planes and noted the advice that you should try to get them to feed on take-off to stop their ears popping and that sucking on a dummy often helps too.  I dutifully purchased a dummy and Ana dutifully spat it out every time I tried to get her to take it.  No matter: we would try the feeding lark.  When the day came we headed excitedly to the airport.  After check in, we made what seemed a sensible decision to walk our buggy to the plane rather than check it in and suddenly we were on the plane.  As we headed to our seats there was a Mexican wave of falling faces (not sure that metaphor works, but I like the idea of it, so it can stay) as those seated around us realised they would be spending 8 hours in a confined space with a small baby.  The man in the seat beside us quickly managed to get himself relocated and even I started to think this may have been a bad idea.  BUT…for once, my story has a happy ending.  Ana was pretty darned perfect on the flight and as I passed the man who had jumped ship on my way out of the plane, I smiled in smug satisfaction that his fears had not been realised this time.  My smile lasted all the way to the baggage reclaim when we discovered that our buggy had not made it to Cuba but had taken a detour enroute….but that’s another story….

2. Undaunted by an 8 hour flight with an infant, we fast forward a few years to another epic adventure:

A 2000 mile drive across Europe to a campsite near Venice.

With a 3 year old and an 18 month old.

In a car with no air conditioning.

With no SAT NAV (I disapprove – paper maps are the only way as far as I’m concerned).

In the height of summer.

What could possible go wrong?

This holiday was my attempt to do something fun with the family, whilst also managing to visit an exciting city I had never been to (you notice I say ‘I’ here.  My husband did come with me, he just had very limited input into the decision-making!).

We set off promisingly via ferry and then a reasonably short trip through France.  After a lovely family meal in the evening, we were feeling like we had this long-distance travel thing down pat.  You think I would learn that smug pride is always a precursor to disaster, but I never do: our lovely meal was followed by a sleepless night with two small children in a family room consisting of a double bed downstairs and two singles on a mezzanine level with only a low wall to stop said children tumbling over the edge.  Suffice to say, we ended up with 4 people, getting no sleep in one smallish double bed.

We headed to breakfast hopeful of a more promising start to day 2, but the stifling heat in the car the day before (no air con remember) had clearly had a negative effect on Faith (18 months old and historically a very sicky baby – can you see where this is heading?).  So, bleary eyed and attempting to prepare to return to the ‘long and winding road’, we were all sat at breakfast in the hotel lobby (the kind where there is no service and you just help yourself to continental breakfast), when out of nowhere Faith was sick.  And not just a little bit.  She vomited as if she was competing in the national championships (or international championships, I guess, given that we were in Europe) and covered herself and me and the floor in sick.

Now, I mentioned it was an unattended breakfast, so Mike then had a panicked search for paper towels; hotel staff; anything to attempt a clean-up and all in front of the shocked – and possibly traumatised – hotel guests scattered around the room attempting to fortify themselves for the day’s journey (we may have spoilt that slightly for them – sorry about that!).

Meanwhile I was faced with a different problem.  We had been very organised and had packed the car pre-breakfast so I now had to unpack the boot (possibly a good time to mention that in a fit of money-saving panic, I had decided to fill our car to the gills not only with clothes, beach things and camping accessories, but also enough food to last us for the 10 day holiday so we would not have to buy overpriced food in the local shops.  We had, quite literally, taken pasta to Italy!).  Anyway, emptying the boot was not an easy task (particularly whilst covered with toddler sick) and I then had to riffle through our belongings to find something acceptable for us both to change in to.  We then had to go back to our abandoned hotel room to wash and change before finally (approximately an hour later than planned) managing to slink away with our tails between our legs thankful that we had not booked this hotel for the return journey and therefore never needed to see any of these people again (I imagine they too were thankful!).

This is by no means the only adventure of this journey, but I seem to have digressed somewhat so the other stories will have to wait for another time.   Let’s head to journey 3….

3. This journey took place last summer when we decided it was time to head out on another cross-Europe road trip: to Berlin, via Cologne, with a pit-stop in Dusseldorf on the way back. This time we were pretty confident that things would be different.  We had a newer car with air conditioning for a start (one of the other stories I failed to mention from the previous trip was that we broke our car on the way home and drove from approximately the Paris ring road, back to Portsmouth, via a cross-channel ferry, with the underside of our car scraping dangerously close to the floor.  It never recovered.), and our children were much older and more than capable of coping with hours trapped in a moving vehicle.

This time, the journey planning as far as Mike was concerned, was all about the music.  He spent hours (and I do really mean hours.  Night after night.) creating the perfect playlist of ‘music to drive to Berlin’ resulting in a 6 CD masterpiece (Yep.  You heard it.  CDs.  No new-fangled devices here) that mapped the exact journey times so that we crossed Belgium to the strains of Europop; zoomed down the autobahn to the sounds of Karftwerk’s homage to the German road system and finally entered Berlin accompanied by a triumphant electronica version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.   The children were surprisingly impressed with Mike’s creation, although I was dubious about the popularity of David Hasselhoff’s ‘Looking for Freedom’ (as sung on the Berlin Wall), which they insisted on singing for the rest of the holiday until it was playing on a loop in my head.

Whilst he had been planning the soundtrack to our adventure, I had been in charge of the accommodation.  This also involved being responsible for ensuring we were able to get to each planned stop.  Mike had control over the big picture route planning.  I was supposed to do the detail.  Once again, I don’t do SAT NAV.  I believe in paper maps.  But I am also not that great at following them. Particularly in cities I don’t know; in countries I am unfamiliar with.  (Again, I think you can see where this is headed…).

The journey, in the main, passed without drama (no sickness; no lost buggies) apart from the 3 crucial moments when we were trying to find the places we were due to stay.  For these few hours, things were fraught inside our little car and no amount of air-conditioning managed to cool the atmosphere.  Even the children knew better than to argue as the palpable tension caused by being lost in the suburbs of Cologne blew through the car. And then again in the suburbs of Berlin.  And finally in the suburbs of Dusseldorf as we headed home.

Alongside my inability to successfully locate hotels when required, I have a slightly unhelpful aversion to asking for directions.  I find it embarrassing and rather humiliating to have to admit to failure in front of strangers.  Nowhere was this felt more strongly than when we stopped (at Mike’s insistence, after 3 failed attempts to search nearby roads for the lost hotel) in Cologne to seek help.  Not only were we obviously lost; not only were we clearly arguing; but we had the temerity to stop people on the street, tell them we spoke ‘no German’ and then expect them to give us directions in English.  Naturally, they were able to do just that leaving me feeling crushed, once again, by my ineptitude – maps, languages, parenting….failures all round.  But hey, at least we have singlehandedly contributed to a spike in the popularity of David Hassellhoff’s musical masterpiece.  That, at least, is something I can be proud of as I sit contemplating our next great adventure down the long and winding road…

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