Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Shoot first, sightsee later...
For some reason, as I fought my way along a cobbled pavement through a coach-load of Italian teenagers going in the opposite direction, the tag-line to the film In Bruges kept springing to mind.
With hindsight, it was probably because I was actually in Bruges at the time. Still, it would have been sensible advice in any other over-priced, medieval European city.
With one hand I clasped a waffle and with the other I clung to Lewis as he told me in great, yet unintelligible, detail about level 3-6 of Mario vs Donkey Kong 2. "...and then you jump this way and go up past the thing and then the other thing comes down next to the platform on the other side of the purple bit..." We pressed forward through the other tourists.
The waffle had cost slightly more than half our normal daily family food budget. It was going soggy from the rain.
I gritted my teeth. We were on holiday. We were having a cultural experience. We were going to enjoy it.
"Are we lost?" asked Fraser from somewhere behind us.
"No," I replied. "We know where we are, we... just don't know where we're going."
"We're never going to get back to the holiday house!" said Lewis, sounding genuinely concerned.
"My socks are wet," squealed Marie.
"We'll get back soon," I said, "and we'll get dry and we'll eat our waffles."
"Do we have to go out tomorrow?" asked Fraser.
"Awwww," he moaned. "Why?"
"Because we're on holiday," I snapped. "We haven't travelled hundreds of miles to sit on a sofa with the curtains drawn and play computer games."
"Why not?" said Lewis.
"Er... because we could have done that at home."
"Why didn't we just stay home?" asked Fraser.
I shook my head in despair. I didn't entirely have a good answer for that. "At least we're not being forced to listen to Max Bygraves tapes by a crazy Spanish sea-captain," I muttered to no one in particular.
"What?" said Lewis, Fraser, Sarah, Marie and a handful of fifteen-year-old Italians in unison.
I took a deep breath. "Well," I began, "when I was small, we were on the top deck of a ferry and it started to chuck it down and..." I launched into an account of various family holidays I'd endured as a boy. It kept the children entertained as we plodded on. There was a strange symmetry to distracting my kids from getting soaked in a foreign land by recalling tales of getting soaked in a foreign land as a kid. Deep down, I knew I'd turned into my parents, though. Both of them. What were we doing?
It had all begun several days earlier on a cold, wet beach in Zeebrugge...
We'd taken the ferry overnight from Rosyth and stepped out boldly to explore. We could have caught a coach directly from the ferry port to Bruges but the boys get bus sick very easily so we thought we'd catch a train. This involved exploring Zeebrugge on foot.
We won't be doing that again.
We were travelling remarkably light for a family of five but Sarah and I still had an enormous rucksack each and the boys both had a small backpack. We'd left the buggy behind and so Marie was forced to walk. This made life interesting as we blundered our way along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway, searching for civilisation while a gale whipped sand and rain into our eyes. The nearest railway station was closed. There were no shops, only a row of job centres and temp agencies. The boys started to complain that 'abroad' was very cold and they didn't like it.
We trudged a mile into town and found another station. The building was being renovated so we had to stand on the platform in the rain to eat our sandwiches. We did manage to get a train, however, and we didn't have to pay for the kids, so that cheered us up a little. We got to Bruges and ate waffles. This cheered us up some more. Then we hunted out the self-catering house we'd rented for the week. The rain bucketed down as we went.
When we eventually dripped our way inside, it was surprisingly nice. Rather too nice, in fact. It was packed with antique furniture that we had to immediately tell the children not to drip on. The owner very proudly told us that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson had stayed there during the filming of In Bruges. Since I'd only heard of the movie thirty minutes beforehand thanks to a poster in the Tourist Information Centre, I maybe wasn't as impressed as I should have been. Still, I searched the house later for toenail clippings to eBay.
The place was very different from our own home, adding to the adventure of the holiday. The only real issue was the stairs:
No not those stairs. Admittedly they had gaps in the banisters big enough for an adult to fall through, forced me to duck, were slippy and wobbled worryingly but it's the next flight I'm really talking about:
Not the kind of obstacle you want between a three-year-old and the toilet, first thing in the morning.
Marie simply wasn't allowed to go up and down on her own.
The next day, once we'd dried off, we started doing the usual tourist things. We went on a boat trip on the canals and took a horse-drawn carriage ride round the old town, we went for walks, searched out swing-parks and hit the shops. We avoided buying lace souvenirs but we did stock up on chocolate. We only got soaked through a couple more times...
There were a few instances where it was an effort trying to herd the children but everything was so much easier than it would have been even a year ago. Once we'd got the kids down the stairs in the morning, they could amuse themselves while we slept on. We even went a whole week without a buggy or changing bag or a packet of wipes.
Actually, no, we managed without the buggy and a change of clothes for Marie but we only went a day without a packet of wipes before we realised our mistake. The kids had some candy floss at the circus, got it all over themselves and then tried licking it off. For the rest of the afternoon, everything they passed stuck to them - dirt, leaves, small dogs, other people's wallets, historic monuments, buses and each other. It was a disaster. We ended up rolling half the town into a big, sticky ball just trying to get home. The locals weren't pleased. We may be just about done with changing bags and buggies but I suspect that I'll still be carrying around a packet of wipes with me on the day I help Marie transport all her stuff to university. (I'll probably still be telling her not to lose her gloves and to say 'please' and 'thank you' as well, but that's another story.)
In the middle of the week, we took a train to Brussels to have a look round there. We found a decent swing-park, more rain and the hugely ostentatious town square. If there was much else to see, we didn't stumble across it. By that point, I'd run out of first-hand stories of holiday mishaps and was resorting to tales that my grandparents had told me to keep me distracted on cramped, three-day car journeys to Spain. I wandered around saying things like, "Look at that statue and did you know that your great-grandparents once got locked in a church with General Franco?"
We spotted the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but both the boys thought it was rather a waste using up so much space to bury one person that nobody knew. Then we found a shop selling Pokemon merchandise and they were happy.
On our final day in Bruges, the boys and I sat in the main square while Sarah and Marie went shopping. An old local came over, looking for a chat. He asked where we were from and then told us that the only way Bruges has to make money is to rob tourists blind. He then pointed out that half the ancient-looking buildings around us were erected in the twentieth century. When I mentioned that we'd been to Brussels, he said, "The town square's wonderful but there's nothing else to see."
I suspect that he didn't work for the Belgian Tourist Board.
A different elderly man (I just seem to attract these guys) accosted us the following morning as we were preparing to get off the ferry. He'd been visiting friends in Holland and they'd suggested he cycle from the port. Because of the bad weather, he'd left his bike at home and had attempted to take public transport. He'd apparently ended up following us as we desperately searched for a means of escape from Zeebrugge. He, too, had been glad to make it out alive before nightfall... If he goes back, he's going to catch the bus directly to Bruges and find his way from there.
I nodded sagely. It was the only sensible course of action. I only wished I'd known that a week earlier.
Next time I go anywhere, I'm going to go stand in the queue to leave as soon as I get there and wait for an elderly gentleman to give me the inside scoop on the place. It will save so much time.
We survived. The kids got to see somewhere foreign where the buildings are strange, the money is different and slightly fewer people than normal speak English. They also got to bag a whole heap of Pokemon tack. Could have been worse. Lewis is keen to go back again, despite not wanting to go in the first place and kicking up a fuss every time we tried to leave the house when we were there. Marie's happy because she got to buy a pink, sparkly necklace. Fraser's just pleased that he's no longer the only kid in his class who hasn't been to another country. He was pretty miserable at the start of the holiday, though. He didn't want to go and then acted like it was the end of the world when Lewis accidentally stood on his hand in the soft-play on the ferry.
I took him back to the cabin to put a plaster on his finger and calm him down. He slumped dejectedly on his bunk.
"You don't really want to be here, do you?" I said. "Would you rather have stayed at home?"
He looked sheepish. He clearly wanted to agree but was worried he might get into trouble for telling the truth.
"Do you want to hear a secret?" I asked. "You have to promise not to tell it to anyone. Do you promise?"
He looked interested. "OK."
"Well," I said, "I'd rather have stayed at home too."
"Really?" he said, perking up like a housedad who's just spotted another man entering the room for parent and toddler.
"Yes, but Mummy really wants to go on this holiday and I love Mummy very much, so we're going and we're going to have a good time. Do you understand?"
"Do you love Mummy very much, too?" I asked.
"Yes," said Fraser.
"Then stop being so grumpy, please."
"All right," he said. "Can I play my DS now?"
"When we get back down to the others."
He made as if to complain that he wanted to stay in the cabin but then stopped. We shared a grin and headed downstairs. The holiday went much more smoothly after that. We even had a pretty good time...
Hope everyone's well and that you had an excellent Easter.
Yours in a woman's world,
PS Lewis felt sick on the ferry journey home. I told him to hurry to the toilet. Dutifully, he went through, but he'd misunderstood. Rather than stick his head in it and throw up, he sat down to pee.
Then he threw up.
Fraser started feeling ill. I gave him a travel pill. He threw up in the sink. The output was the colour of the travel pill. Marie was delighted. She spent the rest of the day running up to strangers and yelling, "Fraser was sick! It was pink!"
PPS When we finally reached home, I watched the trailer for In Bruges and fell about laughing.