Sunday, 21 July 2013

When in France...

So we finally made it to an actual foreign country without being sabotaged by perforating eardrums or other child-related dramas.  Although after the Gatwick  departure lounge fiasco, we did play it safe and go by sea.  And we nearly had to leave Ben behind after a minor misunderstanding about the application process for a child’s first passport and the requirement to supply documentary evidence that said child does actually exist, rather than expecting the passport office to take our word for it. 

I shall not mention any names or assign any blame.

*cough* HWSNBN did it *cough*

But the passport did eventually turn up and we made it to France.  Whereupon Thomas looked around dispiritedly and demanded to know why we weren’t in Jersey.

Don’t ask.

Token attempt at artistic shot...
He perked up when we reached the place where we were staying and discovered that there was a swimming pool.  It was by now nine o’clock at night.  Not the time we tend to go swimming.  But he had, to be fair, only asked “are we nearly there yet?” about a hundred and fifty times during the whole six hour journey, so swimming seemed a reasonable trade-off.  We got changed and headed out to the pool.  At this point I got down on hands and knees, looked him in the eye and explained the pool rules.  No running.  No jumping in.  No going in without armbands.   He nodded and looked serious and generally gave all the signs of having absorbed these important pointers….and then ran over, jumped in the pool and sank.  After being hauled out, shivering and spluttering, he was slightly more inclined to listen….

Ben was considerably more cautious.  So cautious, in fact, that he spent the next 10 days walking slowly round the edge of the pool, occasionally venturing in as far as the first step, or deigning to be pushed around on a giant inflatable stingray.

Except the time that he tried to balance on tiptoes on the very edge, and promptly fell in headfirst.  From the wailing and bashing and glaring, this was clearly all our fault for not pointing out that water is wet or that 18 month-olds generally don’t have the co-ordination to tight-rope walk along an inch-wide ledge of stone.

That was pretty much it for the rest of the trip.  Thomas splashed around in the pool.  Ben circumnavigated the pool.  I floated gently around on an inflatable crocodile.  That sort of thing.

We did venture out a couple of times.  Once was to the Valle de Singe, where we witnessed a baboon orgy, before Ben was heckled by angry chickens and had a Capuchin land on his head, and Thomas was slapped by a monkey.  
Do it again!  Do it again!
In fairness to the monkey, it was minding its own business, lolling about on the path, and Thomas walked straight up to it with a very definite air of “hello, here I am, aren’t you lucky?”  The monkey had presumably encountered one too many small children that day and wasn’t messing around.  One back-handed slap later and Thomas was retreating at speed, looking around to see if we’d noticed him flouting the oft-repeated “do NOT get in that monkey’s face” rule. 

HWSNBN was rather taken with the idea of a wildlife park with specially trained animals who will, for a small additional fee, teach your small children to respect nature.

Here are your tickets, Sir.  Now can I interest you in our “Slapped by a monkey” special program today, or would your younger child like to be chased by some chickens at eleven o’clock at the farm area?  Or perhaps our special two-for-one offer.  A bargain at five euros.

Our other day out was less successful.  I believe that someone has written a book called French children don’t throw food.  This is probably because French children don’t have parents who come up with great ideas like “Let’s go to La Rochelle.  It will be lovely.”

It wasn’t lovely. 

We drove for two hours in thirty-four degrees to an entirely shade-free car-park, before heading into the Busiest Tourist Attraction on Earth (known locally as the Aquarium), and deciding to eat at the Hottest Restaurant on Earth (more usually known as the Aquarium Café), which was, for reasons which entirely escaped us, located above the rain-forest exhibit, ie in a giant greenhouse.  Without air-conditioning.

Food was most definitely thrown.  Ben, it would appear, does not like eating hot steak hash in a giant greenhouse in thirty-four degree temperatures.

When we eventually escaped from the Greenhouse of Doom, we discovered that the entire population of France, as well as a reasonable proportion of the British citizenry, had decided to see how many people it is possible to fit in front of a very small fishtank.  We spent the next hour crawling through a forest of legs in pursuit of two small children who had discovered the knack of wriggling their way to the front and disappearing entirely from sight.

You know this is a bad idea, right?
We made a brief, half-hearted attempt to explore the town, before admitting defeat and staggering back to the car in the manner of hallucinating desert-travellers in old-fashioned films about the foreign legion.  Except that I don’t remember Lawrence of Arabia having to carry two screaming children across the sandy wastes of the Nefud desert.

It then obviously took about ten hours for the car to cool down sufficiently for anyone to sit in a seat without suffering extensive bottom burns. 

You would think we might have had enough by now.  You would think we might have decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed home to watch Ben totter round the edge of the pool a few more times.

But no. 

“Let’s find a beach,” I said. 

“It’ll be nice,” I said.

 “They can paddle,” I said.

A beach was duly located, and we set up camp at a café with tables and parasols.  The tide was out, but there were people making their way through the shallows, so I decided to push on with the paddling idea.  Thomas and Ben were duly stripped down to pants and t-shirts and off we went.

It was only when we stepped in that we discovered that the “shallows” were actually a thin layer of water covering knee-deep mud, and that the people we’d seen from the cafe weren’t actually paddling, but were, in fact, hanging on to each other for dear life as they slithered their way out to the distant waves.

And it wasn’t just any mud.  It was that thick, gloopy, grey mud that somehow congeals itself onto your skin as though it’s trying to eat you, like some sort of B-Movie mud monster.

Ben, it would seem, does not like mud, any more than he likes steak hash and giant greenhouses. 

In an attempt to demonstrate his disapproval, he immediately fell over.  I pulled him out, wailing and thrashing and put him back on his feet.  Whereupon he fell over again.  By this time he looked like he’d just emerged from deep camouflage in some jungle war. 

Except that the enemy would have heard him coming about fifteen miles away.  The whole beach heard us coming.  The whole town probably heard us coming.

Ben screamed at the full pitch of his lungs all the way up the beach.  When we finally got to the shower, we were gazumped by a couple of immaculate teenagers who looked at us with some puzzlement as they cavorted in the water in a carefree manner.  When they eventually figured out that the woman with the small mud-covered object would actually like use of the shower, they vacated it…only for a young man to slide in front of us and begin washing his feet.

It would seem that “OH DON’T BLOODY WELL MIND US.  WE WEREN’T WAITING OR ANYTHING” is universally comprehensible in any language.

We took possession of the shower.

Ben objected even more loudly, while Thomas kept trying to make a run for it.  By this time the whole beach had given up what they were doing and were watching in a sort-of horrified fascination as the strange, and by now rather grubby-looking, British woman attempted to pin two fighting, kicking, screaming mounds of mud under the shower.

In the middle of it all a woman came along and attempted to wash her dog.

Under the same shower that we were using.

It would seem that I can glare in multiple languages too, judging by the speed with which she retreated.

While this was going on, HWSNBN was apparently gazing contentedly out to sea, trying to pick us out of the distant figures.  When he eventually became aware that the eardrum-splitting screaming was actually being emitted by one of his beloved offspring,  he behaved most admirably in not pretending he didn’t know us, but handing me a small towel was rather equivalent to going round turning off the taps on the Titanic.

The mud was eventually scraped off and the screaming was stopped by dint of waiting till Ben opened his mouth for another screech and then inserting an icecream.  The spectators continued to watch us for a bit longer, clearly hoping we were going to do something else entertaining.

It’s a pity they couldn’t see that Ben, naked and wrapped in a towel, was weeing on me.  That would have been good for a bit more hilarity.

It was well into the next day before Ben stopped glaring at us.  He can probably be forgiven for a bit of food throwing.  He was probably wondering if any of the parents of the non-food-throwing French children on the beach might consider adopting him.

But he made it through the holiday.  We all made it.  I think they enjoyed it.  Well, not La Rochelle obviously.  That bit will be stored away in the depths of everyone’s memory and Never Talked About Ever Again.  But they seemed fairly cheerful about the rest of it.

And I returned from our internet-less trip to discover that I’ve been longlisted for the Bristol Prize.


Clearly I am slightly better at writing than I am at seaside-parenting.

I might write a book called English Children Are Entirely Justified in Throwing Food When Their Parents Take All Leave Of Their Senses And Drag Them To La Rochelle.


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