Twenty-third Day of Advent: Holidays

We’re nearly there, folks! My blogathon (that’s a thing, yes?) is almost complete, and my cookathon is about to begin. Tomorrow I will peel and prep veg, ice the Christmas cake, make mince pies and a Yule Log, fish pie and sage and onion stuffing and, most crucially, I will compose the Christmas Day Timetable, by which I stand or fail. I’m a bit nervous about it all, as this is the first year I have cooked Christmas dinner without my dad here to help me. However, I’ve hopefully  made my life easier by scheduling lunch for 4pm. My plans to get ahead of the game by making things and freezing them hasn’t gone that well. I do have a a container of frozen cranberry sauce, and cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning, but the rest is still to do. Perhaps with all this going on it isn’t a coincidence that I felt inspired to write about holidays today.

I love holidays and travel, whether near or far. Whenever I listen to Moon River and hear the line “two drifters, off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see” I feel a thrill. There is such a lot of world, and I do so want to see as much of it as possible! One of the great things about holidays is the chance to explore somewhere new, try new food, learn a few words of a new language, see how different things can be, even between neighbouring countries.

rye castleI also relish how much easier I find it to focus on what really matters; just being with and enjoying husband and children, when we’re away from home. We had a mini-holiday today. Or day-trip, if you want to be pedantic. We went to Rye, which is a real favourite of ours. It’s one of the old cinque ports; a gorgeous little town of half-timbered houses on streets which wind around and tumble steeply down to the reclaimed marshland. At the top of the town is the sweetest little castle you’ll ever see. I love the contrast between the bleak expanses of sky and estuary and the cosy little pubs and teashops with log fires galore.

If I’d been at home today I would have filled the time with jobs. I would have cleaned and vacuumed, changed beds, washed floors, hung Christmas cards and goodness knows what else. As it was I cuddled Sophia and chatted with Anna and joked with my husband. I also ate an amazing lunch at the fabulous George in Rye. Oh, and became proud co-owner of a life-sized plush penguin. I don’t quite know how that happened. I can’t honestly say it was down to either of the children. Perhaps something to do with me having a glass of very nice Sauvignon Blanc and my husband having a pint of beer with lunch? Or Christmas spirit? I don’t know, but we were walking past a little toy shop and saw the most adorable penguins in the window. Husbandpetrarch noticed them first – he absolutely adores penguins – and it was a little bit like love at first sight for all of us. Before we knew where we were Petrarch, as he was subsequently christened, had joined the family. You see, holidays make you so much more receptive to new experiences.

And maybe all those jobs still need doing, but I can just be a little busier tomorrow, or even (shock horror) leave some of them until after Christmas. Holidays, even incredibly short ones, are very good at restoring perspective.

Sophia was a brilliant travelling companion at three months old when we took her on a two week journey across Europe by train. She is now slightly more challenging as sitting still, even when accompanied by a penguin the same size as her, isn’t really her forte. That being the case, I’m not quite sure how holidays will pan out this year, so it’s encouraging to discover that I can feel totally refreshed by just one day out an hour’s train journey from London. And then, of course, there’s also that elusive spa break to look forward to…in the meantime, I’m going to continue ignoring the housework and go and watch Love Actually.

School’s (almost) out for the summer!

In just under an hour I’ll be collecting Anna from school for her six week holiday, and I Just. Can’t. Wait. This has been such a long half-term, at the end of the year which has seen the biggest change in her life, and she is exhausted. Absolutely on her knees. I’m longing to have her at home to cosset and cuddle and just hang out with. Six whole weeks when I don’t have to spend the first ninety minutes of the day barking instructions – “Eat your porridge, finish your milk, clear your dishes, clean your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, find your sunhat/bag/water bottle/hoodie/gloves/bookbag/homework folder, put your shoes on.” And, above all “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”.

I’m quite proud of myself, though. A whole school year during which I have been at various points, heavily pregnant, recovering from a c-section, recovering from a broken foot and looking after a newborn baby, and Anna has only collected one late mark (caused by a last minute poonami from her sister which required a full change of clothes for me and her. Don’t ask.) The rest of the time, come hell or high water, we have screeched through the school gates at 8.50am. Other than the days when my parents have been here. “I don’t have to run the last bit when Grandad takes me to school, Mummy”, Anna informed me the other morning.

After our adventures last summer and at Easter we’re keeping things fairly low-key this summer. A trip up to Liverpool to stay with my parents next week, a week at my mother-in-law’s flat in Penzance later on in the summer, and then a couple of days in North Wales with my mum and dad again at the end of the summer. This is partly because my husband has a busy autumn coming up at work and so can’t take much time off, and partly because Sophia is seven months, eating solids and desperate to crawl, and therefore not a particularly rewarding travelling companion at present. I think it also works out really well for Anna, though, as she needs some time to just be.

No doubt a lot of her time is going to be spent reading. About two months ago, she suddenly ‘got’ it, and went almost over night from painstakingly sounding out the fascinating (ahem) adventures of Chip, Kipper and Biff in the school reading books to devouring chapter books as quickly as she can get her hands on them. Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ books, the Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, Enid Blyton – her tastes are pleasingly eclectic, and, like mother like daughter, she is more often than not to be found with her head in a book. I’m loving re-visting my own childhood favourites with her. At the moment we’re reading the Ramona books, by American author Beverley Cleary, together, and I think I might almost be enjoying them more as an adult than I did as a child.

Anna journalWriting is still more of a challenge for Anna, although she is making good progress. We were chatting to her teacher about how we could encourage her to keep writing in a fun and enjoyable way over the summer so that she doesn’t lose her mojo, and she suggested we got her to keep a diary. Next thing I know, yesterday morning Miss M handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. When Anna opened it, inside was a personalised decoupaged journal for her to use over the summer. Anna is so thrilled and excited, and I am incredibly touched and impressed. One of my closest friends is a teacher, and I know from her how difficult and stressful and exhausting the summer term is for teachers. Yet in the midst of organising school trips and sports days, and writing reports, she has found the time to do this because she wants to encourage Anna to keep up with her newly developing skill. Teachers are amazing.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to blog over the next few weeks, but hopefully I’ll have my girl’s diary to look back on as a record of our summer.

La Dolce Vita

lake comoIt started small. Let’s go on holiday at Easter, we said – there’s a two week school holiday, Sophia will still be exclusively breast-fed, so there’s no messing around with purees or finger food, and she’ll be small enough to carry easily in the sling. The idea of some pre-summer sun was appealing too, so we started to look at Spain and Italy.

Then we had a home exchange offer from a family in Switzerland. Our imaginations were instantly captured by the idea of Swiss mountain railway journeys, snow-capped mountains and carpets of wild flowers. Not to mention generous helpings of cheese and chocolate. Unfortunately that home exchange turned out to be totally unsuitable for non-drivers, but it had got us thinking. And when I say ‘us’, I really mean my husband, as holiday planning is very much his forte. Then we had a home exchange offer for Milan. We last visited Milan during an inter-rail trip ten years ago, and were only there for an afternoon prior to catching a sleeper-train to Barcelona, but we saw enough to make us want to go back one day.

My vision of snowy Alps was instantly replaced by one of myself sitting at a chic little pavement cafe, sipping Prosecco, wearing high heels and a slinky wrap dress (two stone of baby-weight having been miraculously left at the airport). Not quite sure how breastfeeding a baby and entertaining a six-year-old fitted into this vision, but hey, a daydream’s a daydream.

The only problem was how to choose between these two options. Or so I thought. My husband is made of sterner and more creative stuff. Which is how our mini-break to catch a few rays of spring sunshine ended up an eleven day epic tour of Northern Italy and Switzerland, comprising over 32 hours of train travel and taking in nine different towns/cities. I know that compared to trekking in the Himalayas or backpacking in Kerala it might not seem that ambitious, but given that we have two children, one of whom was only three months old at the start of the trip, and that Anna was two and a half before we ventured abroad at all, and that trip consisted of taking the Eurostar to Paris, it felt pretty adventurous to us.

It was an incredible experience. Our daughters were amazing. Anna absolutely loved it, and was indefatigable in pulling her little Paddington suitcase along and trying to remember whether, at any given moment, she should be saying please and thank you in Italian, German or French. We didn’t make her learn them in Romansch. Partly because neither of us speak a single word of it. One of the things I love most about Anna is her deep interest in the world and the things she sees, and the thought-provoking questions she asks. Travelling with her is a particular pleasure because it enables us to feed that interest and curiosity. And Sophia was sweet-tempered and placid, putting up uncomplainingly with a string of different travel cots, and having her nappy changed everywhere from a seat on the ultra-glamorous Swiss dining train, The Glacier Express, to the ancient rubble of a medieval campanile. The Swiss and Italians clearly love children, and travelling with our two gorgeous girls got us free drinks, biscuits perfume samples and sweets and lollipops galore.

There were, of course, elements of it which were harder work. Packing for four people for eleven days of train travel is a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially when one of the party is a baby who requires a rucksack full of bits and pieces just for a trip to the shops. Anna had her tiny Paddington suitcase, Husband and I shared a medium wheelie suitcase, and Sophia had her own cabin-bag sized pull along. Which my husband generously pulled along for her whilst she slumbered peacefully, strapped to my chest in her sling.

My vision of sipping Prosecco did come partially true, and it was on the terrace of a bar overlooking the stunningly beautiful cathedral in Milan, no less. What I hadn’t envisioned was that I would be red-faced and sweaty in my inappropriate clothing (I didn’t know when I packed that the whole of Europe was going to enjoy an unseasonable heatwave) and trying simultaneously to persuade Sophia to feed when actually she was much more interested in pulling off and exposing me to the whole bar so that she could have a good look round, to persuade Anna that arancini was just rice with bolognese sauce in the middle and as such was a perfectly acceptable evening meal for her, and to persuade myself that it didn’t matter that I was the only woman in the place who was a) bigger than a size 8 and b) not wearing head-to-toe black Prada.

But for every slightly fraught moment there were several magical ones. Eating pizza in a sun-drenched medieval piazza, watching Anna play for hours on the pebbly beaches on the edge of Lake Como, flexing bedtime slightly so that we could have supper together on the roof terrace of the flat we were staying in as we watched the sun set over the mountains, feeling I’d stepped into an Agatha Christie novel (minus the murder) as we tucked into a delicious three-course lunch, served at our seats as we sped along at 2500 ft above sea level on the Glacier Express.

And, you never know, maybe next time I go to Milan I’ll manage to pull-off the stick-thin, designer-clad fashionista look.

That was the summer

It’s been a long time since my last blog, and the summer holiday has passed in a whirl with barely a chance to catch my breath, let alone do any writing. It was Anna’s first day back at school this morning, and walking through the gates it felt as though the last six weeks hadn’t happened. It definitely did, though, and has been an incredibly busy time.

We travelled to seven different European countries by train (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, Spain), in a crazy, action-packed, fun-filled sixteen days which encompassed learning (and then rapidly forgetting) how to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you in five different languages, eating schnitzel, strudel, goulash, sheeps cheese filled dumplings, mussels, pizza, spaghetti, paella, salt cod croquettes, tortilla, custard filled croissants, sea snails and a LOT of gelato, swimming in the sea, exploring Roman remains and a mountain top theme park, Venetian calle and Spanish ramblas, and journeys by high speed train, sleeper train, metro, coach, bus, taxi, boat, gondola, tram, funicular railway, trolley bus and aeroplane. We were variously attacked by vicious mosquitos, over-active automatic doors and poisonous seaweed. We watched the sun set over the river Danube, took a boat the length of the Grand Canal and ate tapas in candlelit Spanish squares. It was utterly magical, and we created a lot of very happy family memories.

There were lots of adventures back in the UK too, with trips to Liverpool, New Brighton, Speke Hall, Chester Zoo, the Museum of Childhood, innumerable playgrounds, and the Festival of Love on the South Bank. Anna completed the Magical Maze summer reading challenge at our local library and a week’s crash course of swimming lessons, baked a chocolate hedgehog cake, picked and ate vegetables from Grandad’s garden, and built a zoo’s worth of Lego animals with Uncle Matt. We had playdates with friends (ours and Anna’s!), I met my oldest friend’s gorgeous new baby boy and we said goodbye to my cousins-in-law who moved to the US a few weeks ago. We went to our twenty week scan together and Anna had her first, rather grainy, view of her new sibling. Lest all this sound too blissful, we also had no less than six increasingly fractious trips to different shoe shops in what seemed like a doomed attempt to find school shoes which fitted Anna’s feet and both mine and Anna’s practical and aesthetic requirements. After all that, the weather is so nice today that she has gone back to school in slightly-too-small sandals! There were also a few sessions with the nit comb and then a trepidatious visit to the hairdressers where, thankfully, we were declared nit-free and Anna had a hair cut which should hopefully enable her to actually be able to see her new teacher today.

So now I’ve got that back to school feeling. We waved Anna off in the playground – she and all her classmates seeming to have grown several inches over the summer – and although I’ve been looking forward to school starting and a little time to myself, I’m now counting the minutes until 3.10pm when I can find out how her first day in Year One went. 

If all continues to go well with my pregnancy (twenty-four weeks, five days and counting!) then I have a window of a little over three months to get our lives sorted out. In no particular order I have to: edit my short story, write the first draft of my third novel, get our old baby stuff down out of the loft, discover it’s been attacked by mice and/or moths and replace half of it, transform the spare room into a nursery, start taking some kind of pregnancy-friendly exercise, stock the freezer with wholesome meals to minimise our reliance on takeaways come January and make sure all our preparations for Christmas completed by the end of November so that I’m not trying to wrap presents while breastfeeding a newborn. Oh yes, and try and stock up on the naps and early nights which will soon be in short supply, whilst also spending lots of quality time with Anna in her last few months as an only child. Which all sounds perfectly do-able. Happy September everyone! 

 

Rain doesn’t stop play

st michaels in rainI’m writing this in Cornwall, curled on the sofa with a view of the sea in the distance. Being Cornwall, and being summer, you can barely tell sea and sky apart, they are just slightly different shades of rather forbidding grey.  My husband has been coming on holiday to the Penwith peninsula in the far West of Cornwall every year since he was a small child. We got together when we were eighteen, and since then I’ve joined in with the family tradition, and our daughter came down here for the first time when she was just three months old. This is now her sixth Cornish holiday.

One of my favourite travel experiences of all time is arriving at Paddington Station to take the express train to Penzance. Just the list of stations – Lostwithiel, St Austell, Truro, Redruth, St Erth – is intensely romantic. Well, to me anyway. Maybe I over-dosed on Daphne du Maurier at an impressionable age. I love everything about this region – the sea in all its moods, the dramatic cliffs, the uncompromising granite buildings, the plethora of vivid wildflowers. When I did antenatal classes before my daughter was born, our teacher suggested we envision our own ‘happy place’, somewhere we could take ourselves mentally, where we would feel serene and tranquil, and therefore distract ourselves if we were scared or in pain. My happy place was Penberth Cove and, much to my surprise, it worked. As I lay in a strange and sterile operating theatre, being prepped for an emergency c-section, shaking violently all over from a combination of nerves and reaction to the anaesthetic, I took myself to Penberth, listened to the waves crashing onto the shore, saw the million different shades of blue, green and grey in the swirling sea, and felt miraculously calmed.

I say all this to prove my credentials as someone with a genuine love for, and loyalty to, Cornwall. However, I do have a few itsy, bitsy complaints, related entirely to the weather. It is late May. We are in the far West of the West Country. Was it unreasonable to imagine that we might get some sunshine? This is only Day Three of the holiday, but the answer so far is a resounding yes, the evidence I’ve amassed over the past fifteen years should have indicated to me that a week of unbroken sunshine was, at best, improbable. It’s all so resonant of my childhood.

It’s funny – in many ways my husband and I had very different upbringings. He was the only child of bohemian parents living in a fifth floor flat in inner London. My childhood was classic 2.4 children territory in suburban Liverpool. However, one set of reminiscences we share is childhood holidays. The Eighties was when many British families discovered the joy of the cheap package holiday – apartments in Benidorm or Majorca with balconies, pools and, most crucially of all, guaranteed sunshine. Not something we ever experienced. Our childhood holidays were all about cottages in Wales or Devon or Cornwall, about board games and dominos, the dreaded car picnic, about gazing out of the window with desperate optimism saying things like ‘I think it’s brightening a little bit over there’, about beach days where the children wore wellies and sweaters over their swimming costumes and the adults huddled shivering behind windbreaks. (I’m sure only the British have windbreaks. In other countries, if the weather is such that you need a windbreak then you wouldn’t be on the beach). The sun did shine sometimes, of course it did. And at that point, safe sun messages being another decade away, we’d get our shoulders and noses burnt and spend the rest of the holiday being slathered with calamine lotion.

And now here I am, aged thirty-three. On holiday with my daughter. In Cornwall. In the pours of rain. Yesterday, lacking even the car for a car picnic, we ate our lunch on the harbour front at Porthleven. Huddled together, waterproofs on, hoods up, in a race to eat our pasties before the paper bags they were in disintegrated into mush. Anna was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt, a tunic dress over leggings, wellies, a thick woollen cardie and a waterproof coat. ‘Why didn’t we bring my mittens, Mummy?” she wailed. Why indeed? Because it’s May? Every now and then one of the adults would look up and say “I think it might be going off a bit”, and Anna would just raise a sceptical eyebrow.

We’re clearly programmed to recreate our childhood experiences for Anna but, frankly, she could do a lot worse. I’ve now travelled fairly extensively over Europe, although sadly not much further afield, and I still think West Cornwall is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, with those other childhood favourites of North Wales, Pembrokeshire and Devon not coming far behind. There are fantastic walks, an abundance of wildlife, friendly people, quaint harbours, unsurpassable beaches and the gastronomic delights of fresh fish, pasties, cream teas and Cornish ice cream. And, you know, I think it might be brightening a bit over there. I’d better go and find my wellies.