Life & Culture

‘Are we there yet?’ — Yes, my little darlings


Before having children, key items on my holiday packing list were a sarong, some nail varnish, and a pile of novels. Post-children, the essentials are Calpol, armbands and multiple packs of wet wipes.

In the glamorous world I now inhabit, the first thing to go into my suitcase is a bag of klippits - those colourful plastic clips that seal opened containers. You can use them to close everything from bags of wet swimming gear, to half-eaten packets of crisps that you know will be tearfully demanded back later should you throw them away (but never asked for again should you keep them).

The nature of the holidays themselves has changed to match the content of the suitcases. Travelling with young children has its obvious downsides: incessant squabbling in the back of the car; whining about having to go on a hike or round a museum; point-blank refusal to use the shower when the nearest available bath is in Finchley…

The thing that most strikes me about our holidays these days, though, is the sheer strangeness of some of the things we end up doing.

When our first child was 19 months old, we went away to Granada. We were staying high up on the hill in an area of town covered with many flights of stone steps.

Although he had taken his first steps a couple of months previously, until this point our son still insisted on crawling everywhere. Now, he decided that not only was he able to walk up and down these steps, but that it was essential to do so at all times.

We spent most of the week meandering slowly up the steps and down again, without ever really reaching anywhere. It wasn't particularly tiring because our toddler could only go very slowly.

The sun shone down gently from a January sky, and occasionally passers-by would give him sweets and we would say "Gracias" and smile. It was all rather peaceful.

Several years later, when our youngest was two, we stayed on a campsite in the Loire Valley. At the entrance was a car park with two automatic barriers, controlling the cars going in and out.

For my son, these were the absolute highlight of the holiday. Every day, we'd go to the car park and sit and watch, while the visitors came and went and the barriers rose and fell. The anticipation - "when will the next one come?" - was almost as important as the event itself.

Things would reach a dramatic climax when two cars entered and left the campsite simultaneously, meaning that both barriers would rise. When this happened, the excitement was almost too much for him.

You might think that I would be tempted to eat my own arm through sheer boredom but, in fact, I found the whole experience curiously relaxing. Sure, left to my own devices, I might have felt that the campsite car park wasn't the prime attraction of the Loire region. But, actually, sitting in the sunshine with nowhere else particular to be, I found myself enjoying watching my son doing the exact thing he wanted to do.

I'm usually a very impatient person but the great gift that you have when on holiday is time. With most of the pressures of everyday life left behind, I don't have the feeling that really I'd be better off doing something else.

I know that I can spend an hour sitting in a car park, and still find a chance later in the day to read my book by the pool.

What's more, if you're cunning enough, you can use these small people to your advantage. Last year, for example, in the blazing heat of an Italian village, there was only one bench in the shade where we could eat our ice cream, and it was occupied save for one space. We sat our three-year-old down in the gap with his chocolate ice cream which, owing to a mistake with the ordering, was twice the standard size.

As the ice cream began to drip liberally in the heat, the lady sitting next to him, who was wearing white trousers, made the decision to stand. I can't think why. She was shortly joined by her other bench companions, and the rest of us were able to sit down.

All in all, even though travelling with young children is frequently exhausting and infuriating, it has a lot going for it. As I pack my klippits each summer, I can practically hear the sound of my kids splashing into the campsite swimming pool while I make myself dizzy blowing up a huge inflatable.

These holidays are not exotic, culturally enlightening, or even remotely relaxing in the conventional sense. But all the same, in between the tantrums, the arguments and the exhaustion (from adults and children alike), we do manage to have fun.


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