There was a time in my life when travel was all I did: working was purely a means to an end. But then along came our daughter and, unlike those intrepid parents who need nothing more than a Baby Bjorn Backpack and a calfskin swaddling cloth to venture into the wilds with their offspring, motherhood grounded me for a few years.
Fast forward to 2016, one trip to the UK under our belts, and it was time to head back. This time we had a 12 year old with us and she was going to turn 13 in Paris. We were going to teach her some stuff. It would be an education.
And along the way I found out a few things myself …
1. Medication and Disneyland Don’t Mix
It didn’t start well. Landing at LAX we were gobsmacked at the queues for immigration. Surely this wasn’t normal? Two hours into the wait and we were strangely relieved to learn that indeed it was not. The biometric technology had failed so everyone was being ‘manually processed’. Add to this the failure of the cab we had booked to meet us at the airport and our subsequent ride to the hotel with an over-zealous pyramid salesman keen to extol the virtues of his product (never found out what he was selling. Perhaps it was pyramids) and we were less than delighted with our welcome to the City of Angels.
Disneyland was a magical experience – for the other two. I was suffering with a headcold and spent a lot of my time spinning out on the medication I’d found in a local pharmacy which, coupled with a dose of jetlag, made for a much more thrilling ride than Space Mountain could provide. At one point I lay down on a park bench while the others went exploring and fell asleep, only to wake up and realise that I was right next to the area where the characters go ‘backstage’ for their breaks. I swear to God I caught Cinderella eyeing me up suspiciously and asking Prince Charming if they should call the cops.
2. 1976 was a Great Year for Music
So to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway. To be honest, I’d been kind of dreading it and was subsequently pleasantly surprised, as is so often the case. I spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying about getting lost / Jake driving on the other side of the road / being cooped up in the car / being pulled over by that cop from Terminator. And what happened? It was one of the best days of my life, is what. Jake expertly drove a ridiculously massive SUV (Mollie set up a small flat at the back) and stayed on the right side of the road the whole time. We didn’t get lost. No cops to be seen. And because my Spotify playlist was rendered useless as we had nothing to play it on (I had actually created a California-esque playlist and yes, Katy Perry and the Beach Boys featured), we tuned the radio to an old Kasey Kasim Top 40 from 1976 and it was perfect. Elton John, Kiki Dee, Barry Manilow and Queen serenaded us all the way.
The road took us past some of the most spectacular coastal scenery I’ve ever seen – and I’m from New Zealand – to Steinbeck Country – he is one of Jake’s heroes – we went through Big Sur and explored the beautiful Monterey (where we have vowed to return for a proper stay) and then hit San Fransicco at dusk. Okay, the day wasn’t perfect: we took a wrong turn and got to our hotel via the Tenderloin – not somewhere you want to be at night, look it up. But that aside, it was a great day.
3. I’d Make a Terrible Prison Guard
We fell in love with San Francisco; great food, easy to navigate, friendly people, great shopping – and Alcatraz. The tour was incredibly evocative, taking us through the cold, dark and ridiculously small cells. I was particularly touched by the story of the man who, locked in solitary confinement (or “The Hole”), in complete darkness, removed a button from his overalls and threw it into the dark room in order to find it again. He did this all day for weeks on end: a meditative process that kept him from unravelling completely. The island itself is beautiful, terrifying and sad all at once. I had to remind myself why these men were there – Alcatraz was a maximum security prison – but still felt sorry for them. Although apparently the food was great, the theory being there’s only one thing worse than a violent criminal and that’s a hungry violent criminal. Made sense to me; I can turn into a violent criminal given enough time between meals.
4. David Gandy Lives in Paris
Next stop Paris, where we met family and stayed in a beautiful house booked with AirBnB with a huge kitchen, terraced garden and several bedrooms. Each day, gang-handed (there were nine of us) we’d catch the Metro to central Paris and we’d walk around the city, soaking in the scorching, scented magnificence of the place. Mollie’s 13th birthday involved a picnic under the Eiffel Tower, lovingly arranged by her Aunt and Grandmother, a boat down the Seine and dinner at a fabulous restaurant which boasted a David Gandy lookalike maitre’d (I don’t know about Mollie, but I had a fantastic time). I love the French. You have to put away your “everyone must be nice” hat and put on your “if I don’t entertain / interest / engage you then please don’t feel obliged to talk to me anymore” hat in order to truly appreciate them. And once you get over the personal injury if you’re off your game, you step up. They’re challenging. And often extremely good looking, which never hurts.
*David Gandy actually lives in London but I swear he was moonlighting in Paris that evening.
5. French Swimming Baths Require Speedos
My parents-in-law live in Montmorillon, a small but perfectly formed medieval town in Central France, famous for its history (and macorons). They live in a house which has been standing since the 14th century and boasts a terraced garden over three levels. Every day, the locals would walk past the house and chat through the open windows which looked onto the river. The house is a riot of beautiful chaos over four floors, negotiated by a spiral staircase. Rural France, on all sides of the town, offers Van Gogh-esque landscapes; sunflowers hustling for the sunniest position as far as the eye can see, rivers for lazy kayaking or just lazing; more medieval towns full of light and shadow, secrets and revelations, ruins and works of art. It was hot. We went to the local pool. Jake was wearing board shorts. The staff, none of whom spoke any English (and our French was non-existent) proceeded to gesticulate in his direction, in a slightly panicked manner. I mean, he’s more of a jeans kind of guy but I thought he looked pretty good, all things considered. Long story short: refer to the title of this paragraph and all I’ll say is, the man is a great father and he did what he had to do to take Mollie swimming that day. And somewhere in Central France there remains a barely-worn pair of blue speedos.
6. A Piece of My Heart Will Always Live in England
And so to England. After a whirlwind of travelling I literally fell off a flight from Paris and into the arms of my girlfriends who had been waiting at Heathrow for my delayed flight with a bottle of bubbly (okay, an empty bottle of bubbly – the flight was seriously delayed). Ah, London. After all the exploration and newness of our trip so far, London was a metaphorical exhalation. I lived there for 12 years, Jake grew up there and Mollie was born there. Almost home. We did the touristy things, visited the house in Walthamstow where Mollie was born, caught up with dear friends and family and reminded ourselves of what an amazing city it is. We fell asleep under trees in Green Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, surrounded by the masses but still completely at home. Dinner in Soho with girlfriends, drinks at the pub with all our friends, learning how to traverse the tube all over again, a fabulous gang-handed trip to Brighton with all the inlaws in a van where we went for dinner at the best country pub I know and sang “Hey Jude” all the way home. I realised I’ve spent way too long trying to claw back that piece of my heart that lives in England. There’s no point; it’s not going anywhere.
So there it stayed as we winged our way home. It’s always great to get home but at the same time it was sad to bid farewell to our big adventure.
Suffice to say we’re about to embark on the next one. Watch this space.