This is a father’s journal of travelling from the Isle of Islay in Scotland to Spain in February 2019 with my partner, Tissy, and our two little boys: Hugh, who will turn 6 during our trip, and James, who will be four just after we get back to Britain. Idea is to track the experience of a family road trip, what we see along the way and reflect on some other things, including parenting boys, mental health and Brexit, which form the background to our trip. Might be a bit rushed at times trying to write things up in the evening, but will try to refine it as I go along.
So, day 2 and we are already behind schedule and over budget. But we are in Blaye, in Bordeaux wine country, and it is much milder than we expected: it is cheering to feel proper warmth in the sunshine this morning (February 7th, 2019).
The boys are tired and sleep in. Hugh wakes up so hungry he lies on the floor claiming he is feeling dizzy. James snoozes on while Tissy takes our porridge monster down to breakfast.
After breakfast Hugh and Tissy do some homework together. We have taken the boys out of nursery and school for all of February, only a week of which is covered by official holidays. We’re lucky that, on Islay, where we have lived since September, the schools take an enlightened view of this: “At their age, family time is what matters the most,” their head teacher told us. Hear, hear! Part of the reason for doing a road trip is that, from experience, we know it forces you to spend more time talking, listening and generally interacting with the boys.
In much of the UK, strict rules about taking your kids out of school in term time are seen as being about stopping middle class families cashing in on cheaper weeks in Val d’Isere. Being strict with Josh and Jemima also sets a good example for feckless Wayne and Dionne, I suspect this thinking runs.
Reality is more complex. Whether they are in lightly regulated traditional jobs or trying to survive in the gig economy, many parents are unable to take breaks during school holidays. Against that backdrop, draconian attendance rules that restrict their ability to spend extended time as a family only harms the children. We are in a fortunate position as Tissy is a primary school teacher, so we can easily keep up with school work while we are moving around. With that in mind, and given the time lost yesterday, we decide to stay an extra day in Blaye.
While Tissy and Hugh do homework, James listens to the shells that decorate our bedroom. “There is no news tonight,” he tells me, just after 10am. “Do the shells tell you news?” I ask. “No, it tells us Power Rangers is on already!” I filmed this exchange and Twitter seems to be the easiest way to compress a video for easy embedding on WordPress blogs:
Since he could speak, James has enjoyed conjuring up fantasy scenarios: despite being regularly slapped down by his scathingly rational big brother.
Homework over, we head for the car and the local clock tower is chiming 11. “It’s Big Ben,” says James. “Big Ben is in London, you little idiot,” comments Hugh, out of earshot. Not so long ago, James saying something Hugh knew to be wrong would have earned him a whack, but big brother seems to have started to understand that it is okay for James not to grasp everything he can understand. This is to do with him beginning to learn to read and write, I think. Having been in school in Italy until last year, he has started later than his classmates and is acutely aware there are younger children in his class who are further on than he is. So, though it might seem judgemental and harsh, overhearing “you little idiot” sotto voce is actually an improvement on “you nappy head little moron,” being delivered at Alex Ferguson hairdryer range. (Followed up by “Mum, what’s a moron? Hugh has a magpie’s ability to steal adult phrases and start using them before he is entirely sure what they mean: which, have to admit, makes my journalist’s heart swell).
I noticed the arrival of a more compassionate Hugh yesterday when, after a day in the car, I encouraged them to have a race across the orchard at the back of the guest house. Instead of his hitherto standard procedure – inflicting the most humiliating victory possible – Hugh circled several trees on his way to keep things neck and neck til the last, when he naturally just edged ahead and extended his lifetime unbeaten streak. This, I think, is something to do with the physical confidence he has acquired since moving back to Scotland from Italy, where playground rough-and-tumble is proscribed to a ludicrous and, in my view, damaging degree.
Blaye’s Citadelle, built and repeatedly upgraded essentially to keep English paws off Bordeaux (Les Anglais should have another go at annexing it after Brexit), proves to be a fabulous place to take the boys.
We spent an hour and a half walking round the ramparts. There is a tour of the underground structures in the afternoons that explains la genie of its creator Vauban, about whom I know nothing. Our boys’ best window for a bit of fun educational activity is in the morning, so we will have to come back. Hat-tip, by the way, to the excellent tourist office person: chatting to her about kids stuff was a million times nicer, easier and generally more life-affirming than faffing around with an App.
Walking round the citadelle I’m reminded of two aimable things about France: everywhere you go there are excellent municipal sports facilities. I am sure this has something to do with a country that is not particularly enamoured of football having managed to produce two World Cup winning squads. In similar vein, the commitment to affordable public spaces for picnics and camping is great. If understood correctly there is a campsite inside the Citadelle in the summer: pretty cool, non?
A propos: I’ve often thought the French would cheer up a bit if they realised how admirable everyone thinks they are and what a fabulous job they do of everything except being cheerful.
And so to lunch. Just after midday we slip into a little restaurant that looks dead but is actually brimming with office workers. We are lucky to get the last table at barely 1230. Hugh spots a boy at a neighbouring table drinking a lurid green fruit cocktail and immediately goes into a decline, having been told he can’t have juice.
Seeing haricots verts listed on the Salade Nicoise option, we try to order some for the veggie-deprived offspring. They’re tinned, we’re told. (Rural France 2019: so sad). But at least there are fresh tomatoes and lettuce available and the meal finally passes off peacefully enough, mainly because we gave in on the juice issue and let them have their fructose fix for dessert. At least we made an effort to avoid the children’s menu, which has a depressingly Auld Alliance feel to it: ie. as bad as most of them in Scotland (Burgers or nuggets, chips or beans, or chips AND beans. Here’s the ketchup, always keeps the weans happy.)
As we finish off, James starts talking about how he is going to take his bottle of Perrier into the Jacuzzi later to give it extra bubbles. Hugh rolls his eyes.
Post-lunch, we have a successful visit to the excellent Maison du Vin in Blaye, where I’m pleasantly surprised to discover a few reasonably priced bottles from slightly older vintages. It’s nice to see that the ludicrous inflation that has pushed most Bordeaux out of my price bracket over the course of my adult life does not seem to have reached this far north. Lots of bottles around €10 and few over €18. The 2009 wine below was amazingly fresh and vibrant (my view) or a bit sharp (Tissy), depending on who you were listening to.
We’ve hit peak holiday bonhomie at this point but, as tends to happen, things suddenly take a turn for the worse. We go for a drive along the corniche on the banks of the Gironde and two setbacks combine to kibosh (origin unknown apparently) the tranquility of the family unit.
First the little brats decide that instead of being lulled into a nap under false pretences, they’ll assert their right to get increasingly fractious in the back. Second, the XC90’s warning light flashes up again, followed shortly by the car engine crunching back into “limp mode”.
Intra-couple squabbling ensues and, to cut a predictable story short, the afternoon ends with me in bed fully clothed, Tissy upset, resentful and exhausted after spending my sulky nap time taking the kids to the jacuzzi while simultaneously trying to fix an appointment with the nearest Volvo garage to get our environment-destroying tank fit for battle again.
The only upside of all this hassle about particulate filters, pressure sensors, glow plugs etc. is that it has given me a nice metaphor for psychiatry should I ever come to write a memoir about how depression has shaped my life in the aftermath of the sudden death of Penny, the mother of my eldest son, Joseph, in 2005.
Mechanics, like psychiatrists, would seem to have blind faith in their ability to diagnose and solve problems.
Q: So you’re sure it is the filter, and if we change it, at huge expense, the car will be fine?
A: Absolutely, from our testing that must be it.
Q: So, in your view, I should take medication?
A: Absolutely. You have consulted me at huge expense and I believe in evidence-based solutions.
Q: Maybe it is what you’re doing. Do you do a lot of short journeys where the engine does not get warmed up?
Q: Maybe it is what you’re doing. Do you always find yourself always comparing your late partner to your current one?
Post nap, I try to focus on some of the lessons I’ve learned from a different kind of therapy I’ve been doing since returning to Scotland.
It is helping. I know that because already more than once on this trip it has helped me step away from the edge of a slippery slope into negativity, bleakness and anger. This afternoon, I didn’t manage that and that failure feels crushing and exhausting.
Luckily, Trencherman James always has to eat. So me and him go and find pizza and Tissy wakes up Hugh so they can come and join us. The boys have pizza and M&M ice lollies, and everything is back on track for now.
As a PS to today, I’ll add this picture. After his pizza, James was jumping around and sent a bottle of pizza oil flying. “Nothing broken”, he immediately announced with a cheeky smile, as if pre-empting being hauled over the coals. Hugh then proceeded to line up all the glasses on the table to show what the maximum impact of his brother’s Tomfoolery might have been, in the worst case scenario. Legal careers beckon – prosecution and defence respectively – for the pair of them. (I’m also willing to let them consider the arts ie. medicine or accountancy).
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