Memories of travelling with a young family of five
I’m really going to miss family vacations when my girls are grown-up.
The endless mental lists, the loading of luggage heaped high in our minivan as we attempt to beat the first slivers of dawn and make headway down highway 102 before the early morning traffic.
The girls sleepwalk from their beds, snuggy bears and favourite pillows curled under their arms and one of our Irish mini-travel duvets to keep them warm. They’ve slept in their most comfortable tracksuits to save time. Amelia totes a massive stuffed sea turtle called Myrtle and a new fluffy teddy named Bear, trophies for being so brave this week when surgery was sprung on her during a routine post-fracture check-up.
This morning we attempted to leave by 5:30 a.m., which turned into 6:00 a.m. as I floundered about, still tired from the week’s ordeal.
It’s March Break and we’re off skiing. It wouldn’t be a Sweeney family holiday if there wasn’t some pre-vacation drama and this week tops the list of pre-holiday pressure tests.
We’ve never been to Sunday River in Maine, but we’ve made this drive several times, having skied at Sugar Loaf on three occasions and camped in Bar Harbour twice. It’s a beautiful part of the world.
This morning a fireball slowly peeps over the horizon, sliding upwards into the sky of my passenger window, creating a long wintry shadow in front of us. We’ve a clear stretch of highway as we pass the airport. The van hums quietly, reminding me of the pressurized body of an airplane and the girls pretend to sleep. The dash registers -24 degrees and the inside of the windows are painted with frost. It’s truly the winter that never ends.
This trip is special with Autumn turning 12 on our first day of hitting the slopes. Amelia won’t be skiing this holiday, which we’ve had to ‘tweak’ to factor in her new cast, protectively padding her left pinky with its two pins, holding her fracture in place.
I remember the Easter we took the ferry from Wexford, Ireland to Cherbourg, France and rented a country home somewhere south of Lyon. Dahlia was 18 months and Autumn had recently turned six.
At three-and-a-half, Amelia had had some kind of tummy bug, lovingly shared from her Montessori pre-school the week leading up to our road trip. Ferocious trips to the washroom were accompanied by sharp cramps, which by day three had us all wondering about cancelling the holiday. At least she was keeping the fluids down. Friendly advice encouraged me to start her on the B-R-A-T diet, “for an upset stomach, it’ll settle her down.” Bananas, rice, apple sauce and tea. I went with the rice option, thinking it’s neutral, absorbent and bland.
Our Volkswagen Touran was filled to the brim, including a roof box with suitcases, car seats, a buggy, a pee potty lined with a maxi-pad stuffed nappy sac (in-case of a roadside pit stop), and everything we’d need to celebrate Easter in France, except the kitchen sink. The two-hour drive south from Dublin to the overnight ferry was mostly uneventful and the forecast was for calm seas. We only had to make one emergency diarrhea stop for Amelia and my sanitary potty invention earned itself a gold star.
We pulled into the long line of cars and trucks waiting to board for the 24 hour voyage to ‘the Continent’. As we were given the signal to follow the leading car into the bowels of the boat, “Mummy, I don’t feel good,” came from the back.
It was one of those sharp panicky moments when you realize no amount of planning can get you out of the situation. The cars were boarding, there was nowhere to run and no place to pull over and get out. “Climb up here on mum’s lap, can you hold it in for just a few more minutes?…Oh look at the big boat!” It was an overly optimistic request.
I think it was as we climbed the first of several ramps, the rice I fed her three hours earlier, landed on my lap. Dad cringed, following the crews directions to our tight nose-to-tail parking spot, and in slow motion I attempted to catch the contents of her dinner in my sweater, her hoodie and evade the demise of our car, that was to be our transportation for the next two weeks in France.
Talbot threw the car into park and I hoisted Amelia into the narrow lane, where she continued to expel the rice all over the side of the car and floor beside the back left-side door. Both of us were sopping. It wasn’t pretty but we had to quickly grab our overnight bag and clear the parking level, climbing upwards to find our cabin, covered in rice.
I had no idea what the inside of the car looked like and didn’t care at this point. Talbot carried Dahlia and Autumn followed. Amelia and I, hand-in-hand, climbed the stairs to the upper decks to find a purser to show us to our cabin. I can only imagine what he thought at the sight of us.
The evening we spent hand-rinsing our clothes in a tiny basin and climbed into our four bunk-beds, hoping the night would be less eventful and the rolling waves of the Irish Sea wouldn’t set-off anymore tummies.
Talbot and I made the executive decision to starve Amelia for the next 24 hours to try and clear the bug that seemed to be climbing upwards in her digestive tract. She wasn’t on board with this decision and her mood made for a miserable morning of pleads for porridge, whimpers for yogurt.
As we made our way back to our car, it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we had about a six-hour drive to our first stop just south of Paris. The puddle of dried vomit remained outside our car and we hopped around, trying avoid stepping in the splatter while we loaded the bags and kiddies. As I opened my door joy overwhemed us when we saw I had somehow caught every grain of rice in my clothing and lap and the car was spared the evidence of yesterday’s ordeal; one small blessing along the journey.
Amelia continued to complain of a rumbling stomach but after a few hours the crackers settled and we managed to conquer the bug that had plagued her for a week.
If you’ve never stayed in a Formule Un in France, you’re not missing much. Economizing, I booked the cheapest roadside hotel for our one night stay on route to the villa. The traffic around Paris was heavy and being amateurs our six-hour drive turned into 10. Kids were miserable, DS’s were out of batteries, we were out of batteries, and then we turned into our hotel, come ‘trucker-joint’ and checked into our two rooms, sans bathroom?
Apparently at Formule Un you share a communal toilet, with no distinction between the boys and the girls. Having booked on the French website, I had missed that fine detail. Filthy an understatement. Little scary? Absolutely. It was unfamiliar and we were nervous. We decided to cram into one room with two bunks. Three on the top, two on the bottom. After a long day on the ferry and a 10 hour drive, we were on our ‘dream vacation’. Joie de vivre.
Looking back at the hell that was the first few days of that trip, I smile now. It was fabulous because it was a crazy, National Lampoon-style journey that I’ll never forget. And there were many more to come. I don’t think we’ve ever started a holiday without some kind of drama. Someone sick, someone injured, something forgotten. It’s part and parcel of the family package holiday.
“Are we almost at the Silver Fox?” Amelia’s stomach is on cue. It’s 8:05 a.m. and we’ve crossed into New Brunswick, nearing Salisbury and one of our favourite ‘pit stop’s’.
Almost time for breakfast.