Ah, the joy of holidays, the anticipation, the smell of adventure, the sense of freedom and breaking away from the daily grind. The car has been loaded to its maximum capacity and tires pumped up. The children have been seated and buckled in, then cemented into the bedding and the last remaining pieces of camping equipment. What’s left is to strap the bikes to the roof and then it is time to roar into action and head into the wild, explore the unknown and go boldly where no single mother has gone before.
There is always a grey drizzle when you come through Belgium. The biggest challenge is possibly to come through hours of driving through grey boring flat drizzly Belgium without deliberately driving into a concrete bridge. If you make it past Flanders sane, you will be alright. And we do. We do make it through and it fills my heart with such joy to see the ‘Free fuel’ signs of Luxembourg that I break into song. Immediately the backing singers join from their cemented positions on the backseat and I dare to think this whole road trip malarkey is a piece of cake. It is only after the fifth round of all known children songs that the nerves start to fray. If only they would stop tapping my shoulder and poking my side. ‘What is it?’ I eventually bark at the backseat. More tapping and poking. ‘Stop it now!’ I scream and pull myself up on the wheel to catch them in the mirror. They are fast asleep, moulded into the bedding and camping equipment whilst the little paddle of the inflatable boat taps my shoulder in rhythm with the Autobahn potholes. They look so lovely and small and I drive very carefully, putting up with the tapping paddle without further complaint.
We have almost reached our first destination when we pull into a supermarket to stock up on the essentials: milk, cereal and wine. Slowly manoeuvring the loaded car towards the car park I hear people shouting and hooting. Turning down the music I lean trying to see what all the kerfuffle is about. ‘What is it with them?’ I ask the children without expecting a response. I shake it off and keep driving towards the 1,8m height restriction warning sign, ignoring the yelling outside. We are just about to go through the metal bar enforcing the height restriction when the backseat shouts: ‘The bikes! Mama, the bikes!’ Ooh, saving me from great embarrassment and the car from damage deserves the highest praise and recognition which I gladly give in abundance and add ice cream as well.
Camping is lovely in good weather. Sometimes we are lucky and on one such lucky day we stroll along the beach with our bucket and spade and come across colourful sea kayaks. ‘Ooh, don’t they look nice. Look, there is even a triple seater kayak!’ We ask the big man in shorts with his money belt tightly tucked under his belly and he rents us the kayak for an hour, warning us not to go past the rock outcrop or round the corner. Happily we run off and launch ourselves whilst nervously clutching the camera, car keys and wallet in a little tesco bag that is supposed to keep them dry. We make it through the surf with some panicked but powerful pulls and look happily over the dazzling water and back to the beach. Lilly is trailing her hand trough the cool water and Emma paddling along like a great explorer. There is a bit of a swell and after a while Emma stops paddling and then complains about feeling sick. We head back towards shore and I try to time the landing with the waves, instructing Emma to hold on tightly to our tesco bag. When I think I find the right wave, I paddle hard to catch the surf but Lilly is still trailing her hand. ‘Lilly, put your arm in!’ I call several times before realising her slumped position. Great. ‘Emma, hold the bag over your head’ I manage just in time before the little wave splashes into the boat. I jump out and pull the kayak with one sea sick and one sleeping child back on to the sand.
I doubt we will be great sea farers and once safely back on dry land we go back to our little supermarket, this time without bikes strapped to the roof and get some more essentials: wine, milk and bread. When we come out the wind is violently blowing plastic bags around the entrance and large dustbins are being pushed over. We run to the car and head back in the direction of the campsite where black clouds loom dangerously. Heavy rain starts before we reach the tent and I make the kids wait in the car whilst I dash out trying to secure the flapping tent in the gale. We sit out the storm in the car, only I have to brave the elements twice as the tent looks set to join the winds and leave skywards forthwith. The pegs don’t really hold down well in the soaked soil but our luxurious queen sized airbed is heavy enough to keep it all grounded. Once the wind dies down to a breeze and the rain stops we go out and wander past broken off tree branches and debris to the lake where the sky looks like the debris field of a glacier at night, blackened clouds, some ripples of white, torn along by strong winds.
Unfortunately for us it is not yet the end of the storm and I have a terrible night in the most fearsome thunder storm. I feel so afraid for our lives that I freeze in terror, holding tightly onto the sleeping children and hoping for rescue. Eventually I manage to get enough courage together to put an evacuation plan into action: Wake Emma, carry Lilly and run over to the car. We manage and I even manage run back to grab a couple of sleeping bags, our passports and money and secure the tent as best as I can whilst dodging the lightning. A huge sense of relief comes over me as I collapse the car seats flat and make the car into a shelter for the night. A couple of hours later and Lilly is surprised to wake up in the car.
We do have glorious days as well full of sun and fun and adventures and most people we meet go out of their way, applying random discounts, finding space in the furthest corner reserved for local families and slip the children sweets and me the odd glass of essentials. Experiencing such generosity and kindness makes up for any windy night and we head off, glad we came. As we drive along we sing again and during a high note I catch sight in the mirror of our rear bumper flapping wildly. I play with the speed a bit but anything over 60 miles per hour causes the bumper to take off, threatening to leave us all together. Luckily we are equipped with strong packaging tape that promises to resist any tears and splits and with a few straps of tape the bumper stays in place for the rest of the journey. We treat ourselves to lunch in a tiny restaurant on the way but cannot understand the waiter nor find out what language he speaks and the currency he uses confuses us further. We still manage to get a hearty meal of spaghetti Bolognese served and an old bearded man on the table opposite keeps nodding encouragingly and smiling at us broadly. He keeps his eyes on every mouthful we eat and is almost laughing. The waiter behind the bar seems equally amused but the meal is fabulous, the bread he brings us fresh and warm and their friendly chattering sounds so reassuring that we also smile and nod back.
The rest of our trip carries on in the same fashion. There are some more windy nights to sit out but also relaxing visits to a spa. We find breathtaking views and hidden treasures, make friends and take pictures but most of all we have an exciting time together. It is not easy to be driver, entertainer, cook, mechanic and translator but we will certainly remember this trip for a long time and once we have recovered from it, might plan the next road trip as a fearsome threesome.