Posted in Family, Travel

Tricked into Treats at Disneyland Paris

My daughter and sister at Disneyland Paris Main Street Station
Disneyland decked out for Halloween

It’s Halloween, and I’m in Disneyland Paris in a queue. No surprises there, as anyone who has ever been to Disneyland Paris will confirm: queuing is inevitable. For anyone with a low tolerance of queues, such as my husband, the best advice is to avoid it.

But we’re old hands, my sister, my daughter, and me. We’ve been coming here once every year or so since Laura was 4 – old enough to appreciate it yet young enough to believe in its magic. (My sister, aged 60, is still at that stage).

Over the years, we’ve become adept at keeping our queuing time to a minimum. But tonight’s queue is different.: I’m not  awaiting a turn on a ride, but lining up, early evening, for refreshments in a Disneyland Main Street cafés. Like everyone else around us, we’re exhausted, but hanging on for the end-of-day audio-visual display before we head back to our hotel for the night. Having seen the show the night before, we know it’s worth the wait.

Looking Forward – and Backward – To Fireworks

Laura in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle
Clear sky by day, laser-filled by night

Thanks to 21st century technology, the end-of-day show is far more sophisticated than when I first went to Disneyland, as a child living in California for a year. In those days, there was only one Disneyland, and we had the good fortune to live close by. Back then, we thought the traditional display behind Sleeping Beauty’s Castle was spectacular, but it was nothing compared to what we’re about to see. This display uses the Castle as a projection screen for a complex laser show, transforming it into Notre Dame, the Scottish castle in “Brave”, Beauty and the Beast’s palace, and more. Not only fireworks but huge blasts of fire shoot into the air around the castle, warming us all the way down Main Street.

After a day of bright sunshine and clear blue sky, the night air is bitterly cold, and we need internal warming to tide us over until the display begins, and so we’ve hit the café. I’ve parked my sister and my daughter in a cosy, comfortable booth of this Victorian-themed fast-food cafés, and I’m queuing at the self-service counter for tea and cake.

Fast Food It Ain’t

Mandy and Laura at Disneyland Paris
Tucking into treats by day

As in all Disneyland Paris’s fast food outlets, the term “fast” is a bit of a misnomer. The French simply do not understand the concept of fast food. If they did, the Park’s profits would surely soar, as they’d serve thousands more meals and snacks every day.

I resign myself to waiting however long it takes to reach the cashier and spend some time inspecting the display of Halloween-themed cakes. Having chosen a fruit tart to share between the three of us, I lean back against the brass rail that runs the length of the self-service counter, channelling the queue towards the till, and I turn my attention to the others in the queue. It’s a good thing that I enjoy people watching: it helps pass the time.

Behind me I observe two American ladies who are just deciding to buy four souvenir plastic cups, adding 20 Euros to their drinks bill. This purchase seems rather coals-to-Newcastle, considering they hail from the land of Disney. I wonder whether they’ve thought how much suitcase space these cups will require on their journey home.

Halloween Treats

Laura in a French cafe
Ooh La La!

In front of me is a middle-aged French lady whose loaded tray includes two pumpkin-coloured tarts adorned with marshmallow ghosts. I’m just speculating whether they contain real pumpkin when I’m distracted by the appearance of a small olive-skinned child whose curly head is bobbing under the brass railing beside me. Pushing through to the counter, she stands on tiptoe beside the lady with haunted tarts, one of which I assume is destined for her. I’m therefore surprised when the little girl reaches up to the counter to help herself to another one exactly the same. The French woman looks down, startled, without a flicker of recognition of the child. They’re not together.

Although I know that not everyone is as disciplined at queuing as we English, but still I wonder at the child’s cheek. I wonder whether her mother has already reached the till and sent her to collect the cake as an afterthought? A glance at the front of the queue tells me otherwise: a man on his own is carrying off a tray without a glance at the child.

Then, as quickly as she appeared, the little girl vanishes, dashing off down the café among the banquettes, the pastry still in her hand. The French woman and I exchange astonished glances as the child settles down next to two coffee-drinking women.

The Mystery of the Vanishing Cake

Next up at the till, the French woman lays into the cashier indignantly. He and his coffee-making colleague are not perturbed: it seems they’re used to such infringements.

“Ça n’est pa grave,” he assures her, totting up her bill and sealing plastic lids on to her drinks order. “Ça fait rien.”

Laura and Mickey Mouse
My well-mannered daughter and friend

I know enough French to recognise that the lady thinks it very grave indeed. As she pays, she continues to rail against the child’s action, the body language on both sides of the counter becoming more pronounced as words fail to resolve her disagreement with the cashier. I begin to wonder whether she’s about to make a citizen’s arrest. Finally, she gives up, muttering crossly as she retreats with her tray to her table.

The child’s mother seems even less concerned than the cashier, continuing to drink coffee and chat to her companion, though she must have noticed her child’s petty theft.

Thankful that at last it’s my turn at the till, I order our teas and pay. As I’m waiting for my  drinks to be poured, I hear a rustle at my side at waist level. The little girl has returned. Ah, I think, she’s seen the error of her ways and come to apologise, perhaps paying  from her own pocket money as a punishment.

She pushes past me without a care and smiles innocently up at the cashier, before saying in fluent French: “Please may I have a spoon with which to eat my cake?”

With a twinkle in his eye, the cashier passes her a spoon. Well, it is Halloween, after all.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this anecdote about self-catering in France: Always Read The Label

Posted in Travel

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Statue of Nike in Luxembourg City
Luxembourg City’s Golden Lady: Nike, goddess of victory

There is something especially charming about a European state that can peacefully retain its national identity despite a tiny population (c. 520,000) and shared borders with the massive presence of France and Germany. (Sorry, Belgium, you don’t quite count as massive in my book.) Even better when it has managed to retain an active national language that is used nowhere else in the world. Yes, Luxembourg, I’m looking at you.

Everywhere we go on our Easter tour of Luxembourg, we are surrounded by Letzerburgesch.  The country’s national motto is “Mir Woelle Bleiwe Wat Mir Sin” (“We want to remain what we are”).

But with no prior knowledge of this ancient tongue, I don’t immediately recognise just how widely it is used. On entering a shop from whose doorway can be seen the border with Germany, I assume that when the proprietor greets me with something that sounds like “Morgen” (German for “Morning”) with the “g” missing, he’s using a relaxed version of German. Only when I consult my trusty Rough Guide do I realise that what he actually said was “Moien” – Letzerburgesch for “Hello”.

Spoiled for Choix

French, it seems, is Luxembourg’s official language for government business, and both French and German are widely spoken, interchangeably. But when local people meet and chat to each other in the street or in shops, they use their own historic dialect.

In our first day or two in Luxembourg, I’m not sure which language to use. I know enough French and German to get around, but I’m not sure which will be perceived as more courteous. I don’t want to appear rude to any of these courteous, pleasant people. I tend to favour French, unless actually in Germany, (a) because I’m better at it and (b) because I’ve found it less likely to cause offence.

Forked Tongue

I’m sorry if that statement offends any German speakers, but this attitude stems from an unfortunate incident when I was travelling alone, many years ago, on a Greek bus from Lefkas to Athens. I knew a little bit of Greek, but when the Greek bus driver asked me whether I was going all the way to Athens, I accidentally got my languages mixed up. Instead of replying “Ne!” (Greek for yes), I said “Ja!” (the German). I spent the rest of the eight hour journey trying to look English, while receiving hostile stares from my fellow passengers, all of them Greek, who clearly still hadn’t forgotten the German war-time occupation of the Ionian islands.

But by the end of our Luxembourg adventures, the answer is clear. The most courteous thing to do is to go as close to native as I can, and use the only two words of Letzerburgesch that I’ve grasped: “Moien” for “hello” and “Adi” for “goodbye”. Respect where it’s due. Well, mastering any language begins with a single word.


English: The great flag in Luxembourg city szl...
Flying the flag for Luxembourg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other recent posts about our trip to Luxembourg:

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Spotless In Luxembourg 

Coming soon: “Nous Sommes En Panne!” – camper van breakdown, Luxembourg style!

Posted in Family, Travel

Close Encounters of the Belgian Canine Kind

Sign in a Belgian park
Unsure whether it’s compuslory or prohibited

(Further adventures in our motorhome tour of France, Belgium, Luxembourg & Germany)

As we travel through Belgium, my nine-year-old daughter Laura is enchanted by the constant parade of dogs that pass by our camper van.

“Ooh, look at that cute doggie!” she coos in Dinant, as a low-slung white one waddles past, sporting a red knitted waistcoat. The words “cute” and “dog” are inseparable in Laura’s vocabulary. She never met a dog she didn’t like.

But her enthusiasm is diluted when she realises that Belgium’s dog owners lag behind Britain’s in terms of  doggy hygiene. By the second day of our stay, she has become adept at navigating poo-strewn streets, especially after she has, with a regal air, designated Daddy as “Dog Poo Detector”. His role is to walk several paces ahead of us, issuing necessary warnings. Daddy immediately regrets his earlier explanation of the importance of the Groom of the Stool in the court of King Henry VIII. What starts out as a  casual stroll soon turns into a balletic gait as we prance along pavements, deftly leaping aside for the protection of our shoes whenever so instructed by our leader.

A Big Job for a Belgian

Considering the state of the pavements, we are surprised to encounter in Bouillon, on the banks of the River Semois, an enthusiastic street cleaner. He seems intent on sweeping up every last speck of dust from the ground. His must be a demanding job and we speculate that he’s going to need a bigger barrow.

Trier street theatre: levitating man
A few days later Laura discovers how they avoid messy pavements in Trier, Germany

We watch, fascinated, from within our camper van as he progresses across the car park. Slowly, slowly, he works his way across towards our space, filling his dustpan time and time again. Upon reaching our motor-home, he carefully works his way around its perimeter. I feel I should lift my feet so that he can sweep underneath them.

Such attention to hygienic detail does not seem to tally with the laxity of the locals towards dogs, which we still can’t understand. Despite the tidy car park, later that day at the supermarket we are unable to relish what appears to be the leading brand of Belgian biscuit. It is called Plops.

Here are some other posts you might enjoy about our Easter motorhome tour of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany:

Why Belgium is Being Rebuilt

Just When We Thought It Was Safe to Go Back Into La Piscine

When in Belgium, Drink as the Belgians Do: (In Praise of Oxo)

Posted in Family, Travel

Just When We Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into La Piscine (Swimming Pool)…

French style swimming costume for men
Un slip de bain, 1925 style – not modelled by my husband (photo: public domain)

(A post about our Easter 2013 trip by camper van to Luxembourg)

Two summers ago, when touring France in our camper van, my husband discovered for himself (because he wouldn’t listen to my advice) that, for some reason we couldn’t fathom, swimming trunks are not permitted in French swimming pools. “Les shorts sont interdit“. Instead, for men, a slip de bain – the tight-fitting, lycra style of swimwear – is compulsory. (The full story of that episode is in my earlier blog post, Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip.)

This year, he felt it would be safe to return to la piscine without fear of such ritual humiliation. Naturally, he’d forgotten to pack his French slip de bain, so in the pleasing Belgian town of Mons we hit C&A to acquire a new swimming costume for him. Thus armed, we advance on the municipal swimming pool of a small town we’re passing en route to Luxembourg. Swimming is not just a sport on our camper van trips – it’s a welcome supplement to the limited washing facilities available in our small motorhome.

Taking The Plunge, Belgian Style

By chance, we arrive a few minutes before the pool is due to open for its only public swimming session of the day. We approach the receptionist and ask confidently for our tickets.

“Deux adultes et un enfant, s’il vous plait.”

The woman behind the desk looks distrustful.

Vous avez un slip de bain?” she asks my husband warily. “Pas de shorts! Pas de shorts!

She wags her finger in admonition. She’s clearly encountered British customers before.

My husband and I exchange knowing looks. Really, how could she doubt us?

“Encore vingt minutes!” 

She points at the clock, speaking loudly to make sure we understand. It’s not just we British who do this with foreigners.

“Mais oui, madame! Ca va!”

British Olympic champion runner Mo Farah executes the Mobot
The Mobot (photo: Daily Telegraph)

Clearly still not satisfied, she asks another question. This time we do not understand. She responds to our blank looks with a mime. She raises both arms upwards and outwards, as if showing off her upper arm muscles, like a bodybuilder. We are perplexed. Is the inviting us to while away the time till the pool opens by joining a weightlifting class? We shake our heads blankly. She repeats the action, raising her arms higher till her hands nearly meet above her head. Is this meant to be a tribute to the 2012 London Olympics, via the renowned Mobot pose of champion runner Mo Farah?

Suddenly her words crystallise into sense for me.

“Avez vous des bonnets? Les bonnets sont obligatoire.”

Our new French swimming caps
“Les bonnets sont obligatoire, Madame”

Bonnets are compulsory, it seems. Bonnets? Really? Is she having a laugh? She points to the vending machine behind us. Bonnet, I realise, is French for swimming cap. We can get them from the vending machine for 3.50 Euros apiece – more than it’s just cost us to buy our swimming tickets. Foiled again!

We while away the rest of the 20 minutes before the pool opens by deciphering the instructions on the front of the machine, sorting out our small change and acquiring trois bonnets.

Like So Many Smurfs

“Why do we have to wear bonnets, Mummy?” my daughter quizzes me as I wrestle her long, thick plaits into the embrace of blue polyester.

“Probably to stop hair clogging the pool filter,” I improvise.

Entering the pool, we find an unnerving array of polyester-headed people already in the water, their bonnets all in discreet, dark colours, except an eye-catching scarlet and white striped  one of a man who, I am sure, is entirely bald. He ploughs his way up and down the pool, beaming, clearly enjoying this opportunity to feel he numbers among the hirsute.

There is something disconcerting about so many swimming-capped people in one place. It is depersonalising. It takes us a while to spot my husband who is already in the water. The only bare  heads in the hall are those of the lifeguard and a male aquaerobics instructor who is prancing up and down on the poolside leading eight semi-submerged, serious, polyester-hatted ladies through their exercise routine. If you saw his movements out of context, you’d swear he was just pretending to dance like a girl.

Once our swim is over, it comes as a tremendous relief to discard my blue bonnet and wash my hair in the poolside shower. I feel like I’m shampooing my personality back in. I haven’t worn a swimming cap since primary school and I hate it with a passion. But at least I don’t have to wear a slip de bain.

  • If you enjoyed this post, you might like the full story of our initial slip de bain incident here: Many a Slip Between Piscine and Dip(It’s a good thing my husband doesn’t read my blog.)
  • In case you missed it, the post about the first stop on our 2013 Luxembourg tour is here: A Holiday from Books.
Posted in Travel

A Holiday From Books

Laura in her sleeping bag
Laura defies France’s arctic temperature in her new winter-weight sleeping bag

(Overture to a travelogue about our camper van tour of  Luxembourg)

Much as I love my book-centric life, there comes a time when you have to slip in a bookmark and walk away.

The night before I am due to go to Luxembourg for a fortnight, I’m up till 1 a.m. putting the finishing touches to an article about self-publishing. I’ve promised to email it to someone before I leave, and only when I’ve hit the send button do I allow myself to start packing for our trip.

Fortunately, there’s not much to pack, because we holiday in our camper van. This allows little space for luggage and imposes constraints stricter than a budget airline’s. Each of us – that is, my husband, my daughter and me – may bring just one “wanted on voyage” bag, containing whatever we need to amuse ourselves while we’re away. My husband’s contains his newspaper and his Open University books. My daughter’s is stuffed to bursting point with cuddly toys, her Nintendo DS, MP3 player, and story books. Mine is all notebooks, paperbacks, Kindle, ipod and a tangle of recharging cables to fit the van’s cigarette lighter.

After crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais, we spend the first night in snowy St Omer in northern France, snuggled deep into our winter-weight sleeping bags. After my previous late night vigil, I should be sleeping like a kitten. Instead, I fall straight into the clutches of a nightmare.

My Bookish Nightmare

Escher's drawing of a never-ending staircase
Escher’s never-ending staircase (courtesy of Wikipedia)

In this nightmare, I’m rushing through endless rooms full of bookshelves. I’m searching for something, but I’m not sure what. Then I reach some stairs and start climbing, climbing, to ever-higher shelves. Finally a rickety metal ladder leads to a high platform protected only by a low, flimsy railing. (I should add here that I’m terrified of heights.) Only when I reach the top of the ladder does the danger of the situation strike me, and I start to retreat, unable to bring myself to set foot on such an insubstantial landing. As I step back, the whole of the bookcase on the platform topples towards me, threatening to rain down its contents onto my head.

Fortunately, all of this is happening in slow motion, giving me time to grab the sides of the ladder, but I’ve already lost my footing and my legs are dangling in mid-air. Realising I have, unexpectedly, the upper-body strength of Wonderwoman, I try to push the ladder away to  restore the bookshelf to its rightful place. Meanwhile I’m shouting to my husband for help, and suddenly he’s at my side asking me why I’m crying.

I wake up.

“Whatever’s the matter, darling?” he’s saying.

With an effort, I catch my breath.

“I – I – I – I think I need a holiday!” I sob.

Now there’s good timing!

Coming soon – some entertaining observations about our travels through France, Belgium and Luxembourg!