Posted in Family, Travel

A Question of Priorities

The first in a series of posts about our half-term trip in our camper van to France, Belgium and the Netherlands

Debbie and Laura at TIm's house
Sometimes only Mummy will do. Me and Laura, when she was less than a year old.

On the first Saturday morning of the half term holiday, Dover-Dunkirk ferry departures are running seriously behind schedule, following a night of Force 10 gales in the English Channel.

Slowly our camper van edges through immigration control, where we learn that the ferry we’re due to catch has been marooned outside the harbour for 10 hours as the sea was too rough for it to dock. In those circumstances, I’m happy to wait the predicted eight hours before we can expect to board.

In the meantime, we have needs which must be attended to. As soon as our camper van reaches its allocated parking space to await departure, my ten-year-old daughter Laura and I nip across to the port’s Food Village to use the loo.

Disappointingly, the enticingly-named Food Village turns out to be exactly like the inside of any British motorway service station. The upside is that we can easily find the Ladies’. Our mission accomplished, I’m just waiting for Laura to finish washing her hands when a wide-eyed lady, aged about 30, dashes in crying “Where can I put my baby down?”

The little girl in her arms is about nine months old. Wearing a plum-coloured hand-knitted jumper and a pink hat shaped like a flower, she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.

The lady’s eyes become even wider when she realises there’s no playpen or baby seat in which to secure her little flower while Mummy uses the facilities.

“Here, would you like me to take her for you?” I offer, thinking wistfully that it’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby that small.

Without a moment’s hesitation the lady thrusts her baby into my arms and dashes into a cubicle. After a moment, she starts talking loudly to me through the door, and I realise that she’s seeking reassurance that I’m still there. I answer immediately to make it clear that I haven’t fled with her baby and leapt on a ferry to parts unknown.

Baby Laura reading a grown-up book, aged less than 1
Laura, seeking wisdom from books at a very early age.

Her baby, meanwhile, is unperturbed, responding to the unfamiliar setting as if it’s a giant activity centre. She turns her little head towards the source of each new sound, open mouthed with wonder – roaring hand-driers, fizzing taps, sliding door bolts and slamming doors. She is too preoccupied to notice that I’m not her mum.

After a minute or two, the lady emerges from her cubicle at a more relaxed pace than that of her arrival. Then on catching sight of me with the baby, she goes rigid with horror.

“Oh my god, I’ve just realised what I did there!” she gasps. “I just gave my baby to a total stranger! I was that desperate!”

I smile indulgently.

“Don’t worry, we’ve all done things like that,” I tell her, nodding towards Laura to indicate that I’ve been there, done that, and that my baby lived to tell the tale.

Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry
Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry at last, pulling out a few stowaways from her bag

But I know very well how her heart must be pounding, as mine did one day when Laura was tiny, and I left her outside a shop in her buggy in the care of her father. When I came out, they were gone, and I fell into a wild panic. Logically I knew that nothing terrible could have happened – they hadn’t really been kidnapped by aliens and there was a rational explanation for the empty space where I’d expected to find them. Even so, I started running tearfully from shop to shop, stopping only when I found Laura safe and sound a few doors down. She was cooing happily in her buggy in a men’s clothes shop, overseen by the shop assistant, while her Daddy was calmly trying on a pair of trousers in the changing room. I was horrified. It was at that moment that I realised the full force of maternal instinct and the power it had to overwhelm reason.

In Dover’s Food Village, the flowery baby, perhaps suddenly realising the enormity of the situation, starts to cry. I’m relieved to return her to the familiarity of her mother’s arms and to lead my own child back to the haven of our camper van.

Coming next: how our lack of forward planning means we end up in Belgium instead of France. 

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Posted in Family, Travel

A Matter of Convenience

la p'tite maîson ès danmes: un êcritchieau en ...
Image via Wikipedia

Inspecting the toilet on the ferry is part of Laura’s summer holiday ritual, so it’s  no surprise when, crossing from Dover to Dunkerque, she asks to visit the Ladies.

I’m not unsympathetic to my daughter’s fascination with public toilets.  I was just the same at her age.  And like her, I was a well-travelled child.  When I was 8, my parents gamely took me, my brother and sister on a trans-American road trip.  We drove from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in a fortnight, on a scenic route that memorably took in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes, Yellowstone Park, the Black Hills of Dakota and Las Vegas.  Whenever I see the famous giant letters spelling out HOLLYWOOD on those famous Californian hills, I still feel proprietorial.

It was on this trip that our family stayed in hotels for the first time.  To me, the new Holiday Inn chain seemed the height of glamour.  And the many diners and restaurants that we visited on route offered a multitude of lavatorial inspection opportunities.  Best of all was the one that included a perfume machine.  When you put a dime in the slot, 10 cents worth of Chanel Number 5 squirted onto your proffered wrist.  To my eight year old mind, life couldn’t get more sophisticated than that.

Laura’s first ferry trip came when she was just three weeks old, travelling on a passport in which her photo included a giant hand (mine) holding her tiny head erect.  Ever since that initiation eight years ago, she has been passionate about ferry travel, whether crossing the English Channel, island-hopping in Greece, or adding to her collection of Hebrides, Inner and Outer.

So, hand in hand, legs braced against the gentle summer swell of the ferry, we make our way towards the symbol for the ladies’ loo.  The raised ledge of at the entrance to each cubicle is a reminder of rougher crossings in which water may be sweeping across the floor.

As we enter the cubicle, a big red sign catches our eye.  Laura reads the text above a large downward arrow.

“No foreign bodies.”

She frowns.

“What does that mean?”

I hesitate.  It’s a good question.  What indeed does it mean?  Perhaps there should be some translations. We don’t want continental travellers inferring that our chosen (Danish) carrier, DFDS, is xenophobic.  Even armed with an English phrase book, our European neighbours could easily get the wrong end of the stick. In my mind, I anticipate possible mistranslations: “English evacuation only”, “Defense de pooer”etc.

Whatever its intention, the sign does not bother us.  After all, we’re not foreign bodies.  We’re British.  And now, our visit over, there is a corner of the English Channel that will be forever England.

Bemused, we emerge to wash our hands.  Above the sink, we find another sign entreating us to “Beware of sharp objects!”

We are startled  by this: we hadn’t noticed any such dangers on our way in.  I scan the room.  There are categorically no sharp objects to be seen.  The sink, the taps and the hand-drier all have beautifully rounded edges.  So what’s this sign in aid of?  Is it just a general warning for life?  A philosophical point to be borne in mind for future reference? They might as well have posted up a notice beseeching us “Do not run with scissors”, “Never ride a carousel while eating a lollipop”, or, that old favourite,  “Beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

For a moment I feel grateful to DFDS for caring so much about our well-being.

And though I don’t mention it to Laura,  I wonder what notices they’ve put in the Gents.