Three kids, ten countries, three weeks (no anaesthetic)
21st October 2019
After a year in France, my husband Keith and I are taking our three Australian kids home. We’re swapping a medieval stone village for a composting dunny and a rope swing (located in different parts of the property, I hasten to add.) Before we leave, we decide to embark on a road trip through Europe. Getting all five of us back to the northern hemisphere in the next few years is unlikely, so we plan to go hard before we go home. Four weeks. Ten countries. No anaesthetic.
Job-portability is the key to the whole thing. We’ll just take our normal work-from-home setup on the road, and Keith, part of a small software company, will scramble all kinds of makeshift offices, from ironing boards to bathrooms. There are no Insta-worthy hotels and restaurants on our itinerary; rather, careful screening of bottom-end-Airbnb reviews (one sample ‘flat smelt weird and toilet contained a large, unflushed poo.’) Is it possible, we wonder, to be tightwad, freewheeling backpackers as well as middle-aged, frazzled parents, and still have a blast on the road? We’ll see.
At our first stop, Aix Les Bains, the ‘Riviera of the Alps’, we relax by a beautiful lake with a waterslide that deposits the kids right into the silky, cool water. Holidays, hooray! We do, however have a swimsuit situation. In Europe, men and boys must wear tight trunks instead of baggy shorts, so I buy the nine year old a pair from a budgie-smuggler vending machine. But I have an unsettling encounter with a security guard when I try to walk through the pool area with a cover-up over my swimmers. ‘Take off your dress!’ barks a security guard. Sir! I reply. How very dare you! The adventure is progressing nicely, apart from one thing. Sat Nav.
Let me state that I love my husband Keith very much. He is a handsome nerd who can play the piano and we have a very happy marriage. But our union is tested whenever we hit the road, because I am clinically incapable of reading maps, but if Keith’s driving, I must navigate. And on this trip, we face changes of language, road rules and toll currencies, as well as crazy drivers.
I see the talking map-robot lady as a boon for humanity on par with the discovery of the clitoris (the late ‘60s, I believe.) I adore that ever-calm, unruffled navigator, who gently re-routs me every time I miss a turnoff, awkwardly accenting the wrong syllables of street names (so adorable!) with no hint of judgement in her tone. Keith, however, sees this function as an outrageous slur, de-skilling a generation. The problem is that he is a wizard who can always orient himself in space, while I am prone to mixing up my left and right.
When I’m in the passenger seat and Keith asks me to open up the map on my phone, my heart starts to beat a little faster. I plug in our destination and hover my fingers over the ‘start route’ button, hoping that this time Keith will concede to its powerful magic.
‘Shall I switch on the voice thing?’ I ask, a slight quaver betraying my faux cheeriness.
‘Just tell me the way,’ he says.
‘Why don’t I get the directions?’ I say. ‘So much easier, yes? OK then? ‘
‘Nah, just give me the general run.’
My heart sinks, my IQ drops and I start poking the screen ineffectually with my sweaty paws. I zoom in and out. I start over. Does that say M1 or M7? Which bit are we at now? Which direction are we pointing? What kind of a monster did I marry?
I accidentally lead us an hour in the wrong direction on our way to Switzerland to find my friend Sal’s tiny cottage in the hamlet of Le Sepey, outside Lausanne. Keith has gone silent but Sal greets me with a string of Australian expletives that it seems she has been medically forced to keep inside in civilized Switzerland.
The backdrop is unbelievably gorgeous as Sal’s Swiss husband Denis cooks raclette on a tiny BBQ outside their 300 year old Hobbit house. Denis says that in this area you are not a local until you have three generations in the graveyard.
Prime destination: Europa Parc, a massive amusement park run with Germanic efficiency, where we have a shrieking great time on the Silver Star rollercoaster (aka the Trouser Soiler) which loops us through the air at incredible heights.
We’re getting into the swing of road-trip life, which is 80% packing and repacking bags. We book accommodation as we go, wash clothes with soap in the sink and eat picnics made of weird foreign-supermarket fare. We shrink family life into a microcosm of itself, splitting tasks into portfolios of specialty and preference. Nobody’s completely happy, of course – I’d rather not manage every meal, and Keith is very much over European drivers, but I’d prefer to cook than eat what Keith might dish up and rather than sit next to me panicking on a German autobahn, Keith would do… almost anything, I expect.
Our plans for a city break in Salzburg are scuttled when we see the prices. We widen our net and luck out with Pfarrwerfen, a gem of a town deep in the Austrian Alps, an hour outside the city. It’s no surprise to find that nearby Werfen is featured in the Sound of Music - the scenery is jawdropping; every vista a Bob Ross painting. We twirl on the very meadow where Maria taught Do Re Mi to the children, and visit the Hohenwerfen Castle, which contains a full display of torture implements in its medieval dungeon, including Scolds Bridle, a Spanish Sock and a full-sized rack. Nightmares sorted for the next decade, then. Thanks, Austria!
Grand old-lady Salzburg is wonderful and the schnitzel superb but life on the road is wearing on me a little. The hills are alive with the sound of children armpit-farting. I need a bathtub, a decent coffee, and just a tiny, tiny bit of personal space. My back is sore from the rollercoastering (worth it) but there is no way to skulk off and indulge a black mood on a road trip. It’s all about the togetherness, you see. Dear god. The togetherness.
I navigate us unsteadily into Slovenia until we eventually find our accommodation. Managing shifting languages and currency and geography is tricky. ‘I try really hard, but sometimes the plan just falls apart,’ I say to Keith. ‘I feel like France Spencer.’ ‘Well, I feel like Betty,’ he replies.
But then: Ljubliana! It’s love! Slovenia’s beautiful capital is a romantic dream. Architectural styles range from baroque to brutalist, weeping willows line the river, and Friday night features the best food market I’ve ever encountered. My hot dog with handmade spicy sausage, coleslaw, and onion jam is a spiritual experience. We clutch pesto and mussels and vegan cheesecake, drink traditional socialist soft drink ‘Cockta’ and icy beer and smile at each other in the glorious high-summer evening light. Road trip nirvana.
As we pack up yet another Airbnb (getting quick at this) I gaily toss a bottle of olive oil into the food bag and it shatters. Oh Betty. The cat’s done a whoopsie in my beret. We’re heading for inland Croatia (much cheaper than the beaches) to Kotli, on the Istrian Coast. It’s a tiny hamlet of nineteenth century stone ruins with a single, charming restaurant that overlooks the white rocks and aquamarine waters of the Mirna Falls. The house is odd and the wifi doesn’t work, but there is a little swimming pool set in a leafy garden and the children are thrilled. Spaghetti with nothing but tinned tomatoes. Black coffee. Handfuls of crackers.
In Verona we stay in a super-cheap apartment in the industrial outskirts of the city where the freeways converge in a spaghetti-tangle. The wifi works here, but only in the bathroom. Keith, unfazed as always, carries in a little table and set up what we call Fonzie’s office. Of course, suddenly everybody needs to poo.
We drive through the ancient gates of Verona to visit Shakespeare’s ‘Juliet balcony’, and marvel at the remarkably disgusting wall of love letters nearby, which are stuck on in layers with band-aids and chewing gum. It’s like the Andy Grifffiths version of a Parisian love-padlock bridge. Verona is lovely, with lots of hidden Roman goodness, but the 2-star Fawlty-Towerishness of our travel routine is feeling more wack than wacky. Keith must work late tonight in Fonzie’s office after starting the day with a 6am meeting in Croatia, which he Skyped into from the car. I am wrestling with a low-to-medium level bathroom-related illness, which is compounded by an encounter with a bidet that shoot boiling hot water. Rude! I have to keep going to Fonzie’s office to sit on the toilet. It’s not a remote-workers ‘Living The Dream’ situation.
‘Can you point it north and find the town gates?’ Keith says, handing me his phone. I astonish myself by managing this. Frank Spencer is growing as a person. (Minutes later I mix up my right and left again, but I take my wins where I find them.)
Then: Venice! It is August, and steaming hot, but we skip the tourist areas and aim for the back streets, and we are, incredibly, blessed with a quiet, afternoon in this most enchanting of cities. It’s the key to a happy holiday, and a happy life, I suspect: low expectations.
One day, we stop for lunch in an unremarkable-seeming town and have the most delicious meal of our trip. There is no menu. We sit back and swoon as we are served a starter of creamy burrata, zesty pesto and soft, salty bresaola. Delicious mains and desserts follow, along with complimentary glasses of fizzy blanco, and then shots of a local herb liquer. It’s a stunning way to wrap up a few days in Italy.
It’s our last night on the road and we are fancy-free and unbooked. Should we stop on the Italian or the French Riviera, honey? It’s just like we’re George and Amal! Except for the burnt bum (#bidetgate) and the budget.
We make the call to drive to Monaco, just to squeeze in just one last country. Nine-year-old is thrilled – he’s allowed just one Coke in every country, so he’s sneaking in an unexpected treat. We inspect the super-yachts on the harbour (equal parts fun and gross) and play a little Spot The Facelift, but Monte Carlo is not for us. It’s time to search for a hotel back in France, but it seems that finally our backpackers luck has run out. Nice is full, everywhere we try. Could it be us? My straw hat is so bent out of shape that I look like Worzel Gummidge, the children are dazed and exhausted and Keith has holes in the bum of all his pants.
It’s an easy decision, really, to drive back to our home near Montpellier. We’re not too tired, and I am thrilled to be heading back to my bath, a couple of Bex and a good lie down. Then, an intense few days packing up our house and life in France, followed by a few days in London, a few more in Dubai and then…
Home, to irreverent gags, to superlative coffee, to a leadership spill. I left all my beloved school mums discussing gluten-free baking and the ‘gut brain’ a year ago; and I arrive for coffee this morning to find them discussing the diets of their dogs. It’s like we never left. ‘Oh, Betty,’ I say to Keith, ‘let’s never go away again.’ ‘You say that now, Frank,’ he replies.