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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
My brother and I must have thought the family summer vacations were quite the most luxurious and extravagant one could have.
Clearly, they weren’t.
But it seemed that way.
We have our parents to thank for that, of course. They’d never complain that something cost too much or that some destination was beyond our budget. We didn’t sit at home fantasizing about trips to the Bahamas, Hawaii or Cairo. We just didn’t go there.
For one thing, the old jalopies that my parents drove would never have made it that far. Okay, Cairo might have been within reach, but you know what I mean. You don’t pack up the family’s 1968 station wagon and just head for Egypt.
What you do is spend a day making sausage and butter sandwiches (with cress, thank you very much), stuff as much vacation gear into as small a space as possible and drive from London to Dover in the very wee hours of the morning to catch the dawn ferry to France.
Those were the hours when the travel mood would set in, when there was an air of excitement in the car (mixed with a lingering whiff of cold sausage) and every sight and sound was part of the experience. The misty morning drive along the Thanet Way out of the waking city towards the white cliffs; the thunder and growl of the big freight trucks angling their way through the port; the overbearing smell of diesel and oil in the belly of the big old ship; the feel of the sticky plastic seats and tabletops in the onboard lounge; and finally the swaying and heaving farewell as the English coastline vanished astern in a pall of exhaust fumes and sea spray.
We used the dawn ferry service to Calais for two reasons. One, it was the cheapest time of night to sail; two, it gave us an entire day to drive as far as we could in summer sunshine right through the middle of France.
We didn’t use the toll roads. Those were far too new and expensive. No, we used the ancient Napoleonic highways lined with trees that took us through all the crumbly villages that other tourists never saw. We stopped at hopelessly antiquated petrol stations where chickens and goats wandered around the forecourt and the attendant was monosyllabic with a filterless Gauloises dangling from the corner of his mouth; we ate our sandwiches under the trees that the little emperor had planted so that his soldiers could march in the shade.
Eventually, we’d stop in a town whose name was either amusing or unpronounceable, because it was time for some French wine after a leisurely amble around a disheveled chateau. There would be a town square where the locals played boules in the grey dust, and a cafe whose patio was strung with little yellow lights. Someone would play guitar and we’d try to guess the song; there would always be a three-legged cat waiting for table scraps.
Eventually, we’d sink into feather beds in rooms we’d taken at the only hotel in town, marvel at the absurdities of window shutters that didn’t shut and bathrooms that made gurgly noises, and drift to sleep in dreams of what new tastes and smells and sights the next day might bring.
The journey to the Mediterranean coast was as much of an adventure as the destination.
You see, it’s the simple things that make a holiday memorable. We might only have been on vacation for a short time, but every hour was packed with peculiar delights.
My parents taught us how to make the most of what we had, how to appreciate even the littlest discoveries, how not only to see the world within our reach but also to feel it, smell it and taste it.
No, we couldn’t have afforded a cruise or a flight to somewhere exotic, but we wouldn’t have wanted those things, anyway.
We went where we could, we relished every simple pleasure, and we learned how to live with our eyes wide open.
Where will you take your children on their summer holiday? You may only have a few days here and there, and you may be on a shoestring budget just like the rest of us, but it is these hours spent in exploration that will be of the greatest value to them later on, when they have understood that there is a world out there just waiting to be seen.
Pack your sandwiches and go. Save a little extra for the three-legged cat.