Let's be honest - it's not a secret - the school summer holidays are a headache! Every year, millions of parents tear their hair out with screams of "Six weeks without school! They'll drive me mad!'. It's a rough ride: six children-hanging-around-your-ankles weeks of organising clubs, juggling days off work, begging friends and grandparents to do a day here or a day there, along with squeezing in the shopping and the cooking and, of course (let's admit it!), dealing with the piles of guilt for letting them watch too much YouTube! Gosh, dare I say it, the daily term-time-grind of 'brush your teeth, get dressed, finish your homework' almost looks like a doddle compared to spending six whole weeks with bored, nagging, fighting, squabbling children! Ouch!
Of course, my wife and I have a cunning plan to beat the mayhem. Being lucky enough to work from anywhere with an internet connection, every year we decide to drive to our little family house in the mountains of Romania. Yes, because we think driving eighteen hundred miles to a house closer to Syria than to London with three children squashed into the back of crumbling car for days on end will make our lives easier! (Mmm, perhaps that needs a re-think!). But we do it, with (gritted) smiles on faces, convinced that as long as we have a good repertoire of sing-alongs and eye-spy games and enough batteries for the DVD player, the 'holiday' problem will be solved!
The hardest part is always the start. No matter how many times we explain to the children it will take seven days (we always try and see things en route), within two hours of leaving home they start the dreaded 'are we almost there yet!', as if purposely trying to wind me up (I've showed them a hundred times how far away our destination is!). Then of course comes the arguments, followed by the chat back and the bickering, then the 'I feel sick', and the crumbs all over the back seat, and the 'I need a wee', and let's not forget the general screams of "I'm squashed!". Certainly, the first day is filled with plenty of husband-and-wife-swapping-glances of 'are we crazy?', 'is this worth it' and 'what the hell are we doing?!'
But we push on. Because experience has taught us that this is all part of the settling in process. And before long we get into a routine, we begin to find our own little rhythm. The days become easier. The hours pass more quickly. The children get into their groove. And what we're left with is a family that seems to know how to do it; a family that remembers we've done it before. It all comes flooding back. The children begin to understand we've left England (the ferry on its own doesn't seem to do the trick), and the one hundredth look at the European Atlas seems to finally sink in - they finally understand that Europe is a place made up of different countries, each with their cities, each with their own languages and cultures, each with their own foods and sounds. They start to spot that Utrecht looks different to Tottenham, that Prague looks different to Norwich, that Lake Balaton looks different to Southwold. It's working! And slowly, as we head further and further east, they see Europe gently peeling away, changing, layer by layer, opening up new smells and sights as the true myriad flavours of Europe become revealed. Travelling becomes tangible; distance becomes real, and difference distinguished. We leave behind what we know, and head towards the horse and cart, the hand-stacked hay, the summer swallow.
And I can't help but take my hat off to the children - they endure hours in the car; they find inventive ways to get on with their siblings; they bed down in a multitude of rented homes; they put up with being dragged around yet another European old town; they try strange foods; they cope with being left stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the Czech countryside whilst our car gets towed away; the list goes on. For young minds, who have no control over when they stop, what they eat, where they sleep, I find their resilience truly remarkable. And it reminds, no, convinces me how much the summer is all worth it. Having six weeks off with the children is precisely why we go through the term-time-grind of teeth-brushing and homework-pestering! So we can have these special times together; so we can build memories and learn from one another, and learn about the world around us. Because these are the things that matter as we build our young families. It is because of the children the summer holiday works. It is the children that bring the magic. Hats off to the kids for putting up and making it all a joy. And I would do it all again next year in a heartbeat.
As long as my wife is there to make to make it all run smoothly.