I'll admit to you right now that our roadtrip got a little out of control. I hadn't planned on driving all the way to Rome, our turnback point was Venice. It says a lot about my personality that when I see signs for Milan and Barcelona, having only just set out on the road in France, I start glancing over the borders on the map and my imagination slips over its borders into reality.
My companions on this epic journey of ours were my twin boys aged five and my two-year-old daughter. I was called brave. We weren't travelling with any electronic gadgets for the kids to wile away the time in their car seats. I was called crazy. It's not as though I have a philosophy regarding the use of screens and machines by my kiddos, it's more the case that we've never found ourselves considering tablets for kids in a serious way. We've always had each other and simply haven't needed anything else to fill our days in with. However, with Daddy working and me being the only adult on this adventure, hindsight revealed to me that perhaps a little electronic assistance may have made our drives a little easier, with a few less "words" and fewer missed turns. Another admission... I would call myself a little kooky.
How did we find ourselves in Rome? You have an invitation to Aix-en-Provence followed by a spin in Verona, then you find yourself in Cinque Terre, well Florence isn't that far away, and when you're in Florence you can't miss seeing Rome! Our three weeks away doubled into six. That's not the entire story, there were a few other turns here and there, you'll hear about those too.
I was a little nervous... three kids under six, the youngest of whom was not keen on being in her car seat for any length of time and being the only adult "in charge" of things, it didn't seem like the best recipe for an adventure. But things kept falling into place and the pull of new places has always been a force that I can't resist.
I had been gifted the use of my granddad's 18 year old Mercedes C180, a sober but reliable vehicle. The low mileage it held told me this old Merc was ready for an adventure too.
Having received an invitation from a friend spending a year in Provence, to feel at home in their apartment in Aix whilst they went island hopping in Greece, we had a home waiting, so... I booked a ferry, packed our bags, threw a few extras into the boot of the car and headed to Dover not too early one April morning.
We drove onto our DFDS Seaways ferry with ease, making use of their priority boarding service since I knew the boys wouldn't be able to wait to get on deck since they are a little boat crazy right now and they had not yet travelled by ferry. All three of my trio loved waving Bon Voyage to the White Cliffs of Dover, taking in the sea air and watching the seagulls glide above us. Then for the surprise... I led them down, and around, and to their delight, we rushed forward to the family area. A park on a boat! The rest of our journey left me relaxing on the sidelines as the kids slid, climbed around and made friends using heaps of the bountiful energy that they have. I smiled, knowing I'd have some quiet in the car as they would all doze off after all of this excitement.
Dunkirk to Aix-en-Provence is too long a drive, for anyone, so I had made arrangements to stay in Reims for one night to break that journey up. I had been introduced to Couchsurfing a number of years ago and had been intrigued by it as it promotes the old ideas and ideals of providing hospitality to strangers. It encourages the sharing of stories between host and guest, kindness, connection, mutual respect and with 10 million members in over 200,000 cities, it is quite a community. I contacted a host who was in China during the time of our visit, but she made efforts from China to provide us with shelter via her son who is a student in Reims. We were offered not only shelter, but food, company, much kindness and patience and a cat to cuddle. My children were not as shy as I had expected them to be, shyness often leads to very polite behaviour. They were confident, inquisitive and comfortable, I wasn't sure whether to be proud or apologetic, since they were a little loud too. I expected this was a consequence of being confined in their car seats for a considerable time without sufficient opportunity to exercise their limbs and vocal cords.
After introductions and smiling at squeals of delight as we toured our home for the night, we took a walk around the neighbourhood, just observing how houses looked different from those that we had left behind in West London, and then went to bed, since it was already way past the bedtime of this travelling trio and their tired mum.
The next morning we awoke to a light breakfast and then, with our hosts, walked to the cathedral. My interest lay in the rich history and stained glass by Marc Chagall. The boys were fascinated by the scaffolding erected to aid some restoration work that was under way. My youngest was happy to find "baby chairs", wooden chairs with straw seats where she had only to bend her knees and sit. So comfortable. They were in fact designed for people to kneel on in prayer.
We then left Reims for Aix. I was grateful for the experience of kindness, generosity and a taste of ancient laws of hospitality, but mostly I was immensely pleased that my children experienced this level of kindness from strangers. It gave us a lot to talk about over the many kilometres we had yet to travel. Though we may have spoken about Merlin the cat and the possibility of getting a cat of our own once we return home a little more than the concept of hospitality.
We are still far from Rome. I hope you will join me over the next few weeks as I share with you a few tales and recommendations from the various stops that we made, reveal how the peace was kept on those long drives, and describe the scene when it couldn't be kept. Until then, bisous.