Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in England’s Northeast, home of my maternal grandmother’s Irish side of the family. One of the lines on the Tyne and Wear Metro in Newcastle terminates at St. James’s Park, where Newcastle United of the English Premier League make their home. Charlie, Alex and I went to see the stadium in July 2007, and bought a ball in its store.
The team, Newcastle United, wasn’t there, of course. That’s the problem with summer vacations for soccer fans: the season hasn’t started yet!
Charlie and Alex could not resist trying out the new ball before the Metro train started its journey. There was no-one else in our carriage who might be bothered, and the boys are skillful enough that there was no risk of any real damage. I let him and Alex juggle and play. Vacations are for having fun, after all!
Not for long on this occasion: a disembodied voice came over the tannoy: “Please stop playing football in the rear of the train!” They did, and we all sat there feeling a little sheepish. The English really do have too many of these spy cameras in use!
We were in Newcastle, in the Northeast of England, so that I could visit friends and family, as I like to do during the summer vacation.
I had not planned on taking any of the children with me on this short trip around England (July 17-22), because Marie-Hélène was not particularly partial to my style of keeping moving even on vacation. She and I were planning to meet up in Marlow for a week based there after I had finished my more distant excursions. Until then, she would stay at La Grée with Charlie and Alex while I wandered.
That was the compromise which had evolved in response to our respective preferences for vacations: we spent most of the time together, and I would wander for a short time while she stayed put. I thought that a fairer compromise would be us all wandering for a short time if Marie-Hélène could have it her way for the remaining four or five weeks, but she didn’t. So we did it her way. I adjusted, as I always did by then. The hen-pecked husband’s refrain is: “anything to keep the peace!”
We spent most of the vacation together, or to put it more accurately spent most of our joint vacation together. Over the years living in the US, we had also come to another compromise reflecting our different personal and professional situations. I work for a living, and thus can rarely take an extended vacation. Marie-Hélène likes her French summer vacations, French in the sense of location and duration! It’s almost traditional in France that the mother takes the children to the vacation home for a long stay, and the father visits for a couple of weeks and maybe a weekend or two. That’s how we set up our summer vacations, even based in California.
In 2007, she left with Daphné, Alban, Charles and Alex on June 19, while I stayed on in Santa Cruz. They stopped in to spend the night with Faby, Jean and the Rabinovici family outside Paris, and another night with Joce and Alain in Paris itself, and then moved on to La Grée. I arrived in France on July 11, said a brief hello to Nathalie and Karim outside Paris, and moved straight on to La Grée. My own short trip to visit friends and family in England was scheduled from July 17 to the 22nd, when Marie-Hélène, Charlie and Alex were to join me. We spent a week on a farm near Marlow all together, and flew back to San Francisco from Heathrow on July 30.
More on the older children: they had reached the age when they were not automatically included in our vacation plans. This suited both factions, older and younger! This year, Nick had spent the first six months of the year with his mom in Paris, and so I expected to be able to include him here or there during our summer vacation. He put paid to such thoughts by showing up unannounced for Tom’s graduation from Harbor High School in mid-June, which kept him out of our collective plans in Europe.
Tom did not go to France this summer to visit his mom, as was his wont, which made no sense at the time. Then he made his own unannounced move, returning to live with his mom at the end of the year. I thought that he had left on vacation in Paris for the New Year until, that is, he didn’t come back!
He and Nick were based during the period in July that I was away at their Grandma’s home in Palo Alto. Marie-Hélène and I had decided that none of them could stay in our house when we weren’t there because they had trashed the place during our vacation the preceding summer. Tom had not been involved that time, but was still covered by the rule.
Daphné and Alban did spend some of their vacation with their maman, Charlie and Alex, and then went off with their father or on their own. I didn’t see them at all. They had wanted to spend the whole month of July with Pierre, visiting Italy with him for a part of the time, but he had proved difficult at first. In her initial disappointment with his attitude, Daphné had wanted to come back to Santa Cruz, which wouldn’t have worked because of the no-living-in-our-house-when-we’re-not-there rule.
So that she and Alban wouldn’t feel bad, I ended up buying them both Eurailpasses for a week so that they could go to Italy together, even if their father couldn’t take them, and meet a Santa Cruz friend of theirs in Rome. They had a great time, both on the couchette trains and in Rome and Florence, but I still didn’t see them once during that vacation. I arrived at La Grée two weeks after they had left to be with their father. Daphné did email her thanks.
Our blended family vacations were always a tad complex!
Back on the ground in France, my week at La Grée was almost over, and a pleasure it had been too, as always. I was preparing for the UK. I had a single ticket on the Brittany Ferries from Roscoff to Plymouth and back, but on the off-chance asked the boys if they’d like to come along for the ride. They rarely accepted my travel invitations, even for a Sunday afternoon’s outing around Santa Cruz, and I fully expected them to turn me down flat. The planned ride was pretty complex and would last for several days all over England.
But no, perhaps they were bored: the answer to my invitation was an easy “yes.” There’s not a lot going on at La Grée for older children, and they were getting older. They’d already spent four weeks there, and the local excitement, in the form of the weekly markets in Malestroit and La Gacilly, was itself getting a bit old. They had done the local attractions, and swam in the local swimming lake, the Lac aux Ducs in Ploermel. They had ridden their bikes all over the village, and kicked a soccer ball around innumerable times.
Marie-Hélène dropped the three of us off at the Brittany Ferries port in Roscoff, in northwest Brittany, where she had a good old friend to help her justify the long drive, and the three of us took the ferry to Plymouth. We all had Britrail Passes (I had come prepared, expecting them to use theirs a little during the planned collective week in England coming up), and our first stop was Exeter, a one-hour train ride from Plymouth.
There we walked the half mile from the station, with all luggage, and visited Stella and Ian Summers and the resident portions of their large family. Very pleasant it was too. An overnight stay, speedy download on the fortunes of our respective families, brunch in the city, and we were on our way again.
They did accompany me to visit my spinster great aunt Rosemary in Walker, and drove her just a tad crazy with their energy. Her family home had been bombed flat during the Second World War (it was near the docks, but they had taken shelter elsewhere when the air raid sirens went off), and she lives in the replacement built for them after the war. A lifetime of teaching small children had not prepared her for Charlie and Alex when they were a little bored!
We also visited Adrian Wynne, who himself lived on the coast outside Newcastle. 38 years before, he was my good friend (and bad influence!) at Sir William Borlase’s School in Marlow. It had been perhaps 15 years since I last saw him. The boys liked Adrian, who can still act like an irascible big brother. He probably still is an irrascible big brother. I forget how he did it, but he immediately earned their respect. That’s the way he is. He is also a software guru for the UK’s social security administration, and remarried shortly after our visit. It was almost four years before I heard from him again!
Then we took a few more trains, and finished our tour of the UK by meeting Marie-Hélène at the Brittany Ferries dock in Portsmouth. Grand-père had driven her to St Malo, the ferry’s departure port. We stayed on a farm outside Marlow for a week. We all did a little touring around and visited friends and family closer to London. The vacation continued and concluded with the four of us together.
The boys did really well on that entire prolonged trip. At each station, almost, I was obliged to check email and work: that’s the only problem with being self-employed. You cannot delegate your work to a colleague you work with when you work alone! I was obliged to work on some of the train trips too. They were visiting (mostly) people who held little interest for them. But our meanderings went very well. Marie-Hélène was able to continue with her much needed rest, I was able to visit and show them around my country and its trains, and they behaved very well almost all of the time.