says Margaret Canter
"OUT WHY BRING A
BOOKCASE?" we asked, our voices as carefully patient as a 6 a.m. beginning to a holiday would permit. "To keep books in," they answered, reasonably enough.
"But why so many books?" "In case it rains."
"It doesn't rain in France," we said, firmly.
All the same there is something unnerving about eyes at a lower level than one's own, waiting for the go-ahead or the veto. Life to a child, one sometimes thinks, must be a constant pause at the traffic lights
. and so that, roughly speaking, is how when we first went abroad en famine we took with us a bookcase containing the entire works of Beatrix Potter ...
Every year thousands of parents must wonder whether to risk the uncertainties of taking children abroad. Will the vagaries of food, climate, and travel prove too much for the tender plants and ruin not merely their parents' bank balance, but also their precarious holiday charity? But in the season hundreds of small travellers cross the Channel daily and I have never yet seen one miserable.
Brittany is of course ideal for a first time trip. It is "abroad" but not far distant.
The sun is more reliable than in England but not as violent as the south and the lovely crenellated coastline provides innumerable bays to suit all tastes. Unfortunately France is expensive—if near: Spain is cheap—but distant. Belgium combines both virtues but the sun may not be as reliable.
Whatever your choice, it is almost certain that taking a villa will prove cheaper than booking into an hotel. It also provides greater elasticity for meal and bed times and although many women cringe at the idea of "working" holidays it is usually possible to hire local help—or brainwash the family into co-operating.
If you take your own car— and it is invaluable for luggage, toys and the odd bookcase—then make it earn its fare by carrying supplies of basic food. Children do not always take to foreign food as readily as they do to foreign sunshine and at the end of a tiring day I think familiar food is invaluable in sending them to bed happy.
It also eliminates hours of routine shopping for Mum who shouldn't aim to spend all her holidays in a queue, even if it is to buy tomatoes at 3d. a pound from a woman who might have stepped from a Goya. Besides you might do as I did and in a land of fishy plenty, saddle yourself with a sea-monster which looked and tasted like a discarded inner tube . .
Delicatessen shops will supply you with mid-day lunch for picnics on the beach and you will be left with only an evening meal to conk. Casseroles can be left to simmer all day and will greet you with delicious odours as you return, dazed with fresh air and sun.
Fruit and vegetables are usually cheap and delicious: wine, milk and lemonade are usually cheaper if you return the bottle for a refill. Buy yin ordinaire from the cask and dilute it with boiled water for the children: they will enjoy it —and sleep like tops I
On long journeys I am assured that it is better for children to eat "little and often" rather than have one large meal. Most children don't need telling this. Ours progressed from glucose sweets, fruit, drinks, chocolates, sandwiches, biscuits, etc., to a full meal on board . . and resumed the snacks as soon as we were through the French customs. For twelve hours their jaws never stopped moving.
Damp flannels. tissues and various moppers up are of course standard equipment, also sticking piaster and that invaluable aid to elegant living —a supply of polythene bags. But if you don't mention "seasickness" they probably won't have it.
During journeys if they get restive there arc plenty of games to play such as I Spy . . in English in England and in French in France. Even a toddler can memorise words if it is part of a game.
Some insurance companies provide booklets to fill in as you spot the 'country of origin" plates on passing cars and the AA publishes an excellent little book Fun on Wheels full of endless suggestions for games to pass the time. Personally I think most parents underestimate the value of arguing as a pastime and since most children regard it as an intellectual exercise and it is usually without malice the only thing to do is not interrupt
and draw their fire!
For children lack of a common language is no barrier to friendship with other children. Ours were particularly fascinated that the dogs understood Spanish. As for adults, a nervous smile and a pointing finger work wonders.
I have seen a granite faced Englishman with a shopping bag and no vocabulary throw back his head, scratch the ground with one foot, emit frantic clucks, extend his hand bearing an imaginary . . .
"Oeuf, monsieur . . . matt out, vous desirez des oeufs . . . ? An answering smile cracked the granite: monsieur did indeed desire the oeufs.
A French beach is as good as a cabaret . . Mama and Papa and strings of enchanting little children with names as enchanting as themselves . Marie-Therese. Jean-Pierre, Yvette and Monique, Chantal and Simone . . all busy and so well-fed that there is none of the lolly-sucking. biscuitcrunching, gum-popping routine which resounds on English beaches.
Black swathed Grandmere sits and knits while her youngers play with endless energy or swim with exaggerated little screams . . . "Mon Dieu, c'esf glaciale!"
Sisters of Charity escort crocodiles of toddlers who spread like bright confetti over the rocks ; the peanut seller humps his pannier from one arm to the other . . "Cacaou cites . cactumettes . . ." and on the next beach the instructor in the Penguin Club which is provided nearly everywhere for the children teaches incredible feats of agility on his swings and trapezes.
In retrospect our holidays abroad have had all pros and no cons. In France the youngest had chicken pox ... but we all survived ; in Spain every night they all rolled regularly out of their high beds and flumped painlessly on to tiled floors . until they learned to cope without the confining safety of bedclothes.
In Andorra their wise and far-seeing parents suffered an aberration, drank from a mountain stream . and imitated the church suffering. But zest undiminished we are waiting only for the savings to accumulate before starting again.
On the draining board at home there is a pot of wild herbs scooped up from the Pyrenees and brought home in a plastic bag. "What do you remember most about the holidays?" we ask them . . .
"Dinner out of doors with the moon on the sea and the flamenco singer and the guitar and bunches of grapes hanging down and the most enormous lumps of chicken ..."
"Driving up to that monastery on top of the mountain" (Montserrat).
"Driving through the cloud and being able to make snowballs in August . . ," But for myself I remember hearing them sing a hymn in English while the rest of the congregation sang it in French . . . I remember their unconscious sense of "belonging" when we stopped—anywhere and anytime—for Mass.
I remember rice fields and wind among bamboos and sometimes when I hear their Wellingtons squelching through puddles on the way home from school .1 hear the echo of the slap-slap-slap of alpagettas against small bare heels as their feet trudge down a dusty track to a cactusfringed beach and a navy-blue sea ...