Locked out: some tough lessons from our family summer holiday to France

Sometimes it feels a little like Jeff Kinney, the writer of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ fame, might actually be observing my family life via my smartphone camera.

On our recent road-trip to France we took the audiobook version of ‘The Long Haul’. It's the one where, on a family car journey, Wimpy Kid’s brother Roderick manages to lock a frozen pizza in a motel safe after he mistakes it for a microwave. 

It didn’t take us long, then, when staying overnight in a youth hostel in Reims, for our kids to lock all their sweets, pocket money and even some clothes in three separate lockers in our dormitory. Yes people, they had combination locks. And they had no idea what the combinations were.

The under 10s may be entrusted to look after their own pocket money and, when ignored long enough, are able to truly get to grips with an unfamiliar locking system. But they have no concept of remembering a four-figure number (remember, these kids do not come from an age where remembering your home landline was a basic skill).

Both my older kids (aged seven and nine), were left crying, whinging and devastated when they realised their possessions would be ‘lost forever’ in the youth hostel lockers. They despaired, failing to believe that the staff might have some sort of ‘magic key’* to liberate their chewing gum. 

The seven-year-old, realising his jumper was also in a locker, was so upset by its loss he could scarcely contain himself. It was a jumper he had been trailing through mud at the park only hours ago, without a shred of love for it. 

I briefly blamed myself for failing to oversee this tinkering with the lockers, but then decided it was perhaps a lesson that our kids needed to learn. I’m not strictly sure what that lesson was, but they learnt it. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’? Or perhaps more prosaically ‘Don’t forget the combination lock to your locker.’

It got me thinking about what other lessons my husband and I had learnt from our exhausting summer holiday trip.

Here’s a few:

1. If you have packed 500 sandwiches and splashed out on several family packs of YoYo fruit sweets, there will be no traffic delays. If you have forgotten to refill the 18 water bottles stored within the fabric of the car for emergencies, there will be a six hour traffic jam.

2. Parents should not risk sitting down in the ‘childrens area’ on the ferry to Calais, not even for a second. There is a high chance of being stuck limply gluing tissue paper at a craft table, knees around your ears on a tiny stool, for a full 1 hour and 20 mins while their partner is ‘lost’ in some other area of the ship. Grim times.

3. French hotels have definitely improved, even the ‘charming’ independent ones. Nice tea and coffee making facilities, decoration from as late as 2002 and fully-functioning toilets and showers. But they do still appear to be run by the same prim, short-haired lady wearing glasses hanging from a little chain. All of them.

4. If there is a children’s menu in the restaurant, featuring ‘Les Nuggets enrobés de miettes de pain’, no child will rest from their sulking and whinging until it is served. Children’s menus have pretty much ruined eating out with kids in France.

5. If there are animals, everything will be ok. Our kids – including the most cynical who believes himself to be pushing 25 - fed chickens for hours, embraced goats and stroked reindeer. The happiest moments of the holidays involved throwing carrot peelings at a mangy old cockerel encaged in an electric fence. Who knew?

6. If any of your three children feel that what they have been allocated is inferior/less than their siblings, they will steal from their parents until equality is achieved. This is how I ended up sleeping on a thin Cub Scout bedding roll all week, rather than the luxurious self-inflating sleep mats I had allocated to myself and my two older boys. Three year-olds do not appreciate comfortable sleeping arrangements…they are too busy bl**dy sleeping. Still, I hold (almost) no grudges, despite the aching hips.

7. Nine-year-olds are definitely better at dealing with motorway toll machines than their parents – even if they have to perform some impressive gymnastic moves to reach the slots from the car window. 

8. GPS navigation can only help you so much in a French one-way system.

* Just for the record, there was a magic key.


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