A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I bundled the family into the car and went on holiday – we were off to the lovely little French Island of Ile De Re. We booked it in back December, before all the Parisians started booking their little getaways from their life in the capital, so indirectly we started annoying the French before we even got there (I assume after Brexit, most French people hate us anyway, but still). Images of glasses of wine at sunset, long strolls down the beach and loving glances over candle lit dinners in little back street restaurants whilst using our C grade GCSE level French filled our minds. Then we remembered we had 4 girls in tow aged between 9 and 6 months. Those day-dreamy thoughts were soon replaced with nightmares of arguments, forgotten items of kids essential clothing, having to stop every 30 minutes on the drive down for toilet breaks, snacks and broken iPad USB chargers which result in whinging that is enough to drive you to consider putting your own flesh and blood up for adoption.
Our Eurotunnel train was due to depart at 9.15 from Folkstone. This meant that I was furiously packing the car the night before to see if you truly can get 2 adults, 4 children and all their luggage and holiday paraphernalia into the back of Volvo XC90 without the use of roofbox. (Why didn’t I just use a roof box I hear you ask – well because I’m a stubborn man and because packing is something I do well. I will not be beaten and a lack of space is not a good reason to give in – I’m king of 3D Tetris and I WILL MAKE IT WORK!) In actual fact, there was ample room, whoever designs these cars obviously has kids as there are compartments everywhere which we duly packed full of electronic gadgets, snacks, wipes, tissues, travel documents and other odds and sods.
Days before the start of our holiday, the news was jam packed with pictures of families wedged into cars along with their luggage; grey forlorn faces peering out of windows and interviews with people who had resigned themselves to a slow death from dehydration on the side of the road. This was a result of, Coincidentally, the M20 motorway also being jam packed as the mass exodus from rainy old Britain to the promised land of sunny continental Europe got underway. However when we finally set off, the satnav politely told me in a calm and serene voice that “there are no traffic alerts on your route” – Win! We ended up going around the houses a bit, but we got there with time to spare, so like everyone else, we spend half our holiday money on a couple of coffees and mediocre sandwiches that no one ate. Quick nappy change and we were on our way.
For what seems like a big car from the outside (and an even bigger one on the inside) it’s surprisingly well proportioned for fitting inside a train that’s about to go under the sea (an idea that still blows my children’s little minds). We managed to get onto the carriages that take cars ( instead of the van / high vehicle one), squeezing under the 1.86m heavy metal pole that I was sure was going to scrap along the roof and damage the panoramic sunroof, essentially making the car into an open top convertible. Wiping away the cold sweat that had formed on my brow and breathing into a paper bag, we cruised onto the train and set up camp for the next 40 minutes. We passed the time by indulging in yet more nappy changes, feeds and playing ‘guess that tune’ which involves playing the first 3 seconds of songs on our phones via Apple Carplay (The kids were especially awful at this, I mean who doesn’t know the Libertines, Keane, Snow Patrol, The Prodigy, Crystal Castles, and late 90’s/ early 2000’s hiphop?! – I should probably update my music at some point).
Before we knew it, we were in France. The smell of garlic, masses of people on bikes wearing Breton stripes holding baguettes and hordes of frogs (they come in hordes, right?) without back legs weren’t immediately noticeable, but we were now driving on the right hand side of the road so we definitely weren’t in England any more (yes these are all terrible stereotypes, it’s a joke so please take it as one). The clever car even had headlights that you could change for continental driving at the push of a button (I say button, it’s more like using an Ipad) so now I couldn’t be accused of blinding people as we motored along for the next 450 miles to the west coast.
As we rolled along through the French country side, ripping up the French motorway system and stretching the legs of the 300bhp petrol powered family beast wagon (stopping occasionally to re-mortgage the house to pay at the Péage for the use of the sweet smooth and mainly empty tarmac), I tried to bring some cultural discussion to my travelling party. I pointed out landmarks and famous bridges, little towns I’d been to as a child and banged on about how good the French service stations were, only to be completely ignored by all my family members who were either plugged into some sort of screen (dam you Volvo for building these things with some many USB ports!), sleeping or just refusing to respond apart from the occasion grunt. I resigned myself to playing the old ‘how many miles to the gallon do you think I can get out of this thing’ game. It was like my own TopGear challenge, but without mates to race against or fun. (For those interested I managed to squeeze 32 miles to the gallon – god I’m sad). I finally resorted to the radio for company, bracing myself to listen to French stations when I discovered that the car had DAB. With BBC 6 Music on, life was good again.
Every hundred miles or so, we pull over to play car musical chairs (twins and I being the only ones not to move). My eldest would complain about her view so move between the twins, the middle daughter would want to sit on her own so would sit in the back and my wife, well she wanted to be on a balcony of a beautiful hotel overlooking the northern lakes of Italy sipping a cocktail far away from all of us, but that wasn’t going to happen, so she got involved as well.
Hours past as did industrial towns, quaint little villages, fields of sunflowers and French people drinking coffee outside of cafes in the early afternoon (do they not have jobs?!), all vanishing into the horizon behind us in my rear view mirror as we ploughed on towards our destination where cold small French beers awaited us (and when I say us, I meant me – the rest of them could fend for themselves). Despite the journey taking 11 hours in total, the drive itself was easy. I popped on the adaptive cruise control (which brakes for when you get a car in your lane), set the speed to the speed limit, switched on the blind spot warning sign, and let the car do the rest. with today’s modern gizmos bundled into our cars, we really aren’t that far away from taking us out of the equation all together and letting the car do all the work, (although I know for me that would take a lot of the enjoyment out of driving).
Finally we made it to our house for the week and parked up. We were now officially on holiday. For a next 7 days we spent too much money , bought things we didn’t need, ruined the kids sleep routine and generally had a lovely time.
Before we knew it, the week was up and we, slightly browner than before, packed up the belongings we arrived with, along with a whole load of new belongings that had French words on them (i.e. T-shirts, nice smelling hand lotions that cost 5 times more in the UK, cheeses, wine and more Breton striped tops) back in the car for the 11 hour journey home. The idea of returning to our sad little empty fridge, the grey sky of Blighty and the London rat race was less than enticing but all good things must come to an end.
Would I do it all again? Yes, as thousands of people do year in, year out but next time I’d be a little wiser about how to prepare for what is essentially a complete day in the car with my loved ones.
1). Limit the number of shoes your wife can pack. 8 pairs for a 7 day holiday it just plain ridiculous, especially when she’ll end up only wear 3 of them. They also take up value space in the car which could have been used for cheap booze on the way home.
2). Charge all electronics before we love home to avoid melt downs and arguments.
3). Buy some decent food for the journey the day before to avoid paying crazy prices for average grub that no one will end up eating
4). Get a ‘liber-T’ automatic toll thingy that means you can just drive through toll booths without stopping. Stops people trying to figure out the change and using embarrassingly poor French (i.e. Bonjour, combiere pur la toll?)
5). Schedule breaks into the trip when planning. I could have done the done it in one go I’m sure, but kids bladders aren’t cut out for long journeys. Saying to your wife you’ll be there at 4.30pm and getting there at 8pm doesn’t go down well, so manage expectations accurately.
6). Use a car that fits your family – there is no point in trying to drive to the south of France in a little city car with 3 kids and all your stuff as you’ll just end up hating them and yourself. Go to Volvo UK and check out the new XC90 for something to aspire to.