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When Is A Holiday Not A Holiday? (When You’re With Kids)

A holiday with children is one of my favourite oxymorons. The phrase always conjures up the last scenes of The Sound of Music, when the family Von Trapp, on the run from the Nazis, labours uphill. Traveling with small children is exactly like this, minus the singing, delightful vistas, and Christopher Plummer.

I now forgive my parents for not being brave enough to travel with the six of us except for annual vacations back to India to get our yearly dose of tropical illnesses. It is a daunting endeavor with no guarantee of any reward. But, if you do have small children and are doubting you’ll ever have a relaxed holiday again, I am here to say, you’re probably right to despair. (But it does get better.)

Determined not to let the arrival of Baby A change anything in our faux-bohemian lives, we booked a train to Goa when she was 4 months old. Worn rucksack on my back, new baby-carrier in the front, I swashbuckled into Dadar station and the Merchant-Ivory scales fell from my eyes. Had there always been so many people? Were they ALL coughing every contagion known to man? Did we get pushed around like this on every trip? On the train, my usual excitement was replaced by horror at the communal basins. I smiled coldly as a stranger cooed and tried to poke Baby A in the face with her unwashed finger.

We chose Goa for the familiarity. We imagined our usual two books in a week, shandy-goggles and mild sunstroke with the added lovely baby fun.

It. Was. Not. As. Advertised.

After a week of hygiene paranoia, bottle sterilization burns, wolfing down meals alone as the other parent walked around trying to pacify a disoriented howl-machine, we were so happy to fly back. Naturally, Baby A screamed the entire way. Cabin crew and passengers all commiserated with us as we disembarked.

I weighed myself when we got home. I’d lost three kilos. Quiet desperation and ruing the day DOES burn calories. But was it over? Would we never have fun on holiday again!??!

Our friends were no comfort. “I left L with my mum and ran off to Berlin,” said one airily. “Oh, we took the nanny to London. Didn’t you see our party pictures on Facebook?” said another. I suffered from incredible feelings of incompetence and failure. My husband refused to give up.

When Baby B arrived, we squished into economy seats, chose hotels farther from the city-centres, and got on and off public transport like Frankenstein’s HumanPramBabyDiaperbag Monster. We eschewed cafés and restaurants, instead grabbing coffees and doner kebabs to be eaten furtively in tiny, European hotel rooms while the children snored, spread-eagle on the bed.

“This is fun!” we’d say, bright-eyed as one kid barfed in a Ziplock bag and we tried to decipher which of the five Annecy council Recycle/Refuse bins was the right one. “It’s great for the kids!” we whooped, as another child lay down on the floor five minutes into our much anticipated (and expensive!) visit to Florence’s Uffizi Museum. “We’ll BUY YOU THREE GELATOS!” we begged, as one stood at the door of our AirBnB in Lisbon with a face that said, “Don’t want to see places. Don’t want to see people. Don’t want to leave the wi-fi.” “I’m so, so sorry,” I said to everyone as the youngest marked the slow, moving circle of the London Eye with a steady whine.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. We actually did once sing “Do, a deer” with hilarious French friends walking in the Alps, despite one child’s relentless vomiting. Our eldest only got a painful ear infection after a really fun afternoon in a slightly dodgy pool. It took three whole days in our gorgeous, 150-year-old, ‘authentic’ rented apartment to give our second daughter an asthma attack. And when the day-long, super-cool mini-bus tour with the very hip people ended, and they all congratulated us on having the best-behaved children they’d ever met, we didn’t feel at all abandoned when they waved good-bye and ran (too quickly) to go bar-hopping without us.

This year, gritting my teeth, girding my loins, carrying a nebulizer, emergency antibiotics, steroids, antacids, paracetamol, movies on devices and an optimistic book, we took 14, 10 and Finally 5 on holiday. It was amazing! No one sat on my lap on the flight. The children played safely on their own in the gardens. We went out to real restaurants, even for dinner, and had only one public glass-breakage the entire trip. Mosquito bites, frogs in the pool, a giant spider, twilight tourist-panic and ‘let’s walk through the town but we are not buying any souvenir fridge magnets’ were met with a hitherto unseen range of sang-froid to enthusiasm. I read my book!

I kept waiting for the penny to drop but this holiday was money in the bank. I know with kids, you cannot take anything for granted, but I’d like to consider this as a sign of things to come. Now older, the kids need less micro-managing. They may want to sit at a separate table one evening. Over dinner with your brave husband, you may admit that there’s a remote possibility he was right to persist.

Landing in Bombay at an unearthly hour, lugging his heavy, sleeping, Finally5ness the looong way to the baggage carousel, I watched the older kids help their dad carry bags and sort out passports. Elated, I quietly sang “Climb Every Mountain” to myself, the promise of the next holiday over the rainbow, a steely Christopher Plummer-look in my red eye.

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