Friday, 28 August 2015

Delayed Encounter.

It's the last piece in a complicated holiday puzzle, collecting Eldest and the hire car from Ancona airport, and dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. After not one single hitch in our travels plans so far and with sunshine in Amsterdam, heat in Munich, and more heat with extra humidity on top in Venice, both the weather and our luck look set to change.

From shimmering Venezia in the early summer morning, we've made fast and comfortable progress on a high speed train to Bologna, but now there's a delay with the final connection. The train to Ancona is ten minutes late. Then twenty minutes late. Then thirty minutes late…

What's half an hour when you've done 1, 500 miles* across Europe by rail? Well there's Eldest to think of, waiting alone at Ancona airport since early morning when Ryanair disgorged him onto the sun-baked tarmac. He stayed up all night to catch the 6.30 am flight from Stanstead. We always knew he was going to have to sit it out, but it's been four hours now, plus an extra ten minutes, plus an extra twenty, plus an extra thirty...

Finally, forty minutes behind schedule, the train shows up. It delivers us south, hugging the coastline all the way, to our final railway station: Ancona. Hooray! We did it. London to Ancona via Amsterdam, Munich and Venice by rail. How adventurous! How Green! How every one of those miles has somehow etched itself onto my forehead. 

But on arrival Husband says, hang on a minute, there's a little direct train to the airport, he thinks, somewhere near here on another platform, if we just wheel our luggage down there and have a look at that timetable over... 

NO. The rest of us put our feet down. We've had it with trains. A scruffy Italian couple with a baby, ostentatiously beginning their summer holiday, shoes kicked off, heavily tattooed arms flopping into the aisle, had their beat box set to max on that last one, thudding bass for accompaniment for our last hour and a half, which I suppose is better than thudding Kalashnikov, so we should be grateful. Even Fleetwood Mac at top volume in my lug holes couldn't drown it out. Plus we can actually see a row of gleaming taxis from where we're standing.

And now we are all going to die. The taxi driver is overtaking everything on the motorway on every bend, with one hand on the wheel and the other swiping an iPad. How ironic. Six trains across Europe, now to perish in a car attempting to reach Eldest. Who will tell him?

It turns out the driver is using Google Translate to communicate something. "Rain here at three o'clock!" he shouts. 

I look to our right. The sweep of bay in the sunshine, a line of cypresses, the sparkling Adriatic. Really? Perhaps the storm will miss us?

But as the taxi careers down the slip road and we spy the airport ahead, its mass of glass and metal begin to glow in a strange and celestial half-light. And running from the taxi towards the deserted arrivals hall, not waiting for the others, my hair is suddenly lifted and wind-whipped across my face.

I see him. I'd recognise the back of that head anywhere. So now for another airport reunion, family hugs and smiles all round, exchanges of information, accompanied by an ominous darkening. Precisely as Husband is handed the key for the car, the heavens open, lightning cracks the sky, and a deluge to end all deluges begins. 

But we don't care. We're together again. We're happy. We laugh. Husband unpacks his jacket from his suitcase, Eldest rips off his T-shirt, and they set off together for the run across the car park in search of the hire car.

Love E x



*I used a distance calculator website for an approximation. The trains were - Day 1: London to Brussels, Brussels to Amsterdam, Day 4: Night train from Amsterdam to Munich, Day 6: Munich to Venice, Day 8: Venice to Bologna, Bologna to Ancona.

And with regards to blogging about Italy what is there to say that you don't already know? Landscape, tick. Culture, tick. Architecture, tick. Food, tick. People, tick. Weather, tick. Really, why go anywhere else?

Next week - home again, home again, jiggety jig. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Night Train To Munich.

Monday night last, lying on a rod hard surface in the dark, being rolled from side to side, asking myself: just how many times have I heard of a chain of train carriages leaving the rails? 

Hardly any at all, it’s highly unlikely. Still, it feels at this moment with the scream of metal on metal reverberating through my every sinew, and the alarming manner in which the train appears to be alternately lifting from its track on every hairpin bend, like a speed skater taking a curve, that it’s very likely. And this is a holiday remember. A HOLIDAY. How did I get here?

Rewind to a villa in Portugal last August, a discussion at breakfast. I’m asking Middle One what he’d like to do next year. I have a habit of doing this: spending the whole of the current annual summer holiday thinking about what the next one might be. I’m assuming Eldest won’t be coming with us next year, at his great age he’ll probably be backpacking around south-east Asia or something. And I’m thinking that two weeks in a villa without his older brother will be boring for Middle One and for Youngest, and a bit sad, for all of us.

“I’d like to see some some cities for a change,” says Middle One, "European cities."

Cities. Right.

“By train!” says Husband.

What is it with men and trains?

Cities by train. Okay. Mmm.

We’ve done trains with the boys before, twice. We put the car on the train and slept in a couchette going from The Netherlands to Croatia, disembarking at Trieste and driving through Slovenia. And then the next year we drove to Germany and put the car on the train from Dusseldorf to Livorno, on our way to Tuscany. It was exciting, and no more expensive than flying and hiring a car, and handy to be able to load up the car at home with everything we needed, and totally exhausting.

Imagine a family of five. Two of them adults who are no longer speaking other due to the enormous stress of travelling with three rowdy boys. Three of them, three rowdy boys who have been cooped up the back of a car all day. Throw in several bags of luggage and snacks. Put them together in a small, hot, noisy, metal cupboard overnight, one that is hurtling through the night as it sways from side to side… 


“Okaaay,” I say, “which cities?”

Middle One has a list: Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna or Salzburg, somewhere in Germany and Venice, which we saw briefly once on our way skiing but due to a cock-up involving British Airways, for far more briefly than we intended.

“Railbookers,” says Husband. “They’re fantastic. Talk to them, they’ll sort it.”

And so I did, and they did. They planned and booked the entire itinerary, all the rail tickets plus the hotels. And by the way it’s a given in our family that I organise the annual summer holiday and the rest of them just sit back and judge, giving the accommodation marks out of ten on arrival as I stand at the threshold trembling, like I’ve just sat some sort of exam. 

“Ok,” I say, “But only on condition we flop at the end for a week somewhere for a proper holiday, in a house, with a washing machine.” 

And I knew just the place.

Looking at a map of Europe, I decided that Paris would be too much, ditto Salzburg, they would have to be left for another time. And so it was to be Amsterdam for three nights, overnight on the train to Munich, stay there for two nights, through the Alps to Venice for a further two, eight days travelling in all. Then to a house in Italy where we’ve stayed before, which is my favourite place in the whole entire world and where we are now as I write this, as it happens.

So, to answer my own question, this is how I come to be on a train bunk in the middle of the night somewhere between Amsterdam and Munich, with my husband in the berth opposite and two of my sons on the berths above, being rolled from side to side like one of those hapless ball bearings in a game where you have to slot them into the holes.

I decide to give up on sleep. It will be easier not to try. What’s one night without sleep? I did it all the time in my youth. (Actually I didn’t, I was the one who always sloped off at parties reasoning that there isn’t a nocturnal inebriated/high discussion on earth about that bitch Maggie Thatcher that can compare with the unalloyed joy of slipping between clean sheet and duvet.) 

And that was when it happened, that was when the night train to Munich took an unexpected turn for the worst and a spray of vomit rained down on me from the heavens. Middle One was bringing up his lunch from over the edge of the top bunk.

Love E x

P.S. I called this Night Train to Munich because it sounds a bit like the song Night Train to Memphis, and then I discovered it's also a film.

Here's a view from the house, 2000 feet above sea level…

And did you know, a kilo of delicious home made takeaway ice-cream from our local bar - all different flavours - is only 13 Euros!


Thursday, 13 August 2015


Monday. Morning. Amsterdam. Very early, 7.15 am, which feels like 6.15 am to us, probably because it is. I have advance tickets for the Anne Frank House's Museum, for 8.45 this morning. 

I'd been looking for weeks back home with nothing doing, until suddenly, exactly one week before the trip, at 8.30 am on another Sunday morning, three lone tickets popped up on the website. I snaffled them immediately before realising they were for the crack of dawn. Oh well, I really want the boys to see it and at least we won't have to queue. 

It takes ten full minutes to wake them. Husband bangs his knuckles raw on their door. I ring their phone from our adjacent hotel room. Finally they respond. Okay, so, to say they are grumpy at being woken so early on holiday is to understate the matter.

Three of us descend for breakfast while Middle One showers. Three of us help ourselves to the generous buffet: fruit, cereal, juice, toast, pastries, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms… everything you could possibly want, and more. Three of us eat and then three of us wait. One of us takes the lift back upstairs to shout at Middle One to hurry the hell up. Me. 

Then this. Descending hotel steps. Setting off across the old town. No one else around. Bright. Sunny. A warm breeze. Quiet. Still water. The tap of family footfall on cobble. The stretch and motion of tired limbs. The pleasure of unencumbered propulsion. Crossing a pretty bridge. Turning onto a canal-side path. Seeing a row of gabled houses. Long windows. Black railings. A tangle of wheels and spoke. More cobbles, more canals, more bridges. After ten minutes, an elegant open square, a medieval clock tower, a whining tram. It's the best thing in the world: this walk, this city, this summer morning. This is it.

Up ahead, people for the first time, just a few, then a few more. A line, more of a line, a line that winds, that curls, that has no end. But we don't have to join it, we can go straight in. Except for Husband, who hasn't a ticket and so waits outside. To think, we hoped to buy him one too, because it's so early. Some hope.

I've been before, years ago, and now I see it again through children's eyes, my children's. They're the age she was. One, the age when she began the diary, the other, the age when she died alone in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a month before liberation. Sixteen.

Feel the size of those rooms. Notice the covered windows. Think of the hour upon hour, the day after day, the year after year. Read: 

"As of tomorrow, we won't have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine." 

"I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I am free." 

Remember the walk through the city, the morning outside, the generous breakfast…

We leave, fold back into the city, stroll again beside a canal. Tourists emerge and we notice, for the first time, the rubbish everywhere, overflowing from bins, from bars, from doorways. Plastic bottles, food wrappers, broken glass, scum on water.

Up ahead, a group of drunken yobs, singing in German, incredibly loud, not yet gone to bed. Unsmiling, shaved heads, shorts and vests, white flesh, biceps, a blur of tattoos, coming our way.

"Shall we turn here?" says Husband.

"Yes, let's," I say, even though we both know our route back is straight ahead.

Love E x

Anne Frank, 1929 - 1944


P.S. We're in Venice now, via Munich. This posh interrailing lark is exhausting.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Love actually.

Heathrow Arrivals, Terminal Four. I've snuck my way forward, inch by stealthy inch. As members of the crowd in front spot a relative and move away, so I have advanced into their vacated space. Now, a whole hour after arriving, I'm finally at the barrier, in pole position, with no possibility at all that he will miss me as he emerges, or more importantly that I will miss him. Husband is somewhere still at the back where we began. He doesn't have my pushy tendencies.

All life is here, or so it seems. Young and old. Big and small. Tall and short. Fat and thin. White and black. Asian. Middle Eastern. American. European. African. Indian. Particularly Indian, since the flight from Delhi has just arrived. I know this because now it says 'DEL' on the luggage labels. 

"Look," I say, to Husband, who is too far back to hear me, "it's the flight from Delhi!" (Eldest was transferring at Delhi for the last leg home.)

"My wife is coming from Delhi," says a young man squashed next to me, "who are you waiting for?"

"My son," I say.

"How long has he been away?" he asks.

"Five weeks," I say, then seeing the look on his face that I imagine might be saying, 'only five weeks?' I offer, by way of explantation: "When he was born I couldn't bear to put him in the transparent cot next to the hospital bed because it felt too far away." He laughs.

A tiny round Indian lady, somewhere below me to the left, smiles up. "Your son," she says simply, nodding with understanding, "I'm waiting for my son too, with my new grand-daughter!" 

I'd noticed her before. She keeps saying, "Come on! Come on!" loudly, staring straight ahead and shifting her not inconsiderable weight from one foot to another. I smile back.

The young man comes from Wolverhampton. Now he lives in Hertford, which he prefers. His wife has been in India for two months, trying to get a visa so she can work in the UK. They got married last year in India. He loves it there. None of his family could make it to the wedding, but still he had the best time of his life. It was very difficult to get the visa, and expensive: £600. He's longing to see her.

I learn all this while keeping my eyes glued on Arrivals, not wanting to miss The Moment, which feels a bit rude. I'm used to looking at the person I am talking to. Plus it lends the wait a strange quality: an audio track, about how this young man loves his wife and has missed her, accompanied by visuals of countless heartfelt reunions. The combined effect is moving. Very moving. 

Because although some of the clinches are perfunctory, most are intense and emotional. Lovers who run to each other, kissing passionately, not caring that hundreds of eyes are watching. Parents and children with tears of joy. Grown men bear-hugging elderly relatives. I can't help but feel, as part of this impromptu audience, that I'm witnessing something profound. This is the real deal, that thing directors and actors strive to recreate. Maybe Richard Curtis had it right? Here at Heathrow Arrivals, Terminal Four, it's love, actually.

And it makes me think about those desperate people at Calais, wanting to come to the UK. Because these are the lucky ones. Those who've made it through the proper channels, not the one with a tunnel. Who already have relatives in the UK. Who are citizens returning from holiday. What people want, it seems to me right now, squashed up against this barrier, is to be with those they love.

Surely most of that "swarm", who've taken desperate steps to leave homes and relatives to travel across sea and land on journeys of unimaginable peril and hardship, want that too? To be safe, of course, to work, to prosper, and ultimately, after sending money back home, to be with their families again in the UK if they possibly can be. They are people after all, just like those arriving here, people who are part of a family.

Finally Eldest appears, smiling, his two mates in tow, and I have had too long to stand and think, imagining this moment. Impulsively, and as I have seen others do before me, I dip under the barrier between us, and watch his smile fade...

He's taking it all in. The straining crowd behind me, more like an anonymous mob to him, no doubt, than the impatient group of love-hungry individuals I've come to know. And as I reach him, my arms outstretched, I catch him uttering, "My mother's come under the barrier!" as he tenses for our public embrace.

Love E x


P.S. Four of us set off for our mini tour of Europe by train this morning - Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, then on to Le Marche in Italy, with Eldest flying out to meet us there. (And btw we thought of it before that David Nicholls fella.)

And I just read The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler). How have I not read it before? Fantastic.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Thank you.

Thank you for reading this blog. I post once a week, on Friday. E x