»  The Straggler, No. 35

September 12th, 2005

  Grand Tour


"Like a military operation!" I boasted to my brother, flourishing the book in front of him. The book was actually a sheaf of 79 pages that I had hole-punched and bound up in a plastic report cover. Through the clear plastic front could be read the title: DERBYSHIRE FAMILY VACATION, 2005. Eight little divider tags told the story: "Schedule,"  "Planes,"  "Car hire,"  "Hotels,"  "Train,"  "Maps,"  "Addresses,"  "Notes."  This was a two-week European vacation, meticulously planned, mapped, ticketed, and scheduled. We had just got as far as England at this point, and I was visiting my relatives. My brother, who actually spent 22 years of his life in Her Majesty's armed forces, smiled cynically, and passed a sardonic remark about the usual progress of military operations. I could see he was impressed, though.

He certainly should have been. Vacations bring out the systems analyst in me. Though in daily life I am a rather slovenly, ill-organized person, the prospect of a family vacation impels me to frenzies of administrative zeal. The arrival of the Internet has made this kind of project much easier, of course. You can summon up everything — maps, ticket confirmations, train schedules — on your screen, then just print them off. That's how I ended up with 79 pages.

This particular year my efforts were well justified. My original notion had been a visit to England, to see my relatives and take the kids round some of the sights. This met with general approval in the household. Four years ago we "did" China, my wife's country of birth. Only fair that we now "do" England, which is mine.

Then mission creep set in. Could we take a side trip to Paris for a day or two? begged my wife. She so wanted to see Paris. I grudgingly admitted that we might manage it. This encouraged my 10-year-old son to step up. He is a keen player of a computer game called Age of Empires, and from that and some supplementary reading has accumulated a quite comprehensive knowledge of the ancient world. He can, for instance, identify the different types of column orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, …. Why not go to Rome as well? he asked. That, I replied, would be over-egging the pudding. Three countries in two weeks? we should see very little but airport lounges and hotel reception desks.

They worked on me, though, and at last, after a respectable rearguard action, I yielded, and produced a plan for three nights each in Rome and Paris from a base in London. The family were enthusiastic. I still thought this was far too much travel and that the vacation would end in tears, but there was no telling them, so after fair warning that I should be unsparing about saying "I told you so," I booked planes, a train (Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel), a car, and hotels, and we set off.

Everything went according to plan. We gazed at the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa; we ascended the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; we poked around Westminster Abbey and the Coliseum; we rode the Metro and the London Eye (a huge ferris wheel set on the south bank of the Thames). Family bonds were strengthened, promises of return visits exchanged, languages practiced, customs and manners scrutinized and commented on. The weather was kind.

Does travel truly broaden the mind? I have always nursed doubts. Well-traveled people with narrow minds seem to be quite common. It is surely the duty of a parent, though, to acquaint his children with foreign parts, and the cultural treasures they hold, when those children are old enough to take in and weigh some of what they are seeing. Just how much of what they take in at these tender ages — mine are aged ten and twelve — is a matter for speculation. Westminster Abbey bored them after five minutes, in spite of my best efforts. They liked Stonehenge better, though a follow-up to the Avebury stone circle was a bust. The gargoyles on the tower of Notre Dame got their attention, having been featured in a silly Disney movie "based on" Victor Hugo's weird necro-sado-masochistic novel about the place. The Mona Lisa left them unstirred; but my son had to be dragged away from Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, which appealed to his small-boy fascination with calamity and horror. The Sistine Chapel, in its still-controversial restored colors, was a knockout for everyone.

For a father, the opportunity to play at worldly competence in front of his children offers deep satisfactions, too, though it is difficult to restrain an element of play-acting. I am, for example, a wretched linguist; but from long experience I have acquired the knack of making myself understood, when grammar and vocabulary fail, by ancillary means: the gesture, the charade, the diagram sketched on the palm with a finger, the sketchy knowledge of a Romance language padded out with Latin guesses. With these, and the remnants of my schoolboy French, and opera-libretto Italian, I impressed the socks off my kids, who now regard me as a master of many tongues. In the interests of truth I ought to disabuse them, but I think I shall leave that for a while.

The tour wasn't all child-centered. Having for some time had the idea to write a long magazine piece on Charles Kingsley, the Victorian novelist and naturalist, I stopped off at his Hampshire church to take a look. I have now gazed upon the dish from which vegetables were served to the author of The Water Babies. In another spot of literary tourism, while visiting the Spanish Steps, we climbed up to the little apartment overlooking them, the one John Keats died in. And then there was the Galleria Borghese. I had somehow got through the larger part (I suppose) of my life without ever seeing Bernini's Apollo and Daphne up close, in spite of having been moved, at an early age, by Sir Kenneth Clark's description of the piece. Omission rectified: We gazed at the figures from every angle, overwhelmed — even the kids, I think — by its tremendous perfection.

And after it all, we arrived back home without mishap! — All boxes checked, all sights seen, all relatives embraced. Like a military operation. Yes, I am smug about it — and very glad I don't have to think about vacations for another nine months.