Preparations for this trip were, if I’m totally honest, practically non-existent. Long gone are the days of planning a trip to within an inch of its life. With a 7am planned departure, I think it was around 10pm last night that I decided it might be a good idea to finally throw a few things into a bag. The one thing that I did absolutely need to prepare was our travel documents. Fortunately, we keep all passports and such critical documentation in one place. I went through it to fish out the passports we would need, only to be confronted with an unpleasant surprise. My passport, the British one, wasn’t there. It was one of those surreal moments you get every so often, when the realisation sets in that you suddenly must shift up a gear. It put a swift end to the tiredness-induced apathy I had accumulated towards the need to pack and prepare diligently. We’ve had far too many of those suddenly-the-shit-has-hit-the-fan moments in recent years (more about that later). I put the lack of mortal dread instantly overwhelming me for this sudden emergency down to the preconditioning which has happened due to being in crisis mode for the most part over the past few years. Sandy joined the effort in helping figure out where the missing passport might be. It couldn’t be far, as I only renewed it a couple of months ago – somewhat in anticipation of this trip in fact. With a systematic search of the entire house and grounds having occupied what little rest time I had left in the day ahead of the gruelling journey in the morning, I doubled back to re-check some of those places we had already checked, which served only to fuel my now blossoming feeling of ‘oh shit.’ Upon closer inspection of the zipped bag in which we keep the passports, the realisation hit me. The missing passport was, in fact, right there all along staring back at me. I had put it aside as it was blue, like our other Australian passports. British passports are maroon. However, when my passport was recently renewed, I was issued one of the new types, which is now blue. I guess this is one of the hazards that comes with having everyone in the house having two, if not three, different nationalities and accompanying passports.
With the adrenaline rush now abating, Sandy and I continued with making sure Joey and I were ready for the morning’s departure. Fortunately, Sandy was considerably more on the ball than I was, having already considered things like clothing and medication for Joey. This was proof, if ever it were needed, at my inability to manage in everyday life (especially with our kids) without Sandy at my side – checking, double-checking, nudging, cajoling, encouraging, and, of course, nagging me into some semblance of a functional human being in society. For this, I am eternally grateful – thank you, Sandy 🙂
So, with half an eye on the steadily lengthening journey time to Dunkirk this morning to catch the ferry to the UK, the realisation hit me we would have to navigate around and through some of the more traffic-laden hot spots Western Europe has to offer a weary traveller right around rush-hour time this morning. Shit! For some reason, these traffic jams didn’t show up last night when I checked the journey time on my phone’s maps app. I wonder why?! The plan was to get to the ferry an hour before it departed, as per the ferry-operator’s instructions. Between waking up and finally driving out the garage this morning, our estimated time to arrival skirted everything between 1 hour before and the actual departure time, as the traffic jams formed and resolved throughout the morning.
The purpose of this trip is to visit Dad. He’s in his mid-eighties and becoming progressively frailer. One wonders, but probably best not to dwell for too long. If we get to see anyone else, it would be a [presumably] happy bonus. Every one of my family members have their own back-story and complex situations – each of which could also be another whole book. It’s impractical to even try to get to see everyone, which is why I’ve only focussed on visiting Dad this trip. I did reach out to one or two relatives to see if something could be arranged, but we’ll just take it all as it comes. Between distance, illness, or other extenuating circumstances for which it’s probably not wise for me to get into here, I have little idea of whom I will bump into this trip. Time will tell.
In another nice little ‘go ahead, life, throw more shit at me if you can’ moment, about an hour away from the ferry terminal, I received an SMS from the ferry operator. Apparently, there was industrial action (strikes) taking place in France and I was advised to get to the terminal earlier than normal. By now, we were already at full speed and three quarters of the way through the journey, so there was by now really nothing I could do anyway. What would be, would be. To make matters worse, the SMS included four phone screens’ worth of handy instructions about which directions I should follow for an alternative arrival at the port to avoid the delays. The only thing was that it was written by a three-year-old dyslexic psychopath dosed up on Valium, and for whom English was clearly a fourth language. I tried to fish out the gist of it and trusted to my own navigational instincts. Alas, those died out long ago after I became GPS dependant.
I failed at finding an open McDonald’s in Belgium to feed Joey some breakfast (naturally, he refused to eat before we left – what else is fucking new!), which was a detour that handily also happened to burn valuable journey time in the process. Fortunately, once we were past the major traffic-jam hot-spots, we did claw back some time and I found a McDonald’s shortly before the ferry terminal in France. The menu was quite limited, but Joey did manage to get through a portion of pancakes. That bought me a few more hours of keeping him alive, so Sandy will be pleased. Joey was wearing his favourite Snuggy, which is adorned with a repeating motif of burgers. One of the buoyant and happy-go-lucky staff in the restaurant (I use the term loosely) thought this was an opportunity for a pleasant interaction with a customer by asking him, in French of course, if those were Big Mac burgers. Joey was unimpressed. I had to step in to point out Joey was not French speaking. He also doesn’t like morning people, or indeed mornings, or indeed people.
The journey through the Netherlands, Belgium and France this morning was largely uneventful. There wasn’t much talking in the car, other than the odd attempt for me to look over my shoulder and engage with Joey in a little light small-talk – mostly to verify he was still alive. The truth is, he lives in his bubble much of the time, but quite likes it there. He clearly gets this from his dad. The fact is that the two of us enjoy the solitude.
Maybe it’s because of my position at work, or the fact that I have several businesses that always have multiple balls in the air, but I’ve always found it hard to switch off from work. I’m under no illusion that this trip will be restful in any way. For one thing, it’s merely a long weekend (4 days). For another, I’m visiting family! And, of course, I must be on my guard to make sure Joey is well-managed and cared for and kept alive. I predict chances are high I will require time to recover from this ‘holiday’ once all is said and done.
Sandy and I have lots of things happening in our lives now. Almost since arrival here a few years ago, it has been a long series of continual crises one after the other. Between issues with health, kids, family, finances, housing, the Dutch social healthcare system (which is top quality, but it does have to be said that our unique situation does result in equally unique challenges), work and the ups and downs of my various business ventures, the onslaught has been just ever so slightly relentless. It has been sort of like a controlled car crash that hasn’t yet finished happening. A few years ago, I wrote my autobiography up to age 50, although I haven’t published it yet. That’s already a lengthy tome, but not nearly as long as a book would need to be to do justice to just the past three or four years. That book, in turn, would also pale in comparison to the one I’d need to write that covers just the past 6-12 months. They do say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Anyway, we made it to the ferry in time, having somehow managed to find the hidden port entrance. I can only assume we found it by accident, as I didn’t recognise any of the waypoints mentioned in the cryptic directions from the SMS the ferry operator sent me. Once aboard, we found our way to one of the few spots in the ferry we already knew was adjacent to a power outlet and settled in for the two hours and ten-minute crossing to Dover. Joey and I are firmly plugged in with all our electronics.
One of Sandy’s masterstrokes was to pack a handful of previously bought small Lego kits to help keep Joey happy for the crossing. This put a smile on his face and bought me a little more assurance he was being managed. I asked about the fish and chips they serve in the restaurant here on the ferry and was told it was £2.25. This is a bargain by any standards, so I loaded up my tray. Naturally, Joey thumbed his nose at what was on offer (there are plenty of McDonalds in England, right?), so it was just me. When I arrived at the register, having half snacked on the food from my tray already, it rung up as £12.95. Evidently, the woman I spoke to had misunderstood my question. She thought I was asking about just the chips. Sigh.
All things considered, this trip, albeit still in its infancy, has gone will so far. We managed to board the ferry in time and we’re both still alive. Can I really ask for more than that? I will close the laptop for now. The next time I open it will be when we have checked in at the hotel later tonight and we are settled. Between now and then, I still must complete the remainder of the journey through England, and we will stop in to see Dad first. I’m really looking forward to that. I brought with me a box of the eighty or so new puzzle books I’ve published in the past eighteen months. Dad loves doing puzzles, so I’m sure he’ll find a few books he’ll want to keep.
Ok, so here we are settled into the Premier Inn just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. What can I say? Modern new buildings, sleek architecture, clean and tidy roads, well-maintained municipal infrastructure, polite drivers, and pleasant people everywhere you look. Literally none of that applies to this derelict and neglected corner of industrial Essex about an hour from London. To be fair, it’s not really that bad, I suppose, but I doubt there are many people who would describe this part of the country as especially pleasant or picturesque. To me it’s home, of course. I do have many fond memories of living and growing up here. This place does have an air of tiredness surrounding it, though. Whether that’s a fair reflection of this place or whether it’s me and my own interpretation is anyone’s guess. Probably a little of both, I suspect.
We did stop in to see Dad. For someone about to turn eighty-six tomorrow, he looks surprisingly good. Even if his body is slowly failing him, Dad still has all his faculties and is as eager as ever to recount stories of times long past. After several strolls down memory lane, I set out to pick up some classic British chip shop food for us all. Naturally, that sounds much easier than it was. They only accepted cash in the nearby chip shop, and the only ATM within walking distance didn’t accept my overseas bank card. I had to drive a few minutes to locate a Tescos Express, a mini supermarket with an ATM outside. This was the opportunity the banking system was waiting for to pounce. Between fees and something called a ‘9% markup against the ECB’s exchange rate’, the £100 that I withdrew cost me £124 – and that’s before my own bank’s fees apply. That’s another lovely little bonus that awaits me when I get home in a few days. Bastards!
Despite the financial sting that was the prelude to dinner, Joey and I enjoyed spending some time with Dad. I showed him my box of books, and he kept hold of about half of them for his own puzzling enjoyment – especially the ones with the largest print that are the easiest on the eye.
We may pop back over there later this evening after recuperating from the stresses of the day. For now, I’m just chilling out here with Joey in the hotel room having showered and now feeling a bit more human again. The one issue I do have with the room is that there are no power outlets near the beds – only a single outlet on the far wall. This creates a bit of a challenge for my CPAP machine, which helps me breathe at night. The young man at reception was nice enough but seemed ill-prepared to deal with the question ‘Do you have a room with a power outlet closer to the bed so I can plug something in?’ After checking with some colleagues, he eventually resolved to finding an extension cord for me and bringing it to the room. It’ll be interesting if that actually happens.