Europe - July 2017

T-124 - pre-departure

Sunday 26th March

And so it begins. Since we arrived here in Melbourne, Australia some seven years ago, we’ve not yet – as a family – been back to Europe to visit friends and family. It has been far too long. Having lost out on the opportunity to get there before Sandy’s Mother passed away just a few short months ago, we are already kicking ourselves. To make matters worse, we are acutely aware that everyone is getting older. We have to do this sooner rather than later and there’s probably never going to be an ideal time to wait for. The decision is made and we’re now in full preparation mode. At T-124, we’re still four months away from departure but there’s so much to arrange already. Over the next few months, I’ll update this blog from time to time. With so much of the organisation now done, there’s already a lot to talk about so let’s get right into it.

This will be a three-week trip, dictated largely by my work commitments and the amount of annual leave I’m able to consume. Over the Christmas & New Year period, there’s a mandatory shut-down where I work, which eats up three or four days of annual leave so I need to leave enough to accommodate for that. With a three-week window secured with the boss, the next main logistic was to arrange the actual time to go. After consulting with various people in Europe to find out who already has plans to be away, and taking into consideration who was away at work, I landed on the last week of July and the first two weeks of August. Great! Now to find some flights that line up with that time frame.

Very early on in the hunt-for-flights searching around that I did, it became evident that I wasn’t going to meet my own self-imposed maximum flight ticket budget of around AUD $4,000. It was going to be closer to the AUD $5,000 mark. I did my level best to find the cheapest fare but had to cave in the end and enlist the support of a travel agent. Kirby turned out to be very good and very patient with me – no mean feat, as I’m quite the demanding type. It took the better part of two weeks but Kirby finally managed to come through for me and secured an open-jaw route for us for very close to my budget. With travel insurance included, the total came in at around AUD $5,200.

Since our European passports have all expired, the next major hurdle was to arrange suitable travel documents. We are now all Australian Citizens but I’ve so far not gotten around to getting our Australian passports. This being the perfect impetus to rectify that failing, I set about filling in all the required paperwork. It’s really quite simple. You just complete a few forms, submit them with some passport photos to the post office and the passports magically appear after a couple of weeks – and being relieved of around $800 for the privilege, that is, but I digress. Well, no, it wasn’t quite that simple. Completing the forms and getting the photos just right is like trying to balance a needle on top of another needle whilst racing around a grand prix circuit in a go-cart…backwards…and blindfolded…whilst doing a headstand…and reading Shakespeare. I mean holy shit! Is it really that big of a deal to use a blue pen instead of a black one? Apparently so – rejected – come back again when that’s fixed. Is it really that big of a deal for the counter-signatory to write ‘This is a true likeness of…’ as opposed to ‘This is a true photo of…’ on the back of the photo? Apparently so – rejected – come back again when that’s fixed. The first time I went to the post office for my ‘interview’, the passport photos I had prepared were ‘not of sufficient quality’. The lady that assisted me insisted the colours weren’t right. In support of her argument, she showed me the sample photo that’s on the passport application form, which has a very cute picture of a rather fair-skinned little girl with rosy cheeks. “See how the skin here is pink?” she said pointing out the cute little girl. “You photos aren’t pink like this one.” I looked at the woman, shook my head and said “But that’s not my daughter. My daughter doesn’t look like that little girl. My daughter looks, funny enough, exactly like the little girl in these passport photos I’ve just given you.” It didn’t help. She claimed she would get in trouble if she accepted these photos and insisted I come back again with ‘better ones’. The second time I went in, armed with ‘better ones’, there was a bit of a flash shadow visible on the back wall and they got knocked back for that purpose. In all, it took three interview visits to get it right. My good friend, Lotti, who had agreed to counter sign the photos, and who did so on no less than four separate occasions, must have been getting quite annoyed at me by now. She never showed it, though. So, to cut a very long story short, all the passport applications are now in. At the time of this writing, I’ve received a notification that my passport, at least, has been printed and will be with me soon. Hopefully, the others will follow not long after.

Since my family is from the UK and Sandy’s from Holland, we are splitting the trip into two halves and visiting both places. To maximise our time in Europe, we’ll be flying in to London, travelling overland to mainland Europe and then flying back home out of Amsterdam. We want to spend time with family but seeing as this is something like the opportunity of a lifetime for the kids, we want to make sure it’s a good family holiday as well. Don’t get me wrong, family is great and all – especially at a distance. Indeed, sometimes, the opposite side of the planet can be just about the right distance. Being so far away definitely has its disadvantages but it also means we’re divorced from some of the inevitable family politics that plays out in a large and extended family day to day.

When I was at primary school, there was a unique school photo that involved me and my other five siblings. About fifteen years ago, we had a family reunion and recreated that photo with all six kids (now adults) in the same position. I’m hopeful, especially given this is likely the last time ever it will be possible, that we can once again recreate that photo. All it will take is for the various siblings to not be reaching for each other’s throats for just a few minutes. It’s a long shot but I remain cautiously optimistic. Only time will tell if that optimism is warranted.

It’s not just the UK bunch that we have to deal with. Sandy’s family in Holland are also somewhat splintered. Already it looks like a single group reunion is not going to work and we’re going to have to visit some people independently of others.

Besides family, there are a few people here and there that we’ll try to hook up with whilst there. Since time is limited, it’s going to be impossible for us to travel around visiting everyone. Instead, we’ll announce our presence at a certain location on a certain date and let those that want to visit us come to us. It’s the only practical way to make it work.

I’m determined to carve time out during this trip for just the family. To that end, I’ve arranged two, separate three-day stay mini-breaks. The first will be Paris. We’ll travel through the Channel Tunnel on the Eurostar fast train from London at the end of our one-week stay in the UK. I’ve booked accommodation for us at a central Paris apartment through airbnb.com. We leave Paris on the TGV fast train to the Netherlands to begin our stay there. We’ll be in the North for a few days and in the South, where Sandy grew up, for a few days. In between, I’ve booked us a VIP cottage at Center Parcs in Belgium. We’ve stayed at various Center Parcs holiday parks over the years and we’re all looking forward to this relaxing long weekend. With a little luck, some very good friends of ours will be able to join us for the duration.

Since we’re flying in to London but out of Amsterdam, it does mean that we will be taking our entire luggage with us as we travel across Europe by train. I’m sure that’ll be interesting…in a National Lampoon’s Griswold family vacation kind of way.

We have pinpointed a few things we’ll be doing whilst in Europe. Sandy is really keen to do the Harry potter experience in London and I’m really keen on taking the kids to see a West-end show, so we’ll do both those things.

Joey will surely be a bit of a challenge for us when we’re away. He likes routine and getting him to do something new or different can be an issue. I often have to use reverse psychology to get him to think something was his idea. Flexing my parenting skills, I did this just recently. If ever you ask him outright about going out somewhere for a family day out or whatever, his standard response is often that he would rather stay indoors. Clearly, then, the direct approach is not always the right one so…

Me: Joey, did you know there’s a train in Europe that goes at over 200 Km/h?

Joey: Wow! Really?

Me: Yep

Joey: I’d like to go on that train!

Me: (internally – got him!) Oh really? Well…

OK, so let’s round this blog entry up with a bit of information about how much this whole endeavour is going to cost me and how many organs I’ll need to sell. Keeping in mind that costs typically blow out, here’s the rough budget – or in other words, the minimum that this thing is likely to cost me:

Total Half a liver, 1 kidney, a forearm & a left foot
Air tickets (including travel insurance) $5,200
Car hire (UK) $800
Daily allowance (UK) $900
Harry Potter experience $250
West end show $300
Train London to Paris $350
Daily allowance (Europe) $1,600
Paris accommodation $800
Daily allowance (Paris) $500
Train Paris to Netherlands $350
Car hire (Europe) $1,000
Center Parcs accommodation $1,300
Accommodation in Holland $600

I’m reassured to know that livers can regrow, prosthetics are really good nowadays and that people can survive on just a single kidney for many years and still lead a normal lifestyle.

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