UK April 2022 – Day 1 – getting there

By all accounts, this family excursion was never really supposed to happen. The original plan was for me and Joey to visit the UK for a few days. The idea was to see Dad. His continued march into old age hasn’t abated in recent years. In fact, if anything, it’s accelerating. I know it’s a morbid thought but how many opportunities to make more memories will there be? Indeed, it was this thought that was the driving force behind the subsequent decision to make it a whole family affair. I talked to Sandy about the possibility of her also going after all, laying out the same reasoning. This was more than enough to get her across what has turned out to be a particularly painful line. Sandy no longer looks forward to the whole travelling thing anymore. Her steadily deteriorating knees are one of the factors here. More than that, much more in fact, is her emotional state of mind. The past few years has been particularly difficult for us as a family. Between the emigration from Australia, the seemingly relentless stream of people close to us passing away, and a fair dollop of adversity on a range of other fronts, has left Sandy in a somewhat precarious state of mind – it would do so for anyone. Although it can certainly be seen as a good thing to be able to see and visit relatives again, the fact is that Sandy sees this as an emotional rollercoaster ride and, to use her explanation, of once again having to say goodbye to people all over again – indeed a rollercoaster ride that fills her with much terror. As such, it has taken Sandy a while to come to terms with the idea of visiting the UK again. To be fair, travelling to the UK has never really equated to a relaxing holiday for us. We end up driving around trying to visit as many people as we can. That’s challenging enough, but add to this the need to juggle two special needs children into the mix, for whom just managing them day-to-day at home during normal circumstances is already a significant physical and emotional challenge. We are going to have our hands full for sure. During this trip, we’ve undertaken to spend time with little Jacky, Dad, and also a few days for just Sandy and me with John & Lisa. We may or may not see other relatives as well. I did try to line something up, but we’ll just have play things by ear. The fact that John & Lisa are now living in Wales, some 3-4 hours drive farther away than we would normally go, means that we’ll be spending more time in the car than would otherwise be expected. For the time we’ll be with John & Lisa, Joey will spend a few days with little Jacky and Jae will be spending a few days with her granddad. This has all resulted in an odd mix of emotions for both Sandy and me. We’ll be pleased to see people, of course, but there’s lots of driving and the added challenge of how to get each child to the right place at the right time. And then there’s the separation anxiety I’m sure Sandy will be feeling for letting go of the kids for a few days. Does all of this add up to a relaxing week away? Shoot me now!

So, my days of researching a holiday to within an inch of its life are long gone. We were to leave the house at 8am this morning. A few minutes before bedtime last night, once I’d finished watching the dregs of the Snooker World Championship semi-finals, I quickly threw a few things into a travel bag and was done. I did make sure to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s with respect to the essentials, such as travel documents, tickets, and all the other absolutely musts. Per our agreement, Sandy was to focus on the lion’s share of the packing – including taking care of all the kids’ needs. She much prefers it that way. My instructions during this time of frenetic activity were relatively straightforward – just get out of the way and let her get on with it. Easily done. Whenever we go somewhere, Sandy and I have learned (through lots of painful learning experiences) that we both function best when we’re not treading on each other’s toes and when we each have finite and separate tasks to complete. Sandy always does the packing, and I always take care of the travel logistics. It works for us. It doesn’t stop Sandy from getting a little flustered while packing, as there are only so many parts of the house where I can be that are out of her direct line of sight, but we did eventually end up all in a fully packed car with everything we need for the journey. We departed about 15 minutes later than originally planned, but I already built in a healthy margin for error with the journey time, so we were going to be fine.

Fortunately for us, we have some good friends who will be able to look after the cats while we’re away. That was almost a disaster for us, however, since one of them was recently hospitalized (a planned procedure) but spent more time in the hospital than was the original plan. Luckily, her husband will pick up the cat care duties. The house of cards could so easily have come crumbling down on us right there, but we’ve become used to dealing with crippling or near crippling blows like this over the past couple of years. In this instance, it worked out in the end.

Our journey to the UK this time around will be of the car-ferry-car variety. The prevailing advice from the ferry company nowadays is to get to the port at least 2 hours ahead of departure. We had enough margin for error here, but the truth was we were always going to eat into that margin. Prior experience informs me the chances of us making it with that much time to spare were slim to none.

One of the perks of my current employment are that I have a lease car. All the costs associated with running the car – including fuel – are covered. I have a fuel card for daily use (even for private use of the car). Alas, the fuel card only works in our country, so we made a quick stop at the last petrol station before crossing the border into Belgium and refueled.  I estimate we’ll still need to refuel another 3 times before this trip is over.

Making our way steadily across Europe, we passed around Antwerp before deciding to pop into a convenient Maccas (and I use the word convenient quite wrongly). This was as much for the benefit of stretching our legs as it was for filling our tummies. As it happens, we arrived 20 minutes before it opened. We did start the process of driving to another opportunity but quickly turned around and waited for opening time once it became clear the next one was over an hour away.

The Maccas in Belgium isn’t the same as those in our home country. Jae opted for the cheesy bacon fries, but complained it was like eating plastic. There’s another few Euro I’ll never see again!

If there’s one thing we’ve become good at as a travelling family, it’s planning how to keep the kids engaged throughout. I use the work planning but managing might be more accurate. Joey requires a lot of forethought for any event of any significant duration. Between his autism and range of anxieties, keeping him on an even keen is as much an art as it is a science. This is where Sandy comes into her own. She has a range of new Beyblades and small Lego kits that we’ll be drip-feeding to him throughout the course of the trip to keep him happy and engaged. If there’s one thing that’s certain in our lives, it’s that an unhappy Joey results in an unhappy family, and it doesn’t take much for him to fall off his happiness perch. Alas, this is one of those aspects of our lives that others watching from the outside rarely seem to understand – much less support or agree with. It’s even worse when we’re openly criticized for it – especially from family. Many a time have sandy and I been in tears wanting people to understand that you really have to have walked a mile in our shoes before you drop comments on our parenting skills. It’s an unfortunate truth that dealing with the fallout from things like this remains an ongoing painful part of our lives. But we soldier on all the same.

Jae and I have been doing a lot of bonding over the past year or two. To say that Jae is going through a ‘Daddy & me’ phase might be something of an understatement right now. She’s very clingy. For my part, I’m loving it. I know full well it won’t be long before she’ll reach the age of wanting to separate more from her parents, so I’m just trying to enjoy it a best I can while I can. She and I spent much of the trip playing games with each other. In a few weeks, we’re going to a drag show in Rotterdam together. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.

My pre-planning, such that it was, did the trick. We were at the port and through the formalities with plenty of time to spare. The ticketing checks took all of 30 seconds, and the immigration checks not much longer. The very happy and friendly UK immigration officer put us all in a positive frame of mind, which was very much welcomed.

Instead of arriving two full hours before departure, we made it to the last line of vehicles to embark about 20 minutes before all the traffic started making its way onto the ferry. Easy peasy.

We made it up onto the restaurant deck and quickly found one of the very few electrical outlets we already knew about from previous ferry crossings. Armed with Sandy’s bag full of ‘how to manage your electrical devices kit’, we plugged in our extension cable. We were soon up and running with juice flowing to everything from laptops to iPads to mobile phones. Travelling skills level – 1000!

Ok, there was something of a minor crisis when Joey’s Bluetooth headphones stopped working but we managed to find a solution with a backup set of ear buds. Crisis averted.

Since we were in the restaurant, Jae decided she’d grab a plate of food. At £12, that’s a mistake we won’t be bloody making on the return journey! To rub salt into that particular wound, she only ate a fraction of it – just like at Maccas earlier in the journey. Kids!

With about an hour to go until we reach Dover, I’ll sign off for now. It’s still a long day ahead, so whether I finish this blog tonight or tomorrow morning remains to be seen.

Ok, so here we go with the final instalment for today’s activities. The crossing from Dunkirk to Dover was uneventful for the most part. It was calm seas and almost no rocking from side to side. When the time came, we packed up and headed calmly to the car deck.

I admit to a little trepidation while driving off the ferry, owning to what happened the last time we made this journey. It was just as the world was getting into the whole Covid-19 crisis. We had planned to visit and stay with a relative. As we were driving off the boat, however, we were hit with some queued up messages that couldn’t be delivered until that point. Apparently, the relative we planned on staying with was under the mistaken impression that we would be in breach of Covid-19 travel restrictions by coming, and thus they were no longer prepared to accommodate us. We had by this time already made it part way across the continent and suddenly with nowhere to stay. That was a little stressful to say the least.

Fortunately, with the Covid-19 crisis mostly behind us all, we would at least not run into that complication this time around…or so I’d hoped. I programmed the satnav to take us to Dad’s house, and we duly navigated our way out of the maze of crisscrossing roads that is the Port of Dover. It wasn’t long before we were onto one of the main arteries leading towards London.

Sandy was keen to stop at a particular service stop for a break and to pick up a couple of Joey’s favourite treats – Krispy Kreme doughnuts (another part of the overall Joey management strategy). I didn’t want to stop for long at the services. Everything is expensive there and the longer we stayed, the bigger the dent it would make to my wallet. After we had all used the facilities and stretched our legs, we piled into the car – laden with a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, although they had been pretty much devoured by the time the car was moving.

We barely made it two or three car lengths when a shriek of panic from Sandy alerted us to the fact that something wasn’t quite right. Her iPhone was not with her. Thinking quickly, she decided she must have left it in the toilets, so I dispatched Jae to run back in to see if she could find it quickly. After about five minutes or panic-laden silence in the car (OMG I was livid), Jae still had not returned, so I got out and went in after her. I found her wandering the corridor inside trying to find more people to ask about the phone. It wasn’t anywhere to be found in the toilets. Oops! It was gone and none of the staff indicated a phone had been handed in. Fortunately, we can track our devices and my phone was telling me Sandy’s phone was still nearby. I tried calling it, but no answer. I sent repeated alerts to it (which normally would force it to start making loud noises) but we couldn’t hear it anywhere. We had the services manager call the cleaners to see if they had found it by chance, but no luck there either. Eventually, I used my phone to update Sandy’s phone as having been lost. The feature allows you to force a message to display on the home screen, which explained the phone was lost and to please call my number. We had all but given up the phone as lost forever, when suddenly my phone started to ring. It was an incoming call from Sandy’s phone. A woman on the other end asked if we had lost a phone, as she had just found one. After a little back and forth, I eventually located the lovely lady by her car in the car park, where Sandy’s phone was eventually repatriated with me. Now, I’m not a cynical person, but some aspects of this situation didn’t seem to be adding up. Firstly, the alerts that were sent to the phone were delivered, so it would have been making lots of noise. The woman said they heard some noises but thought it was their car making them. She also said she found the phone in the car park on the floor, but Sandy thought she left it in the toilet. Wherever the truth was, we were at the very least pleased to have Sandy’s phone back, so we thanked them and were on our way.

After a few more distracting games in the car during the trip towards my former hometown, I remembered thinking to myself: Hey, this place seems a lot more built up than I remember. Then, to my horror, I glimpsed the O2 area, which is in Greenwich – some ten kilometres beyond the turnoff to the Dartford Crossing where we were expecting to be! This is when it dawned on me. A quick check of the satnav’s settings confirmed my suspicion. It was apparently configured to avoid toll roads, which means it was trying to get us across the river Thames by taking us into London and through the Blackwell Tunnel, the only option instead of using the Dartford crossing. Doh! In the event, this only added about 15-20 minutes to our overall journey time. Schoolboy error!

We eventually made it to Dad’s, stopping off at the local chip shop first to pick up a quick supper. We spent the next hour or two reminiscing with Dad and enjoying his company. He is indeed getting old, is unable to walk unaided and is starting to display some signs of forgetfulness. Nothing unexpected given he is now eighty-five, but still a little disconcerting all the same.

We planned out the next few days with Dad. Jae will spend a couple of days with him in a day or two from now. I’m sure the two of them will have a lot of fun with each other. We’d next see him after we get back from Wales. In anticipation of spending more time with Dad over the coming week, we bid our farewell and set off towards our final destination of Stevenage. My little sister Jacky will be putting us up until we head to Wales on Monday.

Jacky was extremely welcoming. She filled us with wine, tea and we chatted through the evening trying to catch up on everything. We’ve since settled everyone in for the night. Tomorrow is a new day. There’s more to tell but since we were up at 6 and it’s now nearly midnight AND the day is an hour longer due to the time difference, I’m absolutely cream crackered. I’m now the last to nod off for the night.