Family Camping Calamities

camping bliss

If you are a seasoned camper like me then you will probably agree that a good campsite is one where reciprocal thoughtfulness between co-campers is the most important aspect. When all that separates you from the bunch of strangers next door is a thin piece of material and a windbreak if you’re lucky, consideration is required in truck (or camper van)-loads.

I have been fortunate enough to have had mostly excellent camping experiences, which is why we always go back for more. That and the lack of money to have any other type of holiday, that is. Of course there have been some nearly terrible times, such as discovering our tent wasn’t as waterproof as it said on the box during a middle of the night storm (we discovered also that a small childs first response to ‘Please don’t touch the sides!’ is to immediately touch the sides) and being kept awake ALL night by a drunken, guitar-playing Bob Dylan wannabe. These were annoying incidents but we managed to laugh it off and chalk it up to experience (and get revenge on the bastard with the guitar by allowing our child to wake him up at 6am).

My favourite nearly-terrible experience was when we went camping with another couple and their child to a beautiful, but expensive campsite just outside Bristol. When we arrived, the woman owner walked us past all the family pitches into a separate field where she announced, ‘I’ve put you in the group field as you are camping in a group’. By ‘group’ she meant our two families: 4 adults and 3 children in total. When we asked if there would be any other ‘groups’ in the field with us she pointed to a convoy of 9 cars just arriving and said, ‘Yes, there’ll be the fifteen 16 year olds who are being dropped off by their parents just now’.

We really started to feel concerned when the teens got out their ‘drinking gazebo’ and plonked it at the edge of our pitch. Rather than sit and watch the debauched teen drinking extravaganza unfold, it was decided we escape to Weston-super-Mare for the evening and have fish and chips on the beach. We were all dreading going back to the site and discovering the teens had gone on a drunken rampage and trashed our tents. But when we eventually pulled up in our cars a couple of hours later, what we discovered was a group of kids standing in a circle throwing a ball to each other. Yes, they were playing a motivational game. It appeared the group of scary hell-raisers were some sort of Christian youth group. And appallingly, after that rather massive mis-judgement, it was us who stayed up untill 2am and disgraced ourselves with drunk and disorderly behaviour as a result of a rather nice bottle of scotch, whilst the teens went to bed just after their 10pm bible story held in the ‘prayer gazebo’ (not for drinking after all). We couldn’t look any of them in the eye the next morning, and I’m pretty sure I heard them praying for our children at breakfast.

This year we camped in France for the first time in our adult lives, and it was the most idyllic holiday. Camping in France is a totally different ball game to camping in the UK, mostly because of the weather but also because of the huge pitches, fantastic facilities and cheap wine. A campsite can offer so much for families, the chance for children to be sociable and disappear off with new friends allowing their parents to get stuck into the wine putting up the tent. Our pitch was next to the best pitch on the site, which had a totally unobscured view of a castle on a hill. Our pitch had a totally unobscured view of a portaloo next to an enormous.

The castle on the hill

A number of things happened that were nearly-terrible but worked out fine in the end. For starters there was a family camping behind us who at 2pm on our first afternoon asked us to be quiet because they were sleeping. I thought perhaps they had a baby or a small child so apologised and we spoke in whispers for the next hour. When a teenager emerged from the tent stretching her arms and yawning I was a bit surprised, but I realised why she needed her sleep so badly when over the course of the next week she and her parents woke up for the day at 5.30am. Being only a thin sheet of material apart from them we often woke too as they didn’t bother to keep their voices down.

Next up was the dog who lived with the French couple in their caravan on the adjacent pitch to us, who kept escaping and sniffing around our tent. My daughter really doesn’t like dogs so I had to keep shooing it away. On one occasion I was cooking and it was trying to get to the food so I grabbed it by the collar and took it back to its caravan where the owners were having what seemed to be a party. As I walked in I announced to them and their 9 or so friends that their dog had been in my tent and they looked completely bemused which I thought was rather rude. I left it there and stormed back to our tent, relaying what had happened to my husband. It was then that I realised that instead of saying ‘your dog was in my tent’ I had said ‘your dog was in my aunt’. Cue total mortification and having to allow the dog to practically live with us after that.

The third nearly-terrible thing was the huge shadow that was cast over us one sunny day as we were eating copious amounts of buttered pastry for breakfast. It seemed that half the campsite had been plunged into darkness. We looked up to see an absolutely colossal caravan slowly being reversed into the space behind our tent that had been noisily vacated at 5.30am that morning by the ‘early risers’. Emerging from the cabin was what appeared to be the displaced cast of Benidorm: man in a string vest necking a can of Stella, orange-tanned woman wearing a gold bikini and two bored looking teenagers sporting Union Jack T-shirts. Pretty much as soon as they started unpacking their loungers and lilos they had whacked up the in-car cd player with stereo sub woofer and were singing along to Coldplay. In one fail swoop they were threatening to destroy all the sense of peace and relaxation we had achieved over the last week. However we disappeared off for a stroll by the river and when we came back they were sitting quietly sunning themselves, and apart from a very annoying whistling habit the man had, they were incredibly quiet and respectful after that to everyone around.

I can truly recommend the French camping experience, it was a total pleasure despite the nearly-terribles. In fact those nearly-terribles are what make things so memorable and dare I say it amusing.

And now it’s time for some tips:

  • Make sure you do a test run of putting the tent up before you go camping for the first time. This avoids the nightmare of discovering a pole is missing or broken which can lead to a rather fraught ‘discussion’ between yourself and partner whilst you frantically search for something that will replace it and the children go into major meltdown because you’ve been driving for hours and its raining and they’re bored of watching you wrangling with a tent. We put ours up in the garden and it only just fitted but at least we knew which way round the door was so we didn’t end up having it open straight onto a neighbouring tents awning like last time.

    the washing line and garden shed are INSIDE the tent
  • Preparation is everything. There is an AWFUL lot to pack when you are going on a camping holiday. Whether you go for 2 days or 2 weeks there seems to be the same amount of stuff to take. A camping checklist is a very good idea, there is one here. There may be various competitive camping checklists doing the rounds which feature things like bell tents, bunting and a champagne bucket. Everyone likes some home comforts but there’s a fine line between having what you need with you and getting stressed-out by taking too much. The more you take, the more effort to pack and un-pack.

  • Dry the tent out afterwards. Even on a dry day the tent will most likely be damp from dew and inevitably you’ll be taking it down in the morning when you’re turfed off the campsite. Make sure you put it on the washing line or spread it out in the garage when you get home to get it properly dry for next time. If you don’t your tent will smell of old cabbages and may have started to rot by the time you unfold it for next years camping trip, not a great way to start the new camping season.

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Child starting school? How to avoid having a nervous breakdown

school

A few years ago I discovered a valuable resource to occupy me during my insomniac nights: the Mumsnet ‘Am I being unreasonable?’ discussion board. It kept me company during the wee small hours, with such subject matter as ‘AIBU to leave passive aggressive comments aimed at MIL on Facebook?’ and ‘AIBU to think it’s perfectly acceptable to have a zombie apocalypse survival plan?’. At around 3 o’clock one morning when I’d surrendered to the idea of remaining awake for the rest of the night, I came across a discussion about the perfect school. According to the thread, schools nowadays left a lot to be desired. Among the things that could be improved were: the employment of enough staff to help the children put their trousers on the right way round after PE; no rules about what goes into lunchboxes; the appointment of a school gate clique mediator; parents evenings to go on past 3.30pm; everyone gets to be Mary and/or Joseph in the school nativity, even if it means there are 65 of each.

I must admit that at that point my sleep avoidance was mainly caused by panic induced by my youngest being about to start school. I’d been dreading it since my oldest started two years before. It had not gone smoothly, he spent most of his first few months either  fidgeting and distracted during something called Carpet Time or hanging onto my leg and refusing to go through the door into his classroom. The Carpet Time debacle resulted in my having to endure the ‘walk of shame’ as his teacher beckoned me across the playground, past all the other parents for a ‘little’ chat’ on a daily basis. It usually went like this: ‘your son doesn’t seem to be able to sit still at Carpet Time, any chance you could have a word with him?’ ‘Hmm. I’ll do my best, but we don’t really do Carpet Time at home, so I’m not sure what to say to him’, ‘Does he get distracted at home?’ ‘Yes, he is 4, he gets distracted all the time, I tell him to go upstairs to get a jumper and he’ll come down with a tray of plasticine animals. He’s like a hair-brained pensioner’.

The dawning of school represents many things, your child growing up, becoming independent and spending more time away from you. I worried that all the freedom that was the basis for our days together would end. Before school, we could bunk off nursery for the day without getting into trouble or spend all morning in our pyjamas if we felt like it. Granted I had to work sometimes so this didn’t happen often, but the very fact that it could gave us a sense of freedom and choice. I couldn’t help but feel the children were being cruelly snatched away and forced into an institution all about training them to be obedient and wanting everyone to be the same. The fact that they had to be there every day, lined up at 8.40am and wear uniforms so they all looked like little clones didn’t help. It was most definitely the end of an era.

A lot of parents seem to take this stage in their stride. Heck, some parents are positively  desperate for their kids to start school. And that’s ok, no judgement here (so long as you don’t judge me too, yeah?). But for anyone who has child-going-to-school fear, here are some tips to help you get through those first few days:

  • Start worrying about school nice and early on, say 6 months to a year before your child actually starts. If you could also be the only parent to cry at her child’s last day of nursery, making the nursery teachers feel awkward as you try to hug them in gratitude whilst sobbing all over them, then that will help too. It’s good to express your emotions. Spending so long dreading the beginning of september meant that when it actually came I really wasn’t too bothered. Unfortunately this made me look like a coldhearted, merciless harridan whilst all the other parents were waving off their little ones with tears in their eyes.

  • Have coffee with some other parents as soon as you’ve dropped them off, then you can commiserate together. Or better still, have vodka.

  • Remember, the school day is relatively short and the holidays are long. Nowadays when I get a rare day ‘off’ and I’m not working or cleaning the pit the house has become whilst I’ve been working, I spend the day at home and the school day is over in a flash. Suddenly it’s 2.30 and I’m dashing out the door to pick the children up.

  • Your child doesn’t legally have to be at school until the term after they are 5. Therefore if they have the odd day off, it doesn’t ‘count’ as part of their absences until that term. My son wasn’t 5 until the end of April of his first year and he was part time until january. We took him out of school whenever he was too tired to cope and the teachers were very supportive of this.

Good luck with the next 13 years!

Into the Deep End: Tales of a Birthday Party

cake1.jpg

There’s only one thing worse than having to throw your child a party and that’s having to throw your child a swimming party. My son is 7 on saturday and after all the, ‘How did that happen?’, ‘Where did all that time go?’ type questions, we forced ourselves to ask him how he’d like to celebrate.

‘I’d like a Mario Cart Wii party’ he said, looking expectantly up at me, ‘For my 25 best friends’.

‘Hmmm that might be a teensy bit tricky’ I replied in a slightly hysterical tone, ‘What about a cinema party for 5?’

‘How about an Angry birds party for 20?’ he begged, jumping up and down with glee

‘Or a tea party at ours for 7?’

The negotiations went on like that for a while until suddenly I had somehow accepted the deal on a swimming party for 10. Fabulous. You can see how much I like swimming pools here.

And now, just 2 days before the party, the reality has struck. I have worked out that no matter which way I look at the numbers and ratio of kids to adults, there is absolutely no way I am going to be able to get out of going in that pool. So I will be subjecting not only myself, but other parents to the joys of the local kids pool, crowded and noisy with 10 excitable 6 and 7 year olds.

It hasn’t gone down too well in the playground, either. Every parent I gave an invitation to immediately said, ‘Ooh thankyou!’ Then after closer inspection, ‘Oh. A swimming party. Great’, barely able to keep the tone of impending doom from their voices. People have started to back away when they see me coming, (though to be fair they already did that) for fear I will ask them to actually enter the water with their child as opposed to sit on the side behind some protective glass. Surprisingly no one has backed out. Yet. I expect a mass exodus on the day. Or at least that is what I’m hoping.

To top off the fun of the swimming, we will be hosting an indoor picnic back at ours afterwards. The weather has put pay to our idea of letting the children run feral in the local park before eating a birthday tea and throwing sandwiches at the ducks. Instead they will be running feral around our living room and throwing sandwiches at the cats. I’ll probably have to move the sofa and kitchen table into the garden to make room for them all, but at least it will contain them. I have had a few nightmares of losing one of them in the park and having to say to a parent, ‘Well, we managed to keep 9 of them safe. That’s pretty good statistics, hey? You win some, you lose some’.

After everyone has gone home and our house has been made to look like something that has barely survived a napalm attack, our 7 year old will open presents in the manner of an animal being given food after a weeks starvation diet. More mess will be created and we will spend hours trying to work out which child gave him which present so he can send out thankyou cards (these took him 4 months to write last year, even after a lot of bribery. Indeed some took so long that they were given out with this years party invitation).

We’ll later sit and drink wine, survey the damage and relax, safe in the knowledge that it’s out the way for another entire year. Until one of us brings up the subject of our daughter’s party in September, a Harry Potter Magical Princess Disco for 35, that is.

Happy birthday, little man

Tales from The Shallow End

I  will  do  almost  anything  to  get  out  of  taking  my  children  swimming.  As far as I am concerned going within a half mile radius of a ‘baby pool’ is akin to licking someone with a contagious disease.  From the  changing room with  its hairy floors  to the pool itself where toddlers empty their bladders, it is just one big breeding ground of horror.

I think this phobia stems from an incident when I was younger and used to go swimming twice a week with a colleague. During the 6pm-8pm ‘adult swim’ I remember seeing a very hairy man at the end of the pool very definitely washing his armpits. The look of concentration on his face and the stream of filthy water dribbling from his under-arms was enough to almost put me off communal swimming forever. It also explained the rather stale tasting water. It took nearly six years to get me back into a swimming pool after that.

The next time I braved it was when my son was a baby and I felt guilt-tripped to try it out. Everyone in my post-natal group was going to our local pool which had been done up fairly recently. Despite it being in a rather rough part of town (there were three prostitutes outside selling their ‘wares’ that day) it was actually rather beautiful. A large, light open space with lots of big family changing rooms and a generous sized baby pool. However I’d underestimated the stress of trying to get a small, shout-y, reluctant thing into a swim nappy. By the time I’d got him ready for the pool he was hysterical and, as it turns out, plunging him straight into water the sort of temperature only polar bears would feel at home in, was a very bad idea. His lips quickly went blue and within three minutes I’d hoiked him out of the freezing waters and back in to the changing room.

I quickly learnt that if I thought it was hard trying to get a warm, dry baby into his swimming things, it was nothing compared to getting a freezing, wet and screeching baby back into his clothes. And all the whilst I stood shivering and cold in a wet swimming costume with my bare feet on the hairy floor desperately trying to avoid treading on a used plaster. It was then that the idea of ‘two towels for me, two towels for baby and one towel for the hairy floor’ was born. If I was ever going to get back in the water again I was going to have to hire a camel to carry all the towels.

Having dipped our toes into the English swimming pool experience, we decided to try the French version out when we were staying with my mum in the Limousin. We had two children by then and took one each to get dressed in the separate changing rooms. When we arrived at pool side we were met with the most almighty roar of noise. Every man, woman and child from the nearby 15 mile radius had decided to turn up that day. Just as we were edging our way past a group of 18 who appeared to be having some sort of family reunion in the shallow end, a man shouted ‘Non!’ at my husband. We were a little bemused, not sure what the problem was until we realised he was angrily glaring at my husbands swimming trunks. He shouted ‘Non!’ again and pointed to a picture on the wall next to the usual ‘No dive bombing; No heavy petting’ signs of a man wearing long trunks with a red line drawn across it. A quick glance around told us that in French swimming pools only the speedo, the thong and the skimpy posing pouch were acceptable modes of wear and the baggy trunk was complètement interdit.

Apparently it’s something to do with hygiene, your baggy bermudas could be bringing all manner of debris into the pool. My husband, however, would argue that pouring himself into an unfeasibly skimpy alternative could pose just as much a health risk by cutting off some much needed circulation. So we were forced to leave, and that was the end of our French swimming pool experience. And pretty much our UK one too.

So I have decided to stage a one woman boycott against swimming pools, as they’re clearly bad for the health. If you survive the freezing water, the bizarre rules, other people’s weird swimming habits and the exposure to some 30 different types of germs, the dirty floors will get you in the end. This boycott doesn’t extend to the children unfortunately, I’ll be spending every morning of February half term sitting pool-side watching my two learn the doggy paddle.

But may this post act as a warning. And if you do insist on taking the plunge, don’t forget the extra towel for the hairy floor (or the camel to carry it).

Photo courtesy of:

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2588

Beware: The Opinionators


You would have thought that after 7 years of parenting, nearly two years of pregnancy and constantly having children hanging off me, wiping their noses on my various coats, I would be used to a certain amount of other people’s opinions. Old ladies in supermarkets telling me the baby needs feeding, strange men on buses commenting on my daughters chocolate Freddo Frog: ‘Is she gonna give me some of that?’ (how we all laughed), nosey neighbours shouting, ‘your son has LITERALLY nearly killed me on his balance bike, should he be going SO fast?’, I’ve heard it all.

I remember the first time it happened when I was pregnant and a random woman poked me in the stomach in the library and asked me ‘how long did it take to get pregnant?’ I wondered if I’d accidentally stepped into some sort of parallel world where people walk around topless and tell complete strangers about their sex lives. It took a few more prods and strange comments to realise that now I was in the baby-making industry, I had become OTHER PEOPLE’S BUSINESS.

Whether it is to tell you you’re doing a great job, like the woman who gave me a thumbs up for shouting at the children in the swimming pool lobby, or to tell you you’re getting it all wrong, people will force their unwanted opinions on you. Every time one of my children has a major public strop (about three times a day) someone pops up saying, ‘Ooh, you think it’s bad now, wait till they’re teenagers!’ or ‘Oh dear, your child appears to be malfunctioning! But don’t worry love, it does get easier’. What to believe?

Surprisingly enough I have found by far the the worst opinionators (I think I’ve made that up but say it to rhyme with Terminator) are other parents. Parenting is a minefield of decision making right from the offset. From breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, cloth nappies versus disposable, co-sleeping versus separate sleeping, everyone will make different choices, but what they share is the fear that they’re not doing it right.

When people are insecure about something they can either be terribly honest and hysterically cry, ‘I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing!!!’. Or they can do the complete opposite and try to counter this uncertainty by rather forcefully telling others’ how it should be done.  As an ‘I have no idea what I’m doing!!!’ sort of parent it always surprises me when another parent challenges me on some throw away comment that I’ve made, or has a firmly held belief about something that needn’t warrant such strong opinions.

Obviously the best thing to do in this situation is just to laugh it off, but maybe there’s something in this opinionator thing, perhaps in giving their views a person can feel superior, self satisfied and A BETTER PARENT.

However, it’s important to remember that if you never felt compelled to tell a teenager off for swearing in the street before you had kids, then it’s not okay to tut at someone for feeding their child chocolate biscuits to keep them quiet on a train. Especially if that someone bears a striking resemblance to me.

‘School gate’. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of mothers up and down the land.

There is a new mother at the school gates. Watching her surrounded by a pack of eager mums desperate to get to know her, it puts me in mind of a scene from a natural history documentary I edited of a frenzy of feeding vultures. Standing there in the invisibility cloak I’d borrowed from Harry Potter, I can only feel glad it’s not me.

The trouble is that here in Stepford when your child starts school, you do too. On a daily basis you will have to contend with paranoia, bullying, self-doubt, competition about reading levels and general criticism, and that is just from the other mums. By the time it gets to 9 o’clock in the morning you will be crippled with insecurity about whether or not: you’ve made the right decision in working part-time; you are reading enough with your child; you should have worn the black boots that make you look like a stripper.

A few years ago, when my son started school I found the whole thing quite intimidating, particularly the other parents. Being thrown into a social situation at 8.40 in the morning before I’d had the chance to properly wake up was quite harrowing and I found the adjustment to school harder than he did. The freedom of nursery had suited us both. If he was too tired or we fancied doing something else, he would have a day off. However, it seems the school don’t seem to like you doing this, they would like him to be there every day. If he misses a day at the age of 4 he will lose out on learning a phonic and therefore have to get through the rest of his life without the letter ‘d’.

This lax attitude of mine is not shared by most of the other parents with children in my sons year. In our first (terrifying) meeting before he started at the school, several of the other parents wanted to know about reading levels and SATs. I sat there trying not to laugh at a friends scribble on her notebook (of a sausage dog, if you want to know) and wondering when the teachers were going to discover that I wasn’t grown up enough for this situation.

Not long after that, when he started in foundation, we were bombarded with information about phonics, reading books and the many bewildering array of after school clubs he could join. Available for our little darlings to dip their toes into extracurricularly were: wet felt club, chess club, yoga, pottery, French and horse riding. There is also breakfast club that offers Kung Fu at 7 in the morning. My son could barely cope with the school day he was so tired, let alone manage an after or before school activity once or twice a week.

Now he is in his third year at school he has decided to try out one of these clubs. He didn’t fancy hand bells or African drumming so he’s doing plain old football instead. Obviously I did worry about how that would look on his university application form, but at age 6 he’s got plenty of time to broaden his horizons.

By the way, if anyone can shed any light on what wet felting actually is then feel free to enlighten me in the comments box, thanks

Some stereotype school–mums for you (yes they do exist, I have experienced all of them):

The Running Mum : Dressed head to camel-toe in lycra, she is impossible to pin down because she appears as a blur, streaking up and down the year 2 playground line-up. As soon as the bell goes, she’s off like an olympic sprinter who’s just heard the starting pistol.

Chair-Mum: She is vice chair of any association she can get her claws into. She is a permanently bothering the other parents for cupcakes for the weekly ‘cake days’ . She used to be an HR manager and now she thinks she manages Key Stage 1. The teachers hide when they see her coming.

‘Oh god, is that the time?Mum: However early she gets up in the morning she never manages to get to school on time. Arriving at the school gate just as everyone else is leaving, she drops a string of her children’s possessions (and sometimes one or two of her children) behind her as she legs it to the cloakroom just as the doors are closing.

Networking Mum: works the school gate like she’s working the floor at a networking event. She ignores her children who are desperate for mum’s attention, and uses the opportunity to meet as many people as possible and get some dinner party dates in the diary. She fears that social failure by her kids will reflect badly on herself.

Passive aggressive mum:. She’ll accost you at your weakest moment, usually as your school-refusing child is having a meltdown, to say loudly, ‘And how is Benjamin doing? You are not still taking him in every day are you? Benji’s never going to be independent if mummy holds his hand every morning is he?’

Coffee Morning Mum: Always looking for someone she can grab a coffee with. She is always either at the school gate or at a cafe. She arrives early to school drop off in order to organise as many coffees as she can. On Tuesday last week she’d stayed so long the bell rang that I saw her trying to surreptitiously climb over the locked school gate to get out.

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