As you are reading this we are well into our road trip across Namibia, another glorious country of Southern Africa we were determined to see while we live here.
We might have already seen gigantic red sand dunes.
We might have surfed down one of those dunes.
We might have seen lions.
We might have seen the desert elephants.
We might or might not have done any of these things, but the one thing we will most certainly have done is bickered and fought and screamed, and perhaps left someone behind at a gas station because they were no longer welcome in the car.
Because Noisette, in true fatherly fashion, has banned all electronic devices in the car, wanting to make sure we – I think he mainly meant me – look outside our windows to take in the marvels of the spectacular sights offered up by nature (and with the assistance of a whole lot of our money).
I know what you’re now thinking, because that was also my own very first thought. Is he absolutely crazy? Doesn’t he know that electronic devices were specifically invented so that children (and parents) don’t kill each other anymore during family road trips?
Electronic devices must have done more for the safety of family vehicles than seat belts and speed limits combined. I’m sure of it. Oh the bliss when everyone is playing a game on their very own iPod. With earphones plugged in. Who cares whether they’ve seen the Grand Canyon on the way past? They were silent! And not touching each other!
I should know. We traveled through Europe extensively when I was growing up. Every summer, my parents would rent a cottage in some obscure village in the South of Italy or France – always a different place – and we’d spend the most glorious three weeks completely cut off from the world as we knew it. In fact, these summer vacations are the only memories I have of my early years. These were the days before mass tourism would consume Europe, before even Germans were spending any money abroad. When you actually had to speak a bit of the language of the country you were visiting, because no one spoke any English. Except of course in England, but that’s the one place we never went to. On account of the ocean you had to cross. And the bad weather.
Sur le pont, d’Avignon, on y pisse, on y pisse… One of our childhood road trips, ca 1971.
Our trips always started out in exactly the same way: my dad would get up at some godforsaken hour, like 3 o’clock in the morning, claiming the need to beat the horrible traffic (of course he couldn’t, in his wildest nightmares, have dreamed up such a thing as Joburg traffic), and proceed to put everyone in a state of frenzy with his packing of the car. Invariably, the suitcases were impossible to fit into the trunk, my mom would not have everything ready and hustle about for some last minute addition, my brother and I would pick that exact moment to start an epic fight, and my dad would stand there amidst a sea of individual shoes he was trying to rearrange in some other way so they could be squeezed in. In the end he usually lost his patience and could be seen banging on the trunk like a wild man, just so the darn thing would shut, the resulting dents be damned. (It was just as well, because invariably the dents in our car would multiply later on when we’d get lost and end up stuck in some Italian village lane that my dad swore was built just to entrap him, not being able to move backwards or forwards, and only to escape due to my father’s heroic choice to stamp down on the gas and barrel on through, accompanied by a horrible screeching noise as metal scraped on brick).
When the car was finally packed with all of us in it and we were driving off into the early morning, there was usually so much tension in the car that you could have sliced it with a knife. Until the silence was pierced by my mom’s scream of “oh God, I forgot to turn off the stove!”
Oh, it was glorious. Nothing was more anticipated by me all year than our annual packing of the car.
And then the marvels of actually going farther than grandma’s place a half hour down the road for Christmas dinner, which was as far as we’d ever get the rest of the year. Getting to the first border post and having to wait for hours, staring at the armed guards in their exotic looking uniforms. Driving through no man’s land, a concept that was utterly fascinating to me as a kid. “how come it doesn’t belong to anybody?” I would ask every time. “It has to belong to somebody.” I’m sure I pestered everyone to death with my endless questions. Which is probably why I got to have the four kids who are surely the most prolific what-if questioners on the planet. Life is fair in that way.
The novelty of then driving into an entirely new country. With different color lane markings! And miniature traffic lights at the front of the intersection, so the first driver didn’t have to twist his neck to catch a glimpse of the light above! And totally exotic coins being exchanged at the first gas station! The endless tunnel getting you through the Alps! And, incredibly, sunshine and warm temperatures on the other side!
The sunshine of my childhood summers invariably waited at the end of a long road trip. Spain, Costa Brava, ca 1973.
The highlight of the trip would invariably be the Awarding Of The Toys about 2 hours into the trip. My oldest brother – let’s call him Kissinger – by virtue of being the most mature and diplomatic of the bunch, would always have to sit in the middle, wedged between my second brother – let’s call him Tempest – on one side and me on the other, all of us crammed in by duvets and pillows and of course a motley collection of shoes. Vacation homes in those days did not come with bed linens, or, come to think of it, much of anything else, so we pretty much brought our entire household with us in a car that seemed of vast proportions to a seven year old but of course was smaller than a VW Polo today.
And of course there were absolutely no diversions in the form of electronic media, so the only thing left to do – after exhausting all the license plate games – was to practice debating with your brother. Or maybe nudging him just a tiny little bit. Or perhaps even pinching him, in case the nudge went unnoticed. Whatever you had to do to elicit a punch in return, which was exactly what you’d been hoping for so that you could finally wail “Mamaaaa, he hurt me!”
Because Kissinger would always have to sit in the middle of this, and because no doubt over the years he’d grown tired of it, he’d developed a brilliant plan of self preservation, which consisted of buying two small toys, like matchbox cars, and stringing out their handover as long as he could by erecting all sorts of mile markers of good behavior.
It was worse than waiting for Christmas, but it was totally worth it, because we were never allowed any trashy toys on any other occasion than when going on our annual road trip.
Even so, the occasional flare-up of bad behavior could not be avoided entirely, which is how one year, somewhere in France, my dad stopped the car, Tempest was unceremoniously dumped out for some long forgotten transgression, and the rest of us drove on. I could not believe it. How could they just leave behind my beloved brother? Forgotten, for the moment, was the fact that I probably was the one who had provoked him into his tantrum in the first place. At first I was just stunned into silence, which I’m sure my parents cherished like nothing else, hoping that the same fate would not assail me as well. But in the end I think both Kissinger and I lobbied heavily to turn around and pick him up, and I’m sure my parents used the moment to elicit all sorts of promises to never ever fight again, which probably lasted an unprecedented three hours.This event has always stayed with me throughout the years, and if I knew one thing – most likely the only thing – about how I myself would parent my kids, it was that I would never leave a child behind on the roadside somewhere. Which I’m proud to say I haven’t, though I’ve come dangerously close during our standoff in the Prairie of Prax. That’s the place Zax got his name, in case you were wondering. The road trip leading us there (and elsewhere in the United States, more than 5000 miles of it) two years ago is when I last wrote about lessons learned about myself, parenting and life:
- I don’t mind driving long distances
- You can pretty much drive anywhere given enough time and an open mind
- If it’s appreciation you’re after, you’re gonna be one unhappy parent
- I will not leave a child by the roadside even when pushed beyond limits by said child
- It’s always funnier in hindsight
- My husband won’t read a blog, no matter who writes it
- It always takes longer but that does not make me leave any earlier
- When someone tells you they don’t feel so good you should stop ASAP even when approaching the last two minutes of your 9-hour trip
- You need a good car charger for your phone if said phone is also your GPS; if Amazon sells one for $0.99 there is probably something wrong with it
- Always remember where you parked your car
- Don’t park your car anywhere in Boston
- Turn off your wipers before starting a car with a frozen windshield; if you forget, avoid driving in rain thereafter
- It’s wonderful having friends in many places
- Don’t assume it will be warm in Florida
- Be careful what you eat before driving all day
- Home is wherever you live, not a place you used to live
- Don’t search for greener grass somewhere else; you can always improve your yard right where you are
Modern-day road trip through the United States with children of my own. Washington ca 2010