However, somewhere along the way, I managed to pick up the idea that child-friendliness is something they do so, so much better 'over there', i.e. on the continent. Oh yes, apparently, 'the continent' is an absolute haven of family-friendly eateries, shops and play areas, where children are not only welcomed, but catered for as if they were royalty.
I'm not sure where I got this idea from - maybe women's mags and daytime TV - but by the time I came to travel abroad with children in tow, I think I was fully expecting to see women breastfeeding joyfully on every park bench, child-sized tables in every restaurant, and palatial changing stations in every public toilet.
Well, maybe this is the case in areas that regularly cater for tourists, but in the part of Alsace, France, where my family live, the reality is that there is really no higher level of child-friendliness than in the UK, and in some ways, it's a bit worse.
My airport experiences have been mixed - sometimes my local airport is better, and sometimes they do better at my destination. The supermarket local to my parents' house does not have any trolley that's suitable for twins - a problem when you have two under-3s in tow. My local Tesco does better than that, even if all their twin trolleys look like they've been hastily recycled from discarded coat hangers. Changing facilities are as patchy as in the UK. I've had to change babies on the floor just outside the toilets pretty often and I'm reliably informed that they still have long-drop toilets on trains!
Experiences in eateries are mixed too. There are some specifically family-orientated restaurants which are great for the kids just like at home, and all the McDonalds here have play areas outside. But in these places, the kids' meals are just as likely to be chicken nuggets or burgers and chips as they are at home - none of the famed French cuisine here (and I'll come back to that later!).
And if you go to one of the more upmarket restaurants, then you may just find that your toddler is about as welcome as a bluebottle with something dubious on its feet! In these places, there is often no children's menu available - just the 'set meal' served on a plate so sizzlingly hot that even the waiter is handling it with asbestos gloves. This week, we visited a local restaurant we've been to many times before where the children's meal was veal (ok, can deal with that - at least it wasn't in nugget form!) and the waiter opened proceedings by rather testily telling us not to let my son touch the picture that was hanging so low on the wall that the table was partially covering it. I thought, well, if he's upset about OB touching the picture, wait until he sprays his sauce all over it!
Oh, and this week, at a (very good) children's theme park in south-western Germany, I saw a person breast feeding in public for the first time in over 20 years of visiting over here. And she was using a modesty cover. So there's another fantasy blown out of the water!
I'm not actually saying that it's terrible for children here. There are some surprising child-friendly ideas that feel like little unexpected pleasures. For instance, the local Mayor in our village has decreed that all new housing estates must include a small communal play area, and that every new-build house must have two parking spaces on its land (in addition to the drive) so that there is no parking on the pavement, which means that you never have to wheel your double buggy into the road to get around some unhelpfully parked car. I expect that, as in most of the UK, it depends where you go and what you are doing. It's not at all bad - I'm just saying that the grass isn't always as green as one might feel led to believe!
And while we're on the subject on things on the continent not being quite what we may have imagined, I need to put to bed the idea, propagated by fancy cooking shows on TV, that France is full of quaint village squares hosting plentiful farmers markets, and all French people cycle down there every morning in the misty dawn light to stock up on knobbly veg and magnificent baguettes for the day ahead, while wearing berets and saying "Oh la la" rather a lot..
My sister has lived here for over 20 years, was married to a Frenchman and has two French children, and I can tell you that what she does in the morning is get into her car and go to work. And so do most other people. And then they go to massive supermarkets (which the French invented by the way) at the weekends and buy processed food just like the rest of us. And maybe a couple of baguettes.
It's not that the French aren't good at food - they are, amazingly so. There's a law here that restaurants must offer a plat du jour at lunchtime that can't cost more than a certain price. This means that, in the middle of the day, you can go into a fancy restaurant where you'd easily pay 60 euros a head in the evening, and have a three course meal for around 17 euros, not including drinks. Good food too, not last night's leftovers, which explains why I was cutting up veal medallions for my son the other day while giving the grumpy waiter glowering looks (and no tip).
|France is surprisingly full of |
this sort of thing!
The supermarket aisles here are crammed with enough processed food to make a bad-food junkie like myself positively dance with glee. There are whole aisles dedicated to variously-shaped salted snacks in packets. There are bags in the freezer department that contain indeterminately-coloured ice-cube-type objects that, when poured out and re-heated, turn into spaghetti bolognaise or some other processed delight. A great idea that - I'll be looking out for it at home! And the cereals . . . it's like the breakfast food companies are in league with the dentists. I've never seen so many packets with 'choco-' written on the front of them!
Ah well, at least one 'Year in Provence' image holds true - that of the extremely laid-back tradesman. This time last year, while I was visiting, we experienced a hailstorm so severe that it cracked car windshields, dented some cars beyond repair, ripped holes in my parents' mosquito screens and ruined some of their metal window shutters. Since then, they have been negotiating with insurance companies and tradesmen to get the repairs done. The car was finally sorted at the back end of last year. The screens and shutters remain mangled and replacements may or may not be available 'sometime in August'!
Anyway, I've decided that if I really want child-friendliness for our next holiday then, judging from how they organise things at IKEA, we should head off to Sweden!