Friday, 21 August 2015

Night Train To Munich.

Monday night last, lying on a rod hard surface in the dark, being rolled from side to side, asking myself: just how many times have I heard of a chain of train carriages leaving the rails? 

Hardly any at all, it’s highly unlikely. Still, it feels at this moment with the scream of metal on metal reverberating through my every sinew, and the alarming manner in which the train appears to be alternately lifting from its track on every hairpin bend, like a speed skater taking a curve, that it’s very likely. And this is a holiday remember. A HOLIDAY. How did I get here?

Rewind to a villa in Portugal last August, a discussion at breakfast. I’m asking Middle One what he’d like to do next year. I have a habit of doing this: spending the whole of the current annual summer holiday thinking about what the next one might be. I’m assuming Eldest won’t be coming with us next year, at his great age he’ll probably be backpacking around south-east Asia or something. And I’m thinking that two weeks in a villa without his older brother will be boring for Middle One and for Youngest, and a bit sad, for all of us.

“I’d like to see some some cities for a change,” says Middle One, "European cities."

Cities. Right.

“By train!” says Husband.

What is it with men and trains?

Cities by train. Okay. Mmm.

We’ve done trains with the boys before, twice. We put the car on the train and slept in a couchette going from The Netherlands to Croatia, disembarking at Trieste and driving through Slovenia. And then the next year we drove to Germany and put the car on the train from Dusseldorf to Livorno, on our way to Tuscany. It was exciting, and no more expensive than flying and hiring a car, and handy to be able to load up the car at home with everything we needed, and totally exhausting.

Imagine a family of five. Two of them adults who are no longer speaking other due to the enormous stress of travelling with three rowdy boys. Three of them, three rowdy boys who have been cooped up the back of a car all day. Throw in several bags of luggage and snacks. Put them together in a small, hot, noisy, metal cupboard overnight, one that is hurtling through the night as it sways from side to side… 


“Okaaay,” I say, “which cities?”

Middle One has a list: Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna or Salzburg, somewhere in Germany and Venice, which we saw briefly once on our way skiing but due to a cock-up involving British Airways, for far more briefly than we intended.

“Railbookers,” says Husband. “They’re fantastic. Talk to them, they’ll sort it.”

And so I did, and they did. They planned and booked the entire itinerary, all the rail tickets plus the hotels. And by the way it’s a given in our family that I organise the annual summer holiday and the rest of them just sit back and judge, giving the accommodation marks out of ten on arrival as I stand at the threshold trembling, like I’ve just sat some sort of exam. 

“Ok,” I say, “But only on condition we flop at the end for a week somewhere for a proper holiday, in a house, with a washing machine.” 

And I knew just the place.

Looking at a map of Europe, I decided that Paris would be too much, ditto Salzburg, they would have to be left for another time. And so it was to be Amsterdam for three nights, overnight on the train to Munich, stay there for two nights, through the Alps to Venice for a further two, eight days travelling in all. Then to a house in Italy where we’ve stayed before, which is my favourite place in the whole entire world and where we are now as I write this, as it happens.

So, to answer my own question, this is how I come to be on a train bunk in the middle of the night somewhere between Amsterdam and Munich, with my husband in the berth opposite and two of my sons on the berths above, being rolled from side to side like one of those hapless ball bearings in a game where you have to slot them into the holes.

I decide to give up on sleep. It will be easier not to try. What’s one night without sleep? I did it all the time in my youth. (Actually I didn’t, I was the one who always sloped off at parties reasoning that there isn’t a nocturnal inebriated/high discussion on earth about that bitch Maggie Thatcher that can compare with the unalloyed joy of slipping between clean sheet and duvet.) 

And that was when it happened, that was when the night train to Munich took an unexpected turn for the worst and a spray of vomit rained down on me from the heavens. Middle One was bringing up his lunch from over the edge of the top bunk.

Love E x

P.S. I called this Night Train to Munich because it sounds a bit like the song Night Train to Memphis, and then I discovered it's also a film.

Here's a view from the house, 2000 feet above sea level…

And did you know, a kilo of delicious home made takeaway ice-cream from our local bar - all different flavours - is only 13 Euros!

Next week - Italy, if it didn't exist someone would have to invent it.


Thursday, 13 August 2015


Sunday. Amsterdam. Very early, 7.15 am to be precise, which feels like 6.15 am to us, probably because it is. I have advance tickets for the Anne Frank House's Museum, for 8.45 this morning. 

I'd been looking for weeks back home, with nothing doing, until suddenly, exactly one week before the trip, at 8.30 am on another Sunday morning, three lone tickets popped up on the website. I snaffled them immediately, before realising they were for the crack of dawn. Oh well, I really want the boys to see it and at least we won't have to queue. 

It takes ten full minutes to wake them. Husband bangs his knuckles raw on their door. I ring their phone from our adjacent hotel room. Finally they respond. To say they are grumpy at being woken so early on holiday is to understate the matter.

Three of us descend for breakfast, while Middle One showers. Three of us help ourselves to the generous buffet: fruit, cereal, juice, toast, pastries, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms… everything you could possibly want, and more. Three of us eat and then three of us wait. One of us takes the lift back upstairs to shout at Middle One to hurry the hell up. Me. 

Then this. Descending hotel steps. Setting off across the old town. No one else around. Bright. Sunny. A warm breeze. Quiet. Still water. The tap of family footfall on cobble. The stretch and motion of tired limbs. The pleasure of unencumbered propulsion. Crossing a pretty bridge, turning onto a canal-side path, seeing a row of gabled houses, long windows, black railings, a tangle of wheels and spoke. More cobbles, more canals, more bridges. After ten minutes, an elegant open square, a medieval clock tower, a whining tram. It's the best thing in the world: this walk, this city, this summer morning. This is it.

Up ahead, people for the first time, just a few, then a few more. A line, more of a line, a line that winds, that curls, that has no end. But we don't have to join it, we can go straight in, except for Husband, who hasn't a ticket and so waits outside. To think, we hoped to buy him one too, because it's so early. Some hope.

I've been before, years ago, and now I see it again, through children's eyes, my children's. They're the age she was. One, the age when she began the diary, the other, the age when she died alone in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a month before liberation. Sixteen.

Feel the size of those rooms. Notice the covered windows. Think of the hour upon hour, the day after day, the year after year. Read: 

"As of tomorrow, we won't have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine." 

"I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I am free." 

Remember the walk through the city, the morning outside, the generous breakfast…

We leave, fold back into the city, stroll again beside a canal. Tourists emerge and we notice, for the first time, the rubbish everywhere, overflowing from bins, from bars, from doorways. Plastic bottles, food wrappers, broken glass, scum on water.

Up ahead, a group of drunken yobs, singing in German, incredibly loud, not yet gone to bed. Unsmiling, shaved heads, shorts and vests, white flesh, biceps, a blur of tattoos, coming our way.

"Shall we turn here?" says Husband.

"Yes, let's," I say, even though we both know our route back is straight ahead.

Love E x

Anne Frank, 1929 - 1944


P.S. We're in Venice now, via Munich. This posh interrailing lark is exhausting.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Love actually.

Heathrow Arrivals, Terminal Four. I've snuck my way forward, inch by stealthy inch. As members of the crowd in front spot a relative and move away, so I have advanced into their vacated space. Now, a whole hour after arriving, I'm finally at the barrier, in pole position, with no possibility at all that he will miss me as he emerges, or more importantly that I will miss him. Husband is somewhere still at the back where we began. He doesn't have my pushy tendencies.

All life is here, or so it seems. Young and old. Big and small. Tall and short. Fat and thin. White and black. Asian. Middle Eastern. American. European. African. Indian. Particularly Indian, since the flight from Delhi has just arrived. I know this because now it says 'DEL' on the luggage labels. 

"Look," I say, to Husband, who is too far back to hear me, "it's the flight from Delhi!" (Eldest was transferring at Delhi for the last leg home.)

"My wife is coming from Delhi," says a young man squashed next to me, "who are you waiting for?"

"My son," I say.

"How long has he been away?" he asks.

"Five weeks," I say, then seeing the look on his face that I imagine might be saying, 'only five weeks?' I offer, by way of explantation: "When he was born I couldn't bear to put him in the transparent cot next to the hospital bed because it felt too far away." He laughs.

A tiny round Indian lady, somewhere below me to the left, smiles up. "Your son," she says simply, nodding with understanding, "I'm waiting for my son too, with my new grand-daughter!" 

I'd noticed her before. She keeps saying, "Come on! Come on!" loudly, staring straight ahead and shifting her not inconsiderable weight from one foot to another. I smile back.

The young man comes from Wolverhampton. Now he lives in Hertford, which he prefers. His wife has been in India for two months, trying to get a visa so she can work in the UK. They got married last year in India. He loves it there. None of his family could make it to the wedding, but still he had the best time of his life. It was very difficult to get the visa, and expensive: £600. He's longing to see her.

I learn all this while keeping my eyes glued on Arrivals, not wanting to miss The Moment, which feels a bit rude. I'm used to looking at the person I am talking to. Plus it lends the wait a strange quality: an audio track, about how this young man loves his wife and has missed her, accompanied by visuals of countless heartfelt reunions. The combined effect is moving. Very moving. 

Because although some of the clinches are perfunctory, most are intense and emotional. Lovers who run to each other, kissing passionately, not caring that hundreds of eyes are watching. Parents and children with tears of joy. Grown men bear-hugging elderly relatives. I can't help but feel, as part of this impromptu audience, that I'm witnessing something profound. This is the real deal, that thing directors and actors strive to recreate. Maybe Richard Curtis had it right? Here at Heathrow Arrivals, Terminal Four, it's love, actually.

And it makes me think about those desperate people at Calais, wanting to come to the UK. Because these are the lucky ones. Those who've made it through the proper channels, not the one with a tunnel, who already have relatives in the UK, who are citizens returning from holiday. What people want, it seems to me right now, squashed up against this barrier, is to be with those they love.

Surely most of that "swarm", who've taken desperate steps to leave homes and relatives to travel across sea and land on journeys of unimaginable peril and hardship, want that too? To be safe, of course, to work, to prosper, and ultimately, after sending money back home, to be with their families again in the UK if they possibly can be. They are people after all, just like those arriving here, people who are part of a family.

Finally Eldest appears, smiling, his two mates in tow, and I have had too long to stand and think, imagining this moment. Impulsively, and as I have seen others do before me, I dip under the barrier between us, and watch his smile fade...

He's taking it all in. The straining crowd behind me, more like an anonymous mob to him, no doubt, than the impatient group of love-hungry individuals I've come to know. And as I reach him, my arms outstretched, I catch him uttering, "My mother's come under the barrier!" as he tenses for our public embrace.

Love E x


P.S. Four of us set off for our mini tour of Europe by train this morning - Amsterdam, Munich, Venice, then on to Le Marche in Italy, with Eldest flying out to meet us there. (And btw we thought of it before that David Nicholls fella.)

And I just read The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler). How have I not read it before? Fantastic.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Thank you.

Thank you for reading this blog. I post once a week, on Friday. E x

Friday, 31 July 2015

All Things Must Pass.

We follow Youngest up north, arriving at my home town by train on Friday afternoon. The queue at the taxi rank snakes right across the elegant front of the station. Women in fascinators and too-tight dresses, exposed arms revealing tattoos as well as flesh, fat feet squeezed into too-high stilettos: it's the York races. 

"There weren't queues like this when I was a girl," I say.

We stand and wait and listen. To short 'a's, to long alien 'eee' sounds, to 'the's' gone missing entirely and replaced with 't's'. "Eeee, it's a right long queue, in't it," I say to Middle One.

The taxi crawls through town and out again towards my parents' house. Tom Jones is coming, says the driver, they're expecting 40,000 at the race course tonight. Really? we say, and then we chat amongst ourselves: about the news, about politics, about Jeremy Corbyn. How old is he? I ask Middle One. "He's 66!" chips in the taxi driver. I'd forgotten how friendly taxi drivers are here.

For the whole of the weekend, at the end of the cul-de-sac on which my parents' house sits, cars idle in long queues into town, nose to nose, engines ticking over, obligingly moving to let us through whenever we emerge. I'd forgotten how courteous the drivers are here. 

"There was never traffic like this when I was a girl," I say to Husband.

On Sunday my father and the boys drive to the community orchard, the one my father helps to run. Husband and I walk there, along 
the river. "Himalayan Balsam," I remember my father saying, the last time we were here, "look how it's invaded the landscape, taken over everywhere," and it has. 

"There wasn't all this Himalayan Balsam here when I was a girl," I say to Husband.

There's no one at all by the river, and I'd forgotten how lovely it is, except for the hum of the cars on the bypass, a hum which never ends. 

"There wasn't a hum like that from the bypass when I was a girl either," I say to Husband. 

A mile or so later we reach the orchard, where my father and the boys are moving cut grass. Husband pitches in, quite literally, while I sit reading under a tree.

There's no one else in the orchard. Just fruit trees, wildlife, flowers, but all around are cars, rows and rows of cars, parked for the shops here. 'Designer Outlets' it's called. Most of the people stepping just a few short feet from vehicle to shop, have no idea there's an orchard nearby, a little oasis of calm. 

"There wasn't this enormous car park here when I was a girl," I say to the boys, as we criss-cross the tarmac, on a mission to buy some lunch. "It was a maternity hospital, and fields. I was born here."

We walk through Designer Outlets. It's packed. People everywhere. Shopping, buying, eating, talking, calling out to one another. But mostly shopping.

"There weren't all these people here when I was a girl," I say, to anyone who will listen. But they can't hear me over the racket.

Love E x


P.S. Eldest returns from the Far East tonight!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Strangers on a train.

It's the summer holidays. The usual household timetable is suspended. I stay in bed reading in the mornings, because I can. Unfortunately this pleasure is tainted with guilt, about Youngest. He is free from school. He should be larking in meadows, his face browning in vitamin D-sunshine, his muscles strengthening through running and jumping and climbing. Instead he is in London, indoors, glued to the computer in my office from morning till night, playing games with a headset on, talking to his friends, who are also indoors playing computer games with their headsets on.

As an antidote to this I have arranged for him to go away for a few nights with his cousins, who are very close to him in age, to stay with my parents. I know that when there he will play and play and play, in the house, out of the house, for hours on end, not a computer in sight. 

I meet them, accompanied by my brother, at Kings Cross Station. "You do know they're travelling by themselves, don't you?" says my brother (usually our mother travels down to London to collect them).

"Yes," I say, "I'm cool with it. I have a child wondering around South East Asia. Compared to that this is a doddle."

I'm especially not worried when I see my brother has booked seats for them in First Class and a kind lady nearby offers to keep an eye on them, and so does the train guard; and also when I realise that all they have to do is get off at the last stop, where they will be met.

"All you have to do is get off at the last stop," I say to Youngest, handing him a list of all the station stops, so he can tick them off and know where he is (this is along with a packed lunch, emergency money, and a fully charged mobile phone). "And you do know the landmark to look out for, just before you arrive at the station?"

"Yes!" says my eldest niece, enthusiastically, "it's a Tesco, isn't it, Aunty Libby?" (Libby is my family name.)

Actually I was thinking of an old abandoned windmill on a hill, which to me always romantically signals that I am about to arrive 'home'. But Tesco will do.

"I guess the only concern is if they need to go to the loo and a stranger accosts them," says my brother as we walk away together across the concourse, having waved them good-bye, "So I told them to go to the loo in pairs."

"Right" I say. I hadn't worried about that. That's a new thing to worry about. I had worried, in the middle of the night a week or so ago, that someone might plant drugs on Eldest in Asia, making him an unwitting  and innocent drug's mule, who will be banged up forever in a boiling Thai jail, just like Nicole Kidman in Bangkok Hilton.* (A vivid imagination is a terrible curse.)

But now my brother's comment reminds me of a another story, about him on a train, which for years my mother relished the telling of. I think he was about seven, I was about ten, we were  travelling from Vancouver to New York (glamorous, I know, my whole life has been downhill since that point). He went to the loo and did not reappear. The train arrived at a station, then left the station, and still my little brother did not return. My mother began to panic. Perhaps he'd got off the train to look for a toilet? She rose from her seat to find him, quickly coming across a locked loo door and banging on it, hollering my brother's name at the top of her voice. Now she imagined he was trapped in there, or he had fallen and banged his head… 

A guard came, my mother explained, he dashed off for a key. Some time passed, time during which my mother continued to bang on the door, shouting my brother's name at the top of her voice. Eventually the guard returned and began to unlock the door from the outside. Suddenly the bolt shot back and a man emerged, cool as a cucumber. He looked from my mother to the guard, did not say one word, and sauntered off. Shortly after that my brother reappeared with a tale about having walked the length of the train to find a vacant loo.

No wonder, now fully grown, my brother is worried about his girls going to the toilet on a train. But he needn't have, they arrived without incident. And no one spotted the windmill.

Love E x


*Bangkok Hilton is a three-part Australian mini series made in 1989 starring Nicole Kidman. Its name is a fictional prison but a  reference to the real Hanoi Hilton, used by North Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

P.S. I saw To Kill A Mockingbird at The Barbican Theatre on Thursday evening, and I stood at the end, along with most of the rest of the audience. Absolutely fantastic, and no elephants in sight.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Elephant in the Room.

I tell a friend I'm going to see Bradley Wiggins in The Elephant Man tonight at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, before realising that isn't quite right. Cooper! Bradley Cooper. Two of our usual theatre-going crowd declined the opportunity some weeks back. "Seen it already in the 80s," said one. "Terrible play," said another. Terrible play it maybe but - BRADLEY COOPER! Are they mad?

The auditorium is full, the audience noticeably more appreciative than we've grown used to of late at London West End theatre. They laugh a lot, even when it isn't funny. As Bradley expertly transforms his body into a series of excruciating contortions there are gasps. "He's good, isn't he!" Says a woman behind me, loudly.

Meh, I think to myself. Good, yes. A circus act? Maybe. Does contorting your body and executing a near perfect facsimile of John Hurt as The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) constitute great acting? Not sure.

At half time (as a friend calls it), I run for a gin and tonic, dragging one of our number with me. "Full measure, please," I say, to the girl at the bar. When we return we're surprised to find the rest of our group has also left their seats: they went to buy a second bottle of Cava.

"I thought you like to stay in your seats in the interval? And not drink anything more?" I say, when they return.

"Oh," says one, "we do, usually, but she suggested it." They point at friend K, who wasn't with us for Death of a Salesman, or View From The Bridge.

It is, as that friend had forewarned, a pretty terrible play. Not much happens dramatically speaking, not once John Merrick makes it to the London Hospital. Except a lady takes her top off; I woke up for that bit. Where's the narrative arc? I think to myself. (I'm currently obsessed with narrative arcs). Unlike in the book, which I've read, and the film, which I've seen several times, there isn't much of one.

The audience in the Theatre Royal Haymarket, however, beg to differ. At the end of the play, as Bradley and cast take their bow, some of them stand up, and then a few more... 

It really wasn't THAT good, I think. I mean, not better than The Vote, or View From The Bridge, or Death of a Salesman or Wolf Hall, all of which I've seen, and none of which were rewarded with a full house standing ovation. Are these people standing for the play? For Bradley Cooper's performance? Or because it's a Hollywood superstar up there?

Then those around me begin to stand as well, even my Cava-swilling mates, until, finally, I'm the lone sitter in the stalls. Should I stand because everyone around me is standing? Or should I remain seated because, although I thought it was good, it wasn't THAT good?

I remain seated, and down the last of my gin and tonic. A full measure.

Love E x

P.S. I reckon Bradley Wiggins could have made a good fist of it, he's athletic enough.

The book - The True History of The Elephant Man, by Michael Howard and Peter Ford

The film - The Elephant Man, David Lynch 1980

Review of current play -