Before Mr. Waffle and I had children, we used to holiday in Spain a lot. These holidays were very luxurious as befitted a dual income couple with no children: paradores, Michelin starred restaurants, all sorts of good things. We even went to Spain for our honeymoon and we stayed here and it was very wonderful indeed. We had never visited anywhere further south than Seville and it had all been perfect in every way.
Since we have had children, almost all of our holidays have been with our families. Their matchless babysitting skills have made our holidays possible. So, this trip to Spain alone with three children, two of whom were sick you will recall, was a bit of an adventure for us.
The plane trip was 2 hours and 35 minutes which was an unbearable length of time and made us both think glumly about our proposed summer odyssey to America. The boys were sick and listless and, actually, that was quite good because it meant that they were calm. They needed every morsel of calm to put up with their sister moaning, kicking, patting and pinching. She was a pain but, all good things come to an end and we arrived.
We stayed here for the first two nights. We would have stayed longer but it was fully booked. It was very nice and reminded me of our glorious Spanish holidays of the past. There were, however, a number of difficulties. I have never been to the Costa del Sol before and, frankly, it is kind of rotten. It is a prime example of what can go wrong without the application of proper planning laws. Yes, the scenery is beautiful and the weather was very pleasant (not too hot, not too cold, just right) but the buildings are mostly horrible. Big apartment blocks stretching forever and turning the coast into a huge ugly conurbation. Mostly, it appears these were owned by Irish people of whom there are very many in the South of Spain. There was also the odd British soul but they were overwhelmed by the volume of celtic tigers.
Nevertheless, I heartily recommend the parador in Nerja. I could only salivate enviously at the retired Scottish woman (who clearly goes there every year – I could tell by the way she was embracing the cleaning staff and chatting genially in Spanish) who told me that they were having a nice long stay this year – 4 weeks. She looked at harassed me with my three children and said kindly that she had five herself including a set of twins and that I would look back on these as the best years of my life because, at least, I knew where they were. Ominous.
We had a ground floor bedroom with a little terrace in front. It led across a lawn to the swimming pool and then on to the lift to the beach. All lovely really. But the boys were sick and miserable. The Princess made friends with two charming English children next door and we shamelessly outsourced her care to their grandmother and parents. When I asked her afterwards what the best part of the holiday was, she said “climbing trees with Ben and Annie”. We have a Costa del Sol bunny called Annie in honour of their friendship. The Princess loved the pool and so did the boys, especially Michael. In retrospect it may not have helped their illness to let them go swimming every day but it was hard to resist their demands when the swimming pool was visible shimmering invitingly every time we went out the door of our bedroom. The boys were alright during the day and we kept thinking that they were better but at night they were unhappy. As were the rest of us as we were all sleeping in the same room and trying to persuade the Princess to be silent and not wake her sick brothers was impossible. Thursday night was a low point. We had hoped to put the children to bed and sample some of the delicious food available in the parador on our terrace. Fat chance. We finally got them to go to sleep at 10.30 by which time we were far too tired to do anything ourselves other than go to bed, ready for the boys to wake up at midnight and half hourly intervals thereafter. On Friday morning, after our miserable night, we called a doctor. While the Princess was minded by her new friends, the doctor came and said that the boys had tonsillitis. Unglamourous. He was very pleasant about being called out for a minor infection (but really temperatures of 40 plus for three days, how could we guess) and prescribed some amoxycillin because that is what doctors seem to do to be on the safe side. They’d already had some when I was pregnant and they seemed to enjoy the nasty chalky taste. They are supposed to get it every eight hours for a week and we are doing our best to comply but I fear that we are busy creating an antibiotic resistant strain of tonsillitis.
On from Nerja to La Herradura where our friends have an apartment and where the great birthday dinner was to be celebrated. The hotel in La Herradura was much less glamourous than in Nerja but it did have a much larger room. We were also somewhat comforted by the doctor’s diagnosis so, though the boys were not happier, we were. We went to visit our friends in their flat and it was all very pleasant and the boys were reasonably well behaved though Michael was slightly howly and with his conjunctivitis and sickly pallor, he looked a bit alarming. Daniel was actually sicker, but he doesn’t complain as much. As our friends M&R have no children, it occurs to me that they may not have regarded our children’s behaviour in quite as kindly a light as we did but there you go, someone has to pay their pensions.
The following day, I decided that we should use the pool in M and R’s apartment complex because I am shameless. I turned up with the Princess and Michael (Daniel was too sick and Mr. Waffle stayed back at the hotel with him) and disturbed our friends sending them scurrying about to do our bidding (hold Michael; find the Princess a float..). Once our extensive needs were met they retired from the lists in exhaustion. As they are childless, it hadn’t occurred to them that a pool where the water, at its shallowest point, was above my waist, probably wasn’t ideal for the under 5s. I was tempted to turn tail but the Princess and Michael were very keen to get in so I hopped in with them, putting the Princess on a long tube like float found by R and keeping Michael in my arms. No sooner were we in, of course, than the Princess announced that she wanted to do a poo. So we all climbed out again and went to the toilet. I had to put Michael down to wipe her bottom and, of course, he slipped and fell on the wet floor leading to profound unhappiness. Have you ever tried to wipe a four year old’s bottom while holding on to a squealing one year old? It is marvellous. Back to the water. The Princess got on very well with the float but Michael squirmed in my arms trying to get further in. I put him sitting on the edge of the pool for a moment and seizing his advantage he began running around the edge as he had seen the big children doing. There wasn’t time to get the Princess out so I ran after him, wading about in the pool. It was terrifying. Fortunately, he decided to jump in while I was there to catch him (something he also picked up from the big children). He is, however, too little to know how to jump so he just threw himself in on his tummy. Oh how he enjoyed it, oh how disappointed he was that Mummy wasn’t going to let him do it again. And how vocal his disappointment. His loving sister was really very sweet to him trying to cheer him up. “Here” she said “have my float”. And promptly sank. I yanked her from the bottom of the pool, spluttering and horrified (all three of us) while hanging on to Michael on my hip. I don’t think she really believed that she couldn’t swim. With a child in each arm, I hauled us out of the pool. The Princess sat wrapped in her towel in deep shock. “I could have drownded” she said to me reproachfully. She sat in silence a little longer, pondering this limitation of her powers. “But I wouldn’t have drownded” she said. “No, of course not, because Mummy was there” I said. “No” she said, “because I was holding my nose like this [untrue] and kicking my legs [possibly true but unlikely]”. She smiled and leapt up, reassured of her powers. She didn’t show much appetite to go back in the pool though.
One thing we have learnt from this holiday is that hotels with small children are a disaster. We have had very positive experiences in Italy in the past but that was different as the local hotel owner was, like everyone else in the small Sicilian town where he’s from, a good friend of my sister-in-law’s father (the piccolo cugino’s grandfather, try to keep up) and cooked odd things for us at all kinds of times and did laundry and generally exerted himself above and beyond the call of duty. Though the staff, in the parador in particular, were very helpful, it wasn’t quite the same.
Meals presented us with fundamental problems. Lunch in Andalusia is served from 2 and dinner from 9, at the earliest. The boys eat at 12 and 6 and it was impossible to persuade them that the new times might suit. We picnicked a lot in the hotel room, stocking the minibar with tortilla and ham. While Spanish ham is second to none, if I never see a ham and cheese sandwich again, I won’t care. Michael, I have to say, illness or no, ate ham for every meal with a very good grace. “Jamon, jamon!” said his sister. “Am” said Michael appreciatively. He nearly keeled over from excitement when we went into a bar with hams hanging from the ceiling “am, am” he cried pointing as far as the eye could see. This is the first Spanish holiday from which I will return home quite a bit lighter than when I started.
Then there was socialising which went much better. Mr. Waffle’s mother was an au pair in Paris in her teens (stay with me here) and she made friends with a Spanish au pair. Over the years they stayed in touch and when the Spanish woman’s daughter needed to learn English, she came to Dublin and met her mother’s old friend and then she met an Irish man, married him and carried him back to Andalusia. We see them and their two children every Christmas and they are delightful, which would explain why they drove for an hour and a half to meet us for lunch in La Herradura. I think it all went swimmingly or so the photos appear to indicate. Alas, I had to retire to the hotel with two howling and unhappy boys – more ham and tortilla. The hiberno-hispanic family came equipped with presents for our girl and boys. Of course, we hadn’t thought to bring anything. Alas. And their presents were such a hit. The Princess loves this book. Their two little girls are 8 and 5 and they are extraordinarily pretty children. The older girl has also got the sweetest disposition and spent ages trying to cheer up the boys, in vain. The younger girl may well be very sweet also but I have to say in her robust attitude she reminded me much more of my own daughter who is many things but only sweet when it suits her.
The Spaniards were very kind to us. “Guapa” they said to the Princess. “Guapa” she agreed. As always, our daughter was a stickler for accuracy. In Andalusia, the final Spanish s leads a fugitive existence. “Adio” would say the Spaniards. “Adios” she would correct. “Gracia” they would say. “Gracias” she would snap.
There were good things about the trip. The Princess had a wonderful time. When we split forces and one of us went with her, we had fun on the beach, in the pool, occasionally even eating. But the boys were deeply miserable. Even on Sunday, when they were nearly better, Michael howled for a good hour as we tried to find somewhere to give us a ham sandwich in Almunecar at 12. Saintly Daniel fell asleep in despair.
By far the best bit of our time away was Sunday evening. There were nearly 80 people over for M and R’s joint 50th, almost all of whom, incidentally, appear to have invested in high quality apartments in Spain. Miraculously, the children were sufficiently recovered to leave them with a babysitter and to mind them marvellous M dug out a cousin’s teenage daughter from La Herradura who spoke perfect Spanish and perfect English (what it is to have relatives everywhere, he’s like Charlie Haughey).
M and R will never get married because even if Ireland allows some kind of civil partnership in the future, R, who is profoundly conservative in some ways, would deeply disapprove. So this was like their wedding, in a way. There were toasts. There was a very elaborate Spanish menu (food! no ham for me, thanks), there was flamenco dancing, there were speeches, there were table plans. Need I say more?
I thought I would know no one but I have known M and R for nearly 20 years and I discovered that over this time, I’ve got to know a lot of their friends and relations, they like to mix people. I first met M when I was a lowly apprentice solicitor and he was a partner. He made me get him a lunchtime sandwich once which was a low in our friendship and something he has been paying for ever since. I was only comforted by the brightest solicitor in the practice telling me that when he was an apprentice he spent his time collecting his master’s dry cleaning. Still M had to pay and, I think I can say he has done so. Over the past 17 years, he has bought me lunch innumerable times when I was poor and needy and even when I was not (they had got into the habit), he and R have had me to stay many, many times. They allowed me and Mr. Waffle to live in their lovely house in Dublin while they went to work in exotic locations [once I asked R for a reference, because not only are they charming, they are important too and he said “Dear Anne, I would give you a reference for anything except gardening”, so we were bad tenants to boot]. We got married while we were living there. M sang at our wedding. A lot of people still think that their house is our house because of all the parties we threw there. Even when M and R returned to their house, they still encourage us to hold a joint Christmas party there every year when we came home from exotic Belgium. For years, on Christmas Eve, M would drive me from Dublin where we both worked to our families in Cork. We had such fun. Gallingly, he always stopped in Mitchelstown to see an old friend from college and his wife: three hours into the drive and only an hour to Cork (I was glad though when I saw his Mitchelstown friends at the party – see there is a point to these things sent to try us). When I go back to Dublin without the children now, I always stay with them and not just because their house is convenient and still feels like home. They are the easiest people to be with, entertaining, undemanding, kind, exceptionally generous and interesting.
And they had a great party full of interesting people: the French man working in Gaza whose parents run a B&B in their chateau; the former UN worker from Bosnia who stands a good chance of being elected to Parliament in Australia later this year; loads of lawyers of varying degrees of eminence and on and on and on. I was delighted to meet M’s nephew and niece who are half Spanish, from nearby Grenada, and whom I had met 10 years previously on a Christmas Eve trip to Cork. Then they were 3 and 6 but now they were 13 and 16. I did that very annoying thing exclaiming and exclaiming how big they’d got and they were patient with me. I was very nearly tongue tied on seeing his niece who was a pretty child but is the most beautiful 16 year old I’ve ever seen in my life. Quite extraordinary. M’s 92 year old father was also there. He made a great speech and later when I was chatting to him confided to me that he was, however, getting on, he had given up shooting when he missed a pheasant earlier this year. Impressive but a little unnerving, my parents live in Cork too, you know.
The following day, Monday, our trip home was mercifully without incident. The boys were surprised and delighted to see their home again and ran around checking that all the furniture was still there. Even the Princess was pleased to be back. I wouldn’t have missed the party for the world but it was very nice to be home. This made it even more galling that today, Wednesday, I had to travel for work. It has perhaps not been a spectacularly good day. My flight was delayed by 4 hours and I missed my meeting. On the plus side, since Michael gave me his conjunctivitis, I looked to my colleagues as though I had been weeping all day at the pain of arriving late. I also think I feel the onset of tonsillitis. Alas.
If you are still reading, you are a hero. Thank you.