Day Trip to Belgium – Part I (Bruges)

imageWhen we first moved to the UK, kid and care free, a time when any discussion about an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep did not begin with the phrase “Remember when…”, we talked about how London’s proximity to the Continent would allow us to zip over to Paris for the day, enjoy some fine French cuisine and make it back to London  before the Eurostar turned into a pumpkin.  Regrettably and unfathomably, we squandered our opportunity to execute such a trip, and over a decade and three kids later, I can barely go to the toilet without a child joining me, let alone Paris.

But wait! Could there be a family-friendly trip equivalent to compensate for the missed opportunities of our pre-child days?!  Well, no, of course not.  So instead we packed up the car and headed to Belgium for the day…a somewhat aggressive endeavor and a poor substitute for steak tartare and a few bottles of Burgundy sans enfants.  But a driving day trip to Bruges, Belgium with three kids…so much family fun to be had! Uh..right?

My first misgiving hit me as soon as my alarm went off at 5:30am. “I could still be sleeping. I’ve voluntarily woken myself up. Why have I done this?” I consoled myself with the fact that our friends, who also have three children and were driving to Belgium as well, lived further away from the Eurotunnel in Folkestone and were likely feeling even more miserable than I was, having gotten 20 minutes less of sleep (I hoped). Ha! I had cheered myself up. And as my head cleared and the caffeine from my first cup of coffee kicked in, I was starting to get excited about the drive ahead.  We bundled our three groggy kids into the back seat of the car (our road trip clearly an exception to the cardinal rule of “never wake a sleeping child”), stuffed buttered toast into their mouths and off we went!

15 minutes later

Catherine:  “We forgot the stroller.”
Me:  “WE forgot the stroller or YOU forget the stroller?”
Catherine: “Don’t be a dick.  You could have packed it.”
Hatcher: “Mom, what’s a dick? Why is dad a dick?”
Me: “I’m not, mom is just angry that she forgot the stroller…and please don’t use that word.”
Catherine: *eye roll
Hatcher: “Dick dick dick dick dick”

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Almost everyone is happy to be in Bruges

With the London streets absent of cars, most people having had enough sense (or beer) to remain in bed at such an early hour on a Saturday morning, we made it to the Eurotunnel in just over an hour.  We checked in, drove onto the train (typically the highlight of our kids’ day) and were whisked under the English Channel for the 35 minute journey to Calais.  An equally uneventful and traffic-free morning in France and Belgium facilitated an arrival in Bruges, our first destination, in less than 1.5 hours.  After connecting with our friends, the group wandered Bruges’ meandering medieval streets (stroller-less, of course), the kids oblivious to their magnificent architectural surroundings and the parents only sporadically able to appreciate them, between tracking the kids and taking bets on which child was most likely to get hit by a bicycle first. When the children’s cheerful yelps mutated into whines and tears, we knew it was time for lunch.

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A rare quiet lunch moment

Now choosing a restaurant with 10 people, six of whom are kids under the age of nine, presents strategic challenges that do not exist when only adults eat out.  First, the list of requirements is much longer with six children and almost always includes an informal assessment of whether the group will even be welcome at the chosen restaurant.  After a quick recon of the area, made quicker by the increasingly loud groans of “I’m soooo hungry”, we narrowed our unsuspecting target down to a casual looking bistro called Beethoven on a square a few streets off the Grote Markt, with only a few occupied tables. After confirming, with a somewhat apprehensive waitress, that we could completely re-arrange their outdoor seating to cobble together, in tetris-like fashion, a table that could seat 10, we herded the kids to their seats.  I furtively  made eye contact with a patron seated nearby, the apologetic look on my face silently confirming the fact that we were about to ruin his peaceful lunch, and his return glare conveying a complete absence of empathy.

Dick.

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The lunch itself was a chaotic blur, but I recall that the food was surprisingly good; good food not being a top priority when “dining” with six children.  Harry and Hatcher both tried a mussel from my order of moules frites, Harry assuring me he loved it  with an enthusiastic thumbs up, while simultaneously gagging as he struggled to swallow. Huxley seemed content alternating between dipping his frites into ketchup and mayo, a meal I therefore considered to involve more than one of the four food groups.  No glasses were broken, no drinks were spilled and nobody was stabbed with a utensil.

Following lunch, in an act of supreme selflessness, the dads volunteered to patiently wait at a canal-side café in Jan van Eyck Platz with a couple of Trappist beers, while the moms took the six kids to the Chocolate Museum.  In my opinion a win-win situation for everyone although a bit unfair that the moms got to go to the Chocolate Museum.  We agreed that they should make it up to us later as we happily snacked on the chocolate that they had bought.

Thus ended our day in Bruges, and I couldn’t help but think, as I was contentedly pushing my youngest son in the stroller carrying the dead weight of my dozing youngest son in my arms, that the day had been a success.

But our day in Belgium wasn’t over, and we piled into the car and headed out to our next Belgian destination- the beach town of of De Haan.

TRAVEL STATISTICS:

London to Folkestone: 1 hour 15 minutes (0 stops)
Eurotunnel crossing-8:20am (Folkestone to Calais): 35 minutes with a slight delay
Eurotunnel ticket (Short Stay Saver): £56
Calais to Bruges: 1 hour 25 minutes (0 stops)
Getting lost/wrong turns: 0
Car sickness: 0

 

Driving Dad – Meet the Team

 

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HARRY

Age: 10
Road trip quote: “Cool kids don’t smile
Type of eater: Very picky; but will try food for money
Music preference: Top 40
Bladder control: 8/10 (strong)
Car sickness probability: 2/10 (low)
Favourite country: Spain
Pros: Eats his crusts

 

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HATCHER

Age: 5
Road trip quote: “I’m soooo hungry
Type of eater: Will try anything once; loves oysters
Music preference: Whatever Harry likes
Bladder control: 8/10 (strong)
Car sickness probability: 9/10 (high)
Favourite country: France
Pros: Can fall asleep anywhere

 

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HUXLEY

Age: 4
Quote: “That’s disgustin’”
Type of eater:    Cheerios, milk, french fries, pasta, ice cream
Music preference: Could listen to “Hello” by Adele for 5 hours straight
Bladder control: 1/10 (weak)
Car sickness control: 6/10 (medium)
Favourite country: TBD
Pros: Good at spotting animals from the back seat of the car

imageCATHERINE

Age: Beauty is ageless
Road trip quote: “Here’s the ipad” or “I just need a little nap
Type of eater: Hesitantly adventurous; no fish
Music preference: Any music that drowns out the screams of our children
Bladder control: 10/10 (perfect…like all moms)
Car sickness control: 10/10 (perfect)
Favourite country: France
Pros: Keen directional sense; and ability to change a nappy at 75mph

 

 

imageMATT (aka DRIVING DAD)

Age: Above driving age
Road trip quote: “No, you may not watch the ipad, just enjoy the scenery
Type of eater: Will eat anything, local delicacies preferred
Music preference: Anything but “Hello” by Adele
Bladder control: 9.5/10 (strong…but you never know)
Car sickness control: 10/10 (perfect…so far)
Favourite country: Italy
Pros: Late night driving; restaurant selection; can yell at children while changing lanes

Driving Dad – The Beginning

That is ridiculous” was my first reaction upon hearing that our friends, instead of simply hopping on a two-hour flight from Heathrow Airport to Geneva and renting a car upon arrival, were instead going to drive from central London to Switzerland for a ski holiday; 12 hours on the road?…“Why would anyone do that? We will never do that.”

And now we do that…all the time.  And we love it.  In this context, “we love it” describes how I feel and how I think the rest of my family should feel.

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Who’s ready for a road trip?!

Having moved to London over a decade ago, the easy access to Europe has been, and continues to be, just too tempting.  Throw in the cost of plane tickets for two adults and three children and driving becomes a more logical option for frequent travelers who like prefer back roads to the beaten path.

I can’t get enough of our European road trip adventures despite the numerous pee break requests, the inevitable vomiting and the incessant whining and complaining; sometimes my kids can be annoying too.  Actually, my wife is hesitantly supportive and enthusiastic of our European road trips, and our three sons (ages 8, 3 and 2) if properly bribed, can feign excitement about anything…for at least 7 minutes.

For the last few years we have gone on road trips every chance we get; long haul trips (12 to 20 hours) from London to the Continent and shorter day, overnight or weekend trips within 4 to 8 hour radius of London. Driving Dad and family are constantly on the move.  I was told, by less adventurous friends (*yawn), that having one two three kids would be the death knell to our frequent travels.  But they weren’t, we just changed our mode of transportation.

Driving to a destination 15 hours away is probably appealing to very few people.  Throw in three active kids and that number of people gets even smaller. But all you have to do is sit back and read about our travels.  And who knows, maybe you will be tempted to hit the road yourself.

As featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Wall Street Journal’s Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero