We’ve just come back from a three night holiday in Colmar, France. Well, it wasn’t exactly a break. It was more of a change of scenery. Travelling with toddlers is never relaxing. It is like going on a trip with two orangutans. I braced myself and had low sightseeing expectations but it was in fact a fabulous time. We spent a day in Europa Park in Germany which was one giant magical, happy moment.
I would love to love France but I find it to be a dive in comparison to Switzerland. France is like Switzerland’s lazy nephew who drinks too much, borrows money and is unable to hold down a decent job. Nephew France is worse for wear with his permanent five o’clock shadow, yellowing teeth and wiff of halitosis. I enjoy spending short periods of time in the company of France but I’m also relieved to say goodbye and head back home over the border into clean, square and rules-based Switzerland.
The parts of France I adore are in the countryside – the Alps, Provence, rural villages and the winelands. Except for the historical, touristy Old Town sections of French cities, built up areas look tired and shabby. Many of the buildings are cubes with windows and appear to be inspired by the design of a cereal box.
Al and I are extra observant and alert when we travel. We notice things that would perhaps pass us by normally. We become more judgemental and snobby than usual. ‘Why are there so many pharmacies in France?’ we wonder. ‘Check out that butt ugly building’, we may say or ‘If I had to live in that grotty block of flats, I would kill myself’ or ‘Have the French ever heard of bins?’ or ‘This area feels more like Abu Dhabi than France’ or ‘Is there anywhere in France where the customer service doesn’t stink?’
On the way to Europa Park, we took a back route and didn’t cross through a big formal border post. We knew immediately when we were in Germany. The difference between the two countries was like night and day. I love the order, discipline, cleanliness and pride of Germanic countries. It is no wonder that Germany is the most successful country in Europe and the preferred destination for refugees.
Switzerland is a calm and civilized place. My neck of the woods is not for right for someone who thrives on city action and vibe. I love the quietness but sometimes it can seem so still, like almost dead. I often wonder how businesses make money here but they aren’t bothered and even shut up shop for a few weeks over the holidays.
So many small businesses here seem empty and I sometimes, such as in the case of the new juice shop, feel obliged to personally keep them afloat. Niche shops, like newsagents or some cafes, never appear to have any customers. When I go to my highly reputable GP, there’s never anyone else in the waiting room. Megan attends a fantastic art class on Thursday afternoons all by herself. We went to a travelling playground one Friday afternoon. There were about ten massive jumping castles and no one to bounce on them. Megan and Jessica had the place to themselves for about an hour before a few other children pitched up.
There are around 20 hairdressers in the nearest town and they always seem deserted. My hairdresser begins with some chitchat but tends to chop in silence. I’m generally the only customer. It is quiet and reverent in the salon, as if I’m in a cathedral. I remember getting a haircut last year in Durban in the crowded, chaotic salon of the local butch lesbian hairdresser. It was a loud and animated, truly African affair.
One thing that blows my mind in Europe is the tolerance of dogs in public places. Most hotels charge a small fee and your dog stays too. I like dogs but I reckon it’s unhygienic to have them in restaurants or on hotel beds. It’s completely acceptable to bring a big hairy dog into a restaurant but some waiters sigh and roll their eyes when I point to my children. Maybe it’s because dogs are likely to be better behaved.
It amazed us to see dogs in Europa Park, so much so that I took some photos. The park even supplied water bowls. Do dogs seriously enjoy crowded amusement parks?
The problem I find with dogs is that they pee against vertical surfaces (and Al, being the unobservant male that he is, tends to steer the pram straight through it). Fortunately dog urine doesn’t have that potent pinecone-like hone of cat wee, but it just looks awful, especially when it is inside an upmarket shopping mall and on the security pillar at the entrance to a department store. I took a photo of more urine mess next to a water feature inside the same mall (see below). Next time you are walking through a European city centre, notice the urine against walls and pillars. It’s everywhere. Gross.
The thing I love most about travelling is identifying the quirks and charms of each place I go. I enjoy analysing, criticizing and comparing countries. I can’t wait to visit my brother in the USA in August. America is so different and so foreign that it might as well be another planet.
When you have kids, it is sometimes easier to go to an all-inclusive hotel on the beach or just stay at home. But how can we when, from Geneva, we can be in either France, Switzerland, Germany or Italy in 4 hours? How cool is that!
Travelling can be time-consuming (sifting through all the reviews and options – urgh!) and expensive but it always gives me a jolt out my comfort zone and provides a pile of pictures, memories and happy moments that I can keep with me forever.