Two Terrible

I don’t want to tempt fate but, so far, the two’s have been anything but terrible.

I mean he’s had his moments like we all do, but largely it’s been all rather jolly. As usual, this is due to a combination of circumstances but the main driver behind this new wave of optimism is based around successful communication. Over and above preferred foodstuffs, he can now specify what he wants to wear and when he wants to wear it, chronicle the finer points of what he wants to do in terms of playing, staying or going and, most recently, tell us directly when he wants to go to bed, even if he doesn’t want to.

The main issue of discontent is the phone, or ‘own’ as he initially calls it, usually before shouting ‘own, own, own’ over again in increasing intensity before shrieking ‘OWN!’ in a flood of crocodile tears. I must admit, he’s very good. It’s very easy to say ‘no’ and distract him with one of those new-fangled books but, to our shame, far easier to give in and let him have it while we carry on with our lives in peace.

The phone is especially useful when we’re travelling, on a flight, on a train/coach/car to-and-from airport and all the hanging around associated with budget-air travel. Note ‘budget-air travel’. Reading back, you’d be under the misapprehension that we’re permanently sunning ourselves in foreign climes (with unlimited resources) and this needs to be addressed, here and now.

For a kick-off, the frequent sojourn to Italy is family-based: we’re staying at the family home so there are no accommodation costs involved. It costs less to fly to Bergamo Milan from Stanstead on Ryan Air than to take a train north of Watford and the to/from airport costs at either end are kept in check by both our location in East London and family/friends once in Italy. And, if you really know what you’re doing, you can eat for next to nothing if you know the right bars in which to order aperitivo.

This fantastic invention probably has its origins in Ancient Greece before arriving in Ancient Rome but wasn’t quite the drinkies-with-friends-before-dinner (or lunch) as its know today. Until the invention of Vermouth by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in the 18th century, aperitivo was more about the higher echelons of society whetting their appetites with nibbles and drinks before a big meal. Vermouth popularised aperitivo, not only was it delicious and complex, it was affordable; now anyone could enjoy a snifter before their tea.

The modern version of aperitivo began in the 1930’s with, essentially, a brilliant advertising campaign by Campari, it became fashionable and bars and restaurants began to serve their cocktails with ever-more fancy finger foods to woe patrons into dining and, well, show-off a bit.

These days aperitivo consists of spritz, typically Campari or Aperol mixed with soda water and sparkling white wine, served with food that can range from some crisps or nuts to plates of meat, cheese, sandwiches, tarts, pizza and anything in between and beyond. North Italy, especially Milan, is the best place to go but between roughly 11am and 2pm, 5pm and 9pm anywhere in Italy is fair game.

Stating the bleein’ obvious, drinking in Italy isn’t like drinking in a British boozer (though somewhat ironically, the Romans brought wine bars to the UK some 2000 years ago, these became alehouses and so on) for a start, parents with kids aren’t regarded as a fodder for social services and in spite of the craft-beer thing making tiny ripples, it isn’t all about beer; aside from the spritz, wine is cheap, plentiful and delicious and the constant dribble of complementary savoury snacks fortifies one’s resolve.

“So why not fuck off to Italy then?” Said the bloke stood waiting at the bar. “…And that’s another thing, you order at the table and they just bring you all this stuff, and they don’t expect a tip either. Pardon?”

There’s the thing, you see. It’s only when you get out of the UK you realise the pub is unique, whether it’s technically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ isn’t the issue, there isn’t anything like it in the world because it’s a rooted institution that has grown from the ground up over centuries…. For example, about the same time that Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 1300’s, King Richard the 2nd himself introduced the pub sign making it easier for passing travellers to stop for a beer and a chinwag/punch-up, firmly establishing the pub, as Samuel Pepys said some 300 years later, ‘the heart of England’. The Dutch and the French had their coffee houses, the Spanish and the Italians had their wine bars but only England (spreading to Wales, Scotland and Ireland) had the pub.

That said, pubs aren’t for kids, the bars of Italy and Spain are much more family orientated (some more than others, of course) and therefore a lot easier to plop the little fellow down in front of the ‘own’ and feed him little snacks while his parents get gently pissed on spritz (pristzed) but, all said, nothing beats the good old pub and I don’t know why.

Returning to Italy, the better half bought me a ticket for the MotoGP at Mugello. A few years ago, I used to write about MotoGP but hadn’t actually seen one live. You see, the British leg of the MotoGP is at Silverstone in Northamptonshire so, in addition to the fact that it’ll be raining all day, I’d rather save the hundred odd quid for a ticket, plus the cost of fuel getting there and back from London, and not get pneumonia in the process. It’s £30 to see British Superbikes at Brands Hatch in Kent, a pleasant hour there and back and it never rains there, ever… Apart from the trackday I did in early spring when it pissed down with such ferocity the rain was going up my pipe and the marshals had to stop the session. So, what better way to pop my cherry than at the Italian GP in Mugello, without question the best round of the lot.

We’d planned the trip a few months in advance, fly to the better half’s gaff in North Italy, stay there for a few days of sibling rivalry (another story, I’ll spare you) before driving to the east coast for three days on the Adriatic, passing through Mugello on the Sunday and back to the homestead the same day. The car, a sort of off lime-green Ford Ka, had recently been fitted with a new black bonnet following a collision a few weeks earlier so it resembled Mr. Bean’s mini, and wasn’t that much larger too.

How on earth we managed 800 kilometres and 12 hours plus is beyond me, especially when we factor in the little boy strapped in at the back.

Apart from a little sick-up following some particularly stunning but undulating, twisting roads in the Tuscan hills just outside Mugello (there were bikes flying past us, having experienced a similar ride a few years ago my envy realised itself in a stream of swearing) he either slept or watched endless streams of Peppa Pig (or ‘Pip’ as he calls it) to such an extent I had to buy more data for my phone. And I couldn’t have cared less, if he was happy then we were over button moon.

The only time he sort-of got the arse was when we arrived at Mugello and were forced to shoehorn him into a pram (once again Pip came to the rescue) after he’d been sat in a car for the best part of four hours.

Factor in our having just spent the previous three days frolicking under piercing blue skies in warm, crystal clear waters that chewed at a castor sugar shoreline then it’s a wonder he didn’t eject his screaming tongue. He just loves playing in water, his auntie got him a little bucket and spade and he couldn’t have been happier, especially as when he/we were done there were half a dozen little beach play areas -complete with slides, swings and his favourite, wendy houses- all conveniently located by pretty little beach bars that sold half a litre of ice cold prosecco for 4 euros, with complimentary snacks, of course.

We’d parked about half kilometre from the track on the kerbside as we were keen to avoid getting stuck in a car park after the race. The queues out of Mugello are a legend in their own right. It was almost 40 degrees and the walk with the pram mainly uphill, in certain sections the gradient was so extreme I was virtually parallel to the Tuscan earth as I pushed onwards, gasping for air like a dying fish

In 1999 I was at Brands Hatch to see Carl Fogarty win the World Superbikes championship amid 100,000 plus spectators, there was the same amount at the sixth Round of the 2018 MotoGP at Mugello but I don’t recall a medieval fog of yellow flares, bellowing fans and blokes with engines attached to sack trucks that’d be randomly fired up on mention of the GOAT that is Valentino Rossi. This was adulation on a scale reserved for megastars of popular music or evil cult leaders. For the entire time I was there the word ‘Valley’ was a constant in the breeze, when he appeared on screen, when his name was mentioned over the tannoy and most especially when he rode past, vast chunks of the assembled congregation would erupt in beatific praise, This adulation was matched only by the spleen-venting venom directed at world champion Marc Marquez which was actually rather shocking: I didn’t need any translation when it came to the extended middle-digits, caterwauling or boos that followed his every public action, but when I learnt they were shouting ‘you should die’ at the poor bastard I became concerned at the likely prospect of him actually winning.

Having secured a space overlooking the corner at the south-west aspect of the circuit (Correntaio) and as we were due to discover, slap bang in the middle of the Valentino Rossi fan club (a more intensified version of the shenanigans taking place elsewhere, worryingly) the little boy decided that the nearby standpipe was a far more thrilling prospect than boring old two-million-dollar motorbikes (or ‘booms’ as he calls them) and there he remained. Oh.

Thing is that he genuinely likes ‘booms’ but the GP bikes weren’t doing it for him, probably because they were some way off and punctuated by a screaming smoke-engulfed sea of Italian nutters. I had envisaged him on my shoulders clapping in explosive delight every-time the bikes shot passed, instead he was goofing around the standpipe by the bins at the top of the hill, laughing his little head off as he gleefully threw around handfuls of water while his mum, she who had bought the tickets and driven around half of Italy to get us here, stood by with a face like a wet weekend in Clacton.

Early on the race Marquez went down right under our noses, he was physically uninjured (mercifully) but the cheers of abuse from the Italian fans must have caused him harm emotionally. I cheered too, relieved he wasn’t going to get torn limb from limb if he won. In the end Rossi came a commendable third, though I was slightly disappointed because he was in pole and it would’ve been fantastic to see the crowds’ reaction had he won. The Italians weren’t too miffed mind you, Lorenzo (himself once just as hated as Marquez) won on a Ducati (an Italian motorcycle if you didn’t know) and to ice the proverbial torta, Italian Andrea Dovizioso’s brought his Ducati in second.

The long, hot slog back to the car was once again saved by Pip, when we finally reached la macchina we were relieved to discover that the traffic wasn’t too bad, I guess it took maybe an hour in heavy traffic before we were back on the freeway which isn’t bad, I’d heard of tales of people being stuck in their cars until the following morning. Not that I gave a shit, what an amazing day.

Back to then terrible-two thing, I’d forgotten to note that, suddenly, he hates going to nursery and has to be dragged out of my arms by the staff as he screams ‘daddy, daddy, no daddy’ (which is fucking horrific, by the way) and he’s grown a taste for soap. That is all.

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pret-air-porter

I’ve turned into airport ephemera: I’m one of those nameless ever-present creatures you half-see tripping over the bags under their eyes as they joylessly chase an infant around tables and chairs. About every ten minutes your eyes will be drawn to the shrill sound of an escalating scream, and in the midst of that, I shall rise wearily bearing a small wide-mouthed child following its collision with a chair leg, a table, a whatever-it-was.

Of the half-dozen or so flights he’s been on this was the first as a proper all-singing/dancing toddler. We’d already anticipated being one of those people that you’ll see walking up and down the aisle of a claustrophobic 737 with a determined infant but the airport lounge, whose only reason for existence is to facilitate pre-flight boozing, was never considered for a moment, and had it not been an issue it’d have remained incognito. In Stanstead, for instance, the ease of finding a high-chair in The Windmill public-house before we departed simply buried the free-roaming agonies of the bar/lounge at Bergamot-Milan.

This is typical of being a parent. You think you have everything sorted and in the case of travelling everything, quite literally, in the bag; then something (probably something that you could have foreseen if you weren’t already existing on sleep detritus whilst making Formula) leaps right out at you and knocks you sideways.

Most of the time these are small things, such as forgetting the wet wipes or a bib, for an entire airport lounge to slip the mind is either an indication of the sheer quantity of other stuff there is to do when travelling with a baby or just plain old incompetence.

If this all sounds like a bit of a non-disaster, I mean, so what if you have to chase a kid about for a couple of hours? Consider this. I hate flying, I mean really hate it. I used to self-medicate diazepam until I discovered booze was almost as effective, available at 39,000 feet, and I didn’t have to pretend to be friends with some salubrious character at the pub in order to get hold of it. I’ve subsequently worked out that I need at least an hour and a half in the bar before flying to calm my shattered nerves and am prepared to leave early in order to facilitate my needs.

Putting this into some sort of context, terrified I’d miss allocated drinking appointment at The Windmill, the National Express driver refused to take me from Stratford to Stanstead on the way out for ‘gesturing at him’. I’d like to make it clear, as I did to the driver, that I wasn’t ‘gesturing’ at him at all, merely flinging my arms about because I thought he was driving off two minutes before the scheduled departure time when he was, in fact, parking the coach. I had to summon all of my strength and appease him with theatrically profuse apologies which he only accepted on account of my family; my appointment with at least two double G&T’s had been saved.

The three glasses I’d envisaged at Bergamo-Milan were wholly disrupted by my having to follow a small chortling boy about an airport lounge, though I was occasionally able to guide him back to our table where sat my unenthusiastic glass of cool-ish prosecco. Ultimately I managed my booze quota with a bit of help from the better half so by the end I was stumbling after my little boy in as much danger of crashing into tables, chairs, whatever-it-was, as he.

Once on board the plane, following our having to re-arrange fellow passengers because fucking Ryan Air charges you extra if you want to sit next to the mother of your child, and therefore, the child, we took off. I was sufficiently relaxed to face the two-hours of aisle-walking once we’d hit the required height, not that it had really happened on the way out save a couple of inquisitive sorties to visit the hapless staff floundering at the back of the plane, I’d even managed to get a glass of ball-shrinking vino down my neck.

Then something unimaginable happened. He just fell asleep. For the whole flight he slept like, well, a baby. ‘Well I never,’ I said to myself, ‘who’d have thought, talk about swings and roundabouts, eh?’

“Yes, thank you. A bottle of the ball-shri… The red wine, please.”

Horse

I’m not at my best when it comes to dealing with sick children. Let me put that into some sort of perspective because it gives the impression that I’m handing the responsibility to the missus and carrying on as if all is tickety-boo. Actually it’s the reverse, I can’t focus on anything else to the point that things fall out of context and my bloody mind wanders into worse-case-scenario-world before being casually barraged from all sides by any manner of horror. At some point rationale will jump in to defend the poor psyche from itself, only for paranoia to remind the consciousness that, yes, it could really actually happen thus kick-starting another cycle of woe, and all of this while I try to make parmigiana.

This latest round of panic has been slowly accumulating as the boy’s barking cough entered into a fourth week. On the very day I thought that it was getting a bit better we went to a party, during which one of our friends noticed that he’d got rather hot. A thermometer revealed that he was one degree away from a trip to A&E so we gathered him up and brought him home. We monitored his fever throughout the night, he responded by coughing up his toenails and crying himself hoarse, to the point that the following morning he’d totally lost his voice.

It’s stating the bloody obvious that a child’s cry is indicative of how, even what, they’re feeling but I couldn’t have imagined how hard it is to, like, ‘parent’ without this crucial aspect of communication. You’ve no option but to just watch them, quite literally, all the time. The baby, in turn, is now reliant on being watched; all the usual distractions of toys, food and randomly-placed dangers are exchanged for monitoring the parental gaze, ensuring that they are visually accessible now that the audio has shut-down. This means that if you turn your back for a second, to prepare their food or have a little cry, you can guarantee you’ll look around to find a wide-open mouth occupying a little face that epitomises the agony of our modern world, accompanied by a tiny, whispering yell that seems louder than any of the (deafening) bands I’ve seen this year.

Mercifully all this snot and nonsense had cleared before we set off for Italy to see family and friends. Once we’re there we can relax and, ostensibly, eat and drink out until the wee hours with the little fella in tow. One evening, for example, we were sat in a restaurant until 4 am with half a dozen friends, one of them happened to be the owner of the joint and another was his wine merchant, both were keen for us to sample their fare. When the boy woke up he’d be fed, passed around, spoilt, and when he got tired we’d pop him in the pram and he’d sleep as we carried on pushing stuff into our faces.

This makes for a refreshing change, in London -or anywhere in the UK for that matter- most kids aren’t allowed in pubs/bars after, on average, 8 pm. I don’t take issue with this, for fairly obvious reasons booze/parents/babies don’t still well together and even if some parents can maintain a certain level of responsibility after a pint or two it doesn’t necessarily follow that all of them can. And that’s not factoring in the dangers presented by shitfaced revellers who shouldn’t have to be expected to play tippy-toe with a bunch of yelling kids. However, when there are children around in the evening the whole dynamic changes. People, knowingly or not, act differently and the atmosphere is much more congenial, calmer, friendlier and older generations are far more likely to be drawn into the mix adding to the convivial spirit of things.

Why this works in Italy and not the UK is because in Italy drinking isn’t confined to the singular act of ‘drinking’. For the most part it’s something to accompany lunch or dinner with colleagues, friends and family. In fact, it’s actually quite hard to just drink for the sake of itself, nine times out of ten it’ll be accompanied with some sort of complimentary foodstuff whether you asked for it or not, the most obvious example being that of Aperitivo. There are plenty of places in Italy where the accompanying hors d’oeuvres are so abundant you can skip both lunch and dinner in one fell swoop, and some of these little bites are properly delicious. Mind you, if you’re unlucky it’ll just be a dish of ready salted crisps, but even that helps deal with the nascent effects of the booze. Factor in a lack of specific licensing hours which single-handed kills the get-‘em-in-before-closing mentality and you’re far less likely to see inebriated people on the streets of Italy than in the UK. This may explain why liver disease in Italy is down by a third when compared to the UK. Having said all that British pub culture is unique and I wouldn’t have it any other way -not that I’ve a choice in the matter.

For all the joys of being able to holiday hard with a little boy there is the payoff when it comes to the travel. For the most part this particular journey was relatively straightforward; having done this a few times we’re getting the hang of best practice when it comes to travelling with a him. There is no particular formula outside of sating any concerns the boy has at any given moment, with hunger, thirst and/or fatigue being the primary suspects -all relatively easy to deal with. The bastard aspect is sleep-interruption because it’s in control of everything. Allow me to put this into some sort of context by using the return journey as an example.

Up at 7am Sunday, quick feed but no problem, the fifteen-minute walk to the bus station sends him off to sleep again -at this point I should explain that we usually get a pain-relieving lift to the airport but everyone was bollocked from the previous night, and unless you’re a banker taxis are out of the question. We wake him as we try not to wake him getting from the pram (which has to be collapsed and stowed away with all the luggage) to the bus. This goes down like a cup of cold sick, but after 30 minutes of feed/play on the bus journey he’s asleep, only to be woken at the airport as we attempt to lower him into his freshly assembled pram. The throngs of passengers and activity amuse him so we’re spared yells. Once we’ve dropped of the behemoth wheelie/suitcase thing -after having removed half of the contents because its overweight, again- we waddle to security with two seam-creaking rucksacks and a pram containing a freshly sleeping baby. This isn’t an issue because at Stanstead earlier, when he was asleep, they said it was fine to pass through, ‘no need to wake a sleeping baby’ said one officer with unaccustomed cheer… What? Oh shit, at Bergamo-Milan the pram has to be scanned separately so we have to wake him again, waahhhh etc.

By now it’s 10.30, the flight’s at 1-ish. We take a table near an eatery that serves prosecco and deliberate the latter. A couple of hours later after having eaten a sandwich and taken on the odd glass, we’re on our way to the gate. The little fella has been great, entertaining fellow passengers and generally being all smiles and squeaks, now he’s asleep we have to wake him to board the bloody plane, of course. And he doesn’t want to be on a plane at all. Nor do I for that matter.

Despite this (and a panic attack by the author) the flight back is relatively painless because we have three seats to ourselves. He wakes of his own accord just as we land, we disembark, load him into the pram that’s patiently waiting for him on the runway and take the 60’s vision-of-the-future that is the driverless rail link to the main terminal. He’s awake through customs and right onto the National Express coach because the Stanstead Express to Liverpool street isn’t working.

On the coach, its 1 pm, we’ve gained an hour in theory, he’s not just awake but really on it having taken a psychotic liking to the tray on the back of the adjacent seat. It makes a really loud ‘snap’ sound just as it opens and closes which the little fella thinks is better than anything else in the world. Of course, he’s not best pleased when we attempt to keep him clear from his new toy, ape and shit have seen each other and they’re up for it. We chuck snacks at him until he’s placated but it’s a hard hour-long journey. When we finally arrive at Stratford he is, of course, asleep and, of course, wakes when he’s re-placed in the pram after I’ve re-assembled it for the umpteenth, sodding time. We grab the rest of the luggage, nearly there, just the Overland to go and we’ll be home in less-than twenty minutes… But it’s Sunday, there is no fucking Overland.

The teeth-rattling Central Line train from Stratford requires no less than four lifts to get us onto the platform. Ten minutes later we’re in Liverpool Street with all our luggage and pram. And no step-free access. The better half takes care of the Wheelie Behemoth as I jam the two front wheels of the pram into the escalator stairs, lift up the back so its level, and up we go -it’s fine. At the top there is load of unplanned manual stairs, Jesus. As soon as I stop to contemplate our next move at least five people off their assistance, quite a shock when these things happen to a cynic. My wife takes the boy and I take the pram and we go back down for the WB which is inspiring suspicious glances.

2.30 pm, on the platform and straight on the train for the last leg home. Only ten minutes and the flight of stairs, WB, pram, and [arseholes] a sleeping baby at the other end to contend with. If we can just get him down the stairs without him waking up, we can get him right into our flat without a single step and, by our reckoning, should get at least an hour’s peace and calm… No chance.

We’re home.