Showing Them Europe

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

The kids and I are seven hours into what should have been an eight-hour train journey, three hours from our destination, and we ran out of water a while ago. The top deck of the train is airless, the sun blazing in through the big windows. Though the seats are comfortable, you can’t buy refreshments on board, and it’s a long way to Bruges. As Max, Charlie and I arrange ourselves and our backpacks around a table and the wide sunlit fields begin to wheel past, I wonder how to delay the moment they notice they’re thirsty.

Before we left, three weeks ago, I was nervous: being the only adult made me a single point of failure. What if I got ill, or injured, or mugged? What if the kids hated Interrailing? I hoped they’d end up with the sense of the generosity of the world that travel had once given me. But recently, at home, fights and tantrums erupted over something trivial almost daily. What if I was just dragging them around Europe so they could vocally hate it, each other, and me, in a variety of embarrassingly picturesque settings? How could I defuse the inevitable discomforts? It was taking a risk.

Things started well: Paris delighted the kids, from the quirky decor of our Airbnb to the sudden downpour while we were buying macarons. Max took pleasure in leading us to the right platform at every Metro station, watching the stops closely and telling us when it was time to get off. Charlie was impressed by the sheer reality of the Eiffel Tower, eager to spend all his money on kitsch depictions of it for everyone he knew. I had to rein him in.

But the TGV to Nice was too much for Charlie, and his tantrum in our small hotel room was everything I’d dreaded. “I want to go home!” he yelled interminably. I hoped the walls were thick. He seemed to be savouring his anger and distress, utterly immersed in dramatising them as loudly as possible. Max advised me, irritably, how to deal with his younger brother, and when I ignored his advice, wanted to be allowed to beat him into submission. Three days in, and I’d failed already. It was all going to be like this. I tried to mask my despair with calm confidence.

Maybe it worked; maybe he just felt ready to move on. An hour later Charlie was dancing down the wide tramline-engraved streets, ludicrously cool with his blue-mirrored sunglasses and his diamanté tricolour Eiffel Tower pendant. The evening sunlight sweetened everything: the art deco buildings, groups of bright-eyed teenagers, parents herding toddlers, sleek elderly couples with precise little dogs. Everything was infused with fresh air and tinted the colour of honey. We ate outside, Charlie leaning back and clicking his fingers to the busker singing “Bamboléo” on the corner, Max wandering over to listen up close. A group of acrobats came to tumble and leap nearby, ending with flamboyant backflips over a rope of flames; the boys held their breath watching.

For dessert we took crêpes to the Promenade des Anglais, leaning on the railings by the sea. It was dark now and the coloured lights in the rollerbladers’ wheels as they zipped past echoed the lights of planes rising over the bay. “Let’s come back here,” Max said, waving his spoon expansively. Charlie announced: “Nice is my favourite place in Europe.”

Now, our bottles may be empty but we’re replete with happy memories. All round Europe, the kids exclaimed over straightforward things. French bread! Double-decker trains! Staying up past 10pm! Bidets?! Policemen with guns! Gelato! Mountains! Trams! Public water fountains! Couchette berths! Hotel buffet breakfasts! I’d thought I’d be showing them Europe; I was wrong. We’re discovering it together. It’s like having two personal spiritual assistants whose job it is to wake me up to the world.

Seven hours after leaving Hamburg, the boys are tired but peaceable. I’m trying not to anticipate their reaction when they realise there’s nothing to drink. Then a young North African man across the aisle gestures to me, smiling. He has a two-litre bottle of water. Pass me yours, his gesture says, I’ll fill them up. I’m astonished. Are you sure? I try to telegraph my gratitude. Sure, he says. We thank him, inadequately, in English and French. “No problem,” he says. “Sister.” He puts his hand over his heart, the way Moroccans do.

In Bruges, a few hours later, Charlie spots a horse-drawn tourist carriage clip-clopping along by the city wall, and exclaims, “Look! A chariot!” I look, and I look at my sons looking.

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.