Christmas for ants


I am writing this on the patio of the house we’re renting for two weeks in the South of France. As I type a bank of thick black cloud is heading this way from the small row of mountains to the north, and there’s a slight chill breeze in the air. This is the first sign of potential inclement weather we’ve had in the 8 days we’ve been here, and to be honest it’s not entirely unwelcome. It’s been pretty hot for the last few days, although with our own private pool in the garden, it’s not been too difficult to cool down.

Not too difficult, although still pretty difficult mind you. Because when you’re on holiday with four small children everything is a drama. Back in the good old days of holidays pre children, you’d get back from a hot and sticky day out exploring your environs, and jump straight in the pool to cool off. Now, it takes four days of working up the courage to go out exploring, and when you do finally get around to it you’re reminded why you were so reticent – rural France was not built with double buggies in mind, so there’s an awful lot of carrying involved, as well as trying to remember drinks, change bag, snacks, all while trying to keep track of a hyperactive, accident-prone four-year-old and a hyper-sensitive six-year-old, both of whose primary objective on any day out is to seek out like laser-guided missiles every gift shop and ice cream stall this side of the Seine. When you finally get back, exhausted but gratified from having braved the world outside your villa, all thoughts of washing off the hot sticky day by plunging into a lovely, cool, azure oasis are abruptly put on hold. There are two nappies to change (oops, did we really forget to check what they’d been up to in the knicker department throughout the entirety of the day out), two babies to cook for and then feed, two children to figure out a way to keep entertained while repeatedly telling them it’s only a few more minutes until they can go in the pool, then what seems like an endless round of tidying up and sweeping underneath the chairs where the babies have just greeted the tea you’ve lovingly prepared for them by picking it up by the fistful and determinedly throwing it on the floor, before arriving at the heartbreaking realisation that there’s no way on Earth you can get away with not bathing them tonight after they’ve been crawling around in ochre-coloured sand and sweating in 34 degree heat. Once they’re clean and finally in bed you have no choice but to ignore their plaintiff wails in disgust at the concept of being separated from the rest of the family, as you wonder whether you still have the energy to get into your swimming trunks, and while doing so realise that the novelty of the idea of jumping into the pool at the end of a hot day has entirely worn off and now you’re just doing it because you had decided two hours ago that you really wanted to. Thirty seconds after finally getting into the water, while contemplating the fact that it would have been nice in the late afternoon when you were really hot, but now the sun’s gone down and it’s late evening and actually the water’s a bit bloody parky thank you very much, you then have to engage in a lengthy explanation of why daddy doesn’t have the energy to play the diving game, and yes I did promise but it will have to wait until tomorrow now.

The dark clouds I saw on the horizon as I started writing this have just started depositing little droplets on the screen of my iPad, so I had better continue this inside.

OK, screen dried, me safely deposited in a nice comfy armchair (why don’t I have one of these at home?), now where was I? The impression you’d get from what I’ve written so far is that we’re having a horrific time, but we’re not at all. It’s really quite lovely, just totally exhausting and it keeps hitting me just how incredibly far removed it is from the relaxing summer holidays you dream of, and which we used to be so good at long ago before we had children. Whether it’s mooching round the shops and cafés of a Tuscan hilltop idyll, sipping cocktails on a Caribbean beach, driving directionless around the hills of California, these are all memories that flood back into mind in the few moments of P&Q we manage to steal here, when the babies are having their afternoon nap and the big boys are safely ensconced in front of a DVD. But these moments of fantasy are usually rudely awakened after precious few minutes by a “daaaddy, can you wipe my bottom” or “daddy, watch me jump into the pool for the four hundredth time today in a slightly different way.”

The main thing that gets us through the day here in booze, in copious quantities. The local plonk is Côtes de Provence rosé, for which you struggle to pay more than 3€ a bottle, and which is significantly more delicious than the vast majority of other wine I’ve ever tasted, not to mention as drinkable as bottle of Evian. As far as I’m concerned, it would be rude not to open a bottle around lunch time, i.e. midday. Given that we’re rarely out of bed much before 10 I guess you could argue that we’re bordering on the alcoholic, but hey, we’re on holiday.

The days are punctuated by mealtimes. Actually punctuated probably isn’t the right word. It’s more like dominated. The babies are generally screaming blue murder by the time we get them up as it’s been 15 hours since they last ate/drank and they are quite frankly appalled by the shockingly poor parenting skills that would leave them in bed a second past 7am in the name of attempting to get some holiday R&R. How dare we. So we rush to give them breakfast, followed by the big boys and finally us. About three hours later we decide it’s time to feed twins again as the only way we can cope with the afternoon is to get them into bed for a hopefully lengthy afternoon nap. They generally flat out refuse to eat any lunch, being firmly of the opinion that they’ve only just finished breakfast and what the hell are you doing trying to feed us again so soon, you rubbish parents. Once they’ve finally screamed themselves to sleep, we feed the rest of us, a process which tends to take up the majority of nap time, so within a few minutes of any planned afternoon rest time, a desperate cry, or two, finds its way down the stairs and it’s time to entertain the little’uns again. Before you know it it’s time to feed them yet again, and it was their tea this evening which prompted the surreal-sounding title of this post. You see the climate here is so lovely that we’re often tempted of an evening to move their highchairs out on to the patio for a little dinner al fresco. And the ants of Provence must think it’s Christmas every day that the Hirschkorn twins are in town, thanks to the aforementioned sport of liberally depositing the majority of the contents of their plates (and often the plates themselves, too) on the floor. There are an awful lot of ants here, and they appear within seconds of even the tiniest droplet of fruit juice hitting the ground. But they haven’t had to make do with tiny droplets. Today alone they’ve been treated to great big hunks of baguette, scrambled egg, ketchup, fruit purée, fish fingers, chips, carrots, barbecue sauce, salmon, and Prince biscuits. I can happily report that salmon is a particular favourite of the provencal ants, with swarms around one chunk that fell from barbecue (my fault this time, not the twins) to rival any gruesome horror flick.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, we are having a lovely time. The highlights so far have been mostly, apart from the wine, getting to spend real quality time with the children, all four of them. I’ve been teaching son number 1 to play chess and I can see that he’s going to have a real gift for it. I’ve been helping son number 2 to get over his fear of being in the water without arm bands and he’s making real progress. Twin 1 has been hard at work on his very recently acquired skill of walking, and spending time with his parents has really brought out the sweet, jolly side of his personality. And twin 2 has just been making us laugh and coo with his limitless bags of charm and good humour. On top of all that, I’ve got to spend real time with my wife, not in front of the television, and it’s been lovely to steal the odd moment in amongst feeding, cleaning and entertaining to remember some of the things that brought us together in the early days.

Well, another day is over, and if we manage to make it out of bed any reasonable distance before midday tomorrow, then another day out exploring Provence beckons, so I’d better call it a night.