Travelling light with my son

Travelling light with my son
A rare quiet moment during our floating tub canal ride, Amsterdam.

Sifting through memories during lockdown is a reminder of eating out in a time gone by.

Now that I have a child, I can’t remember ever not having one. Although I was pushing 50 when Willem was born in 2003, it seems like he’s always been around. I’d somehow just assumed that I would never have a kid and then, suddenly there he was. My kid, nearly 17. How things change. I made a promise to myself that I would never write about my kid because I find it kind of annoying when people do, but the lockdown has turned everything upside down and I’m breaking my promise. So be warned, if you find reading stuff about other people’s kids annoying, stop reading now. I also remember saying I will not write about the lockdown, but guess what, I lied.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, Willem had what I’ve come to think of as one of those lockdown urges, and wanted to go through all our old pictures of him as a baby. So for a week or so our sitting room was a no go zone because of all the photos spread out on the carpet and every other surface. Not that I was entirely neutral. I think I ended up spending more time lying on the carpet sorting through pictures than Willem. What really struck me sifting through these memories is how much we’ve travelled and how strange and distant it all seems now that a different reality has set in.

By the time I was Willem’s age, our family trips had been to Durban, mostly Port Elizabeth (actually, Uitenhage, which doesn’t quite qualify as Port Elizabeth), to see my dad’s sister, and once to Cape Town. My first time in a plane was after my military service. So I had a lot of catching up to do. Before Willem was born Jill and I used to travel constantly and saw no reason to stop because we had a baby. I miss wandering all over European cities, pushing him along in his stroller. Okay, I know it’s a pram, but I did all my parenting here, so I’m going to call it a stroller. And how I miss that stroller. It was like having a pack horse along for the trip. Coats (we usually travelled in the off season), our backpacks, books I bought, everything got piled into the stroller with Willem. And of course, every time we lifted him out, the whole lot would keel over because I forgot that he was the counterweight. And using Willem in his stroller as a battering ram on crowded sidewalks was pure joy. 

Taking a little break from mowing down pedestrians, Rome.

One of the most important things for me about travelling is food, of course. From the moment Willem could eat solids, we gave him real food. He ate what we ate. And we took him to restaurants with us. When Willem was about four, we decided to go to Paris and I must say I was a little apprehensive about how the snotty Parisians would react to a toddler in a restaurant. The year before, we went to Switzerland to visit Jill’s sister and Swiss husband and I came to the conclusion that the Swiss hate kids. I vowed never to put my foot on Swiss soil again. So Paris seemed a bit daunting. Until we got there and discovered that the French adored little kids and actually treated them like grownups. What a revelation. He got free hot chocolate or ice cream everywhere we went. And we were like, what about us, don’t we get free drinks? We brought him here after all. The same thing happened in Spain, Italy, Holland, Portugal, even Germany. In my estimation, the most unfriendly destinations for kids are Switzerland, New York and San Francisco. New Yorkers and Bay Area freaks just hate having kids in restaurants.

A happy chocolate face at Chez Allard, Paris. With mum Jill.

But, back to the City of Light. We were meandering round the Left Bank one day looking for a lunch spot when I glanced up and saw Chez Allard, a famed old Paris bistro, right across the street. Not only was it my dream to eat in one of the old bistros, but had made their famous roast duck with olives from Patricia Wells’ cookbook, Bistro Cooking. Yeah yeah, I never cook from recipes. I lied. Anyway what the hell, we thought, you only live once. And this would be our Christmas present to ourselves. So I barged in the door, stroller first, to find myself in the kitchen. Oh shit, I thought, we haven’t even asked for a table and I’m acting like a stupid tourist. But no, everybody was all smiles, waved us through to the dining room and went on stirring pots and doing kitchen stuff. Turned out that the only entrance was through the kitchen. And we got seated. I dare you to try that at a fancy New York lunch establishment and see where it gets you. And this place was fancy. Not quite your working-class brasserie but packed with lawyers, antique dealers and editors all togged out in their power suits. And every one of them beaming ear to ear at Willem.

Hardly able to see over the top of the table, Willem wanted the escargots in garlic butter for starters and wolfed them down. A few months later, when Willem did his yearly check-up, the doctor asked him what his favourite food was. “Escargot,” came the reply. Should have seen the doctor’s face. Jill and Willem shared the duck with olives, of which she hardly got a bite, and I had the Dover sole with frites. One of my other dreams has been to eat real Dover sole cooked by a brilliant French chef. And this was it. Everything I imagined it would be. And to top it off Willem had chocolate mousse. So there we were, in a fancy bistro, chocolate all over our kid’s face and all the fancy Frenchies winking at him. Try that in New York too. We have a few pretty decent French bistros here in Chicago and since Allard it has become a tradition for us to take Willem to his favourite one for escargots and skate wing on his birthday. Which of course is not going to happen this year.

Afternoon ice cream on the boulevards, Paris.

This was before Airbnb got really big, but we rented an apartment on Rue Saint Severin right next to the church Saint Severin built in the 13th century with a famous palm tree-like column in the apse and divine stained glass windows. When I say next to, I mean from our front door to the always open back door of the church was about four metres across a little alley. I took Willem over there every evening before cooking dinner to watch the stained glass windows glowing in the late afternoon light. So one afternoon we were sitting there gazing at the light when a choir started singing. We couldn’t see them from where we were sitting but it was divine. Suddenly I thought of Braam, Tjaart, all my friends who had passed away, tears rolling down my cheeks. Willem tugged my arm and said let’s go cook dinner, dad. Of course they built those churches for sentimental sods like me.

Well, dinner was a Bresse chicken which I spotted hanging in a butcher’s window earlier. Blue feet and all. All Bresse chicken are sold with their head and feet attached. It even had a little tag on its left leg with the farmer’s name on it. I was expecting the chicken’s name on it, seeing how much the damn fowl cost. I slow-roasted it with salt and pepper, all I had, and it was spectacular. They’re not kidding, those French, definitely the best kiep-kiep I ever tasted.

A year or so later in Amsterdam, we stayed in an apartment in the old Jewish quarter, close to Rembrandt’s house, just across the Amstel River from the inner city. The time when Jill and Willem talked me into renting a little boat to cruise the canals. What a nightmare. It was battery powered, you know, green tech and all that, but a bathtub with an oar would have been better. So there we were, putting up all these canals and suddenly under a bridge a huge canal tourist boat looms up because you can’t see around the corner. Dodge this way, dodge that way? The bloody tub had no power. I was a nervous wreck and cranky as all hell. So there we were putting along, dodging these long, slick tourist boats coming at us around corners, when suddenly we were spewed out onto the Amstel river with all kinds of huge river barges and stuff bearing down on us and I was zig-zagging like crazy in our little tub to avoid being rammed by some gigantic boat. They thought it was funny but I was fuming. Jill was muttering something about Captain Haddock. I also hate getting wet, by the way. God, was I happy to return that pathetic excuse for a boat.

Willem waiting for his daily cup of tea at our regular Amsterdam cafe.

On the way back to our apartment we stopped at a little bar on Prinzengracht for a drink. They had outside tables and being from Chicago we could take a little autumn chill in the air. Willem ordered tea and apple pie, put his feet up on the railing and watched the canal traffic float by. I sat there morosely pouring drinks down my throat glaring at all the amphibious Dutch maniacs and thinking what a lucky escape we had. So every late afternoon we ended up at the same café at the same table. Although the waitress had that sullen air of indifference that every self-respecting European waiter cultivates, she appeared with a cup of tea and apple pie as soon as Willem settled in with his feet on the railing. I noticed her lip twitching and I could have sworn she was smiling.

Over the years I’ve become less and less interested in seeing the sights when travelling. Instead of rushing from Rembrandt’s house to the Rijksmuseum and then over to stand in line at the Anne Frank house, I’d much rather park my butt at a café table and watch the world go by. Drink in hand, naturally. And I think that Willem understood that relaxing at the same place every day with no agenda other than watching the crazy canal traffic is how you get the pulse of a city. Of course, in those days there still was such a thing as a city with a pulse.

Willem had barely turned 12 when he asked if he could go on a school trip to France. I was a little peeved that he would even contemplate travelling without us, but what can I say. Kids grow up. Not that 12 was grown up, but still. Plus he couldn’t speak a word of French. He majored in Arabic and actually speaks and writes Egyptian Arabic. But they couldn’t think of a safe place to send the Arabic class so decided to send them with the French class. It was quite something standing at the airport and watching our little kid disappear through security and into the wide blue yonder. They were going to spend a week in Angers in the Loire Valley with host families, then a few days in Paris on the way back to Chicago.

One of the teachers kept a blog and when we read how familiar Willem was with Charles de Gaulle airport and knew how things worked and where everything was we started thinking he might be okay after all. His first night there we got a few whispered calls saying how lonely and far away he was but after that we hardly heard from him at all. One of the few times was a very indignant message saying his host parents thought that because they were French they could cook but they couldn’t cook at all and the food was terrible. So obviously he was okay then. On their last day in Paris the teacher wrote that they gave the kids three hours free time so that the teachers could do some shopping. I was flabbergasted. They cut a bunch of 12-year-olds loose in Paris for hours and she’s got the nerve to tell us? However, the blog continued, Willem went to a bistro on the Left Bank that he remembered from previous visits, and sat down at a sidewalk table to a plate of steak et frites. At least he didn’t order a bloody beer as well.

Lunch in Fes, Morocco, January 2020.

The following year the Arabic class figured out they could go to Morocco and Willem was totally fired up. Me, not so much. This sounds pathetic but not having been there myself I kept having nightmares of my kid being abducted by angry Berbers on camels, but I needn’t have worried. Willem was totally enchanted by Marrakesh, where they stayed, and this time he couldn’t stop raving about the food. Back here in Chicago he couldn’t wait to teach me how to cook a proper tagine. What the hell, I allow the kid to go on a trip overseas and now he wants to give me cooking lessons. One of the highlights of his trip was a cooking class they did at a non-profit organisation that works to keep young women off the streets by teaching them culinary skills so they can find work at restaurants or hotels. The kids each made their own tagine on a coal fire and had it for dinner. With fresh bread that the ladies baked. The experience made a huge impression on Willem.

And he did teach me something because I always made the classic mistake of thinking of couscous as a side dish. Tagines are always served with bread, or chips, surprisingly. And couscous is a dish on its own. This became very clear when we went to Morocco in 2019 after Willem finally managed to talk me into it. Not sure why he needed to talk me into it but I think I had this notion that going to Africa meant South Africa. From here, Europe is easy but going to South Africa involves some serious travelling. The fact is, from Chicago, Casablanca is just 20 minutes further than southern Spain.

We stayed in Fes for a week or so and did nothing but wander around the old medina and eat. The only time Willem didn’t order tagine was for breakfast, probably only because it wasn’t on the menu. It seemed like you could order a different tagine every day for a month and not run out of new options. I had a lamb tagine with coriander and cloves that tasted exactly like some lamb bredies I’ve had. Tagine and bread. Or chips. Actually there wasn’t even all that much couscous around. But the most wonderful thing was to see Willem come into his own. He was proud to show us around Morocco. We had showed him around Spain, France, Holland. Now it was his turn. 

Willem in cooking class, Marrakesh.

I constantly choked up a little seeing him so confident while ordering food or buying stuff in the Medina. And unbeknown to the locals, this American kid could understand what they were saying to each other. The ability to travel is a very precious gift that we were privileged to give to Willem and certainly something I didn’t have growing up in apartheid South Africa. And when I look at all these photos spread out on the living room carpet, it suddenly feels so out of reach again. Like a bygone golden age of travel. But at least we did it. Will we be packing our bags again any time soon? Who knows. DM/TGIFood


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