Living the Drean

Joanne Wilson

© Copyright 2022 by Joanne Wilson

Photo of Copenhagen at sunrise by the author.
Photo of Copenhagen at sunrise
by the author.

There’s no place like home. Nothing truly compares to my bed with its thick memory foam mattress and if I’m completely honest, my own toilet. Home comforts, home cooked food, the familiar surroundings. Contented as I am at home in the UK, my thoughts persistently wander and dream of other places. As a child, I had a pile of travel brochures and would pretend I was a travel agent, organising the ideal holiday for everyone I knew. I still love to flick through brochures, search online and plan the ideal trip. However, these days I sometimes have the opportunity to actually go on those trips. This year for me has been the pinnacle, the complete icing on the cake for travel. It all started in January, when my husband accepted a new job and with just a few days notice he was suddenly given a year of gardening leave. Once I fully understood what that meant (a paid year off), I was giddy with excitement and went straight into organisation mode, flitting around and weaving together ideas. Our limitation was that we could only go away during the school holidays as we have teenagers in crucial educational years. We had a generous budget, with savings towards a special summer trip for when our eldest finished Secondary school, plus two years of not really going anywhere meant that we hadn’t spent anywhere near the usual amount of money. What a privileged position to be in and what a wonderful opportunity! I was determined to cram in as much travel as I could for the year ahead.

February half term week was coming up fast. Our half term breaks ordinarily tend to be rather low key. We had dental and vet appointments already arranged for that week. We quickly decided that a long weekend city break could be squeezed in. At the top of the dream list for most of us was Copenhagen, Denmark. Ever since I’d seen pictures of colourful Nyhavn and admired it in miniature form at Legoland, I’d imagined walking along the cobbled waterside, munching on a Danish pastry. My wish could finally come true. Flights and a hotel were promptly booked and I was thrilled that we’d be staying on Nyhavn itself. Travelling for the first time since the Coronavirus pandemic felt exhilarating. We boarded our flight wearing facemasks and were handed antibacterial wipes to clean our seatbelt and lap tray. We secured our jam packed cabin bags in the overhead cubby, ready for take off.

We arrived early in the evening and bought underground tickets to Kongens Nytorv Station. After a swift transfer, we walked from the city centre, our wheeled cabin bags clacketing along the cobbles noisily. It felt so refreshing to be walking around somewhere completely new to us. The evening was bitterly cold and a fine mist of rain was in the air. I was impressed with the organised cycle lanes of Copenhagen and found it pleasant to see such little traffic. Our hotel was indeed in the perfect location. I was awake very early to take pictures of Nyhavn at sunrise. The night before, we’d noticed how expensive eating out was in this city, so I was on a mission to eat as much as I could from the included breakfast. I also planned to sneak a piece of fruit away in my bag for a mid morning snack. From past experience, hotel breakfast buffets are generally not that great. This one was definitely an exception. Eggs cooked to order, fresh bread and pastries from a local bakery, fresh fruit, good coffee. Tears of joy almost fill my eyes as I think about it, even now. A Norwegian man who was a fellow guest, came over to talk to us and invited us to go and visit him in Norway sometime and offered to take us out on his old wooden boat. We wondered what he’d say if we were to actually contact him out of the blue one day for that boat ride. I’d love to try it out.

We climbed a tower to admire the city views, marvelled at an exhibition of artwork made out of plastic collected from beach waste, walked to the very underwhelming little mermaid statue (it was so much smaller than I had anticipated) and found a street food place to buy our meals at a reasonable price. We took photos of the beautiful streets and (for fun) took several, slightly less picturesque photos of us standing next to abandoned bicycles, discarded refuse sacks and walls of graffiti for our ‘alternative’ album. It all started when I asked my youngest son to take a picture of me on Nyhavn, “But don’t get the bin bags in please!”, I’d requested. Of course, he snapped a shot with the rubbish included. Why not then, make it a challenge to find other such scenes? I marvel at the lengths I’ll go to in order to bond with my teenagers.

The Easter holidays were our second travel opportunity. My husband requested a warmer climate this time and we wanted to choose something relaxing before the busy Summer term. The Canary Islands is the obvious choice for guaranteed sunshine in early April, not too far from the UK. I did my usual careful reading of reviews and found a reasonable package holiday to Lanzarote, staying in a villa within walking distance of everything we could possibly need. My eldest son spent most of the week inside the villa. My other son slept in until late. We at least managed to enjoy a family meal by the harbour each night. This mostly consisted of Tapas with wrinkly potatoes and a jug of Sangria. Our walk there and back was spent admiring the many local cats, stopping to fuss the most friendly ones. We went on a road trip in a hire car one day and experienced plenty of tight bends on high altitude roads, just like in the old cartoon, ‘Roadrunner’, except with plenty of lycra clad middle aged men on bikes thrown into the mix. The downside of the week was the nasty skin rashes that appeared after using the pool at our villa (the chlorine levels weren’t quite right). I vowed that in future I’d bring my own water testing kit, if indeed there was such a thing. That aside, we felt fully relaxed as we left. One week was enough though. Spanish tapas becomes slightly boring after consuming it for too many days. I would soon look like a wrinkly potato. We were glad to be home again. We’d missed the cat.

The next school holiday was May half term. Our sons had to stay at home to revise for upcoming exams. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, I took further advantage of our situation and asked my parents if they’d mind coming to stay with the teenagers and the cat. They agreed happily. Overcome with joy, I planned a road trip. We’d dreamed of doing a USA road trip one day when our children had left home. Now we had the opportunity to do a smaller version of it this year. New England seemed a sensible choice, given the length of flight for a week long trip. I had previously researched some of our chosen route, so I dug out my notes and continued my endeavours with online searches. A plan was solidified, bookings made and I was beside myself with anticipation.

We arrived in Boston Logan airport, picked up our hire car and drove up to Maine. We felt so free, out on our adventure together. We could eat wherever we liked and walk for as long as we wanted to for a whole week! Our first stop was at a beautiful 1800s guest house in Portland. We took breakfast sitting in the pretty bay window. We liked Portland a great deal. I had my first taste of lobster roll, visited the quaint lighthouse at Elizabeth Point, snapped pictures of the charming houses of the West End and when it rained one afternoon, we went to the indoor shopping mall just out of town. My excuse was the cold weather. I’d packed for a warm Spring only. The weather had decided to take a turn and drop its temperature dramatically the day after we arrived and I needed warm clothes.

After three nights in Maine, we ventured over to Vermont. The road signs warning of Moose and Bears built my hopes too high and I almost made myself dizzy, looking out of the passenger window as the car travelled along. Alas, a deer was all I spotted! We can easily see plenty of those in the UK. Besides my disappointment at not seeing a bear or moose, the scenery was breathtaking. Lush green hills that continued on and on. I wished to see a red barn, just like ones I’d seen in pictures and I hastily took random blurry photos from the car window each time I saw anything remotely similar to the one in my head. We stayed for one night in Stowe, surrounded by the green mountains. One night really wasn’t enough but the next hotel had been booked, so on we journeyed, down through New Hampshire and then on towards Boston, trying not to focus on how quickly the week was passing by. Traffic was heavy in Boston and everywhere seemed built up and loud after the tranquility of rural Vermont. Still, I liked Boston, especially the Beacon Hill area. We took a guided walk with a local, who pronounced it, “Borston”, which made the experience all the more authentic. The whole week we spent in New England is now fixed in my memory as one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Our eldest son had decided he didn’t want to go on a family holiday in the summer, no matter how much I tried to persuade him. My youngest son was desperate to go to The Yukon, Canada (or indeed anywhere it seemed, that meant travelling the world at our expense). I’m not keen on long flights nor connecting flights so I ruled out Yukon. Instead, I organised a road trip around Ontario for the rest of us. This was our most extravagant trip, because we had to choose flights during a peak holiday period. However, we knew that we’d probably never have a year like this again and would regret not taking the opportunity. Our first place to explore was Niagara Falls. The views of the falls were spectacular and I’m so glad we took a boat ride on the ‘Hornblower’ boat, which completely took my breath away. This boat takes you right up to the falls, where you can feel the wind and the spray on your face. It was absolutely exhilarating! The visitors on the Canadian side were given red ponchos, whilst the visitors on the USA equivalent boat ride, were given blue ponchos. We thought it would be great to wear our red ponchos on the other boat from the USA, just to stand out in the crowd, however we unfortunately didn’t have time for such schenanegans. I found the town of Niagara Falls itself to be rather tacky with its casino, high rise hotels, amusement arcade and viewing tower. It was slightly run down in places, although there were nicer parts of the town to be seen here and there. As we left to drive to the next destination on our route, we pulled over at a farm with a charming roadside stand that was selling freshly picked peaches. Oh my, those peaches just make my mouth water thinking of them even now! We then arrived in beautiful Niagara on the Lake with its historic clapboard houses. The streets were picture postcard perfect, clean and free from any litter. There was a pretty strip of recreation ground by Lake Ontario, where we enjoyed sitting, relaxing with a book and watching the sunset.

We had booked one night near Kingston to break up the next leg of our journey up to the Capital, Ottawa. As Kingston was the former Canadian capital city, we thought that it might be an interesting place to look around. We arrived at our hotel and decided that we were hungry and needed to eat dinner immediately after checking in. The hotel was on the outskirts of Kingston, so we decided to drive downtown for a good choice of eateries. We experienced one road closure after another, with confusing diversion signs that had us driving in circles until we couldn’t stand it any longer and went back to the hotel to eat in the bar there. It was perfectly adequate and we decided to simply use this as a resting place for the evening, then move on to Ottawa. Maybe we missed out on Kingston or perhaps we didn’t miss much at all! We have no idea. I spent a relaxing evening by the hotel pool, watching (on my phone) the final episode of an Australian soap opera that I enjoyed as I child, seeing if I could remember the characters that had come together for a reunion in the final episode. This is my main memory of Kingston.

On the way to Ottawa, we were hoping to visit a National Park in Quebec. We were excited about experiencing French Canada, albeit a brief encounter on our whistle stop tour of Ontario in just ten days. We passed into Quebec and immediately the signs changed from being in both English and French, to just French only. I thought this would be a super place to have lunch in one of the French cafes. Upon arrival at the National Park’s car parking area, we found it to be chaotic with people driving around looking for spaces. I was desperate for the toilet and had to run to the Visitor Center before we could even try to find a parking space. When I came back out, I spotted a vehicle leaving and quickly ran to the space and waved at my husband, flapping my arms like I was flagging down a rescue helicopter after an SOS call. A lady came over to me saying something in French with a slightly annoyed tone. All of my school French knowledge suddenly slipped my mind and I asked awkwardly, “Do you speak English?” She didn't, so she called her partner over and he curtly told me, “We have been waiting for this space.” We then decided it was probably best to give up on Quebec, just as we did Kingston, given the limited time we had. We journeyed on to our hotel near Ottawa. The hotel staff were friendly and our room was on a high floor with a great window view. It was, however, on the outskirts of the city, although downtown was easily accessible via a nearby train station. Ottawa appeared rather boring at first, not helped with the timing of our arrival being during a national holiday, which meant that many places were closed. It did however slowly grow on me, especially after a guided walk the following day with a fascinating local person. Afterwards, she took us to ‘Rib Fest’, where there were many stalls selling juicy looking barbecued meat. One of her recommendations to visit was the Arts theatre. It was such an interesting building to explore! I was pleasantly surprised by many more aspects of this city as our time there went by. I decided I really liked Ottawa! What I found difficult was seeing all of the homeless people, just like in most large cities. It was heartbreaking to see and hard to let go of, especially as we were enjoying such luxuries on our holiday, such as meals out or going for coffee whenever we desired it. The contrast felt stark and so it should.

Our final destination of the road trip was Toronto, which was bustling with activity. I walked so far that I had sore feet. My husband and son went up the CN Tower (I wasn’t so keen on being that high up and gave it a miss). We had some of our best meals in Toronto. We made friends with a puppy in the musical garden, which was also a good place to find shade from the intensity of the sun. Our trip all too soon came to an end. Canada was a really interesting and fun place to visit. I was disappointed to find that there didn’t seem to be much recycling going on in most places we visited and plastic straws were still being given out in all except one restaurant we went to. I felt guilty about the amount of plastic we needed to throw away, so I found myself washing some of it in the hotel room and sneaking it into my suitcase to recycle at home, hoping that my husband wouldn’t notice. Only the keenest of recyclers would understand.

On the flight to Toronto from London, we had a rather annoying and disruptive adolescent boy sat in front of us. He wobbled the seats, put his hands behind his head, covering my TV screen. He raised his voice, he pressed the call button frequently to express his demands to the cabin crew and at frequent intervals, he put his face through the gap between the seats to glare at us. His Mum seemed to cater to his every whim. So imagine my absolute shock and horror ten days later as we were at the boarding gate for our flight home, when I saw the exact same family waiting to board. Hopefully we wouldn’t be near him this time, we assured ourselves. This was a large aircraft. What are the chances? Once onboard, our jaws dropped as that same family located their seats… directly behind us. On a night flight. It was like a cruel joke. He kicked the seat in front, loudly protested about a sudden pain in his leg, pressed the call button, yelled to his Mum that he hated all women (maybe he didn’t get his own way that time) and generally made sure that we wouldn’t enjoy a wink of sleep.

A week later, my eldest son went on a week’s holiday with his friend’s family and thus it made sense for the rest of us to take one final trip. This was our lowest budget trip and it turned out to be fantastic. We flew to Vienna for three days. We had to ask for help at the airport desk upon arrival, as it was difficult to work out the train route to our hotel. The lady at the desk kindly wrote down which trains to catch, where to change to another train and where to finally get off. The ticket machines thankfully had an English option and so purchasing tickets was easy. In Vienna, we went on an informative guided walk, which included detailed descriptions of a particular type of famous cake and how the recipe varies from cafe to cafe. I appreciated this attention to detail, as it’s an important choice to make when time is limited. We ate apple strudel at the infamous Cafe Museum. We were sitting outside this elegant cafe when my husband decided the sun was glaring and he needed to put his cap on. He hadn’t realised he’d balanced his sunglasses on top of the hat, so that when he picked it up, the sunglasses catapulted across the pavement cafe at great height and landed several tables away. Thankfully they didn’t hit anyone on the head and spoil the ambiance of the place. One man saw it and was snickering away to himself. Amazingly, nobody else appeared to notice. The city centre had old fashioned water pumps dotted around, which was a relief for everyone during the very hot weather. Tourists, tour guides, shoppers and homeless people were all able to stop and have a drink or wash their hands and face.

We caught the train from Vienna to beautiful Bratislava, where we spent just one night and wished we had stayed longer. It is a charming little city, although the tram ticket machines were not easy to understand for us foreigners. I imagine many people from overseas make a lucky guess at choosing the correct ticket. The next day, we took a taxi to the train station and caught a train to Budapest for the remainder of our trip. The route was scenic, seats were spacious and the tickets were inexpensive (purchased in advance). Again, trying to fathom the public transport ticket machines upon arrival was a mystery and finding an English speaking person to help seemed almost impossible. As in Bratislava, I wonder how many tourists don’t buy the correct tickets here either? We were later told by a tour guide that hefty fines can be issued, so beware if you are ever in that situation! One ticket is needed for each individual stop and must be validated on the tram. Budapest is a beautiful and exciting city. We’d been there twice previously, the most recent was for a Hungarian wedding, which turned out to be the most fun wedding we had ever attended, with dancing all night long. This time we went on a free guided walk of the city and tried even more new food and beverage options. There was a large annual festival taking place for St Stephen’s Day and we really enjoyed listening to the various bands that were playing. All three of our visits to this city have been completely different each time but all enjoyable in equal measure.

Our amazing months of travels were over all too quickly and we’d not even been on the Norwegian man’s boat. The memories I have from this year are so plentiful, that I have bought a travel scrapbook to work on in the Christmas holidays, aiming to artfully catalogue our adventures. Hundreds of photos will have to be combed through carefully. Narrowing them down to a few will be difficult and that is without consideration of my alternative album! I have widened my horizons, stretched my mind, tantalised my tastebuds and found yet more insight into other places, people and cultures. These travels have truly questioned my attitude of ‘Love thy neighbour’ on flights, tested our patience with ticket machines and endless immigration queues, broken my heart at the sight of so many homeless people in every single city we visited. It’s left me with piles of laundry (and recycling) to unpack. My heart is full of gratitude, fulfilment and memories to treasure. The travel agent in me is now taking a break and simply enjoying the pleasure of home.

I am an unpublished British writer in my forties, married with two teenage sons. I began my writing journey as a child, inspired by a love of books and a propensity to day dream and imagine. At the age of ten, I won first prize in a school competition, judged by a Children's author. I thoroughly enjoyed creative writing in English lessons throughout my teenage years in education. I then grew up and didn’t write for many years. It was something I wanted to take up again ‘one day’. During a countryside walk with my youngest son during the 2020 covid pandemic lockdown, I mentioned this desire to him. As soon as we arrived home, he handed me my laptop and told me to begin. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I joined a fantastic writers group in my local area, which regularly inspires and holds me accountable to continue working on my creations. I have been reading books about the art of creative writing and have spent the last year entering short story competitions and experimenting with various genres.

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