My first real travelling companion on family holidays was my sister. This is probably true for many, but our situation was a little unusual in some ways. For one thing, my sister is 14 years older than me. This has never been a barrier to us having a close friendship as my sister has maintained a state of childlike wonder (and the mental age of a teenager) throughout her life, while I tended to be a bit mature and serious for my age. So we met somewhere in the middle. From an early age, my sister encouraged my impressionable young self to worship her, almost as a demi-god. She gave out orders. I was made to refer to her as ‘Jenny Hero’. She insisted that I kissed her feet on a regular basis as a sign of respect. It took me a little while to realise that some of her requests may have been a little unreasonable. The foot kissing, it could be argued, was even bordering on child abuse given the state of her feet. But, until I learned better; she was ‘Jenny Hero’, foot kissing seemed perfectly acceptable and I took my place as ‘THE BRAT’.
The first trip we took abroad together was to DISNEYLAND. She told me of her plans to take me there not long after I’d returned from the German exchange. I was thrilled. Two trips in one year! This travelling thing was working out for me. Finally all that foot kissing had paid off. The parents allowed her to take me off their hands for just over a week. I’m pretty sure I heard audible cheers as they dropped us at the airport and sped away, to take their first child-free vacation in over twenty years.
This was my first long-haul flight. And probably, on reflection, my worst. I found myself sat next to a hyperactive ten year old who seemed to be in possession of an inexhaustible supply of travel games. From ‘Ludo’, to ‘Snakes and Ladders’ and even a ‘Monopoly’ filled with tiny, fake notes. His mother would come over every couple of hours or so to check on his general well being and then beat a hasty retreat back to her own seat before he attempted to rope her into the ‘fun’. I strongly suspect that him being placed so far from his family was no accident. The poor woman looked like she needed a break. I tried to take several breaks from our games marathon myself during our 11 hour flight. But I found that this encouraged him to talk almost non-stop, only pausing to snort back the stream of snot that persistently slithered out of his nostrils toward his mouth. Games were better. They kept him occupied. I silently thanked his poor, exhausted mother for her foresight and continued to play with minimal enthusiasm.
We arrived late at night Florida time and, from the moment we collected our luggage and exited the airport, I could see Jenny Hero’s stress levels rising. The weight of the responsibility was starting to get to her. She had to take care of THE BRAT for an entire week and the first cracks were beginning to show. Her initial source of stress was my ankles. They seemed to have almost doubled in size during the long flight and I found it difficult to get my trainers on. My sister immediately began to panic.
‘It could be DVT!’ she said reassuringly. ‘My poor baby!’
Jenny Hero has never been one to shy away from worst case scenarios. She seems to take a morbid delight in imagining the most terrible thing that could happen in any given situation and then sharing it with those around her. Luckily, I was apathetic in almost every way in my teens. I couldn’t even be bothered to worry.
‘Should be fine’ I mumbled sleepily.
‘We should walk. Get you some exercise.’ She suggested.
I nodded absently in a way that wasn’t so much agreement as a signal for her to stop talking. We were about to get plenty of exercise whether we liked it or not. But we didn’t know that yet.
We took a bus to the area where we were staying and began looking at maps and searching for it. At first, we thought we’d found it. So quick! So easy! We congratulated each other with a ‘Dude!’ and a high five (we still do this. My only defense is that we spent too much time watching ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles’ as children and never quite got over it) but we soon realised the celebration was pre-mature. The name of the motel was slightly different. We’d gotten it confused with another place. So we kept walking. And walking…and then we walked a little more. Eventually we came to our motel. It’s general demeanour was shabby. The area was not as brightly lit nor as prosperous looking as the one we had started out in. We were greeted by a sign on the door that said ‘No Soliciting’. This produced a frown and a nervous laugh from Jenny Hero.
‘Looks like a classy establishment!’ she remarked.
I nodded. But I was a naive teenager and it would be a few years before I learned what these words actually meant. At the time, I had confused this with the word ‘solicitor’ and assumed the sign was a safeguard against the litigious culture of the United States. They were asserting their right not to have solicitors on the premises, doing all that soliciting and causing problems for the motel and its residents. I’ve never been fond of lawyers and I fully supported their decision.
On entering the reception area, we rang the bell, which attracted the unwanted attention of a large, semi-comatose black man who was hanging out there. ‘White trash!’ he shouted, before slumping forward into oblivion once more. My sister put her arm around me and pulled me closer to her as we checked in. We were shown to our rooms, taking the scenic route past the swimming pool, which was filled with branches and what appeared to be a body (but later, on closer inspection -we were feeling brave- turned out to be a mannequin. Whew). Jenny hero was squeezing me tighter and tighter and I could see the definite outline of a frown on her forehead. We got into our beds, though neither of us slept much that night. The brat was far too excited at the prospect of spending the best part of a week at Disneyland, while Jenny Hero was kept awake by police sirens and, knowing my sister, horrible visions of what could happen to us while we were there.
For the next few days, Jenny Hero was always next to me, like a shadow. She didn’t dare to leave me alone even for a minute. But, since my sister has always been a massive wimp when it comes to scary rides, this became problematic for her. She alternated between joining me on the ride with her eyes closed, wailing loudly and waiting anxiously by the ride exit, then rushing over, throwing her arms around me and shouting ‘MY BABY’ when I emerged. To my dismay, this second one became her preferred option. I got pretty adept at untangling myself from her smothering embrace.
To my young mind, the United States seemed like a bigger, more fun filled (because it had Disney) version of the U.K. It wasn’t like my trip to Germany where I experienced a certain degree of difficulty due to the language barrier. They spoke English, (or a close approximation of it) nobody tried to make me eat sauerkraut or sing my own national anthem. It was lovely. But the one cultural difference I did notice was the portion sizes. Everything in America was several times bigger than you would expect it to be in England. Sandwiches needed skewers to keep all the fillings together with the bread and stop the whole contraption from falling over. You could go to a diner and get a meal with TWO BURGERS ON THE PLATE. You could buy an entire turkey leg as a snack from a street stall. Pretzels were as big as my head. Everything seemed to be made for giants. Even breakfast was an occasion. A feast of obese proportions. We managed to acquire coupons for a particularly impressive breakfast establishment called ‘Ponderosa’. I instantly took to the place. It was made up of large islands of food, roughly divided into the following categories: cereal, bread/pastry, syrup and grease. There was a bewildering array of cereals in lurid colours, probably achieved through the use of chemicals which are largely banned in Europe. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t wait to taste the rainbow. I started there. The bread and pastry category contained bagels, pretzels, croissants and french toast. I chose carefully here because each portion was huge, covering an entire plate. I didn’t want to fill up on the cheap stuff before I got to the main event. I smothered my french toast with syrup, diligently worked my way through it and then moved on to GREASE. Bacon, several varieties of sausage, eggs cooked any way you like, mushrooms, onions, hash browns, french fries. All with a glistening coating of grease. To say that I felt full is a ridiculous understatement. I felt the early stages of a food coma coming on.
That day, my sister had planned on us going to a shopping outlet. She was Disneyed out. Probably feeling frayed from chasing me around the place and making sure I didn’t get into trouble. The suggestion of shopping, one of my least favourite activities, made my heart sink. But, Jenny Hero had brought me all the way to Disney, so sacrifices had to be made. I agreed to the outing. But after several days of too much excitement and too little sleep, the Ponderosa breakfast had finished me off. I began dropping off at the table. It was clear I needed a nap. So I went back to the motel with my sister and tucked myself into bed. Jenny Hero set off in anticipation of designer bargains. Barely half an hour later, the bedroom door burst open suddenly. It was my sister. She let out a high pitched squeal and two familiar words: ‘MY BABY’. THE BRAT sighed and rolled over.
So, to summarise:
1. Where possible, avoid hyperactive 10 year old kids on long-haul flights.
2. If you find a cheap motel on Holiday Hypermarket that sounds to good to be true, it probably is.
3. Solicitors and soliciting are two different, though related things. Both involve someone getting screwed, but not quite in the way I’d previously thought.
4. American breakfast diners are not to be taken lightly. The weak and unprepared won’t make it.
3. Even if they can be a bit over-protective, older sisters make excellent travel companions. Especially those who are kids at heart.