Helen Whitaker regretted taking on all the planning on an extended family trip to Bruges  

My moment of relaxation was supposed to come on the Monday morning of our long weekend. In a café on the Markt square in Bruges, my 73-year-old father and I ordered coffee while the more energetic members of our party – my husband, my four-year-old son, my brother and my 13-year-old nephew – climbed the 366 steps of the medieval Belfry overlooking the square. 

Back in February half term, Bruges was bustling and tourists traversed its centre, from monument to museum, café to horse-drawn carriage ride. Allowing for queuing time, I estimated that we had at least an hour of companionable peace. Not so. Minutes later, the belfry contingent trooped in, drenched. We were pre-Covid-19, but we were slap-bang in the middle of Storm Dennis. One of the periodic deluges of torrential rain had knocked the electrics out, forcing the Belfry to close.

As we waited out the weather, a happy-to-sit pair now an impatient group of six, I attempted to come up with a contingency plan on the fly. “Don’t worry,” my dad reassured me as my jaw clenched a little bit tighter. “We’re all having a nice time.”

From road-tripping through America’s Deep South with an iffy satnav, to sharing a tiny room threaded with constantly damp gear during a snowboard season in Whistler, I’ve been pretty good at just getting on with travelling. In my years as an entertainment journalist, I regularly flitted to Los Angeles for 72 hours or fewer, carrying the bare minimum in hand luggage. 

But that was when I only had myself to think about. Now, aged 40, it seems I haven’t just become my son’s mother, but everyone else’s, too. As with my day-to-day life, which revolves around the anticipation of my household’s needs, the mental load of planning and booking trips for my extended family has fallen to me, and along with it, a new level of anxiety. Did the success of this holiday rest on my shoulders? Perhaps not, but that’s how it felt.

The Bruges Belfry


Plus, our weekend in Bruges did have a lot riding on it. Only a few months earlier, my mum had died. After she suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2001, my dad, Dennis, was her full-time carer for 18 years and her limitations made travel difficult. In the previous two decades, the furthest they had been from their home in Derbyshire was to the Yorkshire coast; with mixed results. We all still shudder when someone mentions “that hotel in Scarborough”.

Several people commented that at least my dad could “get away more now”, despite that being the last thing on his mind. But then, a few weeks after the funeral, he said it would be nice to go away as a family. He said he had “always quite fancied going on the Eurostar” – something my train-mad son heartily agreed with. As the organiser, it seemed that this was my cue to sort out the rest.

Our destination needed to not be too overwhelming, while having enough to interest a small child, an early teen and four adults. But most of all – in my mind at least – it needed to be a trip worthy of a 20-year foreign holiday hiatus. I wanted to give my dad the restful holiday he deserved after so many years of putting someone else first.

Bruges was an easy decision. Accessible by Eurostar and onward train, its compact size, canals and cobbled streets offered boat trips, beer, chocolate shops and a convent with a connection to Victorian naturalist Charles Waterton that my museum curator brother was keen to visit. The logistics were not so easy.

My dad has advanced cancer, and the few firms that would insure him quoted astronomical figures that were around five times the cost of our collective four-day trip. In a move that seems unthinkable now that Covid-19 lives among us, he decided to risk going without; something that I worried about until the Eurostar pulled back into St Pancras.

One of Bruges many interesting convents


Needs and budget were also at the forefront of my mind, so I booked and planned the rest: the train tickets, a shortlist of the best places for moules-frites, the accommodation. I found a cool but family-friendly mid-century-style duplex on Airbnb (above a doctor’s surgery; that the on-site doctor also happened to own said duplex slightly tempered my anxiety about my dad’s insurance status).

Located in the Sint-Kruis suburb to the east of the city, it was close to a supermarket and a few cafés and was a short bus ride, or a longish walk to the centre. I researched activities (boat ride, chocolate museum) but left enough room in the schedule for outside input, so as not to be accused of being controlling. 

What followed was the holiday equivalent of a make-or-break “romantic” meal during a relationship that is hanging by a thread. My worry that it needed to be perfect meant that inconveniences that would usually have been shrugged off became a series of catastrophes.

The Eurostar? We almost missed it. The meals and activities I’d left open to suggestion garnered none and saw us trailing around, failing to get in anywhere as a party of six.

Even the things I’d booked set my nerves a-jangle. The queue for waffles wasn’t objectively long, unless you’re hyper-aware that another person’s health condition makes standing painful, while the inclement weather meant the boat rides were running one moment and suspended the next. When the sun came out, we managed to hop on one, zipping through the canals beneath bridges and past neo-Gothic buildings, but then Storm Dennis caught up with us again, and we fled the boat to a chocolate shop.

Even waffles in Bruges became stressful


Was everyone comfortable, entertained, fed? Was anyone else meditating constantly on this? They seemed just as content the afternoon we watched a film in the Airbnb as they were at the Chocolate Museum.

“We’re all just happy to be here together,” my dad said as I spiralled that morning, something I tried to hold on to, along with the universal truth that the pressure points of anything, eventually, make for better familial in-jokes. “Remember when we went on holiday during an almost-hurricane?” my brother recently chanced when we were reunited post-lockdown. That time I did laugh.

Our next family trip – Covid allowing – is to Wells-next-the-Sea. While I’ve taken charge of coordinating the dates and booking the accommodation and restaurants, this time I’m determined not to get hung up on how it plays out. Not least because, even without an almost-hurricane forecast, it’s almost impossible to predict the October weather in Norfolk. But also because my dad was right; spending time together is a luxury that this year has taught me not to take for granted.

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