We don’t often go out for dinner with the kids. They’re young (three and five) with a set bedtime routine we rarely veer from, unless we’re on holiday, when we may be a little more lenient with ‘the rules’ — and, hey, may even venture out for an early dinner.
So that’s how we find ourselves in an almost empty village cafe with our kids at 6pm. (By our reckoning this is the least disruptive time for other diners, and the kids.) We’ve also checked that children are welcome — the manageress assures us they are — and that there’s no 7pm curfew here (as we’re reminded regularly at our local pub). There’s only two other people in the main dining area, an elderly couple who, for some reason, we’re positioned in front of. Warning bells begin to ring.
On the whole, our little ones are pretty good as long as we follow an unwritten ‘no longer than an hour rule’ and bring a plethora of games and colouring books to keep them amused. But less than five minutes later, the situation is deteriorating rapidly.
The tuts begin, followed by disapproving glances and comments from the table behind us. My youngest is playing with the salt and pepper pots, much to their disgust, and my eldest is teasing him. And they’re loud (well, they’re talking, but the room is quiet).
“Come on guys, keep the noise down,” I hear myself say. Yet the more I try to keep them quiet, the more the din escalates — cutlery clattering against china plates, then clanging to the floor; glasses clinking while we try and move everything out of the way.
But let’s face it, by most parent’s estimations, even given how wildly we all differ on etiquette, they’re not actually being naughty. They’re just being kids.
The menus finally arrive and I can feel eyes boring into my neck (an achievement, as we’re sitting back to back). The children are oblivious to the increasingly raised eyebrows and continuing tuts, but there’s nothing more ‘red rag to a bull’ (or parent in this case) than, in effect, telling someone else’s kids to be quiet.
I can’t remember what’s said next, save it’s enough for me to realise the situation needs to be diffused before it gets out of hand. We determine it’s not worth making a scene and ask the manageress if we can dine outside. Still, I’m irked, so rather loudly make the point that we’re being made to feel uncomfortable before mounting our withdrawal.
And that should have been that. Fine. I get it. People with young kids are generally unwelcome in public places unless they’re places designated for children.
I like to think I’m a responsible, considerate parent. When dining in public, we choose off-peak periods, usually in a discrete area, so we can enjoy some ‘normal’ socialising without enraging those who are child-free. Our aim isn’t to let the kids run amok (unless it’s the aforementioned local pub, where the garden seems fit for that purpose), so why does it feel at times that we’re under pressure to apologise for our mere existence? When did we slide down to the bottom rung of the social ladder?
The staring and whispering continues from the other side of the window. Dad has had enough. He stands up to go inside, and although I urge him to show restraint, I’m secretly supportive.
“What did you say?” I ask on his return.
“I politely suggested they turn their attention to their own meal, as we’d already moved outside,” he says calmly. I don’t believe him but I’m asking no more questions. “They just didn’t want to let it go,” he sighs.
An elderly lady in a wheelchair and her attentive grown-up son join us outside the cafe. As if to immediately restore our faith in human kindness they smile and begin to chat to the kids — expressing disbelief at the incident. The manageress also checks on us and asks if she can help.
“We’ve lived here for 30 years,” says the son. “And we love kids,” adds his mother.
She tells us of all the great times they’ve had in the village — they’ve been dining at the cafe for years — and how, inevitably, things have changed. They even recommend a few sites for us to visit and restaurants to try.
All in all, it’s a timely reminder of how having children can offer a different perspective on the places and people you encounter on your travels — thrown into new situations, they can help break the ice with people you might never have conversed with otherwise.
Stepping out of your comfort zone to see a little more of the world can at times lead to the feeling, especially for parents, that no one really ‘gets’ you, but while it’s a challenge it can be enlightening (for better or worse!).
For every unfriendly wrinkled brow, there’s a friendly smile to balance the experience; small gestures and special moments that can make it seem all the more worthwhile.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family