Monday, 1 October 2012

A cabbage, goat and wolf problem

Do you know the puzzle about a farmer with a cabbage, a goat and a wolf that he needs to get across a river? Unfortunately for the farmer, his boat is only big enough for himself and one other of his commodities for any particular crossing. His problem lies with the fact that if he leaves the goat unattended with the cabbage, the goat would eat the cabbage and likewise the wolf and goat left together would result in bloody carnage and a self-satisfied wolf licking his lips. The farmer has to devise a solution whereby the unfavourable combinations do not occur and his cargo arrives on the opposite riverbank intact. It takes a bit of juggling but it can be done.

My weekend was very much like this.

Obviously there were no actual wolves, cabbages, goats, farmers, boats or rivers involved but what I did have was one daughter (Taylor) that needed to be settled into her new room at University,  a car load of belongings that needed to be  moved into said room, a boyfriend (George) that wanted to see off his student girlfriend and make sure she was OK, two under fives that create a certain amount of chaos whatever is happening, one husband and (unofficial) son in law taking part in a Triathlon half an hour away from the University, sports gear and two bikes needing to be in place for the Triathlon transitions and another daughter (Liberty) wanting to support her sporty man at the same time as marking homework and planning her next week's lessons. Thankfully, the presence of this daughter and her boyfriend meant that we had a second car to relieve the burden on mine but two cars to park in a) the multi storey car park from hell and b) the insanely busy sports centre that was the starting and finishing point for the triathlon, did present a whole extra problematic layer.

Originally, the plan had been to settle  Taylor into Uni life on the Saturday, stay overnight at a Travelodge in Coventry and dedicate Sunday to the Triathlon. As is often the way with plans, this did not happen. Registration and room allocation at the University was split into two groups depending on where your surname fell alphabetically and being a "V" meant that Taylor was a Sunday arrival.  Now we could have called the University, explained the situation and  asked to be admitted on the Saturday, but with Taylor already being quite anxious about the whole leaving home thing, I didn't want to put her in a position where she would feel singled out and different. She was my top priority. We decided to stick with her allocated day and fit the Triathlon around it.

But being in two places at the same time is one of those useful tricks that I am still trying to master!

We stuck with the plan to travel up on the Saturday for what was supposed to be a leisurely drive to the Travelodge that we had already booked. 'Leisurely' quickly turned into stressful when the sat nav was no help whatsoever in central Coventry. I had volunteered to drive to give my husband a chance to relax before his imminent athletic endeavours. I did not cope well with the unfamiliar traffic systems, dodgy junctions and a complete lack of knowledge as to where I was supposed to be going. When I found myself, quite by accident, in  car park - I stayed there (at least until my panic started to subside). My husband went off on foot to locate the Travelodge and he drove the rest of way through town to our destination.

We had to unload most of the car contents for security reasons. Luckily, one of the rooms that we had booked was larger than the others. There was plenty of space for the suitcases, boxes and two racing bicycles. Less than luckily, was the state George's trousers were in after manhandling two racing bicycles up three flights of stairs and into the room.  I really hope that his mum's washing machine and detergent can handle oil stains.

There was a fantastic looking Primark opposite the hotel. I really wanted to browse the three well lit levels of reasonably priced fashion items for some retail therapy but it was closed for business by the time we were together enough to have taken advantage of the consumer paradise, and would be leaving before they reopened the following day. Shame.

Finding somewhere suitable for all of us to eat on a busy Saturday night proved nearly impossible, even with the aid of phone Apps that should have made it simple. We ended up in one of the nicest Wetherspoons I'd ever seen but despite the architectural elegance of their exterior, they were unable to provide me with a veggie burger and came close to not serving us at all because they were unexpectedly busy, short staffed and  running out of clean plates!

Sometimes, when stress and disappointment piles on so thick, you start to feel a strange sense of elation - that you are a survivor and whatever life throws at you... you will triumph. I was getting to that point. Beer helped. Chocolate helped further.

Back at the hotel room, my husband and I watched X Factor in bed while trying to persuade an overexcited two year old that sleep is best. The rest of our party congregated in the largest room amongst the luggage and cycles for a slightly surreal round of the Pointless board game.

Our plan for the next day was to drop Taylor and George off at the University with Taylor's things first thing then speed off to Stratford for the triathlon registration and prepare for the race. As I lay in bed, unable to sleep and going through this in my mind, I realised that it could not possibly work. We would not be able to physically accomplish this within the time constraints. In the morning, I announced a change of plan that seemed to work better.

After a quick croissant breakfast, we used our best logical approach and working together to bring the cars outside the hotel, reload them with everything and check out. Not as simple as it sounds when the code number needed to get out of the car park didn't work, causing Liberty's boyfriend to engage in increasingly heated conversations with an unhelpful car park attendant at the other end of a tinny intercom. The bikes came down one by one in the lift with minimal oil soiling and just as it seemed we were ready to go, my little Addy announced she needed a poo. The hotel toilet needed a key card (which we had already posted in the slot on the reception desk in the absence of staff manning it). A lovely hotel guest came to our rescue, averting certain disaster by lending us her key.

Both cars set off together with sat navs programmed for the start of the Triathlon. I should have known not to rely on sat navs alone. It wasn't long before we reached a road that was not recognised. As far as the sat nav was concerned, we were in the middle of a field. We found ourselves in the dangerous situation of two cars following each other, neither knowing which way to go. After what could have been a rather nasty incident with a bus - we got back on track. The route to the sports centre was the same as the cycle route for the triathlon so we got a taste of what our men had in store for them as we passed cyclist after cyclist, race numbers flapping in the wind, powering their way up a long steep hill.

The sports centre was insanely busy but with over 1000 athletes taking part in the race, that was not surprising. A friendly traffic warden (thank God he was a friendly one) allowed me a bit of leeway to park in a coach space while we unloaded the bikes and other gear. We had one near disaster when George used D locks to secure the bikes to a lamppost only to learn that the whereabouts of the keys to open the locks was unknown. Keys located - panic over.  Sensible Liberty headed off to a cafe to do her marking and planning and I left our slightly bemused competitors to work out where they had to go and what they had to do while I headed back the way we had just come towards the University with Taylor, George and my little ones.

After my bad driving experience the day before, I was feeling a little anxious but with George up front telling me where to go in his lovely calm voice, I soon relaxed.

The University had done a good job with signposting and we were lead through coned off lanes towards a short stay car park for unloading. I was doing really well until the very last little bit where I did actually hit a cone and sent it flying.

One good thing about the stress and the madness and the destruction of innocent orange traffic cones was that it had all been a distraction for Taylor from her own anxiety about leaving home. She simply hadn't had time to think about her own personal worries! Now we were here and this was it.

I was so glad that George was with us. He straight away suggested that they go and get her keys and gave Taylor the confidence she needed to do everything she had to do. Not only this but he also brought me a cup of coffee while I waited at the car with the little ones. I really needed that coffee!

They found her room (which would be on the top floor!) and we made a start with the unloading.

Her room was lovely. Clean and bright and well equipped. The little ones were happy to try out her desk with drawing activities while George and I carried everything up the (never ending!) flights of stairs. Taylor unpacked and made her room a home. Our 30 minute allotted unloading time turned into more like an hour but after seeing what I did to their traffic cone, I don't think anyone was going to challenge me on it!

Eventually, I left George and Taylor to get on with it and took the little ones back with me to try and catch the start of our Triathlon category. It was touch and go whether I'd get there in time and far more worryingly was the problem of finding a parking space. I resorted to using my old parking mantra (hadn't done this in years) - Gracious Goddess show your face, lead me to a parking space. The Goddess certainly was gracious. I found a space big enough for me to manoeuvre into (just about). After a bit of a tussle with the Pay and Display machine (life really never is easy, is it?) I was eventually fighting my way through the crowds with a buggy that has seen better days and refuses to go the direction you want it to. Miraculously, I spotted Liberty in a good viewing position to see the exit from the swimming pool and transition onto bikes. I'd made it. Within a few minutes, there was Liberty's boyfriend running to his bike, mounting and zooming away on the next leg of the race. My husband was not too far behind. We cheered. We watched them disappear out of sight then we went to the cafe for a well earned lunch.

The fourteen mile bicycle road race was due to take about an hour so we made sure we were well positioned at the finish line in good time to cheer our men onwards. I spotted my lycra clad hero from quite a way off and gave him a cheer. Such was his concentration, I 'm not sure he even registered my presence but Liberty and I were rewarded with a big cheesy grin when her boyfriend crossed the line a few minutes later.

It did actually make me feel quite emotional to see them doing so well. Not for the last time this weekend, I felt that telltale throat tightness and blinked away an escaping tear.

We were there at the final finishing line as well to witness their victorious ending. My husband is not really built for running. He did look ungainly as he lumbered over the line but he finished the whole thing in 1hr and 12 minutes and came 15th in his category (which I think was a group of about 50 competitors). Liberty's boyfriend looked amazingly fit as his long strides carried him over the finish (shoelace undone!) a few minutes later. They both did so well and I am incredibly proud of them.

All that was left to do then (after showering, changing and reloading the bikes) was to return to the University, pick up the boxes and suitcases that Taylor didn't need, say goodbye and take George back home. I picked up a bit of shopping for her on the way. I think half of the new students and their parents must have had the same idea because the shop was heaving with young people looking excited and terrified in equal measures with their parents worrying how their babies would cope with this new found independence and remember to eat properly.

With it being much later in the day, the busy registration period at the University was all but over. The traffic cones had been removed. I parked without incident and went up to see how my baby was doing. She had met some people already and had a look around the freshers fair with George. He was happy to have been mistaken for a fresher and collected freebies which he delighted in showing us.

The moment we had all been dreading was looming ominously. The time to say goodbye. I expected tears but little Taylor sobbed. I am getting a lump in my throat now just thinking about it. We hugged and cried and laughed and cried some more. Walking away was hard but I knew that the sooner we did it, the sooner she would regain control, venture out and start making friends and having fun. We left George to say his final goodbye.

I was glad that the driving responsibility fell on me. It meant that I could not give in to my tattered emotions. I concentrated on getting us home safely and by the time we did, Taylor was socialising in the shared kitchen with her neighbours. She has an amazing adventure ahead of her and although we will miss her like crazy, she is exactly where she needs to be.

It was a long and difficult weekend but one full of achievement. I feel very relieved that I got my cabbage, my goat and my wolf safely across the river.

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