Like most parents, I look back with bewildered nostalgia on those far-off days when travel destinations were chosen simply because they had floated to the top of a wish list, perhaps after reading a magazine article or exchanging a story in the pub with a hard-core traveling friend or, in my case, when my publisher sent me off to research a guidebook. Procreators expect their traveling style to be cramped for a while of course (actually many picture themselves in the same exotic locations but just carrying more clobber like nappies and teddy bears). But few look ahead to the grunting years when their bonny darlings have become recalcitrant adolescents. Never in my wildest imaginings did it occur to me that one day the determining travel constraint in my life would become … skateboarding.
Since the age of about ten or eleven, skateboarding has been the children's deep and abiding passion. We are not talking here about a little harmless footling around on the driveway or of a transient nod in the direction of peer pressure, pure and pungent. We are talking about dreams of going professional, of a library of skateboarding videos that requires a new wing to be built, of a refusal to consider a family holiday to any destination unless it figures on the world itinerary for skateboarders. I would no more have chosen to become a "skateboarding mum" (alas, not a mother who skateboards) than I would a golf widow, but we can't choose our destinies. It could have been worse of course. I might have begat twin girls instead, who were into fashion shopping or ponies or tap-dancing.
Like surfers who are in perpetual pursuit of the perfect wave, street skaters fantasize about finding the supreme "spot", which to the uninitiated will look like some nondescript concrete steps or a metal handrail. My skaters usually know the names of spots from their beloved videos, though the index of a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet is not much use when you are looking for the "Three Flat Three Double Set" in Paris or the "Concrete Waves" in Barcelona. Investigative skills are required which are well beyond the powers of a twelve year old. By now I have vast experience of tracking down "spots" in many countries. In the early days, the lads were too shy to ask their own questions so I found myself in a selection of world capitals earnestly being debriefed by hooded youths in skateshops about the coolest local spots, though I felt decidedly uncool when I had to double-check the spelling. In San Francisco I even resorted to asking in the tourist office, which perhaps made a welcome change for the staff from dishing out the same old info about boat trips to Alcatraz. Tourist offices are as good a place as any to borrow the Yellow Pages and look up "Skateboarding" which (luckily) shows up in most languages (except for monopatín in Spanish). Within a few hours of arriving in San Francisco we had hopped a bus to Haight-Ashbury to visit a long-established skateshop where we were directed to the fabled Pier 7, passing signs all along the Embarcadero threatening an $80 fine for anyone caught skateboarding. (Nerves of steel are part of the job description of a skateboarding mum.)
A little further down the line, the offspring or one of their chums, graduated to being willing to ask the locals for directions, while lacking the common sense to choose an appropriate target. Elegantly attired middle-aged couples out for an evening promenade were nonplussed to be asked in fractured Spanish for some skateboarding facility rumored to be in the neighborhood.
Time passes and interest in the sport wanes in one boy to be replaced by making films of skateboarders (to adapt Dorothy Parker, their interests span the whole gamut from A to B). Travel success is now measured in quantity of "footage" they bring back. I confess there have been times when I longed for a tiny flash of enthusiasm for anything other than skateboarding, of at least a willingness to put a nose inside, say, the lovely Rodin Museum in Paris instead of insisting we head for La Défense, the modernist shopping and business district at the end of métro line 1, which I'll bet you didn't know is also known as "Spot City".
All red-blooded teenagers long to be free of their chaperones, and skateboarders are more red-blooded than most. The hapless skateboarding parent must lurk anonymously on the sidelines to be on hand for emergencies that (almost never) happen. This is not too onerous in the case of the pre-eminent Barcelona spot MACBA, the piazza in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where many idle hours can be enjoyably passed with the museum exhibits or drinking café solo on sunny terraces. Things looked safe enough at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris for me to leave the children "sessioning" a spot, in order to snatch an hour or two in the nearby Musée Guimet of Asiatic Art. Skateboarders' chaperones become very resourceful at finding places of interest in the vicinity of spots. When doing duty at MACBA on Good Friday a few years ago, I wandered into the courtyard of the 15th century Hospital de la Santa Creu just as devotees were chanting their way round the Stations of the Cross, and was very grateful that the clack of skateboards was out of earshot.
I have not always been completely surplus to requirements. I was glad to be on hand in Madrid when the police were evicting all skaters from the Plaza de Colón, worried about ETA bombs on the eve of an international peace conference. And I was especially relieved to be there at the Barcelona spot Paral-lel, a safe enough location during the day but definitely dodgy at night. A semi-crazed woman approached them with what looked like a bag of flour but probably wasn't, since we then noticed a hypodermic syringe stuck in a tree.
Last year the grown-ups had decided that Christmas should be shifted somewhere else. We came to the table as for a delicate peace negotiation with a set of proposed destinations. The juveniles' preference is to stay at home, not least because Christmas Day is the one day of the year when you can have the town center to yourself with little fear of security guards kicking you off roof gaps and car parks. Opening bid from the grown-ups: Dublin. No good, the weather in December is too unreliable for skating. Their counter-offer: Venice Beach in LA. Too far away and too expensive for the time available. So it continues, until somebody mentions Prague and no one jumps in to rubbish this one. High culture for the oldies, good skating for the young'uns (apparently) and this would be a first visit for everyone. Fortunately no one thought to ask what the traditional Christmas dinner consists of in the Czech Republic because I would have had to pre-empt the next question "is that an anagram for crap?".
The lapsed skateboarder has now graduated to other improving pastimes such as poker and pool and slapping on expensive male toiletries, none of which will be well served by being in Prague for Christmas. Fortunately the requirements of the school curriculum meant that he was required to bulk up his portfolio for a photography course so he had with him a single lens reflex camera. This provided him with a watertight excuse to boycott castles, churches and museums (with the exception of the moving Jewish cemetery), in order to wander around in search of street culture. His photographic ambitions exceeded his nerve when it came to photographing tramps and beggars in their extraordinary poses of kneeling prostration, though he still aspired to be a "paparazzo of the underclass".
In a previous incarnation, I would have bemoaned the density of tourists thronging Charles Bridge. But I have mellowed or at least become more pragmatic. If it takes the presence of hordes of American tourists to make it possible to find breakfast on December 25th and to keep the Christmas stalls open purveying glüwein and waffles, then bring on the tour groups. Without the festive influx, the doors of Prague's restaurants and museums would be locked at this time of year, and musicians would not turn up to play Vivaldi and Mozart in lovely Hapsburg palaces. Besides, I know exactly how to dodge the crowds – follow the skateboarders. The hilariously anti-climactic hourly performance of the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square and the windows in Prague Castle where the diabolical practice of "defenestration" was invented and the exhibit of dried elephants' penises in a cabinet of curiosities at the Strahovský Monastery (which apparently the museum staff prudishly pretend to be narwhale tusks) – all these joys of Prague had to wait until the "spots" had been nailed down.
"Stalin Square" is whispered in reverential tones by skateboarders as the spot of choice in Prague. Yet the guidebook index drew a blank. On second thought, would there be a Stalin Square in a city that had so defiantly kicked over the traces of Communism long ago? Further sleuthing revealed that Letná Terrace above the Čechův Bridge had once been the setting for the biggest statue of Stalin in the world, which had been destroyed with dynamite in 1962 (the Museum of Communism near Wenceslas Square tells this tale). Surely this must be Stalin Square. Tearing ourselves away from the twinkling delights of the Christmas market in the Old Town Square, we dutifully trudged off along Pařiská Avenue, over the bridge and up the monumental stairs on the other side of the river.
Once the scene of royal coronations and Soviet-style May Day parades, Letná Park was deserted and windswept when we arrived. One man's meat is another man's poison and the skateboarders' eyes shone with recognition from their videos of the Promised Land. This particular promised land required a certain amount of tidying up: broken glass was carefully scooped out of the way the first day and hours spent sweeping away a light dusting of snow the next followed by patient waiting for the steps and handrails to dry in the watery sun. Without the skateboarding connection, we adults would have missed out on one of the city's most majestic views over the River Vlatva to the Old City (Staré Mĕsto). Our eyes shone too as we drank it in.
I no longer mind finding myself in countless scruffy and surprising corners of foreign cities. I get a vicarious buzz when I am told that a new skatepark has opened in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow and before long am persuaded to book £19.84 no-frills flights from nearby Stansted Airport and accommodation in the grandly situated Youth Hostel overlooking the park. Equally I share my sons' pain when they learn that Barcelona has finally cracked down on skateboarders and as of January 1st 2006 the police have started issuing fines. But I feel particularly bereft that I now face redundancy. Sixteen year olds are allowed to fly unaccompanied on Ryanair, so their parents are no longer needed. Just at the point that I have learned to embrace the role of skateboarding groupie, it is about to be wrenched away from me forever. Unless of course I give my future grandchild a skateboard for his or her birthday.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles
for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its twelve editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She has also been a contributing editor to Transitions Abroad magazine since the early days of its publication and contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper. She has never written for any skateboarding magazines.
All photos but the first were taken by David Hardie, son of the author.
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