When you take a toddler on a cultural city break you have to put yourself in their shoes and enjoy it on their terms, not yours.
Next to the yachts and ferries in Marseille harbour, life has been turned upside down. Ombrière, a giant rectangular steel mirror, created by architect Norman Foster, is held 6m above the ground like a giant polished sunshade.
‘Look at yourself up there, Jake,’ I said to my young son as we stood underneath. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ The mirror is a colossal 46 x 22m. Jake glanced up, sniffed and ran over to watch a digger.
Our city break in Marseille
We had dragged him on a city break to see my brother and his family in Marseille. The 2013 European Capital of Culture, Marseille is equal parts gritty, cool, seedy, sexy and chic. Once notorious for gangs and drugs, it is being slowly transformed by a £6 billion makeover, which includes public art installations and grand buildings designed by big-name ‘starchitects’.
‘Let’s take Jake to see the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations,’ my wife Anya said. It’s an extraordinary building, a sharp glass box covered by an astonishing, dark, latticework concrete net.
You reach it across a narrow shaft of a footbridge from a fort that used to house the French Foreign Legion. Surely Jake would be impressed. It was huge, it was visual, it was unmissable. ‘Look at it, Jake,’ I said again, hopefully. ‘Doesn’t it look bizarre?’
But was he interested? Could I even get him to glance at it without clamping his head still with Velcro straps? Of course not. Rather than the museum, or its equally jaw-dropping neighbour Villa Méditerranée, an arts centre that cantilevers out from its base at a gravity-defying angle, Jake is still mainly interested in things he can jump off, run along or bash.
I had wanted him to raise his gaze and soak up some culture. Instead, I just had to chase him around as he climbed bollards and ran along wide walls. ‘We can do that at home,’ I pleaded. It was frustrating, but I was expecting too much. I want my son to be my friend, and enjoy my fascinations. He may well in time, but until then I need to relish the idea of entering his world, rather than expecting him to enter mine.
The toddler trail
It’s a bit like when I started going out with my wife. There she was, dragging me to Greece (which she loves) and Denmark (to see her relatives), and I was moaning about how I missed the freedom to decide on destinations. Then a light went on in my head; I realised how lucky I was. She could have been taking me to a depressed Ukrainian mining town. Instead, I was getting Greece and Denmark: sun-kissed islands and perhaps the best-run country in the world.
So when Jake refused to enter the fancy museums of Marseille, sat down on the sea wall outside, looked at me with puppy-dog eyes and asked me to join him for what would inevitably be an hour of chucking pebbles into the sea, I had to abandon any hope of stuffing us both with architecture and culture.
?It was time for me to enjoy discovering the world on my son’s terms. ‘Let’s see who can throw the furthest,’ I said.
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Broadcaster and author Simon Reeve is the presenter of the BBC TV series Indian Ocean, Tropic of Cancer, Pilgrimage and Australia. He is currently filming Sacred Rivers for the BBC.