There is a place with roller coasters and wave swingers surrounded by champagne vineyards.
It is a two hours’ drive.We leave first thing in the morning because my daughters buckled themselves into the car soon after the break of dawn like precocious, barrette-wearing roosters.I hop behind the driver’s seat with a bottle of water and a disc of complied songs about summertime.The empty two-lane roads trace the swerve of the first track:Surfin’ U.S.A.
Through pasture and low forest, the white sun burns off the fog and the sheep would own the land if they could pull their faces out of the grass for even a second.The boulangeries in the unassuming villes have already sold out of pain au chocolat.My wife remarks that several weird, distant cousins live in a town we pass, but when, for God’s sake, would we ever find the time to visit them.In the backseat, the girls mouth the refrain “inside, outside, U.S.A.”
The place we arrive to is called Nigloland.The name is the worst I can think of for an amusement park in any language.Our fellow park-goers don’t seem to know that Disneyland Paris exists.But, like us they are here, and nonetheless pumped about the space orbit coaster in the dark, the pirate ride, the haunted mansion, the Mississippi riverboat cruise and the sections of the park divided, according to the folded map, into Village Canadien, Village Suisse, Village des Merveilles and Village Rock n’ Roll, which happens to feature a mechanical bull and a Fabulous Las Vegas Show.
It is like any other theme park, but somehow fresh because of its location among real trees with reduced crowds and, despite the kitsch, a nonetheless dialed-down excess at each turn.
We hit the wonders first.My daughters straddle rainbow-colored hedgehogs with tripped-out dilated pupils through a magic tunnel and emerge looking gently disoriented, but overjoyed to see a parental figure after such a heady odyssey.
“The best!” my younger daughter, Louise, announces.She kisses her hedgehog good day.
After that, we besiege Canada.We skip amidst grizzly statues and totem poles, but no Mounties and a still more unfortunate lack of Rick Moranis.Everything is constructed out of the same material used on the log flume ride.My socks are soaked by eleven o’clock.My older daughter, Julie, has got a hankering to go once more.From the top, a boy sharing our particular log raises his fist and shouts the name of his friend watching from below.I don’t catch the name, but get his vocalized flume review “Genial!”
We hit the recirculated water again.We are safe now.It was, as told, brilliant.
* * *
The vacationing was nearly over.Night was pulling in earlier each day.We had resisted traveling far and wide for once and, instead, people had come from abroad to us.
I welcomed the old friends and the American shooting of the shit that I vaguely remember once having a solid grasp of.My communication problems were compounded by the worry that I was coming off as having changed for the worse over the years or that I’d spent my early adulthood trying to be something I was not.I’d likewise run out of new ways to frame the arc of my maturity that didn’t involve a tangible career.I couldn’t be sure how our portmanteau family appeared to outsiders.Or insiders for that matter.Something was off-putting regardless.
But then, after multiple visitors, an older friend, who knew me when I was the size of the kids I was now attempting to raise, stayed overnight.She was recently widowed.I hadn’t once in my life seen her without her gregarious husband.
She sat down to our dinner table and folded her napkin twice.
She adjusted her glasses. “It’s amazing what life brings,” she said to us.
* * *
My head is twisted into spirals from the rides.It is time for lunch.
In the Swiss village, we eat raclettes.Raclette is a dish similar to fondue, but involves the melting of individual slices of semi-soft Alpine cheese, then pouring it over cured meats and steamed potatoes.It is like a plate of very heavy manna from a more fortified heaven.It can compliment champagne; the hefty cheese and the effervescent bubbly balance each other with a near chemical precision.
The food, however, does not go well with summer.It is a yeoman-like winter dish.Though it doesn’t stop us, it does stop the establishment from serving it with the champagne, which is a still larger disappointment given that we’re nestled in the region that produces it.I order, instead, 50 centiliters of beer.
Following this, Julie points at the high-speed thrill coaster looming over the outdoor tables.It is a bobsled simulation.There is yodeling coming from some part of it.We must go.
After the slow line snaking through a faux ski chalet, Julie and I high-five when we’re funneled into the final stall, up next as bobsled Olympians.She squeals and taps her fingers on her cheek like she’s trying to contain herself.I straighten my T-shirt over the column of cheese I ate.
We lower into the seats.A metal bar descends to our laps.I read aloud the warning about arms inside at all times.We clack up an unbelievable hill.
Are we getting wiser?I am a father and a writer, two entities that were once repositories of wisdom, but what I have accrued since devoting myself to their separate pursuits could be middling.Is this an enriching activity for the family?Are any of us learning or gaining?Does my enthusiasm about a day at a tacky amusement park represent a severe lack of imagination?Are these days, before the coming age of loss, being maximized to the fullest?
It’s far too late to say now, we’re harnessed in and I’ve got more urgent issues.I wouldn’t call it scared, but I’m visualizing my wallet flung from my pocket and dropped into the lap of some grimacing young dad in jean shorts below me at the raclette restaurant.
Julie grabs onto the knob of my elbow.Her excitement has gone deathly still.
“So, you know, this’ll be a breeze,” I declare.
We crest the hill and take a brief left turn, giving us a fleeting overview of the ripening vineyards.I think I can see Luxembourg.Maybe this thing doesn’t finally go down after all.
Then, yes indeed, we pitch hellbound forever and ever and rattle like Chiclets in a box until the g-force levels off somewhere around a four loop corkscrew.
I’ve never been this old.I never will be again.
We’re whisked up and down and under solid structural components so very close to our heads, until, with an air brake and a jerk, we’re back at the chalet.Julie squeals louder now and again taps her fingers on her cheeks.My raclette and beer seem to have been vaporized magically out of stomach.
Back on the ground, Julie sails toward her mother, recounting what she’s just accomplished.In a slight hush, I hear her say, “Daddy was holding onto his wallet because he doesn’t want to lose all of our money.”My wife nods along with her and Julie adds, “but it’s okay.”
* * *
So something amazing has gotten to us.The summer’s not even over which I count as a blessing; there are only a finite number of them in our future.
By early evening, the park has a handful of remaining guests.The rides will close a half-hour before the park gates.Until then, we hop off the attractions and directly back on, again and again.Our time here begins to appear well-spent.
Finally, the “go” button on the attractions are put under lock and key.We’re not yet required to leave, but no one is left.
We walk by ourselves through some kind of false hope of an invincible family life, in which nothing will ever be lost and the comedy is endless.I find myself enjoying the place so much because it provides exactly the illusion I need to have indulged, even as the park unwinds to offer a smiling reminder of its daylong artifice and the rest of us grow up.
We slow down along the vacant pathways through gardens of halted purple dragons, cooling space rockets and abandoned bumper cars, gradually finding our way to back to the exit turnstiles.
For a long moment, we don’t go home just yet and linger in a little land that could belong to us.