My daughter loves water. Perhaps more than she loves me. That’s ok, I’m fine with the fact – the promise of a ‘swim-swim’ cuts through any upset, bringing an instant, invaluable mood-boost.
It’s tough being a baby, what with the ongoing discovery that life just isn’t fair. My daughter regularly breaks down when we forbid her from indulging in her favourite pastimes, such as stealing money from my wallet, headbutting mummy or screaming in the dog’s face. Sometimes, as a parent, it’s essential to have a special phrase or toy to hand, something that can snap them out of the doldrums. Something to ‘cambiar el chip’, as my other half puts it. One of many useful phrases I’ve learnt since moving to Spain, this roughly translates into English as a change of mindset, a sudden switch of focus.
So, as we trundled along in the 30°c midday Barcelona heat, I wasn’t concerned about her protruding bottom lip, or the occasional whimpers coming from her pram. We’d just left mama at the market (she was off to run a food-tour), which I knew would bring a tear or two. But it wouldn’t last. We were five minutes from a new pop-up water park which, from its description, seemed to be a little too pompous for our usual tastes. But the heat, the humidity and the potential for a meltdown called for some serious splishing and splashing, in whatever form it came.
The pop-up water park, ‘H2OMG!’, was described in English as an “experiential, immersive, water-based learning odyssey for the modern toddler.” We arrived 15 minutes after the opening time, but the park was still in the process of popping up. Underneath two shonky parasols, next to a squalid square of grass peppered with dog shit, two languid attendants filled up several small tubs, while a smattering of parents prepared their tots for the “experiential learning odyssey.” My daughter couldn’t care less whether reality matched the description. There was water. It was wet. Plus, she’s not yet a year-and-a-half and pays no mind to piffle.
She was the first one in the water, setting the pace with frantic splashing in the direction of my crotch. My daughter seems to have inherited her mother’s fondness for trying to embarrass me in public (I’m still not sure whether this is genetic or if she’s in training) and within seconds she was giggling with glee. The other babies soon followed suit. Before long, tubs were overflowing and babies were overjoyed; none more so than my little one, who’d found her tub of choice – a deep-filled, oval orange vessel, in which she thrashed and dunked with joyful abandon.
I watched her there, completely lost in euphoria. This sort of happiness in the moment – so genuine, so pure and unaffected – it’s something we lose as we grow older. I felt a swell of emotion and fought back a tear or two, as I crouched down to tousle her hair. Just then, she stopped and seemed to contemplate something for a moment. A look of deep concentration came over her and she turned her head up to look at me. Her eyes searched mine and, as strange as it sounds, she seemed to understand. I felt some primal, indescribable connection in that moment. Then she sank back into the water, splashing away as if nothing had happened.
I was lost in thought, wondering whether BabyJoy would be a good name for a band, when I noticed the water in her tub had become slightly murky. The indignant dad in me immediately sprang to life. “You see! This is why having a water play area next to a grotty patch of grass is a bad idea! Babies are clambering in and out of tubs, dirty feet are trailing muddy streaks along the floor and into the water. And why exactly are there olives floating in my daughter’s tub? Someone’s eating finger food in the play area and flinging it here, there and everywhere. What sort of place is this!”
I lifted her out of the bucket and took her over to the refreshments table. Brightly coloured cups filled with luminous blue liquid and bendy straws were arranged across what turned out to be a bubble-blowing station. My daughter had only just learnt to use a straw to drink – blowing bubbles is a string she’s yet to add to her baby bow – so I took her by the hand and led her away. And then came the tears. She yanked at my hand and stomped her feet, desperate to get a taste of the blue goo.
Before I had time to think of a way to change the chip, one of the mums started thrusting a water pistol at me, then towards my daughter. “Cambiar! Cambiar! Cambiar!” she jabbered. Perfect, I thought. A water pistol will do the job. I thanked her for her quick thinking and went to take the pistol, but she snatched it away and shot me a cold hard stare, before weaving away with her child through the crowd of parents and tots to the other side of the play area.
What a weirdo, I thought. It’s not like I wouldn’t have given it back.
Then the penny dropped. Like a ten-tonne turd in a tiny baby tub.
Olives. She’d had them the night before. Quite a few of them in fact. And now they were floating in that orange tub. I looked over and noticed that the water had turned a cloudy greeny-brown colour. Like a shit stew. Or a grisly cup of tea, brewed with a poo-filled nappy as the tea bag, expertly dunked and maneuvered for maximum flavour.
I shook off the papa paralysis and snapped back to reality. Terrible, terrible reality. The first thing to do was to get ourselves over to the pram and the change bag. I walked my barefoot daughter over to the pram, which I’d left to the side of the shonky parasols under the searing midday heat, and grabbed the change bag from underneath. I fumbled for wipes, nappies and anything else that might be of use. Then, a sudden realisation. The floor! The heat! Her lovely baby feet! Before the scorching floor had a chance to inflict third-degree burns onto the soles of my daughter’s feet, leaving me a shoo-in for the Worst Dad of the Year award, I scooped her up in one arm. As I did so, watery baby shit squelched out the side of her nappy, spraying across my t-shirt like the first flick of a Jackson Pollock painting. She started to wriggle free, so I readjusted my grip, only to find I’d dug my fingernails into the squishy bits oozing out of the side of the nappy. For the second time in mere minutes, I fought back tears.
I quickly got my shit together (not to mention hers) and headed for a bench over the far end of the park, out of the sun and as far away from humanity as possible. As we passed, I noticed the attendants had already emptied the shit stew and the clean up had begun. Feeling a wave of embarrassment and a prickle of guilt at fleeing the scene of the crime, I convinced myself that I had no choice. There were more pressing matters to attend to.
We came to a secluded corner of the park and I stood my daughter on the bench. She seemed to be enjoying herself, babbling away softly and dancing to some distant beat. On the front of her swim nappy, a monkey in a swimsuit grinned at me, as if he knew what awaited me on the other side. I faced my daughter towards the back of the bench, so she could better balance and so that I wouldn’t have to look at that stupid monkey’s shit-eating grin. Then I took each corner of the nappy and began to slowly unfurl.
Chunks fell benchward, as a deluge of murky poo water rained down between the gaps of the bench and onto my open-toed sandals. My daughter’s dancing had intensified and her sing-song babble had taken a merrier turn. I was suppressing a scream and flailing a hand in the direction of the pram, desperately trying to grab the change bag. I quickly whipped out the wipes only to discover that there was one left, barely enough to mop the terror sweat from my brow. So I grabbed the large white muslin we use to cover the top of the pram, swishing it around the baby, soaking up poo and enveloping the nappy in one fluid motion. I dibbed and dabbed baby bum cheeks, legs, feet and back – anywhere that had been caught in the shitstream – slipped a clean nappy on and stuffed the soiled muslin into the change bag. Leaving my daughter happily bopping away on the bench, I refilled her water bottle at a nearby fountain and rinsed my feet, her feet and the bench, washing away chunks of poo and despair. Then I scooped her into the pram and headed for the exit, head down, face red, all the while trying to comprehend what had just happened.
My daughter chatted and chirped all the way home, while I pushed her along in abject silence. For her, the outing had been an unmitigated success. For me, it had been an excremental, immersive, watery cack-based learning odyssey.