Last year, we had the Most Amazing Holiday Of A Lifetime Ever-Cum-Honeymoon to Corsica. This year, we’ve been – and are going – nowhere. Lack of cash and the demands of the Succesful Other Half’s job have conspired to deny us the annual treat. Instead, we’ll be touring our parents up in the North East and North West (where I am posting this from now – a complex affair involving finding a hotel that has Wi-Fi, then shelling out a fortune on BT OPenzone access). This has its plus points – no getting to the airport with three young kids, no queuing, no dicky tummies from dodgy food. We did a similar thing a couple of years ago, which my wife wrote about in her weekly column for the women’s magazine she now edits. And here it is…
This week: Our holiday-at-home was supposed to be hassle-free heaven. But I was more stressed than the underwiring in Jordan’s bra
It was a day straight from a holiday brochure – cloudless sky, gentle breeze, my skin beginning to tingle in the sunshine. I slathered on some sunscreen, lay back and let the cares of the world melt away.
‘This is the life, eh?’ I said to The Partner Who Is Not My Husband.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing like a holiday.’
But this wasn’t your average break.
We had decided that instead of going away we’d have our summer holiday at home. Right here, in our little back garden. Instead of spending a fortune to stand in airport queues and bump elbows on the beach, we’d save our cash and take our chances with the Great British weather.
My friend, who was off to Spain, thought I was mad. She showed me her holiday brochure, full of happy families relaxing on deserted golden beaches and frolicking in empty swimming pools and said: ‘You’ll regret it.’
‘And,’ she added, ‘it’s bound to rain.’
But right at that moment I was feeling pretty smug. The weather was wonderful, the children were happy and we hadn’t spent a penny. And then it happened.
A big, wet drop plopped onto my sunglasses.
‘Was that….?’ I began but before I could even get the word ‘rain’ from my lips, a shower of cold water began to descend from a now darkening sky.
I screamed. The kids screamed. We all scrambled for the door and the heavens opened. And stayed open.
‘Well,’ said The Partner, watching the rain lashing against the windows. ‘That’s it, then. That was the holiday. Are you going to put the kettle on?’
‘No,’ I replied, settling on the sofa with my book. ‘I’m still on holiday.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said the seven-year-old. ‘Can I have a sandwich, Mum?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m on holiday.’
‘Can we watch Power Rangers?’ said the four-year-old.
‘Grrr…’ I snapped. ‘I’M ON MY FLIPPIN’ HOLIDAY!’
After two days of leaden skies and driving rain, however, I was forced to accept that my holiday-at-home idea had been a disaster, just as my friend had predicted.
But then a miracle occurred. The sun came out.
‘Quick!’ I said, slapping suncream on the kids. ‘Let’s make the most of it!’
We scrambled into T-shirts and shorts and headed for the park for an afternoon in the sun. We expected relaxation. We expected fun. We expected the weight of the world to lift from our shoulders.
We were in for a nasty surprise. The park was so packed with people, we had to queue for the swings and stand in line for a turn on the slide, and it took half an hour just to get an ice cream, only for most of it to have melted down my arm by the time I’d picked my way through the sea of pink flesh back to our scrap of green.
Hot and sticky and cramped, I could feel a grump coming on and, as I looked around, I realised I wasn’t alone. No one else was enjoying the afternoon much either.
On one side of us, a couple were arguing about which of them had had the most to drink the night before. On the other, a toddler was having a tantrum about a dropped ice-lolly while his lobster pink mum and dad snapped at each other in frustration. Close by, a baby was crying, two dogs were fighting and a man whose head looked like it had been dipped in boiling oil was exploding with rage about being hit by a kid’s football.
No one was smiling. No one looked happy. The whole experience was about as relaxing as being tied to a juicy steak and thrown to a pack of starving wolves.
After an hour I was so stressed I was ready to hit someone over the head with my Factor 50.
‘I’ve had enough,’ I said to The Partner. ‘Let’s go home.’
Back indoors I gave up all pretence of being on holiday. I did the washing. I made the tea. I let the kids watch TV. And strangely, freed from the pressure of expecting to have a relaxing time, I felt more, well, relaxed!
What was it about holidays that I couldn’t seem to get right? It wasn’t as though I wanted much from my break – at home or away. Just heaven on earth. Was that too much to ask?
The following week, I met up with my friend. Over coffee, she produced her Spanish holiday snaps and showed me picture after picture of blue skies and smiling kids.
‘Looks fabulous,’ I sighed.
‘Oh it was,’ she replied, ‘if you don’t count the tiny apartment with the view of the car park, the rowdy teenagers in the swimming pool, the beach with standing room only, the trips to the supermarket with bored kids, the fights with the husband over who’d got the passports, the packing and unpacking, the loading and unloading of the washing machine, the endless making of sandwiches and cups of tea…’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It sounds like my week at home.’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Only with a delayed flight at either end!’
As she spoke I realised it wasn’t just me who found holidays a let down. In a recent survey of our biggest disappointments, holidays featured three times in the top ten, which shows just how much expectation we heap on them – and just how different the reality turns out to be.
The problem is we work hard all year long for our week or two in the sun. We pour twelve months’ worth of hope into those few days, willing them to be golden enough to eradicate the stress and strain of our everyday lives. But what holiday can manage that?
In reality, the empty white beach turns out to be a grimy strip. The beautiful panorama in the holiday brochure turns out to have an oil refinery just out of camera shot. We don’t look like supermodels in our supermodel-designed swimwear.
Ultimately, the glittering dream of the exotic is dulled by the reality of the mundane. Even though we are on holiday, we still have to make cups of tea and wash the dishes. We still nag our children and bicker with our partner.
As the writer Alain de Botton observed in his book The Art of Travel, we expect a holiday to transform us. But it can’t. On a break in Barbados, he finds himself worrying about the same petty things he worried about at home, and is alarmed to realise that: ‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island’.
Holidays are about ‘getting away from it all’ but the one thing we can never escape is ourselves.
‘I don’t think we’ll bother with a holiday next year,’ said my friend, putting away her snaps.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘It’s not worth all the hassle and the disappointment.’
We sat there for a long time, sipping our coffee and contemplating the alternatives. What were they? Rain. Misery. Rain. Frustration.
‘Oh, come on, who are we kidding!’ I said at last. ‘Thinking about our holidays is the only thing that keeps us going.’
‘You’re right,’ said my friend, reaching into her bag and pulling out a handful of holiday brochures. ‘What d’you think of Cyprus?’
‘Ooh,’ I said, drooling over pictures of golden sands and sparkling sea and instantly forgetting about 5am flights and teenagers dive-bombing the pool. ‘It looks gorgeous. It really does look like heaven on earth…’