Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The demise of the family holiday

The brittle crunch of sand peppering your picnic sandwiches, a flimsy windbreak flapping in a vain attempt to protect you from the biting salty breeze, the bone chilling icy water providing a welcome numbness to the sharp pebbles digging into your feet as you forlornly paddle at the rocky water's edge.

The slick embrace of a rain soaked tent as you struggle to subdue the canvas by hammering tent pegs into inexplicably rock hard earth, the misery of huddling under an umbrella as you watch the camp fire miserably spit and sizzle in a sudden downpour, the bickering and rows that fill the car on interminable, over-heated journeys punctuated by frequent, unwelcome in traffic jams and overcrowded service stations.

These are just a few of the memories conjured up by casting my mind back to the family holidays of my youth, so perhaps it is no surprise that today it is revealed that this annual trip is one luxury modern parents are willing to forgo.

When I was growing up my parents weren't that well off so a family holiday meant either being sent to Wales with my grandparents to stay with a maiden aunt or else a 1,000 mile car trip to stay with my vegetarian hippy aunt, her lute maker husband and their dysfunctional brood in their artisanal hovel in the South of France. Neither of which filled me with the excitement or anticipation a holiday probably should.

Of course it didn't help that my family really aren't very good at holidays. My mother always used to declare that we should all put ourselves in Holiday Mode as soon as the packing begun. This meant gritting your teeth and grinning through all manner of adversity from being fed inedible horse steaks in a Belgian motorway cafe, to staying in a French budget B&B where the only nighttime entertainment was the sound of my mum pounding to and from the communal loo at the end of the corridor as she threw up said horse steak.

Or there was the time when we drove back from Wales in my dad's old and unreliable van and got caught miles from home with nowhere to sleep other than on the musty chaise lounge that mouldered in the back of the lorry and was the reason for our chosen mode of transport, having been picked up somewhere along the route. That was a memorably sleepless night.

While the journeys, which were always peppered with disagreeable bickering from the front seats over whose fault it was that a wrong turning had been taken or a vital item had been left out of the packing, were particularly unpleasant, they paled in comparison to what awaited us on arrival.

In Wales my aunt's house should long have been condemned as unfit for human habitation, so filled was it with detritus and filth. The kitchen with sticky with grime, her bedroom tangy with urine and her nature vile with bad temper. Even worse, my sole companion, the television, only spoke Welsh. Even now the dulcet tones of that that tongue send me spinning back to the hours I spent sitting on her tacky carpet trying to decipher what on earth was going on at Welsh Play School.

Days were spent on freezing beaches, where my grandmother attempted to teach me to swim by ditching me into the icy water until my head went under and I was forced to scramble upwards or drown. Picnics were rendered inedible by copious amounts of sand being blown into every bite and the only other diversions were scenic drives in my grandfather's beaten up car, taken at his usual snails pace and while the air was rent with my grandmother's tuneless Welsh singing.

You might think that our sojourns to the sunny South of France offered more potential, but that would be without reckoning on the influence of my uncle and aunt, whose dilapidated flat we always stayed in. Said relations seemed to see our arrival as their cue to avail themselves of as much free labour as possible. So, while the parents got happily pissed on all that cheap wine, we children were pressed into endless hours of housework and babysitting for our brattish cousins, who in turned amused themselves by holding down and pissing on the neighbours' children.

I think the peeing salvo was part of a long running battle between auntie and the family upstairs who were devout Muslims and would regularly bleed lambs from their balcony sending the blood dripping past my vegetarian aunt's front window. I guess she had a point in losing patience with them, but I can't help but feel that my aunt and her family deserved everything they got.

On one visit she pressed every visiting guest to help her clear out her filthy home in preparation for a move and then promptly pushed off to go swimming leaving us to do the work, then there was the time when her idle, lute making husband, came in to get me out of bed to do the washing up while he and his wife finished up their wine.

Perhaps they saw the free labour as quid pro quo for free accommodation, but I would happily have forgone these breaks in exchange for being able to stay at home away from them, their children and their inedible food. Dinner chez auntie wasn't the sumptuous French cuisine you might imagine, instead we were treated to such delights as pasta drenched in ketchup or a knife full of jam which had recently played host to my cousin's finger. Nothing wrong with that you might think, but you don't know where that finger had been before it hit the jam pot.

So I can't say that the idea of the demise of family hols fills me with sadness. Of course I love spending two weeks with my four boys, but even then I usually feel as if I need a holiday to recover from it most years.

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