I have so many lovely memories of childhood family holidays. My father loved planning holidays and always had a stack of holiday brochures in his bedside cabinet. Growing up we never had lots of spare money but he considered a holiday to be a priority and so every year carefully worked out the household budget to ensure that this was possible. It didn’t matter if we could only go away for a few days and didn’t matter if we stayed in the most modest of places, what was important was that we went away together and spent some time away from the usual interruptions of normal life. It was his way of giving our mum a break, of thanking her for all she did for the family, and it was an opportunity to show us more of the country in which we lived and then later, when there was a bit more money and we could travel abroad, to show us different cultures. I didn’t realise until later that it was also his chance to mark our parents’ wedding anniversary.
Many of my best holiday memories actually derive from things that went wrong: breaking down in France miles away from anywhere and before the days of mobile phones, my parents sticking their head in a gas cooker in a holiday cottage trying to light it and losing their eyebrows, being woken by concerned parents sure I was having an asthma attack only to discover it was a donkey roaming around outside. Holidays are just like normal life in that they are unpredictable, you have to be prepared for all the best laid plans going wrong. We had two nights in Paris at the end of a French camping holiday and my father had devised a busy sightseeing schedule which would culminate in an evening walk along the Champs d’Elysee and a special meal to mark another year of being happily married. Unfortunately I started to feel unwell during the day and by evening had a raging temperature so much to his frustration my father was forced to go with just my brothers while my mother remained in the hotel to tend to me. My abiding memory is waking hours later to find that my fever had abated, my father and brothers had returned after having a very pleasant evening together and I was ‘forgiven’. We celebrated with some extortionately priced ice cold bottles of coke from a vending machine in the hotel lobby and some food that my mother seemed to rustle up from nowhere; what had been a miserable day for me was transformed into one of warmth, love and laughter which will always remain in my memory.
Many of our holidays involved driving long distances, a burden which fell solely on my father’s shoulders as my mum never passed her test. My mum was sacked from navigating when she told him to turn right as we approached a roundabout with about seven exits. I will never forget his exasperation with her, caused entirely by the heat, fatigue and hunger. As a result my oldest brother took on the role of navigator although it soon became clear that this was a mixed blessing. Although his map reading skills were exceptional and he gave clear instructions, he would never ever take the shortest route between two points but instead would opt for ‘the scenic route’. This would invariably involve a multitude of winding roads miles from anywhere (probably a major contributor to our breakdown) but my father stoically drove and we all enjoyed the varied sights along the way although we could have done without the frequent fear that we would run out of petrol far from civilisation!
There was the year I ate only wholefoods and so refused to eat any white bread. My dad would uncomplainingly drive for miles to find a boulangerie that sold ‘pain complet’ just for me. There was the time my mum tried on some wellies at the market (I’m not sure why as we were in Provence and the weather was consistently hot, sunny and very dry) and then found that she couldn’t get them off. I was of absolutely no help whatsoever as I was convulsed with hysterical laughter.
My father had a range of shirts which he kept specially for holidays as they were short sleeved, natural fabrics and very comfortable. For some reason his holiday shirts were all in orange and red tones and my mum always used to joke that at least we would be able to spot him anywhere. Until that is we lost him in an enormous French hypermarket on a day when it seemed that every single man over thirty was dressed in red or orange.
And there was the holiday in France where we rented a gite for the first time. The first week of our stay was unseasonably cold and wet and the gite was draughty, dirty and cold. Although it had been advertised as having inclusive heating this did not work so we decided we would have to contact the owners to see what could be done. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we managed to get the owners out to discuss the issues we had with the gite. I was studying French at ‘A’ level so wrote down everything that had to be said but refused to do the actual talking (too shy) so instead made my mum do it, grimacing all the time at her bad pronunciation (what a brat I was). Eventually it was agreed that the gite would be thoroughly cleaned and the furnace would be repaired so that the heating and hot water systems would work properly. By the next day the system had cranked up, the heaters were all fired up and…. the weather changed. For the next four days we absolutely sweltered as even with heaters turned off the furnace was generating masses of heat on its own.
There are so many tales most of which probably seem so humdrum and ordinary but which made our family holidays so special. We explored new places, we tried new foods, we experienced new cultures but fundamentally our holidays were about being together, no telephones, no letters, no other demands on our time. We would all return home feeling happier, more relaxed and closer to one another.
So what’s the key to a successful family holiday? Planning, enthusiasm and a willingness to adapt, to accept that holidays with children are different. For my part I love travelling with children and have had so many adventures with them (more of that in part 2). We’ve had our fair share of holiday ‘disasters’ ourselves but overall I think we’ve done pretty well. I can’t wait until our next one!