Monday, 31 March 2008

When a Holiday is Worse than No Holiday

Of course holiday nightmares are a staple diet of early evening television in the UK. My experience last week which ended prematurely by four days is not as bad as many you might see recounted on the television, I am not in hospital writing this nor have I been kidnapped; I did not have my car stolen or any family members taken or murdered, so I guess in the scale of things I have come off lightly. However, the experience was bad enough that I am thinking seriously of ever trying again. It was supposed to be a break, a rest, but I have come back feeling more weary, angry and frustrated than when I left.

As I may have outlined before the plan was to go and visit my brother who has lived in Belgium since the early 2000s. You can get to Belgium from southern England in a day by a range of means. It is a country with flat countryside, but nicely rural, and interesting historic towns, plus some great beaches. In addition if you tire of Belgium itself you can easily go into France, the Netherlands, Germany or Luxembourg. I am not a person to lie on the beach, I burn easily and when I last tried it in Crete in 1985 came away with blisters all over my body and then skin shedding in large chunks. However, I enjoy warm weather but get bored of simply lying around so like to get out and visit places and have some good meals. I know that does not appeal to everyone. Thus, I try to accommodate the desires of the people I am travelling with. Maybe it is the nature of being on holiday, maybe it is just me, but I now recall in the past people complaining, for example when I was on Lanzarote, that me coming back from a trip somewhere disrupted their relaxed time on the beach. That angered me, because a) I sat quietly on my return, b) they had had hours of being there while I was a way so my irritation of them was only a small percentage of their whole day. Yet, it is clear that even the concept of someone around them having or seeking a different kind of holiday is mentally upsetting to many holiday makers.

On that basis, I guess I should have been better prepared for what happened last week. I suppose we all idealise our holidays and never really foresee any difficulties certainly not with the others in our party. The party was of three: myself, a woman of the same age and her 6-year old child. Regular readers will recognise my current domestic set-up. The other two favoured going by train rather than the take-your-own-car-on-the-ferry usual option. Not having been on the new Eurostar service from St. Pancras Station in London (in contrast to the old route from Waterloo Station) I accepted this as something interesting to do. A couple of warnings, we were sat there waiting to be told to check-in and then found out they only announce a handfull of the check-in times, so we almost missed our window to check-in with only 4 minutes to spare. St. Pancras International resembles an airport (in terms of shops, security, etc.) except in one essential regard it lacks the television screens showing when check-in is. You have to give up your seat in order to find one as they are set at right-angles to where most people sit waiting. They need to install as many as in the average airport and have them in the cafes and toilets too. Having checked in I found that the Eurostar carriages are much more cramped than they were when I last used them in 2003. They are more like aeroplane seats.

Anyway, so we reached the home of my relatives in Belgium without too much difficulty. It was the following day that the problems started. It is clear that most UK children are now so addicted to their electrical items, that even the thought of a couple of days away from them or even just with a reduced service (two of the BBC channels (BBC1 and BBC2) can be picked up in Belgium, but none of the specific children's channels broadcasting in English) leads them to behave like a drug addict denied their heroin. Despite the efforts to supply said 6-year old with colouring books or dot-to-dot and even going out and buying more playstation games, failed to quell his discomfort and when a child is unhappy the whole party suffers. In some ways it was good that we were in Belgium and not on Crete as had been discussed as there there would have been no British TV or playstation for two weeks. Children in the 2000s are so used to having their imaginations stimulated by electronic media that they need them like a coma patient needs a drip and to even reduce this supply causes problems. I just could not cope with the whining and constant physical battering and spitting I faced as a result. I accept that I do not have the patience to be a father even a pseudo one, but it is certainly not enjoyable to be around a human being who clearly feels deprived, bored and hence depressed and particularly when you are trying to relax yourself. Consequently I became even more tetchy and irritable and began constantly complaining myself, adding to the spiral we were being swept up in.

Now, one solution would have been to go out and visit places to tire the child out. After all, he can still enjoy the beach even when the weather is not good. However, this ran into the second stumbling block. If the holiday had just been me plus the woman or me plus the child then it would have been soluble, but the triangle of all three with conflicting demands made it impossible. The woman complained that I simply wanted to drag everyone miles around the country seeing things. I do like to visit places but am willing to compromise. I had planned a trip to Brussels, one to Bruges and one to the beach over an eight-day holiday, no more. You can drive right across Belgium in an afternoon so nowhere is too far away. Well it is for this lady who wants entertainment on the doorstep. Motorways get you places quickly but she insists on back roads and then complains that the journeys take so long. I was prepared for this conflict thinking to have one day out, one day in, to hopefully keep the two happy. I was not prepared for the utter hysteria when we got in a hire car. This went to the extent of jabbing at the controls, screaming and crying as I was trying to drive. Apparently she had assumed that we could rent a right-hand drive car (as used in the UK) and was upset when we got a left-hand drive car (as used all over continental Europe). Not being a driver she did not realise how challenging it can be when you get in a new car even of the same model and even in your own country, let alone a strange hire car (I usually drive a Renault Scenic and this was a Skoda Spacer a very different class of vehicle and far newer than my car which is 10 years old). We had to abandon the car after ten minutes of driving. Mother and child returned home on the tram while I drove around the city; I returned the car the next day when it became clear that the woman was never going to get in it ever again. Anyway, staying 1 hour's ride from the station and being short on cash the other option of travelling around by train. So we sat in the house the following day and argued. Apparently I had not communicated the challenges of Belgium clearly enough or that everything was not available on the doorstep. There was a trip across the street to the MacDonalds and a Do-It-Yourself homeware store and that was it. It was clear no-one was enjoying themselves so I decided to come home.

One point of embarrassment was that of course our hosts blamed themselves for what had happened. For some reason the woman thinks she has nothing in common with them, but in fact has far more in common than I do with my family members: she smokes like them, likes gardening, interior design and cooking, even making bread, like them; enjoys reading graphic novels like them; has emigrated from one country to another like them and so on. So I had to apologise to my family members and try to get home. Eurostar is totally not flexible with its tickets. The return ticket had costs £238 (€309; US$480) for all three passengers when bought in January but to alter it to return earlier even though by now the Easter period was over would have cost €460 (£354; US$715). Eurostar did say we could drive to Brussels and plead that we had a good case to return and they would have reduced the alteration cost to €75 (£58; US$117). Of course I would have had to do this alone. Instead we were lucky to get a lift to Calais in France where I got foot passenger ferry tickets for €40 (£31; US$63). Of course for the woman the speed driven to get us to the ferry terminal in Calais and then from Dover back to our car (despite having to beat the rush hour delays which are terrible on a Friday on the M20 and M25) were unacceptable and she had to sit on the street swigging brandy, looking like a tramp, in order to compensate.

In between the two car journeys (and drivers in Belgium seem a lot more considerate than in the UK, when in the hire car, they were very tolerant of my stalls and wrong turns, not a single hoot at me) there was a horrible ferry trip with winds of Force 7. I vomited up everything to the extent that even three days later my stomach still feels like it has been punched. The weather meant unavoidable delays, but that could not be helped. As foot passengers on a ferry your luggage is handled the way it is on an aeroplane. It was treated with as much care and when it finally turned up on the carousel after 30 minutes, it was soaking wet from clearly being left in a yard and of course the woman's suitcase was missing meaning yet more waiting until they found. At least with a ferry the worst they can do is send it back to France and not Bahrain.

Anyway, it is all over now. A very expensive trip that achieved little. I briefly saw my family members and their new house, so that was good. However, I have come back more exhausted and even poorer than before with nothing bar some biscuits to show for it. Clearly woman and child cannot be taken on a trip together as their demands are so conflicting. The woman will have to content herself with holidays in the back garden and the boy will have to wait for school trips abroad (though Heaven help the teachers having to wean the pupils away from their mobiles and gameboys to look at whatever they are supposed to be seeing). Maybe with all our electronic connectivity in fact we are moving to being more physically insular and immobile. Given the rapidly rising costs of all forms of transport in the UK maybe this is what the government wants.

For me, this is the last time I try to holiday with anyone. I accept that I might be to blame in seeking to get out and see things. I am caught between two stools not being adventurous enough to want to hike in the Atlas Mountains or content enough to holiday in the back garden. I think what I desire is either an extended city break or to return to cycling in France, both types of holiday that I have done successfully in the past, alone. For now though it is back to work more stressed, more weary, earlier and poorer than before I tried to go on holiday and failed so dismally.

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