It seems a silly question, but think about it. After days of military-style preparation: organising what’s to become of the pets, spending a fortune in Boots, washing and ironing my body weight in shorts and t-shirts, packing the car with everything from Monopoly to the obligatory boules set (and let’s face it, how many of us ever actually play boules on holiday?), it’s only the thought of walking back into that lovely empty house again after the cleaner has been and cleansed it all that gets me into the car. And that’s just the start. When they are good they can be very, very good, but when family holidays are bad, they are horrid. And sometimes they can be good and horrid at almost exactly the same time.
Take cycling through a coastal pine forest in France this week, wind in the face, hair blowing behind, husband and three boys up ahead, thinking – this is the life! And then, minutes later, rounding a corner to find Middle One standing beside his prone, twisted bike, eyes ablaze with tears, kicking furiously at the front wheel.
Or, later, hugging knees, sitting at the edge of an expansive, empty beach in the sunshine, starring out at the glittering surf, listening to the children’s delighted whoops as they roll down the dunes and then suddenly being confronted by Eldest’s naked left toe dripping bright blood onto the sand like water from a tap. “Mummy, I think I might have stepped on some glass…”
This is the stuff family holidays are made of, heady highs and plunging lows complete with unexpected challenges. How do I concoct a nutritious meal for five on an unresponsive electric hob using only eggs, UHT milk and a bulb of garlic? Or, how many times can I recycle socks (and worse!) for the children - and smelling them all to find out. (The socks, not the children.)
Good weather is key, having the power to turn a mediocre week’s break in cramped accommodation into a blissful retreat - as happened this week. Beginning a bit mixed, sunshine and showers, a little chilly, turning radiators up, finding that extra jumper, and so nearly sliding into disaster the evening it rained when we came back from Nausicaa and the older two, slumped on the inadequate two-man sofa in the tiny living-room/kitchenette, announced they really would rather be at home with the Wii and the X Box (and secretly I agreed). There was a complete volte-face when we awoke next day to blazing sunshine. What a wonderful place!
Success could be charted from then on by the position of the table outside, on which we took all subsequent meals, as it moved from the middle of the lawn, to catch every precious ray, to the increasingly essential dappled shade of a nearby tree.
And what meals! The chocolate bonanza that was petit dejeuner (chocolat chaud, pain au chocolat) moving on to the dejeuner of cheese, bread, beer and seafood and invariably ending with moules, or steak, frites in the evening, sometimes at a café by the sea. And if the wet Tuesday evening was the low, then the sunny Thursday morning horse riding with Middle One through the dunes was the definite high.
But best of all there was nothing and nobody else. No telephone, no Internet, no newspapers, no TV and no appointments to be made or kept, just us. In particular it was lovely to spend so much time with Eldest who, at very nearly 14, is increasingly leading a social life of his own at home in London. I told him, often, how much I was enjoying spending time with him as well as with the other two, and he smiled benevolently. In fact, he smiled a lot, despite himself. We all did. So, I think I’ve worked it out, that’s what family holidays are for.