On holidays….

Not disasters….small difficulties.

I have recently greatly enjoyed Emma Kennedy’s book The Tent, The Bucket and Me, about her family’s disastrous attempts at camping in the 1970’s.  The book is hilariousl, but I feel that may be due in no small part to the similarities to my own family’s holidays in the same period – but this is something that has not ended.

My holiday disasters have become a source of great amusement to those around me (it is here that I cite the hotel/brothel in Havana, being stalked by Mariachi bands, the beetles that I did not realise were burrowing into my skin, the 12mile hike into the jungle only to discover that Tenko offered more in the way of comfort, and endless stories of abandonment and breakdowns…including the time our little VW camper decided to jettison most of the engine through the body of the vehicle in a spectacular engine explosion….) but most people do not realise that this started early in my life.

Having just returned from an uncharacteristically disaster free holiday in Romania (I’m not counting breaking down on a road across a vast plain of maize and sunflowers in blistering heat in a scene very reminiscent of North By Northwest. Yes, I did run about in the maize and watch for crop dusters. I’m also not counting the foot-long leech in the toilet because it wasn’t in mine – and the fishball soup is not really a disaster, I just didn’t eat it. I don’t trust river fish, they taste brown) I was thinking about past holidays.

During a family gathering, I was recently reminded of the many holiday disasters we had when I was a child and, because I may one day write them all up properly, I shall just list one here to provide proof that my holiday disasters are not a recent thing.

My father did tug-o-war. Now I’m not talking about half-a-dozen-drunk-dads-at-a fete kind of tug-o-war, this is the serious-competition-and-we’ll-tear-your-arms-off-given-half-a-chance variety.  As children, my sister and I were expected to accompany my mother as she showed support for this charming activity.

Needless to say, this devotion did not last long once the mud and flies began to settle over the makeshift campsite.  It was on such a trip to Dover that my mother had one of her characteristic snapping moments – also known as “Bugger This” moments.

It had been two days of tug, two days of screaming and sweaty men hurling expletives at each other over a sticky rope or over a sticky bar made of pasting tables in Dover, and my mother had enough. 

“Bugger this.” She said.  “We’re going to France.”


Now this was the 1970’s and France may well have been the fricking moon as far as I was concerned – in that I had seen it in books and had a pretty good idea of what it was like, but never actually thought I would get there.  But, when my mother got an idea in her head there was no point in arguing with her.  The Bartletts were going to France.

She didn’t tell my father (“no point in worrying him”) and so bright and early the next day we headed off down to the port and bought foot passenger tickets to another country.

I was prepared…I’d been to French Day at school (stripy tops, garlic strings, long bread and drippy cheese) and my French teacher (Monsieur Brynn – impossibly bushy eyebrows and very shifty – might just have been the eyebrows, but that’s another story) said that I was an excellent student, and so I had the lingo too…. I knew that the minute someone saw a monkey in a tree, or a grandmother left her spectacles in the park, I’d be right in there – oh, and I could ask for the menu and the train station too – so I was all set up.  I dressed in my three-quarter length trousers (a la Audrey Hepburn – if she was a gangly ten year old) and my favourite, yet impractical, stylish strappy sandals, and we headed off to France.

What I hadn’t learnt was the words  “mal de mer” – I had to learn that phrase the hard way, by tossing my food liberally and dramatically over the side of the boat and into any available receptacle for all of the 2 hour crossing, and I really do mean ALL of the crossing.  I had no idea that I would be so seasick, I was doubly shocked because I had always harboured (no pun intended) a dream of running away to sea and becoming a pirate – unless I was going to become Captain Greenface, that option was now lost to the waves.

Boulogne was not how I anticipated France to be. Where were the jolly men on bicycles with strings of garlic waving a cheery “bonjour” at me?  Where were the cafes with stripy tablecloths and smiling ladies pouring “vin rouge”?   No – Boulogne smelt of fish, and sick, but everything around me smelt of sick (including my sister’s shoes…).  The landscape was a seemingly endless run of warehouses and petrol garages, that smelt of fish.

Mother insisted that we take “French things” back home (a fact that filled me with horror because I was trying not to think of the boat back) and so we went to the supermarche.  Mother did later muse that perhaps it was not the wisest of things to do, drag a nauseated child around the cheese aisle of a large supermarket, but it was done.  We had to buy wine and cheese and stuff our day bags with it and head back to the boat.

So, there I was, bag full of cheese that was warming up nicely to create an aroma that hung around me like a sulphurous haze ,adding to the general pungent nature that my nausea had already given me, and I was dragged back onto the hell-boat home.  I asked if I could go down to the sea to “get some air before the boat” (real meaning = “can I chuck up in the open air a bit?”) and so was allowed to slide down a concrete slope towards the water.  A patch of slime/algae allowed me to rapidly increase my descent and to jam my foot behind a rock, thus tearing both foot and shoe in a flurry of dirt and blood.  My day was complete, but not over.

I know that my sister was with us, but can only remember her feet – for obvious reasons.  She seems to have taken part in this hellish day trip and remembers that she quite enjoyed the boat. I have no idea why.

I can’t remember the boat back, but know it involved my bag of cheese sliding up to hit me in the face every time I leant forward to empty my already empty stomach.  I can remember my mother and sister jauntily walking back for the bus after our French adventure.  I however stumbled with a bleeding foot and only one shoe (“not to worry,” my mother had said, “put this sock over it, it’s clean.”)

My first foray into foreign travel had started with me full of hopes and anticipation and excitement – and had ended with one shoe, a bloody foot, an overwhelming smell of cheese, lingering nausea and sick in my hair……… 

This was not the first holiday disaster (gale force winds sweeping our tent over a cliff and into the sea…. that came before tha) but it was the first time holiday disaster overseas…not the last by a very very long way, and on reflection this one is staggeringly minor compared to some that have happened since.

It has not stopped me however and I love to travel and would rather die with a head full of things that I’ve seen, than a full savings account.

A guide in Cuba put it well when he said that it was all about perspective and it was better not to think of them as disasters, but as “small difficulties” – easy to say but not so easy to remember when you are sleeping under a table and being pecked by chickens……..

But that’s (as they say) another story.

On that note, I’d better get my packing for Vegas finished….

As a footnote – I had to wait another 30 years to use one of Monsieur Brynn’s choice phrases. I was standing amongst the stunning ruins in Tikal in Guatemala and indulging two of my hobbies by taking photos of birds.  Two toucans were being very accommodating and cheerfully clacking their beaks as I photographed them. Some French tourists joined me staring up at them and, as they gathered, a little movement caught my eye and a small greenish shape rattle the branches and scared the toucans away. The tourists frowned and could not see what I was looking at.  I pointed and uttered a phrase I never thought that I’d actually have use for……….

“Regardez, le singe est dan l’arbre!”