Saturday, 17 July 2010

Summers long since passed...

I’m a chronic nostalgiac (is that a word?) about family holidays. This is partly because I don’t live in a real family (with children) anymore: it’s just my partner Angie, my cat and me. I also find it very difficult to travel far, due to the chronic health problems which I’ve had since 2004. But it’s also because, in my childhood, I enjoyed many family holidays and they provide many wonderful memories which I still retain. I firmly believe that the lives of children who are unable to have holidays are impoverished. Family holidays give kids experiences and memories which, if happy ones, will give them pleasure for the rest of their lives.

My life as a child was split into two halves: before my parents’ divorce, and after. The holidays I had afterwards differed in some ways in character, although one theme remained and that was the destination. Most of our holidays, before and after the break-up, were in France or Cornwall (as in the picture above, from the mid 1970s).

I don’t remember our earliest holidays in much detail, but I do remember the beauty of them. Setting out in the car in the middle of the night to avoid traffic was so exciting! The arriving at what was often a campsite in Cornwall, moving into a big tent with separate compartments, sleeping sometimes with the distinctive sound of rain drumming on canvas, emerging in the morning in the pinky-blue, muted dawn light… And many of the places we visited – Tintagel, Boscastle, St Ives - remained in my memory and finally drew me back decades later, when I met Angie and started sharing holidays once more. The only thing I disliked was that family relationships, and chores, remained. I hated the physical chores of camping, and as for relationships, my sister and I often argued and my parents were not happy together. But I think they made a real effort to give us kids a good time and provide memorable experiences for us. In my case, they definitely succeeded.

When I was about 11, my mother divorced my father. A couple of years later she remarried, and I have to say that the following years were difficult for me. But we still made an effort to go on holiday, and often to Cornwall again. Our family was about 50% different, but the places were the same! Cornwall is still perhaps my favourite county in England, and I think nostalgia for those early holidays is a big part of that.

With my father, meanwhile, the holidays were usually in France. In about 1980 I went with him, my sister and her friend to Brittany (which I remembered from earlier holidays when the family were still together) and L’Ile d’Oleron further down the coast. In some ways this was a difficult holiday. My sister got homesick (probably for Mum as much as home) and very moody, so her friend spent a lot of time with me instead. This I think caused a lot of tension between the three of us. I got on very well with the friend, but looking back I sense that we felt we were almost ganging up on my sister, or at least that my sister was jealous of the change in relationship. I don’t feel very good about it, looking back. Also at about this time my Dad got a job in Paris, so although we saw him very little in term-time we would cross the channel for a while in the school holidays. I loved Paris. Sometimes my sister was with us, sometimes not, and on the latter occasions while my Dad was working I would explore the streets and art galleries of the city by myself. At that time I knew Paris far better than I did London. And these holidays were a blessed relief from the rest of my life: struggling to settle in with my new step-family, being bullied at school. Paris was exciting, and I remember it very vividly. I haven’t been there since the mid-1980s.

Another holiday I remember from this time was a week in Austria with my Dad (I can’t remember why, but my sister was absent). It was a good opportunity to bond with him (we have never been close), and we stayed in a beautiful village in the Tyrol, in summer. It was a gorgeous, verdant landscape. Halfway through the week we took a day trip to Venice by coach, and that was memorable too – the only time I’ve visited that city. Decades later I saw Venice from the air on a flight to Greece, and thought back to my visit as a child, to that city which from such a height appeared so small.

Through the first fifteen of my adult years I was alone, so hardly went on any holidays. Twenty-four hours in Cornwall to see the total solar eclipse in 1999 was a lonely time, as I slept in an old caravan that was full of moths and spiders, looking out with envy at the family tents scattered around. I felt very sad, really; the contrast between that and my childhood holidays in the area was very great. The eclipse, however, made it more than worthwhile. Even though it was clouded over, the eerie darkness was indescribable, and I’ll never forget it.

My partner and I have had some wonderful holidays together, including my first on another continent, in Canada in 2003. That was awesome; I’ve never seen anywhere like the Rockies, before or since. But these trips were not what I think of as family holidays. They belong as memories. We don’t plan to have children, so for me a family holiday means a distant but sometimes vivid memory of often quite magical times. I’m very, very grateful to my parents that they provided us with these wonderful experiences. I’m lucky, because I think a lot of children even today very rarely leave the city they grow up in.

I guess the only advice I’d give a family, based on my own experience, is to make a holiday as different as possible from the rest of their lives. That way it’s a true break, even if it’s a busy one. Camping is a wonderful way of doing this. And taking your kids to interesting places, as well as the beach, helps to stimulate an interest in culture and history too. But the most important thing about holidays is also the most obvious. Just HAVE THEM!