The waiting is the hardest part

There are three things I want from a holiday. The first and most important is a complete break from work. The other two things I want to do on holiday are to ride my bike and read my books.

We travel to my wife’s house in France for most of our holidays. During the summer, my wife likes to book at least one week as a holiday within the holiday. This might involve a week in the South of France, or on the Ile d’Yeu, or (this year) in the Alps.

Now, I can generally take or leave these weeks. I’ve written before about the tribulations of the South, and while I love the Vendée region more than any other in France, there are always things that vex me about these holidays, things that add unnecessary stress and make it difficult to relax.

Which brings us to the Alps. I was mildly curious about coming here in the summer, because it’s a part of France I’ve never been. I’ve no interest in winter sports, and to be honest I also have no interest in climbing, rambling, walking, hiking, climbing, paragliding, climbing, or any of the other outdoor activities that people do in the mountains. A person only really has space in their life for one hobby that requires shitloads of specialist equipment. In my case, it’s cycling. In a parallel universe, it might have been golf, or kayaking. And no, I do not dig cycling up Alps.

We came to Chamonix, which is something of a British colony; so much so that you can find actual Yorkshire Tea in the local Supermarket. Usually it’s the tea travesty that is Lipton’s. It’s surprising to hear so many British voices, something I’m not used to in the rarely visited Haute Saône region. But there are also people here from all around Europe: Spain, Italy, Switzerland (for some reason), Germany, Denmark, and so on.

As I noted when it was pouring with rain the other day, people love the outdoors and all you can do in it, but what they really love more than anything is shopping. And Chamonix is a paradise for shoppers, as long as the only thing those shoppers want to buy is a puffy down jacket.

So yeah: mountains. Nice photos, but my knees protest. My ankles protest. My hips protest. But the biggest source of stress, as in so many other hikes of life, is other people.

Oh my god.

Any British person on the continent has encountered the complete absence of queues in France. It’s not that there aren’t things to queue for. It’s not even that people “don’t know how” to queue. They just don’t care. If you stand waiting to board something (a train, a bus, a cable car), and endeavour to provide some personal space for the person in front of you, then someone else will see that space and move into it. Just today, waiting for the Mont Blanc Tramway, a woman brazenly strolled to the front of what would have been the queue, pretended to peruse the ice-cream shop menu, and then just happened to find herself among the first to board.

My daughter gets painfully embarrassed, but I can’t help myself. At another point today, when a sharp-elbowed woman tried to sneak in front of us, I stared her down and when she said, “I was queueing,” I replied, “Après nous,” in as rude a way as I could. I explained to Chloé, these people are being rude with their bodies and counting on the fact that we’re too polite to say anything, so I think it behooves us to say something. I may not have used behooves.

Anyway, once you notice the shitty behaviour surrounding waiting for anything, you can’t un-notice it.

And in the end, this is what drives me potty on holiday. Waiting around. We arrived at the tramway station today and had to wait two hours for a tram to take us up to the Mont Blanc glacier. Spectacular views, both on the way and when you get there, but when we got there, we were told it would be another two hours before we could get a tram down. And, to be honest, there was only about half an hour of anything worth doing up on that mountain, which included paying €4 for a can of Coke.

Anyway: hell is other people. An amazing insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Home for the holidays*

IMG_6339This week’s episode of my favourite podcast, Reconcilable Differences, resonated with me when the discussion turned away from St*r W*rs and towards the holidays and how some people get very tense and/or miserable about them.

John Siracusa was firmly of the opinion that people oughtn’t to force themselves to fulfil family obligations to please other people, particularly when those people were in reality rarely actually pleased to see them. He argued that if you choose to spend the holidays snuggled up at home with just your immediate family, like a hobbit, and that results in the rest of your family not speaking to you, maybe that’s what has to happen. Meanwhile, Merlin talked about family dynamics in terms of producers and consumers, which both rang a bell and felt like an original way of looking at the problem. Families always have those who do, those who arrange, cater, cook, host, give up their time; and people who turn up: consumers, other words.

John talked about his experience growing up, with an extended family living nearby, and how the holidays involved seeing all these people, all the time. And then how people – the next generation, maybe – living in different circumstances, often tried to recreate that experience, which was the source of so much stress. It’s one thing if all your uncles and cousins live within a 30 minute drive; quite another if getting everyone together for the holidays requires hours-long road trips, or negotiating airports, etc.. People need to give themselves a break when it comes to this stuff.

Merlin picked up on that, talking about three types of nostalgia: real, imagined, and aspirational. People either look back on idyllic holidays in their childhood; or look back on the holidays they wish they could have had; or want their kids to be able to look back. In all three cases, there’s pressure on people in the here and now to live up to some ideal.

All of which struck a chord. I don’t look back on my big family holidays with nostalgia, but that’s what it was like: there were uncles and aunts living within a short drive, and December 25/26th involved a round of visits. I would place my mother in the producer camp, and I think we, her children have felt varying levels of obligation to be producers in our own lives.

Since meeting my wife, I’ve spent most of my winter holidays in La France, where much of her family (on her mother’s side, at least) do indeed live within a short drive. Her father’s family are more dispersed (most of them in the South, some in Paris), but there are still enough people in the local area to make the two weeks a constant round of visits and occasions.

For most of the time we’ve been going over there, I’ve been a consumer, which has felt odd, because I’m old enough and ugly enough to organise my own festivities. My mother-in-law was the main producer, but a couple of years ago, when she was temporarily ill, we took over. And so this year (having just hit 53) will be just the third time I’ve been a producer. And Merlin’s right: if you’re going to do that sort of thing, you have to start planning well in advance, long before all the consumers in the family are interested in the subject. Which can be awkward when you’re trying secure agreement from people about what you’ll be eating and all they have to say is, ‘Isn’t it too soon to be talking about this?’

*Yes, I’ve decided, slightly awkwardly, to start calling it the holidays. Apart from anything else, this is likely to enrage Daily Mail readers, which is all to the good.