Monday, 31 August 2009

A Brief Concern

There’s always something slightly unnerving about arriving home after a two-week holiday and finding your old life waiting for you, just where you left it, but somehow different. Our house always looks so much bigger and cleaner than I remember, which is handy as it provides the perfect antidote to all the ‘Let’s pack up and move to the countryside’ conversations that have fuelled the past fortnight. And seeing the cat lounging at maximum-moulting angle on the kitchen worktop induces an unfamiliar desire to pay her some attention as I’m flooded with homecoming sentiment.

And then comes the dark side to seeing my old life with fresh eyes. All the things that I’d stop noticing needed attention are flashing neon signs in the grey London sunlight. It turns out I still can’t play the piano, our house still isn’t in the catchment for a no-gun-policy secondary school and, oh my god, the walls are completely plastered with small dirty handprints that I had totally overlooked pre-vacation. Within ten minutes of arriving home late last night I was rummaging through the suitcase for a pack of babywipes to scrub a month-old mark off the wall of my study, a room I had no need to even enter for at least 48 hours with a bank holiday, four loads of washing and a boot full of French wine and chocolate to entertain me.

Stepping over the doorstep home is a guillotine-style end to the holiday for me, and normal life [aka domestic duties] must resume immediately or some unimaginable dire consequences will occur. I must unpack at least the kids’ suitcase before going to bed after a 14-hour journey home because it will be one less thing to do tomorrow. Tomorrow being the day I have to make several important diplomatic calls to the leaders of warring nations and review the government’s tax plans for the next quarter before distributing holiday gifts around the neighbourhood and repainting the hall, stairs and landing. Clearly I will have no time for unpacking. It must be done tonight.

I just need a way of hanging on to that feeling I get for the first five minutes when the real life we’ve returned to seems just a little bit skewed, a little bit bigger, and anything is possible. And if the house stays a little bigger, there will be room for the piano.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Mid-Summer Murder

It started when my husband suggested I might want a coffee rather than an ice cream. There are no circumstances under which this would be seen as an innocent menu alternative, but when you’re standing in a bikini on a bronzed-French-teenager-filled riverside beach half way through your hard-earned summer holiday, any implication that you should be concerned about your calorie intake is devastating to say the least.

The key words here are ‘half way though’. Had he attempted this suggestion a few days before we were coming home I probably would have rolled my eyes and reluctantly agreed to the coffee, no further discussion needed. But he picked the exact point of Mid-Holiday Melancholy, and he should have known better.

In normal life, feeling a bit tense, irritable, overweight, under appreciated is, well, normal life. But when these emotions appear after a week of holiday frolics, it’s unacceptable and hugely disappointing. And it’s then that I start to notice the cracks.

The wonderful feeling of freedom when the children insist that only normally-at-work Daddy sits next to them at dinner every evening has been replaced with the lonely suspicion that you’re a disliked and overpowering mother. And the expectation of fully replenished sleep banks has been replaced with the reality of aching temples and blood-shot eyes after endless happy nights sitting on the balmy patio drinking wine.

At Mid-Holiday point, I start to become emotionally burdened by the extra half stone that I promised myself last year I’d never bring away again. And I realise that none of the clothes I feel young, floaty and elegant in on holiday will ever make it out of the holiday bag at the bottom of my wardrobe in London.

But worst of all, the excited shouts of ‘That one!’ – which punctuate every car journey as each member of the family chooses their favourite rambling French farmhouse and reveals their master plan for a hermit farming existence or super tricky sunflower maze – make me question every single lifestyle decision I’ve ever made. I start to feel real melancholy about leaving behind all our friends and family to begin the new life that clearly everyone else desires so desperately, and only my love of a supermarket-in-walking-distance is preventing.

I don’t know whether MHM is a global phenomenon or a private world of pain, but luckily after a few hours of staring wistfully out of the car window it passes and I’m thrown, pulse racing, back into the holiday spirit. And I spot the perfect location for my boutique rural hotel. The A-list will love it.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Big Idea

So we’re in France, and it’s big. Everything is big in France, except maybe the population. It’s almost impossible to actually find a Frenchman in August. But the place is huge. I can report this with confidence after two full days of driving through entirely open countryside and vast landscapes in what has already become a big adventure.

We are two cars, four adults, five kids and nine French cookbooks heading in excited anticipation 787 km south from Calais in as few hours and Aire de Service stops as possible. Our friends’ car has a sat nav, DVDs with headphones and children with bladder control. We have a map with critical pages missing, children who wee like clockwork every 100 km and Banana Man at full volume behind the driver’s head rest. Experience in our car is all big.

It’s the bigness of France that I love. The towering grain refineries built proudly on hills on the horizon rather than hidden in a deserted valley. The huge sci-fi-esque wind farms in the middle of (another, yawn) area of outstanding natural beauty. Being charged fifteen quid to travel on a four-lane motorway where you’re lucky if you see another car other than the one you followed off the Eurotunnel.

(To be fair, this year’s trip south has been characterised so far by the opposite experience – it turns out that the French still all go on holiday on the same day, so we’ve been part of a truly big exodus towards Bordeaux. And lots of big queues.)

But in France even the smallest phrase has a big meaning and resonance for any long-time English Francophile. The first signposted Hotel de Ville surrounded by buckets of dusty pink hydrangers floods me with endless memories of family holidays and school exchange visits. And, just as the words Raspberry Beret (the song that got us through the 38ยบ heat and congestion outside Tours) instantly transports me to a super-cool underground coffee house in the East Village where I’m sharing a double espresso with the greatest shop assistant of all time, so a simple motorway signpost to Chinon brings a light, velvety smile of recognition and a happy celebrity-grape-spotting leap of the heart.

Driving down through France is just like taking one of those Hollywood tours, only rather than looking at the security gates of endless underfed Americans you’re ticking off every great night you’ve ever spent enjoying a bottle of the world’s finest. The talent here is very real and, after Evening One in our little corner of Charente, the potential for the coming fortnight is enormous.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Sky at Night

This Friday, Jupiter is going to be the closest it ever comes to the Earth when it reaches opposition. I learnt this not from my stay-at-home friend Google, but from an actual real person while sitting around a campfire in East Sussex on Saturday night. We were watching the most beautiful nighttime horizon with a huge orange rising moon alongside one very bright lone star. Which turned out to not to be a star, but a planet – Jupiter. And it was stunning.

I have always thought it would be interesting to know more about the night sky, but like many potential hobbies that involve dedication, research and memory, I have coped-out and kept it to a simple love of looking up. But on Saturday night I learnt enough about Jupiter in twenty minutes to inspire me into both a lengthy chat with Google and a trip to Waterstones’ astronomy department.

It’s become a bit of a trend with me recently – properly enjoying things I’ve proclaimed to loved for years but have actually just borrowed because they sounded cool and/or impressive. I honestly don’t think it’s laziness, more a confidence thing. If you have your own opinion, you’re exposed to debate, challenge and public shame. And debate and challenge have never been overly embraced in my family. Or public shame. So I’ve always taken the position of an optimistic life-lover – chatty conversationalist, rather than an expert in any one area of it. And now it seems that my strategy is paying dividends.

My theory is that I’m more comfortable collecting people than information. I have always been attracted to people whose influences are perfectly matched to my ambitions. Lots of my friends have instinctively turned out to excellent early adopters of all the things I can now say, hand on heart, that I love.

Assimilating other people’s interests is a handy skill to have. My favourite wines are actually the chosen wines of people who paid attention when they were drinking the local grape in rural French oyster shacks as teenagers. This was about the time I was worrying about whether my combination of white Wham jacket and cerise leggings was lost in translation at the campsite disco. My favourite music is handed to me on an i-Pod by people who take time to read the culture page reviews in the Sundays, or switch the radio on occasionally. And my favourite restaurants are invariably my husband’s – it’s hard to be discerning when you’re always drawn to the paella.

In fact, child rearing might be the only area where I haven’t relied compulsively on other people’s opinions. And, ironically, it’s since the babies started spending more time out of the house that my interest in the radio, the wine cabinet and the long-term implications of Peter Mandelson running the country have developed with more confidence.

And so, on Friday night, Jupiter will be in a perfect line with the Earth and the Sun, and (if you’re reading this in the northern hemisphere of course) can I suggest you pour yourself a glass of something fine and enjoy a view of the daddy of all planets that will make you glad to be alive. With my compliments.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Bad Feeling

In our house, discussing anything other than breakfast before breakfast is like walking into a lamppost, but without the humour. Not one of us is fully constructed in the early morning, and even a murmured aside questioning the colour choice of a small hair clip can set off a chain reaction of fury, frustration and self loathing. It’s the same in most households I know made up of more than one person. One friend has parents who can (and do) discuss (extremely controversial) political issues (loudly) at any time of day or night, but can't discuss the chances of rain because it infuriates her so much that he's always so pessimistic about the weather. Tricky.

It might seem disingenuous, but learning which entirely necessary conversations should actually never happen is lesson 101 in maintaining a successful long-term relationship. In our house anyway. For us it’s either money or illness. Money is an obvious one, and it’s a bit of a no-go area at any time of the day when your contributing opportunities are as sporadic as mine. I have been known to choose wailing and chest-beating to nice man at First Direct over a quick chat with my pre-breakfasted husband about my secretly over-run overdraft.

Illness is a cross-family no-no. With the adults, any ache or pain shared aloud leads to an irritable diagnosis of over-drinking / eating / drinking and eating and generally having too much fun the previous weekend and getting too old to get over the effects by Wednesday. Livers and kidneys instantly start aching and breakfast in miserable silence is guaranteed.

With the children, the mention of illness has more troubling consequences. Handling the statement ‘Mummy, I have a bad feeling in my tummy’ is like being an explosives expert, and responding to it as a literal statement is entirely wrong. The implications of a tummy ache are messy and may have a financial inference, which is a breach of both forbidden subjects at once.

Allowing sentiment to dictate the way you handle a ‘bad feeling’ can be a time consuming mistake. For example, have you feed the child something they can’t tolerate? This will lead to weeks of investigative meal-making. Or have they been exposed to a bug? A yes here could lead to days off school for them and hours of unpaid CBBC watching for you.

The correct way to respond is with a short, kind glance and a special chat about how everyone feels bad sometimes but, whatever it is that your child needs to confess to, they’ll still be a loved and valued member of the family.