Happy families are all alike’ runs the well-known opening line of Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy never shared a villa holiday. No matter how indissoluble your husband’s golf-buddyhood, there’s no reason why his friend’s cantankerous mother should relish sharing a space with your truculent daughter. The variables multiply exponentially. All too soon emerges the rest of Tolstoy’s dictum: that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Tales abound. The eight-year-old twins who had to undress somebody else’s granny, who was comatose on Chianti, and tuck her up in bed. The family who brought their new kitten along to bond with the other’s new puppy and what little was found in the swimming pool the following morning. The impressionable five year old who came into the kitchen to discover that her godfather enjoyed cooking breakfast in the nude, apart from a turban. The 360˚ CCTV security cameras in one villa that provided hours of mind-blasting viewing to the assembled teenagers in the study.
Nobody is immune. Even the beautiful Beckhams had the gaiety of their break in the ultra-exclusive Maldives shattered by the bloated dead body that washed up in their lapping waves, followed by the premature ignition of the fireworks for the final night’s display, which sent everybody diving for cover.
Who’s to know whether it was a wiring fault or a stray cigarette that torched Richard Branson’s Necker Island? My money is on the barbecue. Barbecues are a minefield of differing family rituals set on a collision course. If the outcome isn’t botulism that fells the whole villa, it will be a meal so long in arriving that everybody’s staggered off to bed incapable. The most lethal health hazards abound for the toddlers, who only want to eat the gravel anyway. It’s not like having them to stay.
At home, one knows the way to A&E or where the stopcock is. Even if it’s your own villa, the visiting family will find themselves trapped in a Relate crisis meetin buying a property to ‘renovate’ places a marriage under hitherto unknown pressure. Of five British couples who retired to one rural French paradise four years ago, only one is still together.
A mismatch can, however, work to advantage. In fact, it can take the pressure off a marriage. Your husband wants to veg out while you jet-ski with the children? Your sister wants to power-tan by the pool, but her husband wants to go banger-racing? Perfect. You team up accordingly and everyone has the holiday they dream of.
Choice of destination
There was, a few years back, a television documentary company that spotted the comedy potential. It made for slack-jawed viewing.
‘The energetic Poultons go on a surfing holiday in Brittany with the more sedate Jones family, who repay the favour with a leisurely break at a static-caravan site in Great Yarmouth. Acrimony ensues.’
‘Mark Jenkins’s fun-loving family finds the Jones’s riverboat on the canals of Birmingham a little staid, not to mention wet. Cut to Butlins, where efforts to instil a more positive attitude have a remarkable and emotional effect.’
‘The fun-loving Coppocks from Liverpool enjoy a booze-fuelled fiesta in the Algarve, but the straitlaced Whites from Sutton Coldfield prefer a historical tour of Lisbon in 95˚ heat.’
One thing is for sure. Having arrived, for better or (probably) worse, forget drawing straws for bedrooms. She Who Booked (and ran the rapids of dodgy agents flogging non-existent villas), printed off boarding passes to avoid punitive charges at check-in and remembered to pack the Dioralyte deserves every bit of the ensuite and balcony view.
A decision better taken in advance. Families may match on every level, but incomes fluctuate. Best to pool on groceries, but follow your own unsteady star on alcohol. The major cost will be dinners. Do these by rota, but on the understanding that it’s not a competition. The Michelin-starred blowout isn’t automatically more enjoyable than a hot dog on the beach. The young ones will almost certainly prefer the latter anyway.
Some people turn their children out ferally and chalk up the run-ins with adders and sea urchins to experience. Obviously, that’s too reckless with the under-10s, but rancour generated by over-protectiveness outweighs genuine concerns. Children are generally so delighted to be given the responsibility of caring for the tribe that they will honour common sense. And fussy mothers are usually pacified by a stiff martini.
Bedtimes for kids
Littlies can stay up a couple of hours longer. Three days in, you’ll all reap the rewards of their being too exhausted to start hitting each other at 5am. It’s worth sacrificing your own more remote and comfortable bedroom to them. Then both rooms remain peaceful, rather than neither. Teenagers can define their own bedtimes, as long as they understand that dropping a pin after 10pm means washing-up duty the following day.
Bedtimes for grown-ups
Establishing these is probably more important. A no-noise rule from between 10pm and 10am is the only answer. No laundry, no shouting, no KerPlunk and all grown-ups have the right to enforce discipline over all minors, regardless of family relationships.
No schedule can survive while on holiday, but unless at least one meal is eaten communally, then one might as well stay at a hotel. It’s the inter-age bonding, the helpless laughter, the teasing on unimportant detail that makes a holiday like this more memorable than any other and of which memories will survive even unto the third generation.
It’s worth establishing a points system: which of the party can suck up hardest to the resident staff. It makes a great game and keeps the maid happy. But remember: the real function of staff is to provide a diversionary topic of conversational interest when other subjects become too loaded.
There was one post from Bali that caught my eye: ‘The staff keep coming in and out of the villa as they fancy and washing their own clothes in the laundry room. They even cook their own rice using the rice cooker in the kitchen. They took and ate all our titbits without asking and even dared
to leave a note asking us where we bought our snacks!’ I couldn’t help but think how closely united the visiting families must have felt.
Factor this in. Here’s one cautionary tale from a holiday website: ‘The new parent is always a heartbeat away from a judgment of jaw-dropping naivety. Booking a trullo in the middle of nowhere in the bone-dry heat of Puglia was not great. Our eldest was just 11 weeks old at the time. We spent the whole holiday cowering from the relentless rays indoors.’
Lack of heat
And here’s another: ‘I’m reminded every time we see the family who holidayed with us that County Mayo in the October half-term wasn’t my brightest idea ever. I enjoy the bittersweet comforts of peat smoke and whiskey, but the atmosphere was heavy with disappointment as soon as we landed in bog-sodden Knock. The kids woke to pitch darkness and looked forward to bedtime after moping all day under leaden skies. We were forced off the beaches and into cinemas and empty pubs decked out for Halloween. I was made to walk up Croagh Patrick in penance.’
The key to success, as in all things, is Know Thyself. Sometimes, we think we’re ready to tackle any adventure when really we need to recuperate. Be honest about who you are and what you require. Marriage on the skids? Stay home. Too much work to unwind? Stay home. Don’t hope that your holiday will solve your problems. You’ll only end up ruining someone else’s.
* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 23 2014