How to avoid a holiday from hell
Going on holiday with friends sounds like a good idea, but do you really know how to cope with other families?
Holiday villa hell. We've all been there.
Your husband is drinking the place dry, feral children are shrieking round the pool all night and someone is holding back at the supermarket because they don't agree the communal kitty should be subsidising someone else's expensive organic olive oil habit.
It should be heavenly of course; it's what you and your friends have been dreaming of throughout the dark damp days of winter. But the unfortunate truth is that those dreams don't always dovetail; just as some like to lounge and others to kite-surf, one person's Cloud Nine is another's Seventh Circle.
Or to put it another way; there are sound reasons why other families live in their own houses (with the front doors firmly closed) for most of the year and hanging out with the wrong holiday tribe could ruin your R&R.
"A couple of years ago we went away with friends who have children the same age as ours because we knew they would entertain each other," says Melissa (37). "But it was a nightmare for us. My husband likes to catch up on reading; hers was dressed like a giant toddler in half-mast shorts and a football shirt and kept pacing around complaining of boredom. The wife was such a control freak in the kitchen that I was relegated to sous chef; she even corrected my chopping technique. I cried in my room most days."
That trip to Puglia ended a beautiful friendship - for all of six months. Melissa shamefacedly admits she invited them last year as well. "The kids had such a great time and with the passage of time, I'd forgotten how awful it was," she concedes. "My husband was incandescent with rage when he found out we were going with them again. He effectively opted out and spent the fortnight in a corner of the garden getting quietly steamed with a book."
Holidays are freighted with such expectation, it's a wonder more of them don't end in tears. Tales abound of disgruntled guests slipping outside for a cigarette and a bitch about the hostess but forgetting to shut the French windows (that disgruntled guest would be me), the house-proud coming to blows with the slovenly (sorry, that was also me, washing up not being my strongest suit) and frisky couples putting the headboard through its paces (definitely not me).
"What's that scary noise, Mummy?" enquired my sleep-rumpled toddler one year.
"That's your uncle and his new lady friend swatting mosquitoes darling, come into our bed."
Bedroom arrangements are always a flashpoint on any joint holiday. One single mother admits she feels like a charity case, despite always paying her way. "Everyone's kids all pile into the largest bedroom, which is fair enough, but because I'm on my own, I always get the windowless cell or the day bed in the sitting room," she sighs. "I always feel so grateful to be invited that as a coping mechanism I become weirdly passive and just go with the flow in a spaced out sort of way."
In principle, if friends are a nightmare to go away with, the one group of people with whom you ought to feel relaxed, it's family. In practice, however, the very opposite can be true. "My wife's parents are loaded and one year they invited all three of their daughters with families over to their villa in Spain, which was very generous," reveals one holidaymaker, still disgruntled at the memory of being hoodwinked into a very raw deal.
"I was really looking forward to playing golf and going to bars with the other dads, but as soon as we arrived, my mother-in-law announced that we were there to give our wives a break. We literally spent a week doing childcare while they sunned themselves and went shopping. We even got told off for drinking beer 'on duty'."
But while group dynamics can be tricky, two weeks rattling round with just your children and each other can be a bigger challenge to all but the most easygoing of couples.
Funnily enough, managing a gang of kids can be far less work than squabbling siblings or tirelessly entertaining a single friend. Also, in my experience, having other adults (aka witnesses) around is a great incentive for best behaviour and seems to prompt my husband and me to be much nicer for much more of the time. But forewarned is forearmed, so to help you have a harmonious holiday however many of you there are, we've compiled a useful guide to Holiday Tribes.
Nearest and dearest
Nuclear families always have the potential to explode, so if it's just your nearest and dearest, planning is paramount. Those with early-rising infants are well advised to share the pain and indeed the love, by getting up on alternate mornings; two slightly tired parents are preferable to one chipper and one exhausted grumpy parent.
Sacrifice suitcase space for games and toys. Crafts are a great distraction and your offspring will (fingers crossed) spend hours searching for materials. Bring the basics; glue, markers and paints to make sand and shell pictures or decorate stones.
Treasure hunts are another winner indoors or out; hide low denomination coins, wrapped sweets or even cutlery will do; it's all about the search not the prize. Limit Wi-Fi or DVD time while dressing it up as a fabulous treat. Cinema afternoons (buy or make popcorn) will keep them out of the sun and give grown-ups a time for reading or a siesta giving you the stamina to get through until wine o'clock.
Multiple family house shares are fun but can be frustrating without agreed guidelines. Decide who gets which room well in advance; the one who booked the property and has the done the lion share of the planning gets priority.
If possible, try and achieve a clear consensus on potential flashpoint issues like a communal kitty, cooking and the children's technology time. Assign bedtime duty and award a prize for first to get the lights out.
Turn it into a competition among the dads - there's nothing like a spot of alpha parenting to get the kids packed off early, especially if there's a chilled beer (and glory) in it.
By day don't feel obliged to follow the crowd; set your own itinerary so you're not in each other's pockets. By night, establish a babysitting rota so you can go out; no matter how annoying your holiday companions, that alone will recalibrate your sense of camaraderie.
Friends like these...
Friends booking a break without children in the mix really ought to have the ultimate relaxing time. But active outdoorsy sorts who want to explore and visit the sites don't always see eye to eye with those who prefer sunbathing and solitude.
Here, compromise and communication are the key so your one big happy group doesn't end dissolving into disparate cliques. Inevitably there will be some bossy boots who wants to chivvy everybody else and probably push a few noses out of joint in the process; don't let them.
By all means, encourage them to suggest and arrange excursions (somebody has to) but don't allow them to make the sedentary feel guilty. If the beach brigade discover what a great time you had at the archaeological dig or local market they may decide to have a go in their own good time. Better still, they might just make dinner and have it ready when you return. Live and let live or you may never speak again.
Granny knows best
Holidays hosted by grandparents or other family members may save money, but sometimes you really ought to look a gift horse in the mouth and examine its teeth quite carefully.
The opportunity for grandchildren to spend time with and be spoiled by their grandparents is always a treat.
But it can lead to genuine ill-will as the parent in the middle sulkily recalls a lack of similar pampering when they were growing up. All of us - even those in their 40s - become different (and whisper it, less lovable) creatures in the presence of our parents.
Husbands are transformed into helpless Mammy's boys. Wives revert to rebellious teenagerdom.
Adult siblings with children of their own (ergo old enough to know better) covertly look for signs of favouritism to fan the flames of childhood rivalries.
If leavened with upfront humour and affectionate ribbing, this can all be extremely amusing.
If not, then maybe just stay a week rather than a fortnight.
Or why not just offload the kids and head home. Sometimes you can't do better than a self-indulgent staycation.